(Above: Diana Ross performs a medley of her disco hits at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s been more than half a century since Diana Ross stopped by the Motown Studios every day, begging to be part of the Detroit record label’s roster. It hasn’t quite been that long since Ross played Kansas City (it just feels that way), but the determination and energy that caught Motown founder Berry Gordy’s eye back then was still on full display Sunday night at the Midland theater.

Ross’ tight, 80-minute set raced through her biggest moments at Motown, encompassing the Supremes, solo albums and soundtrack work. A few covers of songs by influences and contemporaries were sprinkled throughout. As expected, ’60s material generated the most sing-alongs, but the ’70s disco material kept everyone on their feet.

Ross’ 11-piece band deftly handled the shifts from early soul, disco, jazz and adult contemporary. “The Look of Love” opened with a sultry saxophone solo. The song was basically a duet between Ross and the horn player. Ross let one of her backing singers stand in for Lionel Richie on a set-ending performance of “Endless Love.” The band was also given the chance to show off between songs when Ross was offstage changing outfits. The best of these moments was the bossa nova groove that broke out at the end of “Love Child.”

diana rossRoss is 70 years old, but she is as glamorous as ever. She changed wardrobe several times, wearing ensembles that matched the mood of the music. She emerged in a cherry-red dress for the exuberant Supremes set and later came out in a sparkling blue gown for the steamy Burt Bacharach and Billie Holiday covers.

The house lights were turned on throughout the evening. Ross explained she loved seeing the crowd enjoying her music because the images stayed with her for the rest of the night. From the sea of outstretched palms on “Stop! In the Name of Love” to the sing-along on “I Will Survive,” Ross likely accumulated a fine stock of moments.

Setlist: I’m Coming Out; Where Did Our Love Go; Baby Love; Stop! In the Name of Love; You Can’t Hurry Love; Touch Me in the Morning; Love Child; The Boss; Upside Down; Love Hangover; Take Me Higher; Ease on Down the Road; The Look of Love; Don’t Explain; Why Do Fools Fall In Love; Theme from “Mahogany”; Ain’t No Mountain High Enough; I Will Survive. Encore: Endless Love; I Will Survive (reprise).

Keep reading:

Diana Ross – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”


Review: Stevie Wonder

Review: The Temptations and Four Tops

Talking Motown with Bill Dahl

Review: Pixies











By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Pixies rolled into town in support of new material.

The influential college rock quartet has now been around longer as a reunion act than in their initial stint. Reunited contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr. have released multiple new albums, making the paucity of new Pixies material – two songs – even more glaring. That changed late last year when lead singer/songwriter Black Francis dropped four new songs on an EP and followed it up with four more last month.

All but one of those songs were played when the band performed at the Midland Theater on Tuesday night. Toss in the single “Bagboy” and the as-yet unrecorded “Silver Snail” and new material comprised nearly a third of the band’s setlist. The new recordings received a mix reception online, but for the most part they worked in concert.

The appropriately noisy “What Goes Boom” blended seamlessly with the band’s cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Head On.” Later, in a quieter moment, Francis segued from “In Heaven (Lady in Radiator)” to “Andro Queen.” The songs were recorded 26 years apart, but sounded onstage like they were pulled from the same session.

JfDKB.St.81“Bone Machine” announced the band’s presence, and although the thumping bassline that introduced the song was familiar the musician wasn’t. Paz Lenchantin, a veteran of A Perfect Circle and Billy Corgan’s Zwan, filled the gaping hole left when founding member Kim Deal departed last June.

Lenchantin didn’t have any problems replicating Deal’s basslines, but her thin voice was often buried in the mix.The band arrived as if shot out of a cannon, blasting through the first eleven songs in less than 30 minutes.

Doing their best Ramones impression, the band rarely paused between songs and hardly acknowledged the near-capacity crowd before barreling into the next number. The songs were never rushed, but they were definitely urgent.

Some of the best moments were the demented rockabilly of “Brick is Red” and the surf guitar intro to “Ana.” Guitarist Joey Santiago got plenty of time to play with feedback during “Vamos,” one of the few times the band deviated from the recorded arrangement. A medley of “Nimrod’s Son” and “Holiday Song” started with“Nimrod” at full speed before bouncing into “Holiday Song.” A slowed-down arrangement of “Nimrod” closed the medley.

At 33 songs and 100 minutes, the band devoted plenty of time to exhume some deep cuts from its catalog, and deliver most of its biggest songs (including both versions of “Wave of Mutilation”). Francis let the crowd take over the choruses on “Where is My Mind?” and “Here Comes Your Man.” Given the band’s underground legacy, it was odd to see fists pumping in the air with every “chien” on the chorus of “Debaser,” but the quartet definitely knew how to work the theater crowd.

The Pixies first reunion concert in Kansas City was a victory lap. The second concert was a celebration of their greatest album. This third visit was a view of the Pixies as a working band, trying to prove they still have plenty to say. They do.

Setlist: Bone Machine; Wave of Mutilation; U-Mass > Head On (Jesus and Mary Chain cover); What Goes Boom; Distance Equals Rate Times Time; Ilsa de Encanto; Monkey Gone to Heaven; Ana; Brick is Red; I’ve Been Tired; Magdalena; Cactus; Gouge Away; Bagboy; Blue Eyed Hext; Crackity Jones; unknown song; Veloria; Havalena; Snakes; Silver Snail; In Heaven (Lady in Radiator); Andro Queen, Indie Cindy; Greens and Blues; Where is My Mind?; Here Comes Your Man; Vamos; Nimrod’s Son/Holiday Song (medley); Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf). Encore: Debaser; Planet of Sound.

Keep reading:

The Man in (Frank) Black

Review: Dinosaur Jr

Review: Pavement

(Above: Chicago rapper ProbCause delivered the great album “Recipe Vol. 2″ this year.)

By Joel Francis
mcii The Daily Record

Mikal Cronin – MCII

Scuzzy guitars can’t
mask euphoric power pop.
Ears smile, feet dance.

Terrace Martin – 3 Chord Fold

Snoop’s producer blurs
genres with Glasper, Kendrick
Lamar, Khalifa.


Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

OId-school surprise
from EDM pioneers.
Track 12 got most plays.

Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law

Even bigger roar
on album two from Welsh three.
Shoegaze meets prog rock.

Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap


Chicago MC
makes jokes while provoking thought.
Shares Kayne’s hometown.

Autre Ne Veut – Anxiety

Blank frame on cover
filled with longing, desire.
Sadness sounds happy.

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get ….

Alt-country redheadacud rao
rages on state of love life.
Makes married men sigh.

Blitz the Ambassador – The Warm Up EP

Seven lively tracks

anticipate full LP.
Aptly named project.

Yo La Tengo – Fade

Indie vets mellow.
Quiet guitars and vocals.
Intimate lisiten.


Keith Jarrett – Somewhere

Archival concert

captures standards trio
in top form. More, please.

Keep reading:

Top 10 albums of 2012 (in haiku)

Top 10 albums of 2011 (in haiku)

Top 10 albums of 2010

(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

Keep reading:

Review: Evanescence

Review: Slash

Review: Motley Crue

(Above: Toad the Wet Sprocket perform “I’ll Bet On You,” a new song that would fit comfortably on any best-of collection.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Toad the Wet Sprocket, the ’90s alternative to alternative music, seemed to be the victims of bad timing. Sure, the band scored two platinum albums and a handful of Top 40 singles, but it was too late (and soft) to be considered college rock and too early for indie rock.

The band’s break-up in 1998 didn’t create any waves. There was no critical re-evaluation of its catalog or new fans clamoring to the legend. Toad was just gone.

On Friday night at the Uptown Theater, 16 years after Toad’s last album, the band reminded fans what they had been missing and delivered hope of a promising future as well.

More than half of the 100-minute set drew from the “Fear” and “Dulcinea” albums, Toad’s best and best-selling releases. The sing-alongs came fast and furious, starting with “Good Intentions” and continuing through “All I Want,” “Nightingale Song,” “Brother” and “Fall Down.”

toadNestled among those chestnuts were five tracks from Toad’s upcoming new album. Singles like “New Constellation” and “Bet on Me” didn’t show any of the lapsed time between recording sessions and fit comfortably in the band’s sound. The fans may not have been singing along with these songs yet, but there’s a good bet they will the next time Toad rolls through town.

The old songs sound pretty much like they did two decades ago. Touring guitarist Johnny Hawthorne added nice texture to “Windmills” and “Walk on the Ocean” with his pedal steel. His mandolin was a nice touch on “Nightingale Song” and “Come Back Down.”

Lead guitarist Todd Nichols was given the mic for “Inside” and “Crazy Life.” During “Come Down,” one of the band’s biggest Kickstarter donors was invited onstage to play cowbell.

Singer Glen Phillips seemed as surprised as anyone at the band’s reception. The Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album raised more than a quarter of a million dollars in two months. While the Uptown wasn’t close to full — the balcony was open, but the sparse crowd upstairs could have easily fit among all the empty seats downstairs — Phillips commented on the audience reception several times. Without major publicity, he said, fans have been finding their own way back to the band.

The world may not have been asking for a Toad the Wet Sprocket reunion, but Friday’s show made a strong case for it being a good idea.

Setlist: The Moment; Woodburning; Good Intentions; Crowing; Windmills; New Constellation; Inside; All I Want; Whatever I Fear; Come Back Down; Nightingale Song; Something’s Always Wrong; The Eye; Crazy Life; Jam; California Wasted; Brother; Fall Down. Encore: Come Down; Bet on Me; Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover); Walk on the Ocean.
Keep reading:

(Above: Rodrigo y Gabriela bring their main set at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., to a joyous end with “Humana.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About a third of the way through her set on Friday night, Gabriela Quintero explained her pact with the Uptown Theater crowd. She and Rodrigo Sanchez promised to play only acoustic guitars if the audience let the pair play whatever they wanted.

The audience in the crowded theater responded enthusiastically to almost everything thrown at it in the 100-minute set. The rapt attention the acoustic instrumental music commanded spoke to the pair’s skill and ingenuity.

The music was a mixture of Mexican, Irish, African, metal and folk, leading to another of Quintero’s maxims: They don’t label their music because then they’d be trapped playing to that label. With no classification, they can — and do — play anything.

Rodrigo y Gabriela started performing together in their native Mexico in the late ’90s. By the new millennium, the pair had relocated to Dublin and caught the eye of Damien Rice and David Gray. Their first album came out in 2002. In the dozen years since, they have released an album almost yearly, alternating studio material with live albums.

rygFriday’s performance touched on many of those albums and also previewed material slated for release next year. With no new album since 2012’s “Area 52,” Sanchez admitted there wasn’t really a reason for the duo to be touring. They just wanted to play.

While both guitarists are virtuosos, Quintero displayed an especially strong right hand. Viciously strumming without a pick, she summoned a plethora of textures and rhythms. Often treating her guitar like a percussive instrument, she was easily able to generate as much kick as a bass drum. Quintero’s skill with a wah pedal also added to her arsenal.

Against this backdrop, Sanchez showed amazing dexterity with his left hand, lacing songs with intricate riffs and solos. Sanchez also wasn’t shy about showing off his metal roots. He tossed Metallica riffs between songs a few times, and threw in some Megadeth for good measure. A full cover of Metallica’s “Orion” showed why the pair have earned the respect of their metal heroes. A right-turn cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” generated the biggest applause of the night.

The sound was immaculate. Both instruments were close mic’d, adding the squeak of fingers on the fretboards and sound of Sanchez’s pick hitting the strings to the mix. When inattentive fans started talking, the rest of the audience had no qualms about shutting them up.

Although their songs have no words, Sanchez and Quintero had no trouble keeping the crowd involved. At one point Sanchez had a three-part clap circulating around the theater. The two’s infectious energy — Quintero relished jumping around the stage — kept fans on their feet for most of the last half of the set.

Keep reading:

Review: Alejandro Escovedo

Review: Los Lobos

Making Movies is making waves


(Above: The Rev. Horton Heat pays tribute to his long-suffering bass player with “The Jimbo Song.” This performance is from September, 2009, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Rev. Horton Heat needed only the briefest introduction to clue the crowd at Crossroads KC on Friday night in on what would happen for the next 95 minutes: “It’s a psychobilly freakout.”

Backed by a two-piece rhythm section and singing into a vintage microphone, the reverend spent the first half of the set tearing down his back catalog, playing one song from each album in chronological order (but skipping the Christmas platter).

revIf Brian Setzer dropped the Vegas schtick, he’d sound a lot like Heat. The stripped-down, hot-rod sound that supercharges rock and country is an admittedly narrow shaft to mine, but Heat was able to vary the mood.

“Martini Time” found the singer in lounge mode, while “Indigo Friends” was built around warp-speed Chicago blues. The “Jimbo Song” sounded like a lost Ramones track, and hints of surf guitar snuck into a few guitar solos.

Although Heat’s catalog is based on original compositions, he peppered several covers into the second half of the set. “Johnny B. Goode” and “Folsom Prison Blues” made expected appearances, as did Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” and Bill Haley’s “Rock This Joint.” Dirtfoot saxman Scott Gerardy joined the band for the Haley and Johnny Cash numbers and the original noir study “Lonely Gun.”

The performance capped an evening of genre studies at Crossroads. Hometown rockabilly revivalists Rumblejetts opened the night. The six-piece ensemble Dirtfoot brought the night’s most distinctive sounds. The Louisiana-based band wasn’t afraid to put both saxophone and banjo to work on the same song and find out what happens during the ensuing jam.

Ha Ha Tonka singer Brian Roberts was clearly glad to be back in his native Missouri. He was frequently stomping around stage, emphatically strumming his acoustic guitar. The jangly quartet’s 45-minute set featured old favorites like “Buckle on the Bible Belt” and “Usual Suspects.” The band borrowed a song from fellow Springfield act Red Meat, “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan,” which got much of the crowd singing along. That was followed by a quiet a cappella performance of the traditional song “Hangman (Gallows Pole).”

Setlist: Psychobilly Freakout, Lonesome Train Whistle, Baddest of the Bad, Martini Time, Jimbo Song, The Party in Your Head, Galaxy 500, Indigo Friends, Drinkin’ and Smokin’ Cigarettes, Johnny B. Goode, Honky Tonk Night Time Man, Lonely Gun, Rock this Joint, 400 Bucks, Bales of Cocaine, Devil’s Chasing Me. Encore: Big Red Rocket of Love > drum solo > Folsom Prison Blues > Big Red Rocket of Love.

Keep reading:

KC Recalls: Johnny Cash at Leavenworth prison

Key King Artists

Review: Social Distortion


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