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(Above: Roman Numerals fill in for the Guards at the RecordBar on the second night of the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: Sigur Ros pulled me away from covering the first day of MoTM, but I was at the RecordBar on Friday and the outdoor stage on Saturday (with a quick reprise back at the RecordBar).

Friday

In some unfortunate scheduling, Spirit is the Spirit, a Lawrence-based quintet, was forced to compete with Grizzly Bear. It’s too bad fans of laid-back, analog rock were forced to chose, because many Grizzly fans would likely appreciate Austen Malone’s easygoing, reassuring approach.Spirit’s 40-minute set recalled the earthier moments from the Band and the relaxed vibe of “Workingman’s Dead.” The quintet performed several songs from its new EP and was finally able to coax the sparse crowd to dance on the set-closing “Pillows.”

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Indie rock supergroup Divine Fits rock the Middle of the Map outdoor stage on Saturday.

Roman Numerals are technically a local band, but Friday’s abbreviated set felt more like a homecoming. The four-piece band was playing with drummer Pete LaPorte for the first time in five years and singer/guitarist William Smith had flown in from his home in New York City.

Stepping in at the last minute for the Guards, who called in sick, the Numerals delivered a gripping 30-minute preview of their set planned for Saturday on the outdoor stage.

The RecordBar crowd swelled considerably for the Numerals, but it didn’t approach feeling full until fans started appearing at the conclusion of Grizzly Bear’s set, in anticipation of Deerhoof.

By the time Deerhoof went onstage at midnight, the RecordBar had a line out the door. A packed house watched the avante-indie quartet make its Kansas City debut (although the band did open for the Flaming Lips mini-residency at Liberty Hall in Lawrence last summer).

Cross Sonic Youth with a Japanese game show and you’re in the ballpark of Deerhoof’s unique sound. The diminuitive Satomi Matsuzaki’s enchanting vocals served as a counterpoint to the chaos, while Greg Saunier’s drumming anchored the seemingly free-form songs.

The biggest responses during the 70-minute set came early for the catchy “Panda Panda Panda” and Flaming Lips’ drummer (and Lawrence resident) Kliph Scurlock’s surprise guest appearance behind the kit.

Saturday

Beautiful Bodies had no problem sustaining the momentum from Roman Numerals’ incredible set-closing cover of Joy Division’s “Transmission.”
Bodies singer Alicia Solombrino spent more time in the crowd than she did onstage. She wasn’t always visible, but it was easy to gauge where she was by the disproportionate amount of hands (and phones) in the air.

Fans further away found plenty to like from the five-piece band’s high energy, half-hour set. The parking lot hosting the outdoor stage was only a third full, but the balcony at nearby Buzzard Beach was packed.

Sandwiched between Beautiful Bodies’ grrl-power pop and Futurebirds’ alt-country, the Soft Reeds were a palate cleanser.

The quintet’s 30 minute set previewed material from an upcoming new album. Bursts of free jazz sax highlighted the opening number, and songs like “Finding Patterns” and “Moving in Time” recalled the nervous energy of the Talking Heads. The band also covered Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.”

Fans missing Uncle Tupelo will have an instant friend in Futurebirds. The five-piece alt-country band from Athens, Ga. made an impressive KC debut.
Their too-short 50 minute set was grounded in the earthy jangle of three guitars and driven to the stratosphere by the cry of a pedal steel.
A cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” highlighted the band’s strengths, a perfect balance of smooth yet ragged. The one-two of “Wild Heart” and the anthemic “Yur Not Dead” closed the set on the highest moment of the day so far.

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The Futurebirds make their Kansas City debut at the 2013 Middle of the Map festival.

Divine Fits had its work cut out following Futurebirds. The supergroup comprised of members of Spoon, Wolf Parade and New Bomb Turks proved up to the task. The quartet performed all but one track from their sole LP during the one-hour set, with a new song, “Chained to Love” and a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky.”

Both diversions blended well with the group’s sound: driving indie rock built over basic synth patterns. The material blossomed onstage gaining raw energy and losing the sterility of the recorded versions. Frontmen Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner alternated vocal and lead guitar duties. Two of the band’s most neurotic numbers, “What Gets You Alone” and “Shivers” also provided the night’s best moments.

It was hard not to miss the Beaumont Club throughout the weekend, the outdoor stage offered several benefits. Although capacity never rose more than two-thirds full, it offered much greater capacity. It also provided the opportunity to simultaneous enjoy great music and beautiful spring weather.

Tennis
It seemed no one wanted to leave the RecordBar after Making Movies. The venue was one-in, one-out well into Tennis’ set and the room didn’t start to thin until around 1 a.m.

The husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were augmented by a two-piece rhythm section for their 50-minute set. The band’s jangly indie pop and confessional, introspective lyrics made them seem like the cool aunt and uncle to Best Coast. Songs were filled with complex lyrics and romantic devotion typical of a married couple who met in a college philosophy course. The biggest responses went to “Petition” and “Origins.” The response to “Petition” was so great that Moore joked that know she knows how Taylor Swift feels.

The final notes had barely died before the house lights were thrown on and patrons were ordered out. Middle of the Map 2013 was officially over at the RecordBar.

Keep reading:

Review: Kanrocksas (Day 1)

Review: Mission of Burma at MoTM

Review: F*cked Up at MoTM

Review: Sigur Ros

photo (4)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Sigur Ros’ performance at Starlight on Thursday night felt more like being cast under a spell for nearly two hours than seeing a rock show.

The Icelandic trio rarely spoke to the crowd and preferred to sing Hopelandic, an imagined language. Carried by singer Jonsi Birgisson’s angelic falsetto, the linguistic structure only enhanced the trance. Unencumbered by English, the songs could be about whatever you wanted them to be.  Augmented by three piece horn and string sections and a pair of multi-instrumentalists, the group created heavenly textures that juxtaposed near operatic beauty with stains of hard rock.

The M. Night Shyamalan of ensembles, Sigur Ros patiently builds layers and moods before suddenly whisking the listener around in another direction. This was especially true on “Hrafntinna” which build tension from discordant horns before ending with a lush brass coda that wouldn’t have been out of place at the Kauffman Center.

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Arrangements are designed so that each part complements without drawing attention until suddenly the key instrument emerges at the perfect moment. Despite the presence of so many musicians, the mix was pristine. On “Festival” I could hear bass player Georg Holm’s pick hitting the string on each heavy downstroke.

Sigur Ros ended a three-year hiatus with the release of their sixth album, “Valtari,” last year, the band has already moved on. One quarter of the setlist drew from the new record “Kveikur,” which is scheduled for release in June. The material blended well with the older songs, but also showed a new, darker dimension. The title track featured digital textures, exotic percussion and heavy drums. “Brennisteinn” opened with a nasty, distorted synth bassline and sounded like a musical wrestling match between good and evil.

The setting was nearly as expansive as the sound. The first two numbers were delivered behind a trio of sheer veils, which cast wild shadows and broad colors. When the curtains fell, a video screen spanned the width of the stage, projecting images of nature. The slow pan of craggy rocks gradually revealing a mountain range on “E-bow” made the stage seem like it was moving. The low-50s temperature reinforced the mood cast by pictures of rainstorms, bleak landscapes, flashlights in fog and other monochromatic patterns.

Starlight was three-quarters full, optimistically, and the audience soaked up every moment in reverie. There was very little talking and most applause was held until the end of a piece. The big exceptions were the one-two of “Hoppípolla” and “Með Blóðnasir” which spontaneously had the crowd on its feet with evangelistic fervor. The joyous horns at the end of “Festival” rang out like church bells on Christmas Day and inspired a few pockets of dancing.

Setlist: Yfirborð (new song); Ný Batterí; Vaka; Hrafntinna (new song); Sæglópur; Fljótavík; E-bow; Varúð; Hoppípolla ->Með Blóðnasir; Kveikur (new song); Olsen Olsen; Festival; Brennisteinn (new song). Encore: Glósóli ; Popplagið.

Keep reading:

Review: Jonsi

Radiohead Rock St. Louis

Review: Best Coast

(Above: ‘Song stylist’ Bettye LaVette captivates a sold-out crowd at Knuckleheads in Kansas City, Mo. with an a capella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bettye LaVette didn’t write any of the songs she performed for 90 minutes in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday at Knuckleheads, but she owned every single one of them. It’s hard to imagine the original songwriters — including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and Cee-Lo Green— investing more emotion than LaVette poured into her performance. Her voice ached and cracked with every syllable and her arms and legs writhed on every word.

Chatty and playful, LaVette told the audience the biggest reason why she covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was so her grandchildren would think she was hip. By stripping the song of its kinetic energy and slowing the tempo way down, LaVette turned the ubiquitous hit into a cathartic confession. It also illustrated why she’d rather be called a “song stylist” than a singer.

09.03.08_bettye_lavette253At any other concert LaVette’s mournful, pleading reading of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” would have been the showstopper. Saturday night it was only one of many powerful moments that earned pin-drop silence from the crowd. Other stand-out moments included “The Forecast” and the haunting country ballads “Choices” and “The More I Search (The More I Die).”

While many of the top performances were quiet, LaVette and her four-piece band did a great job of varying tempos and textures. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” was bathed in a swampy funk. “I’m Tired” was wrapped in a twisted country-rock guitar riff. The band’s best moment came on “Your Turn to Cry” when it successfully re-reated the Muscle Shoals production from LaVette’s shelved, would-be 1972 recording.

LaVette discussed those disappointments frankly, sharing how much she wanted to be on American Bandstand and how crushed she was when the show’s producers found her debut 1962 single “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” too suggestive. She said that much of her life had been pretty good, except that she was continually denied her biggest joy, the opportunity to sing.

The happiness LaVette has found over the past 10 years when her career finally started taking off was evident in the night’s final songs, “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven” and an a capella reading of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”

Setlist: The Word; The Forecast; Take Me Like I Am; Choices; Joy; Your Turn to Cry; They Call It Love; Crazy; My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man; The More I Search (The More I Die); I’m Tired; Love Reign O’er Me; Close As I’ll Get to Heaven; I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

Keep reading:

Bettye LaVette – “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook”

Review: Buddy Guy and Bettye LaVette

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

(Above: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears rip up the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo. on Valentine’s Day, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Thursday may be the first time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have headlined a show in Kansas City, but it’s far from the bandleader’s first visit.

The soul and roots music front man has lots of family in the area. For several months in the mid-’90s, his family lived with his grandmother off Cleveland Avenue.

“I was only about 15 or 16 at the time,” Lewis said. “I remember hanging out in the neighborhood playing basketball, hearing gunshots, BBQ. We weren’t there long, only about 6 months.”

black_joe_lewis_soundcheckmagazine_03Just a few years later, Lewis was busking on the streets of Austin, Texas. Five years ago, he started assembling the Honeybears, a five-piece horn and rhythm section welded tight after countless shows and miles touring by van.

Lewis has shuffled in and out of town on family visits several times over the years, but his band is in a vastly different place from when it last stopped in the area.

In 2010, when the group played the Bottleneck in Lawrence, it was touring on the back of its first full-length album, “Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!” In the two years since, the Honeybears dropped their sophomore LP and shuffled members. A third album is underway.

“Our set now is mostly new stuff, but we still play the older songs, too,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of fun for us. We know fans sometimes want to hear stuff off the records, but they get into it. It will be nice when the record comes out and people will know what to expect.”

Right now Lewis’ plan is to get the six-piece combo in the studio once a two-week tour wraps up, then try to set up a distribution deal. Lewis said he hopes to have the album out this summer but doesn’t have a timeline. Regardless of when it’s released, Lewis can’t wait for fans to hear it.

“I feel like with what we’re doing right now, I’m putting out my first record,” Lewis said. “On a lot of it, we sound like a rock and roll power trio with a horn section.”

Sometimes songs start from skeletons worked up by Lewis or bass player Bill Stevenson. Other ideas come out of jams, either during rehearsal, sound check or a show.

“Somebody might record our jam on their phone and we’ll come back to it, but even when we’re playing live, the stuff that sounds cool, I’ll work on lyrics for it,” Lewis said. “For me the structure of the song is the meat of the song, and the lyrics put it over the top.”

Forces that compromised the band’s sound in the past are gone now. The contract is up with label Lost Highway, which commissioned DJs to create a Honeybears mix with an electronic and hip-hop flavor aimed at the dance floor. Band members who pressured Lewis to clean up the band’s sound are gone.

“To me, those first albums sound wimpy,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, different guys wanted to do different stuff, and I went with it because that goes with being in a band. Now that stuff isn’t around. I get to cut loose.”

A fully unleashed Lewis could be dangerous. There’s not a lot of sheen or timidity in the Honeybears’ catalog. Lewis doesn’t have any trouble channeling Wilson Pickett or Howlin’ Wolf. He isn’t as concerned with re-creating a specific sound or era as are contemporaries Sharon Jones, the Daptone family and Raphael Saadiq, but he works in enough similar circles to draw comparisons.

“Honestly, I think we’re doing something completely different,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’re American roots music with our own twist. Once the new record comes out, the differences will be more obvious.”

Keep reading:

The Budos Band breaks loose

Review: Raphael Saadiq

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

Keep reading:

Review: Farm Aid

(Above: The second part of “The Night London Burned,” a 30-minute documentary about Joe Strummer’s final concert and onstage reunion with Mick Jones.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Note: Every year on Christmas Eve, we mark the passing of Clash singer and musical legend Joe Strummer. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s passing on Dec. 22, 2002.

“War Cry”

The limp reception to Joe Strummer’s 1989 solo album “Earthquake Weather” didn’t sit well with its creator. But just because Strummer was a stranger to the studio for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved with music.

41R6GY31MNL._SL500_AA300_One of Strummer’s great discoveries during the 1990s was the Glastonbury Festival. The three-day summer festival combined two of Strummer’s passions: live music and camping. Every June his entourage would grow, eventually becoming a makeshift community dubbed “Strummerville.” Performances by the Prodigy, Bjork, Elastica and others at the festival fostered a love for techno music that would influence Strummer’s music for the rest of his life.

The song “War Cry” from the “Grosse Pointe Blank” soundtrack is the most overtly electronic-influenced track in Strummer’s catalog. The swirling melody is carried by a pulsing keyboard riff, but the track’s energy comes from Strummer’s vigorous guitar playing. The six-minute instrumental is the only piece from Strummer’s film score to see official release.

Strummer produced the original “Grosse Pointe Blank”  soundtrack and included two tracks from his old band. The first volume was so successful a second was released. “War Cry” was unfortunately buried near the end of the sequel.

“MacDougal Street Blues,” Strummer’s contribution to a Jack Kerouac spoken word compilation also released in 1997, found Strummer working in the same style. Kerouac sounds like he was recorded in a bathroom, but Strummer’s musical backing almost seems like a skeletal cousin to “War Cry.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but “War Cry” signaled the end of Joe Strummer’s wilderness years.

“Bhindi Bhagee”

The first time I heard this song was on a Saturday afternoon broadcast of World Café. I was in the car with my dad and halfway through the second verse I commented that the track sounded like someone from the Clash recording a Paul Simon song arranged by Peter Gabriel. DJ David Dye confirmed one third of my theory, but I still don’t think the other two guesses missed the mark by much.

globalThe musical re-awakening Strummer experienced at Glastonbury carried over to his appearance (as a guest, not an artist) at Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD music festival. Listening to the acts from around the world perform, hanging out with musicians like Donovan and spending time at Gabriel’s Real World recording studio finally provided the tipping point for him to get serious about making his own music again.

The music Strummer made with the Mescaleros was diverse, encompassing dance and electronic, country, punk and rock. On the band’s sophomore release, “Global A Go-Go,” Strummer branched out big time for their sophomore release. The platter more than lives up to its name, featuring lots of violin, exotic percussion, flute and other world music flourishes.

“Bhindi Bhagee” opens with acoustic guitar and flute and features Strummer delivering his intricate lyrics in a laid-back conversational style. Like Simon, Strummer lets the song unspool like a story. The chorus is basically a list of everything Strummer hopes to encompass with the arrangement. The best part comes at the bridge, where Strummer honestly explains where he’s at musically.

So anyway, I told him I was in a band
He said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah – what’s your music like?”
I said, “It’s um, um, well, it’s kinda like
You know, it’s got a bit of, um, you know.”

Yeah, all of that and a lot more.

“White Riot (live)”

Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon weren’t looking for trouble when they attended the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, but they shouldn’t have been surprised a riot broke out. Founded as response to the Notting Hill race riots and the racial issues plaguing England in the late 1950s, the carnival had become increasingly violent in its second decade.

Joe aCTONAs Strummer watched the England’s racial minorities physically challenging the authorities, he wished his fellow Caucasians would have the courage to take a similar stand.  Although written long before the Occupy movement, Strummer finally found a body willing to pick up his gauntlet:

“All the power’s in the hands/of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it.”

Along with the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “White Riot” kicked off England’s punk movement. As the band’s debut single, it clearly had special meaning to Strummer, who performed the song as the final encore during his last tour with the Mescaleros in 2001 and 2002. (An early version of the song has Strummer singing the first verse a capella before the full band kicks in. It’s an interesting thought, but the message is much stronger in the final arrangement.) The already-potent track became even more powerful when Strummer invited Mick Jones onstage to play it with the Mescaleros at what would be Strummer’s final concert.

The duo, sharing the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, clearly had fun with the reggae bounce of “Bankrobber,” stretching it to over nine minutes. “White Riot” is the tour de force, though. After calling for the song “in the key of A,” Strummer almost seems to second guess himself. As the guitarist – I’d like to think its Jones, but don’t know for sure – plows into the opening chords, Strummer hastily calls a halt to the song, instructing the drummer to count it off properly. The aggression and anger in the original version – Strummer almost sounds determined to push you out in front of the cops if you won’t fight willingly – now shows hints of age and wisdom that suggest that while this is one way to bring about change, it isn’t necessarily the only path to revolution. It’s a subtle change, but doesn’t cost the performance any of its original urgency.

Less than five minutes after ending “White Riot,” Strummer and Jones concluded the concert with a blistering “London’s Burning.” Barely five weeks later, Strummer was gone.

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (reggae edition)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (1980s edition)

Happy Clash-mas Eve (classic edition)

(Above: Patti Smith delivers a track from the excellent “Banga.” The album barely missed our list.)

Here are The Daily Record’s favorite albums from 2012. As always, they are presented in haiku format.

1. Christian Scott – “Christian aTunde Adjuah”christian scott

Ambitions jazzman

drops double album, maintains

passion, quality.

2. Miguel – “Kaleidoscope Dream”

Usher’s songwriter

gets more creative control.

Blends Gaye, Prince, Zombies.

3. Japandroids – “Celebration Rock”miguel-kaleidoscope-dream-cover

A friend said album

title should be a genre.

I can’t agree more.

4. Jack White – “Blunderbuss”

Solo effort from

collaborator-in-chief

rewards long-time fans.

5. Santigold – “Master of my Make Believe”

Copycats creep in

after four years away, but

Santi reclaims throne.

6. Lupe Fiasco – “Food and Liquor II”corin tucker

Divisive MC

creates more controversy.

Thinking man’s hip hop.

7. Jimmy Cliff – “Rebirth”

Bob Dylan’s favorite

protest singer back after

eight long years away.

8. Corin Tucker Band – “Kill My Blues”glasper

Ex-S/K singer

returns lob from Wild Flag.

Confidence abounds.

9. Robert Glasper Experiment – “Black Radio”

Boundaries blow up on

Wynton’s least favorite album.

Purists will miss out.

10. Bob Dylan – “Tempest”

With gravel in voice,

blood in the stories, legend

adds to legacy.

Keep reading:

Top 10 albums of 2011

Top 10 albums of 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

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