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(Above: Best Coast perform “No One Like You” at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan., on May 26, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The backdrop depicted a large bear embracing the state of California, a nice metaphor for the music emanating just a few yards closer. For 75 minutes Sunday night at the Granada, indie-pop duo Best Coast showcased the many of the Golden State’s finest musical attributes: girl groups, surf guitars and bubbly pop melodies about summer and love.

The band makes a strong case for being their home state’s finest musical ambassadors since the Beach Boys. Opening number “The Only Place,” the title track to their recently released sophomore album, set the stage. “We’ve got the ocean/got the babes/got the sun/got the waves,” Beth Cosentino sang over jangly guitars. “So leave your cold behind/we’re gonna make it to the beach on time.”
The sun is usually out in Cosentino’s musical world, but not always in her heart. Her lyrics are direct and confessional, often reading like diary entries about lost, misplaced or inconvenient love. The band’s 2010 debut had a lo-fi feel that added to the intimacy of her words. Onstage, the twosome of Cosentino and guitarist Bobb Bruno are touring with a bass player for the first time. Combined with a new drummer, they finally had a live rhythm section that adds muscle and potency to the music.The bass added depth to the sound and gave Bruno more freedom on his guitar. The drumming enhanced the sense of desperation in “Why I Cry” and gave urgency to “Angsty.”Cosentino’s pop memoirs of longing came tumbling one after another. The set list comprised nearly all of “The Only Place,” more than half of their debut “Crazy For You” and a handful of singles. The whole room was dancing for the bouncy pairing of “Let’s Go Home” and “Our Deal,” but the slower material went over just as well thanks to Cosentino’s captivating voice. An emotional cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms” hinted at the direction Cosentino’s songwriting may be headed. It covered the same romantic terrain, but boasted more lyrical maturity and depth.

Cosentino and Bruno clearly aren’t tired of playing “Boyfriend,” their breakout hit. Cosentino threw herself into the delivery, nearly growling the words “how I want him.” The pair were all smiles throughout the one-two of early singles “When I’m With You” and “Boyfriend” that ended the night.

Just as Best Coast benefited away from the blistering sun and heat that capsized their mid-day slot at Kanrocksas last summer, opener Jeff the Brotherhood was better suited for the Granada than the cavernous Midland Theater, where they opened for the Kills last winter.

The sibling duo from Nashville’s half-hour set was driven by guitarist Jake Orrall’s 3-string, hybrid guitar. The axe featured a Gibson body and bass neck and was filtered, flanged and phased about every way imaginable, often sounding like Black Sabbath’s meeting with Swamp Thing. The high point of their set was “I’m a Freak,” a straight-up, classic rock guitar jam in the vein of “Stranglehold.”

Setlist: The Only Place, Last Year, Angsty, Summer Mood, Goodbye, Crazy For You, Sun Don’t Shine, No One Like You, How They Want Me To Be, Why I Cry, Mean Girls, Dreaming My Life Away, Let’s Go Home, Our Deal, Do You Love Me Like You Used To, Up All Night. Encore: I Want To, Sun Was High, Storms (Fleetwood Mac cover), When I’m With You, Boyfriend.

Keep reading:

Review: Andrew Bird

Review: Best Coast and Kanrocksas Music Fest

Review: Devotchka

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(Above: Andrew Bird and his band break into some bluegrass at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., on March 23, 2012.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Indie rock singer/songwriter Andrew Bird told the crowd at the Uptown Theater on Friday night that this was his first “proper” show in Kansas City. The statement conveniently overlooks his 2007 opening slot for Wilco at Crossroads, but in a way it was true. Bird flew solo opening for Wilco – Friday he had a full band.

When an artist can call on as many musical talents as Bird – who plays violin, guitar and glockenspiel and sings and whistles – it begs the question of what an ensemble can bring to an already rich arrangement.Bird started both the main set and the encore alone, showcasing his considerable talents. The hallmark of Bird’s one-man-band performances was how he layered and looped his plucked, strummed and bowed violin to create a singular orchestra. With those elements and his virtuosic violin talents front and center, “Carrion Suite” felt a bit like a recital.

As the band entered during “Nyatiti” each musician gradually revealed what he could bring to an already full table. Alan Hampton’s bowed upright bass at the end of “Desperation Breeds …” coupled with Bird’s violin to create psychedelic chamber music. His electric bass playing paired nicely with Bird’s loops to add extra urgency and muscle to several songs, including a dynamic “Plasticities.”

Guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker rarely took a solo, but added great texture and feeling, especially on “Lusitania.” At times, the dimensions of plucked violins created the same kind of percussive atmosphere favored by Paul Simon. Drummer Martin Dosh had no trouble enhancing and playing off those polyrhythms.

Despite all the musical elements happening at once, the sound was pristine, with each instrument clear and distinct throughout the night. An impressive light show enhanced each performance. As a series of lights cascaded over the crowd, the four abstract sculptures hanging over the stage looked like flames, whisps of smoke or clouds depending on the mood.

The 100-minute set drew heavily from this year’s “Break It Yourself” album. The night ended with a sound impossible to replicate alone, as Bird, Ylvisaker and Hampton played crowded around one mic. Their acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies blended masterfully on the dark “So Much Wine” and hopeful “I’m Goin’ Home.”

Setlist: Carrion Suite > Nyatiti, Danse Carribe, Desperation Breeds …, Measuring Cups, Fitz and the Dizzyspells, Give It Away, Eyeoneye, Near Death Experience Experience, Lusitania, Orpheo Looks Back, Scythian Empires, Plasticities, Tables and Chairs > Fake Palindromes. Encore: Dr. Stringz, So Much Wine (Handsome Family cover); I’m Goin’ Home (Charley Patton cover).

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(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

Keep reading:

Review: Pavement

Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Dinosaur Jr Sets High Bar For Reunion Albums

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(Above: Big Head Todd and the Monsters burn down the house with the mellow, jangly “City on Fire.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Less than four months after swinging through town in their rootsy Big Head Blues Club guise, the Colorado quartet Big Head Todd and the Monsters delivered a full-on rock show Saturday night at Crossroads KC.

February’s show at the Midtown was a tribute to Robert Johnson, complete with guests like celebrated blues sidemen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. Although the most recent show didn’t have all of the former’s trappings and production, it still felt like an upbeat homage to the blues and the Monster’s influences.

The 100-minute set featured a couple Johnson numbers, both rearranged to the point that it’s doubtful that Johnson’s ghost would recognize them as his own. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” rested on a loping bassline until the end. The band seemed to change its mind at the coda and switched to a more traditional arrangement that served them well.

The best numbers were the ones that traded the band’s effortlessly smooth sound for chutzpah. Frontman Todd Park Mohr showed surprising grit and gravitas tackling John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. It is no coincidence that the show’s two highest moments pivoted on the readings of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom.”

Several numbers, such as “Sister Sweetly” and “Back to the Garden,” mined the electric organ and wah wah guitar sound of Parliament/Funkadelic. “Neckbreaker” combined the lyrical style of Jimi Hendrix with the chaotic bridge from “Whole Lotta Love.”

Other surprising facets of the band’s sound included John Mellencamp on “Dinner with Ivan” and Bob Dylan and the Band on the excellent “City on Fire” and “Rocksteady,” which used the same chord progression as “All Along the Watchtower.” Keyboard player Jeremy Lawton frequently channeled Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. His beefy parts helped the lofty choruses soar even higher.

The Monsters work hard, but their sound is so polished that even when Mohr is powering through a solo the overall performance still sounds laid-back. It’s hard to be offended by the band’s understated pop melodies, but it’s also hard to get too excited about them. Ergo, the lawn at Crossroads was barely a third full, at best. Everyone there was either a die-hard fan, or didn’t have anything better to do.

By the time the house lights briefly came on before the encore, it seemed everyone who wasn’t a big-time fan had long moseyed to the exit. Those who remained, however, were treated to two of the band’s biggest and best numbers, “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Circle.”

Setlist: All the Love You Need; Sister Sweetly; Come On In My Kitchen; Dinner With Ivan; Bittersweet; Last Fair Deal Gone Down; Neckbreaker; Smokestack Lightnin’; Cashbox; Helpless; City On Fire; Back to the Garden; Under A Silvery Moon; Dirty Juice; Conquistador; Boogie Chillen/Boom Boom; It’s Alright; Rocksteady. Encore: Broken-Hearted Savior;  Circle.

Keep reading:

Review: Big Head Blues Club

Review: Jack Johnson

Review: Pete Yorn, Ben Kweller

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(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cake

Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

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By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Nick Urata remembers his first gig in Kansas City – the band’s bus crashed right in front of where they were going to play, the Hurricane.

Urata and his fellow members in Devotchka had more lush surroundings on Saturday night. Although the balcony of the Midland was closed and the floor was about half full, Urata’s soaring voice filled the cavernous space. Urata clearly appreciated his surroundings, thanking the crowd for letting him play in such a “classy joint.”

Devotchka – the name is Russian slang for “girl” – may be based in Denver, but their music covers the map, pulling in elements of mariachi, gypsy and French music and indie rock. The quartet’s theatric sound is built on layers and textures, much of it cribbed in the same Eastern European rhythms and energy used by Gogol Bordello, although Devotchka’s music is significantly less aggressive.

The musicians’ versatility meant the sound could change dramatically from song to song. Concert opener “The Alley” drew in the crowd with its propulsive rhythms, courtesy of drummer Shawn King and percussion from touring member Mauro Refosco, a veteran of David Byrne’s band and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace project. Later, Refosco moved to keyboards and King played trumpet to give “We’re Leaving” a South-of-the-border feel.

Tom Hagerman alternated primarily between accordion and violin while Jeanie Schroder held down the bottom end on upright bass and a Sousaphone adorned with red Christmas lights. Hagerman’s accordion and Schroder’s Sousaphone tag-teamed nicely on the appropriately named “Basso Profundo.”

Of all of the high-caliber musicianship onstage, however, Urata’s singing was easily the most impressive instrument. His powerful tenor always hovered over everything else onstage, always complementing the arrangements underneath. His articulate enunciation effortlessly unspooled the short-story-like quality of the group’s lyrics.

Urata’s falsetto danced delicately with Hagerman’s violin on “Undone” and  he displayed near operatic range on “We’re Leaving.” During the encore Urata pulled a page from vocal legend Freddy Mercury’s playbook and engaged the audience in an operatic call and response. Just like Queen at Wembly, Urata pulled it off flawlessly.

Urata’s talents extended well beyond his esophagus, however. During “Poland,” Schroder bellowed a rare Sousaphone solo which Urata countered by playing the Theramin. During “Ranchero” he delivered a guitar solo that played off King’s drums like Tom chasing Jerry.

Several screens behind the band displayed abstract images, sometimes superimposed with close-ups of a soloist, adding another layer texture to the presentation. Devotchka got a real-life assist during “Vengo! Vengo!” when two women came out and performed a fabric dance high above the stage. The dancers returned during “Contrabanda,” performing a shadow dance behind two of the screens.

The duo performed in front of those same screens a few songs later, twirling umbrellas as a kaleidoscope of colors washed over them during “100 Other Lovers.” A subtle light show also enhanced the atmosphere.

All the props, lighting and extra space helped, but the band proved they didn’t need a big room to work their magic. For the encore, Urata and Hagerman emerged alone to deliver a stripped-down, straightforward version of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” The performance was just as magical and transfixing as the best moments from the main set. The rest of the ensemble returned for two more songs, stretching out and flexing some hard rock muscle on “Ranchero” and leading a sing-along through the waltzy ballad “You Love Me.”

Setlist: The Alley;Head Honcho; Queen of the Surface Streets; Poland >The Clockwise Witness; The Man from San Sebastian; We’re Leaving; Vengo! Vengo!; Exhaustible; All the Sand in all the Sea; How It Ends; Basso Profundo; Undone; Contrabanda; I Cried Like a Silly Boy; 100 Other Lovers; Mexican. Encore: Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young cover); Ranchero; You Love Me.

Keep reading:

The Evolution of Devo

Easy success means hard work for Vampire Weekend

Review: Sufjan Stevens

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 (Above: Vampire Weekend goes on “Holiday” with this track from their 2010 sophomore release, “Contra.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Success has come easily to Vampire Weekend. After starting in 2006, the indie-rock band generated major buzz the next year with its single “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” which appeared on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Songs of the Year list.

With a mix of preppy ’80s rock and heavy debt to the African sounds of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was seemingly everywhere. Songs popped up in movies, TV shows and video games, and the band performed to a capacity crowd at the high-profile Central Park SummerStage in New York.

The Ivy League lads of Vampire Weekend worship both their Casio and the trees.

“When we signed with (record label) XL, if someone would have told me we would have sold 100,000 copies of our first record, I would have been elated,” said Chris Baio, the group’s bass player. “The fact that we sold 400,000 copies beyond that is just an extra bonus.”

Hot starts have derailed more than one promising band, but Baio said the group was talking about its follow-up effort just months after the first one dropped.

“We definitely felt some pressure as we started getting more and more success with the first record,” Baio said. “Very early on we were talking about the second album. I think we came up with the title ‘Contra’ within two months of the (first) album’s release.”

When it came time to record the follow-up, the band was able to push aside all the external pressure and make the album it wanted.

“If we were going for the easy commercial release it would have been five “A-Punks” and five “Oxford Commas,” Baio said, referring to two of Vampire Weekend’s biggest singles. “We didn’t think at all about the amount of records we had sold when we went in the studio to make ‘Contra.’ ”

Instead, they toyed with the formula, stretching some numbers beyond the four-minute limit imposed on “Vampire Weekend” and playing with arrangements.

“Some of the instrumentation on ‘Contra’ is a little bit weirder,” Baio said.

“There’s one song called ‘Diplomat’s Son’ that has abrupt changes that make it almost proggy in structure.”

When Vampire Weekend played Liberty Hall in Lawrence in September 2008, it emptied its repertoire in a 50-minute set. Standing in front of a static image of its only album’s cover, the band performed all of its songs, in addition to a couple of B-sides and new numbers.

“When we started, there was no light show, and we were using the house mixer,” Baio said. “Now we have our own sound and lighting guy. We have a background we’re proud of that changes at different points during the show and a good, new light show.”

Baio said both the production and set list will be improved when Vampire Weekend plays Starlight Theatre on Saturday with Beach House and the Very Best.

“I feel like we’re now putting on a full show at 85 minutes,” Baio said. “We may make some changes to the set, like if someone tweets a request, but for the most part we try not to change it. It has a nice ebb and flow we like, or rather just flow, no ebb.”

That makes the set similar to Vampire Weekend’s three-year history — one steady rush with few breaks, something the band isn’t interested in pushing any further.

“With the exception of when we went in and recorded ‘Contra,’ the past three years have been a steady grind,” Baio said. “We’re going to take some time between the second and third albums, and for now that’s still a ways off. We’re not going to be playing any songs off the third record this year.”

Keep reading:

The Evolution of Devo

Open wide for Mouth

Peter, Bjorn and John Heart Hip Hop

 

 

 

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(Above: An excerpt from Sufjan Stevens’ 25-minute saga “Impossible Souls” performed at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s unlikely one will ever find a reissue of “Tales of Topographic Oceans” in the record bins at Urban Outfitters or see hipsters sporting Emerson, Lake and Palmer shirts with their skinny jeans. But on Sunday night at the Uptown Theater, indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens delivered a chunk of progressive rock that would have made fans of Gentle Giant and Yes proud.

The earthy folk rock of Stevens’ breakthrough albums – “Seven Swans,” “Michigan” and “Illinois” – has been replaced by electronic, adventurous rock landscapes. About an hour into his two-hour set, Stevens explained the shift saying songwriting was “no longer loyal” to him so he started playing with rudimentary sounds. 

 Sufjan Stevens shifts gears with his new “Age of Adz.”  Extended segments of noises and effects – particularly on the 25-minute journey “Impossible Soul” – made the set feel more like an art installation that a rock show at times. But whether channeling Genesis and the Flaming Lips or Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, the Uptown’s sold-out crowd hung on every note.

After tossing fans a bone with “Seven Swans,” Stevens and his 11-piece band focused exclusively on material from August’s hour-long “All Delighted People” EP and “The Age of Adz,” an album released this month. The poppy “Too Much” came with a boozy twin-trombone solo and could have been a dance hit in another dimension if not for the extended burps and warbles of guitars, organ and synthesizers in its second half.

As the band delivered its complex themes and arrangements, a large trapezoidal video screen reinforced the themes. Space opera “The Age of Adz” featured a film that looked like an animated Funkadelic album cover. Stevens later explained the number as an “explorative supernatural song about love and heartache” and added that a “broken heart doesn’t always bring the apocalypse, but it always feels like it.”Sure it’s pretentious, but it was also a lot of fun and more accessible than it sounds.

The songs felt intimate despite Steven’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. This was due in large part to his hushed, soft falsetto and intimate, yet inviting lyrics. Even the most bombastic material contained letters of encouragement, boasting self-affirming lyrics like “don’t be distracted” and “Sufjan, follow your heart.”

Several numbers were delivered with spare arrangements featuring little more than Steven’s voice and finger-picked guitar. “Heirloom” was just as delicate as its title, while “Futile Devices” was a soul-baring tribute to Stevens’ brother.  When Stevens later forgot the lyrics during the quiet “Enchanting Ghost” it only enhanced the intimacy.

Stevens prepped his crowd for “Impossible Soul,” informing them they were about to embark on an “intense, emotional, psychotherapy experiment.” The result was nowhere near as ponderous the introduction or running time implied. “Soul” is less a song than an exploration of a song idea from every conceivable angle. Melodies and themes were tackled via prog-rock, ‘80s dance and autotune before concluding with Stevens gingerly plucking his acoustic guitar. It was enough fun that the band slipped in a bit of Salt and Peppa’s “Push It” and one of the supporting singers danced around the stage spraying silly string.

The crowd’s patience with the new material was rewarded with three songs from “Illinois.” “Chicago” ended the main set and drew the biggest cheers of the night. After saying goodnight, Stevens returned alone and delivered “Concerning the UFO” on piano and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” on acoustic guitar. It was a bit creepy to hear the audience sing along with Steven’s haunting portrait of the serial killer and an odd note to end the show on.

As with the rest of the evening’s detours, no one seemed to mind. After five long years, the hero had finally returned to his fans. The path may not have been expected, but the results were just as spectacular.DM Stith: The opening act only got 20 minutes, but he had no trouble silencing the crowd. Armed only with his acoustic guitar, the singer/songwriter delivered four songs very much in mold of Stevens’ most popular work. Using several pedals and a sampler, Stith was able to recreate a percussion section and choir by building then looping a series of claps, stomps and harmony vocals. The trick may not be new, but it was still impressive. Stith’s songwriting was even better. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a full set. Several of his songs may be downloaded for free on the Website for Asthmatic Kitty, the label Stevens founded.

Sufjan Stevens Setlist: Seven Swans; Too Much; Age of Adz; Heirloom; I Walked; Futile Devices; Vesuvius; Now That I’m Older; Get Real, Get Right; Enchanting Ghost; Impossible Soul; Chicago. Encore: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

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Review: The Decemberists

Review: “Ripped” by Greg Kot

Review: Modest Mouse (2010)

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(Above: Pavement perform “Gold Soundz” live at the Uptown Theater on Sept. 11, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About 20 minutes into Pavement’s set, lead singer and guitarist Stephen Malkmus announced to a crowded Uptown Theater that this was the band’s first time playing in Kansas City, if you don’t count Lollapalooza.

The house roared its appreciation for the underground rock band’s belated return, not just because this was only the second K.C. show in the group’s 20-year history, but because they’d been inactive for half of that time.

Saturday’s show would have been memorable even if it wasn’t a fan’s first time seeing the band, or the first time in a long time, as it was for most. The fervent crowd would have devoured anything their heroes delivered, but were treated to many of the band’s best-loved tunes, including three-quarters of the cuts off Pavement’s new greatest-hits compilation.

Calling any of Pavement’s songs “hits” is a bit misleading. Aside from “Cut Your Hair,” which appropriately featured the only rock star moment of the evening when Malkmus soloed behind is back, the band never had any chart success. In fact, it seems they went out of their way to avoid anything conventional. Their songs are anti-anthems, prone to taking left turns or ending just when they start to get settled.

This doesn’t lend itself to the campfire glow of a great sing-along, but the devoted still found a way to chime in. Numbers with a boisterous chorus like “Stereo” provided a natural opportunity to join in – the response to the line “no big hair” in “Cut My Hair” was especially boisterous. Less traditional songs like “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Loretta’s Scars” still found plenty participating.

Malkmus was angled at stage right, with his fellow guitarist/foil/adversary Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg at the other extreme. Kannberg took the vocals for two numbers, “Date w/ IKEA” and “Kennel District,” which closed the main set. Untethered by a microphone, bass player Mark Ibold – on leave from his current gig with Sonic Youth – roamed the stage, while drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich were positioned slightly off center in the back.

Nastanovich was the band’s secret weapon. Most of the time he was relegated to shaking a tambourine or egg, but would suddenly burst to the front of the stage screaming into the microphone. His pent-up energy was a nice change of pace from Malkmus trademark indifferent, slacker delivery, especially when the two styles were set against each other, as on “Conduit for Sale!”

On the brief instrumental “Heckler Spray,” Nastanovich’ second drum kit added some nice muscle. That set up a run through heavy, riff-based numbers “In the Mouth of Desert” and “Unfair.” Just as they seemed to be building momentum, Malkmus dropped the band to a hush with “Spit on a Stranger,” the prettiest song in their canon and the night’s only offering from their 1999 swan song “Terror Twilight.”

The only visual effects were several strings of large indoor/outdoor lights hung around the stage and into the audience. When lit, the theater felt like an elaborate backyard party. They created an especially jubilant atmosphere during upbeat numbers like “Silence Kit.” At one point between songs, Malkmus tried to toss his guitar up into the lights.

A devout sports fan, Malkmus performed in a Jamal Charles/Chiefs jersey. During the encore, he lamented that Charles now played for the “stupidest coach in the NFL.” Nastanovich echoed this sentiment urging the Chiefs to “fire (head coach Todd) Haley and hire Malkmus.”

The 100-minute set ended with “Range Life,” a playful tune that gently mocks the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (which seemed a lot more relevant when it came out in 1994). No one wanted to quit, however, so Malkmus veered into the Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Finally the big sing-along moment arrived. It may have taken longer than expected, but it was well worth the wait.

Setlist: Gold Soundz; Rattled by the Rush; Starlings of the Slipstream; Shady Lane; Date W/ IKEA; Frontwards; Heckler Spray > In the Mouth a Desert; Unfair; Spit on a Stranger; Stereo; Loretta’s Scars; Conduit for Sale!; Shoot the Singer; Silence Kit; Trigger Cut; Grounded; Perfume V; Cut Your Hair; Stop Breathin’; Box Elder; Fight This Generation; Debris Slide; Kennel District. Encore: Here; Lions (Linden); We Dance; Range Life (including Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da).

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(Above: Modest Mouse perform “Dashboard” at the previous stop in Kansas City, at the Uptown Theater in March, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Early in his first visit to Crossroads, Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock was quick to point out the venue’s most distinctive feature. After the second song, he told the sold-out crowd the band had a “super awesome” gift for everyone: they each got to take home a wood chip.

The six members of the indie rock band were so excited about their present they flubbed the first verse of the next song “We’ve Got Everything.” After taking a brief moment to regroup they returned to the number with increased fervor. It was the only misstep of the two-hour set that found the band growing stronger with each number.

The set opened with slow, droning intro to “Gravity Rides Everything,” which gave way to a gentle wash of acoustic guitar. With three guitarists and two drummers, Modest Mouse’s songs were never lacking in texture. Frequently the band went one step further, substituting banjo, violin and keyboards. During “Gravity,” Brock held his acoustic guitar up to the speakers a la Pete Townshend for a nice burst of feedback. The combination of two trumpets and Brock’s banjo on “King Rat” and “Devil’s Workday” created a kind of demented Dixieland.

While two of the band’s biggest songs – “Float On” and “Florida” – were absent, they weren’t missed. The opening bars of nearly every number were greeted with huge cheers of recognition, regardless if it was a single like “Dashboard” or album cut like “Paper Thin Walls.” The 18-song setlist was democratically split between the band’s three most recent albums, with a few added nuggets. There was very little chatter during songs in the crowd or between them onstage; the music captured everyone’s attention.

“Whale Song” featured a lengthy opening and Brock’s signature guitar style. Brock has a way of bending notes while hitting them with the whammy bar that makes his guitar sound like a drunken Jew’s harp. Although touring guitarist Jim Fairchild, formerly of Granddaddy, shared the stage, Brock chose to do most of the heavy lifting. After “Whale,” each song seemed to build on the intensity of the previous performance. By “Devil’s Workday,” which featured another great stinging solo from Brock, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” the band was cranking at 11.

That intensity made “Fire It Up” seem even more low-key, with the entire band riding Eric Judy’s loping bass line. “Blame it on the Tetons” had a gentle, folksy feel supported by Tom Peloso’s violin. New song “Here’s To Now” also featured Peloso’s fiddle, which had everyone clapping along to the two-step rhythm.

The biggest contrast of the night, however, may have been the response to “Parting of the Sensory.” Brock could never be mistaken for an optimist, but the audience danced and sang along to the nihilistic refrain of “someday you will die and somehow something’s going to steal your coffin” like it was the Jackson 5. It would have been the perfect ending, but the band had one more treat in “Black Cadillacs.” Even without the souvenir wood chip, it wasn’t a night anyone will soon forget.

Setlist: Gravity Rides Everything; The View; We’ve Got Everything; King Rat; Here It Comes; Fire It Up; Whale Song; Paper Thin Walls; Here’s to Now (new song); Baby Blue Sedan; Dashboard; Satin in a Coffin; Devil’s Workday; Tiny Cities Made of Ashes; Encore: Blame It On the Tetons; Third Planet; Parting of the Sensory; Black Cadillacs.

Keep reading:

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(Below: Don’t mess with Isaac Brock.)

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