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(Above: Missy Higgins performs “Nightminds” sans band at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Four years after she walked away from the music industry, Australian singer/songwriter Missy Higgins brought some of the people who helped her record again onstage at the Beaumont Club on Saturday night. It could have been a comfort blanket, but it was probably just too much fun to resist.

The triple bill of Higgins, Katie Herzig (who co-wrote one of the songs on Higgins’ new album) and Butterfly Boucher (who co-produced the record) created a communal, free-wheeling vibe. All of the artists appeared in each other’s sets. When Boucher’s opening set was done, she and drummer Will Sayles stayed on as the rhythm section for the other two sets.The laid-back nature of the night created several fun moments. When Higgins was late missing her cue to join Herzig, it created some dead time onstage as everyone waited. Later, when it was Herzig’s turn to return the favor, she was nowhere to be found. Higgins joked that her friend was already in her pajamas, doing yoga. The one-song delay while Herzig was located was well worth the wait. The voices of Higgins, Herzig and Boucher blended beautifully on the poppy “Tricks.”Higgins’ 90-minute performance drew from her comeback album, “The Old Razzle Dazzle,” but mostly delivered a nice cross section of her catalog. Fans didn’t have any problem singing along with the new song “Hello Hello,” but they were especially excited by “Scar,” Higgins’ debut single. Before “Everyone’s Waiting,” Higgins discussed the motives for her sabbatical. A solo version of “Nightminds” was one of the night’s most inspirational moments.

The rows of chairs neatly lining the dance floor and atmosphere generated by the confessional music made lattes seem more appropriate than beers. Incredibly, the sound in the Beaumont Club — a venue long notorious for muddy mixes and inaudible vocals — was pristine. Each instrument was both audible and in perfect balance in the mix.

Herzig’s music has probably been heard by more people on TV than on the radio. Her 45-minute set included the infectious “Hey Na Na,” used in the first “Sex and the City” movie. Higgins guested on “Wish You Well” and “Lost and Found,” both of which have been featured on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Cellist Claire Indie and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Hamlin created the perfect space for Herzig’s songs. Hamlin’s amazing backing vocals pushed a mash-up of “Sweet Dreams” and “Seven Nation Army” even further into the stratosphere and generated one of the few rocking moments of the night.

Setlist: Secret, The River, The Hidden Ones, This Is How It Goes, Hello Hello, The Special Two, Tricks, Going North, Peachy, Where I Stood, Nightminds, Everyone’s Waiting, Sugarcane, Watering Hole, Unashamed Desire, Scar, Warm Whispers, Steer.

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(Above: James Taylor and Carole King are accompanied by Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums) on “Ellen” in 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For more than 30 years, James Taylor and Carole King have been writing the type of songs that fans want to hold close and wrap around themselves like a blanket. When the pair announced their joint tour, the material and musicianship were beyond question. The biggest hurdle lay in translating that intimacy to large spaces.

Taylor and King had no problem transforming the spacious Sprint Center into a cozy club for their two-and-a-half-hour performance Friday night. The stage set the mood. The raised white platform was situated in the middle of the floor, and surrounded by three rows of nightclub tables, each outfitted with a warm, glowing lamp.

The ambience was cemented when the duo entered through the crowd to take the stage. Taylor’s chair was positioned in the curve of King’s grand piano so the two could have constant eye contact while they played. Even when Taylor eventually stood up and King stepped away from the piano, the chemistry and closeness was evident.

The atmosphere was such that when someone shouted a request, Taylor picked the oversized setlist off the floor, pointed to the number and told them they’d get to it eventually.

Both singers were chatty, but Taylor had the better banter, cracking wise about calling the onstage seating “raised seats” because “high chairs” wasn’t right and “stools” sounded dirty. His wry sense of humor was also on display when he tried to set up the common theme between “Beautiful” and “Shower the People.”

“Here’s another song,” Taylor started. “I know that’s a surprise. ‘Oh, they’re going to play another song.’ Well, here we have two in a row that … I guess they’re all in a row. We tried doing them all at once, but it didn’t work.”

The sold-out crowd (although both of the end sections up top were curtained off), devoured every syllable, musical or otherwise. Each song was greeted with thunderous applause that threatened to overwhelm the performance at times. When the band joyously performed the Motown classic and Taylor hit “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” they seemed to be singing to the appreciative audience as much as themselves. The response definitely surprised the performers, particularly King, who took the stage for the encore looking at the crowd in wonder, mouth agape.

King’s reaction was genuine, but she shouldn’t have been so shocked. The setlist included all but three songs from King’s masterpiece “Tapestry” and nine of the 12 cuts on Taylor’s best-selling “Greatest Hits” collection. This night wasn’t about introducing new material, but to reunite with longtime musical friends.

“Fire and Rain,” “So Far Away,” “Country Road,” “Crying in the Rain.” Nearly every number could have been a defining moment. The biggest moments were the small ones, like Taylor’s exquisite harmony on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” on the line “when the night/meets the morning sun.” Or the way Taylor and King traded verses on “You’ve Got a Friend.”

During “Smackwater Jack” and “I Feel the Earth Move” the 68-year old King bounced around stage like a teenager. Not to be outdone, the 62-year-old Taylor strapped on an electric guitar for the crackling “Steamroller.” After blowing a harmonica solo, he duck walked across the stage. The blues song was out of Taylor’s normal dynamic, but the audience response was so great Taylor should consider cutting an album on the Alligator label.

Before the third song, Taylor introduced the band so the audience could fully appreciate the accompanists. Bass player Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel and guitarist Danny Kortchmar are collective known as The Section.

The three defined the mellow, Los Angeles sound of the 1970s singer/songwriter movement, appearing not only on “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James,” but several records by Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett. Sklar and Kunkel’s playing was tasteful and understated, with every note or beat serving the song. Kortchmar relished the times he could cut loose with a solo, like on “Smackwater Jack” and “Jazzman.”

The Section was augmented by a trio of backing singers and keyboard player Robbie Kondor. Singer Arnold McCuller took the crowd to church with his Gospel delivery during “Shower the People” that was the first big moment of the set. It made for a hard song to follow, but King pulled out one she wrote that was made famous by the Queen of Soul, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” When the chorus hit, everyone in the arena became part of the ensemble.

The evening ended with the quiet “You Can Close Your Eyes.” Accompanied only by Taylor’s guitar, the two sat side by side, King staring into Taylor’s eyes as she harmonized. As the last note rang out, she briefly rested her head on his shoulder before the two rose and strolled off, hand in hand.

“This reunion has been waiting to happen since the early ‘70s,” Taylor had said earlier. But for the fans present the question isn’t “What took you so long?” Rather, it’s “When are you coming back?”

Setlist: Blossom, So Far Away, Honey Don’t Leave L.A., Carolina On My Mind, Way Over Yonder, Smackwater Jack, Country Road, Sweet Seasons, Mexico, Song of Long Ago > Long Ago and Far Away, Beautiful, Shower the People, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Intermission. Copperline, Crying in the Rain, That Sweet Old Roll (Hi-De-Ho), Sweet Baby James, Jazzman, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Steamroller, It’s Too Late, Fire and Rain, I Feel the Earth Move, You’ve Got A Friend. Encore: Up on the Roof, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), You Can Close Your Eyes.

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(Above: A 2006 performance of “Freedom” at Hammersmith Apollo Theater in London. When David Gray returned to the song at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, it was one of several stand-out moments during the show.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

David Gray rewarded a decade’s worth of patience Wednesday night at a sold-out Uptown Theater. The English singer-songwriter broke through in America with the release of his album “White Ladder” in 2000. Gray has released three additional albums since then, but this was his first performance in Kansas City.

The set stopped just shy of two hours, and drew almost exclusively from those albums, tipping slightly toward last fall’s “Draw the Line.”

The crowd didn’t need a reason to get excited, but Gray gave them incentive anyway, pulling out heavy hitter “Sail Away” early. Directing the audience into the chorus with a broad sweep of his arm, the performance felt like an encore. It was the second number of the night.

Once he held the crowd, Gray never let them go. Or rather, the crowd never let go of him. Even quiet numbers were assaulted with proclamations of love and song requests.  The opening chords of “Babylon,” the song that likely introduced a lot of the audience to Gray, drew an evangelic fervor. Arms were waved and voices raised as the congregation celebrated every syllable of the song.

A couple times early on, Gray shook his head and wiped his face as if to shut out the relentless adoration, but the performances were too strong to be capsized by the overzealous assembly. Much of the credit for this goes to Gray’s four-piece backing band.

All of the members save one were lined up on the lip of the stage, adding further intimacy to the evening. Positioned at extreme stage left, drummer Keith Prior was the secret weapon, adding urgency and energy in all the right places, yet knowing exactly when to back off.

On “Now and Always” bass player Robbie Malone added a great bass line to Gray’s wailing harmonica that left the song sounding like a train in the distance. Guitarist Neill MacColl contributed great slide guitar to “Be Mine” and “Fugitive.” He also delivered especially nimble line on “Nemesis.” Behind them all, keyboard player James Hallaway was the subtle glue that held everything together.

Shifting from guitar to piano, Gray was spectacular regardless of the setting, be it the spare, solo piano of “Ain’t No Love,” the hushed acoustic guitar of “Kathleen,” or an epic full-band performance like “Freedom.” Whatever he played and however he delivered them, Gray’s songs all bore a certain similarity. Many of them started at a glacier’s pace. Like an iceberg, they didn’t appear to be moving, then would suddenly tower over everything, overwhelming the surroundings with their strength and beauty.

With touch of echo on the vocals and a starry backdrop, “The Other Side” seemed to be emanating from the Flint Hills. It was one of the more powerful performances of the night, but “Nemesis,” the next number, was even better. As thin beams of light bounced off a mirror ball and sprayed into the space, Gray closed his eyes and threw his arms out over his guitar as if healing the room. Meanwhile, everyone prayed it wouldn’t be another ten years until his return.

Phosphorescent: This pleasant, low-key act from New York was the perfect complement to Gray’s asthetic. The quintet’s 30-minute set caught fire with a pair of Willie Nelson covers: “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Reasons to Quit.” Unfortunately, just when they started to build momentum, time elapsed. They would definitely be worth a closer look in a smaller venue, like Davy’s Uptown.

Setlist
Draw the Line; Sail Away; Jackdaw; World To Me; Now and Always; Kathleen; Babylon; Be Mine; Stella the Artist; Slow Motion; Freedom; Ain’t No Love; Fugitive; The One I Love. Encore: This Year’s Love; The Other Side; Nemesis; Please Forgive Me.

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feedtheanimals_news
By Joel Francis

Before we bid farewell to 2008, let’s have some more haiku fun and revisit five albums that may not have made The Daily Record’s year-end, best-of list but still merit a listen.

Girl Talk – “Feed The Animals”
Is it art? Question
eclipses legalities.
WTF? Dance! Dance!

The Hold Steady – “Stay Positive”
Great songwriting, strong
performances. Forget Bruce,
Craig Finn holds his own.

Rachel Yamagata – “Elephants…Teeth Sinking into Heart”
Aching ballads and
torrid rockers on two discs.
Schizophrenic’s OK. 

Sigur Ros – “Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust”
Don’t speak Icelandic?
Who does? Same great songwriting,
new stripped-down approach.

The Roots – “Rising Down”
For once, band doesn’t
reinvent themselves. Solid,
if similar; guests thrive.

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