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(Above: The David Rawlings Machine perform the always-poignant medley of Rawlings’ “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s timeless “This Land is Your Land” at musical celebration of the film “Inside Llelywn Davis” in 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Folk music simultaneously looks back nostalgically at a bygone era while looking hopefully ahead at a better tomorrow. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk without becoming antiseptic and corny or preachy and naive.

With a repertoire that included an old-time telegraph man, a pretty, young mountain girl and several appearances by Old Scratch, David Rawlings showed Friday night at the Folly Theatre why he is one of today’s most sought-after folk artists.

The two-hour concert (with half-hour intermission) was Rawlings’ second performance at the Folly in a year. Overall, it was Rawlings fourth show in the area in as many years. Or as Gillian Welch, Rawlings’ partner and musical foil put it, “the rest of the country is not seeing us that often.”

daverawlingsmachinecolorThe first set was heavy on material from Rawlings’ just-released third album. Across the course of the night, he’d perform all but one of it’s tracks. While the songs aren’t as road-tested, they had a knack for seeming instantly familiar. By the end of several numbers, the crowd was quietly singing along, even if they were hearing them for the first time.

Old favorites dotted the opening half as well. Welch took lead vocals on “Wayside/Back in Time” from her 2003 release “Soul Journey.” That was followed by Rawlings’ early collaboration with Ryan Adams, “To Be Young (Is to be Sad, Is to be High),” introduced as a “song older than some of the instruments onstage.”

For their encore performance at the Folly, Rawlings and Welch brought the same musicians who backed them last year. Guitarist Willie Weeks, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, bass player Paul Kowert from the Punch Brothers and violinist extraordinaire Brittany Haas completed the ensemble.

In a group of world-class musicians, Haas stood out. Her fiddle provided a melodic counterpoint to Welch and Rawlings’ vocal harmonies and frequently drew mid-song applause, especially on “Short-Haired Woman Blues.”

The mournful “Lindsey Button” sounded like a lost Appalachian hymn until Haas started plucking her violin along to Rawlings’ solo, turning the performance into a minuet. Later, the ensemble returned to the classical motif on “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home)” as two fiddles and Kowert’s bowed bass accompanied Rawlings’ guitar.

Other high points included a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” which featured a virtuosic Rawlings guitar solo that quoted “Midnight Rider.” Paradoxically, the solemn “Guitar Man” implored the crowd to “hear the band” and “clap your hands,” but Rawlings’ longing vocals and the band’s arrangement made it sound like they were looking at a faded photo and wistfully remembering something from long ago.

A medley of Rawlings’ original “I Hear Them All” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has become the emotional centerpiece of the set. The pairing sadly never loses relevance, but seemed especially poignant in light of current turbulence and earned a standing ovation.

During “It’s Too Easy,” Welch swished her dress back and forth, dancing in place as Haas’ and Watson’s fiddles dueled. It seemed like the end of the night, but after another group bow, Rawlings reached back toward his guitar. After playing something Rawlings confessed they had been rehearsing at sound check, the night ended with all five musicians huddled around a single microphone. As the quintet sang “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” a capella, the audience provided percussive accompaniment with claps and stomps.

Keep reading:

Review: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Review: Bob Dylan

Review: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

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(Above: As he has done countless time through the years, Michael McDonald relishes “Takin’ to the Streets” on June 17, 2017 at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Michael McDonald has enough hits in his five-decade career to please fans for days. On Saturday night at the Kauffman Center, the celebrated songwriter boldly chose to devote nearly half his set to introduce songs from his upcoming album.

The strength of the material rewarded McDonald’s decision. Although the songs were new, many sounded instantly familiar and blended well with the classic numbers. “Free Your Mind” had a funky Haight-Ashbury feel, while the slow blues “Just Strong Enough” featured several great solos from McDonald’s six-piece band. The upbeat “If You Really Wanted to Hurt Me,” perhaps the best of the bunch, found McDonald’s unintroduced backing vocalist signing along off-mic and dancing and clapping across the stage.

IMG_IMG_Michael_McDonald_2_1_2353JDV3_L135136365Enough hits from McDonald’s days with the Doobie Brothers and solo career were sprinkled throughout the 90-minute set to keep the audience engaged, even if they didn’t find their feet until “What a Fool Believes” near the end of the night.

Opening act Boz Scaggs took the opposite tack, delivering more than half of his bestselling “Silk Degrees” album. The 1976 smooth soul album sold 5 million copies and generated four Top 40 singles, which delivered the biggest cheers of the night.

Mixed among the familiar tunes were several covers, including Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and Li’l Millet’s “Rich Woman.” Scaggs dedicated the former to “my favorite Missouri musician. Well, him and Miles (Davis), anyway.” The latter featured a honking sax riff and swampy feel that betrayed the song’s Louisiana origin and Scaggs’ Southern upbringing.

Both men were chatty, setting up less-familiar numbers with anecdotes about their inspiration. McDonald took the stage talking about growing up in St. Louis, and how when some of his relatives had too much to drink they’d end up driving to Kansas City.

A pair of blues songs provided the most compelling moments in Scaggs’ 85-minute set. “Some Change” was inspired by the kind of change that “seems to come along every four years” and featured some of Scaggs’ best guitar playing. The burning “Loan Me a Dime” gave all five band members plenty of time to stretch out and solo across its 10 minutes.

McDonald sent the mostly full room home happy with a gospel version of his first, and in many ways defining, Doobie Brothers hit, “Takin’ It Too the Streets.” The song opened with piano and organ gradually giving way to the full band and the admonition to let peace, love and justice rule.

Boz Scaggs setlist: It’s Over, Jojo, Rich Woman, Some Change, You Never Can Tell, Harbor Lights, Georgia, Cadillac Walk, Look What You’ve Done to Me, Lowdown, Lido Shuffle. Encore: What Can I Say, Loan Me a Dime.

Michael McDonald setlist: It Keeps You Runnin’, Sweet Freedom, Free Your Mind, I Keep Forgettin’, Find It In Your Heart, If You Wanted to Hurt Me, Just Strong Enough, Here to Love You, Beautiful Child, Half Truth, Minute by Minute, On My Own, What A Fool Believes, Takin’ It To the Streets.

Keep reading:

Review: Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton

Review: Bob Seger

Review: Farm Aid

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(Above: “Dogs” and “Pigs” from the classic Pink Floyd album “Animals” captured Roger Waters’ disgust at the current political landscape.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As the lyrical and conceptual soul of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters’ music has helped define classic rock radio for nearly two generations.

Many of the songs Waters performed at his tour opener on Friday night at the Sprint Center are more than 40 years old but hold contemporary relevance in today’s fractured political landscape. In fact, his depraved, pessimistic views of humanity seem downright prescient.

Fans knew every note and syllable thanks to decades of continuous airplay, but Waters put the performances in a modern context by the films that accompanied the band on a huge screen that spanned the arena behind the stage. During the second act, another perpendicular screen was lowered over the floor.

LEDE REV ROGER WATERS 0114 SK 20The video for “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” was a devastating piece of anti-Donald Trump propaganda. Borrowing from the lyrics, the word “charade” splashed across the screens as unflattering illustrations of the commander-in-chief cycled in and out. During the long guitar solos, an inflatable sow wearing the phrase “piggy bank of war” flew over the crowd.

“Money” sustained the proletariat rage, as images of Trump’s failed casinos, Russian buildings and photos of Kremlin and cabinet officials accompanied the music.

A very few people headed for the exits – one man raised his middle finger to the stage while departing during “Money” – but they were easily outnumbered by fans raising their beers, singing along and reveling in the moment. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” may have been the least subtle moment of the evening, but it also drew far more applause than any other non-radio track.

Waters got help from his 10-piece band, which included Kansas City native Gus Seyfort on bass and former Pink Floyd and The Who touring member Jon Carin on keyboards. Backing vocalists Holly Laessig and Jessica Wolfe stole the spotlight several times, including a duet on “Great Gig in the Sky” and the new song “Déjà Vu.” Dressed in platinum blonde wigs and black fringed dresses, the pair looked like Cleopatra as reimagined by Bryan Ferry.

The only material that didn’t come from the Floyd catalog were four new songs. All were well received and dealt with the same themes. Driven by piano and drums, “The Last Refugee” wouldn’t have been out of place on Waters’ previous solo album, 1992’s “Amused to Death.” Nestled near the end of the set, “Smell the Roses” emerged from a slinky guitar line and sounded like an outtake from Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album.

Ten local children lined the front of the stage during “Another Brick in the Wall.” After singing the familiar chorus, they shed their orange jumpsuits and danced around wearing black shirts that said resist. At the first notes of “Wish You Were Here,” seemingly every phone in the building was held aloft to capture every moment. The nostalgic ballad was a rare moment of reprieve from the scathing critiques and protests.

A similar moment arrived during the final song, “Comfortably Numb.” As Dave Kilminster tore into another guitar solo, Waters raised his hands and swayed back and forth. The crowd, bathed in soft lights and gently falling pink confetti, joined him. After nearly three hours of angry catharsis, it was time to heal.

Setlist: Breathe, One of These Days, Time > Breathe (reprise), Great Gig in the Sky, Welcome to the Machine, Déjà vu (new song), The Last Refugee (new song), Picture That (new song), Wish You Were Here, The Happiest Days of Our Lives > Another Brick in the Wall (parts two and three). Intermission. Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones), Money, Us and Them, Smell the Roses (new song), Brain Damage, Eclipse, band introduction, Vera > Bring the Boys Back Home, Comfortably Numb.

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Shine on Rick Wright

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Review: Prophets of Rage

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 In a way, David Bowie’s unexpected death last January has freed his songs. Because we are no longer dependent on him to sing them, they are available to everyone to perform as they wish. On Saturday night at the Uptown Theater, the magic happened to come from a couple of the guys who helped create it in the first place.

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(Above: Peter Frampton takes an early summer voyage through “Black Hole Sun” at Starlight Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick have more in common than releasing two of the best-selling and critically acclaimed live albums of all time in the late 1970s. Thursday night at Starlight, the two children of the Beatles professed their love for the Fab Four.

Cheap Trick covered “Magical Mystery Tour” during its opening 80-minute set. Two hours later, Frampton ended his set (and the night) with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Both songs fit the performer’s personalities. Paul McCartney’s genius for concise pop songs and cheeky sense of humor have been celebrated and amplified by Cheap Trick since the mid-‘70s. Likewise, George Harrison’s introspection and guitar virtuosity have been among Frampton’s hallmarks since his precocious start in the late ‘60s.

A cloudburst early in Cheap Trick’s daylight set sent many fans scurrying for cover, but the quartet stayed put. The faithful that remained in the open air strummed air guitar under ponchos and bounced beneath umbrellas to “Hot Love” and “Voices.”

cheap-trickThe quartet stretched out on a couple numbers, jamming on a lengthy “Need Your Love” and taking “Magical Mystery Tour” for a couple extra trips around the block well after the recorded fade-out. Eighties power ballad “The Flame” set up a killer home stretch that included “Dream Police” and “Surrender,” two of the band’s best-loved songs, and “I Want You To Want Me” and “Ain’t That A Shame,” the two biggest hits from “At Budokan.”

Likewise, Frampton didn’t skimp on numbers from his blockbuster “Frampton Comes Alive.” In fact, the opening coupling of “Something’s Happening” and “Doobie Wah” mirrored the first two songs on side one of the album.

Although Frampton is a fine songwriter – look no further than “Baby, I Love Your Way” – guitar solos are his meat and potatoes. His opening solo for the ballad “Lines on My Face” was almost smooth jazz. Later, Frampton traded solos with nearly everyone in the band during a 20-minute reading of “Do You Feel Like We Do.” His best solo came on “(I’ll Give You) Money.”

The band dropped out partway through, leaving Frampton along with his thoughts and his fretboard. The quiet, delicate playing gradually built back up, with each band member subtly, gradually rejoining. Before long, Frampton was trading licks with second guitarist Adam Lester, each trying to tastefully top the other. A lesser guitarist would have ended the song sliding across the stage on his knees with a flurry of notes. Frampton just stood and played, building layer on layer with his fingertips.

Beatles covers were the coup de grace, but a few other interesting covers wormed their way into the night. By now, Cheap trick has likely played “Ain’t It A Shame” more than Fats Domino. A surprising instrumental version of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” found Frampton delivering the final chorus through his infamous talk box. Finally, if it was strange to hear Cheap Trick do “Magical Mystery Tour” sans piano, it was even more jarring to hear Frampton cover Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” without horns.

There were plenty of empty seats in the top third of the theater, but four decades after committing their defining concert performances to vinyl, the unlikely pairing of classic rock vets proved they still had plenty to say and many who were anxious to hear it.

Cheap Trick setlist: Hello There; Oh Candy; Big Eyes; Lookout; Hot Love; Voices; I Can’t Take It; Need Your Love; Magical Mystery Tour; She’s Tight; I Know What I Want; The Flame; I Want You To Want Me; Dream Police. Encore: Ain’t That A Shame; Surrender; Auf Wiedersehen; Goodnight.

Peter Frampton setlist: Something’s Happening; Doobie Wah; Show Me the Way; Lines on My Face; Lying; Signed, Sealed, Delivered; (I’ll Give You) Money; Baby, I Love Your Way; Black Hole Sun; Do You Feel Like We Do. Encore: While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

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(Above: William Elliott Whitmore looks forward to “Digging My Grave” on the outdoor stage at the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands performing on eight stages across four days, it is impossible to hear everything at the Middle of the Map festival. I spent most of the festival’s final day on an unseasonably cold day at the outdoor stage.)

Phox:

Despite cold hands and early sound issues, Phox delivered an enjoyable set that delighted the fans that filled about two-thirds of the parking lot around the outdoor stage.

The six-piece band from Wisconsin performs soulful, confessional indie rock that recalls fellow Wisconsinite and mentor Bon Iver. Their delicate melodies never got lost in the expansive outdoor environment, thanks to inventive arrangements.

“Evil” featured a New Orleans jazz trumpet solo, while “Never Love,” an unreleased song, opened with a recorder and African guitar line a la Vampire Weekend. Throughout it all, lead singer Monica Martin was the not-so-secret weapon. Her soulful voice and playful stage talk kept the songs weighty and the downtime light.

The band threw a curveball into the mix with a hushed, dainty cover of Blink-182’s “I Miss You.” More fans sang along with that number than any of the band’s original numbers.

murder by death

Murder by Death

William Elliott Whitmore:

Armed with a guitar, banjo and bass drum, William Elliott Whitmore did a great job prepping the crowd for Murder By Death’s Americana rock. His 45-minute set was filled traditional folk songs about train trestles, digging graves and devils.

Between songs, Whitmore bantered with the audience with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Whitmore said he wanted his time to feel like friends hanging out on the front porch. While he’s a bit early for that festival, he accomplished the feel.

Murder by Death:

Murder by Death play the kind of songs that make you more likely to get pulled over for speeding. Even the band’s down-tempo numbers are full-throttle. Case in point “Curse of Elkhart,” a torrid cautionary tale fueled by Sarah Balliet’s furiously strummed cello.

Several of the band’s Americana opuses unfold like novellas. Judging by apparel and lips, plenty of the crowd already knew the stories. Highlights of the hourlong set included the David Bowie tribute “I Shot an Arrow,” “Spring Break 1899” and “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs.”

Keep reading:

Middle of the Map 2015 – day three

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: Vampire Weekend

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(Above: Minneapolis rapper Atmosphere performs the song “Kanye West” at the Uptown Theater during the 2015 Middle of the Map festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

(Note: With more than 100 bands on eight stages across four days, hearing everything at Middle of the Map is impossible. I bunkered down at the Uptown Theater for most of the festival’s third day.)

Ghastly Menace: There weren’t many people in the Uptown Theater shortly after 6 p.m., but Ghastly Menace played with an intensity like they were trying to convert everyone in the room.

Pushed to the lip of the stage by everyone else’s equipment, the six-piece band from Chicago had no problem generating multi-layered indie pop that had the small cluster of fans dancing throughout the 30-minute set.

Hembree: It didn’t feel like Friday night until “Walk Alone.” The third song in Hembree’s half-hour set at the Uptown opened with a loping guitar eventually joined with a four-to-the-floor drum line that nailed everything into place. The rest of the set didn’t match that moment, but blending synth-pop with shades of Americana and folk harmonies created an interesting sound definitely worth further exploration.

Shiner: Positioned between three indie-centric bands, Shiner hit the reset button at the Uptown with a 40-minute slab of hard rock. One of Kansas City’s best ’90s bands, Shiner hasn’t played many shows since breaking up in 2003.

Singer/guitarist Allen Epley was a bit rusty, begging fans to forgive him if he flubbed the lyrics. After one number he told the crowd the band played it just to prove they still could.

He needn’t have worried. The dedicated fans that filled a healthy portion of the floor were just happy to soak up every note they could, knowing it would likely be a while until this next chance.

lord huron

Lord Huron

Lord Huron: Near the start of Lord Huron’s one-hour set, frontman Ben Schneider recalled the last time the band played town they were at the Riot Room.

Those days are long over. Overcrowding on the floor at the Uptown forced the balcony open. If Coldplay went camping they’d land pretty close to Huron’s earthy, indie folk. Schneider’s warm vocals and jaunty arrangements managed to make lyrics like “darkness got a hold on me” sound sunny. Highlights included the spaghetti Western-influenced “The World Ender” and “Fool for Love,” a new song driven by the Bo Diddley beat.

Atmosphere: In the hands of anyone else, getting a crowd to shout “I’m happy to be alive” and commanding them to wear a smile would be corny. Not so for Slug, MC for the Minneapolis hip-hop group Atmosphere.
Witty wordplay and upbeat samples made the show more party than preachy. Fans at the Uptown eagerly rhymed along and bounced up and down with each song. For 70 minutes, he told stories to a packed floor about fighting temptation (”Lucy Ford”), celebrating circumstances (”Kanye West”) and self-worth (”God Loves Ugly”).

Two of the most poignant moments came back-to-back. “The Waitress” paints a portrait of a woman from the perspective of a homeless man. Moments later, thoughts of a deserted, deceased father flood the mind during “Yesterday.”

Ostensibly promoting their eighth album, Slug conferred with his two DJs and focused on older material, going back as far as 1995 for “God’s Bathroom Floor.”

bass drum

Bass Drum of Death

Bass Drum of Death: While not particularly lethal, Bass Drum of Death are very much what-you-see-is-what-you-get. With just two guitars and drums, the sound is so stripped down that even backing vocals are considered a luxury.

The three-piece band from Oxford, Miss., traffics in the same garage and classic rock as Jeff the Brotherhood: sharp bursts of scuzz that pack plenty of punch and don’t overstay their welcome. The post-midnight crowd at Ernie Biggs enjoyed what it got. A low stage meant bad sight lines, but dozens of heads clustered around the band bobbed and throbbed with the beat throughout the 50-minute performance.

Katy Guillen and the Girls: They closed down the Westport Saloon. Their 1 a.m. set drew a substantial amount of fans, who sang along and rejoiced in Guillen’s every guitar solo. Rooted in the same blues rock as Cream, Guillen and her tight two-piece rhythm section shined especially bright when they stretched out on long instrumental passages.

Keep reading:

Review: Mission of Burma (at MOTM 2012)

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: F*cked Up (at MOTM 2012)

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