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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)

(Above: Todd Rundgren’s “Party Liquor” more than lives up to its name. Here he performs that song and two others in Park City, Utah, on April 10, 2015.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

For most of Todd Rundgren’s two-hour set Friday night at the Voodoo, the cult classic rocker ignored his guitar and his impressive back catalog. Instead, he concentrated on his 25th solo album, “Global,” and performed against a backdrop of throbbing synthesizers and programmed drums.

It could easily have been a mess. It was enthralling.

rundgrenKeyboard player/laptop master Dam-Funk and two female backing vocalists provided all the support Rundgren needed. Several times they left him alone onstage to sing over prerecorded tracks. The music was perfect for a big dance floor. Sadly, the floor at Voodoo was ruined by neat rows of chairs.

“Global” is less than two weeks old, so the material was too new for any singalongs, but Rundgren had no trouble convincing the near-capacity crowd to clap along.

An environmental theme was evident in the song titles — “Terra Firma,” “This Island Earth” — but the energetic dance arrangements kept the lyrics from getting too heavy-handed. Only while chastising climate change deniers in “Blind” did Rundgren get preachy.

Rare trips into the back catalog for “One World” and “Worldwide Epiphany” also continued this theme.

“Soothe” was the best new song of the night. When Rundgren inevitably chases his muse around the next corner, it’s not hard to imagine this ballad remaining in the set list. It also worked as the perfect bridge to three of Rundgren’s biggest hits.

“Holyland,” another new song, sounded like a lost Peter Gabriel collaboration.

Two songs, both from 2013’s “State” album, hinted at an alternate career path for Rundgren. Performed alone onstage, the heartfelt “Ping Me” would be a hit in the hands of a young pop star. Uber-fun “Party Liquor” more than lived up to its title and made me wonder what would happen if Rundgren got booked into an electronic dance music festival under an alias.

Last fall, Rundgren played Starlight as part of Ringo’s All-Starr Band. Readings of “I Saw the Light” that night and on Friday couldn’t have been more different. Although the melody was close enough that fans could still sing — and whistle — along, “Light,” “Hello It’s Me” and “Can We Still Be Friends” all got an electronic dance music facelift.

The guitar finally came back out for main set closer “Worldwide Epiphany” and encore “International Feel.” Although it still had a strong dance tempo, Rundgren unleashed a blistering solo during “Feel,” finally giving the fans a bit of what they may have been expecting.

The moment probably wasn’t enough to persuade the purist, but fans willing to follow Rundgren down the rabbit hole were rewarded.

Setlist: I Wanna Thank You (For Steppin’ Into My Life) (performed by Dam-Funk); Evrybody; Flesh & Blood; Rise; Truth; Secret Society; Ping Me, Earth Mother; Skyscraper; Party Liquor; Blind; Smoke; Holyland; Terra Firma; Today; This Island Earth; One World; Future; Global Nation; Soothe; Can We Still Be Friends/I Saw the Light/Hello It’s Me; Worldwide Epiphany. Encore: International Feel > Just One Victory.
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(Above: TV on the Radio perform “Could You,” a song from their newest album, on March 21, 2015, at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

TV on the Radio is no stranger to Kansas City. Nearly eight years ago to the day, the indie rock band delivered a transcendent performance at the Voodoo Lounge. They have returned twice since then, in support of their subsequent two releases.

Saturday night, the Brooklyn-based, indie rock band played at the Midland theater, their largest venue in town to date, in front of their biggest crowd.

The first five songs of the night all came from “Seeds,” the band’s latest album. They would return to it again twice more, and also perform a non-album single drawn from those sessions. A red strobe light enveloped the stage during opening number “Lazerray,” making the band look like a stop-motion video from the future.

Later, the red, green and yellow beams of light crossing the stage during the “Seeds”’ title track recalled the album’s cover. The chorus on that song sounds like a lost African proverb: “Rain comes down like it always does/This time I’ve got seeds on ground.” As singer Tunde Adebimpe repeated the uplifting message, the music slowly built in intensity, threatening to overwhelm the room.

Musically, TV on the Radio can be hard to pin down. At times they can sound like Peter Gabriel, as on set-closer “Staring at the Sun,” or Radiohead, or Joy Division. While there are some obvious touchstones — Bono would kill for the silky falsetto guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone used on “Million Miles” — TV’s sound is generally too mercurial for a game of spot-the-influence. They are clearly pointing the way forward more than they are looking back.

The stage was set simply, with no screens or effects aside from the light show. Though frontman Adebimpe was energetic, the core quartet and touring drummer and keyboard/horn player stayed in place. Arranger/producer/jack-of-all-trades Dave Sitek stood at stage left behind a table of gadgets and next to a bank of synthesizers. He rotated between guitar and the rest of his tricks like the man behind the curtain.

Although the show was skimpy on older numbers (and questionably skimpy in general at just 15 songs and 80 minutes), predictably they were the ones that drew the biggest response.

“Wolf Like Me” inspired a feral sing-along. For the encore, the band went back to its two earliest singles, “Young Liars” and “Staring at the Sun.” Neither could be described as inspiring, but it was moving to hear the room come together in one voice.

If we are fortunate, TV on the Radio will return again in a couple years, with a new batch of songs to perform. We will miss the older numbers they displace, but not too much. After 15 years and six albums, they remain a band on the rise, with no horizon in sight.

Setlist: Lazerray, Golden Age, Happy Idiot, Seeds, Could You, Wolf Like Me, Trouble, Million Miles, Blues from Down Here, Winter, Dancing Choose, Love Dog, DLZ. Encore: Young Liars, Staring at the Sun.

Keep reading:

(Above: Bob Seger sings about life on the road during his March, 2015, tour stop in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bob Seger has never been shy about looking backward and taking stock. In his early 30s he reminisced about singing a song from 1962. Now on the cusp of his 70th birthday, Seger took Friday night’s crowded Sprint Center on a trip through musical memories that made him a wealthy soul.

Dressed in a black button-up shirt, jeans and black headband Seger looked more like someone ready to do yard work than put on a rock show. He performed a few songs sitting down, strumming an acoustic guitar, and a couple of numbers behind the piano, but for the most part he was all over the stage, pumping his fists in the air and leading singalongs — not that the energetic crowd needed any encouragement.

seger FYI 03202015 spf 0087fWhen Seger accidentally skipped a verse on “Turn the Page,” the singing masses blindly followed his flub, starting over only when he corrected the mistake. The way the line “Twenty years now/Where’d they go?” reverberated across the lips of everyone in the arena during “Like a Rock” made the song feel a little like a hymn.

These days, Seger’s Silver Bullet Band is a small army of more than a dozen musicians, including three female backing vocalists and a four-piece horn section. Although not everyone was on stage at the same time, there were always enough people out front that the stage seemed empty during a pared-down reading of “Against the Wind.” There were eight musicians onstage for that number.

Most of time, the songs sounded just like they do on the radio, a testament to both the strength of Seger’s voice and skill of the musicians. Lead guitarist Rob McNelley laid down a funky groove with his wah wah pedal on “Come to Poppa” and faithfully tore into the landmark slide guitar solo on “Like a Rock.”

It helped that several band members have been playing with Seger for decades. Bass player Chris Campbell came on board in 1969. Horn player Alto Reed joined three years later, and organist Craig Frost was hired in 1979.

The music received a few interesting tweaks. Reed’s saxophone replaced the traditional pedal steel on “Mainstreet” and “Night Moves.” Seger played piano and delivered the first half of “We’ve Got Tonight” alone. Although others eventually joined him, the stripped-down setting and sped-up tempo made the performance seem like a demo of the final product and proved the single didn’t need all the gloss and production it was given to reach the radio.

In a night full of highlights, the period when Seger left the stage and let his band stretch out during “Travelin’ Man” was the most exciting. McNelley and Jim “Moose” Brown traded guitar licks, giving the song even more punch than the familiar, now nearly 40-year-old live version. On cue, Seger emerged from backstage just in time to start “Beautiful Loser” and take the music in a new direction. The songs have been played together for so long it seems strange that they were originally recorded and sequenced separately.

New material usually gets the short straw from deep-catalog acts like Seger, but four songs from this year’s “Ride Out” got the spotlight. Seger talked about hearing Waylon Jennings perform “The Devil’s Right Hand” before delivering his new version of the Steve Earle song and revealed Stevie Ray Vaughan as the inspiration behind “Hey Gypsy.”

The “Night Moves” album was the crown jewel of the set list. Five of the nine songs from the 1976 classic were performed, including nearly all of the first side. Album cut “The Fire Down Below” doesn’t get much airplay, but the crowd still threw every word back to the stage.

Less than two hours after opening the night with “Roll Me Away,” Seger said good night by reminding everyone that “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” That may be true, but the flip side — remembering — is more fun.

Setlist: Roll Me Away/Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You, The Fire Down Below, The Devil’s Right Hand, Mainstreet, Old Time Rock and Roll, It’s Your World, Come to Poppa, Her Strut, Like a Rock, Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser, All of the Roads, Hey Gypsy, We’ve Got Tonight, Turn the Page, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man. Encore 1: Against the Wind, Hollywood Nights. Encore 2: Night Moves, Rock and Roll Never Forgets.
Keep reading:

(Above: The Wailers perform Bob Marley’s eternal “Is This Love” at Glastonbury 2014.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bob Marley has been dead for almost as long as he was alive, but his music isn’t going anywhere.

Several hundred fans flocked to the Uptown Theater on Friday night to hear the late reggae legend’s music performed by his former backing band, the Wailers. Although only one member of the current lineup performed and recorded with Marley, the band does an outstanding job of replicating Marley’s influential sound.

The arrangements stayed faithful to the recorded versions, making the rare moments when the band stretched out even more insightful. Guitarist Audley “Chizzy” Chisholm added a pair of inventive guitar solos to “Lively Up Yourself” and “Jamming.” Despite the band playing it safe, the songs remained encouraging, inspiring and, at times, confrontational.

Songs from “Legend,” Marley’s omnipresent greatest-hits package, drew the biggest responses. The opening notes of “Could You Be Loved” and “Jamming” were all it took to get everyone dancing. An enthusiastic call-and-response during the chorus on “Buffalo Soldier” pumped up the already energized crowd.

Chisholm and singer Dwayne Anglin performed alone for a stirring version of “Redemption Song.” The full band returned for an extended medley of “Exodus” and “Punky Reggae Party” to close the 90-minute set.

rusted root FYI 03132015 sp (4)Rusted Root, a five-piece band from Pittsburgh, mixes world instruments and rhythms with jam-band sensibilities. Its 100-minute opening set included two new songs and highlights going all the way back to the band’s 1992 debut album.

Standout moments included the propulsive “Rain,” a duet between lead vocalist Michael Glabicki and utility player Liz Berlin, who also played washboard. The hypnotic “Laugh as the Sun” found Berlin on pennywhistle. A reworked cover of “Suspicious Minds” opened with dueling bass and drums.

The set peaked with a massive romp that started with the Indian-tinged chant “Voodoo.” That led into a drum solo and jam, before working into “Ecstasy.” Everyone sang along with the closing number, “Send Me on My Way,” the band’s first and biggest hit.

Boston’s Adam Ezra Group started the night with a heartfelt half-hour set.

The Wailers setlist: Intro; Easy Skanking; Could You Be Loved; Lively Up Yourself; Survival; The Heathen; Rastaman Vibration; I Shot the Sheriff; Who the Cap Fit; Trenchtown Rock; Buffalo Soldier; Jamming; Encores: Redemption Song; Medley: Exodus/Punky Reggae Party.

Rusted Root setlist: Welcome to My Party; Martyr; Lost in a Crowd; Suspicious Minds; Tumbleweed; Food and Creative Love; Laugh as the Sun; Cover Me Up; Save Me; Rain; Voodoo (drum solo); Ecstasy; Send Me on My Way.

Keep reading:

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Skatalites

Review: Jimmy Cliff

(Above: D’Angelo exposes “The Charade” in the opening hours of Black History Month on “Saturday Night Live.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two anthems of the civil rights movement were released within days of each other, in the dying weeks of 2014. John Legend and Common wrote “Glory” for the civil rights film “Selma.” As the third track on D’Angelo’s long-delayed third album, “The Charade” was released with less fanfare but greater anticipation.

More importantly, after being shunted to the underground for more than a decade, protest music has reemerged in the mainstream. Both “Glory” and “The Charade” were performed on national, network television in February.

Glory-From-the-Motion-Picture-_Selma_-SingleOn paper, “Glory” almost looks too obvious. John Legend recorded an entire album of R&B protest songs with The Roots in 2010 (with Common guesting on the lead single). Common’s history of uplifting poetry has earned him invitations to perform at the White House and guest spots from Maya Angelou and the Last Poets on his albums. “Glory” isn’t the first time Common has invoked Martin Luther King for a film. In 2006, he collaborated with Will.I.Am an end-credits anthem for the movie “The Freedom Writers” that sampled King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is clear from the opening gospel chords, that “Glory” is a celebration. It doesn’t challenge the listener like Common’s “Song for Asatta” or Legend’s version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It something we can all feel good about while listening. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The civil rights movement brought out the worst in our society, and anyone who weathered that storm, or had a loved one who did, deserves a moment to catch their breath, smile and feel proud.

(Above: Common and John Legend show “Glory” at the Grammys.)

While “Glory” namechecks Ferguson, “The Charade” captures the confusion, frustration and anger of the injustice there. “All we wanted was a chance to talk,” D’Angelo pleads in the chorus. “’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Like most of the songs on “Black Messiah,” “The Charade” doesn’t announce its presence as much as slink into being. D’Angelo’s lyrics are tough to decipher on the first listen, demanding repeated listens and close attention. “Glory” has a gospel choir; “The Charade” has multi-tracked vocals.

The difference between the songs is even more stark in performance. On “Saturday Night Live” D’Angelo and his band dressed in all black, with a chalk outline behind the singer on the floor. Backing vocalists wore shirts stating “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter.” D’Angelo wore a hoodie, his face hidden in the shadows. The blistering delivery was a gauntlet – ignore this, America. Driving the point home, the ensemble raised fists in the air over the dying notes, summoning images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Less than two weeks later, Common and Legend were tapped to close the Grammys. Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, everyone wore suits and was clean-shaven. The production dovetailed with Beyonce’s stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song. The performance was moving, but if “Glory” didn’t feel as powerful as “The Charade” on “SNL,” it might be because it felt more safe.

“Glory” points to how far we’ve come and “The Charade” shows how far we have to go, but both songs end up at the same hopeful place. “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory,” Common concludes. “With the veil off our eyes, we’ll truly see/and we’ll march on,” D’Angelo affirms. “And it really won’t take too long.”

Keep reading:

John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

Edwin Starr – “War”

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

(Above: “Funk n Roll” is the standout track on one of the best Prince albums in years.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Best-of lists are ubiquitous this time of year. Because The Daily Record loves you so much, we do it in haiku.

war on drugs1.      War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
Title says it all.
Chet Baker sang let’s get lost.
Join me won’t you, please?

2.      TV on the Rado – Seeds
Title song is hymn:
“This time, I’ve got seeds on ground.”

Makes my soul smile.

3.      Flying Lotus – You’re Dead
DJ, hip hop, jazz
Introspective mélange iskelis
 feast for brain and ears.

4.      Old 97s – Most Messed Up
20 years later,
Too Far To Care gets sequel.
Band is best when messed.

5.      Kelis – Food
Ribs, cobbler, fish fry.
These tasty song titles whet
appetite for tunes.

6.      Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams?????????????
Lucero axeman
adds grit to busy lyrics.
The Ambassador.

7.      New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
Supergroup returns
with best batch of power pop
since Twin Cinema.

8.      Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else
Farm girl references
Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chris Isaak.
eno high life
Arty honky tonk?

9.      Brian Eno and Karl Hyde – High Life
2 albums, 2 months.
Ambient meets house, techno.
Second one is best.

10.  Warpaint –Warpaint
Female quartet takes
four years after debut.
Follow-up worth wait.

Keep reading:

Top ten albums of 2013

Top 10 albums of 2012

Top 10 albums of 2011

 

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