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(Above: Ziggy Marley will perform at this year’s 80-35 festival, but there are many great bands waiting to be discovered.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Over the past six years, the 80-35 music festival has put Des Moines and the Iowa music scene on the map. Great headliners draw increasingly bigger crowds, but the festival’s secret strength is drawing the best acts from the upper Midwest.

This year is no exception. Bands from nearly every neighboring state will fill the fest’s three stages this weekend.  Here are several bands I’m most looking forward to experiencing live on our nation’s birthday. (Note: Since I will only be able to attend the first day of the festival, all of the following recommendations are from Friday’s lineup.)

Any noisy three-piece rock band from Minneapolis is going to draw comparisons to Husker Du. Fury Things don’t run away from the similarities. Guitars explode from blown amps and drums sound like they are being punished. The band makes a compelling case for coming out early, and are guaranteed to jumpstart the day. (Fury Things perform at 12:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

If the Beach Boys hung out in Greenwich Village instead of Venice Beach they probably would have turned out a lot like the River Monks. The Des Moines-based quartet combines a sea of lush harmony vocals over a forest of banjos, guitars and other wooden instruments. Bonus points for an album cover that looks like a physical realization of Brian Eno’s topographic covers in the Ambient series. (The River Monks perform at 8 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Singer Johnathan Tolliver fronts soul outfit Black Diet like the second coming of Isaac Hayes, only with a better falsetto. The band may come from Minneapolis, but the sound is straight-up Memphis soul. Touches of slide blues guitar alongside a meaty B3 organ imagine what Booker T and the MGs may have sounded like if Duane Allman sat in (and brought a gospel choir). (Black Diet perform at 4:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

8035logo_1Maids haven’t released an album, but the electronic duo has more than enough original material from surreptitiously released singles to fill a set. Danny Heggen’s high tenor soars over keyboards and drum machines while just a touch of guitar fill out the minimalist sound. The song “Seashell” sounds like a lost 8-bit classic until waves of synthesizers take over the track, turning everyone in their wake into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. (Maids perform at 6 p.m. on the Hy-Vee stage.)

Tree probably isn’t named for his love of forestry, but the Chicago MC proves there is more to hip hop than odes to weed. His raspy voice and rhymes are good enough, but what really stands out is the production. The song “Fame” sounds like it was inspired by William Burrough’s cut-up technique, with snippets of gospel organ or jazz piano diced and reassembled at random. “The King” employs fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s old trick of speeding up a familiar song for the backing track, but Tree ends up with something that would sound like an over-the-top parody if it didn’t work so well. (Tree performs at 2:45 p.m. on the Kum & Go stage.)

Look for a review of Friday’s 80-35 festivities next week on The Daily Record.

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10 Must-see bands at Kanrocksas (part 1 – Friday)

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

Middle of the Map 2013

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(Above: Metric get raw for “Monster Hospital” on August 12, 2012, at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

It took a few songs for Metric’s set to get off the ground Wednesday night at the Beaumont Club, but once the band finally took off they soard.

An abundance of new material and time getting the mix right contributed to the muted start, but the biggest issue was personnel. On their next tour, the four-piece Canadian indie pop band should consider bringing someone else to help with keyboards. Frontwoman Emily Haines is far too charismatic and has too great a stage presence to be wedged behind her synthesizers.

Although recent single “Youth Without Youth” got a warm response, the first big moment came during “Empty.” It is telling that this is also the first time Haines was feed from her station for a significant amount of time. Effortlessly prowling the front of the stage, Haines flipped her blonde locks from side to side with the beat and cooed a charged call and response from the crowd.

Once she had the crowd, Haines never let go. The icy synthesizers on “Clone” seemed to subconsciously draw the two-thirds full room closer to the stage. Radio hit “Help, I’m Alive” drew a predictably strong response and got most of the audience dancing and singing along.

For most of their 90-minute set, Metric shuffled a glorious deck of influences. At certain times strains of Brian Eno, New Order, Pet Shop Boys and U2 were plainly audible. During the encore the band showed another facet, dropping the synthesizers and playing straight-up rock and roll. “Monster Hospital” almost sounded like a punk song and the slyly political “Gold Guns Girls” featured Haines on electric guitar.

The setlist drew heavily from this year’s “Syntheitica” album. After reeling off five of its tracks in a row to open the show, Metric eventually performed all but three of the album’s cuts. Of the remaining songs Wednesday night, all but two came from 2009’s much-loved “Fantasies.”

Final song “Gimme Sympathy” turned the room from a discotheque to a campfire. With the rhythm section departed, Haines and guitarist James Shaw turned the fan favorite into a quiet acoustic number. On the chorus Haines posed the challenge music nerds have been debating for a generation: “Who’d you rather be/the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” The answer, of course, is that there is no wrong answer. By revving up the crowd with jackhammer dance beats and getting everyone to sing along a cappella, Haines proved that she can have it both ways as well.

Setlist: Artificial Nocturne, Youth Without Youth, Speed the Collapse, Dreams So Real, Lost Kitten, Empty, Help, I’m Alive; Synthetica, Clone, Breathing Underwater, Sick Muse, Dead Disco, Stadium Love. Encore: Monster Hospital, Gold Guns Girls, Gimme Sympathy.

Keep reading:

Review: Metric (2009)

Review: Metric at Lilith Fair

Review – Arctic Monkeys

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(Above: This live version of “Grow Till Tall” doesn’t begin to capture the emotion of experiencing it in person.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When bands play Liberty Hall, they usually park their bus on Seventh Street, on the south side of the building. Prior to Jonsi’s show on Thursday night, that space was conspicuously empty except for two huge generators with power cords running inside the theater.

The generators only hinted at the energy Jonsi, lead singer for the atmospheric indie rock band Sigur Ros, would pour into his 80-minute set. The performance culminated with “Grow Till Tall” and the most powerful emotional moment I’ve experienced at a concert.

Before we get to that, however, a little context is appropriate. The Icelandic quartet Sigur Ros formed in the late ‘90s, but didn’t break through until their 2002 release. The album didn’t have a title – fans have named it “()” or parenthesis based on the symbols on the cover – or song titles. The lyrics are in Hopelandic, a nonsense language the band invented. It’s admittedly pretentious, but surprisingly accessible once one gets past the packaging and listens.

Sigur Ros songs are built on minimalist structures equally influenced by rock, classical and ambient elements. Imagine Radiohead singing in a foreign language spiked with a heavy dose of Brian Eno and you’re getting close. On his own, Jonsi still hews pretty closely that sound. Although he didn’t perform any Sigur Ros songs on Thursday, he likely could have slipped one in and only the audience response would have given it away.

Backed by a four-piece band that included his partner Alex Somers on guitar, Jonsi delivered all of “Go,” his debut solo album released this month, and four new songs that didn’t make it on the record. Jonsi and Somers, the masterminds behind “Go,” crept onstage together in the dark, the unmistakable falsetto of Jonsi’s voice marking their entrance. While Jonsi played acoustic guitar, Somers used a violin bow on vibraphone keys to create a gentle feedback. The rest of the band emerged on the next number, but this approach – Jonsi’s gorgeous, angelic voice placed within inventive settings – remained a hallmark of the night.

The music was bolstered by the theatrical staging. Four large, luminescent boxes framed the stage and an intricate glass and screen installation stood behind the band. As the projections on the boxes and screen changed, so did the mood of the room. All the images were developed by 59 Productions, and at times the combination of music and visuals threatened to overwhelm the senses. One could almost feel the heat from the fire projected around the band, smell the ozone after the simulated storm and taste the fat, wet raindrops dripping down the screens.

The band shifted textures by changing instruments after nearly every song. On a given number there might be three people playing keyboards, or two guitarists, or toy piano, percussion, vibraphone or digital manipulation. The consistent musician was drummer þorvaldur þorvaldsson. Þorvaldsson attacked his kit with the power of John Bonham or Dave Grohl, but had the finesse of a seasoned jazz drummer. More than any one player, he could change the mood of a song with a single cymbal crash and he was frequently the driving force behind the powerful crescendos.

The main set closed with Jonsi on piano, a single light shining over his shoulder. It felt like the house was privy to a late-night songwriting session. The number, appropriately titled “New Piano Song,” gave way to “Around Us.” As the melody entered, a golden glow of light settled on the crowd that felt like a sunrise. The song ended with Jonsi’s singing dissolving into a digitized barrage of vocals that ended suddenly, letting his live, pure sound ring out.

The sold-out crowd responded as it had throughout the night, waiting until the number was finished, then jumping to its feet with applause. Each number was held hushed reverence, punctuated by delighted bursts of applause between numbers. It seemed no one wanted to break the spell by talking. Pristine sound also helped perpetuate the atmosphere.

When Jonsi returned, he wore something on his head that resembled an American Indian headdress and matched the multi-colored fringes on his shirt. After “Animal Arithmetic,” the quintet moved into “Grow Till Tall.” With a forest scene projected around the band, it felt like the performance was coming from the home of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

As the song shifted, autumn settled on the forest and falling leaves swirled around the musicians. The leaves gave way to a gentle snow, which warmed into a hard rain. As the rain intensified so did the performance. Jonsi was bent over at the waist, singing into the floor and the rest of the band flailed as if caught in a terrific wind.

Like a roller coaster car inching its way to the top of a hill, the music kept ratcheting in intensity, building past any release point until it became a dense sheet of white noise, and even then it continued to swell. It seemed the only thing that kept the audience from being engulfed by the sound and the building from being torn apart was the fragile magnificence of Jonsi’s voice that penetrated the noise.

Three hours after that moment, the emotion remains strong. In a review posted on Jonsi’s Web site moments after the show, one fan stated that the performance had taken her through every emotion except anger and she knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep. That should have given her plenty of time to drive up to Minneapolis for the next concert. I know of at least one person ready to go with her.

Setlist: Hengilas; Icicle Sleeves; Kolinour; Tornado; Sinking Friendships; Saint Naïve; K12; Go Do; Boy Lilikoi; New Piano Song; Around Us. Encore: Animal Arithmetic; Grow Till Tall.

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Review: Mutemath

Review: Yo La Tengo

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(Above: Mutemath drummer Darren King does the monkey at the Beaumont Club on Oct. 16, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Beaumont Club has had many colorful adjectives hurled its way through the years, but “percussive” has probably never been one of them. It’s puzzling, then, that Mutemath drummer Darren King decided to rap his drumsticks on the rafters near the conclusion of Mutemath’s 100-minute show on Friday night.

Balanced on a bass drum held aloft by the crowd, King beat on the metal beams before swinging back onstage like a primate and joining half the band at his proper drum kit to conclude the night.

It took both the quartet and the crowd a while to reach that point, though. For the first half of its show, Mutemath was restrained to a fault, drawing warm applause but little dancing or movement. The audience seemed content to stand and take in the spectacle and see where the music would lead them.

And what a spectacle it was. With the drums set off at extreme stage left, a huge semicircle video screen and bank of lights dominated the setting, the stage looked like Pink Floyd and band sounded like an angular U2, heavy on the Eno.

Mutemath were at their atmospheric best on “Stare at the Sun,” a hypnotic number from their 2006 debut. Like many of their songs, it deals with the search for greater meaning and the uncertainty in those discoveries.

“You Are Mine” made great use of the screen by playing grainy black-and-white film loops behind the band. As singer and keyboard player Paul Meany sang about love, the images blurred the lines between devotion and obsession. On “No Response,” King stood in front of the screen a played a set of illuminated electronic drum pads that set off light cues.

King had the flashiest role, but bass player Roy Mitchell-Cardenas was the band’s secret weapon. Switching between electric and upright bass, his instrument was the only one that consistently carried the melody and existed beyond adding texture. Utility man Greg Hill was the jack of all trades, alternated between guitar – his primary instrument – keyboards and percussion.

After about 30 minutes of foreplay, the band slowly started gaining speed. It started during “Noticed,” when Meany abruptly quit singing and the crowd picked up the song on cue. That led into the bright pop of “Typical,” and a sea of smiles. The main set ended with an insistent reading of “Burden” that found the band stretching out. The powerful performance sounded like it somehow morphed from the single into the 12-inch remix before wrapping back up with the chorus.

After a break and the slight “Pins and Needles,” the band picked back up where it left off with “Spotlight,” which found Meany spontaneously jump up from behind his keyboard and dancing around the stage. “Reset” featured a long instrumental introduction and had been going for nearly 10 minutes when King started dancing on the ceiling. By then, no one wanted to come down.

Setlist: The Nerve, Backfire, Chaos, Clipping, No Response, (unknown song), Stare at the Sun, Electrifying, Armstice, You Are Mine, Peculiar People, Noticed, Typical, Burden. Encore: Pins and Needles, Spotlight, Reset.

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(Above: Raffi was a staple of The Daily Record’s early childhood. The oft-spun LP remains in its archives.)

By Joel Francis

Like many adolescent males in the mid-‘60s, Canadian Dan Lanois pined for a guitar. But he didn’t just want to make music, he wanted to record it, too.

Armed with an instrument and a cheap, tiny cassette recorder, Lanois and his brother Robert started recording anything they could find. They soon found manipulating the results was almost as fun as making and capturing the sounds. The siblings eventually invested in a four-track recorder and set up a small studio in the laundry room of their mother’s Ancaster, Ontario home.

The domestic facility was named MSR Studios, and the brothers advertised that for $60 they would not only record a band’s demo, but arrange, play on and compose the tracks as well. A short time after MSR Studios opened for business in the mid-‘70s, the Lanois brothers’ ad caught the eye of Egyptian immigrant Raffi Cavoukian.

Cavoukian was a veteran of Toronto’s folk circuit, but his 1975 album, “Good Luck Boy” generated little heat. Cavoukian’s mother-in-law encouraged him to write and record some songs for the children at her preschool. Aided by his wife, kindergarten teacher Debi Pike, Cavoukian recorded a tape that was so successful other schools started requesting copies.

MSR Studios was everything Cavoukian was looking for. Cheap, efficient and local it even came with its own musicians. In 1976, Cavoukian borrowed $4,000 from a bank recorded his first children’s album, “Singable Songs for the Very Young,” at the Lanois brother’s small home studio. Dan Lanois also played mandolin, recorded, mixed and engineered the album.

The easygoing, folk-flavored “Singable Songs for the Very Young” was a smash that ranked among top children’s album more than two decades after it was released.  Boosted by sessions with Cavoukian, by now going by simply Raffi, Doug McArthur, another Toronto folkie, and rock band Simply Saucer, the Lanois brothers soon had enough money to move their studio to better quarters. In 1978 they purchased a Hamilton, Ontario house on Grant Avenue, which became, naturally, Grant Avenue Studio.

Raffi was one of the first artists to use Grant Avenue Studio. By now he and Dan Lanois had collaborated on two albums and would go on to record two more together. Their body of work together comprised Raffi’s first four children’s albums. Grant Avenue also boasted sessions by singer/songwriter Ian Tyson and new wave band Martha and the Muffins.

The Muffins had just come off a commercially successful tour opening for Roxy Music, but they lost two members in the process. When the remaining quartet decided to carry on, one of the new musicians they recruited was bass player Jocelyne Lanois, sister of Dan and Robert. The Muffins got permission from Virgin to make an album with Dan Lanois with the stipulation that they operate on a miniscule budget. This was no obstacle for Lanois, and the resulting album “This is the Ice Age” generated a Top 40 Canadian single.

The band and album didn’t do much outside of the Great White North, however, and they were dropped by Virgin. The Muffin’s relationship with Lanois, however, flourished through two more albums. Their 1984 album, “Mystery Walk,” featured guest drummer Yogi Horton. Horton was a veteran of the 1981 experimental album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and was recommended by his boss during those sessions, Brian Eno.

Eno, of course, had cemented his legendary reputation with his work in Roxy Music and the solo albums he released in the first half of the 1970s, and his production work with Devo, David Bowie, Talking Heads and the “No New York” No Wave compliation in the second half of the decade. By the mid-‘80s, Eno and Lanois were longtime associates.

Lanois’ tape and recording manipulations first caught Eno’s attention in the late ‘70s. Although embroiled in producing the final chapter in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and on albums with both the Talking Heads and their bandleader David Byrne, Eno and Lanois met at Grant Avenue to experiment with sound and recording. In 1979, Eno recorded “The Plateaux of Mirror,” the second installment in his ambient series, with Harold Budd at Grant Avenue. Although they did not produce the album, “Bob and Danny Lanois” are thanked in the album credits.

In 1982, Lanois co-produced and played some on the fourth installment of Eno’s ambient series, “On Land.” The following year, Lanois received cover billing for his musical and production contributions to the “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks.” One of the album’s tracks, “Silver Morning,” was essentially a Lanois solo performance.

When U2 asked Eno to produce their fourth album, “The Unforgettable Fire,” in 1984 Eno brought Lanois with him. The next year, Eno recommended Lanois to Peter Gabriel to help with the “Birdy” soundtrack.

Ten years after opening MSR Studios in his mother’s laundry room, Lanois was an A-list producer. He and Gabriel collaborated on several landmark albums, including “So” and “Us.” Eno and Lanois also repeatedly re-teamed with U2 for “The Joshua Tree,” portions of “Rattle and Hum,” “Achtung Baby,” “All that You Can’t Leave Behind” and the Irish quartet’s most recent album, “No Line on the Horizon.” Lanois has also worked with Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Hothouse Flowers, Willie Nelson and released several solo albums.

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raphael_saadiq_-_the_way_i_see_it

By Joel Francis

Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Classic soul throwback.
Avoids tribute clichés by
keeping spirit true.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Great band gets better.
Bowie-meets-doo-wop epics.
Tunes for brain and feet.

Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson – Two Men with the Blues
Disparate worlds?
Not so fast. Legends say no.
Smiles all around.

David Byrne/Brian Eno – Everything That Happens…
Restless souls rejoin.
Straight-ahead compared to last album
Twenty-three years ago.

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
Not Pixar film score.
Track 4 tears Dub-ya new one.
Mark Twain of music.

Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
Old country played right.
More Hank Williams than Junior.
Dad Steve should be proud.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1
Esoteric beats
and furious politics
make for dark album.

Portishead – Third
More dark atmospheres,
Dormant band surprises all;
Not trip-hop retread.

She and Him – Vol. 1
Vanity project?
Hell no. Zooey is for real.
M. Ward is great foil.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance
Ten years not Tip’s fault,
stupid labels shelve three tries.
Glad to have you back.

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