Review: Local Natives

(Above: Local Natives embrace “Villany,” one of several standout tunes performed during a swift, damp autumn concert at Crossroads KC in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

With thunderstorms looming on the Doppler radar Saturday night, indie rockers Local Natives took the stage ahead of schedule and wrapped up before the weather portion of the local news aired. No umbrellas were needed.

Crossroads KC was about a third full, with most of the crowd standing comfortably in front of the sound tent.

0926 rev local natives 0924The Southern California quartet expertly generates songs that serve as atmospheric pieces with anthemic vocals. Their sound recalls the National and Fleet Foxes, with a splash of Radiohead and Talking Heads. Electronic textures compliment the soaring, earnest vocals and make the music both easy to dance to and sing with.

The versatile musicians traded roles frequently throughout the night, performing in front of a white curtain, frequently backlit and visible only as silhouettes. The lighting was even more dramatic when the wind whipped through the curtain.

While the scope was cinematic, the songs were compact. It took the band just 80 minutes to deliver 17 songs. “Coins” opened with a funky stop-start rhythm that lifted a lot of hands into the air. Opening act Charlotte Day Wilson joined the band for a duet of “Dark Days.” She danced at her mic between verses, relishing the moment.

One of the night’s most powerful moments came on “Colombia.” Accompanied only by his guitar and Taylor Rice on piano, Kelcey Ayer sang about his mother’s death. The somber moment hovered as the rest of the band returned to the stage for the crescendo.

Somehow, that number segued into “Fountain of Youth,” a poppy new song that references a female president and bounces with a chorus of “We can do whatever we want.” Although the songs were polar opposites, the journey was flawless.

Local Natives’ third album, “Sunlit Youth” was released a little more than two weeks ago, but the crowd seemed familiar with the material. Several of its songs — including “Villany” — drew generous responses. The set list was pretty much split between new songs and material from “Hummingbird,” the group’s second album. A few songs from their 2009 debut were included for good measure.

One of those early songs ended the night on discordant and satisfying note. With Nik Ewing’s bass galloping over noisy guitars, “Sun Hands” recalled “Boy”-era U2. The most boisterous and least contained number of the night ended with low feedback — and rainclouds — hanging in the air as the band waved goodnight.

Setlist: Past Lives; Wide Eyes; Villany; You and I; Breakers; Mother Emmanuel; Airplanes; Ceilings; Heavy Feet; Coins; Dark Days (with Charlotte Day Wilson); Masters; Colombia; Fountain of Youth; Who Knows Who Cares. Encore:Sea of Years; Sun Hands.

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Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

(Above: Wilco deliver a “Shot in the Arm.”)

By Joel Francis

Wilco had been onstage for nearly two hours Tuesday night when they headed back out for their second encore. Despite a long night and a chilly temperature somewhere in the 40s, they unloaded both barrels with the energetic one-two of “Monday” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

For those few moments, the show touched the same stratosphere the band maintained throughout their for-the-ages performance almost two years ago to the day at Crossroads in 2007. The force and power bubbling under the surface for most of the night finally emerged and everyone – band and sold-out crowd alike – soaked it in.

The band announced its presence with “Wilco (The Song)” which found guitarist Nels Cline violently thrashing his guitar in front of his speaker to induce feedback. Although each song in the return engagement to Crossroads was solid, they all hit the same emotional plane without generating much drama. The main set was very, very good, but very reliable, without any peaks or valleys.

Wilco was at its best when it stretched out, as on “Bull Black Nova,” “Handshake Drugs” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” “At Least That’s What You Said,” opened gently on Pat Sansone’s piano before the harsh stomp of Jeff Tweedy’s guitar took over. The band inverted the loud-quiet-loud formula for “Misunderstood,” which thundered between verses before dropping back to Tweedy’s voice and guitar.

Because the band’s latest release, “Wilco (The Album),” is a summation record, the new material fit well alongside old favorites. Although it tipped toward the fresh, the setlist was democratic, ignoring the first album and drawing equally from the rest.

As the songwriter and frontman, Tweedy gets the spotlight, but the entire ensemble deserves credit. Bass player John Stirrat contributed gorgeous harmony vocals to several songs. Cline delivered several jaw-dropping solos, but the most amazing one came during “Impossible Germany,” where he made the guitar neck seem three times as long.

The evening’s secret weapon, though, was Sansone, who added an organ texture reminiscent of The Band’s Garth Hudson to “Kingpin” and seemed to chipping in a tasty guitar or keyboard line every time I looked his way.

There were a few pleasant surprises, like the “Summerteeth” nugget of joy “I’m Always in Love,” a loose and funky “Hoodoo Voodoo” that found Sansone and Cline trading guitar solos, and “Radio Cure,” which sounded like a voyage inside Tom Waits’ piano.

Always affable, Tweedy was in good spirits, suggesting the throng shouting requests elect a president and present their wishes in writing. After blowing his nose during “Hate It Here,” he pretended to toss the handkerchief into the audience.

Nearly two and a half hours after saying hello, Wilco closed out the night with a barnstorming version of “I’m A Wheel.” After teasing the embers they lit a sonic pyre on a cold night that will burn brightly until their next visit.

Setlist: Wilco (The Song); I Am Trying To Break Your Heart; Bull Black Nova; You Are My Face; One Wing; A Shot In The Arm; Radio Cure; Impossible Germany; At Least That’s What You Said; One By One; I’ll Fight; Handshake Drugs; Sonny Feeling; Hate It Here; Can’t Stand It; Jesus, Etc; Walken; I’m the Man Who Loves You. (Encore 1:) Misunderstood; I’m Always In Love; You Never Know (with Liam Finn); California Stars (with Liam Finn, Eliza Jane Barnes). (Encore 2:) Kingpin; The Late Great; Monday > Outtasite (Outta Mind) > Hoodoo Voodoo; I’m A Wheel.

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(below: Jeff Tweedy at Crossroads, Oct. 6, 2009.)


Review: Robert Randolph and the Family Band (2009)

(Above: Robert Randolph and the Family Band examine the “Man in the Mirror.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kasnas City Star

As the temperature dipped into the low 60s Saturday night at Crossroads, Robert Randolph and his family band mounted a two-front war: against the elements and against early onset hibernation in the crowd.

Pedal steel virtuoso Randolph and his six-piece band immediately conquered the weather. Opening with the buoyant “Good Times (3 Stroke),” Randolph frequently jumped out from behind his instrument to hop around like his own hype man. That proved more than enough to get the blood flowing.

For whatever reason, the band had more trouble winning over the audience. The third-full venue was populated with people who would rather converse and take their pictures on cell phones than dance and listen. The only times the crowd was engaged was when Randolph gave them something to do, like clap or sing. Everything else was background music.

When the night’s first Michael Jackson tribute – “Man in the Mirror,” delivered gospel-style by Randolph’s sister Lenesha Randolph – failed to rouse the crowd, Randolph segued into a John Lee Hooker boogie. Inviting dozens of ladies onstage to shake their hips did the trick during the number, but once the song was over it seemed everyone wanted to talk about what or who they saw onstage.

“Nobody” offered plenty of participation during the chorus and several encouraged call-and-responses.  For a moment it seemed like everything would gel, but mic problems capsized “Gilligan,” scat-vocal number about the Minnow’s castaways played on a square Bo Diddley guitar, and the crowd grew restless with the ensuing jam.

Finally, after 75 minutes onstage, Randolph got the crowd on board. “I Don’t Know What You Come To Do” had plenty of cues to clap and stomp along and the audience joyously obliged. That bled into “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” which teased the riff to “Whole Lotta Love” and featured an organ sound straight out of “96 Tears.”

The second Jackson tribute went over better than the first. Sliding into the melody of “Rock With You” after a brief encore break, Randolph, who has been playing MJ songs long before the King of Pop’s passing, gave the crowd a forum to both sing and dance. The night ended with “Roll Up,” an unreleased number similar to what Randolph had been serving all night. This time everyone was up for it.

Randolph’s upbeat music rocks the middle ground between gospel and funk, and his songs are basically vamps and choruses. His band can ride a groove into the sunset, but when the organ player leaned into his B3 with some gospel chords the performance kicked up another level.

Wearing a silk do-rag, pink tie, dress shirt, black vest, plaid shorts and knee-high black nylon socks, Randolph looked like a cross between LL Cool J and a middle infielder.  If he was frustrated by the distracted crowd, Randolph didn’t show it. He grinned from ear to ear all night, dancing in his seat under the pedal steel or two-stepping across the stage behind a six-string.

When the parade of ladies left the stage after “Shake Your Hips” several of them planted a kiss on Randolph’s cheek. Lost in his playing, Randolph never looked up or acknowledged the gesture. He was wise to ignore the adulation from a crowd that gave little more than lip service for most of the night.

Setlist: Good Times (3 Stroke), Deliver Me, Man in the Mirror, Shake Your Hips, Black Betty, Nobody, Das EFX, Gilligan, I Don’t Know What You Come To Do, Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That, (Encore) Rock With You, Roll Up

(Below: Paper setlists are so passe. Photo by Joe Hutchison.)


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Review: Cake

(Above: An early live performance of “Jolene” for San Francisco’s Fog Town Network in 1994.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Cake’s sold-out performance to open the third season of shows at Crossroads KC was less a concert than an extra-large backyard party.

The Sacramento-based college rock quintet so blurred the line between band and audience that a lot of fans must have felt like they were part of the performance, even if they weren’t all necessarily onstage.The night opened with “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” an easy crowd-pleaser, though to be fair every number aired was greeted with an immediate and visceral response. It’s easy to see why. Every song is built on a surf, country or funk guitar line, bolstered by a serpentine bassline and steady drumming, accented with keyboards or trumpet — the band’s defining instrument — and secured by singer John McCrea’s mesmerizing monotone delivery.

“Frank Sinatra” employed one of the band’s best tricks. After the song’s natural crescendo, the band brought it back down, brought the audience in and built it up again. The move was just as effective when they repeated it later for the rarely played “Satan Is My Motor.”

After closing an hour-long opening set with a great version of “Jolene” (not the Dolly Parton song), the band took a 10-minute break and then returned for another hour of music. They kicked off that set with the instrumental “Arco Arena” and treated the multitude to an extended version of “Italian Leather Sofa.”

Although McCrea had no trouble coaxing the audience to sing, he still worked the crowd hard, prowling the front of the stage and encouraging singing or clapping in nearly every number. The results were frequently impressive. The crowd chimed in so loudly at their cue in “Rock N Roll Lifestyle” that the band repeated the verse, letting the audience carry it, a capella.

McCrea also took time to talk with the audience between every song. He cherished the band’s freedom from major labels, lamented the lack of3/4 time in modern pop music and even gave away the potted tree prominently placed near the front of the stage. Since the band operated sans setlist, they frequently huddled to figure out what to play next (and so they could hear each other over the barrage of requests shouted from the crowd).

The first encore was a bass-propelled cover of “War Pigs,” which the band thoroughly made their own. While Cake’s reading may have been less menacing that Black Sabbath’s, it was more fun, with a trumpet solo and sea of hands raised clapping along at the end.

The night ended as everyone wanted it to, with Cake’s biggest hit “The Distance.” There wasn’t much further anyone could go after all that anyhow.

Setlist: Short Skirt/Long Jacket, Comfort Eagle, Stickshifts and Safetybelts, Frank Sinatra, Wheels, Shadow Stabbing, It’s Been A Long Time (new song), Satan Is My Motor, Jolene. Intermission. Arco Arena, Pentagram, Italian Leather Sofa, Mexico, Opera Singer, Rock N Roll Lifestyle, Daria, Guitar, Never There. Encore: War Pigs (Black Sabbath cover), Sick of Me (unsure if this title is right), The Distance

Review: Wilco Wows at Crossroads KC


By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

In front of a sold-out, rapturous crowd Saturday night, Wilco closed out the inaugural concert season at Crossroads KC at Grinder’s with a perfect performance from a band at the peak of its powers.

Wilco performed as many songs – four – from its first album, “A.M.,” released back in 1995, as its current one, “Sky Blue Sky.” Those albums are different creatures, but the transition was seamless. While the crescendo and subtlety of “Hate It Here” stood in sharp contrast to the straightforward rock of “Box Full of Letters,” the juxtaposition of each song actually made them reinforce each other.

Wilco’s compulsion to explore the dark corners of its songs brought an energy and freshness to the performance. Show opener “Via Chicago” was a perfect balance of power and nuance and noise and melody. The song started quietly, but a cacophony erupted during the chorus when each band member blasted away independently on his instrument before suddenly rejoining the ensemble for the verse.

Nearly two hours after taking the stage the sextet re-emerged for a second encore, which featured the nonstop haymaker punches of “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “I Got You,” “Casino Queen” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” Already excited, the audience was whipped into a joyous frenzy that found many bouncing up and down involuntarily.

If the audience was delirious, the band was having as much fun. Jeff Tweedy broke into a hambone dance during “Hummingbird,” bass player John Stirratt frequently jumped around the stage, and Pat Sansone struck a Pete Townshend pose with a couple windmill strums on his guitar during “Outtasite.” Even the sound guys were bobbing their heads.

The show also demonstrated why in just one summer Crossroads KC has become the city’s best outdoor music venue. The capacity grounds were crowded, but not uncomfortable. The promoters probably could have packed another 100 people inside.

Thanks to loads of fresh mulch laid down by the grounds crew, the turf was firm and dry despite a hard rain that began before dawn and lasted until noon. In an age of skyrocketing ticket prices Crossroads KC has hosted several of the summer’s best performers at prices that don’t require a second mortgage or even a second thought.

The evening ended with a ferocious delivery of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which culminated in a fireworks display and a gentle jab from Tweedy at the opening act at the Sprint Center, just a few blocks north: “Take that, Elton John.”

Set list: Via Chicago/Company on my Back/You Are My Face/I Am Trying To Break Your Heart/Pot Kettle Black/Handshake Drugs/Side With the Seeds/A Shot in the Arm/She’s A Jar/Impossible Germany/Pick Up the Change/Box Full of Letters/Jesus, etc./Too Far Apart/Walken/I’m the Man Who Loves You/Encore 1: Hummingbird/Hesitating Beauty/Hate It Here/Heavy Metal Drummer/Encore 2: Red-Eyed and Blue/I Got You (At the End of the Century)/Casino Queen/Outtasite (Outta Mind)/Spiders (Kidsmoke)

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Review: Taj Mahal at Crossroads


Blues for Tourists and Purists

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Blues legend Taj Mahal put on a performance as grand as his namesake Friday night at Crossroads KC.

The Taj Mahal Trio opened with an instrumental that showcased Mahal’s tasty fretwork. Mahal may not win a notes-per-minute competition, but few musicians are as articulate on their instruments.

From there the trio delivered 90 minutes of great blues that was firmly rooted in the genre’s sharecropping/plantation origins, but wasn’t afraid to detour into world music and pop melodies. The result was an evening that pleased both the tourists and the purists.

The set started strongly with “Done Changed My Way of Thinking,” and “Checkin’ Up on My Baby,” which featured Mahal on a hollow body electric guitar. “Blues With a Feeling” found Mahal seated behind a keyboard and delivering part of the song in French. Mahal’s instrument of choice often played the dual role of both the seducer and the seduced, and he wasn’t afraid to sprinkle dirty old man jokes between numbers or moan in a rasp that recalled Howlin Wolf to make his point.

The highlights came when Mahal strapped on an acoustic guitar and performed, in succession, “Fishin’ Blues,” “Queen Bee” and “Corrina.” He said good night, but within a few minutes he started strumming “M’Banjo” and then led his rhythm section through a spirited “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” and “Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes,” a beautiful pop ballad that in an alternate world would have been a big hit.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the turnout. Crossroads was only a third full — about 700 people — and most of the crowd resembled the lot that used to turn up at the old Grand Emporium. Mahal deserved a wider audience, but those who were there knew they were lucky to be hearing a legend, still in his prime, do what he does best.

Concert review: George Clinton (2007)


By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City got both versions of the funk Wednesday night in the Crossroads.

New Mayor Mark Funkhouser opened the show with a thanks to all who, “Helped a big white guy get elected mayor.”

He was succeeded at the microphone by a guitarist wearing a diaper who signaled the end of Funkhouser’s reign and the beginning of George Clinton’s.

Initially, the show felt like more of an event than a concert. The sold-out crowd drew from nearly every demographic in the city, creating a festival atmosphere, and “Bop Gun,” the second song of the night, had them all dancing.

Clinton’s troupe, Parliament-Funkadelic, also heightened the atmosphere. Between the Diaper Guitarist, Sir Nose, the Pink Pimp and a back-up signer in a gold shirt and crown, P-Funk has enough personality and characters to rival a Broadway cast. Clinton emerged 40 minutes into the set wearing a black track suit and a shock of bright orange hair.

The show started strong, but it peaked after the first hour. After a strong performance of “The Big Payback” in tribute to James Brown, Clinton tried getting a jam started that went nowhere and took too long getting there. “Dr. Funkenstein” failed to reignite the groove and a trip through the “Maggot Brain,” a proto-metal dual-guitar instrumental and Hendrix-laced bass/guitar/drums jam, pulled the show off course.

Fortunately things got back on track in the final hour. A drastically slowed-down blues arrangement of “One Nation Under A Groove” whetted the appetite for “Flashlight,” which was followed by “Freak of the Week” and “Atomic Dog.”

Clinton closed the show doing the Twist, the Monkey and the Swim to a medley of ’50s rock and roll hits. The man who taught a generation how to dance was reveling in the moves that schooled him.

Even though the show was light on the hits until the end, most people walked out happy. At three-plus hours, there was more than enough to please everyone, even if the best moments came with long intermissions.

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Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (2009)