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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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(Above: Alice In Chains’ new singer William DuVall has no problem claiming “Dam That River.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

As Alice in Chains took the stage Sunday night at the Midland, a large, beating heart was projected onto a curtain. Nearly two hours later, the reformed grunge band proved to the sold-out crowd they were still very much alive.

The band had its foot on the gas and eyes on the rearview mirror. The quartet proved they were once again a going concern by delivering more than half of its new album, “Black Gives Way to Blue.” In turn, longtime fans were rewarded with nearly all of the classic 1992 album “Dirt.”

New singer William DuVall had no problem filling the shoes of Layne Staley, the band’s former lead singer who died of a drug overdose in 2002. While DuVall’s vocals are eerily similar to Staley’s, he puts enough of himself in the performance to prove it’s not just karaoke. In a way, his style recalls H.R. of the Bad Brains. Like H.R., DuVall can be soulful and hard as nails at the same time.

But while all eyes were judging DuVall, there were no questions about who was leading the show. Guitarist Jerry Cantrell was the first member hit with the spotlight, and frequently stationed himself center stage. The band’s chief songwriter, Cantrell sang lead or harmony vocals on nearly as many songs as DuVall, and never failed to elicit cheers with his solos.

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Several times the crowd’s lusty singing threatened to overwhelm the band. Cantrell encouraged the crowd to join in on the chorus of “Got Me Wrong,” but they needed no enticement when the opening line of “Would?” rumbled out of Mike Inez’ bass guitar. Classics “Man in the Box,” “No Excuses” and “Rooster” also turned into massive sing-alongs.

The succession of the three opening numbers on “Dirt” early in the set were so vital and energetic it was hard to believe the material was nearly 20 years old. Later, the already psychedelic “Sickman” was somehow even more trippy, as the band dragged the throng through the sonic undertow.

While Staley wasn’t missed onstage, he was noticeably absent from the songwriting process. Staley had a way of tightening and punching up Cantrell’s songs. Unfortunately, several of the newer songs lacked Staley’s urgency. “Last of My Kind” went nowhere for nearly six minutes. There is an unquestionably great song buried somewhere in the seven minutes of “Acid Bubble.” Unfortunately, it too was content to plod along unchecked at mid-tempo.

While the new material didn’t get the massive responses of the tried and true, they still went over well. There were plenty of hands in the air and heads nodding along to show the crowd hadn’t come out to see a nostalgia act. New songs “Check My Brain” and “Your Decision” should figure into setlists for some time.

It would have been easy for Alice in Chains to take the easy route and cash in. The Doors, Queen and INXS have all lost a charismatic frontman and tried to plug a stand-in into the spot. Alice in Chains have succeeded thus far because they are looking beyond the flannel shirt/Doc Martens set. They’re not preaching to the choir, they’re still looking to convert.

“Sometimes,” Cantrell said, “it takes a few times banging your head against the wall until you finally get through, if you know what I mean.”

Setlist: All Secrets Known, It Ain’t Like That, Again, Check My Brain, Them Bones, Dam that River, Rain When I Die, Your Decision, Got Me Wrong, We Die Young, Looking In View, Down in a Hole, Sickman, Lesson Learned, Acid Bubble, No Excuses, Angry Chair, Man in the Box. Encore: Sludge Factory, Would?, Rooster.

Keep reading:

Concert review: Megadeth

Album review: Chris Cornell – “Scream”

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cover-front-chris-cornell-scream-2009

By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.

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