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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.

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Review: Mission of Burma (at MOTM 2012)

Middle of the Map 2013

Review: F*cked Up (at MOTM 2012)

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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)

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Middle of the Map 2013

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(Above: Sarah McLachlan and Emmylou Harris’ duet on “Angel” was the best musical moment of Lilith Fair 2010. The festival stopped in Kansas City on July 15.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The sunglasses every artist wore onstage at Thursday’s Lilith Fair were more than a fashion accessory – they were as vital as the instruments.

For five of the festival’s eight hours of music, performers played directly into the sun. Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson summed up the misery.

“It’s so hot out here I felt sweat dripping down my legs, and for a second there I thought I pulled a Fergie,” she said, referring to the pop star’s onstage pee incident.

The performers had it easy compared to the fans. After their 40-minute sets they could retreat to cooler confines. Fans had fewer options. Many ditched their seats and scrambled to whatever shade they could find. This made an already undersold Sandstone Amphitheater look even emptier.

All facilities past the second section of seating were closed. Drivers expecting to park in the main lot at the top of the hill were directed to the auxiliary lot. Fans with lawn tickets were upgraded to second-tier seats, while those with second-level seats could move down. As the sun shrank the crowd grew, filling most of the seating, but it was rough going for the early bands.

Vedera fared better than most acts. Sequestered to a tiny side stage, several hundred dedicated fans crowded into the awkward space to hear the local band deliver new gems like “Greater Than” and “Satisfy” in their half-hour set. Vedera was the last of three local acts, which also included singer/songwriters Julia Othmer and Sara Swenson.

Emily Haines of Metric, looking hot and bothered.

Metric was the first band to appear on the main stage, and red flag the fact that holding an all-day event in a venue with little no cover was a poor idea. The relentless sun rendered moot any lighting or special effects. When it was finally dark enough for these tricks to emerge, the video screens captured a static image of the Lilith Fair logo, meaning fans in the back had no close-up view of events all day.

The four-piece indie band’s dark synth pop isn’t built for daylight. Sound problems plagued the first couple songs, but what the atmosphere didn’t kill the temperature did. When you’re sweating just standing still, it’s hard to be convinced to dance. Singer Emily Haines did a robotic dance to the Big Brother-esque lyrics of “Satellite Mind,” and prefaced “Gimme Sympathy” with a bit of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My.” Their set was heavy on last year’s “Fantasies,” but surprisingly did not include their contribution to the latest Twilight film, “Eclipse (All Yours).”

Michaelson had better success connecting with the sparse crowd with her jangly pop. Backed by a five-piece band, Michelson bookended her set with ironic covers, incorporating Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface” into her own “Soldier” and closing with Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which featured everyone onstage in a synchronized dance. Both moves drew big cheers. In between, she delivered her hit “The Way I Am,” which recalled Regina Spektor’s quirky vocal phrasing, the bouncy “Locked Up,” and new song “Parachute.”

Halfway through the Court Yard Hounds’ set, Emily Robison found herself in trouble.

“This is a quintessential chick song,” she said, intending to introduce Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight.” The chick the crowd knew, however, was Robison’s main gig with fellow Yard Hound and sister Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks. The unexpected burst of delight flummoxed Robison for a moment.

“No, no, not that chick,” she said, trying to recover. “I mean a hippie chick.”

Robison and Maguire released three Dixie Chicks albums before singer Natalie Maines arrived and turned the group into superstars. When Maines bowed out of making new music, the sisters soldiered on. Their sound hews closer to Americana and roots music than the Chicks’ pop country, but suffers without Maines’ feisty spirit. “It Didn’t Make A Sound” featured a nice honky tonk piano solo, and “The Coast” was a pleasant tribute to the sister’s native Texas beaches, but it was too gentle to engage the crowd.

Sisters Nancy (left) and Ann Wilson, the heart of Heart.

Conversation ceased, however, when the sisters unleashed a furious bluegrass instrumental that had fans on their feet, clapping and stomping along. The set ended with a moment out of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” when Maguire’s 6-year-old twin daughters joined the ensemble, tentatively playing percussion alongside their mother.

Emmylou Harris is the Mother Maybelle Carter of her generation, collaborating with everyone from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Ryan Adams and Lyle Lovett. The artists everyone else on the bill respect as legends, she calls contemporaries. Yet even her distinct, wonderful voice wasn’t enough to sway the crowd. As with most artists during the day, the audience was divided between hardcore fans, politely curious listeners and everyone else, waiting impatiently for their act to appear. The ambitious and diverse bill ended up leaving everyone out at some point during the day.

Harris and her four-piece Red Dirt Band leaned heavily on her 1999 album “Red Dirt Girl,” mixing in the good old country of “Wheels” and “Born to Run” (a Paul Kennerly song, not a Bruce Springsteen cover). The most riveting moments were the a cappella gospel arrangement of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ own hymn, “The Pearl.”

Harris also shared the day’s best musical moment when she joined Sarah McLachlan on “Angel.” These multi-artist bills should have more of this synergy. Witnessing Harris and the Hounds collaborate on a Bill Monroe bluegrass number, or Haines join McLachlan on “Possession” would have been special events fans would treasure long after they had forgotten the heat and the ticket price.

Lilith Fair found Sarah McLachland closed out the day.

It wasn’t until Heart took the stage at 8:45 that the fair had its first galvanizing musical moment. The raucous blast of “Barracuda” eradicated the gentle sway of the afternoon and invigorated a crowd that had traded the sun for the moon and was finally ready to move. Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson delivered a heavy slab of ‘70s rock that had fists pumping and hips shaking. Guitarist Nancy Wilson concluded her acoustic intro to “Crazy On You” with a scissor kick, cueing the rest of the six-piece band. Singer Ann Wilson was in top form, belting the refrain from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” during their own “Even It Up” and easily finessing the dynamics of “Magic Man.”

Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan closed the day nearly eight hours after the first act appeared. The Vancouver native congratulated the crowd for braving the heat and rewarded them with many of her biggest hits, including “Building a Mystery,” “World On Fire” and “Adia.” She needlessly apologized before playing each of her three new songs, but the crowd responded well to those numbers as well.

Here’s a tip to established artists trying to introduce new songs: If you act proud of your new material, fans will be more likely to embrace it. Today’s new song is tomorrow’s sing-along.

The night ended with the gentle lilt of McLachlan’s “Ice Cream” before most of the day’s artists -– including Swenson, who shared a mic with the Court Yard Hounds -– joined together for a joyous romp through Patti Smith’s “Because the Night.”

Setlists:

Metric – “Twilight Galaxy,” “Satellite Minds,” “Help I’m Alive,” “Gold Guns Girls,” “Hey Hey, My My” > “Gimme Sympathy,” “Dead Disco.” Ingrid Michaelson – “Soldier” > “Pokerface,” “The Way I Am,” “Parachute,” “Maybe,” “Locked Up,” “The Way I Am,” “Toxic.”

Court Yard Hounds – “Delight (Something New Under the Sun,” “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” untitled new song, “Then Again,” “Fear of Wasted Time,” bluegrass instrumental, “The Coast,” “Ain’t No Son.”

Emmylou Harris – “Here I Am,” “Orphan Girl,” “Evangeline,” “Wheels,” “Born To Run,” “Calling My Children Home,” “Red Dirt Girl,” “Get Up John,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Shores of White Sand,” “The Pearl.”

Heart – “Barracuda,” “Straight On” “Even It Up/Gimme Shelter,” “WTF,” “Hey You,” “Red Velvet Car,” “Alone,” “Magic Man,” “Crazy On You.” Encore: “What Is and What Should Never Be.”

Sarah McLachlan – “Angel” (with Emmylou Harris), “Building a Mystery,” “Loving You Is Easy,” “World On Fire,” “I Will Remember You,” “Forgiveness,” “Adia,” “Out Of Tune,” “Sweet Surrender,” “Possession.” Encore: “Ice Cream,” “Because the Night” (with most of the day’s perfomers).

Keep reading:

Review: Metric

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Review: Robert Plant and Allison Krauss

Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back

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