Social Distancing Spins – Day 32

By Joel Francis

Today’s entry puts us at 200 albums in the quarantined exploration of my record collection. Don’t worry, there is still more than enough to keep us busy until well after a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered and dispersed.

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (2007) It took a while for Sky Blue Sky to grow on me. I admit I was pretty underwhelmed at first. I had seen Wilco several times in support of their previous album and was expecting something raw and bleeding based on those shows. What I got was considerably more mellow and gentle. Once I got past my expectations, I was able to appreciate what Wilco had crafted, rather than what I thought they should have done. Guess who had the better vision.

Many of Sky Blue Sky’s finest moments have become concert favorites. “Impossible Germany” is a great showcase for guitarist Nels Cline’s formidable talents, while “Shake It Off” provides an opportunity for the band to show off their tight-but-loose jam chops. My favorite song is “Hate It Here,” a deceptively cheery song about a person learning to live without a longtime partner. The Wilco catalog is stocked with great albums, but Sky Blue Sky makes a sleeper case for being one of the best of the bunch.

Scott H. Biram – The Bad Testament (2017) Scott H. Biram is like hearing a preacher who got caught doing something dirty and decided to go whole hog down the dark path. A one-man band, Biram sits at the crossroads of folk, blues and country with plenty of hellfire and brimstone to go around. On his sixth long-player, Biram moves between acoustic and electric guitars and mixes in snippets of televangelists between tracks. If you’ve ever succumbed mightily to temptation and prayed just as hard for salvation, you know where Biram is coming from. Buckle your hat and put this on.

George Harrison – Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1978) The fifth album from the Quiet Beatle after the split is a lukewarm affair. The first song, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” opens with a popping bass funk riff that always makes me take a second look at the label and make sure this is actually a George Harrison album. Unfortunately, the second cut is limp, failing to build any momentum from “Woman.” This is the album’s biggest problem. There are some good songs, but they are sunk around listless tracks. The strongest run comes on the second side with the run of “True Love,” “Pure Smokey” and “Crackerbox Palace.” If you put these songs with the three good songs from the first side you’d have a solid EP. That’s six out of ten good songs, a fantastic batting average for baseball but far too low for a Beatle.

Phosphorescent –  Muchacho (2013)

The Lone Bellow – Half Moon Light (2020) The Lone Bellow have always sounded more southern than their Brooklyn roots imply. For their fourth album the trio let more of the indie rock sound from their native borough creep into the mix. Likewise, Phosphorescent frontman and Huntsville, Ala. native has always had more than a little Williamsburg hipster in his brand of country music. Although Half Moon Light and Muchacho were recorded several years apart, they share a complementary vibe and kinship.

The best moments on Muchacho include the triumphant “A Charm/A Blade” and “The Quotidian Beasts,” which sounds like Calexico produced by Daniel Lanois. “Song for Zula” has been all over the place, but I like it best as the music over the credits for the very underappreciated indie romance film “The Spectacular Now.”

Half Moon Light is a similarly sturdy album. Among the stand-out tracks here are “Friends,” the horns and harmony assisted “I Can Feel You Dancing” and the tender “Dust Settles.” If you ever wondered what David Gray might sound like with a touch more country in his repertoire, these albums are for you.

The Flaming Lips – 7 Skies H3 (2011) A while back, the Flaming Lips, Oklahoma City’s finest psychedelic rock export, recorded a 24-hour song, slipped it on a thumb drive and stuck them a real human skull. 7 Skies H3 is a one-hour distillation of the best moments from that experiment. You know, in case you didn’t want to spend a day of your life listening to the full song or want a human skull. (Or maybe a second one. If you already own two, you are likely a voodoo priest. Would a third really matter at this point?)

As expected the results aren’t typical three-minute singles. All the tracks are either instrumental or feature heavily processed vocals. I wouldn’t play it for a backyard cook-out, but as a psychedelic exercise, it is quite good. My favorite moments include “Battling Voices from Beyond,” an aggressive track propelled by tympani and the closing ethereal two-for of the title track and “Can’t Let Go,” the closest thing to a traditional song on the album.

Top 10 shows of 2010

(Above: Gil Scott-Heron performs “We Almost Lost Detroit” in concert. His June 20 performance at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., earns an honorable mention as one of the top shows of the year.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jonsi, April 22, Liberty Hall

Sigur Ros concerts have a sustained emotional intensity matched only by Radiohead’s events. On his own, Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi ratcheted the passion even higher. The 80-minute set focused only on Jonsi’s solo release “Go” and a few outtakes. Although the material was original, the textures, delivery and emotions echoed Jonsi’s other band, including a climax that was one of the most sustained and forceful moments in which I’ve ever had the joy of being included. Read more.

Emmylou Harris, July 18, Stiefel Theater, Salina, Kan.

Four days after delivering a short set in the blistering heat to the Lilith Fair crowd at Sandstone Amphitheater, Emmylou Harris took her Red Hot Band to tiny Salina, Kan. For two hours she gave an intimate set in a theater slightly smaller and slightly newer than Kansas City’s Folly Theater. The set reprised many of the songs performed at Lilith – including a beautiful a capella rendition of “Calling My Children Home” and Harris’ hymn “The Pearl” – a lovely tribute to her departed friend Anna McGarrigle, and other gems spanning her entire career. Harris’ enchanting voice captivates in any setting. Removed from the heat and placed in a charming surrounding it shined even brighter. Read a review of Lilith Fair here.

Pearl Jam, May 3, Sprint Center

Nearly all of the 28 songs Pearl Jam performed during its sold-out, two-and-a-half hour concert were sing-alongs. Kansas City fans has waited eight years since the band’s last stop to join in with their heroes, and the crowd let the band know it. Near the end, Eddie Vedder introduced Kansas City Royals legend Willie Wilson by wearing a No. 6 Royals jersey. Vedder later invited onstage wounded Iraqi war vet Tomas Young, who appeared in the documentary “Body of War.” With Young in a wheelchair to his left, Vedder performed “No More,” the song the pair wrote together. During the encore, a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic bobsledding team, joined the band on bass for “Yellow Ledbetter.” As the song ended it felt like the evening was winding down, but guitarist Mike McCready refused to quit, spraying a spastic version of Jimi Hendrix’ arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Sept. 21, Midland Theater

An ice storm and obscurity kept many fans away from Sharon Jones’ previous show in the area, a January gig at the Granada three years ago. With those obstacles removed, a crowded Midland Theater audience witnessed a soul revue straight out of the early ‘60s. With a band rooted in the Stax sound and a performance indebted to James Brown and Tina Turner, the diminutive Jones never let up. Jones only stopped dancing to chastise over-eager fans who kept climbing onto her stage. The tight, eight-piece horn section provided motivation enough for everyone else to keep moving.

Flaming Lips, Jan. 1, Cox Area, Oklahoma City

The year was less than an hour old when the Flaming Lips provided one of its top moments. After performing their standard 90-minute set, complete with lasers, confetti and sing-along versions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Then more balloons and confetti ushered in the new year. The Lips celebrated by bringing opening act Star Death and White Dwarfs onstage for a joint performance of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety. Read more.

Izmore/Diverse – Like Water for Chocolate Tribute, March 19, Czar Bar

Combining hip hop and jazz became something of a cliché in the 1990s. The results typically only hinted at the union’s potential, and didn’t satisfy fans of either genre. Ten years after Common released his landmark album “Like Water For Chocolate,” a hip hop album that paid tribute to jazz, Afro-beat and gospel with the help of Roy Hargrove, Femi Kuti, Cee-Lo Green, J Dilla and others, some of Kansas City’s finest artists decided to celebrate the anniversary. MC Les Izmore delivered Common’s rhymes while the jazz quartet Diverse provided innovative and imaginative new backdrops. The result was both jazz and hip hop at their finest, with neither form compromising to the other. Read a feature on the event here.

David Gray, March 17, Uptown Theater

After releasing several solid albums in obscurity in the 1990s, David Gray finally broke into the mainstream at the turn of the century. As his tours grew bigger and catalog became richer, a Kansas City date remained elusive. On St. Patrick’s Day, Gray finally satisfied a ravenous capacity crowd with a two-hour set sprinkled with the songs that made him a household name. Songs like “Babylon” and “World To Me” are written well enough to make the show memorable, but the passion and energy Gray and his band invested in the night made this an amazing night for even this casual fan. A strong opening set from Phosphorescent made the evening even better. Read more.

Black Keys, June 4, Crossroads

The Akron, Ohio, garage blues duo opened Crossroads’ summer season with a sold-out night that focused on their latest effort, the spectacular “Brothers.” Drummer Patrick Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach were augmented with a bass player and keyboardist on several numbers, but their trademark sound remained unaltered. Read more.

Public Image Ltd., April 26, Midland Theater

On paper, fans had a right to be cynical about this tour. After embarrassing himself with a handful of half-assed Sex Pistols reunions, Johnny Rotten recruited two new musicians to reconstitute his Public Image Ltd. project. Although Rotten was PiL’s only consistent member, and his current X-piece band had never played together before, they managed to flawlessly replicate the band’s finest moments. The Midland was embarrassingly empty – the balcony was closed, and the floor was less than half full – but Rotten played like it was the final night of the tour in front of a festival crowd. Read more.

Allen Toussaint, Jan. 8, Folly Theater

Seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint has been writing, producing and performing hit singles for more than 50 years. His songs include “Working In A Coal Mine,” “Mother In Law,” “A Certain Girl” and “Get Out Of My Life Woman.” Toussaint performed all of these numbers and more in what was remarkably his first concert in Kansas City. His own remarkable catalog aside, the evening’s high point was an amazing solo version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” Read more.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Concerts of 2009

Top 10 concerts of 2008

Review: David Gray

(Above: A 2006 performance of “Freedom” at Hammersmith Apollo Theater in London. When David Gray returned to the song at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, it was one of several stand-out moments during the show.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

David Gray rewarded a decade’s worth of patience Wednesday night at a sold-out Uptown Theater. The English singer-songwriter broke through in America with the release of his album “White Ladder” in 2000. Gray has released three additional albums since then, but this was his first performance in Kansas City.

The set stopped just shy of two hours, and drew almost exclusively from those albums, tipping slightly toward last fall’s “Draw the Line.”

The crowd didn’t need a reason to get excited, but Gray gave them incentive anyway, pulling out heavy hitter “Sail Away” early. Directing the audience into the chorus with a broad sweep of his arm, the performance felt like an encore. It was the second number of the night.

Once he held the crowd, Gray never let them go. Or rather, the crowd never let go of him. Even quiet numbers were assaulted with proclamations of love and song requests.  The opening chords of “Babylon,” the song that likely introduced a lot of the audience to Gray, drew an evangelic fervor. Arms were waved and voices raised as the congregation celebrated every syllable of the song.

A couple times early on, Gray shook his head and wiped his face as if to shut out the relentless adoration, but the performances were too strong to be capsized by the overzealous assembly. Much of the credit for this goes to Gray’s four-piece backing band.

All of the members save one were lined up on the lip of the stage, adding further intimacy to the evening. Positioned at extreme stage left, drummer Keith Prior was the secret weapon, adding urgency and energy in all the right places, yet knowing exactly when to back off.

On “Now and Always” bass player Robbie Malone added a great bass line to Gray’s wailing harmonica that left the song sounding like a train in the distance. Guitarist Neill MacColl contributed great slide guitar to “Be Mine” and “Fugitive.” He also delivered especially nimble line on “Nemesis.” Behind them all, keyboard player James Hallaway was the subtle glue that held everything together.

Shifting from guitar to piano, Gray was spectacular regardless of the setting, be it the spare, solo piano of “Ain’t No Love,” the hushed acoustic guitar of “Kathleen,” or an epic full-band performance like “Freedom.” Whatever he played and however he delivered them, Gray’s songs all bore a certain similarity. Many of them started at a glacier’s pace. Like an iceberg, they didn’t appear to be moving, then would suddenly tower over everything, overwhelming the surroundings with their strength and beauty.

With touch of echo on the vocals and a starry backdrop, “The Other Side” seemed to be emanating from the Flint Hills. It was one of the more powerful performances of the night, but “Nemesis,” the next number, was even better. As thin beams of light bounced off a mirror ball and sprayed into the space, Gray closed his eyes and threw his arms out over his guitar as if healing the room. Meanwhile, everyone prayed it wouldn’t be another ten years until his return.

Phosphorescent: This pleasant, low-key act from New York was the perfect complement to Gray’s asthetic. The quintet’s 30-minute set caught fire with a pair of Willie Nelson covers: “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Reasons to Quit.” Unfortunately, just when they started to build momentum, time elapsed. They would definitely be worth a closer look in a smaller venue, like Davy’s Uptown.

Setlist
Draw the Line; Sail Away; Jackdaw; World To Me; Now and Always; Kathleen; Babylon; Be Mine; Stella the Artist; Slow Motion; Freedom; Ain’t No Love; Fugitive; The One I Love. Encore: This Year’s Love; The Other Side; Nemesis; Please Forgive Me.

Keep reading:

Review: Mutemath

Review: Wilco returns to the Crossroads (2009)

Review: No Doubt, Paramore