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(Above: Big Head Todd and the Monsters burn down the house with the mellow, jangly “City on Fire.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Less than four months after swinging through town in their rootsy Big Head Blues Club guise, the Colorado quartet Big Head Todd and the Monsters delivered a full-on rock show Saturday night at Crossroads KC.

February’s show at the Midtown was a tribute to Robert Johnson, complete with guests like celebrated blues sidemen Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. Although the most recent show didn’t have all of the former’s trappings and production, it still felt like an upbeat homage to the blues and the Monster’s influences.

The 100-minute set featured a couple Johnson numbers, both rearranged to the point that it’s doubtful that Johnson’s ghost would recognize them as his own. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” rested on a loping bassline until the end. The band seemed to change its mind at the coda and switched to a more traditional arrangement that served them well.

The best numbers were the ones that traded the band’s effortlessly smooth sound for chutzpah. Frontman Todd Park Mohr showed surprising grit and gravitas tackling John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. It is no coincidence that the show’s two highest moments pivoted on the readings of “Smokestack Lightnin’” and Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” and “Boom Boom.”

Several numbers, such as “Sister Sweetly” and “Back to the Garden,” mined the electric organ and wah wah guitar sound of Parliament/Funkadelic. “Neckbreaker” combined the lyrical style of Jimi Hendrix with the chaotic bridge from “Whole Lotta Love.”

Other surprising facets of the band’s sound included John Mellencamp on “Dinner with Ivan” and Bob Dylan and the Band on the excellent “City on Fire” and “Rocksteady,” which used the same chord progression as “All Along the Watchtower.” Keyboard player Jeremy Lawton frequently channeled Steve Winwood or Ray Manzarek. His beefy parts helped the lofty choruses soar even higher.

The Monsters work hard, but their sound is so polished that even when Mohr is powering through a solo the overall performance still sounds laid-back. It’s hard to be offended by the band’s understated pop melodies, but it’s also hard to get too excited about them. Ergo, the lawn at Crossroads was barely a third full, at best. Everyone there was either a die-hard fan, or didn’t have anything better to do.

By the time the house lights briefly came on before the encore, it seemed everyone who wasn’t a big-time fan had long moseyed to the exit. Those who remained, however, were treated to two of the band’s biggest and best numbers, “Broken Hearted Savior” and “Circle.”

Setlist: All the Love You Need; Sister Sweetly; Come On In My Kitchen; Dinner With Ivan; Bittersweet; Last Fair Deal Gone Down; Neckbreaker; Smokestack Lightnin’; Cashbox; Helpless; City On Fire; Back to the Garden; Under A Silvery Moon; Dirty Juice; Conquistador; Boogie Chillen/Boom Boom; It’s Alright; Rocksteady. Encore: Broken-Hearted Savior;  Circle.

Keep reading:

Review: Big Head Blues Club

Review: Jack Johnson

Review: Pete Yorn, Ben Kweller

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(Above: Cake’s newest video is called “Sick of You.” They definitely seem tired of the lifestyle.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It won’t be hard to spot John McCrea on Friday night. The lead singer and chief songwriter for the alt-rock band Cake will hold center stage in a night of music in the City Market.

Seeing him in the future, however, may be more problematic.

Concerned with the direction of the music industry and unwilling to make a living by touring alone, McCrea is seriously considering a second career as a farmer.

“When I look five to 10 years in the future, I don’t see myself able to afford to make a living as a musician,” McCrea said. “We just spent 2½ years on an album, which is a significant investment. I’m not willing to do that again if people are just going to take it against our will, play it a few times then move on to the next thing to consume.”

Although celebrity musicians will always exist, McCrea said, midlevel, working-class bands like Cake may cease to be if there’s not reciprocity between fans and artists.

“Touring is a grueling thing to do, and if that’s a musician’s only source of income it means they can never come home,” he continued. “I have a family. I hate touring, and if there’s no other option I’ll get out.”

Fans can rest easy for now, however.

When Cake’s sixth album, “Showroom of Compassion,” debuted at No. 1 last January, much was made about the fact that it had sold fewer copies than any previous chart-topper.

What people missed, McCrea said, was that it sold roughly the same number of copies in its first week as Cake’s previous release, “Pressure Chief.”

This consistency is even more remarkable considering seven years had passed between those albums, years marked by turmoil in the record industry.

“We watched everyone stop paying for music during those years (between albums),” McCrea said. “The joke in the studio was that by the time we were finished nobody would be buying music anymore.”

Cake had a solid run of Top 40 hits in the 1990s, including “The Distance,” a cover of “I Will Survive,” “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s sardonic spoken/sung lyrics became the band’s calling card. Radio airplay combined with constant touring earned the band a cult following.

“So far I’m happy with what’s happened with this album,” McCrea said. “It tells me we have a relationship with our fans, and they trust us to go out on a limb and buy something without hearing it.

“I know when I was a kid I didn’t have that much money, and sometimes you’d buy an album and there’d only be one good song on it. I learned to be careful, but at the same time I learned that other artists always seemed to put out good records and knew I could trust them. We try very hard not to waste our fans’ time or money.”

The California-based quintet still toured during their recording hiatus — they stopped in Kansas City several times — but for the main part the group’s focus was on extricating themselves from their contract with Columbia Records and setting up their own shop.

“I don’t think a major label is a good place for a band like us,” McCrea said. “Since music is now free, the industry needs to economize and go out to dinner less. We didn’t want to have to pay for all the waste at a label.”

After testing the waters with a 2005 rarities and B-sides collection, Cake decided to self-release “Showroom of Compassion.” Liberation and success instilled a newfound sense of confidence, and for the first time in a while all of the band’s members were excited to contribute.

“Democracy is a slow process,” McCrea said. “There were a lot of disagreements, but we found our way through. Unlike past albums, everyone is completely happy with how this one turned out.”

A band at a crossroads, Cake is considering setting up an annual summer event similar to Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival or Cracker’s campouts. Cake tested the concept several years ago with its own multi-artist Unlimited Sunshine Tour, but the idea of staying in one place appeals to McCrea.

“I guess by definition fewer people would be able to see it,” McCrea said, “but I travel enough as it is.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cake

Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Cake

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(Above: Cracker perform “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” at Crossroads in Kansas City on July 6, 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, David Lowery was riding high. The underground band he started in 1983 had attained major label success, and his new band, Cracker, continued to ride that wave. His songs “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were all over the radio and MTV.

This year, Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band they founded together out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker has come full circle, operating in a landscape that eerily mirrors the early days of Camper Van Beethoven.

“To me the real story isn’t that we had bit MTV and radio hits in the early ‘90s,” Lowery said, “but how the band kept going after that for 15 years. We’ve done it by cultivating a loyal following that exists away from the rest of the industry.”

Cracker’s model of relentless touring, taper- and fan-friendly policies and annual weekend destination festival should be instantly recognizable to any jam band fans.

“We all got it from the same place,” Lowery said. “I remember back in Camper (Van Beethoven) days telling people we had more in common with the (Grateful) Dead than the punk scene. Out of all the jam bands, I don’t know how many played with the Dead, but we did.”

David Lowery (second from left) and Cracker perform a free concert tonight on the KC Live! stage in the Power and Light District. Start time is listed as 8 p.m., but bands usually go on much later.

The Dead invited Cracker to open for them in 1994 at their annual stand at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Lowery remembers well his meeting with Jerry Garcia.

“Apparently when I met Jerry he had just come out of a porta-potty. I went to shake his hand, but the only thing I could think was ‘there’s no sink in there,’” Lowery said. “Jerry told me he totally loved our song ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ and was trying to work up an arrangement so the Dead could play it. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get it done.”

Camper Van Beethoven emerged in the early ‘80s, in the Southern California underground rock scene, but didn’t fit comfortably. They definitely weren’t punk and too quirky to be mainstream. Over the course of five albums, Lowery and his band mates carved their own niche. Similarly, Cracker came up in an era where they were too poppy for grunge and too much of a country influence to rest beside other rock bands. In 2000, Lowery revived Camper and splits his time between bands.

“The music business has gone all the way back to where we started, where we had to do a lot of stuff independently, within our own organization,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t a challenge for me, because I learned how from the Camper Van Beethoven days. When the labels started coming apart, we always knew what to do.”

In a way, Lowery and his bands have always operated both on their own and on their own turns. The window of high-profile success was so brief they didn’t consider changing how they worked.

“The alt-rock bubble or financial bubble,” Lowery said, “where any band together for more than two weeks and three shows got signed was such a brief period in the 20 years of Cracker and my 27 years of recording that it almost seems like a fluke. There was hardly time to adjust.”

After seeing Internet entrepreneurs being praised for the books they wrote about their five-year-old businesses, Lowery decided he might have something to say about his 27 years in the music business and started working on a book that’s part memoir and business manual.

“People give record labels way too much importance in their minds,” Lowery said. “I learned some things doing research for my book. Like, very few labels last more than 10 or 15 years. Most collapse or are absorbed. The average lifespan of an A&R man (a talent scout who works as a liaison between the label and artist) is less than four years. The people who have been around a long time, that have all the experience, are the artists and the managers.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Concert Review: Cracker and others at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)

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(Above: The Replacements always went out of their way to defy convention. While other acts were turning music videos into high-budget mini-movies, the ‘Mats responded by giving MTV a nearly static, continuous shot of a speaker for their “Bastards of Young.” It works.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Sometimes at a concert, if you’re lucky, the room will fade away and the music will ring out twice as loud. Your spirit attaches to the notes as your soul hovers, if only for a moment, one with the sound.

These are the moments music fans live for. They can occur in arenas and outdoor sheds, but they’re most likely to appear in small, sweaty spaces where strangers are forced to jostle and celebrate in uncomfortably close proximity.

“All Over But the Shouting,” an oral history of the Replacements by Jim Walsh, is a book of such moments. By forgoing the traditional narrative voice, Walsh lets the fans tell the story of their favorite band. Through their accounts, you can feel the group’s egotistical hesitancy at early gigs at the Longhorn bar and 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The quartet didn’t quite have the magic yet, but they could feel the potential, and hoped the elements would coalesce in time to produce.

The first-person accounts take readers behind the scenes, to conversations with junior high and high school classmates, and men and women who caught each other’s eyes for the first time, like ‘Mats lead singer Paul Westerberg and his future wife, Laurie Lindeen. The text crackles with the energy of early enthusiasts like Emily Boigenzahn. She appears early in the book as a major ‘Mat’s fan, only to have the band pull the rug out from under her when they hire her father, Slim Dunlap, to replace founding guitarist Bob Stinson. After hearing her champion the band so frequently, her heartache is especially resonant at learning her dad is now in her favorite band.

Walsh admits his fanboy bias in the preface, but let’s detractors and critics weigh in. Fans, especially long-time devotees, are never shy about pinpointing the precise moment the band lost the plot in their eyes. Walsh is especially deft handling the firing of Stinson and original manager Pete Jesperson, weaving historic quotes and news stories with contemporary interviews. Walsh is also frank in his treatment of the ‘Mats final days, when Westerberg and bass player Tommy Stinson were the only founding members left in the lineup. Walsh lets lame-duck drummer Steve Foley gush about the gig, but doesn’t sugarcoat the end of the reign.

The only time Walsh’s approach lets him down is on the creative side. We hear plenty of stories about where people were the day an album came out or when a song was released to radio, but very little on Westerberg’s songwriting process. This deficiency is especially glaring in the pages dealing with the band’s transition from their second album, “Hootenany,” to the more realized “Let It Be.” Westerberg’s writing matured significantly during that time, but we have no glimpses into what may have occurred to spur this growth.

The book runs past the end of the band, letting fans weigh in on Tommy Stinson’s current gig with Guns ‘N’ Roses, and giving Westerberg (through secondary sources) and Dunlap speculate on the chances of a ‘Mats reunion (not good). Walsh is at his finest during the 50 poignant pages covering Bob Stinson’s final days. Friends, random people Stinson befriended at bars, his last girlfriend, and even Stinson’s mom paint an unvarnished picture of Stinson’s post-Replacements life, his generous spirit and addictions. Walsh’s longtime relationship with the band shines as he places these remembrances in context alongside news stories he wrote at the time, other local coverage and the eulogy Walsh delivered at Stinson’s funeral.

As with most stories, a hint of melancholy runs throughout the book, but it is never overshadowed by the glorious free spirit of the music.

“All Over But the Shouting” assumes the reader already has a working level of knowledge about the band, and therefore may not be the best read for newcomers. Beginner’s just discovering the band through the song “Alex Chilton” after its namesake’s passing are advised to put in some time with the ‘Mats catalog before wading in. For longtime fans, “All Over But the Shouting” is nearly as enjoyable as hearing those classic ‘Mats recordings again for the first time.

Keep reading:

Review: “The Oxford American: Book of Great Music Writing”

Review – “Record Store Days”

(Below: A more traditional video from the band’s final days, “Achin’ To Be.”)

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(Above: Mount Righteous play in the street back in 2008 when they had a guitarist in the lineup.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

There must be something in the water down in Dallas/Fort Worth. After spawning the uber-upbeat indie rock choir the Polyphonic Spree and singer-songwriter St. Vincent the town presents yet another indie band from the fringes: Mount Righteous.

The exuberant nine-piece collective sounds like a cross between John Phillips Sousa and the Shins. The unique sound is intentional, said founder and drummer Joey Kendall.

“We knew since we were such a big band, we wanted to be able to play without a PA,” Kendall said. “Since we weren’t going to be using mics and amps, we got a hold of brass instruments.”

The normal lineup of bass/guitar/drum was thrown overboard for brass, woodwinds, accordion, melodica and bells. Adding further distinction to their sound, everyone in the band sings in unison.

“We do that so we don’t have to use mics, but everyone can still hear us,” Kendall said. “That said, we just wrapped up recording our second album and there are some solo vocals on there. In concert we’ll use megaphones for that part.”

Mount Righteous’ off-the-grid approach means the band can literally play at the drop of a hat. Since forming in 2007, they’ve crashed SXSW by parading in the street, played in a D/FW metroplex, and marched just outside of Mexico at Borderfest.

“We want to be prepared to rely only on ourselves,” Kendall said. “There’s a feeling of freedom that comes with knowing we can play whenever and wherever.”

On Saturday, Mount Righteous will bring their show to The Brick in Kansas City.

“This is our second visit to Kansa City,” Kendall said recalling the band’s May, 2008, performance. “There’s a good vibe to the Brick. Since we book our own tours, we look to places that have already booked us. We met some cool people there last time and are looking forward to seeing them again and hopefully make some more friends.”

When Kendall started corralling members for his new project several years ago everyone had standing obligations to their own bands. Eventually, though, Mount Righteous started taking priority.

“I’ve always viewed this as my main focus,” Kendall said. “But it took several years of work for the band to be worth doing full-time for everyone anyway. You need a lot of shows and a couple records under your belt before you know what you’ve got.”

Unlike the Polyphonic Spree, Mount Righteous is a true collective, with everyone in the band contributing lyric and song ideas. Although some musicians might feel constrained with such an unusual array of instruments, Kendall feels relieved.

“I think if we used the standard, traditional guitar lineup it would be overwhelming. There are so many ways you can write a song on guitar,” Kendall said. “Whereas there are hardly any pop songs written with these instruments.”

Kendall concedes that its unusual that so many unconventional bands have come from his neck of the woods, but doesn’t think Mount Righteous isn’t doing anything others aren’t.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in community collective bands,” Kendall said. “There were bands like that in Grapevine (Texas, the band’s hometown) even before Polyphonic Spree. What we’re doing isn’t that new of an idea. We just might be better at getting things organized and going on tour.”

The show: Mount Righteous go onstage at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21 at The Brick, 1727 McGee. Visit http://www.thebrickkcmo.com/ for ticket prices and further information.

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