Overheard in the crowd before/during/after Lifter Puller‘s first show in Minneapolis in 12 years, mainly yelled in our ears by the super-excited bro behind us.
“Let’s all freak out!”
“You can do it, Steve!”
“Let’s get fucking incredible!”
“Holy shit, how good was that?”
“Damn it feels good to be young again.”
True, bro, true.
Just thunderous. Rolling, driving, relentless like a storm across the prairie, Heartless Bastards blew in to First Avenue on Monday night and shook the stage for almost a solid two hours. Touring in support of their latest effort, Restless Ones, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom announced from stage, “We’re really excited about our new record, it came out what, two weeks ago? Tour ends up blurring it all together.”
Their set showed no such confusion though, kicking off with fan favorite “Simple Feeling” and then tearing into the new single “Gates of Dawn” for a set that was focused and rarely let up. They alternated throughout the night between established songs, leaning heavily on 2012’s Arrow and new tunes, each one standing up to the next. With Jesse Ebaugh on bass and pedal steel, and Dave Colvin on drums providing a constancy and thrill on songs like “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” and the new “Hi-Line,” the country-inflected rock filed the whole room. For the slower touch of the new “Pocket Full of Thirst,” Mark Nathan’s longing guitar held the crowd in thrall.
Wennerstrom’s evolution throughout the band’s career has given her an enviable and mesmerizing range, from a plain-spoken country warble to raspy rock n’ roll bellow to an almost ethereal incantation. For the last third for the set, surrounded by what may be pound-for-pound the best bar bands you’ll hear outside of a honky-tonk, Wennerstrom Held the center as her bandmates popped up to deliver cheer-inducing flourishes of talent as they moved through roaring tunes like “Low Low Low” and the set closer “Parted Ways.”
Heartless Bastards weren’t quite ready to let it go, though, as they had to make up for not having been through Minneapolis in three years – “Too long!” in Wennerstrom and the crowd’s estimation. For the encore, they wrapped it up with the haunting, pulsing “Tristessa” from Restless Ones, Wennerstrom solo on stage as the reverb washed around her, a powerful benediction from a singular voice.
Another singular voice was on the bill on Monday, although probably more acclaimed for his lyrical intelligence than his musical range. Still, Craig Finn, usually of the Hold Steady, formerly of Lifter Puller, did pull out some new sounds while showcasing his trademark narrative wit while performing in advance of his second solo full-length, Faith in the Future, out this September.
Finn performed all of his songs with an acoustic guitar, joined onstage by Arun Bali on electric guitar providing “atmospherics,” as he called them in a listening party with 89.3 The Current on Sunday night. Finn kicked it off with the new song “Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son,” a heavy recounting of a father seeking some closure at the end of an eventful life, including the portentous line, “There a darkness in my body / and I think I may be ready.”
There were a couple nods to his previous bands, with two tunes from The Hold Steady’s 2004 Almost Killed Me making an appearance in the set, “Modesto is Not That Sweet” and “Certain Songs.” He also brought up Lifter Puller’s Steve Barone for a rendition of “Mission Viejo” and intimating that the upcoming D’4th of July at the Triple Rock Social Club would be a good place to be if you liked that band.
From songs about studio life inspired by his experiences with 9/11 (“Newmeyer’s Roof”) to the lucid dreaming of being on tour (“Extras”) Finn’s incisive, poetic slices of life were wrapped in more gauzy sonic touches than the more straightforward bar-rock of the Hold Steady, but it was in the lyrics that he still had the sharpest hooks. Closing out the night with “Dennis & Billy,” a solo tune about two friends growing apart through addiction, Finn delivered one of his most poignant lyrics about life – “He went for the handle / Got bit by the blade” – in a voice that has seen a lot. But as Finn put it, the new record is about “finding light after darkness,” and the power of music to help that along.
Today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made the right call. The best call. The call for love.
This is important for all Americans, regardless of your sexual orientation, because it’s one tiny step towards the equality the Constitution grants to us as human beings. Not to say that equality has ever been followed to the letter (ahem #blacklivesmatter), but it’s a step, and one that makes us burst with joy and pride for all our friends around the country who can now publicly express their love, if they so desire, by joining the ranks of the married.
…and please never forget these amazing people, who continued and pushed forward the conversation and understanding of what it means to love someone.
Don’t recognize them? That’s Mildred and Richard Loving. In June of 1967, their case ended the ban on interracial marriage. Thanks for the good fight.
…and last, via the lovely Peter Lochner…
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Sean Lennon’s musical project with significant other Charlotte Kemp Muhl, opened up day two of Rock The Garden – the field filled up quickly long before their set started, an impressive feat given the eight hours ahead for concertgoers. It’s easy to see the influence the ubiquitous Lennon Sr. has had on his son musically (anyone else think “Poor Paul Getty” bears a striking resemblance to “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite“?), and it might not help that physically, Sean looks like a carbon copy of his father infused with elements of his mother, Yoko Ono. But, there is no doubt that Lennon the younger has broken new ground and forged a successful music career for himself, staying true to this influence while managing to make it his own. This is perhaps in part due to multi-instrumentalist Muhl and Lennon’s collaborative process. GOASTT has taken the current obsession with light psychedelic rock (think Tame Impala and Flaming Lips) to new levels, with dense and intricate lyrics, and just enough mystique. The set on Sunday was cut off early – met with a booing chorus – and ended with an impressive standing ovation, even from those seated comfortably on blankets.
It’s no doubt that J.D. McPherson has quickly become modern day America’s roots sweetheart – hearkening back to classic 50s rhythm and blues, McPherson and his band fully embrace and embody the appropriation, slicked hair and all (though the hair didn’t last too long in the sweaty heat). They pull at our heartstrings, and on Sunday they showed us what they know how to do and what we love about them; a boogying good time. McPherson is sweet and likeable, with just enough dorkiness to complement his rockabilly performance. His is a simplistic view of classic American roots, but it’s easy to understand how McPherson gets 8,000+ people dancing and clapping along on a blazing Sunday afternoon with that rambling rock n’ roll voice.
Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80 brought some much-needed color to an otherwise monochromatic lineup; it’s about time Rock The Garden feature an artist from the African continent. Like Lennon, Seun Kuti has inherited the legacy of an incredibly influential father, in this case Fela Kuti, founder of Afrobeat and iconic figure in the international music scene, and, like Lennon, Kuti has made a name for himself in his own right.
After an extensive and dedicated introduction of each performer in the band, Egypt 80 introduced the first song with the words “when we came into this world, we were naked, and when we leave, we are naked,” setting the tone for the intensively significant lyrics that are central in most of Kuti’s songs. The entire set was a party, only made more potent by the political and profound words in Kuti’s lyrics; at one moment he empowered us all by introducing a song with the words “I want to inspire all kinds of women…women are supposed to change the world, too.” Full band and drums invited everyone to move in passionate release along with Kuti, though it was apparent that the Minnesotans in the crowd were not entirely sure what to do with themselves. They tried, at least, and the whole hour of Kuti’s set was an uproarious celebration of life, rhythm, and beauty, set against a backdrop of the fading Minneapolis sunset.
To say that this reunion was highly anticipated is a gross understatement. A Babes in Toyland reunion seemed too good to be true (and the trio themselves denied the possibility for a long time), so when the announcement was made that they would be back on stage together for Rock The Garden this year, Sunday’s lineup quickly became a hot ticket for veteran Minneapolis music lovers. I, as a mere 22-year old and non Babes in Toyland superfan (though an avid admirer), felt out of place because I wasn’t totally transcendently overtaken by excitement – I did not have the fortune of growing up during prime Riot Grrrl years. But damn, these women are fierce. It was like they were made to be onstage together, and like they didn’t actually take an 18-year break from performing. Lori Barbero is one of the meanest drummers I’ve ever witnessed, totally in her element atop that drum kit; Kat Bjelland a wolf ferociously howling and shredding her guitar; and bassist Maureen Herman an understated (in comparison to her bandmates) powerhouse. The Minnesotans in the mosh pit lost it, to say the least, and Chris Riemenschneider literally stole my words when he instagrammed a photo of Barbero and Bjelland with the caption “Palpable excitement.”
The closing act for a full Rock The Garden weekend made a thunderous entrance – literally. There were simulated rain sounds, fog machines galore, and thunder – to an engrossed and loving field of fans. This particular act may have been a gamble given that they haven’t performed in a while, but it quickly became apparent that this was no issue. The boisterous orchestration, stellar light show, and theatrics made it a perfect closing set for an outdoor concert; just big enough to make sure we were all engrossed and entertained, but not so big that it was overdone. It became clear that this was the act many people had showed up for. Most songs had pretty much everyone around me singing along passionately, and I even saw several skipping/dancing to the beat down the hillside pathway. Modest Mouse treated us to their hits right off the bat – “The World At Large” and “Lampshades on Fire” – and closed out the evening with an encore befitting of the day – “The Good Times Are Killing Me.
The youngest act to play Rock The Garden to date, producer Psymun and vocalists Bobby Raps, Allan Kingdom, and Spooky Black, collectively known as Thestand4rd, showed their chops to an enthusiastic crowd of early RTG attendees – a telltale sign these kids have already rallied a devoted following. Spooky Black – visibly the most uncomfortable (in the most endearing way) onstage – proved his vocal prowess, droning soulful and slightly haunting melodies over Psymun’s driving rhythms, contrasting Bobby Raps’ driving flow and Allan Kingdom’s signature falsetto. The boys bantered easily with each other, giving just enough back to their audience to keep them engaged. Though they may be relatively new to performing (this is not to say that they haven’t made their mark on the Minnesota music scene already), their chemistry and ease with one another already shows promising potential for the future of this group of genre-blending artists.
Blazing sunshine and 80-degree heat did not deter an impeccably dressed and stylishly symmetrical Lucius from delivering their sweet melodies and sugary pop gems. With immaculately coiffed red hair and matching bright yellow dresses, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig delivered powerful harmonies with ease and grace, backed by Dan Molad, Peter Lalish and Andrew Burri dressed in crisp white suits. Providing just enough oomph to rally a dancing crowd, the group treated us to all of the hits from their Wildewoman, including “Tempest” right off the bat, and closing out with “Turn it Around” and “Genevieve.” With just enough spirit, a sprinkling of sweet banter, and excellent vocals, they showed us what a really good girl group looks like.
I had my doubts about Courtney Barnett. I can now safely say that these doubts have been effectively eliminated. Barnett was meant to be onstage, droning her witty lyrics in that compellingly drawling voice. Her ability to make the most banal statements (“Last week I turned 24/you don’t call me anymore”) seem poetic and of significance has put her at the forefront of the international music scene, and for good reason. At RTG, she proved us right. Barnett has impressive presence onstage, even with her signature deadpan performance (the delivery via those piercing blue eyes may have something to do with it). Finding an excellent balance between ebb and flow throughout her set, she knows when to be on and when to let her guitar or her backing musicians do the talking. If the reviews of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit are any indication, this babe of the contemporary rock scene has much in store
Nebraska native Conor Oberst is a veteran to the Minneapolis music scene, and his appearance at RTG was overdue. By this point in the day, most everyone was pretty drained from the blaring sun, but it became clear that a good chunk of the attendees were here to see Oberst. I’m going to be honest, I’m not his biggest fan. I find his lyrics to be contrived (“We got a problem with no solution/But to love, love, love and to be loved”), his melodies not terribly original, and his voice slightly off-putting, though undeniably unique. I will also admit that I tend to hold white male artists to a pretty high standard. I warmed up to him when he affectionately mentioned his fondness for The Current: “They’re a station near and dear to my heart…because they actually play my music.” He closed the set with “Milk Thistle,” apologizing for playing a “quiet one – it’s a bad one for slam dancing or anything like that.” Frankly, I would have loved an entire acoustic set; this is where Oberst’s voice shone through, his musical talent crooning in harmony with the quiet summer evening.
Scottish indie pop rockers Belle & Sebastian rounded out a full day of music with their addictively sweet tunes. Several musicians supported the set, including The Laurels String Quartet – a group from Minneapolis that recorded the string sections for the bands’s latest release Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance. The first half of set focused on the pop-funk tunes from this album, while the second half brought back many older classics, including “Another Sunny Day” and “Piazza, New York Catcher.” Frontman Stuart Murdoch is the most endearingly awkward human I’ve ever seen on stage – airily bopping around, he embodies the polar opposite of chronic fatigue syndrome, an ailment he suffers from. He also gave us charming and hilarious banter: introducing “Another Sunny Day”, he noted how the song was written on the Solstice when “it never gets dark. You stay up all night and it drives you to a kind of madness, you think about sex all night. I do, at least.”
Murdoch closed out the set by inviting several audience members on stage to dance along with him – the joy was infectious and we couldn’t help but bop along with them, even if we weren’t on stage.
Algiers is huge and you don’t even know it yet. The band may have played to a half-full Triple Rock on Tuesday night, but they sounded enormous and incredibly of-the-moment. Their sound is a roaring doom-dance electronica, layered on with frontman Franklin James Fisher’s gospel-inflected preacher-man cries and guitarist Lee Tesche in a distorted overdrive. Bass and synth player Ryan Mahan started the show beating his hand to his chest with a look of wild-eyed defiance, and that energy was palpable throughout the set, even as he was running through eminently catchy, bouncing basslines that cut through the feedback and fuzz.
Algiers put on a show which rarely let up in energy and featured really no stage banter (“We are Algiers, we’re from Atlanta.”) but played most of their just-released self titled debut, with some added jams, samples and flourishes. The album opener “Remains,” which came in the middle of the set, started off with a double foot stomp and a sharp clap, reminiscent of chain-gang work songs, and drove the point of disaffection home with Fisher extolling, “We’re you’re careless mistakes / We’re the spirits you’ve raised / We are what remains.”
For “Games” frontman Fisher took the slow, sparse tune solo, jamming out an occasional chord on his Fender and sounding like a sorrow-filled bluesman as he wailed out “We bury ourselves in our bottles / We bury ourselves in our bibles / And then you come around singing my house is burning / Why do you come around?” And although the lyrics cut deep and the tone of the show was full of foreboding and anger, “Games” also had the lightest moment of the night when, in the midst of pregnant silence, someone sneezed and Fisher couldn’t help but laugh and bless them.
Pick up the debut record, and put it in rotation alongside D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. That’s the soundtrack of what’s happening in America right now – the tensions of race, disinvestment, anger and power, as told through creative, genre-bending, expansive music. As was intoned in a sample last night, “They care about the black creative genius, but they don’t care about the misery that created that genius.” It’s not easy music, but it is powerful, driven and deeply human. Get it, get into it, and get to the next Algiers show you can.
Irony. Utility. Pretext.
And When You Fall
But She Was Not Flying
It was good, you guys. Immortal, deathless, wizened magicians exploding, lolling, laughing, it was so good. You can read more reviews in The Current, Pioneer Press, City Pages and Star Tribune for the full coverage, but know this: they make it look easy, and that’s astounding. They’ve earned the right to do what they want, be where they are, and thankfully, as Keith Richards put it in his grumbly chuckle, “It’s good to be here. It’s good to be anywhere, really. Heh heh. But here’ll do.” They played so many hits, and were so solid throughout, and yet there were so many songs that they didn’t play, but we’ll take it, because we got a lot of what we wanted, including a gorgeous choir. Let’s do it again soon, you wizards of rock n’ roll, before you all disappear into the smoke.
So, I know I said that I was going to go to new places on this epic Chicago excursion, but sometimes you just need your creature comforts. That is what happened to me last Friday after my event. I worked all day, not having a chance to eat something. So by the time 4 rolled around and I was back in the city, I was starving. I knew exactly what I wanted, and my car took me there.
Kuma’s Corner is a heavy metal bar and burger joint in the Avondale neighborhood. I first heard about it from my friend Kermit, who has in the past shown me the way of deliciousness in Chicago. Kuma’s opened in 2005, and has been a staple in epic Chicago burgers ever since. Things to know about Kuma’s: it is LOUD. The burgers are named after metal bands. They have whisky on tap. You may have to wait up to 2 hours. They do have veggie burgers. It is worth it.
Luckily I was going early enough on a Friday where I knew I could get in and out fast. I had to meet my friend J for a show at 6, so time was of the essence. Especially when you factor in Chicago traffic, which is some of the worst. 45 minutes to get 3 miles? Not unheard of. I rolled in to Kuma’s at about 4:30 and bellied up to the bar.
I know in my heart of hearts I should try something I haven’t tried on the menu. However, I am such a creature of habit when it comes to this place. The first burger I ever had here is the one I get every time. I almost buckled this time and got the burger of the month, but the bartendress came up to me and I ordered my usual. Jameson soda with a lime and the High on Fire.
The High on Fire consists of a hand made pretzel bun (all of the burgers are on pretzel buns) a giant burger with sweet chili sauce, grilled pineapple, roasted red pepper, sriracha and prosciutto. This burger is not to be trifled with, sweet, spicy, perfectly medium rare. They have recently changed their fries, and thank Godzilla they did. They now have hand cut fries that are a perfect accompaniment to their burgers. I will say that they also have a fantastic side salad, the basil vinaigrette they make is to die for.
Post Script: #JBFA
So, I had totally forgotten that the James Beard Foundation Awards were taking place in Chicago this year. My girl Michelle is up for best chef (go girl go!) and she was flying down to Chicago on the last day I was to be in town. Uh-Oh. After work I met up with her and her girls Brennan and Shannon at GT Fish and Oyster. Everything kind of became a blur: but here are some photos from GT, Yusho, and the Soho House. My liver still hurts, but man was that fun. Kinda wish I would have stayed the extra couple of days to hang with these ladies. But I’ll be back in Chicago soon enough.
“This one’s a little more straightforward,” joked Elvis Perkins at Icehouse on Monday night, before playing his new tune “My 2$.” But, he carried on, “it still can be cryptic.” Six years after his last record, it’s good to have Perkins back on the scene, and he really is as cryptic as ever. The new disc, I Aubade is a play and pun in and of itself – an “aubade” is a piece of poetry for the dawn, but it sounds like “I obeyed.” For this self-produced and released disc, Perkins mainly seemed to be obeying himself and his whims, which takes us all over the map. on “My 2$” Perkins channels his early Dylan and writes a biting topical song with lyrics like, “It matters less who I vote for/than what I put my dollar towards.” The performance of “I Came for Fire” was a welcome tune for long-time Perkins fans, with an element of longing and mystery in love, and the satirical “Hogus Pogus” played with porcine wordplay and imagery to set up an unexpected revelation of kindness and love. In all, cryptic and far-ranging, as Perkins has always been.
If there is a criticism of the new record itself, the production can feel over-wrought and layered on, but there was no such problem on stage. Supported by Danielle Akroyd on bass and a variety of synthesizers, as well as a hurdy-gurdy, and Mitchell Robe on keys, the support was just enough to let Perkins’ own sweet, wry tenor to shine through on new tunes and old. The quiet Sunday-night Minnesotan crowd offered little support on a singalong to “Doomsday” but the sharp and spare arrangement of “Shampoo” cut through the crowd to close out the set. It was reminiscent of the first time that I heard the tune, at a hootenanny in the Java Jack’s basement eight years ago, with a rapt audience eager to sing along. In closing out his encore, Perkins included the epic, gorgeous, “While You Were Sleeping” and there more than a few mouths joining in and humming along. If Perkins is making a break for a new day, there is at least the memory of our love, as we decide what to do next.