Concert review: At the Luminary Center for the Arts, the Sea and Cake (with Matthew Friedberger) proves it has nothing to prove, Sunday, October 28

Under dim yellow lights an expectant yet sedate crowd stood waiting. Cans of cold beer and cups of hot tea were set carefully aside as the quartet quietly took the stage and the audience came closer. After a quick and humble hello, the Sea and Cake began to play.

Since the release of its first album in 1994, this jazz-influenced indie-rock group made up of Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt, John McEntire and Eric Claridge has been assembling intricate and, at times, surprisingly heavy compositions for their devoted fans.

The Luminary Center for the Arts provided the stage for this stop on a tour in support of the band’s latest release, “Runner.” Prekop’s airy vocals bled into the music, giving the impression that they were meant to complement it, rather than dominate. Prewitt chimed in at different times and even provided the lead vocals on a few songs, but his main contribution was on guitar. McEntire, also of the band Tortoise, mastered the drums and Doug McCombs filled in for Eric Claridge on bass.

For the first few songs, the four stood calmly on stage, playing oh so seriously. Breaks between songs were silent, devoid of banter with the crowd or introductions of band members. The backdrop was a blank, gray movie screen. Blue lights focused on the four as they played, unwavering.

All of this stark, blank seriousness made the music even more vibrant, interesting and engaging. Almost from the very beginning I had the urge to close my eyes to listen so I could better absorb all the layers and nuance. During the middle of the set, Prekop strummed quickly to produce a metallic ping, ping, ping that sounded like rain drops. Prewitt made the sound of waves during another song and while the rest of the band maintained their staid presence, he suddenly jumped to life as if he was one of those child’s toys where pressing the bottom loosens the string that connects the limbs to the body perched on top, making the arms and legs wilt and contort. McEntire’s skill on his wood-paneled drum kit was highlighted during the last song which had a very Radiohead-like quality to it, incorporating synthesizer and pre-recorded sounds with more organic, spontaneous instrumentation.

After insistent and urgent clapping and cheering from the audience, the band came back out and played a few more. Throughout the show, the lyrics were difficult to discern which could have been intentional, but the sound in the room could have been the culprit. It was similarly difficult to hear the lyrics of opener Matthew Friedberger, one half of the duo known as the Fiery Furnaces. Friedberger came on stage and shared that he wanted to tell us a 40-minute ghost story. And tell us he did, though I’m not certain I understood it.

True to his word, he performed for 40 minutes, without a break, during which time he shot back and forth between two keyboards, making stops in between to talk or sing his tale.

The Sea and Cake — its name inspired by a song called “The C in Cake” by Gastr del Sol — was a pleasure to experience. There was a confidence and certainty conveyed in the music that made me feel like I was in the presence of skilled and passionate musicians. They simply enjoy making music with nothing to prove — because after releasing eight albums and performing shows like this one, there’s no need to prove anything.

Concert review and set list: At the Pageant, Sleigh Bells make music for zombie cheerleaders marching into battle, Sunday, October 28

I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can see the Sleigh Bells stage without risking blindness. What more would you expect from a band with amplifiers stacked to the ceiling than a strobe-lit show jarring enough to induce epileptic seizure?

But it was all worth it, because Sleigh Bells’ thunderous return to St. Louis on Sunday night at the Pageant was rightly met with adulation (and a devil horns headband tossed onto the stage).

Sleigh Bells’ stage aesthetic is driven by its purpose: to play earsplitting hardcore guitar with an equally booming backing track. Enter the two 20-foot stacks of Marshalls, which were not just there for decoration, as several at the bar were speculating. Following opening act AraabMuzik, a DJ with formidable technical skills (actually scratching records instead of mashing playlists), Sleigh Bells’ guitarist Derek Miller, plus one, and his sugary-voiced singer Alexis Krauss triumphantly took the stage amid the crush of “Demons.”

The momentum kept going with “Crown on the Ground” and “True Shred Guitar,” essentially odes to thrashing, banging and stomping as hard as you can. Krauss wriggled out of her spiked leather jacket, skipping back and forth across the stage much like a deranged ex-cheerleader, as Miller and his touring guitarist stalked from side to side ripping as much sound as humanly possible from their instruments. Krauss dedicated the crowd favorite “Comeback Kid” to those of us who saw Sleigh Bells in Columbia, Mo. a few months ago, and those who stuck with the band after they blew the sound system early in a set at the Firebird in 2010.

While the Pageant is clearly better equipped to handle the Sleigh Bells’ sonic tour de force, there was a certain intimacy that was lost on that big stage. Part of Sleigh Bells’ appeal is the connection with the audience: The band is enjoying the show as much as its fans, and onstage Krauss frequently calls to or singles out members of the crowd.

During “Rill Rill” she crowd surfed as a stagehand anxiously hovered onstage, untwisting her microphone cord and helping her back to the stage almost as quickly as she’d left it. Then, because they had started late and needed to make curfew, they skipped the break and delved headfirst into an encore that included “Never Say Die” and “A/B Machines.”

Behind-the-scenes confusion there may have been, but the rhythmic crunch and energy of a Sleigh Bells show is hard to top. Most songs clock in at three minutes or under, lending a frenzied, drive-by feeling to its live performances: the shows are over before you know what’s hit you.

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Concert review: Frontier Ruckus (with Believers and Water Liars) lives up to its name at Old Rock House, Friday, October 26 / John Hanson

Frontier Ruckus writes brokenhearted songs for the lonely. Most think this doesn’t go well with a Friday night, but with some help from their friends they proved that sometimes it feels damn good to feel damn bad.

The Old Rock House saw a healthy collection of good music on Friday night, featuring Believers, Water Liars and the headliner Frontier Ruckus.

The opening band, Believers served up a fine mix of Vampire Weekend and the Strokes-inspired pop-rock tunes. With two swirling guitars, a drummer, a standing percussionist and a highly ornamented bass, they cruised through seven or eight syncopated dance numbers that led all in attendance in a strong foot tap.

Although a young band from Columbia, Mo. Believers’ songs had a mature and practiced sound. Along with the bright “Contra” guitars and the afro-beat bass, the lead singer adds in his gentle bass croon to provide listeners with an easy one-way ticket to dance land. They sure made a believer out of me.

Next on stage was former St. Louis denizen Justin Kinkel-Schuster of Water Liars. If anything on this night was definite, it was that dancing time had stopped abruptly and intense self-reflection and longing had taken its place.

Justin’s howl-at-the-moon vocals and his overdriven semi-hollow body cut right to the heart and exposed the truth and honesty that sometimes hurts. His songs — delivered solo without bandmate Andrew Bryant — were filled with heartbreak and infinite regret as told through the lyrics “I’ll have no more excuses for the way I treated you” in the death-bed song “On the Day.” From start to finish the ride was an emotional one, perfectly preparing the crowd for the looming sadness about to ensue.

The headliners from Michigan, Frontier Ruckus, put on a near perfect show. While echoing sounds of ’90s college alt-rock and sentiments of the Cure, their banjo-and-guitar-driven songs created a warmth that was perfect for the chilly fall night waiting outside of the venue walls. Their veteran status showed continually throughout the performance and quieted any hushed attempts to criticize.

The boys from the North Country played a polished set of tunes spanning five years, four albums and another full-length set to be released on January 29 of 2013. The new album, “Eternity of Dimming, consisting of 20 tracks, is a nostalgic paean for things that are lost for many of us — childhood, the ’90s, starter jackets, rug burns and birthday parties at Little Ceaser’s.

They also rocked well-knowns “Mona and Emmy”, “Ontario” and “Silverfishes” from their earlier alt-Americana catalogue. All of these songs featured musical backing as beautiful as the heart-straining words of lead singer and lead writer Matthew Milia, who at any point during the show, gripped by the emotion, would drop down to his knees with his Epiphone guitar by his side.

Matthew’s lyrics were somewhat difficult to crack into upon first listen but they command a second listen, and a third and a fourth. His voice honest combined with his colorful language to paint an intimate picture of his hometown and his years before this one.

The show peaked with the final three tunes: Frontier Ruckus stripped down, unplugged their gear and migrated to the middle of the floor. During the folky, night-inspired “Dark Autumn Hour” the venue floor became a campfire pit and the audience old friends that grew up together. Matthew led the crowd in a series of hushed sing-along “ohs” and head bobs while banjo, guitar and melodica rang out and feet stomped in unison.

Concert review: Roaming the indie seas with Freelance Whales and Geographer at the Firebird, Friday, October 26

Freelance Whales at the Firebird. Photo by Caroline Philippone.

Young people packed the Firebird to hear two much-hyped indie bands: Geographer and Freelance Whales.

Geographer, from San Francisco, opened with a set of synthesizer and drum-led songs. Michael Deni’s wistful-sweet lyrics conjured an ’80s, space vibe. Think Byrne in an astronaut suit, tinkering with gauges on a space ship, while serenading Earth over a drum-heavy, Kubrickian score.

“Verona,” from 2010′s “Animal Shapes,” featured multi-part layering, cello accents from Nathan Blaz and Brian Ostreicher’s well-miked and performed drums. “Night Winds” grew from a spare and contemplative beat to include cello and crashing guitar. Geographer closed with “Paris” from “Animal Shapes”; the audience cheered as Geographer rolled out the song’s intricate beat and silky synthesizer play.

After a set break, Freelance Whales took the stage, opening with “Aeolus,” the first cut off 2012′s “Diluvia.” The song twinkled beneath frontman Judah Dadone’s ornate lyrics. In call-and-response fashion, faraway vocals from the entire band slipped into the mix like phantoms. “Land Features,” was bombastic, with a celebratory chorus and a stuttering drum part by Jacob Hyman.

“Generator (Second Floor),” from 2009′s “Weathervanes,” found multi-instrumentalist Doris Cellar singing harmony and squeezing a harmonium, as multi-instrumentalist Chuck Criss thumped along on a bass. The audience applauded the popular song, happy it was performed early in the Freelance Whales’ set. “Ghosting,” sung by Cellar, was a nice reprieve, featuring a low-tempo vibe and sleepy lyrics.

With a dash of the New Pornographers, “Spitting Image” returned the energy to 10, complete with band-wide “Ooo’s, Ooo’s,” and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Read on glockenspiel. The Twitter-famous “Generator (First Floor)” drove the audience into a frenzy, the sound evolving from banjo and a stomping rhythm into a monosyllabic tapestry of vocal work. Parallel to the song’s spirit of waking and seizing the day, Dadone sang, “We get up early just to start cranking the generator…”

Throughout the entire evening, Freelance Whales maintained an impressive level of sonic-verisimilitude to their studio work. Few bands achieve such achingly beautiful versions of their recorded material when performing live.

“Red Star,” from “Diluvia,” gently rocked, like an eerie lullaby, while “Locked Out” had a taught, island quality emboldened by Hyman’s drumming. The song indulged in a crescendo that conjured “Yoshimi…”-era Flaming Lips. “Hannah” retained all its tasty prime-time-TV majesty, and caused the hardcore fans to swoon.

The band’s collective vocals again shone, with not one note out of place. One of my personal favorites, “Location,” stood tall with countrified strumming, thick synthesizer and Dadone attempting to sense the “location” of his love. After the Sting-styled “Dig Into Waves,” Freelance Whales closed with “Emergency Exit,” a heady ballad with rising and falling synthesizer and another huge full-band crescendo.

Freelance Whales encored with “Broken Horse,” “Starring” and “DNA Bank.” Each song trumped the one before, save “DNA Bank,” which rung out as a reprise of every sound Freelance Whales brought thorough out the evening.

Concert review and set list: Minus the Bear puts on plus-sized show at Plush, Friday, October 26

Minus the Bear at Plush. Photo by Kelsey McClure.

Minus the Bear performed on Friday night at Plush for a crowd that was mostly human.

Exceptions could be made for the species of individual wearing a bear costume. He was in fact, a young man clad in an anatomically correct bear suit (fangs hung from the jowls extending from his headwear) that covered him head-to-toe in shag carpet-length brown fur.

When asked “Why the suit?” he responded, “It’s a Minus the Bear show, I had to even things out!” Later on, he was overheard using the same reason on another investigator. The curious youth was male, intoxicated, and the precise model needed to show who comprised 80% of Minus the Bear’s crowd. The other 19% were voting-age women, and, because it is not fair to call anyone that dedicated to giving grizzlies their moment “human,” one percent bear.

A few people could be seen turned away at the door. Whispers of this being Plush’s first sold-out show were compartmentalized. It certainly felt like it. If not for the crowd, fragrant with beer sweat and embodying “rowdy,” then for Plush sending around a young woman with waffle cones full of French fries and popcorn — a trick nabbed from baseball stadiums to placate the hungry I had never seen applied to a Plush-size music venue.

The packs of people that surrounded Plush’s four bars pre-Minus the Bear’s entrance caused a five-to-seven minute wait, and it can be inferred from the waffle cone-toting vendor that Plush’s kitchen was equally swamped. In addition to the polite bar masses, and the lady with snacks, an orca-sized merch table stood adjacent to Plush’s stage. Packed with Minus the Bear posters, shirts and records, it was fit for a spacious, outdoor venue and was a reminder of the fans Minus the Bear has accumulated in the past decade. The sheer number of fans made walking towards the stage feel like an other-worldly experience.

The energy given off by the audience felt combustible. Audience members were loud, liquored up and, under anticipation’s influence, buzzing like a broken amp. When Minus the Bear walked on stage, with synth-maestro Alex Rose lighting their way with a flashlight, the audience cheered with Bonnaroo-level volume.

The band opened with “Steel and Blood” off 2012′s “Infinity Overhead” and barreled through their set list for over an hour with a level of constant energy sustained by deft song choices. Songs bled from one to the other to create a plot like the cardiograph of a healthy heart. The constancy of its energy never wavered with fatigue. When the track “White Mystery” from “Planet of Ice” appeared, and its slinky tempo matched the ultra-sensual subject matter, it was absorbed into “My Time” from 2010′s “OMNI” like it had flown into a black hole. It existed for a moment, but only to guide one song into the other and build a set with expert flow.

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‘You look through the cartoons and find the best one and put it on a record’ An interview with Les Claypool of Primus

It’s safe to say that just about everyone knows Primus. You might not own every disc or have seen the band live, but you’ve probably caught a video on MTV for “Mr Krinkle” or “My Name Is Mud,” or maybe you’ve caught one of bass player/singer Les Claypool‘s many side projects. 
Primus’ sound is instantly recognizable. The crazy characters in the songs are framed by Claypool’s voice and the jagged expertise that brings the instruments all together. Primus was everywhere in the ’90s before they took a break. A couple of tours in the 2000s had the band performing full albums, even as other side projects kept the members busy, until reforming in 2011 for their first full album in more than a decade.
Claypool called me the afternoon before playing a show in Philadelphia last week to discuss the history of Primus, the art of the bass and more. Primus returns to St. Louis on October 28 for a show at Peabody Opera House.
In case you were wondering, the highlight of this writer/DJ’s month was answering the phone and hearing a Northern California accent say: “Nick, this is Les Claypool.”
Nick Cowan: Les, what’s the inspiration behind the 3D/Quad Sound show? What makes it different from a regular Primus gig? 
Les Claypool: Well, a handful of years ago a buddy of mine purchased ILM’s modeling department from George Lucas. He worked for them for many years and started a company. Well, he changed it to “Kerner Optical,” and we had our offices in the same building. They were working on all this 3D stuff: 3D television, 3D converter boxes, 3D cameras. He was always taking me in and showing me what they were working on. I’ve done these New Year’s Eve shows in San Francisco for 20 years, and every year is a theme. I was playing the San Francisco Opera House one year and thought, “Let’s bring in this 3D thing and see if we can do that.” We did it and it was amazing, hugely successful. 
On “Green Naugahyde” my manager said, “Hey lets do that 3D thing you did a few years ago.” We looked into it and they’ve advanced their stuff quite a bit. We put a package together and now we’re out playing in front of a bunch of imagery that shoots out into the audience. 
That sounds awesome.  
It’s pretty incredible actually. Unlike going to IMAX or seeing a movie in 3D, you’re seeing a lot of stuff you wouldn’t normally see. It’s more visual effects like textures and whatnot. It’s much more psychedelic than anything anyone has probably ever seen in 3D. 
It sounds like a 3D version of the light shows, plasma-like lighting that the Grateful Dead had back towards the beginning. 
Yeah, it’s very much like that. There is some stuff that’s landscapes, fly-throughs and things like that. A lot of our experience is improvisation, and there’s a lot of psychedelic wandering and meandering musically so I wanted something that was going to be different every night. We have artists out by the soundboard that are manipulating these machines so that the visuals are different every night, along with our set. 

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Album review: Dave Gunning mints new, earnest folk on ‘No More Pennies’

Dave Gunning
“No More Pennies”
Wee House Music

Sometimes with new albums, as is the case with Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies,” it’s as much about the packaging as it is the music.

First the music: Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In “Living in Alberta” we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work. “A Game Goin’ On” is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of “Coal from the Train.” Gunning also covers homesteading (“The Family Name”), rootlessness (“All Along the Way” and “Too Soon to Turn Back”) and the lone musician (“The Weight of my Guitar”).

The production is fine, the instrumentation is lovely, and there are some very nice moments here. But “nice” is a word that cuts both ways, and it’s hard to get past the studied earnestness of it all. “These Hands” includes a chorus of fifth graders, a bold decision given that it can backfire quite spectacularly. Gunning is hoping for moving, but the result falls closer to Hallmark.

The challenge that Gunning doesn’t quite meet is that it’s not only that we’ve heard these themes and concepts before; it’s also that we’ve heard them done more ably.

Allister MacGillivray’s “Song from the Mira” does what “Living in Alberta” does, but the former lets us see the tragedy, even if we’ve never been to the Maritimes, and imagine it for ourselves. Hockey is a common theme in the Canadian songbook, and it’s hard to add anything to what has gone before, including Jane Siberry’s “Hockey,” which in many ways provides both the first and last word as far as pond hockey goes.

And now the packaging: As CDs are poised to go the way of gramophones and 8-track tapes (CDs are oft rumoured to be on the way out, possibly sooner rather than later), one thing we’re going to miss is the kind of jacket design that “No More Pennies” has. It was created by Michael Wrycraft, a brilliant designer based in Toronto. He has had a long, celebrated career as an album designer, in part because his work is so varied, so beautifully adapted to the projects that he works on (for fans of cover art, you can waste quite a bit of time looking through Wrycraft’s archive).

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Concert review: Swans (with A Hawk and a Hacksaw) descend on the Firebird, Tuesday, October 23

The line at the door of the Firebird snaked through the parking lot. This was the first sign. Then — the smiles, the excitement, no one worrying about not getting in — a sense of fate in the air.

Then, everyone making it inside for the Swans show, beering up, eyeing the crag of instruments looming, knocking around dreams and rumors of set lists (“Christoph Hahn just had a smoke with us, said, ‘We’ll do ze title track, zen an old one, zen a new one — one hour 45 minutes, exact. . . .’”), something began happening onstage.

The sound of Jeremy Barnes’ hammered dulcimer sucked all other sound from the room, sounding like myriad rattle-cage voices quivering through amps. Immediately, opening band A Hawk and a Hacksaw established the tone of the night: power through sincerity and space. Barnes and violinist Heather Trost play it straight — even their virtuoso finger-work and ascending solos in 11/8 come across humbly — but because of their lack of embellishment, and the solid energy of their music, I fully immersed myself in the sound.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw takes most of its cues from many Eastern European folk traditions, weaving a set of traditional songs and originals seamlessly. Their dance numbers featuring accordion and violin created a soaring feeling at times, and their ballads pushed away the walls of the room. Barnes and Trost had a fine sense of dynamics and tone — their instruments came through the amps angelic instead of distorted. Trost wove her voice through with vulnerability, but not overwrought emotion.

Swans’ six members appeared quietly, like ghosts out of a forest. After a roar from the crowd, a ubiquitous hum grew out of the amps onstage. Michael Gira swayed like a crazy lion, letting his band heap up the inertial textures of their music. Then, he sang, “To be kind, to be kind, to be kind, to be kind. . . .” His voice would command everything for the next two hours.

As the ambient swell continued to build, Gira sang, “To be lost in the sound of this rooooooom.” This was his purpose: forget what you’ve heard, forget the emotional and physical shit you’ve brought to the show, forget what Swans was long ago because if you’re here, it’ll only benefit you to experience here. When the song erupted into sustained one-chord bursts, repeated for nearly four minutes, it seemed Gira was hammering this point home.

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