Brian Benton's Posts

Brian Benton's Photo I'm a volunteer music writer and music lover in St. Louis.

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Festival review: Major Lazer, Kendrick Lamar, Passion Pit, Kid Cudi, Calvin Harris, Japandroids, Best Coast, Icona Pop and more bring beaucoup talent to Buku Music Festival, March 8 and 9

Major Lazer at Buku Music Festival. Photo by Brian Benton.

It’s 1 a.m. and Mardi Gras World is still kicking. Spring breakers and locals alike are packed tight to see some of today’s top acts in EDM, hip-hop and indie rock. With shows starting at dusk and ending at three in the morning, the two-day festival known as Buku only got more crowded and more rowdy as the night progressed.

The festival sold out far in advance and drew a crowd of mostly twenty-somethings in tanks and shorts, even though until body heat warmed up the rooms, it was pretty chilly both days. Set along the Mississippi River, in the warehouses, ballrooms and parking lots of Mardi Gras World, where many Mardi Gras floats are stored, the industrial setting stood out compared to the usual grassy fields of most festivals. The vibe fit the bill though: Kendrick Lamar, EDM superstar Calvin Harris and the return of hip-hop oddball Kid Cudi all headlined. Other notable acts included Public Enemy, up-and-coming Atlanta rapper Trinidad James and Primus.

In just its second year, Buku’s youth was pretty apparent. Schedules and maps were hard to find, and the few available printed festival guides included some inaccurate set times and map features. In addition to artists spray painting graffiti to auction off for charity, the list of non-musical attractions included a skate ramp and something called “Fort Buku,” neither of which I could find.

The hip-hop and EDM dominant lineup also left the handful of bands that didn’t fit either of those descriptions, like Primus and Best Coast for example, scattered throughout the festival’s three main stages and without the excited crowds they deserved. The wide-ranging stage lineups had their benefits though, especially the fact that for some of the smaller acts, you could show up 10 minutes before start time and get to the very front of the crowd.

My Friday started with 19-year-old Odd Future wunderkind Earl Sweatshirt, performing one of his first solo sets since his return from boarding school in Samoa about a year ago. Despite a big crowd, Earl seemed dissatisfied with his performance. “I feel like the odd man out,” he said in the middle of his set of mostly new songs. Even with special guest Flying Lotus, the show lacked the energy of an Odd Future performance that the dance hungry probably hoped for.

Japandroids and Best Coast both put on solid shows despite relatively small crowds. Japandroids played a 45-minute-set that burst at the seams with fury and energy. The big festival stage gave front man Brian King a chance to run and jump around even more than usual. Best Coast played all their biggest songs — “Boyfriend,” “When I’m With You,” and so on — but fell victim to a crowd that shrunk with each song as fans headed to the main stage for Kid Cudi.

A clear separation took hold between the fans of each genre. I consistently could pick out a few of the same people in the crowd at each genre’s shows, despite the hundreds or even thousands at the stage. Someone with a horse mask on a stick held up from amidst the crowd, (perhaps so his friends could find him) showed at most of the big EDM shows, and a pair of girls repeated threw their own dance party in the back of the crowd during the hip-hop acts. And then of course, there were the people in the regular festival garb — patterned shirts and face paint, for example — who seemed to be everywhere.

On the main stage, Kid Cudi put on one of the best shows of the weekend. A few people I talked to referred to him as a 50-50 performer, suggesting that half his shows are disasters and the other half are spectacular. Buku got the latter. Kid Cudi seemed happy and energetic, and even his newer material from his to-be-released album “Indicud” got a great crowd reaction. He smartly mixed his hits in throughout the set, with “Soundtrack 2 My Life” early in the set, “Memories” and “Day ‘n’ Nite” near the middle, and “Persuit of Happiness” as the finale. I didn’t know what to expect, since Kid Cudi hasn’t performed much recently, but as the set came to a close, he proved he’s back and on top of his game.

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Concert review: Imagine Dragons (with Atlas Genius and Nico Vega) ride the waves of success at the Pageant, Wednesday, March 6

If you’re not familiar with Imagine Dragons, then you probably don’t listen to commercial radio or have a 16-year-old child.

Each year a few bands burst into alternative-rock stardom (think the Black Keys, Young the Giant and Phoenix in 2011, for example) and Imagine Dragons were one of those bands in 2012. There’s a relatively routine pattern, where a band makes music for a while to little notice, a catchy single gets on the radio, they headline a tour around the world, and maybe even include a sold-out stop at the Pageant, and so on. Playing the Pageant, or other venues of its size, seems to be right around the tipping point where a band can either keep ruling the alt-rock world (as the Black Keys are doing), fade away for a while and build anticipation for a new record (as Phoenix are doing) or just kind of disappear all together (as Young the Giant did).

The catchy Imagine Dragons song you’d hear on the radio is “It’s Time,” a throttling arena rock jam full of claps and drum kicks. They have a few others that are gaining traction, notably a song called “Demons,” about overcoming hardships in a relationship and another called “Radioactive,” about realizing your place in the bigger world.

Before Imagine Dragons could perform for the packed house, however, Nico Vega and Atlas Genius did their best to warm up the crowd.

Nico Vega, a quartet from Los Angeles, lined the stage with gasoline barrels that vocalist Aja Volkman spent much of the set standing on — barefoot I might add. The band came close to achieving the grungy, Kills-esque sound you could tell it wanted, but seemed to be missing the chemistry and fire that makes punk work. Atlas Genius, all the way from Australia, played a polished, 40-minute set. The sound was straightforward and clean and caught the attention of the crowd, especially during its final and best-known song, “Trojans.”

Imagine Dragons, with only one full length album, a 40-minute-long tour de force called “Night Visions,” were a bit limited on what they could play. They started with some of their lesser-known songs, which sounded pretty rough. A friend who calls Imagine Dragons one of his two favorite bands leaned over to me about 10 minutes into the set and whispered, “They sound a lot better on the album.” I could not agree more. The balance seemed off, the drumming sounded clunky and the sound as a whole didn’t recreate the vocal-driven, arena rock of “Night Visions.”

Trees with spotlights hanging from them, almost like beehives, and two massive bass drums filled the stage. One of the drums, probably about five feet in diameter, stood just about as tall or taller (stand included) than each of the band members who played it.

For the first half of the set, my favorite moments came when the entire band wasn’t involved. During a song called “Thirty Lives” vocalist Dan Reynolds, bathed in blues and whites from the beehive lights behind him, sang with just a guitar to accompany him. Later, Ben McKee channeled his inner Les Claypool for a bass solo. It wasn’t until “Rocks,” a bonus track from the album, that I really appreciated the band as a whole.

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Concert review: Kishi Bashi (with Plume Giant and Ross Christopher) works his looping magic at the Firebird, Saturday, February 16

Photo credit: Mark Runyon /

Kishi Bashi‘s personality seems to parallel his music, with joyful, lighthearted humbleness despite its complexity. His songs demonstrate an expert level of musical mastery, but he’s still able to laugh and make jokes between songs, and even smile as he played. You could tell he enjoyed performing, and that made everyone enjoy watching him.

Kishi Bashi, who used to tour as a backing musician for of Montreal and Regina Spektor, now makes solo music with live looping, mostly of violin, beat boxing and synths. He creates his songs right in front of you, but the loops come with such fluidity that if you close your eyes, it almost sounds like a full band.

When he played the Firebird on Saturday night, Kishi Bashi, born Kaoru, or K, Ishibashi, did have backing musicians for some songs. Elizabeth Ziman from Elizabeth and the Catapult added some intense, hip-hop style beats on and percussion and Mike Savino from Tall Tall Trees played banjo. I can’t decide if I preferred solo Kishi Bashi, or the songs with a backing band more. Both were stunning.

Ross Christopher, a singer and violinist from St. Louis, opened the show with a quick, 30-minute set. Christopher sounds similar to Kishi Bashi, with layers of loops, but he has a deeper, raspier voice. I felt that he spent a bit too long setting his loops, extending songs that lasted three minutes on an album to seven minutes live, which mainly posed the problem of his beautiful set cutting off after just five songs.

Brooklyn’s Plume Giant performed next, putting on a sweet, soft show that sounded like a campfire sing-along. Their songs varied from traditional Americana to poppier indie-folk, all with playful vocal melodies and delicate layering. They’d missed their sound check and had to tune their instruments as the show went, but provided some cute dialogue to keep the show moving. “We’re actually playing a lot of new songs tonight, in case you’re familiar with our collection and were hoping for the hits,” joked Eliza Bagg, who sings and plays violin and harmonium.

At around 10:30 p.m., Kishi Bashi took the stage. He wore skinny grey pants and a black-collared shirt with two bowties, one around his neck and the other hanging from his pant pocket. He had suspenders, too, but they fell off a few songs in. “In a real world, my pants would have fallen down, but [my suspenders are] what I call ‘decoration,’” he said as his perfectly planned get-up slowly fell apart.

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Concert review: Twenty One Pilots (with New Politics) crash land at the Firebird, Wednesday, February 13 / Amy Gibson

It was a surreal experience walking up to the Firebird at 7:15 p.m. to find a line of 200 people waiting outside to get in. The Twenty One Pilots show started at 7:30 p.m. — the earliest start time for a show I’ve ever been to — and the place was absolutely packed.

I’ve been to sold out shows at the Firebird before, but at this one, everyone seemed to be pushed up as close as possible to the stage, which made it seem a lot fuller than when a portion of the crowd is hanging out by the bar. For a lot of the night, I couldn’t move, but then there were other times when everyone seemed to jump in perfect unison and find pockets to throw their arms up in the air through.

Twenty One Pilots play a mangling of genres, with a bit of rap, a pinch of synths, some pianos and a ton of drums. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to think of who they sound like and searching the Internet for comparisons, but I really couldn’t find any that I agreed with. Many of the reviews I read described the band as “schizoid-pop,” if you have any idea what that would sound like.

After the show, I spent some time thinking about why we go to concerts. Obviously, it’s because we like the music, but the primary reason is to be entertained. I’ve been to concerts before where I didn’t necessarily like the music, but it came across in such a way that it was exciting to watch and I was glad to be hearing it. Twenty One Pilots are one of those bands. There’s so much to see that the music sometimes became secondary, almost like a soundtrack to the performance. That definitely isn’t how all concerts should be, but sometimes it works.

Before Twenty One Pilots came New Politics, a three-piece from Copenhagen, Denmark. They reminded me of Rage Against the Machine, partially for musical reasons but mostly just because of the political angst that ran through their lyrics. Half their songs were about starting revolutions. The set seemed like Occupy the Firebird.

During the third song, when frontman David Boyd asked the crowd to open up a circle, the floor became like a mosh pit without the moshers. He jumped down from the stage to break dance amidst the people. The move showed he was really performing for the crowd instead of just in front of us.

Twenty One Pilots actually exceeded my expectations in many ways, especially in the smart organization of the set. The biggest surprise came when they broke into their biggest single, “Holding Onto You,” only about 15 minutes into the show. I worried they’d just go downhill from there, but to follow it they covered Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” which I think is the only song that wouldn’t have been a downer to hear next.

In addition to acrobatics, like lots of jumping and handstands, a big part of a Twenty One Pilots show is the costumes they wear, full-body skeleton onesies for the first song, “Ode to Sleep,” and later bank-robber style ski masks for a few songs. By the encore, frontman Tyler Joseph was shirtless.

The Firebird’s stage is pretty small, and Twenty One Pilots were limited in some ways with what they could do, so they followed New Politics’ lead and took to the floor. For the encore, the packed crowd opened up again into a circle, probably about 15 feet in diameter, and the band carried three snare drums onto the floor. Joseph and drummer Josh Dun led a 300-plus-person drum circle inside the Firebird. The way the two jumped around the drums, hitting drumsticks against each other, felt almost spiritual, despite the theatrics.

I think if you’re going to listen to Twenty One Pilots, it has to be live. On their recorded album, “Vessel,” you don’t get the same energy and franticness of their concerts. Their live show is the kind that you need to keep thinking about for a while afterwards to make sure you didn’t forget anything (and admittedly, I probably did).

It’s the kind of show that leaves a mark, both in the form of crazy memories and bruises from crashing into the crowd around you.

Concert review: A girls’ night out with Ed Sheeran (and Foy Vance and Rizzle Kicks) at the Pageant, Saturday, February 2

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more out of place than I did on Saturday night at the Pageant. Ed Sheeran, the 21-year-old British singer-songwriter, whose single “The A Team” has over 50 million views on YouTube, had sold out the venue. To my surprise, the ticket buyers were almost entirely teenaged girls.

I started to realize what I’d gotten myself into at around 4 p.m. when the Pageant posted a photo on Instagram of a group of girls who’d been waiting at the venue since 3 to get in — 3 a.m. in the morning, that is. It looked like one of the lines you see when new iPhones are released, except if Justin Bieber were selling them.

Just to give you a sense of how big Ed Sheeran apparently is, on January 29 he sold out Radio City Music Hall, and starting in March he will open for Taylor Swift on a 69-show tour. He’s also expected to perform a duet with Elton John at this year’s Grammys, where “The A Team” is nominated for “Song of the Year.”

At the Pageant, a good number of people in the crowd wore Ed Sheeran shirts, and a few more held up posters declaring their love. One girl even had to be carried out of the pit by security after she fainted; I should point out that I can’t confirm if that was caused by Sheeran-mania.

Since I had arrived late, I ended up in the back, near the bar. That didn’t present a problem though, because aside from a few boyfriends and dads, the crowd stood about 5’4”. The only time I didn’t have a clear view came during “The A Team” when a blockade of iPhones recording video obstructed my view. So if you want to see what all the Ed Sheeran hype is about, there are probably 500 different angles of the song on Youtube you could check out.

The first opener, singer-songwriter Foy Vance, had a deep Irish accent and even deeper v-neck. His rich voice and acoustic guitar were a bit dull, but pleasant to listen to for half an hour.

Rizzle Kicks reminded me of Kriss Kross, if you remember them. They both wore Cardinals jerseys — one David Freese and the other Stan Musial — and performed what I’d call “bubblegum grime,” after the genre of British hip-hop. Their biggest song, “Mama Do the Hump,” comes with a dance move called “The Hump.” I found it very uncomfortable to watch.

Carrying just a guitar, Ed Sheeran took the stage quickly after Rizzle Kicks’ set. By the end of his second song, I realized that much of the time the notes I heard didn’t match what he was playing. Once, he even put down his guitar and climbed a top the speakers, only for the guitar to keep kicking. I soon learned that no, he wasn’t just lip-syncing the whole set. Ed recorded loops live with a foot pedal at the start of each song, mostly of his backing guitar and beat boxing. Once everything started to make sense, the looping really impressed me.

Musically, Ed Sheeran is actually quite talented. He mixes his singer-songwriter style with hip-hop, kind of like Jason Mraz on “The Remedy” or the Barenaked Ladies on “One Week.” The feverish “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” is the best example of this, especially live because he cut twice to actual rap verses, first Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” and then 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.”

Lyrically though, Ed’s not so good. “I’m gonna paint you by numbers / And color you in,” he sings in “Lego House.” “Maybe you’re my snowflake,” he adds in “Wake Me Up.” I also found it funny that when not about love, the lyrics are mostly about drinking and getting high. I don’t expect many of the parents at the show were too keen on their kids belting out, “I’m still drunk at the end of the night / But I don’t drink like everybody else / I do it to forget things about myself.”

As the show went on, I couldn’t really figure out how a musician who covers Irish drinking songs and tunes by jazz and blues icon Nina Simone could have such a saintlike following amongst teenaged girls. I read his biography a few times, looking for that one moment that would explain why tickets to his sold-out show were fetching over $100 on StubHub, but only found humble beginnings and a lot of hard work (he’s played over 900 shows since 2009). That made me like him even more. Maybe next time he’s in town, I’ll even camp out the night before to get a better spot.

Concert review and set lists: Yo La Tengo and Calexico contrast sounds and styles at the Pageant, Thursday, January 31

Jacob Valenzuela of Calexico at the Pageant. Photo by Nate Burrell.

I arrived at a sedate Pageant night club at around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday and comfortably found a spot on the floor in the front row right up against the railing. With 20 minutes to go before Calexico took the stage, I passed the time by counting instruments.

There were six guitars (seven if you count the pedal steel), 10 microphones, two trumpets, a standing bass, a xylophone, a few pairs of maracas, a few keyboards, an accordion and a drum set. When my game of musical I Spy ended, I turned around to realize that the venue was now almost full. The area in the back of the Pageant by the bar was almost as crowded as the stage.

For the next hour, Calexico somehow managed to use every single instrument they brought with them, playing a game of musical chairs by running around to different spots when the music started and stopped. I think the only members who stayed with the same instrument the whole night were drummer John Convertino (though he did take up tambourine and maracas) and vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns, and even he switched between three different guitars. The set’s opener, “Epic,” was truly that, building to the point where it had so many layers that I really didn’t know who I should be watching play. The Spanish lyrics of songs like “Roka” and “Inspiración” added to the music that’s rightly described as “indie mariachi.”

My favorite song of Calexico’s set was “Fortune Teller,” a fairly new composition with smooth vocals, a tango vibe and ghostly “oohs” throughout that almost echoed the Shins’ “New Slang.” Calexico played an impressive set on all scales, and it was just the perfect length.

As for Yo La Tengo, I think I need to approach the set from two different perspectives. First, I’ll address the show I saw; then I’ll explain what I wish it could have been.

The songs Yo La Tengo chose to play sounded spectacular. At times, Kaplan let loose on his beaten-up guitar and exploded into screeching dissonance; that was simply a joy to watch. I loved that the band decided to invite members of Calexico on stage for a good number of songs, adding trumpets and keyboards to songs that are usually just guitar, bass and drums.

Another one of my favorite moments was Kaplan’s quirky dialogue — including the “parental” advice to not be like Ellie Goulding’s fans and instead to bundle up against the cold — as he introduced the band. “Obviously, we’re old,” he said. “Our bands almost 30 years old. Of course we’re old.” I didn’t realize it when I first got to the Pageant, but Yo La Tengo has been a band a decade longer than I’ve been alive. Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are old enough to be my parents.

So, I don’t want to say I left Yo La Tengo’s set feeling disappointed, but I did feel like it was missing something. I had done some research by reading old show reviews, and each one talked about the unexpectedness and creativity of a Yo La Tengo show. For a few shows last year, they brought a game show-styled wheel on stage and used that to pick what songs they played. I didn’t need that wheel, but I still hoped for a greater sense of spontaneity.

One of two covers played, a rendition of the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg,” came in the encore and actually turned out to be one of my favorite songs of the night. Another moment of unexpectedness came when I looked over at the merch booth during Calexico’s set only to find Kaplan himself manning the table. As a whole though, instead of the chaotic show I thought I’d get, the set came off as pretty controlled.

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Concert review: Punch Brothers (with Anais Mitchell) knock out the Sheldon Concert Hall with brilliant musicianship, Friday, January 25

“This is kind of one of our favorite rooms in the whole country,” said Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny as he looked into the sold-out crowd that lined the rows of the Sheldon Concert Hall for this KDHX-presented show.

This evening marked my first visit to the Sheldon; the venue struck me as a little surreal. I overhead a man behind me saying it reminded him of his college biology lecture hall, which is probably pretty accurate (though most lecture halls aren’t this acoustically clear or have such a handsome stage). The building that houses the concert hall also has an art gallery, as well as a gift shop and a ballroom where weddings and other events take place. It’s not your typical concert venue. But then again, Punch Brothers aren’t your typical band.

Cheerful chatter and excited remarks echoed throughout the theater, but as soon as first artist Anais Mitchell opened her mouth, the talkative crowd turned completely silent. Mitchell, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar on stage, played a powerful, fiery 35-minute set that featured a few songs from her 2010 folk-opera “Hadestown,” some from her soon-to-be released album “Child Ballads,” and one that she said she could barely remember because of how old it was. She told a few cute stories, like thinking St. Louis was on the border of Kansas because of the Tom Waits’ lyric, “I broke down in East St. Louis, on the Kansas City line,” but for the most part let her music do the talking.

The simple backing guitar of the songs made it easy to pay attention to the lyrics, which was especially nice because of how beautiful the words were. “Come September” and an untitled new song, probably from “Child Ballads,” had a great snarl and passion in the vocals, but also a sweetness to them. “When I think of my freedom, I feel so lonely,” she sang in the new song. “And when I feel lonely, I want you to hold me, hold me in your arms.”

Punch Brothers took to their favorite stage shortly after, dressed in classic three-piece suits, all with matching, beaten-up leather shoes.

Each member of the band has his own distinct playing style. Guitarist Chris Eldridge stands perfectly still for the most part and looks almost like a marionette who can only move his fingers across his strings. Gabe Witcher rocks back and forth while he fiddles, Noam Pikelny does a sort of glide step with his banjo and Paul Kowert stands wrapped around his bass, almost like he’s hugging it. And then of course there’s Chris Thile, the mandolin-playing, Jude Law lookalike whose animated kicks and electrified shakes seemed more like something you’d see in a punk band than a traditional bluegrass quintet.

They started with “Movement and Location” from 2011′s “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” but quickly broke into a five-minute long jam session, complete with solos from most of the band. While one member showed off his talent, the rest of the band watched in admiration.

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Concert review and set list: Bloc Party (with IO Echo) storms back to St. Louis and the Pageant, Saturday, January 19

Bloc Party at the Pageant. Photo by Nate Burrell.

Kele Okereke, the frontman of Bloc Party, has a rock-star swagger about him, a presence unlike most of his peers. At one point during the band’s show at the Pageant on Saturday night, he just stood at the front of the stage, smirking, and the crowd burst into applause simply because he is who he is.

Bloc Party drifted away a bit after the release of its third album, “Intimacy,” in 2008. The album was relatively well received, but the band made it clear after it came out that it felt no pressure or obligation to record a new album in the near future. The band members went their separate ways, most notably with Okereke releasing a solo album in June 2010, and it seemed like Bloc Party was done for good. In August 2012 though, “Four” was released. It wasn’t their best, but its boldness and new sound showed that Bloc Party still had a fire left in them.

IO Echo, a four-piece from Los Angeles, opened for Bloc Party’s first show in St. Louis since 2007. Frontwoman Ioanna Gika led her band onstage at around 8 p.m., wearing a cloak patterned with what looked like palm trees and horses. She was bookended by a bassist and guitarist who had almost identical shaggy, brown hair. Behind her was a drummer who, quite honestly, I didn’t see much of because the cloak blocked most of my line of sight. They played a 30-minute set of murky goth rock that evoked Blondie covering Bat for Lashes.

Bloc Party’s stage setup was nothing more than four colored squares that resembled an Ellsworth Kelly painting mounted on a glowing blue and grey curtain. At around 9:15 p.m., lights started flashing and a few minutes later, the boys from Liverpool appeared. The two best fashion choices came from Okereke, who sported a white Smiths shirt and Matt Tong, who chose to drum wearing just jean shorts, glasses and sneakers.

The first quarter of the set was a bit slow, and besides old favorite “Hunting for Witches,” didn’t really get the crowd going. For the first five songs or so, Okereke spent a bit too much time alternating between swigs from his flask and his water bottle. During the lengthy breaks between songs though, I did notice some unexpected details: Okereke chewed gum; he’s incredibly muscular; and guitarist Russell Lissack had over a dozen pedals lined up in front of him.

Excitement kicked in right around “Banquet” and “Coliseum,” the ninth and tenth songs. Okereke finally settled on a guitar (he had used four different ones to play the first seven songs) and let loose. “We’re just starting to start,” he said at this point. “Hold on.”

“Coliseum” sounded especially good, with a twangy backing guitar and more soulful tone to the lyrics than some of other more raw, alt-punk cuts. “Octopus,” which ended what Okereke called the “first half of the show,” also stood stood out. Okereke put down his guitar, grabbed onto his microphone and turned on a new sass in his voice and motions.

Bloc Party then left the stage — for what could be described as an intermission — and came thundering back with seven more songs. Okereke talked a bit about St. Louis, including the Delmar Ice Festival that had taken place earlier in the day. “We don’t have that,” bassist Gordon Moakes chimed in. “We’ve just got rain. Rain festival.”

“Ares,” the first song of the first encore, was one of the best of the night. The whole night had a bit of a riot-like fire to it, but nothing sounded more like a protest than when the whole crowd joined Okereke to chant “War, war, war, war, I want to declare a war!”

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