Willie Nelson Live at Starlight Theatre

 

Aside from the house lights fading down and cheers erupting into the cool summer night air, country legend Willie Nelson’s on-stage entrance at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre was gloriously unceremonious. Coming after a riveting set from rising alt country artist Jason Isbell and Alison Krauss’ nostalgic bluegrass affair, Nelson’s work was austere from the start. Opening with “Whiskey River”, he firmly stood in place with his weathered guitar Trigger and nasally sang “whiskey river don’t run me dry” before his Family Band had set up on stage. Rather than dwell on the slinky vamp of “Still is Still Moving to Me”, he spit out lines like they were last rites. At 81 years old, Nelson has every right to play up his legend. He could coast on past glories and no one would blame him. But not once in his near two-hour show to a sold-out crowd did he kick up his cowboy boots.

When classics came, Nelson never lingered on them for long. Most artists would anchor sets or close with a song like “Funny How Time Slips Away”, not Willie. He has enough songs for 20 shows and is blessed with the luxury of tossing out greatest hits like they were garbage. He didn’t afford the bluesy ballroom number its proper denouement; choosing instead to leapfrog into the aching “Crazy”. I personally prefer Nelson’s effort to the Patsy Cline affair and last night reminded me why. His punctured whine fully conveys the desperation of “I’m crazy for trying” and live the line is devastating. But even “Crazy” wasn’t allowed to luxuriate at Starlight. Nelson and the Family obliterated it into dust with the walloping “Night Life”. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica wailed and Nelson soloed with the steely-eyed intensity of a contract killer. The admission “it ain’t no good life” would’ve been toothless without their full-committal.

While Nelson and the Family’s allegiance to the material was mesmerizing throughout, the show’s middle was the most spellbinding. “Georgia on My Mind” brought the crowd to a reverent hush with just the wobbling incantations of “Georgia, Georrrgia.” Bobbie Nelson’s work on the keys was punctuated, affording Willie room to sweetly sing his old song. In the right hands the number has the power to stop anyone in their tracks and it was clearly in the right hands with Nelson.

It was “Always on My Mind” though that truly won the night. If the phrase “hindsight is 20/20″ didn’t exist before Nelson cut his version of the Brenda Lee song in 1982, it would’ve been invented shortly after. Few song narrators have ever sounded as wrecked as Nelson in “Always on My Mind”. Everything he should’ve done was blindingly obviously, but he ignored all of it. Watch Nelson in the song’s rudimentary video. Around the 1:40 mark his eyes repeatedly look away after he confesses “I just never took the time.” It’s the look of a man who knows he’ll never get her back. She had every right to leave and fully executed said right. Despite the song being set to a slightly slower tempo live, Nelson kept in that nervous flitting. More than his defiant soloing in new track “Bring It On” or picking in the eerie border town tune “I Never Cared for You”, his nervousness was the most bone chilling. For a master wordsmith, it’s oddly hilarious that what left the biggest mark was a simple action.

“Odd” is what has best described Nelson since the beginning though. Crossing over from Nashville songwriter to singer in the early 1960s was “odd.” Releasing an insular concept album about a murderous preacher and having it go double-platinum is “odd.” Ending the night with the one-two punch of goofy pot ode “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and Hank Williams country gospel standard “I Saw the Light” is “odd.” He’s not “The Red Headed Stranger” as has long been suggested. He’s genuinely strange. And without his peculiarities, country music would be far less interesting.

(Originally posted on AllFreshSounds)

Angel Olsen Live at the Riot Room

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Angel Olsen’s set at Kansas City’s Riot Room in Westport was one of blissful contradictions. Before the show even began, Olsen asked for “a little more vocals,” as if her spring-loaded cannon of a voice needs extra amplification. In between tales of lost time and vacant lovers, she warmly asked for a beer with an “appreciate ya” attached to the end. Fuzzed-out brawlers and barely strummed wailers managed to coexist in the same intimate space. Similar to her terrific second LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness, Olsen’s set was both bristly and tender.

It was the tenderness that captivated the crowd first. Soft splashes of tambourine accompanied opener “Free”, which found Olsen keep her fingers tightly crossed for “pure love.” While “Hi-Five”‘s rural trod picked up a few paces, Olsen continued to ruminate on making a lasting connection. “All I ever need is someone out there to believe,” she lonesomely sang as the tightly packed crowd nodded along. Whatever dark alley she wandered down, the audience was eager to follow. And few roads were as pitch-black or rocky early on as “Drunk And With Dreams.” Olsen nearly shred her voice to promise “I’ll be the one, I’ll be the one,” each facial shiver making the promise seem more real.

For someone so frequently guarded in song, Olsen’s on-stage presence was remarkably candid. She gave tips on fiscal beer drinking: the higher the alcohol content the less you have to drink and offered Duchess Sour is “how I feel about myself some time.” As the night continued, that openness spilled over into the band’s songs. Rather than whisper what song should come next, Olsen half-yelled “you wanna do “Forgiven/Forgotten”?” to her guitarist. Even with the cat out of the bag, the Burn Your Fire For No Witness-highlight still bulldozed the enthusiastic crowd and wracked Olsen’s voice as she screamed “I don’t know anything, but I love you.”

Such transparency is what allows for a song like “Miranda” to exist. Whether or not it’s an autobiographical tale is irrelevant, constructing a song around a partner’s knowledge their other half is with another is devastating enough. Throughout the course of the entire night, the 2012 track came closest to pure country. When Olsen asks “what lover is waiting up for you tonight,” the question keeps up the embattled tradition of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Further clawing, she slowly realizes every nice thing that was said may have been a white lie.

Songs such as foot-stamper “High And Wild” and “Sweet Dreams” helped to temporarily ease these sobering realizations. The latter stole into a world of reverie, a world where warped, flanging guitar was more mushroom-fed than whiskey gulping. In “Tiniest Seed”, brushed drums painted Olsen’s tortured references to time in a warmer light.

But some things can only be avoided for so long and by the time her band left her alone on the dark stage, it was becoming clear which half of the contradiction had won out. Save for one lone wolf, everyone in the audience looked dead ahead as Olsen delivered an astounding version of “Unf***theworld”. When she warbles “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end,” it’s one of the most arresting musical moments of the year. An old manner insists “begging is undignified,” though Olsen imbues the indignity with tremendous courage. In that instance, the breathless crowd wasn’t intently focused on Olsen because she was the last one standing. Like Olsen, they were praying for peace of mind.

Arcade Fire Live at the Starlight Theatre

(Arcadefire.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One word that springs up whenever Arcade Fire is discussed is the word “communal”. A word hinging on the idea that their heartfelt, headstrong music provides a place for those on a similar wavelength to get together and feel safe. Each rallying chorus or pointed line doesn’t simply sound good; they throw a life-preserver out to those drowning. Even in Arcade Fire’s darkest hours, a strange hopefulness pervades. You can find inspiration in the mere fact that through such horror they’re still able to stand on two feet. More than indie rock or chamber pop, what the Montreal-group trades in is: survival music. And that survivalist-mentality was on full display at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre last night.

With the stage bathed in purple lights, a brash clip of “Who’s the F***ing DJ?” blared over the speakers; assuring the crowd the party they’d been promised was soon to follow. Scrawling electric guitars slowly contorted into opener “Here Comes the Night Time”, which had been revamped with squiggly synthesizer movements. The track began the search for community; taking the party to the streets once heaven is found to be at max-capacity. Whatever dancing the opener offered, became a lurch for the paranoiac “Flashbulb Eyes”. Before the song lead-singer Win Butler enjoined the crowd of nearly 8000 to “dance in the aisles,” though few could dance to such a skin-crawling number.

Frantically strummed, Funeral‘s “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” sought a flicker of light in the crisp night air. Though with the bright glockenspiel of the album-cut obliterated, the task became impossible. Three songs in and any chance at community-building had shattered like glass. Thankfully penultimate Funeral track “Rebellion (Lies)” swiftly followed to provide catharsis for weary onlookers. As Régine Chassagne giddily bashed away on piano, the crowd willingly obliged every chant of “lies lies.” Any condemnation of citizen-malaise fell away, leaving behind a muscular pop song for the masses.

From that point forward, no matter the subject matter Arcade Fire connected with the crowd. Spoon-fed by a mourning piano, “The Suburbs” left both Butler and the audience yearning to turn back to a time when things came easier. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”‘ lithe disco-step and glowing neon lights had Régine Chassagne imagining a bright utopia buried under urban chaos. By the time the crystalline electronics came out for a final time, it was clear Chassagne found her paradise; a place where ribbon-dancing isn’t met with even the slightest guffaw.

While “Sprawl II”‘s disco bubbled beneath the surface, “We Exist”  came strutting onto land. Spiked with guitars, “We Exist”‘s relatability comes in its anxiety. Few things are as miserable as being forgotten, something the song struggles to prevent. While you can take attention-seeking too far, another person’s simple assurance is our lifeblood. It relaxes us. It bonds us when we feel like we’re separate from everyone else.

Sometimes those connections can become strained. Leaping out of the gate like Usain Bolt, “Ready to Start” openly considered upsides to “being alone.” Anchored by Jeremy Gara’s in-the-pocket drum part, Win Butler summoned the strength to ask “can we still be friends?” a question most never pose when they hit a wall. Riding a magnificent glam-rock bassline, “Joan of Arc” heads toward disaster by promising “I’ll follow you,” but stops just short of stalking. “It’s Never Over (Orpheus)” picked up the fraying thread and stretches it to its thinnest point. The line “I will sing your name until you’re sick of me” delivered by Butler (Orpheus) to Chassagne (Eurydice), who was out in the concrete aisles, is at once knowing and foreboding. Imbued with a knowledge the end is nigh, Orpheus continues to insist “it’s never over” as if repetition of the phrase can stave off the inevitable. In that way, he’s no different than anyone who’s struggled to find the words to change course.

The heartrending “Afterlife” acted as the epilogue to this great tragedy. All of the love once shared vanished and left Butler wondering “when love is gone, where does it go?” It’s a question that’s impossible not to ponder. There’s no real magic in the world so every disappearing act can be explained. Love begins in the heart and mind, but where does it end? Butler posits the afterlife as an answer though he seems unsatisfied. Our idealized afterlife is too perfect of a place to let love die. However perfection can be a burden. Love is so blissful in this physical realm because it’s imperfect. It can wither away. Relationships can dissolve into screaming and shouting. Sure we agonize over it, but that agony can be overcome and turn into joy.

For the encore, which came after the confetti cannons of “Reflektor”, the band finally conquered these universal trials. Arriving “all the way from the Internet”, Arcade Fire’s “The Reflektors” persona came to play a seemingly off-the-cuff version of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind”, a trick they’ve been pulling quite often on tour. Soon enough, a high-spirited Butler interrupted the mask-wearing imposters to inform them “that’s a Kansas song and we’re in f***ing Missouri,” an admonishment that elicited an enthusiastic roar from the revitalized Starlight crowd. And after “Normal Person”‘s faux rockabilly and Win Butler’s affable “how to do you do’s” to those in the first few rows, that enthusiasm crested on the wave of Funeral‘s tour-de-force “Wake Up”. Other songs in their oeuvre have had greater chart success, but “Wake Up” has cemented itself as a de facto fan-favorite. Between Tim Kingsbury’s Telecaster strum at the start and the sanguine violin near the end, there was room for the sold-out crowd to chant the mesmerizingly simplistic chorus. If the entire night could be seen in the frame of a party, “Wake Up” was the next morning. Instead of waking up with a headache, you wake up with hope. You want to venture back out into the world because it has so much to offer. Cutting back through the grass parking lot after the show, that’s all I could think. Whatever happened from there didn’t matter because I’d found my connection; I wasn’t alone.

Nine Inch Nails Live at the Sprint Center

(Photo Brian Davidson/ Special to the Star/ KC Star)

In my review for Nine Inch Nail’s restless comeback album Hesitation Marks, I noted Trent Reznor spent much of the album’s run-time turning down the heat on past towering infernos, “until only a flickering blue pilot light is left”. The band’s searing two-hour set at the Sprint Center last night danced between the tiny shimmer of a lighter and a raging fire threatening everything in sight.

Jittery “Copy of A” opened up the night and Reznor was instantly caught up in his own groove, hurling across the stage like a feral animal. Follow-up “1,000,000″ smashed the opener into the “pieces of pieces of pieces” the squiggly song could only suggest, Reznor delivering the numb “I feel a million miles away, I don’t feel anything at all” with half-clenched teeth. Pretty Hate Machine warhorse “Terrible Lie” further escalated the aural onslaught. Every off-kilter guitar riff unleashed added additional black eye to an already bruised body.

Akin to the new LP, much of the show’s downtime was unexpected. “March of the Pigs” central question “doesn’t that make you feel better?”‘ became the eye of the storm, prolonged by Reznor and company. The piano traipsing along teased a respite that never arrived. Similarly, the skittish beat sequencing of “Find My Way” was oddly comforting in a live context. Surrounded by so much terror, Reznor’s “Children’s Prayer” subversion provided genuine tranquility. Elsewhere, the ambient washes following “Running” drowned out the entire crowd. Soon enough though the audience was cast onto the rocky shore by the seething interrogation “where the f*** were you?” of “Somewhat Deranged”.

But the brief intermissions of frailty were no match for the night’s muscular numbers; tracks intent on obliteration. Before the show, I heard someone yell what sounded like “cyber raptor” and that vivid imagine of a mechanical killing machine is ideal for the NIN discography. Backed by shadows, “Hand That Feeds” rose to its feet and stomped the audience into the ground with its indelible hook. “All Time Low” retained its rabid dog on a last leg status; flailing about without ever breaking the cage that contained it. “Disappointed”s scattered beams of light were right at home accompanying a fragmented mind that’s spent the last two decades attempting to piece everything together. And “Head Like A Hole” (which elicited the throatiest roar of the night) continued its dominance, heralding the apocalypse which the audience relished with delight.

The two songs that achieved equilibrium between the ragers and the growers are all too familiar to fans of the band. Bathed in purple, Reznor was quietly seeing red with “Piggy”. The “soothing” ambient whispers of the track were shouted down by the punishing drum beat and skyward reaching guitar solos. Then there was “Hurt” drawing the black curtain on the funeral procession. It was the least surprising moment of the night and still the most satisfying. Long since it was wrestled away from Reznor by Johnny Cash, he continues to imbue it with the same hopeless isolation an entire generation identified with nearly 20 years ago. When the whispering guitars find their voice, it’s the sound of man shedding his mortal coil.

When I was about 10, I remember having long shoots attached to my fingers and jokingly dubbing them “Nine Inch Nails” to my cousins. I had no idea who the band was; to me they were just a name. The apparent unease that crept over my cousins told me all I needed to know. The mere mention of the name clued me in this wasn’t a band that traded in comfort. Anyone that promises “the only that’s real” rarely does.

Setlist:
1. “Copy of A”
2. “1,000,000″
3. “Terrible Lie”
4. “March of the Pigs”
5. “Piggy”
6. “All Time Low”
7. “Disappointed”
8. “Came Back Haunted”
9. “Find My Way”
10. “Into the Void” (First time since 2007)
11. “The Frail” (Tour debut)
12. “The Wretched” (Tour debut)
13. “Survivalism”
14. “Running”
15. “A Warm Place”
16. “Somewhat Damaged”
17. “Wish”
18. “Burn” (Tour debut)
19. “The Hand That Feeds”
20. “Head Like A Hole”

21. “Even Deeper”
22. “Various Methods of Escape” (Live debut)
23. “While I’m Still Here”
24. “Black Noise”
25. “Hurt”