Short Takes: Catching up on late April shows

(Harry’s been a busy boy lately – too busy, it seems, to stay on deadline. To make up for the long hiatus between posts, Harry offers this trilogy of brief reviews of recent shows of note.)

GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE!: JIM JAMES, FIRST AVENUE, MINNEAPOLIS, MN, 4/21/13

Jim James and band, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/21/13

Jim James and band, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/21/13

Artists draw their inspiration from all sorts of unusual places, as we know. For his first solo effort, My Morning Jacket front man Jim James found his inspiration in the 1929 book, “God’s Man: A Novel In Woodcuts,” The resulting album, “Regions Of Light And Sound Of God,” is a challenging work for the listener, full of overt religiosity and thoughtful musings about life, relationships, and our place in the cosmos. Far from evangelical proselytizing, the references to God and the biblical imagery in the songs provide a framework for us to contemplate the mysteries of life, both great and small. Clearly, there’s a lot going on in Jim James’ head these days.

The album was played in its entirety at First Avenue, with a touring band made up of musicians other than James’ band mates from My Morning Jacket. The production was fittingly high tech, with lots of loops and tapes augmenting the on-stage instrumentation. Sonically, it was one of the more impressive displays in recent memory.

Jim James on the stationary Flying V guitar.

Jim James on the stationary Flying V guitar.

James himself focused primarily on his singing, stepping up to a Gibson Flying V affixed to a mike stand for the occasional solo, as well a few surprising forays on the alto sax. He is blessed with one of the finest, purest, most emotional voices in all of rock music, and he knows how to use it to its best advantage. Starting out with the hushed opening lines of “Daylight Come, Daylight Go,” James and the band moved smoothly through the nine songs on the new CD. A certain r & b-flavored vibe runs through a number of the tunes, allowing James to let out his inner Marvin Gaye on selections like ‘”A New Life,” and “Know Til Now.” The beats were hypnotic and infectious, rippling through the crowd while James alternately prowled the stage like a caged tiger or glided from side to side like an awkward figure skater.

One comes away from a show like this with a clearer understanding of the motivation behind Jim James taking a temporary hiatus from My Morning Jacket to record this album. Far from being a mere vanity project, “Regions Of Light And Sound Of God” is an album James had to make, apart from the band. The themes come from a different, more spiritual, place than that which provides the source for My Morning Jacket’s material. Never fear, however; the more profane side of Jim James will be on full display when he returns with My Morning Jacket for this summer’s Americanarama tour, with Bob Dylan, Wilco, and Richard Thompson.

JOY TO YOU, JOSH RITTER, FIRST AVENUE, MINNEAPOLIS, MN, 4/25/13

Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/25/13

Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/25/13

It hasn’t been an easy time for Josh Ritter lately. As he explained to the First Avenue audience midway through his energetic set, he came home from a tour not long ago to learn that his marriage to fellow musician Dawn Landes was ending. Eventually, this personal crisis became the source for much of the material that appears on his new album, “The Beast In Its Tracks.” Far from being a buzz-kill, this brief mention led to a longer commentary about marriage and relationships, leading to a nice segue to the catchy, upbeat “In Your Arms Again” from the new CD. Making lemonade out of lemons, that’s what true artists do.

The son of college professors, Josh Ritter has been writing and recording music since 1999. His wordy, narrative lyrics, clever imagery and catchy melodies merit comparison with Bruce Springsteen’s early recordings, such as “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ,” and “The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle,” albeit with a lighter pop sound than Sprngsteen’s barroom rock. Meet the new Boss, not quite the same as the old Boss.

Josh Ritter, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/25/13

Josh Ritter, First Avenue, Minneapolis, MN, 4/25/13

Ritter took the stage alone, strumming his acoustic guitar to the wistful “Idaho,” a paean to his home state, from his breakout 2006 release, “The Animal Years.” One by one, he was joined by the members of his longtime backup group, The Royal City Band (who take their name from a line in one of the other songs on “The Animal Years,” “Thin Blue Flame.”). From there, the wistful tone continued with “Southern Pacifica,” from 2010’s “So Runs The World Away,” before changing the mood with “Hopeful” from the new album. Ritter was energized now, bouncing up and down and urging the Royal Citizens on.

The set list was well chosen, mixing in ample selections from the new disc with all the favorites the crowd came to hear. “Lillian, Egypt,” was an early highlight, with its driving, clap-along beat and colorful silent movie imagery. “The Curse,” a waltz tune about a love affair between a mummy and a museum worker (I told you he was imaginative!) led to the single from the new album, “Joy To You, Baby.” with longtime friend and band mate Zach Hickman switching from electric to upright bass for this ballad. The kiss-off “New Lover” segued nicely into “In Your Arms Awhile,” both from the new record. Taking a chance on the sophistication of the crowd, Ritter began playing one of his earliest recordings, “The Starling,” then stepped away from the mike to let the audience take over. They did not disappoint, with a respectable portion of those assembled singing out verse and chorus, to Ritter’s obvious delight.

After the very catchy, upbeat “In Your Arms Again,” (not to be confused with “In Your Arms Awhile” also from the new album), Ritter dropped to his knees, cupped his hands around his mouth and howled at the unseen full moon outside. The audience, taking its cue, began howling as well, which could only mean one thing: “Wolves,” was next. This song, from “The Animal Years,” exemplifies the best of Josh Ritter’s writing, with its dance-happy beat, clever lyrics and singalong chorus. It was a true crowd pleaser, with most of the main floor audience happily bouncing up and down in time to the catchy beat.

Ritter and the Royal Citizens were on a roll now, moving into “Right Moves,” and the power ballad “Kathleen,” with the crowd with them all the way. By the time the show ended, with another wordy, infectious tune, “To The Dogs Or Whoever,” Ritter had a grin on his face so wide it looked as if it was locked in place. While it was no doubt cathartic, post-break up, to channel his emotions into his writing, it had to be equally cathartic to cut loose in front of an appreciative audience. Here’s to the healing power of rock ‘n roll!

GARY LOURIS TO THE RESCUE! DAKOTA JAZZ CLUB, MINNEAPOLIS, MN, 4/29/13

When Nanci Griffith had to cancel her 2-night engagement at the Dakota for the second time in less than a year [hoping all is well with you, Nanci!], it left the booking agents at the Dakota scrambling for a replacement. Fortunately, a worthy replacement was found in the form of Jayhawk-in-chief, Gary Louris.

Gary Louris, Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, MN, 4/29/13

Gary Louris, Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, MN, 4/29/13

Louris has been out of circulation for awhile, wryly noting early on in his set that he had been “shipped away, due to problems with my ‘usage,'” a euphemistic way of stating that he’d been in treatment. Sporting a shorter haircut but looking and sounding healthy, Louris was backed initially by the opening band, Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets. Eschewing his trademark red Gibson SG electric guitar, he instead accompanied himself on a Gibson acoustic all night, as well as harmonica. This would not be a night for showing off his underestimated guitar chops; instead, the focus was on his songs, and, in particular, his collaborations with other writers and his lesser-known solo work.

“True Blue” from his as-yet only solo album (another is in the works, he assured us), “Vagabonds,” was the set opener, followed by a self-described “B-side” from “Vagabonds,” called “Three Too Many.” Louris’ voice was strong, self-assured, and apparently well-rested. He introduced another B-side from the “Vagabonds” sessions, “Baby Let Me Take Care Of You,” by wryly noting “as if ‘Vagabonds’ isn’t obscure enough!” The song had a gently rolling folk-rock cadence, vaguely reminiscent of 70’s country rockers Poco.

Switching to more familiar territory Louris and the band played the first of several old Jayhawks faves, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” from the 2000 “Smile” album, before closing out the Okemah Prophets portion of the set with the hard driving “The Love That Binds.

Louris next did a brief solo set, featuring a number of his collaborations, starting with “Everybody Knows,” co-written with The Dixie Chicks, and featured on their 2006 album, “Taking The Long Way.” Louris strained to reach the high notes in that song, displaying both his courage and vulnerability in tackling a tune intended for female voices. The solo set also included “Need You Tonight,” a collaboration with the band Sugarland, and “Jennifer Save Me,” from the 1998 Golden Smog album, “Weird Tales.” The latter is an easygoing alt-country song, similar in style to many Jayhawks compositions. Another Golden Smog tune, “Gone,” was followed by a song Gary Louris co-wrote with Chris Thiele of Nickel Creek, called “Jealous Of The Moon”.

At this point, the first of several guests was introduced, sister Jayhawk, Karen Grotberg, who took to the grand piano onstage for the Jayhawks’ classic “Smile” Grotberg added beautiful but compact solos to the song, where Louris might have otherwise stepped out on electric guitar. “Morning Star” featured sweet harmonies between the two long-time band mates, after which Louris turned his head toward the stage entrance and hollered out “Are Tim and Marc there?” Sure enough, drummer Tim O’Reagan soon emerged, along with bassist Marc Perlman, and from that point on it was a mini-Jayhawks concert, with only Mark Olson missing.

Four-fifths of The Jayhawks

Four-fifths of The Jayhawks

The songs included “One Man’s Problem,” “Better Days,” “It’s Up To You,” and the crowd-pleasing finale of “I’d Run Away” and “Save It For A Rainy Day.” For the encore set, Louris trotted out another “Vagabonds” outtake, “In The Window,” then back to the Jayhawks treasure trove for the rollicking “Tail Spin.” Yet another guest was waiting in the wings to join him, Chan Poling, keyboardist for the beloved local dance-punk band, The Suburbs, and more recently with the quirky jazz trio, the New Standards.

Chan Poling, sitting in with Gary Louris

Chan Poling, sitting in with Gary Louris

Poling provided the spare piano accompaniment for the only cover of the evening, Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” Once again, Louris strained to hit the high notes of the climactic chorus to the song, but hit them he did. For the finale, O’Reagan and Perlman rejoined Louris for the rousing Golden Smog classic, “Until You Came Along.”

As much as it was a treat to see Gary Louris performing again, and with old friends and band mates, it was encouraging to hear that he has taken steps to get sober and healthy. Judging by this performance, there’s plenty of life and lots of new songs left in this highly-regarded, veteran musician. We’ll be the first in line when the new CD comes out.

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