review by Jim Beckmann
photos by Brittney Bush Bollay
Nearly a year to the day after their last performance in Seattle, Cloud Cult played to another sold out crowd at Neumos on Friday. I’m not sure why that surprised me, since after all they are a fantastic live band with a huge Seattle fanbase, and whose last three terrific albums have earned them high acclaim among the critics — but I was taken aback at first by the rabid enthusiasm of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, waving their arms in the air and chanting in unison the lyrics to the songs. Was this the same band I had seen on a small record store stage a year ago (performing live on KEXP), who played a supposedly “sold out” show at Neumos later that night to what actually looked like a half-capacity crowd (long story about that here)? Had something like the Vampire Weekend MTV effect catapulted them into the indie rock stratosphere? Would the clamoring crowds wait noisily for just the one heavy rotation song that they had heard ad nauseum on whatever mainstream media outlet they frequented? (Yeah, that sounded a bit snobbish to me too, but I’m sure you’ve been to a show like that before.) Fortunately, though, the night, and the crowd, proved otherwise.
Opening the night were fellow Minnesotans Ice Palace, but unfortunately I arrived too late to catch them. I do regret that because their recent second album, Wonder Subtly Crushing Us, which Craig Minowa produced and released on Cloud Cult’s own Earthology Records, is quite good, and reports of their live show have been really positive. Oh, well. At least, our photographer was able to catch them.
Transplanted Seattle songwriter and KEXP favorite Say Hi took the stage next. Eric Elbogen, who records alone under the band name, was joined tonight only by his touring drumming Alex Westcoat. Touring bassist David Broecker was heading out with Telekinesis, so a preprogrammed bass track had to make due. Back to basics for Eric, really, who has performed by himself frequently in the past, but during this set the whole sound couldn’t have seemed more full and organic. Elbogen isn’t one to let the electronics do the heavy lifting, which he demonstrated with his agile riffing on top of Westcoat’s frenetic pounding. A two-piece might has well have been five. It’s funny: each time I see Eric, the configuration is different, but the resulting sound is just as good as the last. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of hearing him play, just as I can’t of listening to the latest Say Hi album, Oohs & Aahs, so the night’s highlights for me were “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh,” “Maurine,” and “Hallie and Henry,” but it was probably the set-closer, “Northwestern Girls,” that blew me away.
Cloud Cult began their set right on time: “10:45,” the posted set list said, and that’s exactly when the not-so-off-the-grid robotic sounds of “Love You All” began. But just as it seemed like this might be Cloud Cult’s “Sophtware Slump,” a human chorus overtook, enveloped, and infected the audience. And from there on out, not singing along was not an option. We had just drank the Kool Aid. But Cloud Cult actually succeeds in its lack of any specific cultishness: it’s Sufjan Stevens without God, or The Polyphonic Spree without Tim DeLaughter. Their songs remember and honor the dead but look to the living, mourn personal loss while maintaining hope for the future, and admit to past failures while “picking up the pieces” and moving forward. It’s feel good music for the broken, positivity for even the jaded. Each song is like an Irish wake, starting somberly with cello and violin (of Sarah Young and Shannon Frid respectively) and soon kicking up to a full band and chorus, with full pounding rhythm from Shawn Neary (bass and trombone) and Arlen Peiffer (drums). Even the two onstage painters, Connie Minowa and Scott West, bear witness to the event, not only by adding to the songs through vocals and, for Scott, trumpet, but also through their broad, sweeping brushstrokes that often seem choreographed to the music. It’s nearly impossible not to want to take part. However, if there is any fault here, it’s that the frequency of this vacillating pattern can be fatiguing — but each time you hit those ecstatic highs and chant simultaneously with the crowd, you tend to forget those repeating lows. Just like life, I suppose.
As expected, the most vocal audience response came during often-played “Chemicals Collide” and “Take Your Medicine,” but it was in the midst of “The Tornado Lesson,” as hundreds of fists pumped upward during the gunshot rat-a-tat chorus, which I could barely mumble through less convincingly than a lip syncing pop star, that I realized this was a dedicated crowd who had learned their lessons well. No brainwashed sheep, they had studied the lyrics, listened to the words, and found some meaning of their own to songs that clearly grew out of Minowa’s past history and relationships. After all, it’s publicly known that Craig and Connie’s three-year old son died inexplicably several years ago, and his death became the impetus for the band and also for the temporary split between the couple — making lyrics like “It’s been so long/Since I’ve heard that pretty voice” (“Pretty Voice”) and “So live on/Baby live on” (“The Ghost Inside Our House”) seem really personal. But the gap-bridging message and quite possibly the key to their popularity was stated to me very clearly: “Everybody here is a crowd/We all walk around with a million faces/Somebody turn the lights out/There’s so much more to see in the darkest places” (“Everybody Here Is A Cloud “). Here I was thinking that everyone together was the crowd, the kind of thing that at best inhibits creative individualism but at worst makes people do some pretty stupid things. But then I saw each one of us relating those personal stories in our own ways yet coming together en mass, and I guess I finally really got it. Go see Cloud Cult when they’re in your town. You won’t regret it.