Icons representing vastly different genres and musical approaches descended on Grand Rapids Thursday and Friday, and Local Spins was there to document the three sold-out shows.
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ODDBALL TODD RUNDGREN MAKES RELEVANT, ‘COHESIVE ARTISTIC STATEMENT’ AT GRAND RAPIDS SHOW
WHO: Todd Rundgren
WHERE: The Intersection on Thursday
By Brian J. Bowe
Todd Rundgren is at an auspicious moment in his career these days. Technology and contemporary tastes have caught up to his artistic vision, and at 66, he sounds more relevant than he has in years. He brought this renewed energy (and some fancy dance moves) to Grand Rapids for a sold-out show at The Intersection Thursday.
Backed by DJ/keyboardist Dam-Funk and backup singer/dancers Ashlé Worrick and Grace Yoo, the songs were drenched in electronic textures. Rundgren only played a limited amount of guitar, which is consistent with the sound of his two most recent albums, “Global” and “State.” The musical setting and mesmerizing light show lent the show a dance party vibe (which made the decision to fill the dance floor with seats rather perplexing).
Rundgren is a known weirdo, but he’s at his best when he is making a cohesive artistic statement like he does in the current show. He set a conceptual tone early in the show with a grinding funk version of the new song “Rise.” Rundgren and his backup singers sang — almost chanted — a call of “time keeps ticking away,” with Rundgren’s impassioned response: “If we don’t rise, then we will fall.”
On its own, the song is a meditation on aging and inspiration. But over the span of his two-hour set, Rundgren returned again and again to themes of the spatial and temporal canvas upon which life unfolds. Taken together, the message was more-or-less that we all live together on a precious but imperiled planet with a finite amount time, and fearless conscious action is required to make the most of it. “Today is the day we settle our scores,” Todd sang, “because tomorrow we’re gonna wake up even.”
Speaking of the passage of time, the set was light on older material. Rundgren pulled out a couple of Utopia songs (“Secret Society” and “One World”) that were crowd-pleasers, but the reimagined greatest hits medley of “Can We Still Be Friends?,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me” seemed perfunctory, more like an obligation than a celebration. The same can’t be said for the encore of the bookends of Rundgren’s masterpiece “A Wizard, A True Star” — “International Feel” and “Just One Victory,” which retained their original power but benefitted greatly from their current instrumentation.
There was a smattering of online kvetching about the dancers or the electronic dance vibe of new material, but I think those folks were sorely missing the point — which is not to live in the past but rather to seize the current moment. If you’re curious, a Spotify playlist of Thursday night’s setlist is available here.
RHIANNON GIDDENS BRINGS VINTAGE SONGS, CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS ENERGY TO ST. CECILIA
WHO: Rhiannon Giddens
WHERE: St. Cecilia Music Center on Friday
By John Sinkevics
Faithful to the soul of seminal American roots music, yet singularly distinctive in approach.
Surrounded by her bandmates in Carolina Chocolate Drops, singer and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens took a sold-out audience at St. Cecilia Music Center Friday on a spellbinding journey through a daunting roster of influential folk, blues, country and jazz works – many by iconic female artists – and pulled it off with aplomb, grace and perfectly restrained, barefoot passion.
The final concert in this season’s Acoustic Café series at St. Cecilia clearly stood out in many ways, drawing the series’ first capacity crowd and delivering a fully engaging 90-minute performance that was artfully pleasing from the chic stage design (with smart streetlamp-styled lighting enhancing the black-clad musicians) to the eclectic set list (which included Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Nina Simone, Cousin Emmy and more).
Indeed, she spent much of the night acknowledging the contributions of the artists who inspired her – in particular, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Giddens said she’s had a “burning passion in life to get her recognized.”
As an emerging folk artist with a dynamic singing voice who’s earned widespread acclaim for her first solo album, “Tomorrow is My Turn,” Giddens also gave a healthy dose of credit to her North Carolina bandmates – Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson – for supporting her and joining her on this tour, along with upright bassist Jason Sypher and drummer Jamie Dick.
She even put them in the spotlight on their own during part of the evening, with the guys from Carolina Chocolate Drops performing a classic “banjo tune,” “Buck Creek Girls,” to roars of approval from fans.
Indeed, those roars came often all night long, thanks to Giddens’ stunning performances of songs such as Odetta’s “Waterboy,” Jean Ritchie’s “O’ Love is Teasin’,” Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “The Lonesome Road” (during the encore) and an absolutely heart-pumping rendition of a Scottish folk tune that had the singer hopping buoyantly on the rug covering the stage.
It was the most riveting folk show I’ve seen yet inside St. Cecilia’s Royce Auditorium, and I’m guessing that the rousing standing ovation that resulted from this sellout bodes well for resumption of the Acoustic Café series next fall.
ANDREW W.K. BRINGS HIGH-VOLUME, PARTY ATTITUDE TO REVVED-UP PYRAMID SCHEME
WHO: Andrew W.K.
WHERE: The Pyramid Scheme on Friday
By Tricia Woolfenden
He came to party, and party he did, decimating eardrums and buoying spirits in the process.
The Pyramid Scheme kicked off its two-day, four-year anniversary extravaganza Friday night in bombastic fashion with a sold-out performance by former Ann Arbor resident and noted party-starter Andrew W.K.
Creator of both yell-y party anthems (see, “Party Hard”) and incredibly thoughtful advice columns (Village Voice’s “Ask Andrew” http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/ask_andrew_wk/), WK has, over the years, demonstrated a delightfully diverse arsenal of skills. Billed as a special “solo” show (WK actually was joined by a singer/dancer/hype-man), Friday’s stripped-down performance was a celebration of epic proportions, despite a sparse backdrop of backing track and keyboard.
WK has something of a pro-wrestlers sense of showmanship: lots of enthusiastic arm motions meant to pump up the crowd, a variety of crowd-participatory countdowns, an instantly-recognizable uniform. Lends to the carnival-like atmosphere.
Though clocking in just shy of an hour, WK’s set packed in more than a dozen songs, including many from the 2001 release “I Get Wet” (including the title track, “Party Hard,” and “It’s Time to Party”). Among the many crowd-pleasers was “I Love NYC,” geo-targeted to name-check the Mitten state (“I love Michigan!”).
Though devoid of a backing band, WK managed to bring the party and the noise with trademark aplomb, his Cheshire Cat grin and white uniform cementing his magnetic stage presence. The audience, not surprisingly, ate it up with a spoon, crowd-surfing, chanting, dancing and jumping on stage to join WK throughout. To say the energy was palpable would be a laughable understatement.
The thrashing guitars and vocals belie a more nuanced message. WK’s “party” mantra is less about getting hammered and throwing the TV out the hotel window than it is about being kind to others and finding happiness even during life’s crappiest hours. For WK and fans, PARTY is as much a state of mind as it is an event.
Grand Rapids synth-pop duo Alexis warmed up/bewildered the crowd, with a fun, frisky hour-long-plus showcase of gold lame and bedroom-ready dance tunes.
THE LOCAL SPINS PHOTO GALLERY
Rhiannon Giddens photos by Anna Sink
Andrew W.K., Alexis photos by Anthony Norkus
Todd Rundgren photos by Eric Stoike
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Copyright 2015, Spins on Music LLC