Live Review: Cloud Cult @ Abbey Pub 1/21/06
Photo by Cristin McCurdy
Cloud Cult’s bio reads like a Dave Matthews Band script in a perfect world, and I’m sure most people who read it as their introduction to the band never bother giving the music a chance to expound. Those who know the music before the story think that there must be two Cloud Cults roaming America, because the last time we heard a musician talk about his solar-powered recording studio, he finished his lecture by propping his acoustic guitar on his knee, tightening his ponytail and inviting his barefoot life-partner onstage to warble about weeping birds and weeping sunshine and weeping rivers. Surely Craig Minowa of Cloud Cult, who plants trees to compensate for his car’s CO2 emissions and who uses recycled CD jewel cases, cannot be the Craig Minowa of Cloud Cult who samples The Princess Bride and who plays with a drum machine and who sings in robotic rage, “Why you always gotta be pissin’ on me?” But they are the very same, which is what makes Cloud Cult a manifestation of the fresh air it strives to protect. It’s not unique to complain about the president, but it is unique for a band with a political agenda to truly believe what it says it believes; to trade exposure and money and ease for obscurity and duct-taped guitar straps and hard work; to trade safe, stale, mainstream pseudo folk-rock for an organically electronic, eclectic folk flavor that reeks of quirkiness and innovation. I would hope that a Cloud Cult show would offer as much surprise and schizophrenia as a Cloud Cult album, but unfortunately the performance in question was tame and lacked the effervescence befitting a band bent on progressive activism. This isn’t to say that the show was ordinary or boring or shoddy; this is to say that the set was skewed towards an acoustic folk sound that didn’t do Cloud Cult’s spectrum-spanning genius justice. For an act that can run in veins with anyone from Animal Collective to the Flaming Lips to Bright Eyes, the show was one-dimensional and modest. In addition to Minowa, Cloud Cult’s live band consists of drummer Dan Greenwood, cellist Sarah Young, bassist Matthew Freed and a pair of painters who use the music as motivation to create pieces of art throughout the duration of the show. At 11:40 the hobbit-esque Minowa, barefoot in rolled up jeans that exposed his tree tattoo, opened the set with a new tune, which featured him solo on an acoustic guitar, singing in sweet, sad pop fashion, “Someone sing us a song to make us feel like the coolest kid on the first day of school.” From here the band moved into the up-tempo “Living on the Outside of Your Skin,” and the painters rose from their sitting positions to begin their compositions while Freed jammed coolly on his bass, Young yielded an eerie cello line, Greenwood pounded with harnessed passion and Minowa played happily his wahing guitar and banged lovingly on his keyboard. The performance was not without excitement, but that magical element that makes Cloud Cult’s recorded material so invigorating seemed to be missing. Simply stated, this missing factor may have been no more than a synthesizer or a laptop. Tunes like “On the Sun” and “Breakfast with My Shadow” lost their eccentric Wayne Coyne-like feel for a more acoustic, epic quality. And other featured songs, including the foot-stomping “Washed your Car” and the bluegrass jam “My Son is Watching” were undeniably exuberant, but contributed to a uniformly folk-country feel. Cloud Cult’s productive drum machine was only invoked on one or two songs, and we didn’t get a good dose of its oddball electronic pop until the closer, “Happy Hippo.” With just four musicians and no electronic gizmos outside a keyboard and a simple console at Minowa’s feet, it was impossible for them to mimic the intricacies produced in their studio. And even though their presence added a layer of eccentricity to the show, I just longed for the painters to put fold up their easels and open up their iMacs. To belittle Cloud Cult’s show seems unfair and is not the intention of this review. Indeed, the band sounded incredible and exuded a vibe to send the weariest of souls to the upper regions of bliss. The crowd was attentive and showed faithful solidarity by screaming out song titles and ecstatic oh-my-gods. Those less familiar with the band’s studio work were blown away by Cloud Cult’s passionate and familiar-yet-peculiar sound. And those who went into the show frightened they would be subjected to leftist propagandizing shenanigans were pleased by the subdued, carefree tone, the same tone that is at the root of my disappointment. I was probably in the minority, but I wanted rage and proselytizing and outlandish stunts. But mostly I wanted brought from studio to stage the figurative and literal electricity, the beautifully personal, bizarrely poignant neurosis that motivates this band to sample state of the union addresses and babbling babies.