If you leave the Midwest for a long period of time, it's easy to forget what it means to be from the Midwest. I can personally attest to this, because it happened to me. After years on the east coast I began to view the Midwest as 'fly-over states' and started regarded friendly strangers with suspicion. Since returning to the Midwest last summer, I've been looking for reminders of what it means to be from the Midwest and after venturing out to see Cloud Cult last night I have a better idea.
Right after I ordered a drink at Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club, Justin from PopFreeRadio (the person who organized the show) came over to introduce himself to me and tell me more about Cloud Cult. Justin had booked Cloud Cult in Kansas City a year ago and a week after this show the band showed up on MTV. He took this as a confirmation of his taste and the band's ability. He pointed out how many people showed up on a bleak Monday night to see the band, and told me more about how Cloud Cult has two people painting on stage and they auction the paintings off at the end of the night. He asked me what I knew about the band, and I confessed to him that I didn't know a lot. Here's what I knew before seeing them live:
Cloud Cult doesn't suck. I first listened to them a year ago, and I know I liked what I heard but I got distracted by 1,387 other bands and forgot about them until recently. I know that Cloud Cult members are environmentalists. The front man, Craig Minowa, has worked as an environmental scientist and educator, and he still has an organic farm. The band also rejected offers from labels and created Earthology Records - a nonprofit label that donates all profits to environmental charities and only uses recycled materials. I assumed (correctly) that the band would have a biodiesel van in the back parking lot. The last thing I knew was that the band has put out an impressive six albums in seven years, and they're on tour now in support of their new album, Feel Good Ghosts (Teapartying Through Tornados). But, with all this information I could easily conclude that this was just another hippy jam band.
"Are they hippies?" I asked Justin. He schools me and tells me that hipsters are basically modern day hippies. I ponder this for a minute and think of Arcade Fire, a band Cloud Cult is often compared to. Arcade Fire could be dismissed as hippies - with their political songs, collective vibe, scruff appearances, and eccentricities. Andrew Bird could also be considered a hippy - he makes music in a barn and has a biodiesel-powered tour. But do we view Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird as hippies? Nope, they're indie rock hipsters.
"Are you hungry?" Justin asks me. Um, when am I not hungry? I tell Justin I could chow, but I'm vegan so chances are he doesn't have anything for me. He tells me he wasn't sure if Cloud Cult members were veg or not, so he made sure he included something in the spread for everyone and insists I come back to the green room and eat something.
We go back to the green room and I notice the food first (of course), and then note the various members of Cloud Cult shuffling around the room. I note that the room doesn't smell of patchouli and Cloud Cult members look like hipsters. I move on to the food while Justin points to each dish and tells me who made it. His dad made the bread, his sister made the macaroni and cheese and the corn bread, and he made stuffed vegetables, chicken, pork, and the bad ass barbeque sauce. He points out what is vegan for me and I sample it all while thinking how sweet it is that the food for the band is as much of a family affair as the band itself. The moment is the epitome of Midwestern hospitality. Why bother with anonymous caterers when you can offer people food made by family and with love, right?
After noshing on the food, I head out to the main room to see how the light is going to work with my camera. The lighting in the room is as bad as my photography skills. I try to shrug it off and watch the stage set up for the band while Neko Case and Ryan Adams tunes are playing overhead. A screen is already up for the video that plays during their set and a canvas (along with paints and brushes) is set up on each side of the stage. I note that it's a good thing the stage is large since Cloud Cult has a violinist, a cellist, a drummer, a singer and guitarist, a bass player, and two painters who are going to have to fit on the stage.
After a sound check that competes with the AC/DC jams playing overhead (weird combination), the band begins and I immediately fall in love with the strings. The violin and cello accentuate every song in the band's impressive 18-song set. The band uses keys and horns on a few songs, and four members contribute backing vocals throughout the show. Cloud Cult songs have Craig's songwriting as a basis and what he creates is strong enough to stand on its own, but instead the songs are delicately layered with other instruments and vocals. I literally got chills from quite a few of their songs because of their balance and beauty. They manage to be funky, indie, emo, far-out, and classical all at once. No easy task, right?
I move up to the front so I can watch all of the action on the stage. As a Cloud Cult audience member it's hard to figure out what to focus on at times. There's the video, the live painting, and five people playing instruments, so you can imagine how hard it is to be bored at their shows. The people at the front are, for the most part, focusing on the lyrics and singing along. Cloud Cult fans, I noticed, are extremely polite people who make room for others, chat and joke with the band in-between songs, and appreciate everything the band is sharing with them. Oh, and there isn't a single hippy in sight.
Cloud Cult's song, "Pretty Voice," is a stand out song. I had chills throughout the entire song. The lyrics can resonate with anyone, and the arrangement is just gorgeous. This band takes the ugliest subjects and turns them into something beautiful. Here we are, in a room filled with the subjects of; isolation, grief, heartache, ghosts, brainwashing, redemption, and yet we all feel cheerful.
At one point in the evening Craig notes how nice it is to play in Kansas City. He mentions how crowds on both coasts act so distant, whereas here a band feels like they just came home. I think about the truth in this statement and note how at ease everyone in the room is. I also think about how the Midwest takes the ugly and makes it beautiful, just like the band's songs. Give us hard times, and we'll give you resilient smile. Give us a cold shoulder, and we'll still invite you into our homes. Give us the heart and soul you put into your music, and we'll give you the best audience you can find in this country. This, my friends, is part of what it means to be from the Midwest.
Cloud Cult are touring like mad in support of this album. They're going north, south, east, and west, so chances are they'll be playing near you in the next few months. Go check out their show because chances are good that it will be unlike anything you've ever seen, and after the show is over you'll feel like the world is a more beautiful place to be living in.
"No One Said It Would Be Easy"
"Made Up Your Mind"
"Man Jumped Out The Window"
"Please Remain Calm"
"Journey Of The Featherless"
"Washed Your Car"
"Everybody Here Is A Cloud"
"Take Your Medicine"
Photos by Holly Beal