Right Between the Eyes: Cloud Cult @ The Knitting Factory

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

Painting by Connie MinowaI’m still reeling from this show.

I had heard of Cloud Cult via KEXP, but they hadn’t made enough of an impression on me that I’d been awaiting this show with the enthusiasm I had reserved for Explosions in the Sky or The National. It’s situations like this – where you’ve got no particular expectations – that you’re susceptible to truly overwhelming experiences, which is what I was treated to on Wednesday night.

It was my first trip to the Knitting Factory, which is close to the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. It’s essentially the heart of what most people consider Hollywood, featuring a laundry list of familiar landmarks: the Walk of Fame, Mann’s Chinese Theater, the Kodak Theater (permanent home of the Academy Awards), the El Capitan Theater. The Hollywood Bowl is just a short walk up Highland. As a venue, the Knitting Factory is nothing particularly special. The area surrounding the main stage is about the same size as the Troubadour, featuring an inaccessible balcony lined with enameled chicken wire and half-shaded incandescent bulbs. The crowd was very homogenous – relaxed twentysomethings with few ostentatious hipster or misplaced club-set costumes on display.

The opening band was Kid Dakota, a Minneapolis duo featuring singer and guitarist Darren Jackson and drummer Ian Prince. Darren briefly made a brave attempt to sing unaccompanied over the crowd, awash with typical pre-headliner chatter, a feat I have to imagine this has cost him his voice once or twice in the past. Their set was received with cheerful enthusiasm from a crowd that was already beginning to pack tightly around the stage.

Kid Dakota – “Stars”

The biggest clue to the kind of performance I should have anticipated from the headliner was the reverence of those in attendance before Cloud Cult even took the stage. I couldn’t help but notice the blinking lights as person after person shut off their cellphones. Only a few die-hard fans had any interest in the Lakers game, which was playing on a television behind the bar and conveniently ended just as the show began.

The first few keyboard notes that sounded were vaguely reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, which seemed to coordinate nicely with the blue and orange lighting the framed the stage. This impression only lasted for a few moments, and the band launched into its own unique variety of strings-heavy, earnest, environmentally-friendly indie folk rock.

I get the impression that a Cloud Cult show approximates what it would have been like to have attended one of the legendary Arcade Fire performances before they became jaded and weary of touring. Even though all of the members of Cloud Cult seem to be from small towns, they seemed perfectly relaxed and professional on stage at the Knitting Factory, casually switching places and occasionally sharing secret smiles with an unseen figure on the balcony. Aside from a strange sleep mask that singer Craig Minowa was wearing on his forehead throughout the show, the band was very understated in their dress and movements and seemed perfectly content to let their music and projection show provide the entertainment.

The video projection used by the band was truly dazzling. While most of us have become accustomed to the myriad displays of fractals featured in screen savers and playback programs, they become infinitely more impressive when the best effects are culled together and projected behind a live band. Each Cloud Cult performance features Connie Minowa, the wife of singer Craig Minowa, creating a painting onstage amidst the music, and her progress was occasionally projected as well. As is customary, her artwork was auctioned off at the end of the show. With the knowledge that the primary driving force behind both Craig’s songwriting and Connie’s artwork was the sudden and tragic death of their infant son, one might expect that a Cloud Cult show would be a somber affair. Far from it. Sadness gets an occasional turn, but in the end, hope trumps grief.

Cloud Cult – “Take Your Medicine”

Cloud Cult – “When Water Comes to Life”

When the best shows end, you walk away and run your hands through your hair, murmuring to yourself, “whoa.” A few days later, you’re still thinking about it. It looks like Cloud Cult is wrapping up their touring for a while, which is unfortunate. If you live in Denver, Omaha, or Minnesota (their last few stops before an extended hiatus), drop what you’re doing and go see this band. You can thank me later.