Concert Review: Kalispell at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge, MA
Reviewed by: Dorise Gruber
There’s something about Eau Claire, Wisconsin. First Bon Iver, then Megafaun, and now Kalispell – every new band I discover from Eau Claire reels me in with seductive, hinterland melodies. Playing for a rather paltry mid-week crowd at the Middle East Upstairs last week, I had ample opportunity to chat about this with Kalispell’s lead singer and creative tour de force, Shane Leonard. “There’s a pretty cohesive community of support [in Eau Claire] – if a show’s going on and you can go, then you go. There’s a mutual admiration that seeps into a common musical identity. There’s even a community initiative to build a new venue, folks pooling resources to create a new theater.” When I asked how he would characterize the city’s sound, he half-joked, “we’re sentimental and introspective because we’re snowed-in three-quarters of the year!”
Though his music sounds like James Taylor-inspired folk, Shane’s background is in jazz. He uses this to his advantage, working to rearrange songs so they don’t seem carbon-copied. It’s good he’s flexible, because the usual-trio was missing S. Carey and A.A. Bondy drummer Ben Lester, who was unable to make the tour. Shane made up for this by mic-ing a raised floorboard and literally toe-tapping the percussion. While Shane played with acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, harmonica, and floorboard, he was joined by Minnesota native and “Colder in Moscow” guitarist Eric Carlson onstage. The two formed a surprisingly lush sound as a mere duo, coaxing every last vibration out of each chord strummed, inching the dregs from each throbbing note. While they made some use of loop pedals, they didn’t need to rely on phantom instruments or too many onstage high jinks to achieve an ideal tenor – their minimalist execution was sufficiently weighty and moving.
The evening featured organ hymnals, tinnily plunked strings, jovial taunting of clandestine banjoists and ample banter. Shane shared a number of tales, but the most poignant was about his life as an English teacher, translating heavy student experience into therapeutic musical abstraction. The song, “Lucky A Hundred Times,” is my favorite cut and impending single from his forthcoming full-length album, Westbound, being released this coming Thursday, May 17th. Since you’re likely one of the unlucky folks to have missed this show, I’ll encourage you to preview/order Westbound, and while you’re at it, to check out the Last Year EP released in 2011. They are well-worth a listen, and I anticipate will quickly become theme albums for your cozy Sundays – holed-up afternoons are what Eau Claire does best, and Kalispell leaves a soul-warming mark.