A large screen, center-stage, boasts beams of white. Electronic bleeps face-off against Arlen Peiffer’s razor-edged, pulsing percussion. Brandishing brushes, visual artists Connie Minowa and Scott West head to the stark white easels gracing stage right and left. Those radiant white lights now flash green, and then red. As this electron-fest escalates, billows of smoke drift beneath the screen and past the painters. One of Chicago’s newest watering holes, Lincoln Hall is transforming, even before Cloud Cult’s first song has begun.
Moments later, pods of devotees scream as the full band appears. Said beams meld into shimmering disco balls, then splinter apart, interrupted by gasps of astonishment. Sarah Young’s cello moans alongside those electronic bursts. Craig Minowa, the lead singer and songwriter, wears a black tee. His lean body and dark, curly hair form a silhouette. Visually and sonically, Minowa comes across as a sensitive man. If he were a painting, he’d be air- brushed with emotion.
Acoustic guitar and streams of violin, courtesy of fair-haired Shannon Frid, build and are soon joined by bones and beats embellished by the dynamic energy of bassist/valve trombonist Shawn Neary and camping fanatic/drummer Arlen Peiffer. Cloud Cult opens with “Hope”. Connie and Scott make sweeping gestures as they softly rock in time to the sensual music. Each splashes lavish blues and forest greens against the blank slates. These visuals tie-in contextually with the corresponding and uplifting themes.
“No One Said It Would Be Easy” follows. It is another orchestrated marvel that hints at compassion and embraces discovery. Metaphors and personal epiphanies come together in many of the subsequent pieces. “Outside Skin” and “Journey of the Featherless” are cinematic, but grounded. Minowa writes profound lyrics; words that can save one’s life.
Cloud Cult was formed a decade ago in Minnesota. Proponents of sustainability, going “green” and organic farming, the band brandishes a consciousness-raising philosophy reflected in free-flowing, non-commercial music. Eyes in the audience flit back and forth between the visual artists and musicians. The intimacy of Sacre Coeur comes to mind. And, though the touches of violin are often bittersweet, the repeated melodies and lyrics, even on the heels of some dark moments, broadcast optimism.
“You’re a pretty human being,” Minowa repeats. His voice exudes power like a magnet pulling at paper clips. “Everything you need is here. It just keeps holding you up,” he segues. The melody moves frantically as the orchestrations flesh out the lyrics. Minowa and his wife, Connie, lost their child in 2002, and, after more than a year and a half of isolation and reflection at the couple’s farm, he wrote and recorded: They Live On the Sun and Aurora Borealis.
These albums are being currently re-issued and a new work, Light Chasers, will be released in August of 2010. (Feel Good Ghosts was the group’s last album which was released in 2008).
The set’s common thread is healing and building a sense of community. The tunes are sophisticated, yet undeniably direct. Lyrics like “See you there in daddy’s arms” whisper and swerve under sanguine melodies. Cloud Cult’s energy emulsifies the faces of the audience. According to Connie, Craig’s songs are “literally our journey through grief and loss.”
Connie’s mother made quilts and her father enjoyed wood-working. Growing up in Minnesota, she painted rainbows, and now is consumed with environmental health. Craig, looking over at his wife, makes several comments addressing his fondness for her, as she drapes more bold shades over a still-wet wash.
Minowa’s vocals gather steam and, unexpectedly, he rants. “Show them you are the special one.” A toy xylophone unexpectedly appears and tinny notes juxtapose the singer’s brash reverie. “Running with the Wolves” (also the name of the band’s EP scheduled to coincide with Earth Day) features the hard hiss of erratic drums and an evocative violin. In a gently seasoned delivery, Minowa sings, “We were running for a reason / Need to get away.” Mallets banging on tin plates flank dissonant guitar. Meanwhile, a woman’s face magically appears on one painting, out of nowhere, like the outline of Mary in coffee grounds.
Images giving a nod to birds and insatiable beauty underscore the repertoire. As a light show sweeps the stage, Minowa plays a hypnotic riff while strings deepen. Encased in vapors, like explorers in a cloud forest, the performers move more closely together while strings escalate. Sweat drenched, Minnow pleads: “Oh, my heart, oh, my God.” After his emotional rendering of “Million Things”, the song jolts to an abrupt finish.
Through the man-made fog, snippets of spoken word reverberate. At this point, it’s crystal clear the band capably can explore many genres. That said, Neary’s funky bassline implodes. West’s fedora shimmies up and down as he responds more actively to his task at hand. Vivid streaks of blue swirl and produce an odd bird with a mullet.
Minowa sings through a megaphone. Smiling, he assures us he’s grateful that we’re singing along. Literally, the crowd is indeed singing along, as the lyrics suggest, “soaking it up.” Though young, they’re emotionally mature and fully engaged; faithful fans, not just the local drop-ins.
“It’s been so long since I’ve heard your pretty voice,” Minowa sings with longing, alluding to the painting’s image: “Bashful bird in a violet sky.” “Pretty Voice” could be a memorial or an abstraction, but either way it is touching.
Then, in the midst of this emotion-packed set, the spotlight settles on a man expressing adoration for his girlfriend. He had just been invited up to the stage moments ago. ”I want to ask the most important question I’ve ever asked,” he said.
Off-stage, he kneels on the floor. Was the proposal propelled by the emotions this evening? Handclaps move the mood further out to sea as Minowa’s voice registers a coarse texture. He sings about passion and deception. “You fake it till you make it” is a complete turnaround; a quasi-rap. Breathing in heavily, he exhales: “Huh / Huh / Huh / Huh.” Admirers chant along while waving fists in the air.
But, in comparison, it seems that these other songs were sentries guarding the gates in preparation for the curative and palatial pulse of “Take Your Medicine”. Harmonic counter-melodies and heavy-handed strings dip against light-as-meringue keys. This official last song was amazingly gripping, but the fans demanded more.
“Light Chasers” led to gorgeous harmonies. With the painting complete, Connie and Scott join in. Craig strums. This acid- rock anthem cuts sharply against Sarah Young’s subtle strings and Shannon Frid’s sporadic strokes. Then, dreamily, Minowa sings: “Everybody is waiting for the next creation.” “The Day We Gave Ourselves to the Fire” and “Everybody Here is a Cloud” are beautiful finales. It’s not always possible to know when a Cloud Cult song begins and ends. But, that’s the whole point. Human emotions are never that calculated.
The disco ball spins like a revolving planet. Cloud Cult has manufactured, and recycled mood after heavenly mood this evening. Moreover, they have rotated this awe-struck audience on its axis, lifted up spirits and transformed this urban watering hole into a gleaming spiritual oasis.