It seems that everyone knows who Leslie Feist is at this point. Perhaps that’s why this show had to be moved from one of Madison, Wisconsin’s larger venues to another even larger venue. A large part of that success is no doubt due to the massive popularity of the hit single from The Reminder, “1234”, and the music video for it that went viral. Like most artists who have a lone hit that seemingly overshadows the rest of their discography, Feist has shied away from performing that song in recent years and this night proved to be no exception. Fortunately Feist’s discography, now three LP’s deep, is so overwhelmingly strong that it wasn’t really missed. It also helped that for this particular leg of her tour that Low Anthem was the support, as they proved to be as complementary to her sound as one could possibly hope for.
When The Low Anthem took the stage, they did it quietly and immediately set into an appropriately hushed version of the lead-off track from their last LP, Smart Flesh, “Ghost Woman Blues”. Throughout that song The Low Anthem demonstrated one of their strongest penchants; a knack for gorgeous harmonies. In their visual presentation, the band was as humble and unified as their rustic Americana styling. After silencing the crowd with the gorgeously rendered “Ghost Woman Blues”, they proceeded to keep everyone captivated by constantly switching instruments and providing delicate renditions of their songs, drawing most heavily from Smart Flesh. However, apart from “Smart Flesh” and “Love and Altar” there were no real standout moments from that album. Instead the standouts came in the form of a cover of “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?”, which was also an early b-side for the band and their closing two tracks. Not only were those closing two tracks the highlight of their set but, surprisingly, two of the strongest moments of the night.
First came the absolutely devastating “This God Damn House” which has been a favorite of mine since seeing The Low Anthem’s HearYa Session. It’s a stunning song on its own but the eerie and beautiful cell phone reverb loop that the band incorporates at the end is enough to send shivers down just about anyone’s spine. In this case, they instructed the audience to join in on the trick to create an even more chilling effect. I’ve seen, by my estimate, around 200 shows but there have rarely been moments as stunning as when frontman Ben Knox Miller took a step away from the microphone to let the music die out in a field of what sounded like haunting digital crickets. Had their set ended there they may have ran the risk of overshadowing Feist but they still had one trick left up their sleeve; a blistering cover of Tom Waits’ “Down There by the Train”. With that one-two punch The Low Anthem brought things to a close and gave people things to talk about instead of impatiently waiting for the headliner, which is exactly what an opening band should do.
Then, after a brief set-up and take-down session, the lights darkened once more and the entire theater erupted as Leslie Feist came bounding out in a dress and heels, all smiles. There was some initial concern as Feist’s voice sounded completely shot but after her brief greeting she wasted no time in kicking into the propulsive “Comfort Me”, it became surprisingly clear that her vocals weren’t suffering because of it. As the song progressed her vocals revealed her to be the powerhouse I suspected she was, she grew more animated, thrashing at the audience with her guitar threateningly and reeling herself in more than once, and was joined by her backing band and her robed trio of female backing vocalists (a band of their own called Mountain Man). There were some perfect lighting cues and Feist eventually, as she would continue to do at various points throughout her set, make her way to the front of the stage away from the microphone, continuing to sing as if to pull the audience into singing “Na na na na na” along with her, though they clearly didn’t (and wouldn’t) need the extra push. The dark, brooding, and surprisingly heavy “A Commotion” followed, accentuated by the sudden bursts of lighting that seemed like strikes of lightning. It was a thrilling little bit of presentation and the bands concise precision only served to improve upon the studio version.
After an impressive multi-color run through “How Come You Never Go There?” Feist took a break from songs from Metals, of which she’d eventually play the entirety of, to play a radically different, heavily afro-pop-influenced take on one of her first successful singles, “Mushaboom”. It was bold, striking, and inspired and the bands joy in performing it was evidenced. The Mountain Men continued to provide pitch-perfect harmonies while swaying in unison and Feist couldn’t help from dancing while the band’s pinpoint precision continued. From that song alone, the reasons for Feist being a headlining act were made unquestionably evident. “The Circle Married the Line” was next and only furthered Feist’s lively animation. She was swaying back and forth and nearly bouncing out of her skin. She once again managed to pull the crowd into a massive singalong of the “last night was” refrain, which was surprisingly on-key (those things are typically hit-or-miss, so well done, audience).
However, despite the very strong start, the set didn’t really reveal itself fully until the three-song tear through The Reminder that followed “The Circle Married the Line”. While “So Sorry” was impressive, it was relatively straight-ahead until Feist coached an audience-wide vocal accompaniment. While the song itself was wonderfully suited to the extra vocals, it was all but forgotten as soon as the near-punk take on “My Moon, My Man” that followed. It was another familiar cut drastically altered into something just as memorable, if not more, than the original. The fierce nature of the song was only played up by the constant live-cut switches on the projection screen behind the band and the foreboding red lights as Feist tremolo-strummed her guitar, hopping up and down in her heels, and rocking out as hard as she could before impressively switching back to gently restrained and gorgeously harmonized vocals.
That same level of ferocity was brought to “I Feel it All” that wasn’t really differed from the original in arrangement but given a mountain of distortion and attitude. The smiles on the faces of Feist, Mountain Man, and her band were unmistakable and unrestrained as they all jumped up and down, hand-clapping in unison over the songs last bridge. Looking out at the audience, the smiles of the band were matched by the attendees. Throughout the show, Feist would take momentary breaks for banter and crowd interaction and proved to be an engaging winsome force in that capacity as well, revealing a persona that fell in line perfectly with her music. When someone from the balcony yelled out “it’s my birthday!” she didn’t skip a beat in working in a cleverly-worded transition about life and death that led perfectly in to “Graveyard”. Feist would also later humorously present “Anti-Pioneer” as the theme song to the bands fictional film noir television series. “Anti-Pioneer” itself proved to be an another unexpected set highlight that showed the band baring its teeth while being completely restrained.
After the atmospheric minimalism of “Anti-Pioneer” Feist decided to unleash the bruising show-stopper “Undiscovered First” that proved to be the nights most intense and dynamic moment. “Pine Moon”, a bonus track from Metals, didn’t carry quite the same weight but was still impressive enough to keep the audience’s attention rapt. “The Limit to Your Love” was recast as an ambient electronic number much darker than both the original and the James Blake cover. Feist flitted from microphone to effect microphone, tapping the latter on-beat, and swaying and stopping with the songs grooves. It suited Feist surprisingly well and hinted at a possible new direction for her, which- if that version of the song was any indication, would be thrilling to explore. “The Limit to Your Love” ended with Feist’s arms around the members of Mountain Man, all four of them singing in harmony, huddled around the same microphone to stunning effect.
Feist’s main set ended in a stunning three-song run of selections from Metals, which displayed some of the bands strongest suits. There was fierceness in “The Bad in Each Other” and a slightly altered take on “Caught a Long Wind” that served as a fine reminder of Feist’s somewhat surprising guitar prowess as well as the bands ability to deftly navigate the transitions from intense moments to the quieter ones. The final song of the set was the beautiful “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” which had an audience-wide whistle introduction. A stunning bare-bones performance followed that placed heavy emphasis on the fantastic vocal interplay between Feist and Mountain Man and it ended the set even more beautifully than it ended Metals, leaving the audience desperate for more- and they got more. Twice.
First, Feist and Mountain Man re-appeared by themselves for a gorgeous version of “Cicadas and Gulls”, once again huddled around one microphone, only parting enough to make room for Feist’s guitar. Then the entire audience got another shot of energy with a very spritely rendition of “Sealion” in which Feist had an incendiary guitar-led bridge into a section where she, yet again, ended up coaching an audience in a vocal battle, putting her all into getting the left side (her side) to shout “Sealion!” louder than the right side. It was and endlessly entertaining and completely joyous performance and there weren’t many people who could hold back a smile.
Her encore ended with a fantastic version of “Let It Die” in which an audience member, Joshua Pennacchi, ended up being pulled onstage by one of the members of Mountain Man for a slow dance while Feist played and sang. Josh played along splendidly for the remainder of the song, impressively offering supporting vocals along with Mountain Man. When the song came to a close, he disappeared in the wings of the stage but was brought back on to share a long hug with Feist. I ended up meeting up with Josh after the show and asked about how that invitation back to the stage happened and his explanation made me think that perhaps an even longer hug was warranted. There were no complaints from his end, though.
After Feist disappeared again and a whole ton of pleading from the audience, she re-emerged for some more humorous banter about starting a double-life as a stand-up comic (which she’s fully capable of) and two final songs. For both songs her only onstage companion was her guitar. First was a gorgeous version of one of The Reminder‘s quietest tracks, “Intuition”, which would’ve been more than enough on its own. Yet, Feist had one more song up her sleeve and had to convince herself to play it, as she hadn’t in about five years — but judging from the massive applause she received at the end of her guitar run to close out “Lonely Lonely” she made the right choice. Really, the night seemed like it was full of right choices. While The Low Anthem certainly started things off on the right foot, there was no question; in Madison, Wisconsin on June 3, 2012, the night belonged to Leslie Feist.