Wandering into the Turf Club on Wednesday the 28th for a Cindy Wilson concert felt just like a typical February evening in Minnesota. Hard to believe Spring and the summer festival season is just around the corner somewhere. We just haven’t found it yet. At least a baseball season opener tells us warmer times can’t be far off. So my hope was to find a warm night of music to put a nice break in the middle of the work week.
The evening opened with DJ icon Jake Rudh curating videos from the era when rock and punk music was looking for new directions and sounds. From Roxie Music to Talking Heads to Bowie’s Scary Monsters to Blondie the early arrivers were treated to a walk down memory lane and a reminder of how strong and diverse the music scene that produced the likes of Cindy Wilson’s B-52’s really was.
Rudh also filled the time between sets as The Turf Club continued to fill. It’s hard to overstate how cool and topical these old-line DJ’s like The Current’s Rudh or First Avenue’s Roy Freedom can be with their encyclopedic history of all things rock and roll. Time and again a small cheer would come from some corner of the club as a new video hit the screen. There’s bumper music and then there’s Jake Rudh.
First band up was Easter Island hailing from Athens, GA. Hometown of headliner Cindy Wilson’s early band. That city has an outsized reputation for spawning bands that change the direction of music. From the B-52’s to REM to Drive By Truckers, the scene is eclectic and continues as a hotbed for new sounds.
Easter Island is a 5-piece outfit that mined a completely different vibe than the previously mentioned bands. They eased into their nine-song set with a dreamy synth layered sound under some complex and pretty vocal harmonies. At times I was reminded of a somewhat simplified Cloud Cult styling.
As people were still slowly filtering into the space most hung toward the back. Patrons were attentive and appreciative of what they were laying down but given the fact that most people anticipated a night of B-52 type over the top power pop they saved their enthusiasm for later in the evening.
The band was refined and insular, interacting more with each other than with the crowd. That thin wall seemed to begin to break down with the fifth song of the set Dinosaur, their new 7” single. The band kicked it up a notch as they launched into this psychedelic pop gem. I found myself smiling as I heard echoes of late 60’s classics like Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermints or material straight from Magical Mystery Tour. Dinosaur was immediately followed by a soaring piece that smacked of The Flaming Lips and the band charged home toward the finish line.
Perhaps it took them a bit of time to find their groove or to get to their strongest material, material engaging enough to compliment some strong musicianship. Perhaps it just took a while for the crowd to get it. However, by the end of the set people were beginning to filter up to the stage and engage more actively with the band.
Playing the support slot was Olivia Jean, a Third Man Records regular who took the club by storm. I doubt many in the growing crowd were aware of her pedigree and her stints playing guitar for the likes of Jack White or Wanda Jackson. Some may have been familiar with her earlier project Black Belles. But the volume and intensity with which she hit the stage changed the atmosphere of the evening in a New York minute. At the conclusion of the opening number she instructed the crowd that it was time to get to the front to dance. “Saving seats is something you can do in your living room!” People were happy to comply.
Olivia Jean’s band was a four-piece combo built around not only her own high-end lead lines but those of her co-lead guitar and other Third Man session players. Playing a musical style reminiscent of classic Grrrl Riot punk and what bands like B-52’s might have done back in the day imbued with a bad attitude, this was as visually interesting a band as they were accomplished.
Channeling Elvira, right down to the gothic black and huge hair, sans cleavage, the band charged through their ten song setlist without taking their foot off the gas. Each song was undeniably of the same ilk but varied enough that it never felt as if there was any kind of a repeat. The songwriting was refined and the two screaming guitars continually weaved around each other and spun on a dime. By the seventh tune, a classic early 80’s punk pop song called Can You Help Me I noticed patrons banging heads and drumming hard on the table tops.
Coming down the homestretch I was struck by how much Jack White guitar influence was all over this band as Olivia Jean got down right heavy. The last song laced with feedback reminded me of something that Black Sabbath might have done with quick and quirky tempo changes. The crowd was now front and center, engaged. I suspect that had the average age of the patrons been something more akin to the age of the band, i.e.., late twenties, rather than 60 something contemporaries of Cindy Wilson, a full blown mosh pit would have been an inevitability.
At the end of her set she asked the audience: “Loud enough for you?” The answer in my mind was that it was just right. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard more volume coming from the Turf stage but it was worth every decibel. Olivia Jean is a stone-cold star in the making and we will hear more from her in the future.
When 10pm rolled around headliner Cindy Wilson took to the stage with her new band. Frankly, I was a bit worried that she, or anybody for that matter, would have a hard time claiming that headline slot after Olivia Jean’s thunder. It took exactly one song to prove she was still a queen.
For anyone who came to the show expecting Rock Lobster, Private Idaho or any kind of B-52 pop hijinks they got anything but. Despite the 52’s still touring and working, this was a complete musical departure. Cindy walked on stage clad in a boa and silver sequined blazer replete with Elton John sparkle glasses set against her shorn platinum blond hair. Her three male bandmates could easily have passed for her sons.
Front and center on the stage was a Theremin to which she walked and began to send electrical sound waves careening through the room. For a minute or two we waited as she warbled techno sounds until the band dropped directly in the rocker Frenzy. They immediately downshifted into the title track of her new album Change that featured a beautiful looping vocal treatment which she controlled from her own station. As the song ended she looked at her band mates and laughed. Obviously, she was happy with what they’ve accomplished.
From that beautiful soaring track the band immediately came back full force with my favorite song of the entire evening. A wild, full throated and aptly titled tune called Ballistic. The chorus calls for one to go ballistic and the crowd obliged. Anybody who wasn’t up front headed that way. I looked over to the merch table and Olivia Jean and her bandmates were in full dance mode. Half way through the song they plunged into the crowd to be part of the festivities.
It became apparent as the band seamlessly moved into On The Inside that this was a night all about pace and tempo, created by ensemble. While Cindy was front and center this was not a backing band. This was a four-piece combo that was an entity rather than four players. There was no banter and the ordering of songs and segues between them seemed consistently perfect. When the crowd needed a bit of a breath or needed a bump to kick it up a notch again, the natural pacing and cures were right there. This concert was not designed as a collection of songs, it was presented as a whole. The music was meant to transport and travel and in a club environment it was something unique.
At no point was there an immediacy to the sound. Each band member was surrounded by a suite of electronics, loop stations and synths. So rather than the music driving at me from the stage I became aware of being surrounded in layers of sounds with notes zinging around the space. Cindy’s voice was never offered untouched and naked. Yet the amount of production added to it was always for a purpose as opposed to covering for some deficiency. On numerous occasions I was absolutely stunned by the amount of sound being produced by just four musicians doing double and triple duty.
As the end of the main set approached the entire crowd was pushed to the front and the vibe was one of complete entrancement. Cindy’s band had taken us on a musical journey which explored a huge range of soundscapes. Sometimes we traveled fast. Sometimes we drifted. At all times we were immersed in gorgeous sounds.
In the final song the drummer walked off stage midway through. My notes said: “As drummer walks we are all wrapped in a thick, soft sonic box.” When the band left the stage, the crowd was relaxed and reserved. We’d all drifted off to someplace beautiful; to stomp and shout for an encore would have been a bit of a sacrilege.
As if knowing that the connection was tenuous the band promptly walked back on stage immediately and the drummer who’d cut out early led us back in with a heavy rhythmic beat on the song Time that morphed into the funkiest number of the evening. Cindy moved about the stage exhorting the bass player into a powerful solo. This song was a bit of a departure and I could feel Bowie’s Fame in the echoes.
The band then moved back into moodiness with soaring synths that stayed just above Cindy’s ethereal doubled voice. The crowd swayed to Moog dreams as the volume and intensity slowly built to a peak. Dissonance, pounding and feedback came to the front as the guitar player set his guitar in front of his amp and walked off. Cindy raised her hands. Smiled and said thank you and dismounted the stage. The crowd asked for no more. The show was complete and wholly satisfying. An evening that featured a stunning new star followed by a seasoned professional finding new joy and sounds in a collaboration with a new generation of musicians and technology.