Basilica Block Party, Day Two with Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, the Wild Feathers, Caroline Smith, Frankie Lee, BBGUN, and Jillian Rae Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis Saturday, July 12, 2014
Due to some well-timed divine intervention, Saturday afternoon's rain stopped as soon as the music started on day two of the 20th Basilica Block Party. The clearing skies ushered in plenty of glossy national acts to draw in both the crowds and the headlines, but the day was ultimately defined by the strong performances of the locals on the bill who rose to the occasion.
Jillian Rae started out the day with a countrified rock set that drew mainly from her excellent 2013 record, Heartbeat. The five-piece band easily got the growing crowd into it. Rae's dulcet vocals took on a passionate edge when her songs hit their peak, as her deft violin work added a welcome flourish to the material. The keys-laden title track and the slow-burning spirit of "Don't Want You Back," both resonated strongly in the afternoon sun, while "Chains" had a definite O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrass vibe that emphatically got the festivities underway.
Nashville quintet the Wild Feathers returned to a Minneapolis stage after delivering a strong opening set for Gary Clark Jr. at the end of last year. They started out with guitars blazing during a Zeppelin-esque intro before their harmony-driven opening number, "Hard Wind." The band clearly was thrilled to be playing to such a sizable audience, and made the most of their opportunity, delivering the best set of the day from a band not from the Twin Cities.
"Backwoods Company" has a snarling grit to it, while the bells of the Basilica chimed in fortuitously on the Band-like "Hard Times," giving the track a mournful undertone. For their bluesy anthem "Left My Woman," the lonesome tale from the road was personalized for the local crowd with "Minnesota is where I'll be" worked into the lyrics.
BBGUN expanded to a quintet for their set. Joey Kantor on keys gave their countrified rock songs an added texture and warmth. Their rich, bluesy numbers incited the crowd, who joyously danced in front of the stage. "Tire Fire" had a George Thorogood-like stomp to it that really ignited the set, before they brought out Jake Hanson to add his guitar flourishes to spirited renditions of "SEA/TAC" and "Everybody Smokes." The band mentioned that they had their debut CD for sale for only $5, but that they would accept food tickets instead of cash, as well.
Caroline Smith played to one of the biggest local audiences of her career. With Jake Hanson occupied and missing from Smith's band, her songs took on a more lush, soulful sound with the help of keyboardist Eric Mason, as well as backing vocalists Mina Moore and Hannah von der Hoff. The set started with a few tracks from Smith's breakout record, Half About Being a Woman, before she dug into her back catalog for "Tanktop" and "Tying My Shoes," which both sounded glorious.
Smith joked around at one point with her friend/collaborator Lizzo, who was in the front row of the crowd dancing and singing along to Caroline's set. On "Bloodstyle" and "Child of Moving On" Smith's resonant vocals carried the tracks home. Smith vocalized her support for equality and fair wages for women, and encouraged us all to look into the work of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, before playing her catchy empowerment anthem, "Magazine." The set ended with a strong trio of new songs, as the title track, "Walking Off Strong," and "All That I Know Is (I'm Your Baby)" all soared. Smith stood in stark contrast to the polished glossy pop of Ingrid Michaelson, who was next up on the main stage. While Michaelson's buoyant but vacuous pop hits clearly held an appeal over the large crowd of fans, Smith's passionate, incisive songs ultimately towered over hers in comparison. [page]
Frankie Lee's gang of alt-country gunslingers expanded to a sextet for their set -- including the ubiquitous Jake Hanson, who had a busy day. Lee played a rollicking, sentimental set that drew from his excellent EP, Middle West, along with some new songs and well-chosen covers. "Country" had a bit of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue twang to it, while the mournful desolation of "Horses" was devastating. After a gorgeous cover of Stevie Nicks' "Rhiannon," Lee joked, "Thank you cocaine and Stevie Nicks." The band were planning on ending their set after the exquisite rendition of "Horses," but after a brief group huddle when they realized they had time for one more, Lee exclaimed, "What a way to honor the dead," before they ended their set with a brilliant cover of the Velvet Underground's Loaded classic, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin.'" It was awash with plenty of guitars and emotion, and got the crowd singing its hopeful/hopeless chorus to the heavens.
While Train was doing whatever it is that Train does to keep getting invited back to the Basilica Block Party, Ben Harper and the blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite drew in a massive crowd for their own headlining set. The uneven performance proved to be a bit meandering and aimless in the end. After starting 20 minutes late, they drew more heavily on Musselwhite's standards than on the tracks featured on their Grammy-winning collaborative album, Get Up! Harper alternated between lap steel and slide guitars to augment Musselwhite's resonant electric harmonica work, but his guitars never were high enough in the sound mix.
The songs from Get Up! really did ring out true in the early evening hour, as the title track, "I Don't Believe A Word You Say," and "I Ride At Dawn" both prominently featured the creative duo, who were backed by a serviceable trio of musicians. But the set started to sound rather indistinguishable as the night wore on, with similar guitar licks leading to standard harp solos before the entire band would bring the song to an end. These were talented musicians, mind you, but there just wasn't much spontaneity or a spark in most of the set. "Long Distance Call" and Musselwhite's "I'm Goin' Home" both dragged on interminably, and by the time the group got around to covering "When the Levee Breaks" it gave the set a much needed jolt that ultimately came far too late.
In a city desperate for more high-profile outdoor music festivals, the Basilica Block Party once again proved to be a popular choice for Minnesota music lovers, who turned out in droves for the Saturday night festivities. I just hope that in the future, those who pick the lineups choose national bands who can match the creative flair of those talented bands we have right here in our own backyard.
Personal Bias: I was first won over by Ben Harper when he opened for the Pharcyde in 1995, but it had been years since I've seen him. His guitar/personality was sadly quite a bit toned down for his collaboration with Charlie Musselwhite.
The Crowd: A young audience excited about the all-ages aspect of the event, as well as the radio friendly national acts.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Hey, let's get our picture taken with the pope."
Random Notebook Dump: I truly wish that more people were there to witness Frankie Lee's set, but for us lucky folks who were there, we won't be forgetting it anytime soon. Damn, that was one hell of a performance.
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