Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps
With Mankwe
The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, January 10, 2013

Caroline Smith and her constant companions Arlen Peiffer and Jesse Schuster have always seemed to enjoy surprising their fanbase. Never content to rest on the thoroughly winning folk-pop formula Caroline developed on her debut release Backyard Tent Set, the trio have made a conscious effort to push their sound in new directions in the last four years. This, in itself, is a bit of surprise, as the 2008 album was probably only one coat of studio polish and a major promotional campaign away from being a massive Starbucks hit, but the Goodnight Sleeps seem to have followed their natural Midwestern inclination towards a more grassroots approach and a slower pace.

2011's Little Wind marked a modern indie rock sensibility creeping into Caroline's songwriting, but fans hoping for a full-blown realization of that sound had better adjust their expectations. The group recently escaped to a studio far from the Twin Cities and has been cooking up another surprise for their fans. Say hello to Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps Mk. III: "Neo-Soul Edition"

See Also:
Slideshow: Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps at the Cedar

At first blush, R&B songstress and poet Mankwe seemed an odd choice to kick off what promised to be a night of earnest strumming. Indeed, much of the crowd seemed unsure of what to make of the silky soul initially, but Mankwe proved herself more than capable of winning over the room with songs from her stellar 2012 release Science and Spirit. Along with frequent collaborator Medium Zach of Big Quarters, Mankwe put on a veritable workshop of her many talents: singing, rapping, stagecraft and improvisation over the producer's spare, piano-driven beats.

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

After the lush, rich textures of the album, this two-piece interpretation only occasionally failed to do the songs justice, and mostly provided an almost jazzy intimacy that seemed to fill the empty stage space. If you shut your eyes, you could almost imagine Medium Zach relaxing behind a baby grand, rather than his MIDI keyboard, while Mankwe worked the stage admirably like a post hip-hop Nina Simone, precise diction and all. A sign right in front of the beer taps (good placement) notified patrons that a documentary crew was filming Mankwe's performance, and the singer definitely gave them something to follow, wowing the crowd with an impressive bit of freestyle vocal improv during a lull.

A careful eye couldn't help but notice a bit of additional kit normally absent from a Goodnight Sleeps' stage. As the band strode up to the excited screams of the sold-out crowd, it contained a few more members than normal. Honorary Goodnight Sleepers for the evening included Jef Sundquist, formerly of Hildur Victoria, on keys, frequent Haley Bonar collaborator Jacob Hansen on the Jazzmaster and two black-clad backup singers who turned out to be Hannah von der Hoff of Sexcat and, naturally, Lizzo of The Chalice. Breaking into a laid-back Stax grove, the band vamped briefly before their leading lady hit the stage and the audience's collective jaw hit the floor. Balancing on some serious looking wedges and dressed to the nines with giant mane of blonde locks, Caroline eased into the first new song of the night "Buy Me" with a smoky, soulful new delivery, no guitar necessary.

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Sounding for all the world like The Band's "Whispering Pines" as performed by Erykah Badu, the new tune built up pressure before exploding into a double-time gospel beat while Caroline and her backup singers laced harmony after harmony. Demurring in-between songs, the frontwoman mentioned that her band had been working on a record that they were extremely excited to share with their fans, and asked permission to play another new one, "The One Thing," which cemented that this newfound soul was not a one-song experiment, but a definite new direction.
For what it's worth, Caroline and the boys really seem to have done their homework on this new sound -- a significant portion of its authenticity can be traced back to Jesse and Arlen's sterling rhythm section work. Peiffer modulated his folksy Levon Helm-esque shuffles to fit the character of the new arrangements admirably, building tension for big vocal moments with the practiced skill of a musician much older than he. Schuster, always the Goodnight Sleeps' true secret weapon, made things undeniably funky with a series of restrained, slinky Motown basslines. Credit really should be given to Hanson and Sundquist as well, who delivered characteristically great supporting work, Hanson's guitar taking on a lilt that fans of the Alabama Shakes would be both familiar and enthralled with.

Still, this was undoubtedly Caroline's moment to shine, and Ms. Smith seemed to relish the opportunity, showcasing an incredible new faculty for dizzying vocal runs and a brassy, thoroughly adult croon. Lauryn Hill definitely seems to have been a major influence on the new record, so much so that the group threw in a cover of The Queen's classic Miseducation cut "Ex Factor" that never once felt like American-Idol-White-Girl-Soul. While Caroline has always managed to imbue even her hokiest material with a sincere emotional connection, she really seems to have poured her heart into these new songs, with a charming blend of vulnerability and spunk.

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Another new standout "Half About Being a Woman" demonstrated the group's tight control of dynamics, letting Caroline's tender verse delivery build into a show-stopping finish, while "Magazine" bounced along on a danceable beat that positively reeks of hit potential. The group showed off another adept bit of interpretation at the end of their first set with a cover of The Beatles "Cry Baby Cry," eking every ounce of blue-eyed soul out of Lennon's composition and finally goosing the crowd into a sing-along.

However, if you were a diehard Goodnight Sleeps Mk. II or Mk. I fan at this show you may have gone home a bit disappointed. Little Wind hits "Tanktop" and "Eagle's Nest" and "Calliope" received awesome new interpretations that highlighted the band's rocking R&B sound, but their earlier singer-songwriter material seemed to be shoved aside ever-so-slightly to make way for Mk. III. "Closing the Door" proved to be thoroughly sweet and gorgeous as always, but her solo take on "Clench My Teeth" for the encore just seemed a bit anticlimactic after the show the full band had just put on. Still, the diehards ate it up and yelled for more, succeeding in convincing the singer and her band to play "Tying My Shoes," another early gem.

Frankly, they'll come around once this record drops and they have a little bit more time to fall in love with the new material. Rarely have I walked away from a show this excited about a record that doesn't even seem to have a release date yet. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Cedar isn't big enough for the next Goodnight Sleeps show, between their hot new tracks and seemingly effortless star power, we might have just witnessed the start of something really big last night.

Set List:
Buy Me
The One Thing
Half About Being A Woman
It Happens
Eagle's Nest
Ex Factor (Lauryn Hill)
Closing the Doors
Cry Baby Cry (The Beatles)
Clench My Teeth
Tying My Shoes

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Critic's Bias: I'm much more of a fan of Soul and R&B than singer-songwriter folk pop, and I've been a fan of this group since its debut.

The Crowd: College-aged hipster types and their parents, the card-carrying Current members.

Overheard in the Crowd:Polite silence, with the occasional whoop after a particularly big note.

Random Notebook Dump: Lizzo is now officially the most connected woman in the MN music scene and she's barely been here a year. Stay tuned for her forthcoming collaboration with In Defence and Skoal Kodiak later this month.

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