Free Energy at the Turf Club, 1/26/13

Free Energy at the Turf Club, 1/26/13
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen

Free Energy
Turf Club, St. Paul
Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday night's sold-out Free Energy show at Turf Club indicates that there are still plenty of feverish locals who can only be cured by more cowbell. It seems like a calculated decision by the band to start every show they play with cowbell knocks. And it's a little disarming that something as simple as the one-two-punch of the bell and floor-tom from the opening "Backscratcher" could herd everyone one step forward. All the more impressive considering that the crowd itself stood closer to the side of casual concertgoer-a common demographic for fashionable homecoming shows.

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Slideshow: Free Energy at the Turf Club, 1/26/13
Free Energy's Paul Sprangers: We're not trying to be like the Strokes or Jet

In spite of their Philadelphia base of operations, it felt like the Minnesota natives were playing a show in the Twin Cities on a monthly basis during the 2010-11 promotion of their DFA Records debut, Stuck On Nothing. But as relentless as their presence remained here, their name never really sat at the top of the marquees. They played an opening date for Mates of State in June of 2010. They rounded out a lineup during that summer's Grand Old Day. They had a tour stop here in support of Titus Andronicus. Then they kicked off 2011 by headlining the Current's birthday at First Avenue, but the bulk of that crowd came and left at the direction of Brother Ali. A quiet 2012 could have left few Free Energy enthusiasts hanging around for that sort of cheerful-albeit rudimentary-power pop.

Only two songs in, "Electric Fever" helped remind everyone that if you didn't know the words, frontman Paul Sprangers would be throwing out plenty of "Whoa, Oh!" choruses to jump on top of. Still, Stuck On Nothing standouts like "Dream City" and "Free Energy" echoed the loudest through the length of the Turf Club.

Free Energy at the Turf Club, 1/26/13
Free Energy at the Turf Club, 1/26/13
Photos by Anna Gulbrandsen

The crowd really acted as the best divider line between the new and the old. There's a handful of contemporary fascinations that pop up across Love Sign. And in the company of such earnest and old fashioned songwriting, the punctuations of drum machines or twinkly synthesizers sound as odd as, well, a cowbell. These explorations that the group seemed to have found a bit irresistible on record are wholly absent from their live repertoire, either out of choice or practicality. But with that sole removal, any marker of stylistic progress or exploration between the two albums becomes entirely blurred on stage. Sure, there has never been too much complexity behind the group's tried-and-true mantra pop, and it's perfect nourishment for a Saturday night. Hopefully, there margin of success won't continue to solely favor their off-record experience.

But what an experience it was. Sprangers kept his banter remarkably light, save a few "thank you"s to the likes of the Current's David Campbell and a single dedication to "all the drunk moms out there."  Guitarists Scott Wells and Sheridan Fox played perfect complements to one another. A handful of Love Sign tracks toss around harmonics and tapping where Stuck On Nothing remained pretty loyal to a chord-riff dialectic. Songs like "Hey Tonight" show the two playing with a more spacious union. They must be privy to their symbiotic relationship considering the handful of times where the two Sampson-headed players forced their webs of hair into a single, one-man soloing mess.

The crowd's simmering affection eventually got to that jubilant boil, which leaves a band no choice but to double encore. The group pounded away at "Dark Trance" and "Young Hearts," giving Wells a few more chances to solo from the tip of his monitor like it was a mountaintop. They stood standing for one more song before Sprangers and Co. departed after cryptically saying, "Enjoy the full moon." And that's kind of the band's MO- a bit spiritual, a bit vague but nevertheless something stirring.

The Crowd: A bunch of Elvis Costello-looking boys in the front and a bunch of guys and gals doing the couples-skate thing in the back.

Critic's Bias: I've seen plenty of those aforementioned Free Energy performances, and the group has yet to disappoint on stage. Whether or not they can propel themselves to new terrains on record still remains to be seen.

Random Notebook Dump: Openers Strange Relations and Baby Boys were a palatable primer for the main course. Baby Boys' cocktail drum kit punk helped coarsen up an initially timid crowd.

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