Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12

Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12
Photo by Erik Hess

Grant Cutler
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Friday, December 21, 2012

Grant Cutler is smart, talented, and industrious. He has good taste. His projects don't miss. He's an artist with little left to prove. He's among the best we have. Recently, he won an arts grant to produce an original composition, a musical rumination on, well, no one's really sure, and Cutler's not really saying. In any case, it was a well-earned bit of good fortune for a deserving performer. In light of these numerous virtues and victories, it's probable that Cutler knows that Friday's performance at the Cedar was a miss.

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Zoo Animal opened the show. They mixed new stuff in with the old, and the increasing crowd received them well. Lead singer Holly Newsom is a mesmerizing performer, and she's been at it long enough that her performative tics (the drop to both knees during a rhythm guitar solo, the flourished, percussive upstroke, the occasional shake of the guitar neck) have obvious mastery behind them. Her vocals have a clipped, breathy air with lots of vocal fry, and she seems to sing with deliberately reduced force. Sometimes the approach worked, sometimes it seemed like an inscrutable, distracting affectation. Overall, they performed well, even if they did, compared to the somber, end-times pretense of the night, prepare the audience for a loud and forceful show that ultimately never arrived.

Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12
Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12
Photos by Erik Hess

The Anonymous Choir, a new project of Dark Dark Dark's Nona Marie, was the evening's highlight. They performed a deeply moving set, comprising well-selected covers of Leonard Cohen and Kate Bush songs (among other artists, each of which reflected Marie's impeccable taste). The whole conceit of the project is a winner; Marie plays piano and handles lead vocals, and a choir, which consists of members of outlying local bands like Dust Buns and Synchrocyclotron (R.I.P.), fleshes out the material with exquisitely composed harmonies.

Arrangements for piano and a multitude of voices are one of the few immutable contributions of western music; our hearts, for mysterious reasons, unfailingly ache to this sound. But the Anonymous Choir brought numerous additional charms to the show; the choir was a little motley, a little unfinished, a little of-the-people, extremely well-rehearsed, entirely earnest. This mix added an amiable and playful dimension to Marie's arresting, deeply melancholic voice. Choral music can be a little distancing, a little churchy; this was extraordinarily intimate, more human than divine. Stirring, haunting, compelling, and all those other words you see in descriptions of Marie's other work.

After a lengthy interval, Cutler arrived on stage with his band (a bassist, a guitarist, a pianist, a drummer, and three backup singers) and began his piece. His set started softly with a prolonged and undulating drone emanating from Cutler's keyboard. The audience, perhaps knowing that this would be a departure from the kind of work Cutler has done in Lookbook and Gorgeous Lords, was game for it and stood attentively while the drone prolonged, being filled out bit by bit with a dubby bass riff that evoked golden-age PiL and by some inoffensive piano, mostly in the upper, icicle octaves. Cutler sang a little here and there, but he stayed low enough in the mix that his voice was essentially an ambient instrument.

Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12
Grant Cutler at Cedar Cultural Center, 12/21/12
Photos by Erik Hess

The first sign of trouble came with the first vocal harmony, which was sour enough that a few heads in the crowd jerked, perhaps fearing that something had gone off-road with the band. This fear wasn't entirely irrational. The abrupt disharmony seemed neither deliberate nor welcome with Cutler and his singers, and the band (in particular, his backing singers) exhibited a general sense of uncertainty in the early movements of the set, seeming neither to know exactly where to stand or exactly what to do. They often seemed as though they were searching for cues from Cutler and from the abundant printed material he brought onstage with him. If anything had gone off-road, it was neither acknowledged nor remedied; the vocal harmonies, though infrequent, were badly off-key for the remainder of the show, and the accompanying music, which was largely ambient with only occasional peaks and valleys, did little to distract or to support the vocal misses.

By the third movement, the lion's share of the crowd had gone for the coat check and then the door. This exodus, though polite and minimally disruptive, dealt an injury to the mood of the show which Cutler's performance was unable to repair. The compositions did not evolve much beyond their repetitive beginnings until the final song, which was the best of the bunch by far, a booming, full-bore aria that put Cutler on more familiar ground. But by the time it came around, much of the crowd had excused itself.

It's hard to know if the fault lay in the material itself or in Cutler's performance of it. The sense of uncertainty that marked the first movements metastasized by the final movements into a malaise, an idleness, as if the numerous musicians surrounding Cutler (and often Cutler himself) were at a loss for things to do. This aroused suspicions that Cutler and his band hadn't sufficiently rehearsed for the show, or that Cutler had simply composed a piece not meant for the pomp and spectacle of a live show, about which, unfortunately, Cutler made a fair amount of prior ado.

It simply didn't work. It felt instead like a contrivance devised to misdirect the audience's attentions away from the material's flaccidity, perhaps even to play on the insecurity an audience often brings to high-concept material and convince them that the material was going over their heads. It's a forgivable and very human resort of artists who have reached beyond their grasp or simply have run aground on a deadline and are unable to finish properly.

Fortunately for Cutler, the very reputation and history which earned him this grant in the first place will undoubtedly bear him through this slip unscathed. It was a miss, but not a notable miss, and less notable yet when set against his extensive successes. For an artist of his stature and talent, this will likely deal a mere flesh wound which will heal quickly, leave no visible scars, and, one hopes, impart a little lesson which will instruct future work.

Critic's Bias: I've been a fan of Cutler's work for years, and came to the show with a pronounced curiosity regarding this departure.

The Crowd: Four parts 40-something arts patrons and their kids, one part local music folks.

Overheard in the crowd: Not much, really. Pretty reverent bunch.

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