As was to be expected, Friday night's show at the Cedar Cultural Center was bittersweet. It was one of the first hometown shows for Minnesota native-turned-LA resident JoAnna James, and was the last show, hometown or otherwise, for the fractured Wars of 1812. While Chris Koza's name was at the top of the bill for the evening, it was clear that a large portion of the audience had come to see the momentous sets by his two talented openers.
JoAnna James was visibly nervous during her set, giggling between songs as she paused to shake out her limbs and tell half-conceived stories that meandered into fits of giggles. She was joined by guitarist Josh Peterson, who accompanied her acoustic guitar strums with bluesy electric guitar riffs and solos, and the two played off of each other effortlessly. James mixed in a few new songs throughout her set, and the new material showed off a more subtle, soft side to her sultry, powerful voice, including a syncopated, homesick song about her recent move simply titled "St. Paul."
As with most JoAnna James sets, however, the highlight came when she really let loose during the climax of an old favorite, "Molasses," which found her pushing her voice to its limits and holding out a high note for a seemingly impossible length of time.
With the crowd still stunned, James invited Koza to the stage to join her on a duet of Lucinda Williams' "I Envy the Wind," reigning things back in to a more subdued tone for the remainder of her set.
By the time the Wars of 1812 were ready to play the room had filled to capacity, and the energy changed dramatically when they approached the stage. Lead singer Peter Pisano started off the set by stating that they had enough new material to record another whole album, and that they would devote their entire performance to songs off the forthcoming record, which will be released posthumously. The band then preceded to play an hour's worth of the best and most technically complex music I had ever heard from them, making the idea that this group is disbanding seem more and more cruel with each new and remarkably well-written tune.
Though the reasons for the Wars of 1812's breakup were not publicized, it's clear that there is a very profound tension between the four members. From where I was sitting in the front row, I could hear the band shoot sideways remarks at one another during breaks, smiling politely at the audience and then grimacing to one another as they attempted to hold it together for another song. That tension fed itself into the music and created an intensity that I had never seen in the band before, and it was enough to give me chills on more than one occasion.
The band especially shined on tracks that incorporated vast four-part vocal harmonies, and I was reminded of Beatles songs like "Mean Mr. Mustard" or "Because" on more than one occasion. Keyboardist Kenyon Rosewall even joked that one song was their own two-and-a-half minute version of Abbey Road, and sure enough what followed was an intricately composed, keyboard heavy pop song that found all four of them sliding through arrangements of vocal harmonies with ease.
At the end of the set, as the final song faded out a lo-fi recording was piped in, and it sounded like the tape from one of their first times playing together. The band set down their instruments and hugged one another, tears welling up in each of their eyes, as a recording of Rosewall tinkering on a keyboard and Pisano shouting something gleefully to his bandmates was played over the sound system. It was a sad glimpse back at the optimistic beginnings of a band overflowing with potential that was never fully realized, though the new record will be a grand tribute to the talent of this young band.
After talking to Rosewall today, we learned some more information about the new record: "The songs that we played are our new album in track order," he says. "We recorded it with Justin Vernon this summer, it is currently in the process of being mixed by a friend of ours from Chicago."
As for when they plan to release it? "We are hoping right after the new year," he says.