As if the mere concept of releasing four albums in the span of a year isn't epic enough, Chris Koza upped the ante on Saturday night by presenting an elaborate, multi-faceted stage show at the Fitzgerald Theater in honor of Rogue Valley's debut album. Midway through the second set, Koza paused to thank the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, and it was clear that he put the money to good use to create a dazzling show. In addition to his Rogue Valley bandmates (Linnea Mohn, Peter Sieve, and Luke Anderson), Koza was joined by a cast of supporting musicians like Jeremy Messersmith, JoAnna James, Joey Kantor, and Alicia Wiley, poet Alex Lemon, a pair of actors from Electric Arc Radio, MPR reporter Sanden Totten, and -- get this! -- the whole drumline section of Waconia High School's marching band.
When the heavy red velvet curtain was raised at the beginning of the first set, the entire sold-out audience gasped simultaneously. It was obvious that no one (this writer included) expected such a grandiose stage show, and the shock of that curtain raising started the evening off with a audible spark. Koza was flanked on all sides by foliage and giant trees, his band had expanded from the usual four players into six, and the stage was backlit with a giant glowing full moon. For a moment, it was almost difficult to take everything in -- the scale of the stage set-up, the band's beautiful and flawless harmonies, the perfectly mixed sound -- and it only got better as the night wore on.
Everything about the show was beautifully, masterfully done. The evening was produced by Koza's friend Larissa Anderson, and it was obvious that she had gone to great lengths to ensure that each detail conformed with the overarching theme of the show. As with Rogue Valley's first album, the theme of the show was springtime, and it centered around a story about two restless young lovers plagued by wanderlust.
Even the songs chosen by Koza's guest musicians, Jeremy Messersmith and JoAnna James, fit in with the night's theme. Midway through the first set, Koza cleared the way for Messersmith to play his new song "A Girl, a Boy, and a Graveyard" as well as a track off The Silver City, "Miracles"; and during the second act James performed some of the most sparsely arranged and intense songs of the evening with "Marcy" and her new ballad about homesickness, "St. Paul."
And then there were Koza's new Rogue Valley songs, the guests of honor. Mostly inspired by Koza's childhood on the West Coast (he grew up in Portland and also dedicated songs to San Francisco, Seattle, and southern Oregon), Rogue Valley's songs have a sprawling, spacious feel that evokes wide open prairies, moonlit skies, and thunderstorms. Koza's voice is almost eerily perfect, always clear, pure, and on pitch, and his pop songwriting sensibilities are downright nerdy. The overall impact is one that can be hard to absorb (are these sounds really being made by mammals, not robots?) but it only added to the engaging nature of Saturday's show.
The music was beautiful enough to stand on its own, but it was amplified throughout the night with the addition of the drum line (who at one point marched solemnly down the aisles of the theater to play amidst the audience); the Electric Arc Radio performers, who read letters from the perspective of two lovers torn separated by restlessness; and Alex Lemon, who recited a series of poignant love poems he had written specifically for the evening. All told, there was barely a moment that passed without a performer competing for the crowd's attention, and it made for a lavishly arranged and thoroughly enjoyable show from start to finish.