It was nearly 8:30 when Omaha's Skypiper took the stage for its half-hour opening set. The besuited five-piece was led by guitarist and lead vocalist Graham Burkum, backed up by Kyle Christensen on guitar, Gabriel Burkum on double bass, Connor Giles on keyboards, cello and accordion, and Ryan Menchaca on drums. While the first two songs were bright and bouncy, soon the bowed string instruments took hold, casting a somber tone over the heart of the set. With low and twangy guitar leads, some songs pushed past the band's Americana base and into country – something I hadn't expected after a preparatory listen to its latest album (self-titled, self-released, 2011) earlier in the day. The set's aura of melancholy worked well in the harmony-rich "Wet Feet," but did start to wear thin as the band's half-hour set continued. Thankfully the audience was given a pleasant reprieve by the crisp indie pop closer "Earthworm."
Communist Daughter is a band with a oft-repeated history involving its frontman Johnny Solomon. It's a familiar story where drugs get the better of an aspiring musician just as he seems to have the big time in reach. This story, however, is also about second chances, and Communist Daughter is Solomon's second chance. And, as if to pay tribute to one of his influences, it's also a Cash-ian story about the redemptive powers of a good woman's love; backing vocalist Molly Moore is that woman.
The six-piece, Minneapolis-based band started its 40-minute set with a haunting, song defined by lonesome voices and Solomon's gossamer electric guitar. While he traded that electric for an acoustic early in the band's set, that initial song demonstrated what would be the theme of the night: that each band would share a common folk thread, yet colour their music quite differently. For Communist Daughter, it would be the heady skew of indie rock that sets its music apart from campfire folk.
In this first song, and throughout the set, Moore stood beside Solomon, providing hushed backing vocals that seldom aspired for the full-voiced spotlight. The two make a unlikely pair – he's a big, bearded Midwestern man in a trucker hat, and she's a wisp of a blonde with a Bieber cut that swoops across her eyes. Their voices, however, blend flawlessly – a feat demonstrated when the band played "Speed of Sound" from the album Soundtrack to the End (Grain Belt Records, 2010). Bassist Adam Switlick added his backing vocals on that track, with additional guitars by Al Weiers and Dylan Marcus. Elsewhere, Marcus provided defining keyboards, and misguided bells. The sharp ring of the latter having the unfortunate effect of jarring the listener away from the luxuriously sleepy indie folk compositions. The drums of Dan Demuth stayed out of the way for most of the set, but rolled nicely on "Don't Remember Me" from the band's latest EP (Lions & Lambs, Grain Belt, 2012).
Solomon's interaction with the audience was limited, but what we did get was pleasant. When a fan called out for a song, he was noticeably taken back, replying with disbelief that the audience knew the band's material. It was sweet. Any further interaction, however, seemed like it might be too much for Solomon. His lyrics are terribly revealing and intimate, picking at wounds not yet healed. For him to divorce himself from that emotion in an attempt to cheerfully communicate with his audience would be disingenuous at best. Solomon smartly decided to keep his banter honest, if somewhat understated.
The house lights came up the moment the band finished its set. This was the starting gun that sent a wave of kids rushing in from the dark wings of the club toward the stage in an effort to stake out a front row view for the headliner. My new neighbours were loud and confident in the way that college kids always are, allowing me to overhear discussions about how they were "spiritual, but not religious," or how all soaps are carcinogenic. I tried not to project this microcosm of hippies onto the headliner, figuring I must just be the victim of some localised anomaly. After all, I had heard the local band's sole release, a self-titled 2010 EP (self-released), and expected the ensemble's take on the night's musical theme to be hectic and shambling – something akin to Mumford and Sons or a host of other bands pushing harmony-rich acoustic music out to a rock audience. But while Quiet Corral may lean that direction, I'd soon find out that its live show actually tumbles toward world music-friendly, jam-band territory, replete with bad dancers and a dense cloud of pot smoke.
It began at 10:30, when Quiet Corral marched onto the stage behind frontman Jesse Braswell Roberts. Wearing a large bass drum, and pounding it with mallets, Roberts led a literal parade of musicians onto the stage. Eschewing their regular roles and instruments, the six-piece began with a highly-percussive number, further energizing the already frantic audience. Afterwards the players settled to their established positions: Roberts relinquishing the drum for the more familiar mandolin or acoustic guitar, Garrett Childers providing acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Isaac Flynn on electric guitar and backing vocals, Jim Barnes behind drums and (you guessed it) singing backing vocals, Matt Green on bass, and Zach Mehli on piano and, by end of the set, electric guitar.
Roberts began the set in high spirits, telling the large audience that the band was happy to be back in Lawrence, and happy to see so many familiar faces. Familiarity was the key, as the audience seemed to be reading from a playbill that I never received: clapping along to songs without prompting, calling for songs that have never been recorded, and chanting in unison for Childers to take his shirt off. In regards to that final request, there is an almost boy-band appeal to Quiet Corral, with each of the six young men in the band projecting a different persona. I'm certain that members of the audience could tell me which one is the shy one, the smart one, the funny one, the bad boy, etc.
Fortunately, the band is able to deliver on all the hype and hysteria. Its songs are well composed, with memorable melody lines, and exquisite multipart harmonies – something the band highlighted most boldly in the largely-a cappella "River" played near the end of its fourteen-song set. "River," like the majority of the songs played, is slated for release on the band's full length debut – an endeavour which has taken on comic proportions due to its perpetual delay.
The band had scarcely finished its hour long set when insistent calls for an encore rang out. This prompted a quick return to the stage where the band played the upbeat "Thieves." Still the audience still wasn't sated, and began chanting in unison "Jackson 5." Although always planned (evidenced by the pre-printed setlist), Childers made of show of relenting to the audience, and giving them what they came for – a cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" powered by Childer's falsetto.
At 11:45 it was all over, and the once-packed Granada began to empty out onto Mass. Ave. I reflected on the bill's three bands, and the different stamps each added to the folk music oeuvre – the first applying a somber country filter, the second mixing in the off-kilter slant of indie rock, and the final adding a buoyant, rock festival vibe. Even within the same genre, the tones were entirely different, but it was hard not to imagine winners and losers. Will Quiet Corral explode onto the national scene behind a virulent college following? Can Communist Daughter save Johnny Solomon's soul? And will Skypiper follow so many other Omaha bands to earn the title of cult favourite? It's anyone's guess, but it's that unknown that makes exploring live music so much fun – it's like sports, but with fewer injuries and almost as many drugs.