#WMS 2012 recap: Curious Theatre

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Every year, for the Westword Music Showcase, we enlist our army of Backbeat wordsmiths to host various stages, and, in addition to their emcee obligations, we ask them to pull double duty (or triple-duty in some cases) and also write up the acts that appear on their individual stages. Kelsey Whipple hosted the Curious Theatre stage. Page down to read her thoughts and see some photos.


At exactly noon, the Yawpers proved to be the ideal opener for the Curious Theatre's close quarters and crisp sound, layering peels of harmonica over guitar-propelled growls for high-stakes Americana. What the guys lacked in attendance, they made up for in energy: The guys broke a guitar string and unbuttoned their shirts before they even made it to "Jesus Car," a tribute to singer Nate Cook's dream machine -- a 1967 Nova Super Sport -- and made perfect do through a set that also included a rowdy "America." Key line: "David Foster Wallace took a bullet from the stars."

It was hot yesterday, y'all. If sweat-struck discomfort didn't provide enough proof, the six good-looking, smooth-grooving members of Petals of Spain demonstrated the unfair weather in a show so lively their face paint dripped from their faces to the floor. Throughout a set that pulled from more genres than people on the stage, dual singers Hunter Hall and Nic Jay called on both serious crooning and fancy falsetto across songs such as "Secrets and Answers" and buoyant new single, "I Gotta Know." As a tribute to the late Robin Gibb, the band unleashed another new one that required both the band's founders and its banjo player to topple some impressive high notes.

I'm With Her's Angie Stevens and Haley Rydell packed petals on the front of a dress, guitar and tattoo, but their sound is hardly flowery. Sparse and simple with a strong debt to country's historic greats, the duo played bare, honest tunes in their bare feet, channeling both summer spirit and seasonless heartbreak in a charming half-hour set. In one of their loveliest moments, the former Fargo residents recounted a bit of personal history: Years ago, with a different act and a different focus, Stevens considered quitting music -- only to be re-inspired by a fan who sent her that flower-decked guitar and asked her not to. Thank you, mystery fan.

"Don't be afraid to not live in fear," FaceMan's eponymous and willfully anonymous lead singer spat at the crowd early on. But he said nothing about awe: With the added help and showmanship of Scott McCormick on keyboard, the raucous rockers blazed through an all-too-brief set of fist-pounding, gut-checking, eye-opening electric rock grounded in keys and charged by rhythm. Before exiting the stage (to generous applause), the band upped the ante on itself: "This song was written two days ago, and we're scared to play it," FaceMan (also known as Steve) admitted, "but fuck it." And whatever that song was called, it was the best in their show.

The Curious Theatre is probably not supposed to allow this kind of capacity -- but it's worth a half-hour pressed up against other sweaty, smelly fans in an air-condition-free chapel to see Ian Cooke. The singer-songwriter with a band in the middle of the day is a completely different beast than Cooke solo under dim lights, but the added evening energy showcased his off-kilter arrangements and inter-instrument chemistry as he stretched and warped his curious vocals in time with the acrobatic notes of his trademark cello. Always graceful and occasionally eerie, Cooke trapped the audience in sound for the quietest set of the day -- at least until it was time to cheer.


If Cooke packed the theater to its breaking point, then the soulful, frenetic quintet known as A. Tom Collins just broke it. But then, no venue is quite large enough for frontman Aaron Collins, who skipped Westword's introduction, demanded those stuck standing do their lurking at the front of the stage, and whipped the band into a frenzy as he shouted the set's first lines, "Take me to the hospital ..." He's lucky he didn't have to go there: As the rest of the group loosed savage trumpet and sax to match his grit with guts, Collins jumped from stage to balcony, climbed it like Tarzan and cavorted with his upper-deck fans before returning to the stage, tucking his green ruffled underwear back into his jeans and forging on.

Ethereal lead singer Julia LiBassi of the Raven and the Writing Desk unleashed a storm indoors within one minute of opening her mouth. The band's cloudy backing video certainly helped, but it was LiBassi's wild, witchy vocals (like a breathier but better-adjusted Fiona Apple) that drew the crowd in and tossed them about through bouts of gypsy jazz, Nick Cave carnival jams and propulsive atmospherica. Funneled through a dark symphony of violin, electric guitar and percussion, LiBassi and her Alice in Wonderland-inspired outfit traveled in and out of the rabbit hole with alarming agility.

The largest, most attention-grabbing detail of Fairchildren's humble, haunting sound is Julie Davis' upright bass. But while its presence is powerful, its effects are minimal: Fairchildren is the stuff of lovely, eerie nightmares -- all stark, bleak melody that wanders through cryptic lyrics and lost piano to find footing in small, if consistently lush, statements. As she passed her bow across her bass strings yesterday afternoon, Davis craned her neck and focused on the ceiling, as if searching for the subjects she channeled in song.

Any Danielle Ate the Sandwich set is as heavy on humor as it is on talent, and her fourth appearance at the showcase was the raunchy rule, not an exception. After opening with captivating new single (seriously, watch the video) "Faith In a Man," Anderson and bassist Dennis Bigelow passed out gold paper crowns, the hilarious if not particularly high-impact advertising strategy for the band's latest album, Like a King.

"Does anyone have the record yet?" Anderson quizzed the crowd, and then, "Has anyone touched themselves to it yet?" Both questions earned raised hands, which then clapped along through "Pet Store," "American Dream," "Handsome Girl" and a reworked rendition of "Rich Girl" that featured both TLC's "Scrubs" and a freestyle rap, "But I'm trying to cut down on those," Anderson promises.

Heavy on the effects pedals and light on breaks, John Common and Blinding Flashes of Light closed out the Curious Theatre's lineup with ambitious, emotive folk-rock with a distinctly Southern watermark. Backed by wild keys and bold bass, Common and spiritual vocalist Jess DeNicola tossed their powerful vocals back and forth, answering the band's instrumental drama with romantic, then nostalgic, then brazenly hopeful soul stylings. With such lyrical maturity and emotional showmanship, it's hard not to believe in whatever they croon. It's even harder not to sing along.

-- Kelsey Whipple

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