There are few live shows I've looked forward to as much as Cloud Cult at the Bottom of the Hill, and while the evening provided a few genuinely transcendent moments of musical communion between band and audience (and a surprisingly great set from opener Music for Animals, who reminded both the boyfriend and I of an 80s rock band in their bouncy sound and onstage presence), it also showed how difficult it can be to take tracks that are infused with the lushness of studio production on the road and into a live setting. A bit of ugliness at the end, involving greed and money flaunting during the auction for the two paintings that were produced on stage during the set, wound up spoiling what would otherwise have been a great evening of live music.
In my original review of Cloud Cult's new album, The Meaning of 8, I commented on the complex arrangements in the band's tracks, their ability to mix electronic and acoustic sounds, and the way they could create huge anthemic builds that then broke out into cleanly delivered musical moments. These qualities are a combination of the band member's inherent musical talents and some very advanced production techniques, and while the former is something that you can take out into the clubs, it's very difficult to recover studio magic in a live mix. In Cloud Cult's performance of tracks like "Pretty Voice," "The Meaning of 8," and, what in my opinion is destined to be a classic indie rock anthem, "Take Your Medicine," the band clearly put across all the emotional power that I expected, thanks both to their ability to master the dynamics between themselves and the power of Craig Minowa's vocals (and Craig is even cuter in person than he is in the band photos), but all those clean moments, the fine separation of the instruments that gave them each their own voice, were drowned in a muddy mix. The Bottom of the Hill is a wonderfully classic Hessian rock club, and while I don't know if the woman doing the mixes was travelling with the band or was the resident sound person, it seemed as if her technique was better suited for bands with a more traditional, straight-ahead rock sound. Music for Animals, for example, which relied on classic bass, drum, two guitars and a synth, and a basic fusion between them all, had a much more solid sound. Another contrast between the two groups was that while Music for Animals clearly enjoyed being on the stage together and working off one another to create a performance of their songs, the members of Cloud Cult seemed more introspective and centered on their own parts. The performance of their tracks didn't stray beyond what you would hear on the album, which meant that just as a track like "Take Your Medicine" built up and engaged the audience, it would be over.
I'm glad that I got to hear Cloud Cult in a small venue like Bottom of the Hill that fosters a sense of intimicy with bands on the stage, because if they can put out another album like The Meaning of 8, I'm sure that they will be able to fill much larger venues. At that point they may also have worked out the kinks in how they adapt their songs for live performance, and I would certainly love to hear them on a cleaner sound system. I thought I heard that they will be coming back through San Francisco in August, and I will definitely go check them out again to see how their live sound has matured after a couple months of being on the road.
And now for the ugly part. As part of Cloud Cult's shows Connie Minowa and Scott West each create a painting on stage during the set, and then the paintings are auctioned off after the show. I thought it would be cool to take home something more than a t-shirt that would remind me of the evening on an emotional level, and so I put in a bid on Connie's piece. At the time I didn't take much notice of it, but the starting bids for both pieces were from the same peson, at the same price. I thought that this meant this was the acceptable starting bid level, and while it was a little high, it wasn't outside the realm of what I would consider to be a good price for original art. A little later I checked and noticed that I had been outbid, so I let it go and bid on Scott West's piece, which the boyfriend said he preferred anyway. After the show I went to check on the bidding and found I had been outbid again, this time by the same person, Charlise (unsure of the spelling there, since my bifocals don't work so well in dim light when reading handwriting), who had won the Connie Minowa painting. I bid again, and Charise then put up a sum that was way more than I could afford. So I asked her, was she really willing to pay over a thousand dollars for both paintings, and wouldn't it be fair to let one of them go to someone else? She responded that she had gotten both paintings that had been created during the Sacramento show the night before, and she was going to get both of these as well, whatever it took. Since I was obviously up against someone who was motivated by greed and had the money (or the credit card) to back it up, I backed off, but it really pissed me off as an example of the kind of attitude that leads people to buy Escalades and drive out street fairs - I've got money, I don't care about you, I'm going to get what I want and my money is what makes it possible for me to be both arrogant and selfish. It was something of a bummer to go from reaching up to this peak of existential intensity only to be pulled back down into the muck of money. Since this seems antithetical to what I perceive as Cloud Cult's ethos, I hope they will find a way to balance between the financial benefit to Connie and Scott from such behavior, and the rather ugly drives behind it. When I got home I sent them an email that was perhaps more splenetic than I would have liked (it was late, I'd had more than enough shots of Jaeger with Stella chasers, and I was kinda upset that I'd lost out on something I'd really liked because I don't have bucks to just throw at things) and I hope that I didn't come across as just a sore loser, but I hope that they will take up my suggestion of allowing one person to only buy one painting. After all, I'm sure they would prefer to share themselves with, and give pleasure to, as many folks as they can who are receptive to what they have to say.