Cloud Cult indoctrinate the Middle East

A review of Cloud Cult and Mason Proper at the Middle East Downstairs on November 13

, Staff

Cloud Cult may have created an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy when they settled on their name. Despite critical acclaim and five national releases, the band has maintained a position below the radar of the infamously persnickety scene that is indie music. They have, however, garnered a faithful and loving ‘cult’ following (yes, smell the pun – love the pun). The Boston chapter of that fan club showed their devoutness Thursday night at the Middle East Downstairs. The not-quite-capacity crowd was as diversified as any survey or poll could hope to be, with as many older, balding individuals as punky twenty-somethings with bandanas around their heads. All were brought together under the banner of Cloud Cult, a band with a running theme of the search for understanding and happiness through the self.

But how does a group with such an optimistic viewpoint and the uncanny ability to bring together a cross-generational, stereotype-melding audience remain comparatively so unknown? It could be the fairly silly name. Maybe the majority of people are too jaded for the philosophy the Cult sings about. Or maybe this is a hint; Cloud Cult is probably most recognizable now as that animated band singing "Lucky Today" while floating on clouds in that Esurance.com commercial. They did that commercial to help with the greening efforts of their current tour behind the recent Feel Good Ghost (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) release. Cloud Cult is passionately grass-roots independent; all of their music is recorded at front man and founder Craig Minowa’s Earthology Reocrods. The label is an environmental non-profit company, using geothermal energies to manufacture products made largely using recycled products. All their profits go to eco-friendly organizations, leaving the band with a narrow budget to advertise themselves and to tour.

Perhaps it is this commitment to the environment, and subsequent minimal profits, that has kept the band from ‘breaking big’ in the music world. Perhaps it’s that inescapably goofy name. Regardless, they gave the followers they do have here in Boston a show filled with giddy ferocity and rocking experimentation. The applause started early as two large charcoal sketches on canvas were brought on stage. The Cult faithful knew what this was about, but Minowa enlightened the unaware halfway into the set. "We have two musicians that don’t play musical instruments", he explained, "They play visual instruments". He was referring to "the love of [his] life" Connie and their "great friend" Scott West, who each create an original painting during live performances, auctioning the images off at the end of the set.

When the band walked on stage to begin the set around 11:30 pm, the cheers came with them. Minowa and his crew opened the set with the largely instrumental "Light At The End Of The Tunnel" off their highly regarded Advice From The Happy Hippopotamus. Minowa was already smiling brightly, Venetian Carnival mask sitting like an extra set of eyes atop his head, as he introduced the band saying, "We’re Cloud Cult, you’re Boston, and we’re gonna have a fantastic evening." This Cult was surely charismatic, and it wasn’t long before it was clear how they managed such a diverse following. The crowd became viable backup singers during the head-bobbing "Brain Gateway", and by the time they were belting, "you came up from the ground/from a million little pieces/you’re a pretty human being" for "No One Said It Would Be Easy", the band’s overarching message was revealing itself.

The mottled crowd received another big, personal smile from Minowa as they continued to sing along during "Chemicals Collide" and fist-pump through the fittingly titled "Everbody Here Is A Cloud". Minowa expressed his joy at the additional vocals the audience provided by announcing "I can here you guys singing more than myself. And that’s friggin’ awesome." Ample appreciation was shown as he introduced "When Water Comes To Life" as a song they had "just added to the set list. So it’s a gift to you." The devoted crowd showed no signs of slowing, continuing to pulsate and participate through "Million Things". Even as Minow toned it down with an acoustic guitar for "We Made Up Your Mind For You" (though he did have a megaphone) and "Pretty Voice", they were pulled right along. They followed their magnificent leaders straight into the short and sweet "You Got Your Bones To Make A Beat".

The band itself took that title quite to heart. They were swept up in the same frenzy that was riling the crowd. Drummer Arlen Peiffer kept a furious beat while bassist Shawn Neary danced and swung his instrument, which he often exchanged for a trombone. Both were notably driven, pushing the songs forward. Minowa sang with such passion throughout the set that his face frequently turned a boiling red. Even the painters, who also provided backup vocals (although to pick them out over the crowd was truly as difficult as Minowa claimed), took strokes and danced with the beats of the songs. Before the strum-heavy and uniquely mournful "The Ghost Inside Our House", cellist Sarah Young introduced her band members, and mentioned "We’re happy Obama will be President". The audience agreed whole-heartedly, and the similarity between what a majority of the country has been feeling since November 4th and what Cloud Cult has done with their music, in general as well as that night specifically, was made evident. People were coming together, and there was an underlying hopefulness that can be as refreshing as it is empowering.

Violinist Shannon Frid was noticeably still amongst her band mates. Young was mainly excused due to the seated position her instrument demands, but Frid seemed just as still on her classical string instrument. She bounced lightly to the tunes, rarely more than that, but her talent on songs like the beautiful "Journey Of The Featherless" and "Bobby’s Spacesuit" overshadowed her calm stage presence. Plus, she was wicked cute in her long, blue ‘music is love’ shirt. "Start New" was next, and Minowa slipped on a synthesized headset to create the necessary electronic vocal reverb for "Love You All". The audience became simply raucous as they practically chanted "do unto yourself as you do unto your neighbor/it’s not an eye for an eye, it’s a favor for a favor" for "Story Of The Grandson Of Jesus", a story-telling track that neatly epitomizes Cloud Cult’s reoccurring thematic drive.

The venue went mad as Cloud Cult taught "The Tornado Lessons", a song constructed like utter chaos introduced on a tea-party (hence the album title). Wild dancing and a cacophony of clapping erupted from below the street at the Down. After exiting just long enough for the crowd to actually chant ‘encore, encore’, everyone, including the visual artists, re-entered for an encore that started with "Clip-Clop". Minowa addressed the crowd one last time saying, "This is our last ditty. You guys have been really, really good people tonight". The night ended with more energy than it began with, despite the late hour, as "Take Your Medicine" closed out the set for good. The band took a group bow to massive applause, smiling all the way through.

Openers Mason Proper also put on a hell of a great set. Playing nearly the entirety of their sophomore release Olly Oxen Free, the band was rife with energy. Singer Jonathan Visger had a voice so crisp and clear that you could have said he was lip syncing and I might have believed you. Speaking to Visger after his set, he gave credit for that pristine sound to his personal microphone, which he brings from show to show as opposed to using venue provided equipment. Whatever the case, they sounded outstanding, rocked hard, and were the perfect energizer for Cloud Cult. Exit Clov played as well, but their set seemed uninteresting sandwiched between two such solid acts. They may have made a better opener, letting Mason Proper lead into Cloud Cult, but c’est le vie.

There were some great feelings coming out of that concert. Cloud Cult has an abundantly prevalent theme that courses through much of it’s music: We are all essentially, right down to our basest chemical makeup, the same; life is full of tribulations, which we all experience; by coming to grips with the individual identity and ones own ability to overcome these obstacles, it is possible to find the splendid joys hidden amongst it all, and thus realize the possibility of human unity. It is one of those new-agey, avant-garde concepts that can fall into bathos if not executed with care and intelligence. As it likely stems from the loss of the Minowa’s son Kaidin, at least you can be assured it comes from something honest and powerful. If that night’s crowd was any signal, Cloud Cult pulls it off masterfully. Minowa and his crew played like jolly pied pipers. When he threw his hand into the air to rock-out, it was bent around some invisible marionette controller, and the puppets in the crowd were ecstatic to be attached to the strings.

This experimental indie group has done something few musicians ever accomplish. While staying entirely true to themselves, they have gained a family of fans so varied and sundry that to even label them seems shameful. They brought together people under an inclusive banner of unity, of peace through individuals and interrelation. They played fun, rocking, and often beautiful and poignant music. Even the visual artists played their instruments masterfully (the bids were up to about $400 a piece when I left the venue). The St. Paul Pioneer Press has quoted Minowa as saying, "There may not be another Cloud Cult album for awhile. It could be never. I don’t know". The band officially goes on hiatus after their current tour wraps. For those who have not yet joined this welcoming, well-meaning cult, I advise you to do so while you still can. You’re going to hear some great music with insightful and philosophical lyrics that just may teach you a thing or two.

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