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I saw Zero 7 in concert.

Let me say upfront that it doesn’t really matter to me how people discover something they enjoy and that includes the bandwagon. If someone got into a band because they heard one of their songs in a commercial, good. And that’s not the band selling out, that’s the band gaining exposure and more audience. This is all for another post, really, but it’s preamble to my writing about Zero 7. ((Basically, I don’t wanna be accused of being a poser.))

I started listening to Zero 7 because of the film Garden State. I remember seeing that movie and literally driving across the street immediately afterward to buy the soundtrack. It had a sticker on the cellophane wrapper emblazoned with a variation of the line Sam (Natalie Portman) proclaims to Large (Zack Braff) about “New Slang” by The Shins: “You’ve got to hear this one song, it’ll change your life, I swear.” Braff’s 2004 directorial debut was about a 25-year-old who sought direction to find his identity. At the time, I WAS a 25-year-old who sought direction to find his identity. So yeah, there was a little resonance going on there.

Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line” was a standout track for me, both in the film (it plays as Large sits motionless as the party spins faster and faster around him) and on the soundtrack (smackdab between the record’s two tracks by The Shins – “Caring is Creepy” and the aforementioned “New Slang”). I picked up one of their records, As It Falls, and I was hooked.

The band – a duo, really, with musicians and singers joining them on particular projects and tracks – has a varietal sound that starts as ambiance, meanders into the realm of the acoustic, takes a sharp turn into bass-rich techno loops, and finally settles into something that resembles none of these genres on their own. You know those records where each song feels different enough from the last that each one is seemingly by a different artist in a different genre? Like Beck’s Midnite Vultures or Radiohead’s OK Computer? A Zero 7 record sounds a lot like that.

On When It Falls, for example, it kicks off with “Warm Sound,” a stripped away combination of bass beat and a male voice with light vocals eventually joined by a flute, while the next track, “Home,” an organ (likely a synthesizer but still) accompanies a female vocalist ((Sia, who has left the band and is recording some highly-anticipated solo material)) as a trumpet finds its way into the mix and then a full brass ensemble. The next track, “Somersault,” is a purely acoustic ballad with no discernable “tech” in it to my ear. Closing the record is “Morning Song” with its whispy, almost windy, sound that culminates in an uplifting piano instrumental. You get the picture.

I enjoy it all though it’s the acoustic and lighter work that I dig the most. I’ve made many a mix CD with songs like “Somersault” to play in the background during candlelit small group discussions and for meditation purposes at work. My boss liked what he heard and sought out their records, too, and we’ve been using it in our work the last three years or so. And that’s how a thirty-year-old youth director and his sixty-year-old pastor came to go to the Zero 7 concert at Epic in Minneapolis last Saturday night.

As far as I can tell, this is Zero 7’s first US tour since I’ve been listening to them (they’re from the UK) and I didn’t want to miss out. I invited Kent and we headed out for a 9:00pm show after a long day including Merlin’s funeral and an early morning of managing worship services ahead of us. Undaunted, we arrived and found a decent spot to stand for the next three hours approximately fifteen feet from the stage. I joked with Kent the 9:00pm start time would never happen. I’d never been to a concert that started on time. The opening act, Body Language, ended that streak when they stepped onto the stage at 9:00pm sharp.

Hailing from Brooklyn, Body Language concluded their nine-city stint opening for Zero 7 in Minneapolis and I dug what I heard (links: Facebook group and a review of one of their recent shows). An eclectic mix of instruments, harmonized male and female vocals, and a fun sense of humor all combined well for a set that made it clear they were having a lot of fun. I think it’s easy for a band to come off as aloof or too cool for school, as if we’re daring to bother them enough to come from backstage and humor us with their little musics. Body Language gave off a most opposite vibe. They dug the crowd, we dug ’em right back. I was sincerely disappointed they didn’t have any CDs available for purchase at the counter.

The Zero 7 set was great in ways I didn’t expect. Kent and I went to the show with our love of their acoustic work in mind. As soon as the first song started, we realized we were crazy if we thought they were going to go that route for a concert. They stuck to their more technoish, beat-blasting fare, even turning some lighter songs like “Home” into outright body-shaking bass thumpers. And that’s okay, we were certainly excited to see them either way. If anything, we had to laugh at ourselves for our naïvity.

We were off to the side a little and were thus privy to a show of a roadie or two tuning guitars in-between songs. They changed instruments after almost every song which doesn’t surprise me. When I play some of my favorite Zero 7 songs on my ukulele with chords I find online, I’m often needing to grab my capo and play in a different key. Many band members kept switching instruments, too, all humble enough to partake in whatever instrument the song needed – from a giant keyboard to a tiny set of bells. We couldn’t quite figure out what the large box one of the singers was “playing” was; the movements her hands made seemed a cross between playing an accordion and a theremin but I don’t know that it was either. (EDIT: Mohammed wrote in the comments to let me know the instrument is called a harmonium. Here’s an improvised YouTube clip.) As for their setlist, they played a lot off the new record, took vocal breaks to play instrumentals, had a solid encore, and I was happy to hear old stuff like “In the Waiting Line,” “Home,” and “Pageant of the Bizarre.” I got to sing along here and there and that means I was having a good time. I would have had an even better time if the two women dancing in diameters that would rival the equator perhaps four inches in front of us would have been more aware of their surroundings when it came to flailing arms and purses, but whatever.

Is it that I’m not a great photographer or is the camera on my Nokia 5310 just not that great? Eh, a little from Column A, a little from Column B. Here’s the only decent shot I got – it’s of Eska Mtungwazi singing “Mr. McGee” from the new record, Yeah Ghost:

zero-7-concert

As for the venue, Epic is pretty much The Quest. I can’t really tell any difference, except the last few times I went there under its former name I was free to move upstairs without needing to get VIP reservations for bottle service. Maybe that’s the difference between a UK band on tour and a local show, maybe that’s the difference between old management and new management (if a change was even made). Either way, Kent held up pretty well despite recent knee issues but I couldn’t help but eyeball the empty, cozy-looking couches upstairs…

I hope you give Zero 7 a try. Let me know in the comments if you have.

-nm

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Your Friday Recommendation #40

I’m excited that my fortieth Friday recommendation is for the third-annual Twin Cities Improv Festial on Thursday, June 25 – Sunday, June 28 at the Brave New Workshop (2605 Hennepin Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN).

June 25-28, 2009 @ The Brave New Workshop

June 25-28, 2009 @ The Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis

Whether you’re already a fan of improv or you haven’t ever seen any live, this is the festival for you. Many of the most-reputable ensembles and performers from the Twin Cities are pairing up with amazing out-of-town guest performers to present thirteen shows of high-quality comedy. Each show features one local act and one national act to ensure the audience sees something they know and enjoy as well as a new treat. And at only ten bucks per show plus multi-show discount passes, it’s one of the more affordable improv festivals out there.

So who’s up this year? Plenty. There’s a slew of ensembles (Adorable, Batterymouth, Bearded Men, Beatbox, The Cosby Sweaters, Darby Lane, Dirty Water, Fingergun, Five Man Job, Girls Girls Girls, HUGE, Improvabilities, Splendid Things, Tarantino), several duos (After the Party, Ferrari McSpeedy, Iron Cobra, Jokyr & Jesster, Muse, Mustache Rangers, Rampleseed, Sanke and Bunny), solo acts (Lounge-A-Saurus Rex, Drum Machine), and the three main improv theaters in the Twin Cities are represented, too (Brave New Workshop, ComedySportz, and Stevie Ray’s). You can check out the TCIF website for full information on all of the acts, too.

I’ve seen most of the local acts and many of the out-of-town acts thanks to my own national improv festival appearances. Many local improv fans have their own local favorites already, so if I were to make specific recommendations of out-of-town acts I enjoy, I’d say Bearded Men and Dirty Water know how to have tremendous fun while they’re onstage and it’s infectious for their audiences. Beatbox is something unique to see and takes improv to a new place with its hip-hop and DJ-style editing and scenework techniques. In terms of flat-out-funny, go see Jokyr and Jesster. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Joe and Jesse for several years, taking classes together in Chicago and performing together as an ensemble at the Miami Improv Festival, these guys are great teachers, amazing performers, and the kind of guys you want to hang out with at the party after the show.

I plan to be in and out all weekend, mixing up my festival attendance with other outside obligations. I hope to see you there!

-nm

Your Friday Recommendation #38

It’s summertime and that means more opportunities to get out into nature and let it inspire your creative juices to flow. I encourage you to give yourself a time apart from the “real world” and place yourself in an environment where there’s less need to worry and stress out and more time for reflection and creation. Find a dock on the lake, a path through the woods, a bench swinging in the breeze, a well-worn campfire ring. Get yourself a national park pass or a campground reservation and get outside. And then, write.

I’ll be at camp all next week and hope to do some inspired creative writing there. I’ll also be blogging about the camp experience as best I can, so stay tuned for that, dear reader.

-nm

Categories: a closer look

Your Friday Recommendation #37

I’m involved in three shows this weekend and you’re invited.

Saturday, June 6 – “The Weekly: Yesterday’s News Today” plays at the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis at 7:00pm. Come see sketch comedy about local current events.

Sunday, June 7 – “Commentary” appears in Improv A Go-Go at the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis at 8:00pm. Come see my new improv duo with Levi Weinhagen (Ministry of Cultural Warfare) as we provide an improvised director’s commentary on an audience-selected DVD.

Monday, June 8 – “The Uncle Ukulele Show” appears in the Monday Night Comedy Show at The Beat Coffeehouse in Minneapolis at 8:00pm. Come watch my solo musical improv show, plus I’ll be reading a page from the excellent novel, Robocop II.

Hope to see you there,

-nm

Your Friday Recommendation #36

Some of the teenagers in my youth group have been coming together for a year to perform in short videos that satirize The Office. Rather than an annoying boss who disrupts an office setting, our videos feature an annoying youth director who disrupts his youth group. Writing the script is always an exercise in excruciating self-examination, but I’m happy with the end results.

This week, our latest video, The Youth Room: The Good Samaritan, was created with the Minnesota United Methodist Church Annual Conference in mind, an event that sees hundreds of ordained clergy and church lay leaders gather to present and vote on church legislation and share ideas. This year, their theme is the parable of the Good Samaritan and they’re looking for new and unique ways to teach its lessons. I wrote this video and hope it finds its way into being presented at Annual Conference. The video is available at YouTube or you can watch the video below. I highly recommend watching it in “high quality” to catch detail.

This is the fourth episode of The Youth Room that the Youth Forum has made and our seventh short film overall in my time working with them. You can see episode three, episode two, and one, as well. I welcome and appreciate your honest ratings and comments, as well as your subscription to my YouTube channel.

-nm

Your Friday Recommendation #35

If you’re in Minneapolis this weekend, check out the photography exhibit at  by Farm Kid Studios founder, Brandon Stengel.

The exhibit appears with dozens of other artists at the 2009 Northeast Art-A-Whirl gallery opening in room 107 of the Casket Arts Building all this weekend, May 15-17 (Friday 5:00pm-10:00pm, Saturday 12:00pm-8:00pm, and Sunday 12:00pm-5:00pm). Stengel’s photography focuses on rural America through an artist’s eye and invites viewers to look at the people and land of greater Minnesota and the Dakotas with a fresh perspective. The crown jewel of the exhibit is his Rock Island Swing Bridge photograph, which received the “Best in Show” prize in the Dakota County Historical Society photo exhibition.  You can read his interview in the MN Sun here.

For as long as I’ve known Brandon, he’s been a nut for photography. His hobby perpetuated throughout his college years to become an extension of his work as an architect, using his artistic perspective to compliment his professional career. As one who grew up in rural Minnesota, I appreciate the way Brandon has given attention to the small town and farming lifestyle of the Midwest. His photographs lends a dynamic tone to the objects and land that many “city folk” find boring, a mere drudgery of endless prairie to be passed through as soon as possible on their way to the next city. I think that this could be a great bridge in that gap between those who embrace rural living with those who only know a metro-area lifestyle; Brandon’s art is not so easily dismissed. He also has dance moves. Ask him to show you.

Of course, while you’re perusing this part of the Art-A-Whirl, you should also check out my sister’s band, The Idle Hands, who plays just around the corner from Brandon’s table in the Stephanie Colgan studios of the Casket Arts Building at 3:15pm. They’ve been getting some nice airtime on 89.3 The Current in recent months and are pretty rockin’ so be prepared for some toe-tapping, head-bopping tunes to go with your art.

This is your chance to drive through the city to get to the country. I’ll be at the exhibit on Saturday and I hope to see you there, dear reader.

-nm

Your Friday Recommendation #32

Of the eleven people who will be at my pad for Christmas dinner, six are getting at least one book from me. Most of the remaining five have received a book or two from me at one point or another, and there are at least four other people I picked up a book to give to as a gift. Tomorrow we announce a winner in the Scrawlers.com “Dead of Winter” contest – just so I can give away yet two more books. In short, I believe a good read makes a good gift and I encourage you to think likewise.

I’ve had many great books gifted to me over the years. When I was a kid, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. In college I got copies of Signal To Noise by Neil Gaiman, and my first copy of Writer’s Market. Christmas gifts have ranged from Dude, Where’s My Country? by Michael Moore, The Daily Show’s America: The Book, Terry Pratchett’s The Bromeliad Trilogy brilliant autobiography I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This by Bob Newhart, and Walt Whitman’s Memorandum on the [Civil] War. For wedding gifts, Kelly and I picked up Malcolm Gladwell’s innovative duo, Blink and The Tipping Point. And just for fun, my mother snagged me a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Two Plays for Voices on audio. This is just a small sampling of the great books I’ve received as gifts, but you get the picture. If I didn’t get a book on my own, I’ve had good people kind enough to know my tastes and find me good picks.

I hope you’re giving the written word to someone special this year. Who’s getting what from you? Okay, you can reply on December 26th, if you’d like, but I’d love to hear your picks for others (and what you receive in return).

-nm

P.S. The image I’ve selected to go with this post is of Bob Newhart’s autobiography because it’s so unbelievable good, plus it has many of his classic routines in print for the first time: