During Cloud Cult's sound check and DJ Nick Nice's initial spinning early Friday evening, the first block of King Street became something of a bass canyon. The band's drums and some of Nice's selections established a wubba-wubba zone that stretched at least from the Tipsy Cow to GEF 3. In the long stretch before opening band Ms Mr came on, Nice, stationed above the Majestic's marquee, spun a set ranging from reggae to an exploration of Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)."
Cloud Cult is a big, earnest band founded in Minnesota, and New York's Ms Mr is on its first tour as it rides the reception of a single track, "Hurricane." They may be an odd pairing. On Cloud Cult's merch table were CDs and, in keeping with the band's environmental bent, "green" water bottles. Ms Mr's merch guy, next door, had just two T-shirts to sell. Both bands also are a tad incongruous for the come-on-come-all atmosphere of the new Live on King Street series, especially compared to next week's artists, the funk-Afrobeat mixers Budos Band and local reggae group Natty Nation.
That said, the frontwoman of Ms Mr seemed pretty excited to be playing her first set in Wisconsin, even giddily taking a photo of the crowd at one point. Though the band tries to keep its members' names mysterious and has inspired some reviewers to use the excruciatingly dumb genre term "chillwave," her vocals had enough of a sharp snag that the set wasn't all velvety cool and mystery ambience. In fact, a lot of the songs built up around somber piano chords, tried to build some tension through the drums, and went in for big, bold choruses. Ms Mr has been known as a duo but was a four-piece here, including one member who switched between bass, keys and, on a set-closing performance of "Hurricane," a nice touch of autoharp.
Ms Mr's set left me feeling the way I recently felt taking a first listen to another new band we're all apparently supposed to be excited about, Purity Ring (who canceled a planned Madison show last week): There's the possibility that it can craft some pretty cool songs when it wants to, but it'll take time to see how much the band will stand out in a crowded field of slightly adventurous, strongly pop-leaning young acts. Then again, the set admittedly had more definition and punch than expected.
Cloud Cult returned with a set that's in many ways familiar to Madison audiences, heavy on 2007's The Meaning of 8, 2008's Feel Good Ghosts (Tea Partying Through Tornadoes) and 2010's Light Chasers. Over the years, the project has grown from leader Craig Minowa (who now resides near Viroqua) building songs out of rag-tag electronica elements to a more polished six-member group featuring cello, violin, trombone and French horn. (One friend I ran into Friday described them as recalling a bit of Garbage, some Silver Mt. Zion, and "Dave Matthews Band in between." I can't claim to top that.) The two painters who whip up new art onstage while the band plays, then auction it off at the merch table, have also upgraded: This time around, both used spinning easels to whirl their canvases around as one painted something like a psychedelic tree, another a blue woman with crazy hair or eels exploding from her head.
Players and painters first came out to beat on drums, building into the Light Chasers track "Blessings (Invocation Part 2)." With Minowa, everything tends to be tender and climactic at once, something that's hard to avoid when your songs constantly aim to tackle big things like grief and, in one song, "Forces Of the Unseen." After all, it'd be a little screwy to try and sum those things up quickly and move on. Yet Minowa has always come through with a plain-faced decency, even on the most dramatic stuff and even as the band's sound and setup changed.
When people accuse Cloud Cult of being cheesy, I tend to get protective - even on the stuff I don't like at all, there's an unfeigned niceness and humanity that I want to defend. It's brave to try and make something of tragedy, which is what a lot of the band's songs try to do. ("So, the cover art for Feel Good Ghosts looks like this," I will say, "but who's perfect?") Then again, I don't much care to defend the band's dragged-out cover Friday of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," or Minowa's occasional use of vocoder. Both seem a little silly, considering the band already has enough songs and a likably Midwestern lead voice at its disposal.
The band may have sounded out of place while sound-checking, but early in the set, the folks up front were singing along heartily with "No One Said it Would Be Easy," the opening track of Feel Good Ghosts. It would have been nice to hear a little more from earlier on, like "That Man Jumped Out the Window," from Advice from the Happy Hippopotamus or "Breakfast With my Shadow," from Aurora Borealis. (They did play Happy Hippopotamus favorite "Transistor Radio.") It might be awful to say, but a lot of Cloud Cult's songs were more memorable when Minowa sounded more broken and lost. But a new song Cloud Cult played near set's end bordered on happy-go-lucky - so maybe the band is finally ready for a new shock to its system, and maybe that's not a bad thing.