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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Califone captivate the High Noon with stirring indie pop from throughout their 17-year career
What unfolded onstage was captivating, but not overbearing or indulgent.
Credit:Julia Burke

In their visit to the High Noon Saloon Thursday night, Califone rewarded audience members who braved negative temperatures with a quietly uplifting show that covered multiple decades of their repertoire.

Tennessee folk rocker William Tyler opened the show with warm, ambient instrumentals, displaying impressive fingerpicking and a likable personality. (He won the audience over with his confession, "I'm from Tennessee, so this [weather] is like Empire Strikes Back; I need a Tauntaun to sleep in.”) The music accompanied a time-lapse video of a Bob Ross painting emerging on a canvas; it was a perfect segue to Califone's calm calamity.

To kick off their set, Califone introduced "The Orchids," a track from 2006's Roots & Crowns, with a trippy cacophony of pastoral nature sounds and eerie high tones. Tim Rutili crooned over an almost Celtic-sounding drumbeat with sweet, husky vocals. The song's vocals were pleasantly unassuming -- it felt as though Rutili was sitting by a campfire with a guitar and some friends, slightly embarrassed by their nodding heads and the mesmerized look on their faces. This was a strong but seductive start to the show, so the audience was more than ready for the Chicago quartet's second song, "Movie Music Kills a Kiss," the first track off their new album, Stitches.

Califone blend experimental pop with roots and country music, creating a lulling thunder sensation with subtly muscular acoustic guitar, beautiful keyboard playing and hypnotizing percussive work, often on tablas. Each band member is a multi-instrumentalist, and their collaboration is simply seamless. Their use of electronic effects is deft and understated as well, the perfect complement to the string and percussion instrumentation. Drummer Ben Massarella made it seem like the crowd was in constant proximity to a gigantic sleeping beast whose heartbeat filled the concert venue. This helped create just the right amount of tension. What unfolded onstage was captivating, but not overbearing or indulgent.

The lyrics of "All My Friends are Funeral Singers," off the band's critically acclaimed 2009 album of the same title, drew in the crowd with the theme of experiencing loneliness together, and then "Michigan Girls" continued this feeling of intimacy. At this point, Rutilli told a touching story about running into a high school crush as an adult. "I think she was the first girl I truly loved," he said, "and when I saw her, I realized I'd still love her now, and I wanted nothing from her. It was fine if I never saw her again. I think that's real love, right?" It was a beautiful transition to "Magdalene," a Stitches song with a touch more Southern country than some of Califone's other tunes. That was followed by a powerful rendition of "Don't Let Me Die Nervous," a beautiful, creepy song of desperation and misplaced desire that seems to contain the full range of the band's abilities.

From their meditative, haunting earlier work to the more accessible Stitches, Califone are doing experimental indie pop as well as ever, and they translated it to the stage in a tremendously satisfying way.

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