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Orlando Calling review: The Killers, Pixies and Raconteurs rock Day 1 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando

13

November

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(For a review of Day 2 at Orlando Calling, including Bob Seger, Kid Rock and Blake Shelton, click here.)

Before the first note was struck Saturday at the inaugural Orlando Calling music festival, organizers said they were hoping for a crowd of up to 25,000.

By the time the Killers closed the night with an explosive, fireworks-filled finale, that number was looking a little iffy. The stands of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando were only dotted with fans. The enthusiastic general-admission crowd on the “field” was packed from the north endzone to about the 35 yard line, then pretty sparse. Perhaps more ticketholders came and went throughout the day, but it’s doubtful Day 1 of Orlando Calling exceeded anyone’s expectations at the box office.

As for the music itself? Consider those expectations met with aplomb.

Saturday’s Orlando Calling lineup was loaded from top to bottom, with both national and regional acts spanning numerous genres, from hip-hop to bluegrass. But for most fans, the Main Stage was the main draw on Saturday, with three top-notch alternative rock bands: The Killers, the Raconteurs (above) and the Pixies.

Playing what was billed as their only public U.S. show of 2011, The Killers dropped a glam-rock glitterball on the Citrus Bowl, with a searing light show befitting their Las Vegas origins – and their status as one of the snazziest American rock bands on the planet.

Singer Brandon Flowers, wearing a Ramones-like leather jacket and very little makeup (aw, maybe our little Brandon’s growing up!), stutter-stepped from microphone to microphone, from his synths to a piano to a bass that looked nearly his size. Moving like a herky-jerky robot boy to whom dancing DOES NOT COMPUTE, Flowers marched the band through three albums’ worth of hits, from the fist-pumping rave-up Somebody Told Me to the crescendo of passion that is A Dustland Fairytale.

It was a New Wave dance party all night, never more so than when the group played the Erasureque, oddly philosophical Human (“Are we human, or are we dancer?”). Only once did the show hit an odd lull, during a cover of (why not?) Moon River. Because if there’s two things all Killers fans all love, it’s (A) Andy Williams, and (B) Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

But the Killers rebounded from Moon River to go in a blaze of glory. First came Read My Mind, then Mr. Brightside, then the gospel march of All These Things That I’ve Done, accompanied by a blast of fireworks and an explosion of smoke and confetti that showered the entire stadium, endzone to endzone. For the final song of their encore, When You Were Young: A shower of golden sparks, and even more fireworks.

Was it as grandiose as the Bellagio fountains or the volcano at the Mirage? Maybe not. But it did turn all of us humans into dancers.

***

In Orlando Calling’s souvenir programs, Flowers was billed as the Killers’ “legendary” frontman. Let’s not go crazy here; it’s only been seven years since Hot Fuss.

But directly preceding the Killers on the Main Stage were two artists who really do deserve legend status: Alt-rock progenitors the Pixies and blues revivalist Jack White, with his band the Raconteurs.

The Pixies came first, and they stuck to their current tour’s script, performing their landmark 1989 album Doolittle in its entirety. That meant the crowd got to hear well-known tracks like Here Comes Your Man and Debaser, but also deeper cuts like the searing Crackity Jones and the weirdball La La Love You, which brilliantly showcased guitarist Joey Santiago’s pitch-perfect chops.

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Doolittle’s a good choice for the Pixies, as it has moments that let all of its members shine. Both vocalists, Frank Black and bassist Kim Deal, sounded as ragy-cagey Saturday as they did in pre-grunge era, with a heavy dose of smarm and frustration. Neither said much; Kim did what little talking there was to be done.

The group played a few non-Doolittle songs at the end (U-Mass, Nimrod’s Son, the very fun Gigantic), but seemed mostly content to deliver note-for-note recreation of a classic. The crowd didn’t mind, giving the group an extended ovation at the end.

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For my money, though, the set of the day belonged to the Raconteurs.

White’s Nashville-based supergroup – co-led by singer-songwriter and master of harmonies Brendan Benson – feels like it was created to give White an outlet for his massive ‘70s arena-rock jones, and Saturday’s set proved his nasty urges haven’t gone away. Because this is a family blog, we’ll call what the Raconteurs did “cocky-rock,” and even after an approximately two-year hiatus, they did it just about as well as any band you can name. Every song felt like an ode to Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy or The Who. You half expected them to launch into Fever Dog.

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It’s clear White and Benson share an appreciation for southern rock and the blues. Holding Up was a great outlaw-countryish blast of fiddles, organs and Allmanesque riffs. Top Yourself sounded like the Doobie Brothers fronted by David Allan Coe, and gave White the chance to crank up his amazing wail up to Robert Plant level. The crowd went ballistic.

But nothing destroyed like Blue Veins, an extended blues jam in the vein of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that let White put the fear of god into his six-string (well, it was a five-string by the end). In a set full of big, fat, ego-stroking, skirt-dropping guitar solos, this one delivered the most carnage. By the time the band returned for an encore featuring the hit Steady As She Goes, there was, no joke, a drunk lady in a bra smoking and dancing at the back of the stage. It was like The Song Remains The Same, come to life.

“It’s nice to see you all again,” White said at one point, in one of the few occasions he faced and/or spoke to the crowd. “We don’t get to play too much in Florida. It’s nice.”

Yeah, dude. Feel free to come back anytime you want.

***

There was only one big last-minute no-show on Day 1 of Orlando Calling, and it was a biggie: Drummer ?uestlove of the Roots, who tweeted in sick. “ordered bedrest for a week,” he tweeted a few days ago; then, this morning, a succinct: “Sorry Orlando.” By all accounts the Roots still put on a great show, but even though I hated skipping them to see the Raconteurs, at least this made the decision a little easier.

The day’s other big-name rapper acquitted himself pretty nicely, too: Kid Cudi.

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Actually, “rapping” might not be the best word for what Cudi did. He spit a few bars here and there, but his set consisted largely of confessional, diary-deep soul tunes, crooned in a gravelly rasp. Cudi is a protégé of Kanye West, and with every new genre-pushing album they release, each one’s influence on the other is evident.

Backed by a drummer, guitarist and DJ/keyboardist, Cudi was more like the frontman of a band than a straight-up MC. There were no other rappers onstage, no backing vocal track; just Cudi and his candy-apple-red mic. Informed as much by indie rock, electronic and progressive reggae music, Cudi’s songs ranged from the hipster-baiting Mojo So Dope to the Mary Jane love letter Marijuana (the latter a pretty appropriate setlist choice, judging by the smell in the crowd).

Several times, Cudi said he wanted to keep things mellow, but a highlight came when he pulled out an unexpected cover: Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe. Hip-hop didn’t get much recognition at this year’s Orlando Calling, but Cudi knows what to do at a festival. He was a pretty smart choice.

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***

At the other end of the sonic spectrum were a handful of alt-country artists, starting with the Avett Brothers.

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Hugely popular in Florida – and, increasingly, around the country – the Avetts sold out Ruth Eckerd Hall this spring, and picked and twanged (twung?) their way through a fun-loving set on the Main Stage. Banjo-totin’ older brother Scott Avett looked and moved like he was raised by feral dogs, while younger bro Seth Avett sang and strummed like a good boy. Shouldn’t those roles be reversed?

With their simple, catchy, easy-to-learn choruses, every song with the Avetts turned into an audience singalong. But when the brothers leaned in close to duet on Just A Closer Walk With Thee, it washed across the Citrus Bowl like calm baptismal waters. Here were two brothers, singing a traditional hymn, a slice of Americana as pure as it gets – and it happened in, of all places, Orlando. Who’d have imagined?

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I only caught the last half of Iron and Wine’s set, but it seems Sam Beam has come a long way from slinging solo, half-whispered ballads at coffee shops. His latest album, Kiss Each Other Clean, ditches those sad-bastard wristslitters for fully orchestrated jazz-pop numbers in the vein of Paul Simon or even Dave Matthews.

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Backed by an 8-piece band, Beam, who came up as a musician in Miami, sounds in total control of his voice on songs like Walking Far From Home, not nearly as sleepwalky as on his (still beautiful) earlier efforts. No more coffee shops for him, we say – this man needs to be playing theaters, stat.

If Beam is looking for an artist who might be willing to bear the torch of the somnambulistic songwriter, he might look to Canadian folkies the Deep Dark Woods, who performed earlier in the afternoon. The group played dusty, drowsy alt-country with warm organs and calm, non-noodly jams. It was reminiscent of Gram Parsons or Clem Snide.

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When they performed, their tent was the most serene setting of the entire festival.

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***

Mainstream rock got some love on Saturday, too. Early on, fans got a look at two bands who are no doubt contenders to be VH1 You Oughta Know artists (if they aren’t already): Parachute and Civil Twilight.

I wasn’t expecting it, but Parachute wowed me with tremendously tight pop-rock skills and a mix of organs, sax solos and pianos. It was glossy pop with just the right dose of funk, blues, garage rock and boogie-woogie. The band has toured with artists ranging from O.A.R. to 3 Doors Down to Kelly Clarkson, so you know they have range.

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South Africa’s Civil Twilight have been compared to Muse and The Script; live, they come across like U2 fans whose favorite song will always be Bullet the Blue Sky. Their somber alternative songs are moody, sparse, sexy and, occasionally, a bit much. A cover of Massive Attack’s Teardrop traded in the creepiness of the original and evolved into a blazing shredfest. They’re talented, but it was at times a little overbearing. (Secretly, I think part of their success might be due to the fact that their singer looks a bit like Robert Pattinson, and their name is Civil TWILIGHT. Just a theory.)

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The Ettes may still be too edgy for the mainstream, but they’re certainly moving up in the world, landing Saturday’s opening slot on the Main Stage. (Was it just a year and a half ago they played the Cuban Club Cantina at Tropical Heatwave?) Their blues-influenced fuzz-rock was as musically whip-smart as it gets, and pint-sized singer Coco Hames, an Orlando native, must have loved getting a shot to headline the Citrus Bowl.

“I think the last time I was at the Citrus Bowl, I chickened out at singing the National Anthem,” she said. Consider that demon exorcised, Coco!

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Didn’t catch much of sack-hackers O.A.R. (though they sounded great on their anthem That Was A Crazy Game Of Poker), or singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw (though he was about as good a frontman as anyone on Saturday’s bill), but here are some pictures.

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Let’s not forget guttural Gainesville ska-punks Less Than Jake, who displayed both wicked chops and a wicked sense of humor.

“How much are they f---ing raping you for beers out there?” said singer Chris Demakes. “Seven bucks? TEN!? That’s an ass-f---ing! What are we, at Penn State?”

Um. So. Yeah.

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Finally, you'll never guess who was playing the FreeCreditScore.com stage at Orlando Calling: Yes, the FreeCreditScore.com band themselves. Yeah. These guys.

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They're called the American Secrets, and they hail from Detroit. They're not bad, actually -- just a scruffy party-rock band that clearly doesn't take themselves too seriously. They're making a living, at least, which is more than many folks can say these days.

***

One of my goals at Orlando Calling is to see one full set by a regional band each day. On Saturday, I went with Orlando homeboys Andy Matchett and the Minks, one of the best and most fun groups in the state.

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There’s no telling what’ll happen at a Minks show, but it often includes balloons, confetti and an old army-surplus parachute. On Saturday, we got all that, plus a live-action cardboard robot battle.

As the engaging Matchett played energetic power pop for a way-too-small crowd, a band pep squad raced around tossing balloons and beach balls into the audience. Then they brought out a pair of giant “buildings” made from cardboard boxes, which proved a nice backdrop for a pair of giant, homemade, yellow cardboard droids. Later, a pink robot named “Lollibot” joined them to dance onstage.

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Not enough joyous madness for you? Before Matchett’s last song, he handed the mic to a friend named Thad, who proposed to his girlfriend on the spot. “Every time I’m with her,” Thad said by way of introducing her to the crowd, “it feels like I’m at an Andy Matchett and the Minks show, because there’s robots, and I have a big smile on my face, and sometimes there’s pink confetti.” Now THAT’S an endorsement.

At that point, Matchett brought out the parachute, and fans gathered beneath it while he ripped through his blissful tune All This Time, which ended with him running into the audience to kiss his wife and daughter. It was like Matt and Kim meerts the Flaming Lips meets Yo Gabba Gabba, all rolled into one.

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Matchett said they’d been plotting for this hometown festival gig for about three weeks. But, he added, “we do some version of that every time.”

You know what that means: The next time they come to Tampa, don’t miss ‘em.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Top photo by Kelley Jackson, Lucy Pearl Photography

[Last modified: Monday, November 14, 2011 4:26pm]

    

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