Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps at The Cedar, 1/10/13

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Stacy Schwartz
Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps
With Mankwe
The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Thursday, January 10, 2013

Caroline Smith and her constant companions Arlen Peiffer and Jesse Schuster have always seemed to enjoy surprising their fanbase. Never content to rest on the thoroughly winning folk-pop formula Caroline developed on her debut release Backyard Tent Set, the trio have made a conscious effort to push their sound in new directions in the last four years. This, in itself, is a bit of surprise, as the 2008 album was probably only one coat of studio polish and a major promotional campaign away from being a massive Starbucks hit, but the Goodnight Sleeps seem to have followed their natural Midwestern inclination towards a more grassroots approach and a slower pace.

2011's Little Wind marked a modern indie rock sensibility creeping into Caroline's songwriting, but fans hoping for a full-blown realization of that sound had better adjust their expectations. The group recently escaped to a studio far from the Twin Cities and has been cooking up another surprise for their fans. Say hello to Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps Mk. III: "Neo-Soul Edition"

See Also:
Slideshow: Caroline Smith & the Good Night Sleeps at the Cedar

At first blush, R&B songstress and poet Mankwe seemed an odd choice to kick off what promised to be a night of earnest strumming. Indeed, much of the crowd seemed unsure of what to make of the silky soul initially, but Mankwe proved herself more than capable of winning over the room with songs from her stellar 2012 release Science and Spirit. Along with frequent collaborator Medium Zach of Big Quarters, Mankwe put on a veritable workshop of her many talents: singing, rapping, stagecraft and improvisation over the producer's spare, piano-driven beats.

Photo by Stacy Schwartz

After the lush, rich textures of the album, this two-piece interpretation only occasionally failed to do the songs justice, and mostly provided an almost jazzy intimacy that seemed to fill the empty stage space. If you shut your eyes, you could almost imagine Medium Zach relaxing behind a baby grand, rather than his MIDI keyboard, while Mankwe worked the stage admirably like a post hip-hop Nina Simone, precise diction and all. A sign right in front of the beer taps (good placement) notified patrons that a documentary crew was filming Mankwe's performance, and the singer definitely gave them something to follow, wowing the crowd with an impressive bit of freestyle vocal improv during a lull.

A careful eye couldn't help but notice a bit of additional kit normally absent from a Goodnight Sleeps' stage. As the band strode up to the excited screams of the sold-out crowd, it contained a few more members than normal. Honorary Goodnight Sleepers for the evening included Jef Sundquist, formerly of Hildur Victoria, on keys, frequent Haley Bonar collaborator Jacob Hansen on the Jazzmaster and two black-clad backup singers who turned out to be Hannah von der Hoff of Sexcat and, naturally, Lizzo of The Chalice. Breaking into a laid-back Stax grove, the band vamped briefly before their leading lady hit the stage and the audience's collective jaw hit the floor. Balancing on some serious looking wedges and dressed to the nines with giant mane of blonde locks, Caroline eased into the first new song of the night "Buy Me" with a smoky, soulful new delivery, no guitar necessary.

Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Sounding for all the world like The Band's "Whispering Pines" as performed by Erykah Badu, the new tune built up pressure before exploding into a double-time gospel beat while Caroline and her backup singers laced harmony after harmony. Demurring in-between songs, the frontwoman mentioned that her band had been working on a record that they were extremely excited to share with their fans, and asked permission to play another new one, "The One Thing," which cemented that this newfound soul was not a one-song experiment, but a definite new direction.

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