Review: J. E. Sunde and Kishi Bashi close down Mission Creek 2017

The concluding night of the 2017 Mission Creek Festival was hosted by the Englert, and as usual drew a full crowd. The closing acts face the daunting challenge of being measured against each other show that the audience has watched — and finding their audience likely to be more exhausted than on previous nights as the cumulative effects of the week become increasingly taxing.

J.E. Sunde on stage at Englert Theatre on the final night of the Mission Creek Festival. Sunday, April 9, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

The opener, J. E. Sunde, was a trio of competent musicians who played for an appreciative audience. The drummer, positioned near the front of the stage, was a delight to watch — especially as most of the songs called for work beyond 4/4 time with occasional fills. The band’s music reminded me (in a good way) of the sort of music one discovers while driving late at night, attempting to tune into A.M. radio. The band had an appetite for the dramatic, which distanced me from the songs (but which some around me found to be an entry point). Overall, however, the band courageously put forth a series of songs that seemed earnest and anchored in their own lives.

Kishi Bashi started and ended their set as a four piece acoustic band, featuring Bashi on the violin. The lighting on the stage was gorgeous: The band was bathed in red lights, occasionally punctuated by white lights streaming around them. The musicians were first rate: Kishi Bashi, in particular, has a classical sounding tenor that extends into a brilliant falsetto. His violin, often serving as a fiddle, was looped to good effect. The accompanying musicians — banjo/bass player, drummer (who also seemed to have a jazz background) and the multi-instrumentalist in charge of guitar, flute, and keys — were all incredibly competent.

The band seemed to delight in moments of spectacle and celebration, and their music — with instruments and voices merging together, often over a driving dance beat — seemed designed to emphasize these states. The audience was encouraged to sing along, to move to the front, to clap, to dance: If nothing else, Kishi Bashi is a first-rate entertainer and performer.

Kishi Bashi performs at Englert Theatre on the final day of the Mission Creek Festival. Sunday, April 9, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

The music, however, was difficult to follow and remains difficult to evaluate. Much of the choices in arrangement seemed to follow an almost arbitrary logic; rather than having songs build toward a crescendo, they would simply suddenly start to fly before floating, and then be done. When the band covered Styx’s “Sail Away,” I realized that it was part of their aesthetic that I did not understand. When a person dressed as a steak came out to sing the second verse, I was baffled that anyone was able to understand anything that happened at all. The following song, the last before the encore, was a phantasmagoria of flashing lights following Bashi’s looped and accelerated voice singing “Where is Micah?” It was beautiful and bewildering. Confetti canons shot celebration into the audience.

The encore featured the band moving to the center of the Englert, surrounded by their fans, and showing off their musical chops. Every element of the show was well done, and there were occasional moments of transcendent beauty that I was able to enjoy. As a whole, however, the set left me feeling more confused than contented. It was art, and it was experimental — but a side of musical exploration that left me feeling on the outside. The rest of the audience left with bliss-filled smiles and exhilarated sighs of pure contentedness.

Ultimately, I was okay with feeling confused because it meant that Mission Creek had done its job: It had found ways throughout the week to push its audience past the points that they found familiar, and the final night was no exception.