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Courtesy of Tyran Grillo

May 2, 2016

Out of this World: Kurt Riley Rocks Klarman

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Playing an album live, end-to-end, can prove arduous for many artists. Rather than tailoring a set list to crescendo, climax, and resolve for a given night, the performers must trust that the same progressions that worked on the album will similarly thrill live audiences.

The same challenges that can sink such a play-through, however, can also elevate a concert. A performance can offer testimony to the narrative and vision that inspired an album rather than simply offering up a smattering of tracks from an artist’s career.

Kurt Riley’s Kismet proved to be a viable work to bring to Klarman Auditorium, in its entirety, on Friday night. As a concept album, Kismet’s storyline — alien King Bandele journeying to Earth to save his queen, Heaven Snow — is a driving force. The album’s high-stakes drama and Manichean struggle constitute the bedrock of a passionate story that can be fleshed out in less than 90 minutes.

Furthermore, the story arc built into the album provided natural and momentum for Riley’s concert. Still, a strong album alone does not ensure a strong performance. Charisma, stage presence and, of course, excellent music, must cover the rest of the ground.

Klarman Auditorium’s relatively small seating capacity caused Riley and his collaborators to come under close scrutiny from the audience members, many of who sat in lecture hall seats nearly at eye level with the performers. Even as the musicians waited in the wings — really just a tiny alcove — to take the stage, they were visible to the audience.

Riley’s live band — drummer Olivia Dawd ’17, guitarist Charlie Fraioli ’16, guitarist David Dillon ’18, guitarist Sam Packer ’18, vocalist Kristina Camille ’15, keyboardist and pianist Ruth Xing ’19 and saxophonist John Mason ’15 — far exceeded the challenge, seeming always at ease and obviously comfortable with the album. In line with Kismet’s intergalactic theme, the band performed in front of a video of rapidly passing stars.

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Courtesy of Tyran Grillo

From the first song of the evening — instrumental introduction “Eternity” — Riley was doubtlessly in control, confident in the venue and interested in the crowd. Early on, he dropped an excellent line of stage banter: “Whenever I come to Earth, I always love to visit Ithaca.” Coming from another performer, it may have sounded contrived, but it is obvious that King Bandele is a persona that Riley puts on lovingly, with absolute devotion and delight.

However, the make-or-break of the night came down to the music. After all, much of the anxiety around performing a whole album live comes down to one question: will it sound as good live? On Friday night, the answer proved to be an emphatic yes. Riley is the first to thank his collaborators for the amount of time and energy that they devote to learning the Kismet set list, down to the detail.

A number of the musicians who play with Riley and recorded on Kismet pursue their own projects and gig often. Kristina Camille writes and performs an ineffable mix of R&B and jazz as a solo artist, bassist Charlie Fraioli sings and plays guitar in Ithaca indie rock trio Shore Acres Drive and rapper Asanté Quintana ’18, who joined the band to rap on “Whore,” has released a mixtape and EP since coming to Cornell and will host a rap showcase at the Bear’s Den tomorrow evening.

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Courtesy of Tyran Grillo

The talented core of musicians not only closely approximated the riffs and progressions of Kismet, but also added a palpable infusion of energy and passion into the tracks. After “Eternity,” Riley and his collaborators launched (an appropriate description on many levels) into three intense rock tracks, each with their own textural spin. “Eye of Ra” introduced the full band with a brooding, teeth-gritted power rock track, after which “Engines Are Go!” brought the audience to a raucous take on many of the classic and glam rock motifs that Riley so lovingly channels and honors on Kismet. The album’s fourth track, “Theft of Fire,” notched an early high-water mark for the performance, displaying the undeniable momentum and tightness of the band.

“Universe,” one of Kismet’s later ballads epitomized the excellence of Riley’s live show. Over a Xing’s beautiful piano performance, Riley delivered an arresting vocal performance and one of Kismet’s most starkly fascinating lines: “Frost on my steel cocoon/Drifting through graveyard moons.” By the end of the song, however, Riley and his collaborators have continually pushed the track’s intensity and passion to reach ever more exciting heights. Such momentum characterized Riley’s show as a whole: unflagging in its energy, unpredictable due to its creativity and unapologetic in its boldness.

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com. 

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