Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark
Why is it that sad songs make us feel better?
Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.
A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
The Cactus Blossoms took the stage after a short changeover and some last-minute tuning before launching into a setlist that bounced back and forth between songs from their debut, I’m Dreaming (2016, Red House Records), and their 2019 follow-up release, Easy Way (on their self-produced label Walkie Talkie Records). The band began with “I’m Calling You,” a song with an upbeat tempo that contrasted some dark lyrics written from the point of view of a desperate and despondent person.
The group played two covers in its set, both met with warm appreciation from The Ark’s knowledgeable audience. Page noted that they pick songs while they’ve been on the road (which has been most of the past three years). Two songs in, they played Nick Lowe’s "Without Love." Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” was met with cheers and several folks sang along with smiles on their faces.
The Cactus Blossoms' vintage sound was supported by a lineup of gorgeous guitars. Throughout the night, Tyler Burkum alternated between a Jerry Jones longhorn baritone, Jerry Jones Neptune electric 12-string, and a white Deusenberg semi-hollow body on which he occasionally used a glass slide. Page Burkum played vintage 6- and 12- string acoustics throughout the evening, and Torrey plated a distinctive 1953 National solid-body electric and shared the baritone with Tyler.
The band had one minor misfire when Torrey and the drummer weren’t on the same page after the gorgeous ballad “I Am the Road.” After Torrey noted that they should really spread the sad songs out a bit, they quickly got back on track with the swinging "Stoplight Kisses" from I’m Dreaming.
The trio of songs "Clown Collector," “Desperado,” and “Got a Lotta Love" (a song that has Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys as a co-writer) had the audience doing a little chair-dancing. "Downtown" was a good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll number with some fantastic imagery and contemporary storytelling. “Boomerang,” another song from The Cactus Blossoms' current album, was gorgeous and filled the room with warmth. Tyler Burkum’s second solo in the song had a distinct George Harrison vibe.
The band closed out the main set with a rocking rendition of “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy,” a song inspired by a local Twin Cities legend Curtiss A.
After a brief wait for the encore, The Cactus Blossoms returned to the stage to close out the night with “Mississippi,” a song from their 2016 release, which may be familiar to fans of Twin Peaks since it was featured in the most recent season during the closing scene and end credits of episode 3. The band closed the show with a rousing rendition of “Change Your Ways or Die” from their debut album -- a hard-charging anthem that’s not overtly political but allows the listener to interpret the message for our current political and social climate.
It may have been a night of some sad songs, but we all walked out of The Ark that night with smiles on our faces thanks to some great music and songwriting.
Setlist - The Ark, October 24, 2019:
I’m Calling You
Without Love (Nick Lowe cover)
I Am the Road
If I Can’t Win
Blue As the Ocean
See It Through
That’s How I Got to Memphis (Tom T. Hall cover)
Got a Lotta Love
No More Crying the Blues
Please Don’t Call Me Crazy
*** encore ***
Change Your Ways or Die
The Cactus Blossoms last played the Ark on April 27, 2018.
Amanda Szot is a graphic designer and listens to music all day long at work and tries to get to as many live shows as her budget can support.