A Cloud Cult show feels more like the product of an art collective than that of a band. The group is led by affable singer/guitarist Craig Minowa, whose Earthology Records is equal parts record label and environmental organization. The band also includes Minowa’s wife Connie and artist Scott West, each of whom completes an original painting on stage during the set. Watching all eight members perform, it quickly becomes clear that they have more than just music on their minds.
The show at Mr. Smalls in Pittsburgh consisted mostly of songs from their last two albums, 2008’s Feel Good Ghosts and this year’s Light Chasers. Taking to the stage amidst a shimmering light show complete with fog and eerie electronic music, Cloud Cult did something you don’t see everyday: they opened the set with a gorgeous trombone solo. Surprise number two came shortly thereafter, when they broke out an interpretation of “Mr. Tambourine Man” — that had a hypnotic, electronic pulse as its backbone.
Cloud Cult’s music is a collision of genres. They fuse folk, classical, electronica, and rock into a modern form that is counterbalanced by beautiful harmonies and inspiring lyricism, and topped off with a meditative quality that makes each song feel like an emotional journey.
That quality was evident during “When Water Comes to Life.” Backed by a weeping violin, Minowa sang in a hushed tone, “And when the angels come they’ll cut you down the middle to see if you’re still there. And underneath your ribs they’ll find a heart-shaped locket: an old photograph of you in Daddy’s arms.” Live, the emotion of the song was striking — it built into a crescendo of swirling synths and violins before Minowa ended it by shouting, “All you need to know is you are born of water. You are made of water. You are merely water, water, water!”
Despite the small turnout, Minowa and company played with passion and precision, touching upon classics like “The Tornado Lessons” and “The Ghost Inside Our House,” as well as new songs like the poignant “Running with the Wolves,” which deals with the need to escape the modern trappings of one’s surroundings and venture out alone.
The set ended with a rousing performance of “Everybody Here is a Cloud,” a song that explores anxiety, the human condition, and the different people we are within ourselves. The song came to a fitting end, with all eight members of the band singing in harmony, “Have you found where your place is?”
The search for truth is a common theme in Cloud Cult’s songs. Heavy subject matter like that can be hard to tackle without coming across as preachy or self-righteous, but the band pulls it off with sincerity and poetic eloquence. After the house lights came up, it was hard to shake the feeling that we’d witnessed something more than just a concert; Cloud Cult had hit upon some of that elusive truth we’re all searching for.