It seemed sadly poetic walking past the wholly dark and vacant 400 Bar last night toward the completely sold-out Cedar Cultural Center. One of the last of many noteworthy singer/songwriters who regularly played the 400 Bar early in her career, Caroline Smith has come a long way in four or five short years to not only headline the twice-bigger venue a block down (her first time atop the marquee), but also pack the place. On Thursday, she took things much farther, too.
“What are you guys doing here?” the Detroit Lakes-reared starlet, still a mere 24, asked when she took the stage, marveling at the bulging crowd. Smith’s ever-evolving band, the Good Night Sleeps, had also grown in size. Local everywhereman Jake Hanson (Halloween, Alaska, Solid Gold, Pines, etc.) joined in on guitar along with shoo-bop-shoo-bopping new backup singers Lizzo (of the Chalice) and Hannah Von der Hoff, keyboardist Jeff Sundquist (ex-Hildur Victoria) plus her usual team of drummer Arlen Peiffer (also in Cloud Cult) and bassist Jesse Schuster.
Early in the set, the expanded lineup turned up the fire and fun in “Tanktop,” the bouncy highlight of last year’s “Little Wind” album. But that was one of the only “oldies” the band played before the encore -- a six-month-old record somehow already seeming outdated. Instead, Smith & Co. spent much of the show trying out songs from an even newer album they recently spent studio time working on. That’s where the backup singers and Smith’s rather slinky blue dress came in, as the new tunes proved to be much sultrier and more soulful than her usual folk-rocky sounds.
One of the newbies, titled “One Night,” had a slow-grooving dramatic punch of the Alicia Keys variety, and a sassier one called “Magazine” boasted more of a playful, ‘80s-ish R&B bounce. It was rather telling that the Good Nighters threw in a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” which offered a clue where Smith’s tastes have turned, as did their snappy souled-up version of “Cry Baby Cry” from the latest “Minnesota Beatle Project” benefit album (thrown in because of numerous requests, Smith said). The musical changeup suited Smith’s muscular voice well, as she got to flex her high range and emphatic style without coming off like another generic, Joss Stone kind of blue-eyed soul singer.
Smith apologized about playing so many new songs instead. “My mom told me to play the songs people know -- and to make my hair big,” quipped Smith, whose curly blonde 'do was indeed fluffed up as large as Dallas. Good thing she only listened to Mom on one front, because the new stuff made the show a memorable one.
Local rapper, singer and culturalist Mankwe Ndosi made an all-to-rare appearance at the Cedar opening for Smith. Hardly a light and casual choice to get the crowd in a fun mood, she delivered powerful and intense versions of the songs from her new album, “Science and Spirit,” with the record’s producer Medium Zach (of Big Quarters) by her side. Zach’s moody, darkly jazzy beats were somewhat lost on the Cedar’s sound system, but Ndosi’s mindful and spiritual messages weren’t. She vaguely dedicated one song to “my ladies in Shakopee,” and after lyrics about being in a cage and treated like a slave, there was little doubt she meant the women prisoners at the Minnesota Correctional Facility. Other songs pleaded for more cross-cultural understanding and personal redemption.
The opening set did take more of a lighthearted turn when Zach commented on Ndosi’s winterized footwear. “Usually I perform barefoot,” she said, instead donning thick boots. Said Zach, “You look more warrior-like.” She sounded that way, too.