Already a band known for turning a sudden death into a long-term pursuit of spiritual and philosophical meaning, the eight-member psychedelic chamber-rock ensemble crossed paths with another unimaginable tragedy during the recording of its new live collection, “Unplug,” last December at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater.
The final show in the three-night marathon was turned into a benefit for Jessica Peterson, the River Falls, Wis., woman whose ex-husband murdered their three children last summer. Peterson herself showed up at the concert, and Cloud Cult frontman Craig Minowa knew that her 11-year-old daughter was a fan of the band’s 2007 hit “Pretty Voice.”
“We weren’t planning on using that one on the record or even playing it at all, but of course we had to — and wanted to — in the end,” said Minowa, whose own work was catalyzed by the loss of a 2-year-old son 12 years ago.
With “Pretty Voice” among its highlights, “Unplug” displays a new kind of exploration for Minowa’s troupe, which will reprise the acoustic format for two sold-out shows Saturday and Sunday at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Gone are the frantic, nerve-riddled pacing and staticky electronic undercurrent of Cloud Cult’s past few studio albums. Emphasized instead are the ornate, billowy string, horn and piano arrangements, choral vocals and intimate power of the songs.
For a band known to rehearse around a back-yard campfire, an acoustic album came naturally. “We already knew what it’s like to perform completely unplugged,” Minowa said
Calling from the rural home he shares with wife/bandmate Connie in Viroqua, Wis., Minowa said “Unplug” fits in well as a follow-up to last year’s “Love.” The 2013 collection capped off many of the lyrical themes from the past decade and provided a sense of closure.
“Ever since we finished ‘Love,’ I had been thinking of ways to revisit the philosophical development of the band over the years,” he said. “This was a way of doing that without just rehashing the songs as is.”
In other words, “Unplug” is far from a greatest-hits run-through, unless by “hit” you mean philosophical impact. Other fan favorites such as “Running With the Wolves” and “Chemicals Collide” did make the cut, though.
They avoided using songs already recorded as acoustic tracks, such as last year’s great love song “Meet Me Where We’re Going” — “anything that seemed redundant,” Minowa said. And while they did revisit some tracks from “the very, very low point” in his songwriting canon — as he refers to them in stage banter heard on the new album before 2005’s “We Made Up Your Mind for You” — there were many songs left off the table. “Ones that would just obviously be too hard for Connie and I to return to on an emotional level,” he said.
A more pragmatic benefit of performing unplugged, the band can easily play “fly-in” gigs without hauling a trailer full of gear across the country, though the painters’ canvases are still part of the shows. That ease is especially handy now that the Minowas want to tour less with two toddlers at home, and with Craig busy scoring music for TV and film. (He spent much of the winter composing music for an indie documentary, “The Great Alone,” about Iditarod dog-sledding champ Lance Mackey.)
Before settling into the Southern, the band tested out its “Unplug” show over a series of road gigs last year. While fully satisfied with the results, Minowa admitted, “At the end of the shows, we were still left with that itch to go back out there, plug in and rock. That’s still very much in our blood.”