It’s graduation day at the University of Minnesota, and if you know somebody with a music major, they were likely in the audience of The Varsity Theatre for a very intimate performance from Theo Katzman.
Katzman is perhaps best known for his role in Vulfpeck, performing guitar, drums, and vocals throughout the band’s discography. In recent years, Vulfpeck has been hot in the spotlight for music nerds who love their tight, technical, catchy funk music. Funk isnt anything new, but Vulfpeck has fastly become a popular choice among college-age musicians who are looking for something new, exciting, and authentic.
Authenticity was what the goal was last night, as Katzman’s solo work typically doesn’t cross into the venn-diagram of Vulfpecks upbeat funky rhythms. Instead, Katzman’s solo sound is closer to the heart, His lyrics dealing more with his own self-discovery and love. It’s more ballad-like than it is danceable. But, you can still dance to it if you wanted to. In fact, it was encouraged.
In the darkness of the room following a stellar performance from supporting act May Erlewine (Whose recent record was produced by Katzman), A recording of Katzman played for the audience as his band took the stage:
“In a time of profound disconnection from nature, truth can be hard to find. But truth lives within us for we ourselves are nature and therefore we are truth. We seek to remind humanity of this truth by capturing the sound of our inborn emotional natural landscape using the processes and principles of high fidelity recording that created the timeless records that we all know and love. Some people might call it old school. We call it: 10 good songs.”
A few whoops from an excited crowd emanated as Katzman then entered the stage. Perhaps the audience wasn’t quite ready to be taken to church, but they would all be ready for that soon enough. Katzman and his band then kicked off the night with “Be The Wheel,” from his latest album of the same name. Songs from “Be The Wheel” made up the majority of the setlist for the evening, with a handful of more familiar tunes making the cut from Katzman’s last two solo records.
As someone who values the listening experience at concerts, I have often lamented the trend of people treating live performances as social events. Katzman seemed to share this sentiment. Standing on the subwoofer in the pit after the energetic “The Death of Us,” he reminded the audience of the sanctity of live music and the importance of human connection. His words had an impact, as there was little noise from the back bar for the remainder of the night, especially during songs that demanded attention like “She’s in my Shoe” and “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love).”“Thats the first time in a while someone hasn’t passed out during that song.” recalled Katzman after “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love”. “For some reason that seems to be the one that causes people to faint.” Luckily, nobody at The Varsity lost consciousness during Theo Katzman’s set, meaning the crowd did a good job keeping hydrated….or not too high.
Vulfpeck fans may not have been too stoked about the slower paced songs that took up the majority of the setlist, especially with Vulfpeck bassist and, perhaps their most famous member of the group, Joe Dart holding the rhythm down on bass. But, Dart fans still lined the railing in front of the bassist donning striped shirts and black wayfarer sunglasses, eagerly awaiting his signature style solos on songs like “Hard Work”. Likewise, trusted Drummer Jordan Rose also took a great drum solo on “Hard Work” while Keyboardist Dave Mackay and Guitarist Packy Lundholm shined throughout the night with their tasty, musical licks to each song.
Despite the focus on slower ballads in the setlist, by no means did Katzman or his band mail it in. Theo’s vocals were on point, hitting every high note with passion, even during songs where he was just playing keys without his band. He nailed the “Talk box” effect on his guitar during “The Death of Us”, the opening, wailing, wake-up-call wild bend of a first note that kicks off “Hard Work”, the slide guitar on the politcally-poking-fun “You Could Be President”, and landed the meaningful vocal sensitivity needed to sing “Nobody Loves You Like Your Mother” just two days before Mothers Day. He ended the night similar to how you would leave a church service, the upbeat hymnal sounding “That’s the Life” with May Erlewine backing him up on vocals.
With the last day of school at the U of M just a couple days before the show, and with graduation ceremonies happening quite literally as the concert was going on across the street of Huntington Bank Stadium, it can be a wild time for college students as they get caught up in the whirlwind of leaving dorms, cap and gowns, or returning home for the summer. Katzman’s show acted as an optimistic commencement speech for those who paid attention, and perhaps his latest album will act as one that brings people back to their college days ten years from now. In either case: what an honor to see him and his band in such an important time in all or lives.