The Almighty Defenders
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA

[04-20-2010]

The Almighty Defenders put on, hands-down, the craziest show I have ever been to. I apologize in advance for not being able to find pictures from this night, because it was obscene and messy and totally great. I don’t know where to start, so I guess the church robe-clad band is a good place. They strode out onstage, solemn, as King Khan demanded that we the audience give ourselves to Jesus, praise the Lord, and testify as sinners. Much (I suspect “ironic”) hand-quivering in the audience ensued as the band tore through the first few songs on their self-titled album. It felt like church intended for atheists, serious but totally sacrilegious.

This whole show, band and audience, was thoroughly alcohol-soaked and wonderfully sloppy to match. The band passed around a fifth of Jameson throughout the set. They played their guitars in weird ways and mimed various sex acts with each other. Mark Sultan (BBQ) dedicated a cover of Elvis’s “He Touched Me” to the Pope. And about 30 minutes in, dear readers, the night became downright bizarre. My friend and I had to keep grabbing each other and making “IS THIS SHIT REALLY HAPPENING” faces:

• The Black Lips’ Jared Swilley read out of a Bible with the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher, then collapsed on the floor while still testifying and writhing around
• Mark Sultan found someone’s credit card on the stage and broke it in half in his mouth
• King Khan stripped off everything but his shoes and ate it stagediving, after which he passed out on the dancefloor for about a minute and a half (concussion suspected). When he got back onstage someone in the front row touched his dick and got a kick square in the jaw in return.
• Cole Alexander, also of the Black Lips, pulled down his pants, played his guitar with his dick, and then peed on King Khan, who subsequently took a pull on the bottle of Jameson the band had been passing around and then spat the pee/whiskey combo out onto the audience.

And for the finale, a bleeding-from-the-mouth King Khan stuck his microphone up his butt. I feel really bad for whoever had to clean up after this show, and it turns out the venue wasn’t too pleased about it. From GAMH’s Facebook page:

Last night (April 20) an incident occurred at the end of the set involving inappropriate and uncondoned behavior by two of the artists performing. To those in the audience, please accept our apologies. We will continue to strive to provide an environment and music that is appropriate for all ages.

I don’t blame them for having to cover their asses, but I’m thoroughly grateful this show happened, and that I was at it, and that I walked away covered in beer and spit and feeling the Holy Spirit raging in my blood. Amen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg / Jogger / AM
Palace of Fine Arts; San Francisco, CA

[04-17-2010]

When coming to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for the first time, one suspects the giant pavilion/gazebo that sticks out as far away as Russian Hill on the eastern side of the city is the actual venue. The size of the structure alone suggests an outdoor amphitheatre seating a large number of people. It would certainly create a magical element in certain scenarios, especially in the case of chanson heir Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first tour. Alas, the place is simply an indoor theatre, which is a bit of a letdown, despite its impressive acoustics and rocking-chair seats.

Opener AM is surprisingly prolific in touring with big names: He had only appeared a few weeks prior in Oakland opening for AIR, and recently opened for Caetano Veloso in LA. His music could fit with either: After ekeing out the first few numbers flatly, he pulled out an eerie, bossa nova-esque number that was mellow enough to set a consistent and solid mood for the rest of the set. He was a small man on a big stage, but once he settled, he reached out to the audience well. The lone exception was closer “Self-Preservation,” a break from the mood that sounded more like Interpol than Jorge Ben. If he just sticks with the mellow, he’ll be going places.

Supporting act Jogger, on the other hand, threw consistency out the window and beat it with a shovel once it got out of the building via hot-air balloon. The duo, from L.A., tend to take a sample and just run with it, whether from Madonna or Generic Williamsburg-based Band #862. Sometimes they ran into brick walls like the Juggernaut in a tutu, going from dirges to electronica without paying attention. Incredibly, they even combined those two: “Nephicide” is the first time I’ve heard a band effectively combine bowels-of-your-lungs, black-metal vocals with techno. Even their on-stage antics were silly: Jonathan did everything in his power to rock out while behind his synths and samplers, while Amir veered between shoegazing guitar and singing into his violin. Make of that what you will.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is clearly on her first tour. In particular, her singing in “Greenwich Mean Time,” from the recent album IRM, was completely off-key, making one wonder if it was intentional. But after that, she managed to sing much better, (barring a false start on one song) playing around with the crowd’s momentum. She even channeled collaborator Jarvis Cocker in 5:55 number “AF607105,” though she sounded more like Neil Tennant. Most significant, though, was that she got comfortable to not only sing her Bob Dylan cover “Just Like A Woman” in a sultry manner, but channel her legendary father with his classic “L’hotel particuler,” from Histoire de Melody Nelson. She will definitely need more time to figure out her comfort zone live, but she can still captivate, and should make touring a habit.

Beach House
Bimbo's 365; San Francisco, CA

[04-14-2010]

A Love Letter to Beach House From a Person Who Can’t Write Love Letters

Dear Beach House,

I suspect the reason you lay ravish praise on San Francisco is obvious: Your music, on a scenic level, is much more appropriate for a city as hilly and surreal as the City by the Bay than it would be for a city as dirty and gritty as your hometown Baltimore (not that there’s anything wrong with Baltimore). You fit perfectly into the city’s landscape, be it a house show in a warehouse loft in SoMa, some cafe in Lower Haight (or bar on Upper Haight), or even the swanky Italian nightclub in North Beach that you happened to be playing at tonight. You are made for this city, and we love you for that.

You have a certain amount of bravery in carrying only one act before you at such a small venue, swank as it may be. While, arguably, your approach to music is unique and has very few imitators (which is what makes you so wonderful in the first place), for you to get on stage so early does offer the question of whether your set is that strong enough to hold the crowd from an early standpoint. That said, your friend Bachelorette was solid. The Kiwi, though still unused to to large crowds, put up a good show for it, songs like “Donkey” and “Do the Circuit” being particularly rousing numbers. It was a perfect warm-up for what was to come.

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about your new album, not to mention how it would turn out live. It was a change in direction, something faster, more bombastic than anyone thought. Who can blame us? With that, I’m sorry for doubting you. I see the logic in your actions now: Live, these songs make sense. Their bombast and noise resonate perfectly with the crowd. They became a way for you to go nuts when you needed to. From opener “Silver Soul” on, you were energetic, even sitting down. You made slow-moving numbers that marked your first two albums, such as Devotion’s “Gila” and the self-titled’s “Master of None,” feel bouncy. You also tapped into the crowd’s emotions very well. People were shedding a tear during initial closer “Take Care,” or getting pumped and motivated with set closer “10 Mile Stereo.” More importantly though, you took it all in stride. When someone requested “Zebra,” which you had just played, you felt flattered. As were we.

We know you love us and the city, as we do you. Why else would you, like you said, come to the city the day before your show? So allow us a proposition: Please move here! We cost a bit more than Baltimore, but we make up for it in loveliness. We’ll take care of you, offer you excellent food such as cheap-yet-incredible burritos and vegan meals, as well as various collectives you cut your own niche in. And there’s no snow, too. So, please move here. Pretty please?

Love,
Ze

Growing / Eric Copeland
Coco 66; Brooklyn, NY

[04-06-2010]

Growing’s set at Brooklyn’s Coco 66 began with floor-shaking bass pulsing through the room’s sound system, and it ended with a sample of a man’s voice repeating, “This is your brain on drugs.” These two details mark the band’s current sonic wingspan, which stretches from heavy, propulsive beats to an affinity for odd — and often indiscernible — vocal slices.

The set was part of the release show for Pumps!, Growing’s first album on Vice Records and first featuring new member Sadie Laska. Like Pumps!, the band’s performance was stuffed with prickly, distorted rhythms, oscillating textures, and a variety of unpredictable embellishments. In a live setting, Growing are experimental in the most honest definition of the word: they punch buttons, twist knobs, and see what happens. Sometimes it’s great, like the otherworldly vortex of sound that whipped across the stage in the middle of their set. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work, like when a sample spikes awkwardly through the mix or skittering guitar notes seem to sink with the music’s momentum. But it’s clear that Growing weren’t looking to convey any exact message or emotion through their music. They were trying to create an immersive sonic atmosphere that will seep into their audience’s minds: “This is your brain on Growing.”

Also on the bill was Eric Copeland, member of Black Dice and, as he demonstrated with a balanced and passionate set, a terrific solo artist in his own right. Copeland’s music deftly swayed between loose, head-nodding rhythms and moments of abrasive, noisy bliss, never dwelling too long or switching gears too abruptly. In fact, he delivered the more poignant and personal set of the night, tapping into his rich well of creativity and technical prowess.

Spoon / Deerhunter / The Strange Boys
House of Blues; Boston, MA

[03-27-2010]

My first reaction to hearing that Deerhunter was opening for Spoon on its tour for Transference was “Ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHH! Spoon AND Deerhunter!?! Tickets! Need tickets!” I instantly handed over the cash to see them in Boston – fitting considering my history of catching some other amazing double bills there, such as The New Pornographers with Belle & Sebastian and Feist with Broken Social Scene.

The venue was the new House of Blues, formerly the Avalon, in the literal shadow of Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street.

Openers The Strange Boys kicked off the evening with a post-punk-meets-rockabilly sound. Lead singer Ryan Sambol’s voice was a low-energy combination of young Bob Dylan and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which is to say, it wasn’t good. However, the band did provide an entertaining story about “the real Spoon,” from the previous tour stop at Radio City Music Hall. Sambol explained that the group amassed a handful of parking tickets from prior New York City shows. “We thought: ‘They’ll never get us.’” Well, the city got ’em, towing their van and slapping them with a whopping impound fee of $900.

Spoon to the rescue. Sambol told the crowd to show the headliners some love for picking up the tab and emancipating the van for their tourmates from Austin.

When Bradford Cox and his crew emerged, the club was still well short of capacity – a fact I could not believe. When gushing about the show to friends beforehand, my refrain was “I love Spoon, but I think I’m more excited to see Deerhunter.” Bradford engaged the crowd right away, cracking jokes, chatting, declaring his love for Boston and improvising a dreamy little song about the cold weather. “Cold weather … keeps us together … like we are tethered … ” I wondered what side of the group we’d see – hard and driving, soft and trippy, or pop-song craftsmen. The answer was all three, which is exactly what makes Deerhunter great. Bradford and Co. were equally adept mashing out rockers like Fluorescent Grey’s “Wash Off,” or cooing delicate pieces like Microcastle’s title track. Interspersed throughout the set were myriad effects, some turning whatever Bradford uttered into a sound best described as a soaring choir of angels on LSD, others imbuing his guitar with a life of its own as he continuously toyed with dissonant tones and ample feedback.

The highlight was unquestionably a raucous version of “Nothing Ever Happened.” The dominant bass line and opening riff drew a cheer from the crowd, and the crashing chorus had Spoon fans in crowd looking at each other, thinking, “I don’t know this band, but I’m getting their album as soon as I get home.” Bradford pushed the song even higher in its coda, hitting gorgeous high notes in his solo with a finger-tapping technique. “Since when is Bradford Cox a guitar god?” I asked myself, with a stupefied grin on my face. With Ted Williams’ turf right outside the club, just over the Green Monster in left field, Bradford’s passionate performance made me think indie rock has its own Splendid Splinter to anoint.

When they wrapped up their set, the word on everyone’s tongue was “more.” It felt downright cruel to give us a taste then take it away, but they did have to make time for the main performance. Oh, right! Spoon is playing now! The headliner!

One thing separated Spoon from Deerhunter right away: image. About 30 minutes was spent between sets, adorning the stage with light panels and strings of bulbs hanging over amps and mike stands. When the band stepped on stage, Britt Daniel very much looked the part of a rock star – cropped leather jacket, designer pants with weird stripes on the sides, and a gorgeous, mussy mop of blond hair that either hadn’t been touched since rolling out of bed, or was fussed over for a solid hour to appear so. I’d say the smart money is on the latter. But these things ceased to matter as the band started off with “Before Destruction” and “Nobody Gets Me But You,” the first and last songs from their current record, Transference.

The initial songs’ halting rhythms didn’t allow the crowd to go nuts right away, but the groove of “Rhthm & Soul” and the near-bubblegum approach to the danceable “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” pulled everyone in. Afterward, there was a quick detour to Kill the Moonlight’s soothing farewell track “Vittorio E,” before ripping into the chorus of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “Don’t Make Me A Target,” and making heads bob again.

Gimme Fiction leadoff, “The Beast And Dragon, Adored,” was the show’s apex. I consider it the band’s best song. If making moving music is based upon tension and release, which I believe it is, then this blows away the rest of the group’s canon. The verse is a simple, yet effective walk from perfect 4th, to diminished 5th, to perfect 5th, and back again. The diminished 5th (aka tritone or Devil in Music) provides the tension. When the major chords of the chorus finally kick in, it’s a revelation. As one might expect, hearing and seeing this unfold live added even more power. The set gained in energy as it neared its close with more up-tempo dance-friendly numbers, “I Summon You,” “Trouble Come Running,” and fan favorite “The Underdog.” “Trouble” earned the prize for loudest song of the night, and while the piano had to substitute for the horn section for “The Underdog,” it remained exceedingly fun.

During the show I kept wondering about the headline spot vs. the opening spot. It seemed odd to confine a band of Deerhunter’s caliber to the warm-up set. Ultimately, headlining is about money. Whoever can pack the most bodies in the building is going to get the lead spot. Examining the tale of the tape for these two bands, though, it’s hard to say which is more deserving. Spoon are veterans at this point – indie stalwarts with some decent mainstream success and a catalogue of great albums cementing their legacy. Have you ever heard a bad Spoon album? You haven’t, because there isn’t one. You know what you’re going to get with Spoon – gorgeous, polished pop songs.

Deerhunter, on the other hand, are just hitting their prime. There’s an energy and an unpredictability that bands only have when they’re young and still enthusiastically exploring their sound. For lack of a better word, Bradford Cox and Deerhunter are still dangerous. With them, you don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s what makes their performance exciting.

So, who should’ve had the top spot? It’s a tough call – one that comes down to personal preference more than anything else. For me, it’s a toss-up. They’re great for their own reasons, and more than anything I’m just happy I got to see them both in one night.

Titus Andronicus
The Bootleg; Los Angeles, CA

[03-23-2010]

“That’s just how people dance to punk rock music,” Patrick Stickles tried to explain to The Bootleg’s staff. “What happened?” He asked. “We were dancing and having a good time and it was OK and then it wasn’t OK. Well, it’s OK by us but I can’t speak for theater.” Bouncers had just broken up what was a pretty mild group of slam dancers and it was beginning to look like The Bootleg was under the ownership of puritans. While Stickles’ singing often invites comparisons to Conor Oberst when he’s lamenting the fact that people don’t speak Spanish as Desaparecidos, when speaking, he sounds cool and collected. Tension would build between slam dancers and bouncers over the next couple of songs and result in one guy getting dragged out kicking and screaming.

But Titus Andronicus wouldn’t comment on it again. I was initially quite upset about the fact that someone could have been carried out of the show, and I was bummed that from that point on the bouncers were dispersed throughout in order to quell any bursts of movement. As someone not immediately affected (it’s kind of hard to take notes while getting shoved around), I realized that my feelings were based on a preconception and that Titus Andronicus and those dancers had a more flexible and admirable understanding of a punk-rock show. “Who cares that I can’t slam into my buddy,” they said. “I am listening to the best sound quality given to a punk band that Thomas Dunlap has ever heard. While most bands can barely carry anything longer than a half-hour set, Titus Andronicus is playing awesomely for an hour and a half!”

“How is that even possible?” you might ask. “The Monitor is only an hour long.” In a surprising display of outside-the-box thinking, Titus Andronicus didn’t just play straight through their concept album. And they didn’t have to. If you’ve heard the album then you know that it’s a little more complicated than the “about the civil war” tagline everyone’s been assigning to it, meaning that we won’t have to worry about The Monitor becoming a Broadway musical, the fact that The Monitor isn’t set in the Civil War period and doesn’t feature a direct narrative account of any battles, not even of the USS Monitor duking it out with the CSS Virginia, allows Titus Andronicus to choose songs that complement their newest endeavor in the live setting. Those spoken introductions disappear and we get to hear songs from all the way back on their first EP.

Stickles referred to one such oldie as “a song devoid of context,” but I would disagree. We knew those songs weren’t new, but each song added to the set was linked somehow to a division within or a struggle between forces equally matched as those two warships. At the end of the day, Titus Andronicus are successful live for the same reason they are successful on wax: They understand that a concept is just a place from which to start and they refuse to let it determine where they’ll go.

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