Butthole Surfers / Melvins / Psychic Ills
Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[10-16-2009]

Gibby Haynes was born in 1957, Buzz Osborne in 1964. Melvins and Butthole Surfers were both formed in the early 80s, and so I was not surprised when upon encountering a friend after the show back in Oakland, they asked if these rockers have to use walkers now. Clearly, they are not that old, but judging by my perception of the crowd, which was practically drenched in tattoo ink, the median age had to be in the "could-be-my-parents" range. All this is offered only to help set the context for my enjoyment of this show, being that I was and still remain essentially a newcomer to the music and legacy of both the Melvins and the Butthole Surfers.

The Regency is a fancy-pants, large and historic venue on the fringe of San Francisco's Tenderloin district. To attend a gnarly, stinky, loud and base rock show at such a classy venue is already enough of a mind-fuck. It didn't take long for me to realize that this crowd was on a lot of drugs, getting wasted (puke on hardwood), and desiringrock. So I wonder if there wasn't a bit of collective disappointment over the underwhelming performance of the openers, Psychic Ills. A New York City band, Psychic Ills had been playing the role of openers for this BS tour, which the Melvins joined for three California dates. Psychic Ills brought a monochrome, plodding psychedelic texture to the room, dominated by some tribal drumming and underscored by vocals that resembled constipated moaning. There are certainly better psyche-rock bands that could hold down the privilege of opening for the Butthole Surfers, and my eavesdropping confirmed that I was not alone in this assessment. At least two different pot-bellied comic-store owner types were overheard mentioning the same thing. When Psychic Ills was done, a subdued yay from the crowd seemed more in relief than appreciation, and then anticipation heightened.

The Melvins picked up another drummer (Coady Willis) a couple years back, and I will say that in the live context, it is an amazingly well-thought out move. The idea is that the drummers will act as mirror images, and they were synched up to an astonishing degree. I have never experienced sludge so thick, metal so anaerobic and raw. The attack was ferocious, and the tempo changes, moving back and forth between dense and sparse, were exceuted with perfect timing. Not a moment was wasted, and even the most primeval portions blazed and roared under the mayhem of the crowd. Having seen the Melvins, all of their offshoots seem a little underwhelming, now and forever, including sunn 0))), Boris, and Earth.

After an incredible ~40 minute set, there was a quick break dominated by the theme song to The Price is Right blasting through the PA on repeat. Then the Butthole Surfers took the stage, and judging by the crowd reaction, most people had come to see the Surfers. Three huge video projection screens loomed behind the four-piece incarnation, with Gibby Haynes front and center. I had heard and read about the seizure inducing Butthole Surfers' sets, but perhaps they have toned it down slightly. Only slightly though, because between the three screens, I found it hard to focus on the band themselves. The videos being shown were some of the most grotesque, horny, and amazing clips I've seen in a while, and I've seen some pretty gruesome shit on film here recently. There were equal parts horror and pornography, being shown in a somewhat sloppy, yet simply entertaining fashion.

The set was custom-made for those washing their brains is soporific prescription drugs, or alternately, letting your heart race and palms sweat underneath a warm blanket of cocaine and whisky. Simply put, the Butthole Surfers I observered seemed to be the drug fiend's best friend of a show. Whatever your pleasure, watching the Surfers is equal parts video overdose and psychedelic rock for misanthropes and sociopaths. Despite my positive appraisal, I found myself needing to leave about 3/4 of the way through, partially because I needed to catch the transit, and partially because I was way too sober to stick around.

[Photo: Keri Pickett]

Om / Six Organs of Admittance / Lichens
Johnny Brenda’ s; Philadelphia, PA

[10-14-2009]

The consequence of attending too many concerts is usually cynicism. This cynicism from over-attendance takes many forms. One is related to the oftentimes tedious line-up of opening bands the attendee must suffer through before the headlining act takes the stage. This problem can be avoided, though, when venues, labels, and artists put some thought into choosing the bands that will tour and play together. The combination of OM, Six Organs of Admittance, and Lichens is a perfect example of how to properly put together a roster. While all three create diverse and profound sounds, one cannot help but notice a unifying thread linking them together. Namely, the spiritual journey, which is oftentimes more dark than overly optimistic, that each takes through their music.

I had never heard {Lichens}, the recording project of Robert Lowe, prior to this performance. Lowe’s minimalistic presentation consisted only of the use of his voice and a looping device. His vocal loops began with angelic harmonies tranquilly floating in contemplative space, but as the layers gradually accumulated, the mood switched gears radically. Lowe summoned terrifying, primal sounds from the guttural depths, and the squeals became more animalistic than human as the totality of looped voices created the aural dimensions of what can be best described as a haunted rainforest. Despite what Kant said about the problems associated with humans replicating the sounds of the natural world, Lichens provides a genuine feeling of being-there that reveals many interesting aspects regarding the possibilities of the relationship between memory and the human voice. What immediately struck me was the notion that all of these struggling, aggressive, and primordial tendencies are already stored within the human body, concealed but not defeated by historical process of socialization. Despite this concealment, Lichens manages to reach these forgotten places and partially reveal them through voice.

Ben Chasny, the mind behind {Six Organs of Admittance}, first took the stage alone to perform some instrumental pieces with his alternately tuned acoustic guitar. Chasny’s guitar style is one of the most sophisticated and interesting on the contemporary acoustic scene, and as I noticed Jack Rose -- another spectacular acoustic guitarist -- in the audience, I couldn’t help but feel increased excitement. Chasny’s style is drone-centric, building on repetitive phrases that lead to intense Indian Classical inspired sound-modes. Chasny was eventually joined by a guitarist and bassist who he referred to as his “brother,” though I’m not sure if this was meant in the blood or the ecumenical sense. The two journeyed further into darker spiritual domains, and one of the highlights was (what I think was) a performance of “Redefinition of Being” from Nightly Trembling (though it may have been “Bar-Nasha” from Luminous Night). Chasny’s guttural droning accompanies the guitar phrases, establishing a sometimes discomforting, but reflective, labyrinth for the listener to linger within. The end result is some sort of purging of evil spirits; a rewarding cleansing that leaves one feeling modestly sagacious.

{OM}’s Al Cisneros and new drummer Emil Amos were joined on stage by Lowe from Lichens, who transitioned between keys, guitar, and ecstatic tambourine playing. In order to recreate the expansion of sounds captured on 2009’s God Is Good, the addition of Lowe was necessary, and his excitement enhanced the performance greatly. Amos’ more spontaneous drumming style, in comparison to that of previous drummer Chris Hakius, provides a furious energy to the joyful fills between Cisnero’s heavy Tibetan-drone modalities. “Cremation Ghat I,” one of the standout tracks from God Is Good, sounded fantastic with the full band contributing to the hand-clap percussion. "Cremation" captures the new trajectory of the band well, as they are moving into more nuanced and complicated sonic dimensions.

The primary complaint about the new OM sound -- namely Cisneros’ newfound restraint when it comes to hitting the gain pedal and swerving the mood in a heavier direction -- was felt during their performance. Without the thick, distorted bass-groove, the band has become much tamer than one would expect. Throughout the entire set, the Sabbath-inspired heaviness was lacking. But, when the band came out to play “At Giza” for the encore, the crowd’s enthusiasm was instantly felt, for we all knew what the last few minutes of the song would bring. It seems as if OM are using their gain-heavy past as a weapon to combat listeners’ expectations. One might conceptualize this constraint as maturation, a brave stance to prove they are not limited by their previous structures. But it is also worth pointing out that, as M. Night Shyamalan knows very well, disrupting expectations can oftentimes produce negative consequences.

Tragedy: All Metal Tribute to the Bee Gees
Brooklyn Bowl; Brooklyn, NY

[10-02-2009]

“Brooklyn City, are you feelin’ reasonable?! I said, Are you feeling reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeasonable?!”

The pitfall that most novelty acts fall victim to is that their gimmick is more interesting as a logline than an actual performance. In the case of acts like MC Hawking and The Traveling Wilburys, it’s more fun to know that they exist than to actually witness it, which raises the question as to whether they should have bothered in the first place. Acts that manage to surpass the basic value of their own gimmick (say, the Beastie Boys) cease to be thought of as novelty at all. Through some combination of a successfully executed musical adaptation and a stage show that rarely ceases to exceed its own standard of ridiculousness, Tragedy manage to dwell in the realm of novelty while far exceeding their worth as a concept.

“The tri-state area’s greatest heavy metal Bee Gees tribute band!” is the particular logline that Tragedy subscribes to and screams, verbatim, at least 10 times before leaving the stage. In actuality, it looks like this: Three guitarists, claiming to be brothers, all sporting flying-V guitars and looking like they had stood too close to the explosion of a cartoon glitter factory, every patch of skin uncovered by their too-tight bodysuits shining with a brilliance that can only be unhealthy; three female backup singers, all dressed differently, all with different hair colors, body types, and presumably vocal ranges (they were difficult to hear); a bassist and drummer who looked more like members of an actual metal band who had accidentally rocked out so hard one night in 1984 that they jumped forward in time a quarter-century; and of course, a manservant scurrying frantically around the stage, mopping the brows of the band members and absorbing their insults with sycophantic pride. In general, the aesthetic is somewhere in between the flamboyance of the disco-era Bee Gees and the flamboyance of mid-eighties hair metal, with some extra flamboyance thrown in for the sake of flamboyance. Tragedy know every rock cliché in the book and repeat them all with an undying exuberance.

All of this might get tired -- the long banter breaks between songs, the aggressive heterosexuality teeming with latent homoeroticism, the swinging from a trapeze in their underwear -- were it not supported by a solidly enjoyable musical performance. The music of the disco-era Bee Gees, with its falsetto harmonies, driving backbeats, and minor tonality, actually translates rather effectively into the heavy metal framework. By simply adding some distortion, doubling up on the bass, and widening their legs, Tragedy is able to produce lively, imaginative, and even danceable versions of hitherto too-familiar Bee Gees hits.

Their set at Brooklyn Bowl came to a climax as they closed with, unsurprisingly, “Stayin’ Alive.” This excellent re-imagining probably should have been the last song of the night, though the encore did allow for their joke of returning to the stage before the entire band had even left. The three-song encore was the first part of the show that felt unnecessary, but the fact that the audience didn’t seem to lose any energy is a testament to Tragedy’s worth beyond their basic concept. Who wants to see a Bee Gees cover band if they’ve already played “Stayin’ Alive”? In the case of Tragedy, the answer is “everyone whose face had not already exploded.”

Andrew W.K. & Calder Quartet
Swedish American Hall; San Francisco, CA

[10-07-2009]

Let’s say you didn’t know Andrew W.K. had grown up taking classical piano; let’s say you did. Would you think that a performance with a string quartet was a “real” Andrew W.K. show? You might ask where all the partying was. I think most people understood what they were going to see at The Swedish American Hall, but there were probably a couple of confused fans at the end of the night, which is really too bad because I would say they actually got a quintessential Andrew W.K. show. The evening was W.K.’s whole philosophy fully realized and expressed. More than leading sing-a-longs during his lecture appearances or addressing the crowd at his concerts, I think this was the most successful integration of his interests in performance to date.

I may refer to separate “portions” of the evening, but to really understand this performance it pays to view it as one seamless meditation on the beauty of reality, complete with imperfections and surprises. The opening number featured a spastic beginning, as W.K. and Eric Byers (Cello) pretended to struggle in coordinating until they were joined by the rest of the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, violin; Andrew Bulbrook, violin; Jonathan Moerschel, viola.) This kind of thoughtful lack of polish continued into W.K.’s improvisations, into which he incorporated lung-wracking coughing fits, scraping his chair on the stage wildly, and sending his microphone skittering along the floor like a mouse with an extremely long tail.

Whether he intended them to be or not, these elements were a testament to the beauty of normalcy and the power of imagination. There was something this performance that reminds me of the simple pleasure one can derive from crinkling an empty water bottle. Of course, someone generally tells you to stop being annoying; or, if you’re young, takes the bottle away. The implied message of the night was, “Everything has merit. Everything is legitimate.” These moments were given just as much importance as the absolutely flawless performance from Calder Quartet, who dominated most of the first portion of the night while W.K. sat quietly behind his piano, actively listening. I didn’t realize it at first, but, when my friend noted he had been “giving us the tools” we’d need for the end of the performance, it would seem obvious in retrospect.

The intermission did not serve as a differentiating device between the classical and rock portions of the set. After a little conversation and comedy, the Calder Quartet resumed with Philip Glass’ piece, “Company.” After “Company” W.K. performed a slightly more serious improv piece before kicking off the second portion of the night with “I Get Wet.” It has been a long time since I was both psyched and confident enough to participate in a show, but Andrew W.K. successfully nurtured an environment where it was impossible not to feel good. Then there was the clapping. I’d be hard pressed to recall a time when seeing anyone have so much fun hand-slapping since pre-school. At certain moments there were no less than three dominant tempos, but it didn’t matter. Just like every aspect of the night, it was all part of the party. After a climactic ending, in which we were led around making all manner of hoots and whistles, W.K. announced he had one song left and took his place behind his baby grand, slapped the side, and sat …

The final piece was John Cage’s 4’33,” composed for any instrument and consisting of no notes. It was an excellent expression of the validity of the end of a party. Sometimes it’s fun to watch everyone leave and sit for a moment, reflecting on the incredible mess you and your fellow revelers made. This is where the active listening would prove handy. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready. The cat calls and cheek-plucking harmonies were somewhat frustrating, but I think we incorporated some of the values from W.K.'s first improv. There was a group outside who commented that there had been some very rich chair scrapes, at any rate.

Photo: [Andrew WK]

Kurt Vile / Coconuts / Birds of Maya
Kung Fu Necktie; Philadelphia, PA

[10-03-2009]

Kurt Vile played two shows in Philadelphia last weekend to celebrate this week’s release of Childish Prodigy. Friday he played a free in-store show at AKA Music, and Saturday night the band performed to a sold-out crowd at Kung Fu Necktie alongside fellow Philadelphians Birds Of Maya and New York’s Coconuts. Two of the more popular weekly papers — Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly — both devoted a few pages to Vile last week, the latter making his the cover story. Given the national attention that has been swarming around Vile for the past year, and this parochial buzz, he most likely could have sold out a much larger hometown venue. His decision to play at a record store and Kung Fu Necktie — a bar/performance space in Fishtown that maxes out at just over 100 people — is in alignment with the organic, working-class story that he has constructed thus far.

In order to properly experience the raucous energy and crucial guitar-antics of Birds Of Maya, an enclosed space packed with meltable bodies is necessary, and Kung Fu Necktie was perfect. They ripped through about 30 minutes of head-nodding tempo shifts and thrashing guitar-damage, producing the highest energy-vibe the club would feel for the night. An apt contemporary comparison of their sound can be made with San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips. However, while both bands embrace a hypnotic and repetitive drone structure, Birds Of Maya never remain settled in one groove for too long, practicing more frequent riff and beat transitions to keep things fresh and spontaneous. All those grumpy squares who whine about how rock is dead should be forced by the Rock Leviathan to stand up front at a Birds Of Maya show so that the band can unleash supreme justice and rip their fucking heads off.

{Coconuts}’ overuse of a piercing treble tone on every instrument made for one of the most unlistenable performances I’ve seen since I somehow ended up at a Belle & Sebastian show a few years ago. Anything negative that could be said — e.g., that my brain split in half from the stabbing tone, or that my ears unhappily bled from the incessant screech of poorly modified amps and guitars, or that the dub-echo on the drum was nauseating and puke-inducing, etc. — would likely please the band. They’d think those descriptions are more “cool” than negative. There’s no possibility of critiquing this aesthetic, which is what makes it more conservative than its devotees will ever admit.

I was expecting {Kurt Vile} to either open or close the show with a few solo songs, like “Blackberry Song” or “Heart Attack” from Childish Prodigy, but he did neither. Instead, he played a full set with The Violators (the ferocious Mike Zeng on drums, Jesse Turbo on guitar/bass/saxophone/harmonica, and Adam Granduciel on guitar). The band locked into a deep blues-groove on Childish Prodigy’s “Inside Lookin’ Out,” which is a modified version of “Good Lookin’ Out” from The Hunchback EP. Turbo’s reverb-drenched harmonica work gives the one-chord drone a glowing sonic dimension and, having seen the band perform several times now, I think his harmonica and saxophone contributions are an absolutely crucial element to the experience. Turbo played saxophone on Blues Control’s Local Flavor, namely on “Rest On Water,” and he provides a similarly profound and floating vibe that is essential to Vile’s vision of American rock music. One of the aspects of the band’s live performance that Childish Prodigy captures well is Vile’s confident vocal delivery — while at times on past recordings his singing is soft and intimate, his stage presence is much stronger and declarative, particularly with the vocal outbursts on tracks like “Freak Train.”

Toward the middle of the set, the band stumbled through an almost unrecognizable version of crowd favorite “Freeway.” I’m sure the stumbling was not intentional, but to interpret it so might be interesting. Many people likely attended just to hear that song, so the awkward version might have puzzled single-minded fans. Earlier in the evening, at another nearby bar, I overheard someone singing “I’ve got a trumpet and I know where to dump it,” and then express their excitement about the night’s show. While the band did experience a few more off-moments — at one point they had to restart a song after some confusion — there was enough rollicking action to keep energy and spirits high.

[Photo: Jenna Wilbur]

WFMU Fest: Faust / Cold Cave / Aluk Todolo
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

[10-01-2009]

In his hard-to-find but continuously enjoyable Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope declares, “There is no group more mythical than Faust.” So, standing within inches of the band as it performed at the opening night of the WFMU Fest seemed like it would be a clarifying experience. Here was this legendary and elusive name, now physically embodied and definable, right there on the stage — but wait, what’s that? It’s a trumpet calling from the balcony.

Just when I thought I had identified the whole of Faust in front of me, another element beckoned from behind. Founding member Jean-Hervé Péron kicked off the set by blowing on a horn from the rear of the room and gradually making his way to the stage like a wayward member of a marching band. And throughout the night, the group continued to splinter the notion that it can be boiled down to any finite designation. A vacuum cleaner; a cement mixer; a mid-set painting interlude; a grinding wheel and piece of sheet metal colliding to shoot sparks across the stage; these were all parts of the Faust fluxus.

Sure, the band touched on much of their lauded early work, including multiple tunes from Faust IV (“Sad Skinhead,” “Jennifer,” “Krautrock") and tracks from its debut (“Miss Fortune”) and sophomore (“So Far”) albums. But those songs took on new shapes and curves with the help of recent additions James Johnston (a former Bad Seed) and Geraldine Swayne. Such classics morphed even further when plopped between spoken-word segments, playful improvisations and enthusiastic exclamations from Péron. After the group had given a post-encore bow at center stage, Péron capped the night by pretending to run headfirst into the belly of hulking drummer Zappi Diermaier. Why? Why not?

Two kinds of seriousness preceded Faust’s gleeful display. French psych-metal trio Aluk Todolo opened the night with heavy, brooding songs that stared straight into the abyss. Not even a broken string averted their gaze; guitarist Shantidas Riedacker maintained the group’s constant spaced-out squall while restringing his axe. Cold Cave followed, appearing as icy and dark as their name implies. The group’s detached Kraftwerk-esque manner came across as almost ostentatious, and their noisy synth-pop felt more fitting for a dimly lit bedroom with headphones than a bustling Brooklyn venue.

Faust quickly turned the night’s frown upside down, though, leaving Aluk Todolo to be the band most likely to have bargained with the devil and Cold Cave to be the most Teutonic. Instead of acting in line with the literary allusions of its name or conforming to the German stereotype, Faust was whatever its members’ whims dictated it to be, and that was by far the evening’s most gratifying experience.