Charlemagne Palestine’s Carillon Bells (AV Festival Opening)
Civic Centre; Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

[03-05-2010]

If the certainly eccentric New York composer Charlemagne Palestine’s M.O. is to challenge Western audiences’ expectations of “what is beautiful and meaningful in music,” then his ribbon-cutting bells at the AV Festival certainly did the trick. Palestine performed a trilogy of bell works at various cathedrals and other-places-with-bell-towers in Northeast England as part the “energy”-themed European electronic arts, films, and media festival (the largest, or at least one of the largest), and this opening was loaded with the most potential spiritualism and symbolism.

A projected live video of his small “studio” (read: bell tower) in Newcastle upon Tyne’s Civic Centre provided clear insight into his self-aware quirk. Dressed in a tripped-out, wildcat-patterned jacket, Palestine paced frenetically with nose to handkerchief before a warily audience-/performer-debasing introduction in which he spoke about the trueness of the bells as a musical form and his days playing carillon bells in New York in the 60s. His mention of not being able to see the people “down below” on the streets seemed particularly relevant in his windowless box, especially when he started stamping the keys with both fists and feet with a palpably spiritual but low-key fervor.

The slightly funny thing was that when he begun, no sound could be heard indoors (thanks to good insulation and huge concrete walls), which wasn’t accidental and added to the mythos as everyone moved outside into a suitably lucid, blue dusk. Weird crystalline textures in the reasonably fragile and initially quiet bells came off pretty synathestic against the near-dark, and the metaphor of expansiveness was mirrored in the gradual build up of volume and density as Palestine played on for an hour or so. And despite the probably high level of expectation from the nature of such a performance being diffused by the abundance of nearby AV Festival art openings (and free wine), as well as the loadedness of the monolithic structure in which the quirky, humble musician sat, there was a distinct and calm grandeur to his triumphant and oblique harmonies ringing out across the city.

Joanna Newsom / Jens Hannemann
Jefferson Theater; Charlottesville, VA

[03-24-2010]

The setlist for Joanna Newsom’s Wednesday night concert at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Jefferson Theater belied a certain simplicity. It listed 10 songs, plus one encore, with brief titles like “In California,” “Soft as Chalk,” “Monkey and Bear,” and, perhaps most suggestively, “Easy.” Those unfamiliar with her work might have imagined her as an artist who has boiled her message down to such succinct phrases. But, once Newsom positioned herself at her towering harp and began letting a myriad of notes fall from her fingers, they would have quickly discovered a different reality.

That reality is one in which Newsom is an undeniable virtuoso and far from a minimalist. Wednesday’s set featured seven songs from her latest and most ambitious release, the triple-album Have One on Me. Tunes ranged from the steady but colorful chug of “Good Intentions Paving Company” to the sprawling swirl of the album’s 11-minute title track. Newsom’s ensemble included multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi and drummer Neal Morgan, who both contributed to “Have On on Me.” Along with three others, they offered a perfect compliment to Newsom’s polyrhythmic plucking and endlessly nuanced singing. Francesconi switched out instruments — often multiple times in one song — to recreate the album’s ever-changing orchestration, and Morgan hit his drums sparingly and deliberately, riding on the music’s momentum rather than propelling it himself.

While the new songs breathed with the same unreserved spirit of the album, the older ones revealed how much Newsom has changed since Milk-Eyed Mender, her 2004 debut. She pulled out three tunes from that album, “Inflammatory Writ,” “The Book of Right-On,” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” as well as “Monkey and Bear” from 2006’s Ys. All moved at a more brisk and assured pace than their recorded counterparts, and Newsom’s voice, which changed following a bout with vocal chord nodules, took on a much smoother, sensual tone.

Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen opened the show as satirical drum instructor Jens Hannemann and also returned the later to play percussion on “Good Intentions.” As the night came to a close, it felt cut short despite Newsom’s lengthy set. That feeling is a testament to her rare ability to charm you into forgetting that the minutes are flying by. Commanding such enrapt attention is less and less common in the days of Twitpics and 140-character reviews, but Joanna Newsom is, after all, anything but common.

Slow Club / The Pleasure Kills / The Saucy Jacks
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[03-10-2010]

Dear Internet Overlords of Music, or IOM: who decided that playing thoroughly fun music isn’t enough anymore? Why are you so derisive of people who stick to trusted ideas and interpret them exceptionally well? What’s so damn wrong with sacrificing innovation for the sake of, you know, being really good? Dudes, you should have seen this show. It would have turned you right around.

IOM, I want to organize a sock-hop just so San Francisco’s Saucy Jacks can play it, and you will be there. You would love their nice suits and how they sounded like The Strokes channeling The Beatles. In other words, heartbreakers, for sure. This band knows how to self-edit and excels at turning out one short, irresistibly catchy and clever song after another. It would be the best start to a night that would eventually turn you around and remind you why twee and indie pop happened.

After my sock hop, we’d change into a leather jackets, get drunk, and see The Pleasure Kills in a basement. Hopefully, their totally badass singer, Lydia, would spit beer on you like she did to her bandmates. You would renounce your allegiance to Karen O and flail around your arms like a teenager at a ska show, but you would feel less awkward because you’d be listening to scuzzy rock with killer synths. We’d stay for a while and probably trip over their bassist’s cord as he jumped out onto the floor. It would be exhausting because there is no way to avoid dancing with this band.

And at the end of the night as we’re sobering up, Slow Club would gently ease us into our hangovers. Watching Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson feels like overhearing a conversation between two best friends picking apart the highs and lows of their respective romances and falling outs, and we’d feel nostalgic and make some self-depracating comments about our own failed relationships. Taylor’s astonishingly clear voice and Watson’s skilled guitar work would keep us in that perfect place between waking and sleeping, and as they strolled out into the audience to play their last song, we’d gently drift off into dreams about sunny afternoons and frenzied dancing.

I hope you’ll come with me on this night I’ve imagined for us. You’ll need to open up your hearts a little bit.

Love,
Elzee

Harvey Milk
Annex Wreckroom; Toronto, ON

[03-11-2010]

Harvey Milk’s set at Canadian Music Week was one of the most challenging and assumption-breaking shows I’ve seen in quite a while. Existing in a space between an increasingly distant past and a forthcoming dystopic future, their sound was filled with unashamed references to classic rock and swampy blues, drowned in menacingly brutal doom textures.

They began with 20 minutes of meandering sludge, built upon precisely placed yet sporadic drum flourishes in no discernable time signature. Grumbling bass syncopations developed in symbiosis with hesitant albeit thunderous drumming, creating an ominous soundscape rather than a driving beat. Creston Spiers emitted shearing squalls of guitar noise that acted as lightening strikes ripping though the foreboding tempest of brooding rhythm.

Following the epic opener, Harvey Milk reached into their back-catalogue, which lies outside the traditional metal and hardcore canons, to breathe new life into standard rock tropes, before agonizingly snuffing them out. Like a sociopath exhuming the decaying corpse of the 20th century rock, delta-blues riffs oozed from the songs’ disemboweled intestines and spurts of chugging ZZ-Top progressions spewed like blood from its mangled remains. Memphis boogie and honky-rock became the festering stew from which their maggot-y sound was born.

The combination of Spiers’ seamlessly effortless channeling and dismantling of the southern music tradition, Kyle Spense’s haunting drumming, and Stephen Tanner’s roaring bass provided an ahistorical lesson in American popular music. Bringing forth the future by mutilating the past. There was no irony; there was no nostalgia. There is only Harvey Milk.

Panda Bear / Kurt Vile
Cabernet Sauvage; Paris, France

[03-10-2010]

There aren’t many artists at the moment whose new material is limited to a couple of fan-made YouTube videos. MP3 leaks are non-existent for Noah Lennox, but it’s not like he needs any additional build-up for his new works. They’re exciting, those harsh synth stammers at the start of his current performances, oblique and Beatles-esque compared to his other new jams.

Cabernet Sauvage, on the (sort of) outskirts of Paris, seemed like a pretty good place to hear them. I’d only found out a half hour before heading out to the terrific permanent “tent” (complete with stained glass, wooden décor, and red velvet curtains) that Kurt Vile was opening, and his typically lucid and hazy solo ramblings came off spacious yet intimate. His “classic rock in spring” vibe permeated across material mostly from Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying This To You and ending on the hypnotic loop from “Best Love” (particularly dense and loud in this live context), which served as a perfect segue to Panda Bear’s electronic sounds.

Starting with those harsh inverse synth arpeggios before adding guitar and beats, Panda Bear’s set of basically all-new material moved alongside hyper-weird and textural projected visuals. And if Person Pitch explores dance music tropes, many of these new songs are more “song-” or ballad-like. But there are also some total bangers; one song in particular took on hip-hop styles, with a beat typically missed in preference of a rest, which of course only adds to the incessancy, especially when backed with such huge bass. Elsewhere, shuffly dance and more dub-based ideas came out full and skewed, especially at one moment when foresty/liquid-y sounds were backed with visual loops of 10-13-year-old girls losing their shit at some sort of Britney Spears concert. It’s this sort of genre exploration doubled with rhythmic focus, vocal fervor, and general belief in wonder/beauty that continues to give Panda Bear’s music such relevance.

[Photo: Hisham Bharoocha]

Wiz Khalifa / U-God / Jasmine Solano
The Aggie Theatre; Fort Collins, CO

[03-05-2010]

I’d been meaning to check out a show at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, CO for a long-ass time, largely because I’m sick of driving to Denver; I figured it’d be a lot easier to take the dreaded “You’re not on the list” conversation if I hadn’t just driven an hour-and-change out of my way. It’s too bad, however, that I had to pop my Aggie cherry on such a strange concert. There’s no doubt the Ag’ has the space, live sound, and “pull” to bring in good bands and good fans, so seeing such a wildly inconsistent show has left me blaming rappers and/or rap in general.

A few notes to rappers interested in putting on concerts:

• Don’t scratch unless you can scratch cleanly; that fingernails-on-chalkboard warble sounds like dogshit.
• The one thing you should never, ever do is let your buddy/buddies sit on the side of the stage diddling a Blackberry while you do your thing. Between Jasmine Solano and Wiz Khalifa, there were 3-4 people onstage who not only looked bored, but were also somehow able to transMIT their boredom to all in attendance. When I see a 350-pound tour-bus driver on the side of the stage, flanked by some chick straight off a rugby-team bus and a scrawny white kid in a backpack — who looks so starstruck my wife thought he was Elijah Wood; I corrected her by reasoning, “There’s no WAY Elijah-fucking-Wood would (HA!) be standing on the side of the stage like a giddy vagrant; there’s just no way” — I assume the rapper(s) are needy. Rappers should never appear needy. Ditch the entourage!
• You don’t have to make the crowd sit around for FOUR HOURS; if the concert is listed to start at 8PM, at least BE IN THE BUILDING by the time 11PM rolls around.
• If some white kid — whose shitty rap group probably just got done opening for you — yells, “Get off the stage,” you gotta sink your FANGs into that motherfucker.
• Between-jam circumlocution is the lowest form of time-passing.

Now that I’m done giving pointers, I’ll jump into the review. Jasmine Solano takes the stage after a few unmentionable white rappers “kill it” (“it” being my boner for white-guy rap). She plays a few records. Eventually, she shows us she can do something worthwhile by bringing out U-God of The Wu-Tang Clan. I am ready for a set that hits the brain like “Cocaine straight from Bolivia,” and what I get is an unsure performance from a flu-addled rapper more suited to being a sideman. I can see he feels passionately about his music, and the aforementioned jeer directed at him (“Get off the stage”) gets him pumped-up enough that he dares anyone to take him off, but his set carries with it the feeling of inertia, of not knowing what to do now that the hype has thoroughly passed him by. And if you’re going to do medley-esque snippets, why not hit-up your slot on Only Built For Cuban Linx or Enter the 36 Chambers? I don’t get it.

Wiz Khalifa? Now that man knows how to work a crowd. Not only that, but he’s young and tattoo’d, just as a rapper should be. No nostalgia trips here; this is the sound of a young man who has figured out his style to the tip-top “T.” His charisma is as apparent as his booming, easy-to-understand voice; I almost forgive his entourage I’m so into it. I love the way his voice slippery-slides over the beats, like Nelly, 50 Cent, and a half-dozen Southern rappers had sex with each other and birthed one pure, destined golden child. What a bad-ass (and I don’t use the term “bad-ass” lightly; not at all).

I should mention that, at one point, I noticed Khalifa lip-syncing. Yeah, that’s right: He took the mic away from his mouth and the rapping continued. It wasn’t on a chorus, either. Was he faking the funk? I’d rather not examine it because I really don’t know; it’s possible parts of the show were canned, it’s possible just that one snippet was. I do know what I saw though; take note and hold rappers to their mics! If Khalifa ever does iron-out this discouraging hiccup (that hiccup being, ahem, a partial lack of actual rapping), there’s really no telling how high his wicked brew of weed tales, tattoo declarations, and trash-talk can take him, even in a live setting rap so-often fails to take advantage of.

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