Conan O’Brien: The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour
The Wang Theatre ; Boston, MA

[06-05-2010]

You may not have heard this, but a few months ago Conan O’Brien lost his gig hosting The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. No, really. Apparently it was a clusterfuck of Hollywood drama, inept network management, internet campaigns, Nielsen ratings, and the perceived lust of the unwashed masses for the boring, tired comedy of a man whose best-known bit is reading newspaper typos.

Despite the self-deprecation and low-level martyrdom melodrama that swirled around Conan in the aftermath of NBC’s reneging, the great redhead’s ensuing tour is looking more and more like a victory lap. The chain of events garnered great media coverage and galvanized his dormant fan base, allowing the quickly thrown-together 32-city tour to sell out without a dime being spent on promotion. Marching into November, Coco will still be wielding public goodwill and a fat settlement as he begins his new job at TBS, not only with a longer leash for his content, but with complete ownership of his show and all its creative properties.

Not exactly the unluckiest man in showbiz.

As for that public goodwill, you’d be hard-pressed to find more of it on the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour” than Conan’s stop in Boston. As his stereotypical Irish appearance may suggest, Conan grew up in Boston and even attended college at Harvard, just across the Charles River in Cambridge. Multiplied by the fact that his comedy career centered in New York and L.A., the comedian’s first hometown show was a lovefest of all things Beantown.

Walking on-stage at the Wang Theater in a Paul Pierce Celtics jersey to support the basketball team’s 2010 championship bid, Conan mused, “Thank God, there’s not a game tonight or you’d be yelling at me to put it on the big screen. ‘Put the game on! Shut up! Stand in the corner and shut up!’ ” He then confessed that living in L.A. made him homesick for that abuse, saying that he occasionally hired an actor to put on a Bruins jacket and shove him while calling him “queeahh.”

Conan also joked that, due to his large Irish family attending for free, he was only making $55 from his two sold-out performances in Boston. We got to know a little more about the family during a parody of “Polk Salad,” an old Southern song of poverty and hard times popularized by Elvis Presley. With the music of The Legally Prohibited Band churning and backup singers The Coquettes sashaying, Conan sang of his own hard times growing up in Brookline — “an affluent suburb of Boston/ Most people were upper class/ We O’Briens were upper-middle class… It was hell.” He went on to bemoan his “poor mama… a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, she made partner very quickly, pulled in a couple-hundred-thousand-dollars a year,” and his “no-good daddy… a microbiologist who worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in downtown Boston, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization.”

The self-deprecating stylings that have branded Conan’s comedy served as a running theme. Perhaps the biggest laugh of the show came when the pasty string-bean emerged stage-right in an exact replica of the purple suit Eddie Murphy wore in his 80s special Raw. Conan also made light of his peculiar situation, with several bits on his recent misfortune at NBC. The show opened with a video chronicling the past few months of his life. A closeup shot reveals Conan with long, unkempt hair, a long scraggly beard, and a dead-eyed stare. As the camera slowly widens, we see a substantial (fake) weight gain, numerous half-eaten pizzas, and empty beer bottles surrounding him as he lies on the floor. When a ringing phone interrupts his wallowing, Conan springs toward the phone, answering “JOB?!? TV JOB?!?” He continues to mope around the house to the tune of “All By Myself” (of course), having a few pathetic exchanges with his wife and then daughter, who walks away yelling “Mommy! Daddy smells like pee!”

Another video featured Conan sporting a cheap bald cap and glasses to play Generic Network Executive. Evil Exec strokes a token white cat while insulting the “sad little stage show,” and asking “Do you miss television? Well television doesn’t miss you! … We’re now one of the top-17 broadcast networks.” Exec then kills the cat by petting too hard, tosses it aside and has another handed to him.

In a musical number, Conan sings his own version of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” replacing the lyrics with “My own show again. I just can’t wait to have my own show again. On any network, even Oxygen.” And in what has become a running joke since his appearance at Google, a squeaky impression of a Tonight Show host-that-shall-not-be-named led Conan to assure the audience that the imitation was of “rapper Ludacris,” since he is contractually bound not to bad-mouth NBC.

A number of guests added to the night’s festivities. Former co-host, announcer, and “bosom chum” Andy Richter often shared the stage throughout the night, and one of Conan’s writers, Deon Cole, delivered a short set mid-show. Noting that he was Conan’s only black writer and has to field all of the staff’s “black questions,” he asked the crowd if there was an activity they hate to do around black people. “Dancing” was the answer, to which Cole responded “And we hate watching you dance.” He continued, “One lady told me she didn’t like to go to the ATM with black people around. I said, ‘Me too.’” Earlier, eccentric opening act Reggie Watts had the crowd laughing and scratching their heads at the same time. Armed with an array of voices and accents, the dead-pan afro’d comedian/musician toyed with effects pedals to loop his voice, creating a beat first, then layering more melodies and noises on top of it. The bizarre raps and songs Watts then unleashes are unforgettably funny.

Noting the venue, all the comedians made requisite cracks about “the Wang.” Conan intimated that, while growing up, “It was my dream to perform in a giant penis.” Watts observed that we were in “one of the biggest Wangs in the world.” (By my research, the Wang accommodated about 3,600 this night. The Wang was busy.)

Boston barroom staple and unofficial Red Sox house band the Dropkick Murphys also made an appearance to belt out the anthemic “Shipping Up To Boston” (a.k.a. that accordion song from The Departed that’s everywhere now).

Some old favorites from Late Night came along for the ride, as intellectual property rights seem to remain unsettled. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mailed in a hastily made video with (intentionally) poor dubbings of city-specific barbs. The Walker Texas Ranger Lever was rechristened the Walker Texas Ranger Handle, and the crowd was treated to a number of classic scenes, including the infamous “Walker told me I have AIDS” clip.

Even the Masturbating Bear joined everyone on stage for a Dropkick Murphys-aided encore of “The Weight” by The Band and old rockabilly number “Forty Days” by Ronnie Hawkins. The crowd of fans happily ate it up as the finale went into full swing. Strobe lights pulsed, a giant inflatable bat swayed and smiled awkwardly (bought second-hand from Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell Tour, they claimed), and Conan ran through the theater as giant balls — featuring his face — dropped onto the crowd, to be batted around Flaming Lips-style. It was a helter-skelter send-off, and it was more than fitting that, after a night featuring some wonderfully juvenile humor, Coco’s Wang performance ended with the audience playing with his balls.

Who knows what life at TBS will bring, but the past fiasco and ensuing tour have proven that Conan will always have followers, be it on TV, YouTube, Twitter, or the stage.

[Photo: Senor Ryan]

The Missing Link Festival: Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness
The Fox Theatre; Oakland, CA

[05-08-2010]

On May 8 in Oakland, CA, two high-and-mighty heavy metal tours collided and cooperated to create a huge metal-fest at one of the East Bay’s classiest joints, The Fox Theatre. The Fox originally opened in 1928 as a movie theatre and was designed with ornate, delicate crafting inside and out, with the architectural flair of an Indian Temple and a wholly unique style that redesigned building styles on the West Coast. After being closed down in 1966, the venue only recently reopened after a massive renovation. Although an unlikely choice for a crusty metal-fest, the class and spiff of the Fox could not deter a horde of the Bay Area’s finest metal fans from coming out and getting sick with metal. The lineup was so thick that many days of mental preparation were not out of line — Mastodon, Between The Buried And Me, High On Fire, Baroness, Priestess, Valient Thorr, Black Cobra, Bison B.C., and more.

I attended with a good friend, Elvis deMorrow, in tow and we sat down for a post-concert conversation about the show as we let our metal hangovers subside.

-

Chizzly St. Claw: Metal brain. I laid in bed the next morning and felt tinnitus from earhole to earhole, despite the fact that the biggest complaint was the lackluster sound up until Mastodon. It was still loud enough to cause some sort of damage to my faculties.

Elvis deMorrow: Yeah, it was a dangerous brew: The early bands sounded terrible through the mix, but they were still pretty punishing volume-wise. Worst of both worlds.

C: It’s a bizarre venue for eight metal bands.

E: Also, as you know, earplugs generally filter out mid and high frequencies more than the low. So because the drums were overpowering guitars in the mix, it sounded even more unbalanced with ear plugs in. I kept switching mine in and out. There was a clear move upward in volume for High On Fire; the drums sounded like stampede under the second floor. I could tell Mastodon were too loud up front, but the guitars sounded so good I opted to take the punishment. My skull got rung pretty good.

C: I couldn’t help thinking the High On Fire drums had some kind of effect on them, like a slight delay or reverb. They sounded supernatural, like thundering horse’s hooves. High on Fire was the only 3-piece we saw, but they sounded so big.

E: Agreed. The cut down from two guitars to one for High On Fire clearly benefited them. I think they likely brought their own soundman, whereas the openers probably had the “house” man on the boards. There was something weird & thunderous about their drums, though I remain underwhelmed by their songwriting approach, leaving me clearly in the minority at this point. They just don’t interest me very much at a riff, vocal, or solo level. A solid ensemble, but nothing special to my ears.

C: I can’t help wanting to call Between The Buried And Me the Coldplay of metal.

E: Between Buried & Me are the NIN of metal!

C: Fair enough. NIN and Coldplay are the Phil Collins of noise. Between The Buried And Me seemed so out of place compared to the other bands.

E: I was loving Baroness because they brought the disco beats. No one should ever be afraid of the disco beats — all good guitars work well with disco beats. Then Mastodon played the entirety of their latest record, which is maximum disco beats. Every song moves in full circles, which becomes hypnotizing then a bit monotonous.

C: I was impressed by Baroness as well. Except for the dude’s vocals, which were too monochromatic for my tastes. I guess I have such a soft spot for Eric Adams that anyone who only re-enacts the chorus from “I Turned Into A Martian” underwhelms me.

E: It’s too bad that a band “ambitious” as Mastodon don’t push the vocal melodies much past the status quo of the last 10 years. The metal genre always benefits from dynamic and inventive singers, from Ozzy on to today. But they are always in short supply. Ozzy & Halford had more than three vocal melodies. Even Hetfield & Anselmo are diverse by current standards. I think Mastodon successfully broke the “taboo” of singing in a proper contemporary metal band; now they need to sing more than a handful of melodies.

C: Even though the crowd brought it up a notch for the Mastodon slampit, it still was a sub-par performance by the Bay Area metal thugs.

E: Any time you have a guy in a Zappa shirt who just wants to “watch the band, man” up in front of the stage two feet away from a Kerry King doppelganger, then the GDF (Gross Domestic FUN) is going to be negatively impacted all around. Everyone has to compromise in how they want to enjoy the show, which will prevent the overall magic from rising through the roof.

C: We saw no death or thrash metal on this bill, which I think contributed to the overall lackluster slampit scene. Well, that and the jackboot efficiency of the Fox security force. Their stormtrooper approach keeps it clean… Perhaps cleaner than metal should be? At least first aid was quick to aid the puking waste-oid with road rash on his nose in the smoking hole. That’s one squad that should always show up quicker than later.

E: Yeah, I thought for the most part the security had the PRC style down: omnipresent but seldom seen in action. I think a lot of the incongruent behavior was simply due to how classy the joint was. It is rare to see anything tougher than Santana in a venue like that, or maybe Tool would play there.

C: Avett Brothers. Eww.

E: I think this speaks a lot to the civilising potential of one’s surroundings and why most contemporary Americans have been severely insulted, degraded & retarded by our architectural and civil engineering environments over the past several decades. A Minnesotan once told me: “if you don’t clean your apartment before you host a party, the guests will totally trash the place.” He was correct. You go to the Fox Theatre, I don’t care who is playing — you don’t feel compelled to piss on the carpet. In general, venues that implicitly ‘invite’ more use and abuse will make for better tribal catharsis/raw thrills. Venues that look like the Fox interior will make for better Santana solos.

Shrinebuilder
Club Europa; Greenpoint, NY

[04-16-2010]

With plumes of volcanic ash spewing forth from the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, a major havoc was wrought upon air travel and, as nearly all flights in and out of Northern Europe were frozen, many musicians on their way to major festivals and gigs were forced to change their plans and cancel scheduled concerts worldwide. On Friday morning, a number of performers (including Mighty Boosh star Gary Numan) announced they would be unable to catch their scheduled flights to the Coachella Festival in California. Later, around midday, it was announced the mighty stoner super-group Shrinebuilder would be stranded in New York, and wouldn’t be playing at the legendary Roadburn Festival in Tilllsburg, Holland. It was bad news for Roadburners but good news for us in New York, as Shrinebuilder would attempt to appease the volcano by booking a last-minute show at Club Europa, the Polish disco in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they would deliver their own brand of volcanic spew. 



Scott Kelley of Neurosis, Al Cisneros of Om and Sleep, Dale Crover of The Melvins, and Scott “Wino” Weinrich of the seminal groups Saint Vitus and The Obsessed took the stage in what would ordinarily be a nocturnal-emissions-causing dream for napping doom fans. But the site was indeed real, and the cadre of slow-metal pioneers would proceed to barrel through an incendiary set that set the sparse but dedicated crowd ablaze in a firestorm of Hawkind-inspired space rock, punishing metallic riffs, and shamanic grooves. As Wino shook a head full of long, gray hair, Cisneros grooved righteously to the slinking karma loops of his own bass. Scott Kelley pounded away on his wood-grain guitar while bellowing deeply in his inimitable and proprietary growl. As a gestalt, the group was unbelievably tight and had the chops to change gears on a dime, going from pummel mode to cryptical envelopment in a heartbeat. The sharing of vocal duties between the four added a depth to their sound unheard in each members’ flagship projects. On tracks like the epic “Solar Benediction,” Shrinebuilder stretched to the great reaches of inner space, allowing plenty of room for some long-form, free-rock exploration. As an extra treat, Scott Kelley, after stating his unpreparedness to play their third show in NYC in six months, announced they would try something they had not tried live before. It turned out to be an absolutely electric version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blues-laden “Effigy,” which had the crowd unequivocally roaring for more.



It may seem a somewhat inevitable observation, but it’s at least a bit noteworthy that, in the end, not even a giant volcano could stop the mighty Shrinebuilder.

Holy Fuck / Nice Nice
Troubadour; Los Angeles, CA

[06-10-2010]

On stage right of the Troubadour in West Hollywood was a pile of keyboards in a box. It seemed fitting, given they were all made probably before 1992, with some carrying the name Casio. But if there’s something to be understood about Brian Borcherdt, it’s the pile doesn’t matter: Those keyboards can and will last a long time, and they are his primary arsenal in fighting the Zerg enchanting and blowing people’s minds as co-leader of the dirty electronic group Holy Fuck. If nothing else, it was a casual display of power.

Opener Nice Nice were ending their tour as opener for the band. The Portland duo played the co-headliner more than the opener: They had an utter confidence that was pleasing, and a strong momentum to boot. Their layering was nuanced, and worked in building tension in the performance, very similar to label-mates Battles. It also filled the room quite well, and the chant-like rhythm coming out of the drums gave the crowd something to work with. This act is as much a testament to their new label Warp’s ability to pick up incredible talent as it is a solid back-up to Holy Fuck. Expect them to really hit it big in the next year or so.

Holy Fuck jumped in, complete with their keyboard arsenal and ground-floor strobe lights, and kept punching it loud with very little let-up. Even when they were switching up for the next song, somebody kept playing. Opening with Latin number “Stay Lit,” and segueing into LP’s opener “Super Inuit,” the momentum was meant to be fierce. Really pulling through were drummer Matt Schulz and bassist Punchy McQuaid, who provided exemplary rhythm, keeping Borcherdt and Graham Walsh’s antics on a leash when needed. Not that such antics, such as switching between the start of “Safari” and “Lovely Allen,” were unnecessary: Their liveliness made their sound much more powerful, and made the crowd equally vibrant.

There were awkward moments, such as the melody loop of LP single “Lovely Allen” being off-key, but nothing that could bring down the set and its ferocity. Set (and Latin) closer “P.I.G.S.” culminated the ferocity into one final explosion of layering and improvisation that left a mark on the crowd that stepped in for the evening. One has to wonder what magic or processor in those old Casios would make so much noise …

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

Mike Watt & The Missingmen
The Smell; Los Angeles, CA

[06-05-2010]

As critics, we tend to be cynical about reunions and legends; side projects and follow-ups. We complain about the disappointment of seeing artists after the raw periods of their youth. Sometimes it’s sad, like watching Rick James take a break after every two songs, but any failure will come from simply not meeting whatever expectations history has created for the artist. There’s always the possibility that I might have seen him rock harder had I been at an original Minutemen show but, frankly, even with all the covers, it’s a non issue. When someone reaches a certain level of legitimate greatness within the rock community something shifts in their responsibility as a performer. They can do new and interesting work (Please do!), but their success will always be viewed in terms of how well they sparked whatever energy they brought to the past and how well they transported original fans to the time they inevitably see as being when “bands were bands.”  

In this way Mike Watt, backed by The Missingmen, succeeded terrifically. Every second Watt was onstage was a lesson in what jamming econo looks like. Every crease in his face. Every grimace. Every sweat stain. I think he made everyone feel at least a little excessive in some way. There was a noticeable, and refreshing, absence of cell-phone photography that I attribute to the clear sense that anything unrelated to the music didn’t matter.

Watt was plagued by an unusually large number of sound problems. Most significantly, there were no audible vocals coming from Watt at all for the first two songs. As much as that sucked though, it did present a chance to see just how much he puts into a performance. It’s something else to see a man pushing it all out, veins popping, just to have his vocals escape over the music for even one word. 

After Watt yelled for the sound lady to, “just fucking turn it all the way up,” and getting nothing in the way of results, Tom Watson gave up his own mic and they switched back and forth depending on who had primary vocal duties. It was a bummer to lose the backup vocals, but it was worth it to see Watt hand the dead mic to someone in the crowd and say, “Here, stick that up my ass or something.” Watson, for his part, continued to scream all of his parts directly into the empty mic stand as if nothing was wrong. 

It looked like everything was going to be fine. They brought someone’s kid onstage to replace Raul Morales on drums and the tyke was rock-solid. The vibe was great and everything felt familial, with bouncy adolescent curls collided with grey manes in the mild pit. As the set went on though, Watt began to look increasingly uncomfortable onstage and occasionally would step back from the mic clutching his ear and screaming, “Fuck.” He definitely yelled at someone in the front that he couldn’t hear anything while his companion played with the wires running down the wall in a way that evoked memories of trying to find the sweet spot on tin foil-covered bunny ears. Every time Watt flinched though, his next move would be a fierce attack on his bass. That image will stick with me for a long time and I’m left wondering who’s going to show my kids the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.

Starfucker / Butterfly Bones
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[05-14-2010]

The Rickshaw Stop used to host an 18+ dance party called “Blow Up” every Friday night. I went a few times in high school, and by the last time I felt dirty for going — the crowd was an awful mixture of 15 year olds with fake IDs, wannabe American Apparel models, creepy mid-twenties guys who had come to grind on the 15 year olds, and an endless sea of amateur “party photographers” firing flashes onto the whole sweaty mess. The Rickshaw Stop had to shut it down last year — more than 500 people were showing up to cram into a 200-capacity venue.

It seemed about half the crowd at this show consisted of people who hadn’t gotten the memo that “Blow Up” wasn’t happening anymore, and Butterfly Bones sounded like they could have been played at Blow Up. Their music is catchy and danceable, but after half an hour of the same predictable breaks we heard all over MSTRKRFT remixes in 2006, I got the queasy feeling that I was back in high school, trying to dodge drunk guys’ attempts to grope me. To BB’s credit, electro-pop is pretty hard to get right, but their version didn’t bring any new ideas.

Starfucker (who, thankfully, are back to that name and not Pyramiddd), however, do have great ideas regarding electro-pop. They use guitars and synths equally and for interesting effects, and their songs sound like songs rather than an endless, unchanging pulse. They also know to take a break, and some of the best parts of the night were mid-tempo tracks from their newer material. They still wear dresses when they perform and they still got the room dancing so hard that sweat dripped off the ceiling, but they back up the antics and the beats with solid pop music. Electronics augment, but don’t define, Starfucker’s music, which is an important nuance to notice when you can still dance to something. I hope the “Blow Up” transplants appreciated it, too.

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