Craig Wedren
08-04-2009;

[08-04-2009]

I went into Craig Wedren's show with ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) bearing an open mind, determined not to be disappointed if he didn't launch into a set of rare Shudder To Think songs. As it turned out, not only did I get my secret wish to hear “Pebbles” again, but I also got knocked on my ass by the power of Wedren's voice combined with a classically trained mini-orchestra.

ACME began the evening with contemporary classical composer Michael Nyman's String Quartet No. 2, an ear-friendly alternative to John Cage's "String Quartet in Four Parts," which had been programmed originally. Artistic director and cellist Clarice Jensen expertly guided her fellow players through terrifyingly complicated rhythms and delicate chord structures without a hitch; a blessing, as we all know what a wrong note on a violin sounds like.

ACME cleared the stage for a visibly awed Wedren, who would later stand and smile appreciatively, almost like an audience member, as ACME wove impossibly intricate melodies around him. Wedren treated the Shudder To Think fans with “Hit Liquor,” “No RM. 9,” and more, making it incredibly difficult for me to contain my contented sighs. Ushering ACME back onto the stage, Wedren shared that he couldn't remember how long they'd been collaborating, but that it had happened within the past year.

“I have no sense of time now that I've had a child,” he admitted. “I'm 1... I'm 100... I'm not sure. Making music with ACME has been a revelation... now let's just hope we don't suck.” “One Man's Heart,” written with ACME, is one of the most tuneful and comfortable pieces of music ever to have been associated with Wedren, who is clearly embracing a more blissful muse these days. Yet, he uses his classical leanings to give new teeth to Shudder to Think track “Pebbles,” which is all the more unsettling and obtuse with the organic scream of strings and woodwinds.

The piece de resistance was latter-day Shudder To Think keyboardist Jefferson Friedman's three-part composition "On In Love," for which Wedren wrote lyrics. “On In Love” plays like the soundtrack of an imaginary stage show, with Wedren as the soulful narrator, describing the different facets of love reflected by three movements: “Refuse to Die,” “Famous Planets,” and “Tarrying.” Wedren howled and crooned, eyes closed, acting as ambassador of art rock and its chaotic and euphoric collision with the classical world. At the close of the final movement, he turned around and beamed at the musicians, as enamored of them as I was of the work as a whole.

Shellshag / Screaming Females / Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa / Saything
Spam Warehouse; Oakland, CA

[07-31-2009]

I showed up late to this show, because I was wasting time at home learning what Slash Fiction is. So I missed Cansafis’s solo saxophone set. It’s okay though, I’ll see it next week. In between bands, I stood around and enjoyed the beer-vending machine: PBR, Olympia, or Budweiser for 75 cents? Amazing.

Saything came on, and I realized that, having now seen them three times in the past month, it has become like watching Sanford & Son; my attention is held but not newly warped. It’s good though, like Modest Mouse with better vocals. Bonus -- it was Mr. Brian’s (Saything's drummer) birthday, and the celebratory vibe was heartfelt.

After Saything finished, the place got magically packed, including a whole family (raddest parents ever) with two goth adolescents front and center. Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa came on and blew my mind. The whole purpose for the show was to celebrate the release of their new album, Operation Spacetime Cynderblock: 4 Riddles of the Spheres, and they absolutely ripped through their set. The drumming was positively gymnastic. Robert and Priya’s vocals are so harsh and punk, I can’t help making Subhumans comparisons. Actually, Crass is a pretty good point of reference too, but subtract out a bit of the overt political commentary and keep the anti-authoritarian vibe, then add a hefty dose of Sabbath influence and early '90s Miami noise vibe, and you now have KLS in a nutsack.

Screaming Females and Shellshag underwhelmed me, even if the crowd came out for them. Both bands have pretty well mastered power/pop/crust punk, but compared to KLS I found their delivery sloppy, loose, and poorly mixed. Although, both bands do subscribe to the “save the best for last” setlist writing motif, which is a good way to earn a couple points from this jaded reviewer. There was another show going on next door, but I was too faded and hungry to check it out. A trip to Korean BBQ beat that easily.

of Montreal / Jon Brion
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA

[07-24-2009]

Even though I’ve seen pictures of Kevin Barnes on a white horse and {(NSFW)} Kevin Barnes with no clothes, and even though I thought I was ready to be a witness to the spectacle that is an of Montreal performance, nothing could have prepared me for seeing this band for the first time. And that’s probably a good thing, because by the time the show was over, I was happy to feel like I’d been hit by a train.

That train did not, however, include Jon Brion among its passengers. His opening set was subdued and pleasant, two things that make for a nice first act but are not particularly memorable. He hopped nimbly around the stage from instrument to instrument, playing four or five for each song, and capped off his performance with a replete-with-autotune rendition of Daft Punk’s “Around the World.” He is clearly a gifted musician, but his creations are better-suited to recording. Suffice to say, it’s good he played before of Montreal and not after, because though he held his own in front of a 2,300-person audience, he didn’t captivate.

Adequate representation of the of Montreal portion of the evening requires visuals, and the method by which founder/singer Kevin Barnes entered the stage got things going nicely:

The earlier parts of the show included many vignettes to accompany songs. We got a gas-masked family on Christmas morning; a philanderer caught in the act and dragged away by mysterious creatures; pigs all over the place; and some others I can’t remember because I never quite got the hang of where to look during the show. Should I have focused on the actors who played out these scenes?

Or perhaps guitarist Bryan Poole was more deserving of my attentions with his feathered wings and star-printed guitar?

Either way, I didn’t possess the ability to compartmentalize and pay attention to specific songs. It became clear that live performances are another creative outlet for Barnes, where his excellent music provides a space for physical manifestations of his overactive imagination. The band blazed through a setlist composed mostly of tracks from last year’s Skeletal Lamping and its predecessor, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?. They rarely stopped playing, and when they did, it was mostly to thank the audience for a warm welcome back to the States after the European festival circuit. Sure, their performance reflected their fatigue, but this relatively tame of Montreal show was still mind-warping.

After the first encore's exhaustive jamming of Hissing Fauna’s 12-minute centerpiece, “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal,” I didn’t expect the excellent second encore that followed: a cover of David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream." When a band with a fully realized aesthetic pays tribute to an artist who clearly informs the group’s output, it’s a nice wink to the audience and to the musical world outside the group. And for a band whose sole recording member created much of his last album as his African American transsexual ex-con alter-ego Georgie Fruit, who is there to thank for influence but Ziggy Stardust? I missed seeing the original “Moonage Daydream” by over a decade, but thanks to of Montreal’s cover, I got a little taste of spectacular glam rock at its finest. The band did Bowie justice, and if he’d seen the show that preceded the homage, I think he would have approved.

Setlist:

Butt Bank intro

Nonpareil of Favor

Bunny Ain’t No Kind Of Rider

Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games

Id Engager

And I’ve Seen A Bloody Shadow

The Party’s Crashing Us

Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse

October Is Eternal

A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger

Beware Our Nubile Miscreants

Daniel (Bat For Lashes cover)

Metal Finds Troll (new song)

For Our Elegant Caste

Touched Something’s Hollow

An Eluardian Instance

Rapture Rapes the Muses

She’s A Rejecter

The Past Is A Grotesque Animal [encore]

Moonage Daydream (David Bowie cover) [second encore]

[Photos: Elzee]

Magnolia Electric Co.
40 Watt Club; Athens, GA

[July 22, 2009]

“If you want me to stop touring, keep yelling my name,” proclaimed a maybe-half-joking Jason Molina upon hearing the cry of an overzealous fan at a rather sparsely populated show Wednesday night. You see, in the ever-shifting stratosphere of the former Songs: Ohia mastermind, the new deal is that the band is the deal, and that’s that. It makes sense – this is, after all, the most time Molina has spent with any one group of musicians in his career, and it shows. The band is tighter and more musically limber than ever; the newer songs sound cohesive and lean, the older ones somehow fresh and revitalized.

Speaking of older songs, there weren’t many to be found in this setlist – the latter-era Songs: Ohia jam “John Henry Split My Heart,” with its imposing Crazy Horse-ish instrumentation, was as far back as it reached. Instead, it culled the majority of songs from the recently released Josephine, as well as 2007’s stunning Sojourner box set. A rousing, energized version of What Comes After The Blues standout “The Dark Don’t Hide It” proved a highlight of the evening, and as the fervent group of fans crowded around the stage and sang along word-for-word, a taken-aback Molina smiled and shook his head in shy bewilderment.

Molina’s very deliberate transition from goth-folk troubadour to rock 'n' roll frontman has not only been tricky for music critics who can’t seem to write about Magnolia Electric Co. without dragging up the past (case in point: me), but has also prompted a sort of withdrawal in the guy’s music. While the sizzling classic-rock bombast of the band is in and of itself outstanding, what made Songs: Ohia records like Didn’t It Rain so goddamn special was the naked immediacy. As Molina journeys farther into the mythos of the band, the man himself retreats into the background – exactly, it would seem, how he wants it.

Micachu and the Shapes / tUnE-yArDs / Tempo No Tempo
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[07-22-2009]

It’s been a while since I felt ringing in my ears. Noise was needed, given how much lately I’d been forced to listen to other people’s music, and a show was to be had. While the Rickshaw had held the massively hyped Pains Of Being Pure At Heart only the night before, I sought interest in another breakout band this year, Micachu and The Shapes, tonight. Micah “Micachu” Levi’s bombastic noise project has subtle elements of elegance in its debut recording, Jewellery, which had me wondering if it translates well in a live setting.

The night opened with local Oaklanders Tempo No Tempo. They seemed to rely on the latter half of their name at times, feeling sloppy. While frontman Tyler McCauley instilled a significant intensity in his vocal disposition and guitar playing, his bandmates could not match that intensity, and it felt like he was burdened with picking up their slack. Preparation (or lack thereof) may have been at the heart of this problem: On more than one occasion drummer Alex Kaiser have to tune his snare drum, often mid-song, and at one point the band screwed up their set list and made the audience aware. They managed to hit stride in the second half of their set, beginning with a new untitled track and moving onward to the enjoyable “Medicines.” Still, they could not make up the lost interest. There is decent potential to be found in their music, but they need to spend more time practicing to truly express it.

Within the first minute of supporting act tUnE-yArDs’ first piece, it felt like the opening act was just a rehearsal and the show had finally begun. In fact, given the crowd’s incredible reaction, one could argue Merill Garbus' solo act had stolen the entire show. And she nearly did; her incredible vocal range and dynamic approach to percussion (at one point just creating a proper rhythm out of layers of banging drum rims and the stage floor) made her music an explosive sledgehammer. What's more, her ukelele thrashing was made all the more impressive by the fact that she was playing with a completely broken nail on one finger. But it was her projection that truly raised the crowd: When she was not deploying vocal layer upon drum layer, she was singing with a passion you rarely see outside church gatherings, to the point where she sometimes started out screaming as though she were speaking in tongues. Best of all, you could follow it, drag yourself along with it, and it felt complete. It’s a rare pleasure seeing a performance that holds on to your head and heart for so long, even rarer when a crowd voices displeasure that a supporting set had to end so soon.

From the beginning of their set, Micachu and The Shapes couldn’t decide between a more refined or bombastic approach, so they took both. Never before had I seen such technical accuracy with noise-rock. I was listening to My Bloody Valentine or Lightning Bolt being played by Julliard graduates: Loud, but not painfully so; layered, but easy to discern; brutal, but in a precise manner. Even the cowbell and cymbal-heavy opening to “Eat Your Heart” felt classically inclined, and probably could fit in a piece played by the Boston Pops. They stretched their songs with new solos and bridges, which went from the bizarre (the cymbal solo in “Curly Teeth”) to the stunning (Micachu’s Shields-esque shredding in “Golden Phone”), but all fit. Micachu’s boyish charms worked in her favor, so it never seemed out of place when she snarled or emitted a deep articulate growl in accordance with whatever piece they were playing. Most importantly, though, the band was very progressive: During their short 50-minute set they debuted a few new songs, including the slow-but-appealing “Debris.” While it would be harsh to define noise by a standard such as this, Micachu and The Shapes have definitely exceeded the usual standards and are likely to last as a unique and tight group.

Photo: [Micachu and The Shapes]

NoBunny
Five Star Bar; Los Angeles, CA

[07-15-2009]

It's always fun to watch a group's hometown tour-kickoff show. They’re much more of an event, with family and friends showing up to create an atmosphere that makes you feel like the entire venue is the backstage area (kind of like the club in A Night at the Roxbury). You’re pretty much guaranteed bonus banter and hijinks. On nights like these, record label owners man the merch table instead of mildly bored-looking girlfriends. This show was kind of both and neither. While NoBunny hails from the Bay Area, Burger Records (home of NoBunny’s as-of-now cassette-only Raw Romance and all the opening bands) is based in L.A. All the acts are hovering around SoCal for shows before dispersing to sew their wild oats on their various proper tours.

Of course, the first night also entails a potentially major caveat: un-preparedness. As I watched the opening acts work out their kinks with mixed results, I decided that an air of instability would probably benefit NoBunny more than anything else. We’re talking about a band, after all, whose frontman normally performs in his underwear and a bunny mask and who produce skuzzy power-pop with lyrical gems like “This little piggy wants to get an erection.” Instead of rolling with the relative sloppiness of the night and incorporating it into their persona the way Matt Schmalfeld from Audacity did in the prior set, NoBunny threw me for a bit of a loop when he not only acknowledged it but apologized and promised better results on Saturday. I’m all for consideration towards fans, but the two moments where I saw the cracks in their “don’t know, don’t care” façade were, in in this case, mildly momentum-sucking downers.

Otherwise, NoBunny comported themselves like the lovable rogue presented in “It’s True,” who has to convince us that despite all the bad things we’ve heard about them being true, they’d be good to us. I don’t know if it’s the mystique of the “secret identity,” natural charisma or just the simple sing- along power of the tunes, but NoBunny certainly elicits crowd response. If you go see them live, it’s definitely worth jockeying for a position in the first few rows, as most of the action will be going on out of your line of site. When he’s not rolling around or gyrating on his knees, he will be getting mobbed by people.

Just make sure you’re ready to see a grown man in a thong with a bunny tail.

Photo: [NoBunny MySpace]