Crooked Fingers / Strand of Oaks
Mississippi Studios; Portland, OR
I had seen Tim Showalter perform as Strand of Oaks not three months ago; all by his lonesome, he’d managed to create something singular and revelatory. This time, he’d come armed with a full band, or almost full; no drummer, instead a machine whose volume sometimes threatened to overtake that of the three men on stage. There were instances, however, where it felt very much like a rock show. Showalter’s visage is one of stoner metal glory daze, and the music approached a soft sort of sludge. “These songs are sad as shit,” he deadpanned. “Deal with it.” It was indeed quite heartbreaking. Strand of Oaks’ medieval-meets-metapersonal sound is totally unique and captivating, and whatever record Showalter puts out next will probably be a doozy.
It was sad songs we’d come for, and Crooked Fingers delivered, Eric Bachmann himself having adopted the full-band practice for the current tour, the honey-throated Liz Durrett again accompanying him on vocals and guitar. I cannot express how utterly perfect their two voices sound together without resorting to some sort of inappropriate metaphor, so I will leave it at that. While this performance lacked the quiet magic that made Bachmann’s MFNW outing so truly special, the new band laid into some honest-to-gawd grooves. Forlorn white guy folk never sounded so hearty.
I don’t recall specific details due to being some beers deep, and I only took a couple notes because come on, I’ll remember, but I will say that Crooked Fingers is onto something good these days. If you don’t yet have it, please buy Breaks in the Armor for your health. It’s music made by a middle-aged former indie rock icon with the body of a linebacker, dagger-sharp music made by and for drinking and heartbreak, by and for Eric Bachmann and his head and heart and buddies. But it’s alright if you listen, too. And you probably should, because it’s pretty wonderful stuff.
Aladdin Theater; Portland, OR
“Shit, I had a bunch of dirty jokes I wanted to tell,” Mark Kozelek deadpanned upon seeing a child in the front row of the reverent mid-sized crowd at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. It is itself a venue that demands some reverence, an aged and atmospheric place ideal for intimate performances such as this one. Kozelek’s most recent outing as Sun Kil Moon, last year’s Admiral Fell Promises, was a chilly and cartographic affair that sent listeners across the physical and emotional distances of the American West and through the tangled recesses of its creator’s wry and yet tortured headspace.
For this show, Mark Kozelek was as warm as Mark Kozelek gets, which is to say he at least engaged the audience, if only to make fun of them. “It’s always the guys without dates who have the book,” he remarked, a shot at a timid concertgoer holding a copy of Kozelek’s Nights of Passed Over but also an edgy bit of subtle self-deprecation. It was a theme that resurfaced throughout the evening, in the lyrics of a new song (“Had a lot of female fans, and fuck they all were cute/ Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes”) and in other self-pitying barbs ostensibly directed at the crowd.
In between the good-natured (?) ribbing, Kozelek managed to play some songs; in fact, he worked impressively from his vast catalog, pulling from Red House Painters’ Old Ramon (“Cruiser”) and his consensus best-to-date, SKM’s Ghosts of the Great Highway (“Glenn Tipton”). He even did a Modest Mouse cover. It all sounded pretty great, but the performance, beset as it was by the disdain of the singer’s one-sided audience “interactions,” revealed that though Kozelek’s songs still traffic in the too-common human predicaments of alienation and heartbreak, he hasn’t yet discovered how to let his fans in.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Despite what its name might suggest, Vienna’s Arena is not really an arena in the traditional sense of the word. In reality, it’s a collection of a few concert halls, none particularly large, inside a heavily graffitied courtyard. The place feels like an overgrown punk/hardcore venue, sprawling beyond the tiny size typically allotted such a place and invading the surrounding buildings and yards. It’s an appropriate place to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose idealistic punk roots sit uneasily beside their multi-instrumentalist grandeur and worldwide acclaim and audience — a punk ethos stretched out on a global scale, three chords reaching toward a symphonic infinity.
Opening was Colin Stetson, sometimes member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, who brought an ensemble of various-sized saxophones out to produce his swirling, repetition-centered solo performance. His sound was surprisingly effective despite the large hall, with deep, full bass tones and twinkling half-melodies filling the space with a decidedly rich sound for a solo act. He was charmingly nervous in his brief between-song comments, dedicating a tune to his father and thanking the audience profusely for its time. With his combination of emotional directness and light experimentation, he was a fitting and engaging opening act, and was appropriately well received by the crowd.
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor came onstage. They assembled slowly, patiently, in front of their now-fabled loop of 16mm film with the word “HOPE” scrawled directly onto each black frame; seeing the image in person for the first time was a decidedly emotional experience, setting the stage for a night charged with desperate despair and hope. Yet it also set the tone for a strange current of nostalgia running through the entire show, one that complicated the experience in ways the band’s powerfully uncomplicated sound did not — with no new material performed, the collective has now edged towards the sort of experience I imagine from, for example, a recent Pixies or My Bloody Valentine performance. There’s something about GY!BE live self-presentation and audio/visual aesthetics that allows them to shy away from the easy category of the “reunion show” — they always seemed too engaged with the world to ever let their sound live outside of its social time and place. It all added up to an occasionally thrilling and occasionally off-putting performance, at least for this dutiful TMT-er.
If we focus on the music on its own terms, the show was as deeply affecting and powerful as one could hope, at once meditative and visceral. Onstage, the collective was paired down to seven members. While still a huge presence by any other band’s standards, this was enough to render their sound more direct and immediate, bringing the sound closer to that of a guitar-centered punk band — again — despite the group’s lush sound and patient approach, it was impossible to keep the halfway-punk aspect of it all out of mind. With the band leaning particularly hard on their taut, relentless, near-martial rhythm section for nearly the entirety of the performance with only brief moments of rest, the whole show took on the feel of dirt-simple punk song stretching into ambience by sheer force of will and duration, the power of a minor chord redoubled endlessly through repetition. There’s also something wonderful about audience members cheering for spoken-word samples employed in their pieces — lacking breaks between songs, the audience latched onto these now-familiar recordings of street people, preachers, and others as moments of recognition, clapping for each in term. Ambiguous but always heartfelt in their content, they placed the audience in an unusual but powerful place, grasping onto the voice as a moment of definition in the swirling mix of misery and hope.
The collective pulled pieces from their full discography, though in a move that seemed to hold to their uncomfortable relationship with fame, they avoided “East Hastings,” the one song that brought them closest to truly mainstream recognition with its prime placement in 28 Days Later. Among the wealth of material they did play, in a show that stretched to about two hours, it wasn’t missed. The band played beautifully, and when they walked off-stage without an encore, it felt appropriate. The mixture of careful restraint and widescreen scale, of obscurantist stand-offishness and popular appeal, has always been at the center of their identity. Taken along with a sound that merged a static sense of nostalgia with a rawer sound and sense of immediacy, it was a night of blunt, powerful emotion carrying more complicated, sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents. Which, in the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, isn’t a bad thing.
Deerhoof / Ben Butler & Mousepad / Fred Frith / Phillip Greenlief Duo
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA
Few groups can get away with an album title as brazen as Our Band Vs. Evil. But when 16-year veteran avant-pop, indie-superheroes Deerhoof play a record-release show for an album with such a name, the band isn’t simply out to spar with said Evil. They mean to fucking conquer it.
But before the Super Friends foursome would demonstrate how to slay wickedness with dissonant-consonant hooks, stadium-ready power chord-chugging, and over-the-barline drum fills, the night would begin with a musical veteran of a slightly different variety (and an even longer-stretching history). Although I’d seen opener Fred Frith — Oakland-based Mills College Professor and guitarist/composer/improviser extraordinaire — recently at a bar across the street from my house, his duo set with SF-saxophonist Phillip Greenlief was assuredly distinct. Navigating drone-meditations with thoughtful intention, the two men carefully move from subtlety into dynamic peak after peak. The entire performance, however, remains relatively self-contained. Filling in for Deerhoof side project Nervous Cop — due to a broken-footed Zach Hill — Frith and Greenlief’s improv-ready set made perfect sense for such a last-minute addition. Still, my “favorite” moments occurred when unknowingly disrespectful crowd-members talked through the performance and continually misplaced instances of applause. “Wait,” I overhear someone say, “They’re still going?” Yes. Yes, they are.
But if anybody got the raw end of the crowd’s stick, it was German and Scottish based duo Ben Butler & Mousepad. When Butler encourages the crowd that “this is dance music. It’s okay to move your body!” I’ve rarely seen so many self-conscious folks afraid to shake it. Butler is a Korg-splattering virtuoso while his drummer-in-arms lays it down over glitchy beatronics à la NES’s Ninja Turtles 2. After ending things with an accelerando of epic proportions, the band withholds a final cymbal crash in favor of toying with the crowd’s expectations.
By the time Deerhoof steps onstage, the sold-out crowd is treated to a strangely amusing sight: pint-sized singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, duo-guitarists John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, and drummer/spokesperson Greg Saunier all wearing tiny masquerade masks. As if we didn’t already recognize these folks — which is probably the joke. Dieterich and Rodriguez waste little time jumping into descending guitarmony intro to “Dummy Discards a Heart,” off 2003’s now-classic Apple O. “Play to the Queen of Heart,” Matsuzaki chirps in between blasts of feedback and distortion, “Sing to the one you love the best!” It’s only fitting a band that’s been “playing” and “singing” as long as Deerhoof have should open with such an anthem.
While the rollicking, dynamic-extremes of “Milk Man” is a technical-drummer’s wet dream, I’m struck by the guitar interplay between Dieterich and Rodriguez. These two have been jamming with each other long before Deerhoof and anyone can see how well they mesh. Along with a fair share of intersecting lines, the two sound like one huge impossible guitar. Dieterich — rocking a 12-string electric throughout — not only added an unusual timbre to familiar tunes but, what with the extra-octaves, gave the impression of an even greater, three-man guitar of sorts.
Although billed as an album-release show, it’s funny how rarely the band members mention the latest record. Instead, drummer Greg Saunier opted for comical moments of non-sequitors and awkward interlude banter. But even if Deerhoof didn’t talk-up their latest much, they weren’t afraid to rock the new material live. In fact, the most inspired moments of the set occurred during new tunes like “The Merry Barracks” and encore-ready “I Did Crimes for You.” The latter’s interlocking guitars suspended and drove home one of the most powerful, deceptive cadences I can ever remember. Other new ones (“Almost Everyone, Almost Always” and “Must Fight Current”) saw Saunier assuming guitar duties and Dieterich taking on vocals and drums, respectively — with quite good results.
Of course, by the night’s end, no one can deny the Vs. Evil highlight “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” With a relentlessly hooky keyboard intro and thumping, descending bass line, it’s the most un-Deerhoof pop song the band’s ever written. The term “un-Deerhoof,” however, clearly is a misnombre. There’s no sound, hook, or idea these individuals are afraid to explore. So I suppose when Matsuzaki yelps, “Me to the rescue!” and then later, “You to the rescue!”, it’s not as if they view themselves as the only superheroes in the room. Maybe by becoming a listener who’s willing to explore new sounds, regardless of initial comfort, we can learn how to fucking conquer evil too. Or at least fall in love with music for another 16 years.
Zs / Arrington de Dionyso / Moe! Staiano / Rats
The Smell; Los Angeles
LA’s three piece Rats opened this $5-for-5-shows extravaganza (just another day at The Smell)… With Jonathan Silberman (tenor sax) flanked by Kelly Kawar (bass) and Eric Kiernowski (baritone guitar), Rats made mathy, jazzy music that evoked late 1990s Thrill Jockey. Complex as fuck, but easy enough to digest to be a really effective opener even for people (like me) who’ve never heard them before, I hope these guys get big so that people will think of something besides Best Coast when they think of LA.
If Moe! Staiano is at all representative, experimental percussion might be the best of the avant-arts for the ADD-afflicted. He plays fast and tight as fuck, and never seems to keep the same pattern for more than a few measures. He plays so fast that he can play a guitar with his drumsticks in between hitting his drums. And when he gets tired of doing that, he can play the guitar by hitting a metal bat that he rests on his snare, whose other end is resting on the guitar. And when he gets tired of doing that, he lifts the guitar off the stand and drags it around on The Smell’s concrete floor to play it. And then to get the dirt off, he shoves the thing under the rotating brushes of an industrial-quality shoe-polishing machine, which is both badass and creates a pretty hum. Also, Moe! Staiano has found the best use for vibrators since using them on women, employing egg-shaped bullet vibrators (the expensive kind that have multiple speed/pattern settings) to “excite” the “heads” of his drums when he was too busy “playing” with other stuff. And, for a finale, he unspools a big roll of industrial-sized plastic wrap around several members of the audience. Good thing, too: With a performance this exciting, it’s always good to use a dental dam.
Arrington de Dionyso
How many different things can you make sounds like a didgeridoo? That was the question of the night for Arrington de Dionyso, whose improvised performance focused on the power of breath and voice. Meditative and ritualistic, this performance was much different than his excellent, foot-stomping 2009 album Malaikat dan Singa, but it wasn’t hard to see connections between the two. Sitting on the floor, his set opened with a long piece of throat (or processed) singing accompanied by a lone little snare propped up on its side a few feet away from him, “played” by the droning amp that projected onto it. Though simple and tiny, the self-playing drum felt powerful and primal, a miniature idol that had become animated through the audience’s attention. Or de Dionyso’s voice: impressively deep, seemingly wordless, the texture of rich loam. After the first piece, which seemed to go on forever (in the best possible sense), de Dionyso turned the snare off and, in sequence, used objects – some that just happened to be within his reach – to manipulate his voice: a metal water bottle, part of a saxophone, a rubber band. These short experiments didn’t make me forget everything else in the room like his opener, but it’s still good to see that a little magic can be squeezed out of whatever happens to be at hand.
Saxophonist Sam Hillmer’s head looked like it might pop he was blowing so hard. It was like watching a silent movie of a guy playing a saxophone, but shown in an art-house cinema so there’s live accompaniment of a new score by an experimental noise band.
Which is fitting; Zs were on tour performing material from their upcoming album, New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion!, a collection of remixes of material from New Slaves by folks like Ecstatic Sunshine, Cex, JG Thirlwell, and the Rapture’s Gabe Andruzzi. The upcoming album’s title puts it on sequel footing with New Slaves, but the performance put it on equal: live arrangements (or re-arrangements) of remixed tracks. In these remixes of remixes, you could only occasionally hear echoes of the originals from the band, now paired down to just a duo of saxophone and electronics. The result is murkier and more atmospheric than New Slaves, more chaotic yet less frantic. Towards the end of the set, there’s a big change; recognizable chords form, there’s a beat you might bob to. It sounded like club music. Finally, I thought, something sounds like a remix, and a catchy one at that. And just like that, it fades out. Set over.
I talked to Hillmer after the show for a minute, and he explained a little bit about the new album and the material they played. I mentioned the set’s ending. “That really sounded different,” I said. “You could really tell it was a remix there.”
“The ending?” he said. “That wasn’t a remix. That was Beyonce.”
Vacation Vinyl; Los Angeles
I’ve always thought of in-store performances as mere supplements to “real” shows. Maybe it’s because they’re usually short. Maybe it’s that they’re free, so I never feel the need to commit myself like I do when I’ve forked over lots of cash. Maybe it’s the lack of stage and formalities. They might be fine for intimate acoustic performances, where the situation’s awkwardness complements the music, but surely they’re not for the technically and compositionally ambitious.
Well. After seeing Dustin Wong play at Vacation Vinyl in Los Angeles’s Sunset Junction, I’ll have to rethink my philosophy.
Vacation’s a tiny store, with only four rows of well-selected vinyl and two aisles for the audience to cluster in. Dustin delineated his performance space with a semi-circle of eight colored pedals and boxes (just like the cover art from Infinite Love) linked by wires. For the small space, it was a perfect stage, setting the performer apart from us symbolically, but without the ego of something less purely functional. I mean, the pedals were there for him to stomp on, tap and twiddle — not to be a stage. Even a chalk line wouldn’t have worked so well, because it would have been trying too hard.
The semi-circle of gently tethered islands of metal could also be a pretty good sculptural stand-in for the music that was coming out of Wong’s amp — staccato notes linked together by his impressive knack for melody, cold and slight units that were spun into a warm, seemingly massive whole. Wong sat, looking down at his semi-circle or closing his eyes in concentration and/or contentment. But in such a close setting, his fingers’ graceful gliding over his Fender’s frets was entrancing. And, thanks to the magic of live loops (done better than any I’d seen) and fx pedals, there was more going on sonically than at most shows with full bands: melodies upon melodies like on Infinite Love, but often with a wider, wilder palette of sounds.
After 45 minutes of transforming a little record store into another world with just looped guitar, Wong sat up straight and sang a series of wordless tones straight into the air. The physicality and vulnerability of an unprocessed human voice transported me back to the record crates I was leaning against and the audience that was standing around me, slowly dispelling the illusion.
I talked to Wong after the show and asked about his performance the previous night at The Smell. He told me that his amp had broken, and he had to use a tiny, borrowed amp that might have been too small for the venue, which wasn’t that big itself. This show might have been better, he said.
[Photo: Joyce Kim]