Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes
Ravinia Festival; Highland Park, IL

[08-26-2009]

Chicago’s Ravinia is the perfect concert venue for people who don’t like to go to concerts. With its capacious outdoor lawn seating and BYOB policy, it leaves plenty of room for you to sprawl out on the grass and crack a few beers with some friends. Unfortunately, if you actually enjoy seeing something while you’re at a show… well, you may just have to learn to live with disappointment. Ravinia is the only place I’ve ever attended where the stage under the pavilion is actually below ground level. Even the LCD screens are too low to see over the crowd.

Fortunately, the band still sounded excellent. British singer/songwriter Elvis Costello buckled down for an evening of rambling Americana. Although backed by his latest studio ensemble, The Sugarcanes, Costello’s two-hours-and-change performance was surprisingly light on material from 2009’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. The bulk of his set consisted of re-workings of classic Costello songs, as well as a bevy of covers, such as Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” a Rockabilly'd-out rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Don’t You Lie to Me” and The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” re-imagined as a soothing country Waltz.

For the most part, Costello’s concert standards played well in the hands of his new outfit. My favorite moment of the evening came early on with “The Delivery Man.” The song sounded sharper and more ominous than the recorded version, and Costello’s voice approached a snarl as he spat out the final refrain and the whole thing combusted into a searing jam. Aside from that magnesium-flash of intensity, however, the rest of the concert unfolded much as one would expect: a seasoned performer, backed by a cadre of consummate professionals, giving an expert rendering (or in most cases, re-rendering) of several well-written songs. Staunch Costello-ites in the audience were doubtless thrilled to watch such a skilled craftsman re-interpreting some of his best material. For a more casual fan such as myself, it made for an enjoyable, if not especially memorable, performance, one suited to the casual atmosphere of the venue.

Setlist:

1. Mystery Train
2. All Time Doll
3. The Bottle Let Me Down
4. Down Among the Wine and Spirits
5. Blame It on Cain
6. Femme Fatale
7. Delivery Man
8. The Butcher’s Boy
9. Indoor Fireworks
10. Hidden Shame
11. Condemned Man
12. Friend of the Devil
13. Poisoned Rose
14. Mystery Dance
15. Don’t You Lie to Me
16. Every Day I Write the Book
17. Complicated Shadows
18. She
19. Brilliant Mistake
20. Sulphur to Sugarcane
21. Alison
22. ???
23. Happy
24. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
25. The Race Is On

Photo: [Ex-Magician]

Underwater Peoples Late Summer Showcase (Real Estate, Ducktails, Julian Lynch, etc.)
Market Hotel; Brooklyn, NY

[08-22-2009]

Underwater Peoples is a summertime label. Its circle of bands have soaked up the East Coast’s rampant humidity and used that liquid to fill up their own aquarium of saturated pop sounds. From the label’s name to the pool scene album cover of its Summer Showcase compilation, the aquatic theme pervades. And, at this 13-band show at Brooklyn’s Market Hotel, loads of sweat, reverb and enthusiastic youngsters turned an average August Saturday into Underwater Peoples’ own vibrant sea of musical celebration.

Thirteen bands (14 if you count Julian Lynch performing live via the internet from Wisconsin) is a daunting lineup. The event was definitely in danger of melting into one massive sonic mess, but the bands fought through the stifling heat and self-imposed layers of reverb to deliver many moments of pop goodness.

Ex-Titus Andronicus guitarist Andrew Cedermark (pictured below) and his buds ran through a set that mixed thoughtful, unhurried twang with noisy climaxes and spaced-out strums. Beach Fossils pulled together rickety, effects-ridden sonic layers to form a paradoxically satisfying pop blend. Ducktails, the solo project of Real Estate’s Matthew Mondanile, displayed dexterity by steering from initial swirling ambient soundscapes to a more straight-up guitar-and-vocals approach. Fluffy Lumbers harnessed a full-band lineup to turn its catchy bedroom tunes into full-force blasts of rockin’ pop. Air Waves helped keep the night from being a completely male-dominated affair, with frontwoman Nicole Schneit delivering numbers that sparkled with both lyrical and sonic simplicity. The other acts didn’t stand out quite as much, but no one dropped the torch, and even the mediocre moments helped augment the evening’s good vibes.

Real Estate finished out the night, offering up its own amalgamation of Underwater Peoples’ common themes. The band has a simple but effective approach, creating music that intertwines with itself to become more than the sum of its parts. They, too, are in line with Underwater Peoples’ aquatic tendencies, but in way that’s based less on liquefied reverb and more on melodies that ebb and flow like Jersey Shore tides. Following their set, after a little prodding from the crowd, the band members picked their instruments back up and jammed through a sloppy but jovial encore of Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song.” It was an apt finale for a night that rode a constant crest of positive, effortless fun. The crowd shouted along and things seemed just as they should be in the world of Underwater Peoples: a deep summer night with a plenty of tunes, drinks and friends.

Jay Reatard
Amoeba Records; San Francisco, CA

[08-22-2009]

As an English major, I had my fair share of run-ins with words that had seen their meaning warped or distorted (if you're a positive person, you'd call it evolution). Apparently the great music “tour” has gone that way. The oddity of a three-location tour separated by roughly five hours of driving time aside, I headed over to Amoeba SF for Jay Reatard's in-store. If you live outside California, chances are you haven't experienced the intimidatingly large space that is Amoeba. I say “chances are” because among TMT's readership these stores can be something of a tourist attraction. In any event, where most stores are packed so tight it feels like shopping in a taco truck, Amoeba luxuriates in its expansiveness and boasts a respectably sized, raised stage.

The main virtue of seeing Jay Reatard used to be that the sound quality would be superior, but with the cleaner production on Watch Me Fall that's no longer the case. This show in particular ended up being noticeably worse, as Reatard blew something out a few songs in. The other selling point I used on the uninitiated was that almost anything (e.g. technical difficulties) could piss Reatard off and lead him to “act a fool.” Success seems to agree with him though, and they just turned everything up to ear-bleeding levels to compensate.

So should you go see this new, mellower Jay Reatard? Of course you should. He still tears through sets as though he got a bonus for turning us out early, and watching him run around trying to switch guitars and plug in as fast as possible would be almost comical if I didn't know he was trying to cut us off before we could start clapping. Stephen Pope is still the relatable face of the band, mouthing the words and making some hilarious expressions throughout. You're never going to get a “cozy” Jay Reatard show, but this was probably the absolute closest he'll come to a Kurt Cobain-setting-up-candles-around-you moment. He took me and at least one extremely flustered kid by surprise when he handed him his guitar during the finale and encouraged him to add some noise to the freakout. If he keeps this up, “Jay Reatard live” might evolve to mean something other than “punches kids.”

[Photo: Caitlin @ Amoeba SF]

Vetiver / Beach House
08-16-2009;

[08-16-2009]

Beach House's pop has always sweltered, so even if the long, narrow, and low-ceilinged Magnet Club seemingly retained and tripled the heat of one of Berlin's warmer late-summer days, it was probably for the best: as the Baltimore duo launched into “Master Of None” midway through their set, it was like they channeled the added temperature into that scruffy sensuality of theirs, all narcotic and drowsy.

Those condensed and old-worldly organ drones built further layers onto the vibrato melodies and, in this live setting (with the help of an additional touring musician), crammed those dusty velvet textures full of warmth. But it wasn't until they moved onto the new material (kind of humbly, actually; Alex Scally almost apologized for being more excited for new rather than old material) when it got really powerful; the first from their upcoming record swirled with ridiculously hard-hitting analogue bliss, organs coming out strong and starry-eyed, their gritty euphoria as lucid as ever. Here's where their style was at its most realized: a transcendent modern humanness drenched in a baroque ornateness, total beauty without contrivance.

Vetiver's cover of Fleetwood Mac's “Save Me A Place” was laced with all the hazy sentimentality of the original, but their set felt more structured and conventional. The crowd seemed to have thinned out slightly, too. It was my own preference for their earlier and lo-fi-er ballads, the abstracted college mysticality of “Arboretum” or “Belle”'s just plain prettiness that made their more solid or straight-up folk come off less rich. The newer Sub Pop stuff has a similarly band-y feel to their four-piece live show (i.e. more drums than hazy vibes), rolling out songs tightly and effortlessly. But even if their relaxed balladry felt endearingly lulling under all that heat, it was a little lighter on the naturalismo than I would have hoped.

Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars / Liquid Liquid
08-08-2009;

[08-08-2009]

Two distinct forms of minimalism filled the Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell on Saturday night, as did an estimated 10,000 people eager to hear the evening’s momentous sounds.

First came the world premier of composer Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars, a massive piece in three shimmering movements and its orchestration of 200 electric guitars, 16 basses, and one hi-hat. Rather than creating a blaring, dense wall of noise, Chatham's guitar orchestra was a shifting, sparkling ocean of tonality. Chords rose and fell, meshed and crystallized, and ultimately congealed into a vibrating, magical marriage of dissonance and harmony, multiplicity and unity. The 217 players (a few TMTers included) weren't a raging army of axe-wielders, but smaller and subtler parts of a larger collective instrument. From the bandshell stage, Chatham lead the impressive affair with the help of four section leaders perched atop platforms in the crowd. Trying to decipher just how he was guiding the piece was tempting, but closing one’s eyes and letting the vibrations take over provided much more satisfaction.

Taking the stage following the unique display was an unenviable task, but influential New York rhythm bandits Liquid Liquid were up to it. While Chatham took minimalism to a wonderful, sprawling max, Liquid Liquid looped the form back into itself to create short dance tunes with incredibly kinetic bang. Hypnotic bass lines, tight rhythms, and well-placed flourishes showed the foursome has lost nothing since its succinct early-'80s heyday. The setting, however, probably wasn’t comparable to a sweaty, dance-filled night at the Paradise Garage or other Downtown venues of the band’s beginnings. Police quickly dispersed those who gathered to dance at stage front, and most of the crowd remained glued to their seats before finally rising to boogie for a brief moment during the encore. When someone shouted, “They’re not letting us dance!” vocalist Salvatore Principato responded, “Sign of the times, man. It’s their world, we’re just guests.”

The rain, which foiled last summer’s planned Crimson Grail premiere (TMT Feature), thankfully held off this time around, allowing the night to pour forth in a much different and better way. From the 1264 strings that comprised Chatham’s piece to Liquid Liquid’s popping polyrhythms, the evening was a plentiful and potent dose of NYC-rooted sonic prowess.

Seripop: "A weekend of printmaking, illustration and live music"
BALTIC Mill Gallery; Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

[July 31 - August 1, 2009]

It's fair to say that such “weird” or potentially esoteric sounds belong in such white-walled/wooden-floored gallery spaces, but the scuffed-up DIY aesthetics of all the bands at these two Seripop performance nights means they'd fit moreso into divey warehouse spaces or basements. Either way, these were two of the most vibrant, fun nights of music and experimentalism I've seen in Newcastle, so much so that really this sensitively converted ex-flour mill scarcely felt like a regular night out; it could've been London or, heck, even Berlin. That's a good thing; the grungier feelings that Seripop (two Canadian visual artists and members of AIDS Wolf and Hamborghinni) brought to this Northern English city went down like a treat.

Still, I was a little slack in making the first bands on both nights (and also got pretty distracted by the amazing silkscreens, cassettes, and zines exploding with color and the merch desk), so after missing juneau brothers and A Middle Sex, it was the texturally and volume-dynamic noise of Blood Oracle that I heard first. Using old walkmans, vocals and a variety of pedals, they built some scratchy fields of distortion that focused on the sporadic, lovely, and unpredictable, funnelling burnt-out soap opera memories into a new context.

If Les Cox (sportifs) formed out of a shared tiredness of Newcastle's often “po-faced music scene” (so true!), then bravo; their jangly pop slides out with an artfully skewed sense of '90s lackadaisics, chucking those jaunty chords and wonky vocal affectations, an oblique and joyfully art-damaged approach to a vaguely twee aesthetic.

Spin Spin The Dogs take the cake as far as the British bung-pop goes (à la Country Teasers, xx) because of their positively silly Mark E. Smitheries and awkward leers of their khaki-green/park ranger outfitted lead singer. It's super fun and embraces the amateur element of DIY in the most heartily ironical way.

London's Roseanne Barr's DIY punk got all clamorous and endearing on the slightly better-attended Saturday night before local favs/Blackest Rainbow-released Jazzfinger with their tectonic free-noise rumbles. It was Leeds-based Beards who really stole the show with their way-over-the-top (amazing) matching black-&-white-striped outfits that looked like some acid combination of Roman soldier and high fashion. Their pop is particularly colorful and tight, if chuggy and math'd-out at times.

London's Cleckhuddersfax brought a similar eccentricity. I got kind of obsessed with the contrast of the long-haired synth nerds playing keys (real Freaks and Geeks garage-style aesthetics) to the fluoro leotard of the lead singer, but their slightly jocked-out DIY transcended both. Way more than Devo revisionism, their muted pop worked best at the start, when the beats were more energetic, but the combination of severe musicianship (on said synth players and drummers behalf) with showmanship worked great. Seripop's noise project Hamborghinni was scheduled to play last but couldn't due to illness, so the night ended here, fitting for two nights of enthusiastic DIY performances.