Future Islands
The Independent; San Francisco, CA

[09-04-2012]

Samuel T. Herring is one of the most captivating performers you will ever see live.

Naively, I only half-expected this to be true before witnessing the frontman of Baltimore via Greenville, North Carolina, synthpop band Future Islands at San Francisco’s The Independent on Tuesday night. It wasn’t until the band’s early in-store performance at SF’s Amoeba Records the same day did the truth start to sink in. Even though I’d been obsessing over the group’s last two efforts — 2010’s lyrically-wistful In Evening Air and 2011’s emotionally-focused On the Water — experiencing Future Islands in the live setting rather than on record is a universe-sized difference.

Between songs, Herring may as well be a just another lovable country boy who talks a bit too much for his own genteel good. Once a song begins, however, his transformation is so pronounced, he makes the Jekyll/Hyde persona seem like a dude who’s just a bit crankier than usual. With a devastating combination of Shakespearean theatrics, lyrical-miming, rigorous chest-beating, faux-self-mutilation, Herring finds himself artfully borrowing from some of music’s greatest frontmen — Ian Curtis, Iggy Pop, Morrissey, and Henry Rollins are just a few who spring to mind. But even before getting a second glance at the spectacle that is Future Islands, I had to deal with the unfortunate complications of being on — or, in this instance, not on — the guest list for the press.

As opener Xxbrx’s screeching guitars and yelping vocals blared from inside the SF venue, I waited, argued, and waited some more for the ticketbooth woman, who informed me I wasn’t getting into the show. As luck would have it, however, good old country boy Herring happened to be outside the club, and after a brief conversation the singer was more than pleased to pull a few strings and get me inside. Still, my inability to review Xxbrx’s set accurately was unavoidable — a friend who did witness Xxbrx described the band as “cut-up beach ball/toga-wearing maniacs with insanely out-of-tune guitars.” Sounds pretty good to me.

If Future Island’s set at Amoeba was a lesson in how a performer catches a crowd off-guard, the Independent, on the other hand, was a moment of pure excitability and enthusiasm. For instance, Herring’s tucked-shirt and pleaded pants, crab-like dance moves, facial contortions, and lyrical-pantomiming made a few teenage fans giggle with confusion at the record store. Here, however, they were met with thunderous applause and riotous frenzy. On set highlight “Inch of Dust,” Herring punctuated the song’s opening electro snare-drum hits with a whip-cracking motion as if every lashing became more and more cathartic. “Give Us the Wind,” however, may have been the band’s most yearning and triumphant. “Don’t bless me!” Herring pleaded, “We don’t want your blessings! Give me the pen! Give me the Sword!” For a moment, Herring had swept an entire crowd into singing a genuine anthem — an anthem not only about “seeking truth” but about how that truth may only be found in taking on the most difficult parts of life’s journey. Or some poetic junk like that.

Of course, it’s not at all fair to give accolades to just one man. Bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers are not only crucial to Future Islands sound, their stone-faced, twin-stoic stage presence and inspired musical conceptions enhance Herring’s emotional fanfare to a stratospheric height. While Cashion has considerable mastery of Peter Hook bass technique, he’s also arrived at a style very much his own. Unafraid to venture into higher-octave lead lines, he’s also more than capable sneaking in some very clever strummed lower fifths and thirds. Welmers, on the other hand, is a synth and arranging wizard. With a constant blank expression, he appears to know his role in the band better than most musicians behind a keyboard. Triggering beats, software, and lead synth lines that sound as if they hopped off the grooves of an Erasure 7-inch, he’s the workhorse and backbone of the band.

One of the best moments in which the three members of Future Islands truly shone brightest was in fan-favorite “Walking Through That Door.” Lyrically, it’s about nostalgia for one’s past home. However, Herring’s dramatized enactment of holding an invisible figure’s hand couldn’t have felt more in-the-moment and emotionally present. Welmers’s knife-like synth-line — strangely reminiscent of the theme song to 1980s classic Gremlins — cut through Cashion’s wobbling bass strokes. “Vireo’s Eye” was met with a dance party, but on “Tin Man,” Herring unresolved his theatrics and continued a mime-like gesture of tearing at his face even though the song had long ended. “Long Flight” was dedicated to Xxbrx, since it was their last show together — crowd surfing ensued.

When it came time for an encore, I had little doubt the group would reach a bit further back into their catalog. What came next was two of my all-time favorites: Wave Like Home’s “Old Friend” and “Little Dreamer.” While the former didn’t exactly have the characteristic ecstatic bounce as on the record, the latter was a moment of true inspiration. Watching Herring sing, “When I was just a child / A lonely boy / I held on to my dreams / Like they could run from me,” was truly touching as he gingerly imitated two running feet in the familiar motion back-and-forth motion with his index and middle fingers. It was then that I realized the range and scope of this man’s performing abilities. Whether he was pounding away on his chest, pantomiming a scar across his neck, pulling out his heart by hand, taking communion and watching the bread turn to dust, he was also capable of expressing a powerful concept with just a simple, pure gesture of two feet running along — dreams fleeting. Though I don’t claim to know what the name Future Islands really means, I like to think it has something to do with those two words. As long as Herring and co. are expressing such complex feelings in such a satisfying and engaging manor, I doubt they’ll have trouble finding an audience.

You Are Here Fest: ZS / Patrick Higgins / Ann Liv Young
Secret Project Robot Gallery; Brooklyn, NY

[07-13-2012]

After passing Secret Project Robot Gallery on Melrose, I made eye contact with a drunk fella speaking Spanish at the next four-way stop, and he turned and kissed a little boy playing with the open fire hydrant. Okay. Turn-turn-turn-park, got out my car, there was a small black plastic bag oozing, and it smelled like rot. Fleeing the scene, I make it back to Melrose in a way roundabout way, and see the words, “Maze event through the yard” on a door. Venturing in, I trip over the entryway, and see Sam Hillmer (ZS, Diamond Terrifier) immediately. He pumps me up about The Maze (a.k.a. the You Are Here Fest), and I enter.

Ann Liv Young was setting up or doing a sound check; I found an installation that involved me placing my hands in a clear box and my fingers on buttons surrounded by tiny different colored circles. As Young continued with the same song, I pressed these colored buttons, activating matching colored lights in various locations around the Maze. I stopped, but it was complementary to the poppin’ off live sound. There were treasure chests with video games implanted in them at some dead ends and potions hanging about labeled “with alcohol” on ‘em. And after about 20 minutes (still same song, I shit y’all not), Ann Liv Young was finished with her set[slash]sound check and unpacked by dispersing throughout the Maze. Saw Patrick Higgins helping them break down, and I dropped a quick handshake and “Hi.” I was mesmerized by the alternating mazes being projected on the walls and stared there until Higgins started setting up. Walked over in the Maze to the double speaker, stood about an arm’s length away, and then he just gutted that guitar.

It was then I realized Higgins has an unusual sense of placement in his art. I’ve listed to his Bacchanalia countless times and have seen him live before, so I don’t know what clicked, just — as I was explaining, his music is very self-sacrificing. To the unfamiliar reader, Patrick Higgins plays (as Time Out New York says) “avant-classical” guitar and swells it with loops, delays, and backward effects, etc. And when this swelling crackles your ear buds, it feels, like, pleasurable. Wave after wave of sheer music is marginally yet boldly heard through a pleasurable reverberation. He grins, it’s over, and you know he knows you’ve a beautiful ringing in your head/brain. Like a bell that plays hundreds of notes.

Word to the wise: take a step out of the Maze on occasion. Although they have ceiling fans and the building is up to fire code (as presented on the wall), it can get quite toasty in there. Then it occurs to me I’ve no idea where I parked my car. ZS weren’t going on for another 30 or 45 minutes, so I figured I’d venture into my own Maze and find the ol’ whip. Thirty minutes of looping blocks, I locate it by following the decaying/rotting smell, and realize I should have worn more than just gym shorts. And somehow I continued to conduct my own Maze in Brooklyn. The event is viral.

Came back to a clogged Maze entrance, and Zs were just grinding up. Talk about a group that knows exactly how each member plays: Watching them is one of those “That’s real real nice” moments, I suppose. The way they go about constructing songs and playing off each other works well in any live venue. Specifically: performance. It’s not something you can nod to; maybe for a second, but not consistently. Just stare and observe and enjoy. You know, it’s fucking-jazz. Maybe that’s not a genre, but if (modern) jazz got to fucking, it’d be ZS. Less in a sexual way and way-way in a “witness-this” way. As performance as performance can get. Maybe-maybe-maybe. At any rate, I got back to may car and it was a Thursday, so I had work early the next morning. That means I split before Miho Hitori’s New Optimism, but I’m sure things were glorious. BYE!

• Secret Project Robot Gallery: http://www.secretprojectrobot.org
• Maze: http://www.troublemaze.com
• Ann Liv Young: http://www.annlivyoung.com
• Patrick Higgins: http://patrickhigginsmusic.com
• Zs: http://www.zzzsss.com

Kid Koala “Space Cadet Headphone Experience”
Irondale Center; Brooklyn, NY

[04-04-2012]

It is unclear if the show has started yet. The audience wanders a U-shaped balcony full of carnival games (“Turn your face into an asteroid and win!”) and articles of interest (sculptures of plants from a fictional planet). The walls are lined with covers of old science fiction records with names like Bobby and Betty go to the Moon and etchings from Space Cadet, the graphic novel/album around which this “immersive experience” is centered. Beneath the balcony lies an auditorium, its floor lined with rows of white mats and tubular, white cushions.

Kid Koala is walking around the balcony and speaking to concert-goers about the gathered oddities. He tells me the new Deltron 3030 album (due out in June) is all done save for one chorus, and that “it murders the first one!” He emerges elsewhere on the balcony and introduces his opener, Terrance Bernard, who plays three songs in the far corner while I listen and frost a cookie at the Cookie Station.

We funnel down two stairwells into the auditorium and are each handed a pair of wireless headphones before finding our seats and space pods (cushions). Music can be heard in the hall, but Kid Koala speaks and his voice is only audible in headphones. It is a strange sensation. Koala begins his first song, close-ups of his hands projected on three screens behind him.

Koala’s technique is subtle and nonabrasive, uncommon in the world of turntablists. It would be easy to forget — were it not for the multi-angle closeups — how much energy and precision go into producing these otherworldly sounds. His sound engineer, Vid Cousins, works in tandem, and the product can now only be heard through the headphones. Removing the headphones for a moment produces, oddly, a more isolating feeling than wearing them: sitting alone in a large, quiet room.

One song is accompanied by images from Space Cadet, but the concept is soon abandoned in favor of an experience far more varied. Koala plays songs from his upcoming 12-Bit Blues album, his popular, eerie rendition of “Moon River,” and music from children’s TV show Yo Gabba Gabba! (while dressed in a Koala suit, leading the audience in a dance). He jokes around between songs and talks about the book: It’s a sad, sweet tale about a robot whose daughter leaves for space. There are no words, he tells us, so he felt like he needed to add songs so people wouldn’t feel ripped off.

Between songs, he asks for audience volunteers; some ring bells or spin long, plastic howling tubes, others engage in a thumb war projected in enormous triplicate, and we all cheer along with an animated dance battle. He thanks the audience for its support, and asks offhandedly if we’re as jaded about the typical live-music formula as he is. But as soon as another song begins, the intensity and focus of the headphones experience returns, and we are all sitting in a silent room, listening intently. It is unclear when exactly the show started, but we know we are part of it now.

Set list

01. Moving On (officially untitled collaboration w/Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator)
02. Space Cadet Theme
03. Remembrance
04. Music Box with Margot
05. Mosquito Blues
06. Song from Yo Gabba Gabba! Live!
07. Moon River
08. Speed of Light (from Space Cadet)
09. 11-Bit Blues
10. 3-Bit Blues
11. Birthday

Equipment list

Kid Koala:
- Technics 1200
- Vestax QFO
- Rane Empath Mixer
- Yamaha SU-10
- Wurlitzer
Vid Cousins:
- FX quad panner
- Persephone
- Glitchbox

Hype Williams / Gatekeeper / BODYGUARD / White Car
The Echoplex; Los Angeles, CA

[04-25-2012]

An introduction: You know you’re in for a long night when you step outside for a drink and, immediately, hear the man in the suit jacket, vest, and Burzum shirt ask loudly, in good faith, “I’m not a hipster, am I?”

The short answer: Oh, fuck me.

+1: I took my fiancée with me. Although she was unfamiliar with the performing artists, she has a high tolerance, and sincere appreciation, for difficult music. And although she was exhausted, from both work and sleeplessness, she was excited to join me. I was excited to have her with me. I said, “I think you might enjoy this.” (I talked about James Ferraro, and I talked about Hype Williams.) Three bands in, she asked, “So, do people actually like this, or are they just supposed to like it?” During the show, she posted a status update: “I think the worst parts of the 1990s threw up on this venue.” On the ride home, she said, “It was just so empty.” “Insincere,” too.

Gratitude: I’m sure the promoter meant well, and I’m grateful for the spots on the guest list. However, I can’t imagine what those who paid for this might have thought. I’ll check Twitter later.

Drinks: Four whiskeys between the two of us. Not even a significant buzz, unfortunately.

The line-up: White Car, BODYGUARD, Gatekeeper, Hype Williams. In between sets, a DJ spun some records. I watched a girl sing along to one song in the light of her cell phone.

Words spoken from band members to audience: Zero. Unless you count middle-fingers and mocking gestures, which may or may not have been deserved.

WHITE CAR: My fiancée asked, “What am I watching?” Men, within the independent music realm, don’t have to try. Women have to try, but men do not have to try. Apparently, you can fiddle, on stage, with your sequencer, and process your David Byrne-wannabe vocals through a shitty delay pedal, and occasionally hit single keys on your synth, and get a pass. Thank your penis, guys. (Still, no one will dance to your trite, but very danceable music, because Los Angeles has magnified Portland’s up-ass-stick into infinity and stuck it up their own, into impossibly dark depths, and Burzum shirt non hipster and indoor sunglasses girl would rather be caught dead than moving to your music. They will still discuss their Record Store Day finds outside, though, while taking a drag from a blunt.)

Thesis: Los Angeles hates fun, or music, or both. It hasn’t always been the case, but all that is left, here, now, are late-twenty somethings and early-thirty somethings who still go to shows, on Tuesdays, at midnight, to stand around and look bored, or worse.

BODYGUARD: All that was on stage was a motorcycle (fuck the details) and some asshole Karate Kid’ing behind it, while “RAIN” played in the background. Twenty-five minutes of this. It was pointlessly hostile, and boring.

GATEKEEPER: A computer hidden behind a smokescreen playing danceable music that too few people danced to. It sounded like a cross between a Power Rangers fight scene and the Mortal Kombat theme. Even still, I couldn’t tell when their set ended and the DJ began spinning. Again.

HYPE WILLIAMS: This set was the least disappointing. It was dull, but it was Hype Williams-dull – which they have exploited toward incredibly interesting, and I daresay moving, ends. Not tonight, unfortunately. Before the band stood two women, bikini-clad and muscular, who flexed and posed throughout the duration of the show. I won’t patronize you by exploring their obvious function as critique. Hype Williams’ set more or less consisted of (apparent) improvisational noise. It was unremarkable. The music pulsated, deeply, through my body, but it left no impression more significant or lasting than my whiskey did. I watched part of the show through a cell-phone camera held above me; that was interesting.

Some guy: Some guy yelled for one of the women to “take off [her] shirt.” “Bikini top” is difficult to yell in a pinch. (He didn’t get the critique, obviously. Or maybe he was being ironic.)

Representative: The audience stood around, staring into the darkness of the empty stage, for a good five minutes after Hype Williams finished their set. Waiting. No encore.

Travel time: From Berlin to Los Angeles. From New York to Los Angeles. From Chicago to Los Angeles. For this? Really?

The ride home: It was better than the ride there. Into Los Angeles, we fought construction traffic, and I fought nasty heart palpitations, to make it, on time, to the Echoplex, to see a show I wanted to see for weeks. I was, if I can even admit this anymore, genuinely excited to see some artists I enjoy listening to, thinking through, and feeling through. Instead, we were given all of the above. As we got in my car to drive away, to complain to each other, and to find some consolation in the fact that we still openly feel excitement about music, about the reality of the generous show/performance, and most of all about each other, we turned on the radio, and there was Gotye, Nicki Minaj, Pitbull, Selena Gomez, and others, imbued with a new (however slight, however cynical) sense of value. I mean, at least their performances are sincerely pointless. Right?

Conclusion: I don’t know. I’m glad to be home, though.

Ty Segall / Mikal Cronin
East End; Portland, OR

[12-09-2011]

I braved the bitter cold Friday evening for what looked to be a slap-happy throwdown anchored by a solo performance from the San Francisco Garage Rock Whiz Kid himself Mr. Ty Segall, he of the wavy strawberry locks and snotty stage demeanor, he of a couple very nice albums and a last name that either sounds like an ocean bird or an action hero depending on whom you ask. More on him in a jif.

The two local bands were fine: Still Caves, a drummer-singin’ scrumbucket of broke melody; and Cyclotron, all Big Star fronted by Darby Crash and way sassy. Speaking of Darby, it was my amigo that brought him up, and I realized this second wave of the ongoing garage revival really is more punk and glam-obliged than the first, less 1960s jangle, more 1970s scuzz. Fine by me. So do y’all know about Mikal Cronin? Seemed like most of the crowd was there for him, not the seagull, and who could blame them; dude’s rock action solos were serious, his band tighter than Christmas. The press predicts Cronin to have a huge 2012; I predict he covers the next Tiger Beat. I had to keep dodging an aggressive ponytail during Cronin’s set courtesy the girl in front of me, but no doubt she was lost in a moment of hunky guitarish wonder; so were we all.

Segall took the stage incredibly late, and I was oh-so-tired, but I stuck it out, most of it at least, a hot, drunken mess of fast-as-fuck solo jams and endearingly dilapidated cover songs (Sabbath, this James Gang tune, which I always thought was Zeppelin). “Everybody get high,” he not so much suggested as commanded, the crowd halfheartedly woo-hooing in response. So I decided to head home. Outside, I overheard a rather blasé fella talking to another. “I’ve been continuously disappointed by Ty,” he lamented. But who, I thought, is the young rock and roller trying to please, anyway?

tUnE-yArDs / Pat Jordache
Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[11-23-2011]

While a handful of music critics and fans recognized her earliest potential, it only took a couple years and a sophomore release (2011’s w h o k i l l) before the buzz about Merrill Garbus’s solo project tUnE-yArDs became impossible to ignore. Being an East Bay local, I’ve taken much pride in witnessing each step of the band’s transition. Super-stoked on 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs since her tour with Xiu Xiu, I couldn’t wait to hear what was next for the experimental, DIY soul-pop act. And though it’s easy to hate on a band or artist that hits big-time recognition relatively quickly — hell, she’s even getting nods of approval from Yoko Ono — if anyone deserves it, it’s this raw, talented, golden-throated, loop and uke-mastermind.

Being the last show of tUnE-yArDs and Montreal-based experimental pop act Pat Jordache’s tour, SF’s swanky open-spaced Regency Ballroom proved to be a more than fitting spot. Considering this was the night before Thanksgiving (or “Tofurkey Day,” as most of these bohemian San Franciscans attendants might prefer), a packed house was a modest surprise. Pat Jordache began his set promptly with a crew of three backing musicians — two percussionists doing their best auxiliary work à la Animal Collective’s Panda Bear stylings and one unquestionably skilled guitarist. With pedal-packed delay and the occasional pentatonic frills and trills, it’d be easy to mistake him for a disciple of Dave Longstreth. It wasn’t until Jordache, who pounded his way through a sharp repertoire of upbeat and occasionally dissonant tunes on bass, played a dead ringer for “Where the Streets Have No Name” did some of the guitarist’s delay-musings feel a tad too derivative.

Still, Jordache proved a friendly attitude, as he invited tUnE-yArDs onstage to accept a cake made in honor of appreciation. “We’re happy to have all our limbs intact,” Jordache mused, suggesting the tour must’ve been one to remember.

It’d been a while since I’d seen a performer completely own a crowd the way Garbus did when she finally stepped onstage. With an improvised intro of growls and looped a capella vocals, she sounded less like a woman and more like a force of fucking nature. The crowd responded in intense call-and-response: fists held high and outreached palms as if in prayer or spiritual acknowledgement. “This song will not continue until everyone’s mouth is open,” Garbus declared. The song not only continued but reached a peak of frenzy as the band busted into the opening moments of w h o k i l l standout “Gangsta.”

While some chose to dance, others chose to engage in some sort of pointing ritual whenever Garbus directed a drum stick at the audience — which she did a lot. While antics were certainly entertaining, the setlist stayed relatively within the bounds of w h o k i l l. “You Yes You” proved a strong groove between the outstanding bass work of Nate Brenner and Garbus’s stuttering ukulele strums; “Doorstep” felt just as doo-wop as it did politically relevant; “Es-So” bounced like no one’s business; “Powa” demonstrated a candid glimpse at raw sexuality yet without being perverse; and “Killa” held an almost bombastic cadence about womanhood and fierceness. Basically, an incredibly well-executed set of 80% from her sophomore sensation.

Still, the night’s highlight was the outstanding hit “Bizness.” An easy choice, perhaps. Like many, though, I can’t get over the seriously great live sax duo whose interweaving lines took the song to another level. It’s refreshing to hear how improvisation within such a finely tuned pop structure can do more than wonders. On the other hand, the band debuted a new song that felt more than a little flat to me. Set in a minor key, the spooky groove didn’t exactly go anywhere. “Someone recently asked me if I ever make any mistakes live,” Garbus said after a false start. “Now you know.”

Nevertheless, Garbus’ relentless experimentalism was the shining memory of the night. With aggressive vocal and percussion loops, seriously dissonant and precise ukulele accompaniment, the style of tUnE-yArDs is one of confrontation and complete invitation. Wielding her voice with deep expression and dynamics, the two encore songs of the night demonstrated this notion perfectly. Within the first few uke-plucks of “Fiya” (a song that gave Garbus some extra money needed to complete her last album via a Blackberry commercial), the crowd recognized such introspective lines as “When a girl feels so alone/ What a tease to throw a bone/ Should’ve just stayed at home” and “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?” The brilliant part, however, is how such a small song can erupt into a frenzy of dance — only to be followed by final encore “My Country.” As balloons were released and practically everyone took to shaking up a leg, the lyrics of “My country ‘tis of thee” rang vaguely fitting to the national holiday soon to follow.