Le live; Nantes, France
It’s fascinating how much changing languages changes a personality. I tutor a French girl on Thursdays who develops a lisp and severe shyness as soon as she starts speaking English. It still surprises me every time how the shift from French to English immediately changes her from sassy to meek and a bit clumsy. “I have... boughten?” “You have bought.”
On this particular Thursday, I took the 12 euro I made during our hour of preterits and simple pasts and invested it in a pint of Beamish Red and a ticket to H Burns’ show. I found him all alone at the bar about a half hour before his set was scheduled to start. He was writing his setlist on a napkin. We chatted briefly, congenially. He’s opened in France for Okkervil River, Smog, and Magnolia Electric Co. He’s waiting on word back from SXSW about a possible slot in Austin this spring. His real name is Renaud.
When H Burns sings in English, he loses all the soft amiability that whispers through his lovely, aspirated French. He sounds like a miner’s son. Who’s had his nose broken. By more than one family member. He knows how to use his throat and sinuses to torque pathos from ordinary notes, but there’s a humility in his intonation that keeps his stories, no matter how emotionally bare, from seeming pressed upon the listener. He convinces without pushing. He gives the listener the space -- to get inside the narrative, inhabit his scenarios, and empathize with the characters he sketches -- all while giving his guitar a smart, harmonic beating.
Typically, the 15th-Century castle that marks the center of Nantes is visible from the back windows of this little bar. I couldn’t see it on this Thursday because the tiny plywood stage was set up in front of the back entrance to the bar, which was covered (incompletely) with black sheets. It creaked beneath his sneakers when he leaned into the microphone. Sitting in the second row of folding chairs, I could see single eyeballs peeking through the window behind him. He didn’t know they were there. His guitar was the same shade of red as the walls. This unassuming staging helped bring about the delicious feeling that these songs were being sung, these stories told, for me. It seemed almost as if H Burns was telling me my own history, but cleverly and passionately enough that I could still be captivated by it.*
He played for an hour straight, taking a quick break halfway through. We heard his entire solid debut album (Songs from the Electric Sky -- being re-released this spring on Boxson records) alongside some covers of Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co. and Dylan. He stepped back onstage for one encore and bashfully refused a second. He had run out of songs.
We shook hands. “Ã€ bientÃ´t.” I hope so.
* I wonder if this is really the kernel of folk music: simple instruments played skillfully alongside simple stories that seem to belong to everyone. But that belonging to everyone: doesn’t that make it pop? And with the wide availability of music software, aren’t computers just as much of a folk instrument now as an acoustic guitar was 50, 70, 100 years ago? Which witch is which? (I love how an hour of songs played in a hole in the wall can confuse all the categories.)
Dinosaur Jr. / Thalia Zadek
Rebel; New York City, NY
The surly doorman stamps my hand at the Rebel, a brand new club in Midtown Manhattan. I look down and realize the stamp features a unicorn penetrating a porpoise, which I later learn is the club’s logo. Oookay. Obscene hand decorations aside, I am pumped. Born way too late to catch the essence of true post-punk, I am getting a second chance tonight, because the newly reunited Dinosaur Jr. is playing a sold-out show.
I catch Thalia Zadek’s opening set, which I can best describe as “morning after music.” I’m talking the mornings when you fall out of bed, claw for some ibuprofen and water, and have a 10-minute debate with yourself about whether or not a shower is worth sacrificing 15 minutes of sleep. This is soft on the ears, yet powerful; androgynous, plaintive moaning with guitar reminiscent of The Walkmen and a smattering of violin and soft drums brings me to the following conclusion: yes, indeed, you can be low-key without being a snore. As my college radio station would say, RIYL (recommended if you like) Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
In between sets, I realize I am quite possibly the youngest person here. A few audience members have clearly come straight to the show from work. One of the few exceptions lies in the teenage boy who approaches me and asks me to buy a beer for him. The cruelty of being surrounded by cold beverages at an all-ages show is fresh in my mind, and I briefly ask myself what Lou Barlow would do, but I decline the kid’s request. This place is freaking me out already. It’s awkward and L-shaped, and there are cages on the walls with staircases leading up to them, plainly marked “Do Not Enter the Cages.” The between-set music ranges from amazing to nonsensical, from Tears for Fears to Beat Happening to uh, Fountains Of Wayne.
The club is crisp and tense with expectancy, and the applause is akin to shattering glass when Dinosaur Jr. take the stage around 10pm. J Mascis grunts, “Awrightthanksforcomin’ ” and we’re off. He’s still got that hair, all right, but it’s silvery. Forget it. I’m dancing, and I can almost see memories of 1989 forming above the audience’s heads. The band draws out the final words of “Freakscene” like they almost can’t believe it, lingering on “… when I need a friend it’s... still... you... ”
Murph, sans hair and looking a little bit like a misplaced accountant, is whaling on the drums, but the hollow, crashing beats are exactly as I remember them -- on record, of course. I wonder how they sound to the audience members who recall the real thing. Dinosaur Jr. obsessively tune between every single song, and while they’re not big talkers, Lou smirks during one break and comments, “Me and Murph are really sweatin’ up here... but J never seems to sweat.” J’s looking pretty smiley, in fact, with sort of a sideways grin that doesn’t leave his face for long throughout the set. His solo during “Raisans” lasts nearly five minutes.
Ripping through most of You’re Living All Over Me and Dinosaur, plus a couple solo tracks from Lou and J, it seems they’ve done good by the audience, who are screaming every single lyric along with the Dinos. The vocals are mixed a little low in the PA, but no one seems to mind. I’m still in a mild state of disbelief that I’m in a club seeing THE Dinosaur Jr., but the encore finally makes it real. Their now-famous “Just Like Heaven” cover ends with a punched “YOU!” and somewhere, Robert Smith is suddenly ashamed of himself. The show closes with “Chunk,” but I’m in a fog after they play “In A Jar,” due to the mild existential crisis that is my 21-year-old self getting to see my favorite Dinosaur Jr. song played live.
We’re eating pizza next door after the show, our ears ringing. A couple of fellow audience members around our age wander in, looking dazed.
Yeah, we’re some lucky kids.
Joanna Newsom / P.G. Six
Somerville Theatre; Somerville, MA
I'd never before seen a concert at the Somerville Theatre, so I was surprised to learn that it's the same Somerville Theatre I've caught a couple movies at, its big yellow marquee glowing in the dusk of the tree-lined, brick-and-leaf-paved Davis Square. It didn't occur to me until I entered that the choice of this venue was such an intentional one. Few of the burgundy seats had yet been occupied in the fully-lit theater when I was directed inside; I passed under the balcony and bent my neck to the high ceiling and the box seats that hung on either side of the tall, heavy, drawn open curtains. And between those curtains, surrounded at its feet by wires, microphones, guitars, and drums, stood Joanna's harp, large and inert. I thought of the beer-soaked places I'd seen Les Georges Leningrad, Art Brut, Portastatic, Ladytron in recent months, and saw that this venue was offering far more than max. occupancy.
As the rows filled up, members of the crowd staked out the most prized vantage points, their eyes often examining a digital camera's LCD. Before long, the lights dimmed and Pat Gubler of P.G. Six emerged from backstage. With black hair, black glasses, a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a young face, he picked up his acoustic guitar, stood with eyes half-closed and sang politely about a jealous murder and his subsequent trial, stepping back between lyrics to study his fingers as they ably picked at rapid arpeggios. Upon finishing, he introduced his small band of drummer, bassist, and guitarist, and the four of them comfortably strolled through a forgettable set of sometimes melancholic, sometimes explosive blues-folk-rock. Nobody was inconsolably displeased.
The lights came back up and the stage was re-set. The anticipation became even more palpable when the lights dimmed again and a spotlight shone down, illuminating the harp, as several wings of dust were borne slowly up the lone column of light. A recording of some pastoral woodwind teased us for what felt like half an hour until finally Joanna stepped briskly from the dark toward her instrument, to the release of our suspended applause. With a red smile and a "Thank you," she thoughtfully situated herself against the body of the harp and swung her hair from her cheek before plucking the familiar gallop of "Bridges and Balloons."
To watch her play is just mesmerizing. It's difficult to believe that such an unassuming presence really can be responsible for those piercing squeals and syrupy coos, the resonance of her lungs and her tongue and her sinuses more vivid than even the sight of her. Her head is cocked, her brow is knit, and her eyes are fixed on her fingers, with only an occasional and deliberate and precious glance into the crowd. Her wrists are buoyed by the tempo and her arms spring from the notes in wide arcs in the shape of a figure 8, or an ellipse. In more spirited passages, the alternating strokes of her arms rock her torso mechanically, like a marionette's. Few instruments afford this degree of expressiveness, and Joanna knows this instrument very, very well.
Next came "The Book of Right-On," after which she announced that, following a Scottish traditional, she would be joined by her band to perform the entirety of Ys, front to back, to the delight of the crowd, and coinciding with the day of its release. Four men and one woman completed the semi-circle of which Joanna was the center, supporting her with banjo, guitar, glockenspiel, drums, accordion, jaw harp, singing saw, and a Bulgarian stringed instrument resembling a mandolin. The bulk of Ys' string section was approximated by the accordion, to convincing effect, with the finer details tended to by the rest of the band, and almost every person singing at one point or another.
Given the length of each song, every break was met with extended applause while Joanna sipped water, flashed grins with a rehearsed sheepishness that we forgave, or explained "Sweaty hands" as she wiped her face and palms on her dress. Predictably the band rested during "Sawdust & Diamonds," the solo piece of the album, and though the rest of the time I found myself wishing on more than one occasion for them to keep it down (particularly the late appearance of the frequently off-key and unusually abrasive singing saw), the sound was well balanced and we couldn't have asked for a better translation of this record to a live setting.
The standing ovation persisted well after they had shuffled offstage, as we demanded Joanna unencumber herself and take the spotlight again. When she finally did, walking without pause back to her seat, the newly relaxed, almost celebratory mood of the room was marked by exaggerated yelps and whistles. Her belting out of the word "Sadie!" was met with wild cheers, the first time all night anyone dared interrupt her. She sang a song about her dog, then she sang another song about a peach and a plum and a pear, and we sat, spellbound.
Sean Lennon / 8mm
Richards On Richards; Vancouver, BC
The lineup outside of the walls of the place the locals so affectionately call "Dicks On Dicks" consists of about ten people. It's a few minutes past eight o'clock, the official 'doors open' time for this, Sean Lennon's first solo show in Vancouver since 1999. There is truly an odd mix of people in the lineup for the show; the middle-aged Beatles obsessives are the ones that really stick out like a duck's ass. After a few minutes of waiting and a generous frisking outside the club's inner sanctuary, we are ushered into the scummy little bar.
As the minuscule crowd gathers around the sticky bar tables and wobbly barstools, opening act 8mm takes the stage. The group (consisting of former NIN/Marilyn Manson engineer Sean, his wife Juliette, and drummer Jon Nicholson) plays trip-hop-oriented 'alternative' music reminiscent of early Portishead or Goldfrapp. Their sound is built largely from pre-recorded sequences via Sean's stack of sequencers and filters and the cooing vocals of R. Unfortunately, the group isn't getting much of a break here in their first Canadian appearance. There is a grand total of two people on the dance floor, and the rest of the half-assed crowd is distributed amongst the barstools lining that area, like a bunch of perverted girl-watching drinkers. Sounds harsh, but there is some truth here; there are quite a few whistles coming from male patrons in response to lead singer R's choice of attire.
Sadly, the beautiful girl with the tight red dress carries less presence than the enthusiastic backing by the drummer and guitarist, who seem to thoroughly enjoy playing the music that they do. Juliette is, quite simply, a rather uninteresting performer on this occasion. This is why the most memorable song of their set is "Forever and Ever Amen," a track where Sean takes over the lead vocal position. After nine songs of distilled, rigid performance, the band finally allows themselves to get a little unhinged for their final song, the aptly titled "Give It Up." The apathetic audience gives them some obligatory farewell applause, and the band exits the stage, leaving me to believe that this band would be much more interesting on record.
After at least half an hour’s worth of equipment shuffling and audience member repositioning, Sean Lennon and his band approach the stage. I feel a tinge of excitement to see Yuka Honda position herself behind the keyboards, as the group launches into the opening chords of the title track of Friendly Fire. Sean is an entertaining performer who peppers in comical little anecdotes between some otherwise straightforward performances of his songs. He is a charming man with a deadpan wit, which he uses to share his thoughts on such deep subjects as Pamela Anderson ("Pamela Anderson is Canadian? It's just that she's so American. But you know the one good thing about Pamela Anderson? She'll never drown. Okay, that was inappropriate.") and clouds ("They look like they're taking a nap on the mountaintops.").
This is a show of limited surprises when looking at the choice of songs (one B-side and only one track chosen from Into The Sun). But all things considered, Lennon and his band turned in an incredibly tight, thoroughly enjoyable performance. The sound was almost flawless, the bass tone was nice and phat (note the exceptional use of a fancy hip-hop adjective there), except for some slight buzz from Sean's acoustic guitar. One of the most enjoyable performances of the evening was the inclusion of Friendly Fire outtake "Piano Epic," which sounded far more interesting in the live format, versus the rather uninteresting MP3 available on his MySpace account.
The one misstep in the set was a recalculation of the boppy "Headlights," which Lennon and his band opted to take from a mid-tempo clap-along to a higher-tempo rock number. Unfortunately, the new pacing of the song leaves it feeling slightly empty and drives the chorus' hook beneath a surface of distraction. That said, if the group had continued to play each song in such a similar manner to the album, it could have left the gig feeling contrived. So "Headlights" became the suicide bomber in the set, designed to lift up the remainder of the songs.
What is most apparent during this evening is the fact that Lennon has mellowed, and his music has become slightly more melancholic than that of his Into The Sun days. After a ridiculously obvious encore cue after a vastly extended cover of Marc Bolan's "Would I Be The One," Lennon re-emerges to perform an intimate solo acoustic version of "Tomorrow." The song thrives without the hindrance of the additional musicianship in the background, leaving him with more room to extend notes, prolong rests between chorus and verse, and play with his captive audience. He is an engaging performer who doesn't seem to mind if anyone else is enjoying what he's doing.
"I have to play a song from my first record," quips Lennon, as the rest of his backup entourage joins him on the stage once more. There is more truth to this statement than I think he is aware; had he opted not to rewind his life for that moment, this gig wouldn't have had the same kind of impact. Sure, it's understandable if he doesn't want to have to play ten-year old songs that don't have a lot of relevance to him now, but this is not the case with the audience, who is waiting for such a moment with much anticipation. The crowd gives an enthusiastic cheer as the band begins to play "Mystery Juice," the first track on Into The Sun. One couldn't help but wonder if there would be a distortion-filled chorus a la 1998, and when the moment finally arrived, it didn't seem cheesy, but incredibly satisfying.
As the band meandered along the song's addendum, Sean concluded the evening with a warm thank you and a "see you next time," which is an incredibly encouraging thing to hear from a person who waits eight years between album releases. And while this set of 12 songs did seem relatively short, there is something to say for leaving one’s audience wanting more. Which is precisely what Lennon did: leave these Dicks on Dicks patrons yearning for more. Perhaps if Friendly Fire manages to create enough forward momentum, we, as music listeners, won't have to wait so long for the next solo release by Mr. Sean Lennon.
International Cervantino Festival; Guanajuato, GTO. MX
The Cervantino Festival invites a different country every year to honor its artists and culture. The honored country this year was the UK. Originally Belle & Sebastian were scheduled to play. For unknown reasons, they cancelled and decided to send in Aberfeldy to save the day! Sure enough, Aberfeldy came in a rocked this ancient city of Mexico along with all the hippies in it. No one really knew who they were, so they had no clue what to expect. They started off their set with "Friend Like You," and these older senior citizens were happy they weren't playing Satan rock. The crowd consisted of children, yuppies, students, government officials, and tons of hippies. The outdoor venue can hold about 7,000. For that night, since it was the closing event, it held 10,000. It could have been disastrous but thankfully wasn't.
The Scottish band was dressed in white to bring out those Arian skin tones, but the drummer was such a badass he wore his sunglasses throughout the set. That's what drummers do after all. They followed up with "Don't Know What It Means"; the xylophone used in this song was a lot of fun to dance to. The seated area stayed seated, but I couldn't resist dancing to such an indie-pop beat. I immediately got up and started dancing my pants off. This encouraged others to get up and do the "Hustle." Aberfeldy played "Surly Girl" and "Vegetarian Restaurant" off of their first album, and the songs brought back feelings of the very first time I heard Aberfeldy. This Aberfeldy love was spread like an STD through mix tapes my friend and I had made each other. This is what TMT is all about; our lives consist of mix tapes and bad jokes.
Back to Aberfeldy, they were talking about the video for their song "Hypnotized" and how they used Mexican wrestling masks. Little did they know that the masks they wore were those of some lame-ass wrestlers. The band's sound consisted of violins, banjos, keyboards, and love. Don't let the violin or banjo throw you off. The girls in this band are very talented and could play just about any instrument. I must mention their great smiles as well. They went on to play "Tom Weir." This is when the students started dancing and chanting "El que no baila es joto!" ("Whoever doesn't dance is a fag!") So immediately, that half of the crowd started dancing. The other half had already accepted their sexuality and stayed seated.
"Setting Your City On Fire" was a little more calm; this gave everyone a chance to sit down and take a breath. They finished off the 90 minute set with a cover of Devo's "It's a Beautiful World." At this point everyone got up; even the government officials were clapping along, and everyone danced. All in all, it was a great night for everyone in Guanajuato.
Beirut / A Hawk and a Hacksaw / Animal Hospital
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL
It's been awhile since I've been presented with performances as unique and
bizarre as those I saw during this night of worldly tunes. Everything about
this show defied my expectations, mostly for the better (save for the weirdly
mainstream crowd that constantly yelled stupid things at the bands all night).
One-man band Animal Hospital kicked off with a self-described "economical" set
of three fairly long songs. Featuring endless drum and guitar loops with the
occasional vocal, Kevin Micka's music was certainly imaginative and
interesting, if not especially remarkable. Still, his style was a good fit
for, and a great introduction to, the eccentric stylings of the remaining two
A Hawk and a Hacksaw is the work of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy
Barnes and violinist Heather Trost. I found myself fascinated in watching the
thickly-mustachioed musician, who looked like something out of a sepia-colored
photo from the 1800s, set up his most unconventional drum kit around his
chair; each cymbal, tambourine and drum piece looked like something out of a
kindergarten band class. The kicker was when he strapped a drum stick and some
bells to his thigh positioned precisely to hit a cowbell when he tapped his
foot, and then put on a hat of bells with another drum stick attached,
positioned to hit a cymbal that stood to his left. And with that, Jeremy
pulled on his accordion and coordinated a striking display of dexterity as he
played the drums and tambourines with his feet, the cowbell with his thigh,
the accordion with his hands, and the cymbal and bells with his head. I
couldn't help but smile every time he flicked his head to the side and then
shook it- I don't think it ever got old. Meanwhile, with Heather on the
violin, the two filled the venue with some very pleasant and
traditional-sounding instrumentals. After taking a break from the bombast to
sing an intense and haunting cover of an old anti-war song, the band wrapped
up their performance with Heather jumping into the audience and Jeremy
standing at the edge of the stage looking down on her while they serenaded
each other back and forth with their respective instruments. Very cute.
Finally, it was time for the Eastern waltzes of Beirut. Even though I knew
Beirut was primarily the work of 20-year old, I guess I'd forgotten in my old
age what 20 actually looks like; I was a little taken aback by how young
singer Zach Condon looks, especially since he has such an "old" voice. Not
only that, but the nature of the music had me picturing a very shy,
introverted loner, not the boisterous kid who took the stage with his trumpet
held high over his head as he belted his songs out over the crowd and swiped
mouthfuls of Jack Daniels when he thought no one was looking. Adding to the
youthfulness on stage, Zach brought along six friends to participate in his
backing band, all looking to be barely out of their teens as well. Aside from
a few instances of sloppy, between-song banter, however, their youth proved to
be an asset to the live show as their exuberance breathed new and exciting
life into the more mature and sophisticated old-world sounds. Parading onto
the stage from the back of the room, playing a variety of brass instruments
and drums, the band took their places amongst a deluge of instruments and
proceeded to spend the next hour having the time of their lives. Peppering a
few (really good) new songs amongst the majority of Gulag Orkestar,
Zach alternated between blaring his trumpet and singing while his band mates
bounced around between ukuleles, violins, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones,
accordions, recorders, and pretty much every other instrument you can think
of. As the weeknight 2am bar time approached and the sound guy urged the band
to wrap up, the young'ns of Beirut defied orders and leaped into the audience
to squeeze out two more utterly triumphant fist-pumpers (if you can pump your
fist to an accordion), while the audience enthusiastically cheered and danced
Photo: Nicole Chavas