The Middle East Upstairs; Cambridge, MA
Aside from the various hipsters milling about outside on any given night smoking Camel Lights and generally looking menacing, you might never know there's a rock show going on upstairs in The Middle East. The main stage lies beyond a cozy diner and bar, tucked into the back of the building where, ordinarily, a kitchen or supply room would be. Point is, it's a guarded space: while the other of The Middle East's stages, located around the block, is designated for larger, more established acts, the upstairs stage is home to bands with a seemingly pious, if relatively small, following. It's for this reason that I like seeing shows in the smaller, more intimate upstairs. Here you find yourself pressed into a corner or against the stage or another body, taking part in the indie rock equivalent of a Pentecostal church sermon. People actually (get this!) dance and move around. Everyone is having fun. I dunno, I guess I've just been to a lot of shows where it looks like nobody gives a shit, with people standing around watching the band as if they were critically viewing a de Kooning painting.
Never was this ecstatic atmosphere more apparent than during Holy Fuck's set. The four-piece took their time setting up, lugging out a seemingly endless supply of equipment. (Apparently, crowd members yelling "holy shit!" is a joke that follows the band around.) In one of the more intriguing setups I've seen, founding members Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt stood facing each other amid piles of stacked gear: the spaghetti mess of wires and jigsaw of pedals, keyboards, and turntables looked almost like it was all culled from the junk bin at an electronics outlet, old and leftover and pieced together. Yet the off-the-cuff sound this setup perpetuated ended up being the most endearing part of the show, as the two frontmen were allowed to pick and choose between dozens of options to bring their songs to life. Behind Walsh and Borcherdt stood the (equally integral) rhythm section of drummer Glenn Milchem (turning in a heroic effort to keep up and even propel the alacritous pace of the sound manipulation going on up front) and bassist Kevin Lynn, who did well to ground the band when it occasionally (though wonderfully) charged toward the mercurial and excitable.
After a word of thanks to the now teeming crowd, the band launched into "The Pulse," which starts with a driving bass line and drum beat, accompanied by an echoing, throbbing synth that continually swells and grows in vigor as the song unfolds. It's an extremely danceable song, and it had most of the crowd jumping around almost immediately. Of course, it's practically scripture at this point, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how incredibly energetic and frantic both the music and the members of the band were. Holy Fuck is a band that relies heavily (and thrives on) improvisation both in the studio and on stage. On any given night, an audience could hear vastly different versions of the songs from Holy Fuck and LP. And despite the band's high level of musicianship, I would imagine that, similar to even the most sagacious comedy group, Holy Fuck could have an off night here and there. It happens, I'm sure. Not on this night, though. The band nailed song after song, adding length and depth with clever flourishes and extended jamming. Borcherdt and Walsh stood hunched over their equipment, bobbing along, pressing buttons and keys, manually manipulating pedals, plugging in wires, aggressively attacking the great spread of musical artillery laid out before them.
The band's enthusiasm was infectious, and they seemed genuinely happy to see the crowd so responsive. And in a move that was damn near unfair in terms of our general health (and let's face it, PBR and whiskey aren't exactly the best workout elixirs), the band, now firing on all cylinders, fully in sync and devastating, ripped through "Frenchy's", "Super Inuit," "Lovely Allen," and an untitled new song, leaving the crowd exhausted but buzzing. Sure, both Holy Fuck and LP are notable for their ability to churn out DIY dance-pop with digestible song lengths, but their live show is another beast altogether. The grooves are still prevalent and intoxicating, yes, but with space for the songs to morph and twist and surge organically, the band had everyone rocking out on an altogether different plane. And this is where that Pentecostal sermon bit comes in: while no one (that I could see) was rolling around on the ground and speaking in tongues, there was a tangible energy purring throughout the room. I thought of the other shows I'd been to recently -- The Thermals, Sunset Rubdown, A Place to Bury Strangers (in that very same room) -- and while those bands stir up their fair share of hysteria, I cannot recall a show where seemingly everyone was slinging and heaving, unpolished and wild-eyed. It was a beautiful racket.
At the turn of the century, dancepunk bands like The Rapture, cowbells and funk bass in tow, unlocked a generation of stiff hipsters, made it safe to dance at shows again. And while Echoes is still a landmark album in its own right, the disco ball had, for the most part, stopped spinning. Holy Fuck, though (yes, based on seeing one performance and a mere handful of songs), has the potential the carry that hip-swinging torch. And really, I see no backlash coming. They seem humble, appreciative of the praise that's been heaped on them recently by the press and the public. Holy Fuck have the charisma and musical talent to be around for a while, and they deserve to be. Though to be honest, a band called "Holy Fuck" probably won't be garnering much mainstream success. And I'm sure they don't give a shit. They're just having a damn good time.
[Photo: James Mejia]
David Shrigley's Worried Noodles
Knitting Factory; New York, NY;
I was expecting an unconventional show. The release concert for David Shrigley's Worried Noodles (Tomlab) had to have some surprises. It couldn’t not have surprises. The CD’s 39 collaborative songs -- which combine lyrics from visual artist David Shrigley’s 2003 book Worried Noodles (The Empty Sleeve) with music from acts like David Byrne, Dirty Projectors, and Liars -- form a remarkably cohesive collection. It seems each band, parents out of town, decided to gorge on the same Shrigley sundaes of childlike observations, eerie portents, and skeleton doodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and this CD is the aftermath.
But I had some questions. For starters: who the hell is this Shrigley guy? And what kind of show starts at "6 PM SHARP"? Sure, to keep the employed away – a good start (or maybe not for the release of a $30 charity comp).
After a brief wait outside the club watching NYC’s first real snow of the year come through the rooftops (I felt obligated to show up on time, out of work after all), I entered to see a man with a guitar on stage just beginning his set. Christopher Francis, blond and unassuming, showcased a strong tenor, but played just three songs since it was a busy night. Shrigley’s lyrics to Francis’ contribution "One" jumped in all the right poetic puddles, and Francis’ deliberate, haunting melody delivered them with a Modern Lovers simplicity and wit.
As the second act of the evening, R. Stevie Moore, a bathrobe-wearing bearded hulk of a singer, planted himself behind a cluttered wall of keyboard and sheet music. His act was mainly riffs on Shrigley lyrics backed by a dinosaur-era psychedelic band. On a particularly inspired note, Moore co-opted Tony Basil’s "Mickey," chanting "Hey, Shrigley, you’re so fine" and christening the mantra of the evening. Moore, somewhere between a busking schizophrenic and a baseball stadium organist, ravaged his keys, his guitar, his voice, the audience. I don't think anyone knew quite what to make.
Next up, Phil Elverum from The Microphones/Mount Eerie (sporting a pair of comfy looking thermal socks) and Nick Krgovich from P:ano/No Kids/To Bad Catholics played both individually and together. Their performance of "Whatcha Doin’," a pop tune with minimalist keyboard over distorted drums, perfectly captured the whimsy of its Shrig-lyrics. Even on the medium-sized main stage, the pair looked like a couple of friends hanging out in a basement as Krgovich charmingly fumbled to change keyboard patches and Elverum played the drum kit with his hands. Though the duo stuttered a little, I was thoroughly entranced, and looking over the silent, rapt audience, I wasn’t the only one.
Islands took the stage as a paired-down two-some (one that immediately seemed to clash with the previous act’s amiable audience rapport by giving a hard time to the woman introducing them). After a short set of new songs plus their comp contribution, Islands debuted "Shrigley-eoke," inviting members of the audience on stage to improvise their own Shrigley tune with Islands backing. Lyrics projected on a screen at the front of the stage made a utilitarian, if not a bit clumsy, karaoke reader. Now, up to this point, the crowd had been near-silent -- but perhaps due to Islands’ natural fanbase, Nick ‘Diamonds’ Thorburn acting like a smug dick, or the inherent freedom and leveling karaoke encourages, things started to change. At the call for volunteers, an extremely vocal minority began to vie for a spot on stage and speak up, completely intelligible in the room’s silence. I guess Nick Diamonds didn’t like their look, but either way, none of the hecklers got picked.
The first singer, a brave female, improvised a pop melody to Shrigley’s "Elaine," followed by a crowd member and R. Stevie Moore (this guy was everywhere) reciting a call-and-response. Idiots yelled things throughout ("boobies," for example, by a charmer who had apparently never seen a woman before), but audience participation gone awry finally reached its peak when a drunk kid with a backpack stumbled on stage and attempted to strike up a conversation inches from the face of a stone-cold Diamonds. The Knitting Factory security... wait, what security? He wandered around on stage for the show’s remaining song. To me, it just seemed like sweet, sweet comeuppance. The moment was saved when a chorus of concertgoers actually interested in singing came up for the finale.
Although the appearance of Shrigley himself was oft-mentioned from the stage, I never did see the man. But I did see David Byrne eating some noodles (appropriately enough). The show cleared into the downstairs for an R. Stevie jam session followed by Tussle and YACHT, but after a couple minutes in the crammed basement, I decided to take off. The previous intimacy of the full main room -- and by the end it was full -- didn’t quite translate to a pleasurable downstairs experience, so after scrounging enough dollars bills for a CD and poster, I booked. As I walked through the snow, trying to pry open the oyster-of-a-CD-case for the hard-bound booklet inside, there was only one thought running through my head: Oh, Shrigley, you're so fine.
Yo La Tengo / Broken Social Scene
Cornell University; Ithaca, NY
Heartburn: I have it tonight, and it's grinding my innards into gut-mulch. Having forgotten my obligatory roll of generic one-pop chewable tablets, I can do little but shuffle over to the drinking fountain every time it feels like the devil shot a load down my throat. My only comfort is that tonight I finally get to witness firsthand the reason people go ‘Coo-coo’ for Broken Social Scene and Yo La Tengo. Clarification: For the record, I didn't go to the show thinking my appreciation for Yo La Tengo would be bolstered by a forehead-slapping revelation. YLT boast strong studio recordings; from my experience you don't normally hear people say Yo La Tengo is one of those bands you have to see live to fully grasp. But that's exactly what occurred, and with that I became much more of an authority on a band I'd never listened to as much as, say, my go-to artists. It also didn't hurt when, a few days later, a co-worker slyly slid his i-Pod my way with instructions to listen to Painful, particularly "Double Dare." Where the F-plus has this album been my whole life?
It's funny, then, that when I first walked into the Cornell auditorium I saw Yo La Tengo from a distance and dismissed them as a local opener. "There's no WAY YLT's opening this show," I thought as red ribbons of slinky noise darted into my ears. "There's no way some wunderkind Canadian outfit could leap-frog one of indie-rock's most seminal bands after three proper albums... is there?"
Is there? Well yes; Yo La Tengo started playing at 7 PM, and as a result, I not only missed the first few minutes of their set but also disregarded them completely for at least five minutes. Once I realized I'd pooh-pooh'd the legendary trio, all I could do was make my way to the stage as if I'd known it was them all along (as opposed to hitting myself in the head and yelling "I'm so STUPID" circa Chris Farley). It didn't take long for Ira Kaplan to render his Jewish Jimi Hendrix persona more accurately than I'd ever imagined. On this particular Shabbos, Kaplan displayed a magical connection to his guitar and bandmates, groping the former like a blind man feeling up a staircase rail and synchronizing with the latter like two tapes on two decks played at the same time on two identical stereo systems. I'm struggling to remember being this Won Over by a live act I already had a healthy respect for... Bahaus reunion? Nah... Robyn Hitchcock's acoustic set @ Bumbershoot ‘04? Negatory. Corey Feldman live at (since burned-down) Ichabod's North in Spokane, Washington? Pfft; looks like we have a winner!
Watching Yo La Tengo is a lot like taking in a Sonic Youth or Stephen Malkmus show because it ALL starts with the bass player, in this case James McNew. If McNew didn't McSlang big ‘n’ tasty bass lines faster than an auctioneer pitching out bid figures, Kaplan wouldn't have the freedom to hunker over his guitar and bend over at the waist, lunging potently as if trying to nestle something -- a tiny kitten? -- between his legs. It was entrancing, abrasive and, above all else, impossible to turn away from. What's more, if you've been paying any attention AT ALL to the progression of underground rock over, say, the last 20 years, Yo La Tengo will reach -- and tickle profusely -- one of your pressure points. As they always have on their multi-tiered albums, YLT Go There; it doesn't matter where There is because the trio covers so much ground, they inevitably stumble upon nearly every genre imaginable. Everyone's happy. I dug the drawn-out, tension-building lessons in restraint (basically Youth's "Rain on Tin," Tengo-fied) and the skin-scratching noise-noise; my wife dug the bouncy, Spoon-y piano-driven ditties with Pop stenciled all over them.
Now that I'm preparing to jump into the Broken Social Scene portion of this review, I direct you to the first sentence of the preceding paragraph -- times 10 -- because BSS are one of the most bass-driven bands I've ever heard outside of hip-hop and dub persuasions. The fact that three guitarists were running around almost seemed immaterial compared to the band's obvious central theme of tub-chubby basslines that flow like a harpoon from start to finish. Kevin Drew also surprised me with his pipes, singing lead on every song and layin' it down loud and proud like Wayne Coyne would if he could actually pull his upper-register studio vocals off in a live setting. As a unit -- a six-man unit minus Feist, Emily Haines and plenty of others, btw -- the technical abilities of the BSS unit could not be called into question.
I can't, however, say the same about the ebb and flow of their setlist, which didn't change a fookin' bit until the last song. I never realized how easily their songs bleed into one another, like an hour-long version of "Stars and Sons" (though they didn't play that numba, far as I could tell), and it took away from the show. Shame is, with a more effectively chosen setlist -- not to mention the full, swollen BSS lineup rather than the Polyphonic Spree-esque 'lite' version -- this could have been a much more explosive set. As impressive as Broken Social Scene were initially, I found myself leaning over to a companion and uttering a phrase I only reserve for the most frigid acts: "I'm ready when you are."
Need I say more?
The Clean / Times New Viking
Cake Shop; New York, NY
Allow me to pull the curtain back on the concert review genre: It is generally not very good. This is often due to a heavy reliance on cultural anthropology (as though going to a show is such an exotic thing) and ends up indulging in yawn-worthy “you had to be there” stories. With that in mind, I tend to try to stick to the music.
But, through no fault of the bands themselves, this show was actually characterized by the makeup of the audience. Because legendary New Zealand post-punkers The Clean rarely perform in the United States, and it’s also rare to see Times New Viking (pictured), Columbus, Ohio’s newest lo-fi sensation, in this neck of the woods, the concert was in high demand. Add the fact that Cake Shop is really nothing but a tiny, oddly-shaped basement with a makeshift stage area, and you’ll start to understand how quickly the RSVP list filled up. As a result, the place was crawling with industry types and music journalists, all of whom (including this reporter) had called in a major favor for the privilege of sweating through their vintage t-shirts in a room with lamentable acoustics.
I squeezed my way to the front, so close to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the vocals properly, and realized I was surrounded with, well… geeks like me. There was a girl taking photos for Pitchfork and a guy from AAM chatting up some other guy who was apparently in a band. One dude, clutching a $3 can of Sparks and looking like he’d already had a few too many, kept pushing to the front to snap Polaroids. There was even a palpable indie-celeb presence — Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo was on hand to cheer on his wife/bandmate Georgia Hubley, who’s also part of Mad Scene, the evening’s opener. The whole thing felt like a CMJ showcase, and I started to hate myself a little bit.
Patience is a virtue, though, and Times New Viking’s set more than made up for the industry clusterfuck. While most of the audience was probably there to see The Clean, TNV put on the most memorable performance of the night, packing several quick, energetic songs into a regrettably short amount of time. This year’s Present the Paisley Reich (Siltbreeze) is the best punk album in recent memory, but there is nothing quite like seeing TNV live.
With only three members and a sparse selection of instruments — a guitar, the world’s tiniest keyboard, and about two and a half drums—the band managed to create a veritable wall of screaming vocals and amplifier noise. TNV’s singer/keyboardist Beth Murphy looked so intense at times I felt I might need to step out the way to keep her searching eyes and anxious vocals from searing through me. The highlights were exuberantly chaotic renditions of “Teenage Lust!” and “Let Your Hair Grow Long,” both from Paisley Reich, but older material blended in nicely. Most exciting of all were glimpses of new songs from the upcoming LP, Rip It Off (Matador). My advice? Start counting the minutes until it comes out, on January 22.
I had to back off from the front lines soon after The Clean’s set began, to get some water and air and to keep myself from passing out. So as far as I could tell, the godfathers of indie were in top form, pounding out their poppy songs with crowd-pleasing verve. Though they certainly haven’t changed much over the years, there’s nothing dated about their sound, which recalls Orange Juice. With a new album in the works, to be released in ‘08, The Clean may be poised for a major comeback.
But to tell the truth, it was kind of hard to pay attention when some girl with bleach-fried hair was bouncing around behind me, screaming to her friends about some party she would be attending later in the evening. “There’s an open bar!” she cried. “I think it’s Josh Hartnett’s birthday party or something!”
I can make fun of it all I want, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same guest list.
[Photo: Sean Ruch]
APO 33; Nantes, France
This is the second time I have seen Anthony Pateras in Nantes, and for the second time, he has put on one of my favorite shows of the year. Pateras, near the end of a month-long tour of Europe, stopped in to play prepared piano for the latest in the ongoing series of CABLE# experimental music nights, which have also hosted such respected improvisers as Britain’s Keith Rowe and Australia’s Oren Ambarchi. On this night, Pateras proved again that he’s more than capable of standing alongside those contemporaries.
What’s wild is how Pateras takes such raw physical tools (bolts, screws, washers, and metal cords) to transform the piano into a richer, acoustic cousin of a crummy Casio keyboard -- every key has its own voicing, but instead of cheesy MIDI presets, his piano plays from one key to the next like marimba / bucket / live wire / icicle / D flat / buzz / buzz / tinkle / tok! It’s not a piano anymore — it’s 88 detuned voicings chattering over each other in a bubbling, percussive discourse. The colors and timbres he elicits goad the imagination: you hear a swarm of lead-footed ants marching on ice; an archaic telegraph system discovered inside an African hut; the junkyard lullaby that an infant Tom Waits fell asleep to in his crib -- there’s something ludic, starry, and wonderfully broken about this music.
Tonality and technique are important, but a performance requires more than gear and chops -- it’s got to have drama, and Pateras builds loads of it into each piece through a studied and furious abuse of the instrument. He’s great fun to watch: the two hands play on top of each other, pinkies and thumbs darting out to stab notes in distant registers. He often throws his elbows and palms deep into the keys, all while swaying back and forth to hidden rhythms. The piano may be prepared, but it’s impossible for the audience to be -- his fingers scramble over notes in the higher keys before suddenly punching a resonant cluster of low ones, or he builds up a drone at once frothy and undulating right in the middle of the keyboard before breaking into a stuttering series of pauses and bursts that leap from one end to the other, leaving you on the edge of your seat and guessing (wrong every time).
From what I can tell, these dramatic turns are the hallmarks of any Pateras gig. This one was extra special, thanks to the intimate setting (a room that held about 30 people) and the staging: his bench was planted on a large carpet of bright green felt, and a mirror slanted from behind the piano over the top of his head so that from the back of the room, even though his back was to the audience, I could watch his hands sprint and grapple for the entire performance. In the mirror, all that was visible were those hands on the keys, the top of his head, and the green carpet. It was as if he were on a Hollywood green screen, open to virtual transportation anywhere -- Pateras in space! Pateras in the jungle! Pateras in a high-speed car chase!
The great luck of the night, though, was that Pateras was right there, in that room, shredding. Go see him if you get the chance.
University of Iowa Main Lounge; Iowa City, IA
It’s coming up on two years since the last time I saw Bright Eyes in concert, the former being a phenomenal experience at Worcester’s Palladium. That cathartic set featured a multitude of players and dug deep into the back catalogue. In the wake of this year’s modest Cassadaga, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect this time around. Would the set be heavy on the new tunes? If so, would it suck, or would those songs take on a new life in a live setting? Bright Eyes’ recent show at the University of Iowa’s Main Lounge politely sat somewhere in the middle.
The Sunday evening show began with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” signaling that he would at least halfheartedly refer to his pre-I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning era. The older track hardly set the tone for the evening, and while the student-dominated audience didn’t seem to recognize it, it was one of the finer songs of the evening. From the beginning of the show, it was obvious that the sound at the Main Lounge is inexcusably horrendous. This large, carpeted room is clearly not meant to host concerts. The acoustics are brutal, and the venue doesn't frequently host gigs. It didn’t help a performance that bristled with energy at times (“Another Traveling Song”) and likewise fell flat on certain songs (encore opener “Bowl of Oranges”).
Unlike a typical Bright Eyes experience, the performance consisted of the same five members throughout, including Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott. It felt much more like a band than a collective, as opposed to last time when they began with a harpist and consistently featured dual drum sets. They strayed from anything overly dramatic. Even the normally purgative “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” lacked its traditional bite.
The biggest uproar was for Cassadaga’s lead single, “Four Winds,” which sounds uncannily like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It isn’t a bad song, but the reaction confirmed my suspicions: These folks clearly did not have a lengthy history with Bright Eyes. There was no uproar for “Method Acting.” Perhaps the anemic crowd could be blamed on the Sunday night show, but with no singing and very little swaying, it seemed that they just didn’t understand. In his defense, Oberst didn’t give in. He toted out the piano for a magnificent run through “Spring Cleaning,” off his split with Neva Dinova. Probably the most esoteric song of his set, it was also the best glimpse into the Bright Eyes of old.
No longer his reticent self, Mr. Oberst frequently talked to the crowd, asking how everyone was doing and lamenting the current political landscape and the war in Iraq. It was disorienting to see a highly interactive, almost (but not entirely) bubbly Oberst, but not because it was unexpected. After all, it would be unfair to expect him to be the nervous performer he once was now at the age of 27 and with several major tours under his belt. Instead, it was that he seemed forced in his mannerisms, as though he knew he was supposed to be the affable frontman now but had to struggle to make that a reality.
In fact, the whole concert felt like we were watching an artist at a crossroads, unsure of how to deal with both his own fame and his audience. Whether or not he truly wanted to play all of those songs was likewise mystifying. He seemed most at home in the final song, an unnamed, unrecognized tune that sounded more Desaparecidos than Bright Eyes. On this, he passionately yelped and furiously played, emphatically punctuating the performance by kicking all of his half-full booze cups from the top of his amp in a tremendous spray. When the final notes of his encore had rung out through the dull concert hall, I left thinking less about the performance I had just seen and wondering more where he would be heading next.