Hype Williams / Gatekeeper / BODYGUARD / White Car
The Echoplex; Los Angeles, CA
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
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
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.
Crooked Fingers / Strand of Oaks
Mississippi Studios; Portland, OR
I had seen Tim Showalter perform as Strand of Oaks not three months ago; all by his lonesome, he’d managed to create something singular and revelatory. This time, he’d come armed with a full band, or almost full; no drummer, instead a machine whose volume sometimes threatened to overtake that of the three men on stage. There were instances, however, where it felt very much like a rock show. Showalter’s visage is one of stoner metal glory daze, and the music approached a soft sort of sludge. “These songs are sad as shit,” he deadpanned. “Deal with it.” It was indeed quite heartbreaking. Strand of Oaks’ medieval-meets-metapersonal sound is totally unique and captivating, and whatever record Showalter puts out next will probably be a doozy.
It was sad songs we’d come for, and Crooked Fingers delivered, Eric Bachmann himself having adopted the full-band practice for the current tour, the honey-throated Liz Durrett again accompanying him on vocals and guitar. I cannot express how utterly perfect their two voices sound together without resorting to some sort of inappropriate metaphor, so I will leave it at that. While this performance lacked the quiet magic that made Bachmann’s MFNW outing so truly special, the new band laid into some honest-to-gawd grooves. Forlorn white guy folk never sounded so hearty.
I don’t recall specific details due to being some beers deep, and I only took a couple notes because come on, I’ll remember, but I will say that Crooked Fingers is onto something good these days. If you don’t yet have it, please buy Breaks in the Armor for your health. It’s music made by a middle-aged former indie rock icon with the body of a linebacker, dagger-sharp music made by and for drinking and heartbreak, by and for Eric Bachmann and his head and heart and buddies. But it’s alright if you listen, too. And you probably should, because it’s pretty wonderful stuff.
Aladdin Theater; Portland, OR
“Shit, I had a bunch of dirty jokes I wanted to tell,” Mark Kozelek deadpanned upon seeing a child in the front row of the reverent mid-sized crowd at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. It is itself a venue that demands some reverence, an aged and atmospheric place ideal for intimate performances such as this one. Kozelek’s most recent outing as Sun Kil Moon, last year’s Admiral Fell Promises, was a chilly and cartographic affair that sent listeners across the physical and emotional distances of the American West and through the tangled recesses of its creator’s wry and yet tortured headspace.
For this show, Mark Kozelek was as warm as Mark Kozelek gets, which is to say he at least engaged the audience, if only to make fun of them. “It’s always the guys without dates who have the book,” he remarked, a shot at a timid concertgoer holding a copy of Kozelek’s Nights of Passed Over but also an edgy bit of subtle self-deprecation. It was a theme that resurfaced throughout the evening, in the lyrics of a new song (“Had a lot of female fans, and fuck they all were cute/ Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes”) and in other self-pitying barbs ostensibly directed at the crowd.
In between the good-natured (?) ribbing, Kozelek managed to play some songs; in fact, he worked impressively from his vast catalog, pulling from Red House Painters’ Old Ramon (“Cruiser”) and his consensus best-to-date, SKM’s Ghosts of the Great Highway (“Glenn Tipton”). He even did a Modest Mouse cover. It all sounded pretty great, but the performance, beset as it was by the disdain of the singer’s one-sided audience “interactions,” revealed that though Kozelek’s songs still traffic in the too-common human predicaments of alienation and heartbreak, he hasn’t yet discovered how to let his fans in.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Despite what its name might suggest, Vienna’s Arena is not really an arena in the traditional sense of the word. In reality, it’s a collection of a few concert halls, none particularly large, inside a heavily graffitied courtyard. The place feels like an overgrown punk/hardcore venue, sprawling beyond the tiny size typically allotted such a place and invading the surrounding buildings and yards. It’s an appropriate place to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose idealistic punk roots sit uneasily beside their multi-instrumentalist grandeur and worldwide acclaim and audience — a punk ethos stretched out on a global scale, three chords reaching toward a symphonic infinity.
Opening was Colin Stetson, sometimes member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, who brought an ensemble of various-sized saxophones out to produce his swirling, repetition-centered solo performance. His sound was surprisingly effective despite the large hall, with deep, full bass tones and twinkling half-melodies filling the space with a decidedly rich sound for a solo act. He was charmingly nervous in his brief between-song comments, dedicating a tune to his father and thanking the audience profusely for its time. With his combination of emotional directness and light experimentation, he was a fitting and engaging opening act, and was appropriately well received by the crowd.
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor came onstage. They assembled slowly, patiently, in front of their now-fabled loop of 16mm film with the word “HOPE” scrawled directly onto each black frame; seeing the image in person for the first time was a decidedly emotional experience, setting the stage for a night charged with desperate despair and hope. Yet it also set the tone for a strange current of nostalgia running through the entire show, one that complicated the experience in ways the band’s powerfully uncomplicated sound did not — with no new material performed, the collective has now edged towards the sort of experience I imagine from, for example, a recent Pixies or My Bloody Valentine performance. There’s something about GY!BE live self-presentation and audio/visual aesthetics that allows them to shy away from the easy category of the “reunion show” — they always seemed too engaged with the world to ever let their sound live outside of its social time and place. It all added up to an occasionally thrilling and occasionally off-putting performance, at least for this dutiful TMT-er.
If we focus on the music on its own terms, the show was as deeply affecting and powerful as one could hope, at once meditative and visceral. Onstage, the collective was paired down to seven members. While still a huge presence by any other band’s standards, this was enough to render their sound more direct and immediate, bringing the sound closer to that of a guitar-centered punk band — again — despite the group’s lush sound and patient approach, it was impossible to keep the halfway-punk aspect of it all out of mind. With the band leaning particularly hard on their taut, relentless, near-martial rhythm section for nearly the entirety of the performance with only brief moments of rest, the whole show took on the feel of dirt-simple punk song stretching into ambience by sheer force of will and duration, the power of a minor chord redoubled endlessly through repetition. There’s also something wonderful about audience members cheering for spoken-word samples employed in their pieces — lacking breaks between songs, the audience latched onto these now-familiar recordings of street people, preachers, and others as moments of recognition, clapping for each in term. Ambiguous but always heartfelt in their content, they placed the audience in an unusual but powerful place, grasping onto the voice as a moment of definition in the swirling mix of misery and hope.
The collective pulled pieces from their full discography, though in a move that seemed to hold to their uncomfortable relationship with fame, they avoided “East Hastings,” the one song that brought them closest to truly mainstream recognition with its prime placement in 28 Days Later. Among the wealth of material they did play, in a show that stretched to about two hours, it wasn’t missed. The band played beautifully, and when they walked off-stage without an encore, it felt appropriate. The mixture of careful restraint and widescreen scale, of obscurantist stand-offishness and popular appeal, has always been at the center of their identity. Taken along with a sound that merged a static sense of nostalgia with a rawer sound and sense of immediacy, it was a night of blunt, powerful emotion carrying more complicated, sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents. Which, in the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, isn’t a bad thing.