Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin / Hild Sofie Tafjord / Rhodri Davies
Cafe Oto; London, England

[10-08-2012]

Candles flickered in the darkness as Graham Lambkin stood assertively over his equipment, a glass of whiskey in his right hand and a blue shirt on his back; there was something about the scene that didn’t quite fit. But then I wasn’t sure what I should be expecting. Jason Lescalleet was sitting opposite eating a satsuma, a crumpled cardboard box over his Casio worked as a dinner plate for collecting peel and pith as Lambkin rested his glass on the table and began flicking switches on his laptop. Faces in the audience were difficult to make out, the mood snug with a cozy twist of herbal tea and stout that lingered in the air while couples shared the last of their coconut cookies, consumed throughout the course of Rhodri Davies’ amplified harp set. Sound began to seep out of the speakers, an electric barracuda caught in barbed wire, rustling, cracking, and snapping as Lescalleet returned to his reel-to-reel gear for spool manipulations.

Lambkin covered a microphone with plastic and dragged it across the edge of the surface supporting his mixing desk, some choral dirge he had been looping faded out and the collaborators continued their fiddling. Prongs, clatters, and high-pitched pulses burst out of the speakers. Folk held their hands to their ears and winced while others lovingly beamed. Lambkin finished his whiskey, draped a microphone over his shoulders, and bobbed at the buzz as it banged against the tape recorder he held with careful hands. Once the penetrating bulges peaked, the volume shrank and lit the way for aquatic sampling. The performers bowed to their audience, clapping ensued, and we vacated the premises.

How to Dress Well
Santos Party House; New York City

[10-08-2012]

That photo isn’t from last night, because my phone was dying and Tom Krell started out by saying “Can we get these lights off?” proceeded by the projection of faces slowly taring from each other, visually screaming, set against white. Now it surprised me that How To Dress Well expanded to include a keyboardist and sampler/violinist, because I remember him just using a sampler and doing the best karaoke-style singing ever. Anyway, the set started out real fucking heavy, something about “You got a baby now” and “Shit.” It was hard to pinpoint a lot of his tracks for two reasons. First off, my favorite part of live shows is sound absorption. Almost each and every song was a struggle for him to belt out the sweetest little licks through the most layered noise; it was borderline magical. The boii got pipes, and maybe it’s the raw emotion or conscious sacrifice of art, but it all worked too well. Second, they’re just kind of that act that switches their original track style when played live. Yet, that makes a more interesting show. Most of the songs performed here I recognized off the new How To Dress Well album Total Loss, two or three were from Love Remains, and one new track. The last track performed was “Ocean Floor For Everything,” which seized my pal Stephen with sound. I looked over to see his eyes flickering back, jamming his fist in the air. He had been saved!

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Total Life
The Bottletree Cafe; Birmingham, AL

[10-06-2012]

I arrive at 8:33 PM, hoping to beat out the crowd. Of course, the crowd is the standard beer-chugging, college/post-college-yet-still-affiliating-with-undergrads types and the ilk. I’m immediately struck by the oddly festive air in the room. Inappropriate emotion for the occasion? Bottletree’s David Lynch-borrowing theme also adds to the incongruous atmosphere. What was I expecting? Surely they all know that a reckoning is upon us? Complete abysmal despair is what we’re waiting for… Then I wonder, has Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s reputation preceded them? The line from Pineapple Express comes to mind: Is Godspeed just a go-to band? I’m getting anxious.
A Krautrock documentary plays on a screen that blocks the band’s equipment. Foreshadowing, fitting, and telling. There’s a Krautrock playlist playing as well: Faust, Can, Ashra, Kraftwerk, etc. At least the venue is alluding to our end.

Soon, a drone overtakes the room. The crowd is perplexed. Eventually, they settle. The drone rises and the room begins to vibrate. Tones modulate continuing to rise. No sign of the opening act yet. Interesting.

The drone becomes frantic after a while, clustering, pulsating. Still the room sits unaffected, or patient, maybe. “Godspeed will arrive soon?” they wonder. The drone drops, glitches, but continues on all the stronger. Still no sign of the opener. The only form of life on stage is a lamp, emitting blue light. More tones, more frantic. Higher tones. Piercing, domineering, ear-splitting. The weight of the abyss? Stage lights up for a moment, then quickly goes out. People begin to cover their ears or chin stroke. Frankly, I’m frightened. This has gone on for about 30 minutes at this point. When the drone sustains for a while, the crowd parts… I see the noise maker. Opening act Total Life. No one even looks his way. He skulks off without a word.

Godspeed arrives, sophisticated. They take their places, tune. Projected blurred images are cast over them. After about 10 minutes of a droning build, a train appears on the screen. The band mimics the sounds of a train: bowing cymbals, beating the violin strings with a kind of stick. No one is impressed. Then they drop the weight of god upon the audience. The full band shoots through the opening track of the new LP. It’s gorgeous and overwhelming.

After the show, the band leaves the stage politely waving. A few shout out, everyone else heads for the bar. My eyes are wet.

[Photo: Justin Lynham]

Planet Mu at Corsica Studios
Corsica Studios; London, England

[09-29-2012]

When Apple decided to upgrade iOS 5, they also chose to replace the ever-helpful Google Maps app that made taking an iPhone to underground clubs like Corsica useful, particularly when visiting for the first time. We stood somewhere on Elephant Road battling with the new version of this pseudo GPS abomination until my friend JT spotted a man wearing a full-blown rabbit costume by the curb at the traffic lights. “He has to be going to the concert,” he whispered in his thick French accent, frisky from the can of Tyskie consumed on hoof. After questioning, it appeared he was indeed right, though a slight concern arose that I had missed the memo about Planet Mu Takeover being a Donnie Darko-themed fancy dress. The white rabbit led the way.

Planet Mu has been holding events at Corsica since 2008, showcasing artists and performers affiliated with the label, selling out the venue on almost every occasion. Saturday evening was no exception in boasting a roster that included a range of extraordinaires that I had convinced my dear friend were well worth seeing — from the label founder Mike Paradinas, a.k.a µ-Ziq, to Glaswegian soundscape pioneer and visual artist Konx-om-Pax, to the ultimate breakcore mastermind, Venetian Snares. With such an unhinged lineup, it was sure to be an engaging evening, with or without the assistance of les hommes lapins.

Corsica is situated at the rear of a tube station; it’s dark, cramped, and bears the features of a grubby domicile, with conditional exceptions. The lounge area is a converted bar, complete with leather sofas that overlook the main room and consequential stage. It was here we found Rudi Zygadlo closing down his set, which was probably the only one of the evening that actually involved musical instruments in a relatively traditional sense. As he packed away his guitar and drum kit, Ital Tek began setting up, a herd of Mu-star DJs huddled in a booth to the left of the stage twisting footwork, drum’n’bass, and techno to an ever-growing crowd while skewed images of Bladerunner cityscapes were looped over a white cloth behind decks and laptops.

The closer Ital Tek got to his performance, the more the crowd became restless and irksome, and the moment he began to throw switches, lights pulsated, bodies erupted from the shadows, and the building shook. At one point, I noticed JT and I were the only people in my line of vision other than the DJ, who did not bear a face tattoo — torsos were writhing, silhouettes burst and palpitated in strobe to a deep and penetrating set by one of the most creative producers on the bill. We managed about 20 minutes in this writhing sweat swarm as Alan Myson tore up the dancefloor, projecting his beats through the smoke -filled air and into the Red Stripe beer garden out back.

It was then when we discovered the second stage, where µ-Ziq was busy gathering momentum. His bass-heavy live set attracted less of a crowd than Ital Tek, but his jams were equally outstanding. His meshing of Chicago footwork with techno grimace and improv cuts was a jutting reminder as to why this man remains at the forefront of his game and the owner of one of the most enterprising independent labels out there. As his set drew to a close, we retreated to the garden once again for more Jamaican refreshments and a discussion about the scene. JT was shocked, firstly as to how many people were at the sold-out event, and secondly as to how passionately the audience seemed to bounce with every beat and jerk.

We made our way back to the main stage just in time to catch the end of Boxcutter, the number of bodies in this already crowded space beginning to swell. With shouts of “Bring on the Canadian!” and screams of “Snares!,” the techno overlord took to the stage. He placed six bottles of beer next to one of his laptops and the lights cut out. A creepy sample, something childlike and impish, seeped out of the speakers. Strobes immediately proceeded, and the audience was thrown into a self-induced techno mosh pit. Beer was spilled, bottles of water were flung, a gurning skinhead with a frantic septum piercing crashed into me. The intensity, the heat, the strobes, and the sheer volume subsided only with more creepy samples, suggesting more carnage set to follow. We lasted another half hour in this convulsing drove before catching the final stages of Konx-om-Pax’s DJ set in the next room. His music was so displaced from Regional Surrealism — an album I have developed sheer adoration for these past few months — that I was unsure if it was even him… though this may also have been due to extreme disorientation and befuddlement from the strobe/volume/violence still occurring at The Temple of Snares.

The Konx set was exquisitely paced, funky even. When it finished and the crowd showed signs of diminishing, we vacated the premises, unaccompanied by our man rabbit. The stroll somewhere in the direction of Waterloo complemented our slightly slurring dissection of the evening, but that then splintered off into gibberish about audience demographics, the fruit of which rotted in our squiffy state as we meandered into the night, our spirits in tact and our shoes in tethers.

Hot Chip / Sleigh Bells
Merriweather Post Pavillion; Columbia, MD

[07-22-12]

Most folks know Merriweather Post Pavilion as the title of Animal Collective’s 2009 album, as opposed to an actual place. Actually, it’s a beautiful, 20,000-person-capacity, Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater located smack dab in the middle of Columbia, Maryland, which is in and of itself a slightly unsettling place. Columbia’s been ranked second by Money magazine in a list of the “Happiest Places to Live in America,” the mean income of its residents is in the six-figures range, and it’s best known for being one of the first successful planned communities in the nation. So, of course, MPP is a pretty nice venue: plenty of lawn space and a sound system utilized by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, and R.E.M. alike. In fact, it was the site of the only concert in which The Who and Led Zeppelin shared a bill.

Well, times have changed, and while Columbia remains a Stepford-ian slice of upper-middle-class bliss, Merriweather has shied away from its rock roots, instead evolving into the type of spot where soccer moms can settle in with the kids to catch Katy Perry or Sugarland. So, when I saw that Hot Chip and Sleigh Bells were going to be splitting the bill at Merriweather, I knew I had to attend, not simply because In Our Heads is one of my favorites of 2012 thus far, but also because I was excited to see 20,000 people gathered to see a band OTHER than Sugarland. Can you tell that I hate Sugarland yet?

Well, spoiler alert: there weren’t 20,000 people at this show. Not 10,000. Not 5,000. Not even 3,000. There were MAYBE 2,000 people, which puts this on par with a modest turnout at the popular New York club Terminal 5, of which at least 30 could be crammed into the property. “The last time we had this low a turnout was when Sarah McLachlan played last year,” a Merriweather volunteer told me matter-of-factly before Sleigh Bells’ set. “I haven’t heard of any of these bands. Rascal Flatts is probably going to sell out, though.”

Ugh.

If that wasn’t enough, poor James Murphy — the same, legendary James Murphy who sold out Madison Square Garden with the most epic farewell show ever and who remains one of the most beloved figures in independent electronic music — delivered a DJ set to a whopping 1,500 people. I’d love to talk about the intense visual accompaniments to his infectious mix of soul, funk, house, and rock, except there was none: just the 10-minute cycle of upcoming attractions. Seeing James Murphy DJ with giant Jason Mraz ads flashing all over the place might just be the most depressing thing I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve had the misfortune of seeing The Killers.

Things didn’t fare much better for Sleigh Bells, who, despite their hit-heavy set and huge-ass stack of Marshall guitar amps, found themselves playing to mostly empty seats and a lawn as desolate as Chernobyl. “How are you guys doing out there?!?!?!” Alexis Krauss yowled out to the scattered groups of pot-smoking teenagers, receiving a few “woos” as compensation. Luckily, those closer to the stage were much more enthusiastic, grasping at her leopard-print Keds as if they were made of 24-karat gold.

Speaking of gold, Hot Chip’s set was phenomenal. Even if there weren’t a lot of people, those who were in attendance had their wits about them and chose to stay close to the stage and shake their groove thing. Which was really easy to do, because the London band kept to their catalog’s most infectious tunes: “Night And Day,” “Ready for the Floor,” “One Life Stand.” The extra session musicians punched up the already lush sounds of Alexis Taylor and company with some neat bells and whistles — figuratively, of course, but also literally with regards to a pepped-up version “Over and Over.” Even with the spot-on technical skills and the jubilant mood of the set, the best moment arrived after the band wrapped up the aforementioned The Warning tune. “That’s our song, ‘Over and Over,’ a minor hit from 2006!” Taylor chirped, as if he KNEW the absurdity of his band going from a string of sold-out shows in New York to a half-dead audience in an amphitheater less than one mile away from a Hollister store.

The gradual onslaught of “Flutes” sent shivers down my spine, but what affected me more was the painful realization that, in a matter of weeks, this desolate venue would be filled to the brim with people singing along to “I’m Yours.” And that’s when I realized why I was so sad. Hot Chip is the type of band that SHOULD be selling out 20,000 seats; their sound is playful, smart, and perfectly suited for huge venues like this. To book such large spaces was certainly a gutsy move, and in this economy, it’s difficult for any band to sell 20,000 tickets; but given the buzz and critical acclaim this band’s been receiving lately, I’m surprised there weren’t more people in attendance. I’m no music snob — that was me going nuts at that Katy Perry concert last year — but I know a stellar concert when I see one, and my fellow Marylanders missed out big time. Guys, next time, just watch True Blood on demand — Sookie will be there when you get back.

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.