Jay Reatard
Amoeba Records; San Francisco, CA

[08-22-2009]

As an English major, I had my fair share of run-ins with words that had seen their meaning warped or distorted (if you're a positive person, you'd call it evolution). Apparently the great music “tour” has gone that way. The oddity of a three-location tour separated by roughly five hours of driving time aside, I headed over to Amoeba SF for Jay Reatard's in-store. If you live outside California, chances are you haven't experienced the intimidatingly large space that is Amoeba. I say “chances are” because among TMT's readership these stores can be something of a tourist attraction. In any event, where most stores are packed so tight it feels like shopping in a taco truck, Amoeba luxuriates in its expansiveness and boasts a respectably sized, raised stage.

The main virtue of seeing Jay Reatard used to be that the sound quality would be superior, but with the cleaner production on Watch Me Fall that's no longer the case. This show in particular ended up being noticeably worse, as Reatard blew something out a few songs in. The other selling point I used on the uninitiated was that almost anything (e.g. technical difficulties) could piss Reatard off and lead him to “act a fool.” Success seems to agree with him though, and they just turned everything up to ear-bleeding levels to compensate.

So should you go see this new, mellower Jay Reatard? Of course you should. He still tears through sets as though he got a bonus for turning us out early, and watching him run around trying to switch guitars and plug in as fast as possible would be almost comical if I didn't know he was trying to cut us off before we could start clapping. Stephen Pope is still the relatable face of the band, mouthing the words and making some hilarious expressions throughout. You're never going to get a “cozy” Jay Reatard show, but this was probably the absolute closest he'll come to a Kurt Cobain-setting-up-candles-around-you moment. He took me and at least one extremely flustered kid by surprise when he handed him his guitar during the finale and encouraged him to add some noise to the freakout. If he keeps this up, “Jay Reatard live” might evolve to mean something other than “punches kids.”

[Photo: Caitlin @ Amoeba SF]

Vetiver / Beach House
08-16-2009;

[08-16-2009]

Beach House's pop has always sweltered, so even if the long, narrow, and low-ceilinged Magnet Club seemingly retained and tripled the heat of one of Berlin's warmer late-summer days, it was probably for the best: as the Baltimore duo launched into “Master Of None” midway through their set, it was like they channeled the added temperature into that scruffy sensuality of theirs, all narcotic and drowsy.

Those condensed and old-worldly organ drones built further layers onto the vibrato melodies and, in this live setting (with the help of an additional touring musician), crammed those dusty velvet textures full of warmth. But it wasn't until they moved onto the new material (kind of humbly, actually; Alex Scally almost apologized for being more excited for new rather than old material) when it got really powerful; the first from their upcoming record swirled with ridiculously hard-hitting analogue bliss, organs coming out strong and starry-eyed, their gritty euphoria as lucid as ever. Here's where their style was at its most realized: a transcendent modern humanness drenched in a baroque ornateness, total beauty without contrivance.

Vetiver's cover of Fleetwood Mac's “Save Me A Place” was laced with all the hazy sentimentality of the original, but their set felt more structured and conventional. The crowd seemed to have thinned out slightly, too. It was my own preference for their earlier and lo-fi-er ballads, the abstracted college mysticality of “Arboretum” or “Belle”'s just plain prettiness that made their more solid or straight-up folk come off less rich. The newer Sub Pop stuff has a similarly band-y feel to their four-piece live show (i.e. more drums than hazy vibes), rolling out songs tightly and effortlessly. But even if their relaxed balladry felt endearingly lulling under all that heat, it was a little lighter on the naturalismo than I would have hoped.

Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars / Liquid Liquid
08-08-2009;

[08-08-2009]

Two distinct forms of minimalism filled the Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell on Saturday night, as did an estimated 10,000 people eager to hear the evening’s momentous sounds.

First came the world premier of composer Rhys Chatham's A Crimson Grail for 200 Electric Guitars, a massive piece in three shimmering movements and its orchestration of 200 electric guitars, 16 basses, and one hi-hat. Rather than creating a blaring, dense wall of noise, Chatham's guitar orchestra was a shifting, sparkling ocean of tonality. Chords rose and fell, meshed and crystallized, and ultimately congealed into a vibrating, magical marriage of dissonance and harmony, multiplicity and unity. The 217 players (a few TMTers included) weren't a raging army of axe-wielders, but smaller and subtler parts of a larger collective instrument. From the bandshell stage, Chatham lead the impressive affair with the help of four section leaders perched atop platforms in the crowd. Trying to decipher just how he was guiding the piece was tempting, but closing one’s eyes and letting the vibrations take over provided much more satisfaction.

Taking the stage following the unique display was an unenviable task, but influential New York rhythm bandits Liquid Liquid were up to it. While Chatham took minimalism to a wonderful, sprawling max, Liquid Liquid looped the form back into itself to create short dance tunes with incredibly kinetic bang. Hypnotic bass lines, tight rhythms, and well-placed flourishes showed the foursome has lost nothing since its succinct early-'80s heyday. The setting, however, probably wasn’t comparable to a sweaty, dance-filled night at the Paradise Garage or other Downtown venues of the band’s beginnings. Police quickly dispersed those who gathered to dance at stage front, and most of the crowd remained glued to their seats before finally rising to boogie for a brief moment during the encore. When someone shouted, “They’re not letting us dance!” vocalist Salvatore Principato responded, “Sign of the times, man. It’s their world, we’re just guests.”

The rain, which foiled last summer’s planned Crimson Grail premiere (TMT Feature), thankfully held off this time around, allowing the night to pour forth in a much different and better way. From the 1264 strings that comprised Chatham’s piece to Liquid Liquid’s popping polyrhythms, the evening was a plentiful and potent dose of NYC-rooted sonic prowess.

Seripop: "A weekend of printmaking, illustration and live music"
BALTIC Mill Gallery; Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

[July 31 - August 1, 2009]

It's fair to say that such “weird” or potentially esoteric sounds belong in such white-walled/wooden-floored gallery spaces, but the scuffed-up DIY aesthetics of all the bands at these two Seripop performance nights means they'd fit moreso into divey warehouse spaces or basements. Either way, these were two of the most vibrant, fun nights of music and experimentalism I've seen in Newcastle, so much so that really this sensitively converted ex-flour mill scarcely felt like a regular night out; it could've been London or, heck, even Berlin. That's a good thing; the grungier feelings that Seripop (two Canadian visual artists and members of AIDS Wolf and Hamborghinni) brought to this Northern English city went down like a treat.

Still, I was a little slack in making the first bands on both nights (and also got pretty distracted by the amazing silkscreens, cassettes, and zines exploding with color and the merch desk), so after missing juneau brothers and A Middle Sex, it was the texturally and volume-dynamic noise of Blood Oracle that I heard first. Using old walkmans, vocals and a variety of pedals, they built some scratchy fields of distortion that focused on the sporadic, lovely, and unpredictable, funnelling burnt-out soap opera memories into a new context.

If Les Cox (sportifs) formed out of a shared tiredness of Newcastle's often “po-faced music scene” (so true!), then bravo; their jangly pop slides out with an artfully skewed sense of '90s lackadaisics, chucking those jaunty chords and wonky vocal affectations, an oblique and joyfully art-damaged approach to a vaguely twee aesthetic.

Spin Spin The Dogs take the cake as far as the British bung-pop goes (à la Country Teasers, xx) because of their positively silly Mark E. Smitheries and awkward leers of their khaki-green/park ranger outfitted lead singer. It's super fun and embraces the amateur element of DIY in the most heartily ironical way.

London's Roseanne Barr's DIY punk got all clamorous and endearing on the slightly better-attended Saturday night before local favs/Blackest Rainbow-released Jazzfinger with their tectonic free-noise rumbles. It was Leeds-based Beards who really stole the show with their way-over-the-top (amazing) matching black-&-white-striped outfits that looked like some acid combination of Roman soldier and high fashion. Their pop is particularly colorful and tight, if chuggy and math'd-out at times.

London's Cleckhuddersfax brought a similar eccentricity. I got kind of obsessed with the contrast of the long-haired synth nerds playing keys (real Freaks and Geeks garage-style aesthetics) to the fluoro leotard of the lead singer, but their slightly jocked-out DIY transcended both. Way more than Devo revisionism, their muted pop worked best at the start, when the beats were more energetic, but the combination of severe musicianship (on said synth players and drummers behalf) with showmanship worked great. Seripop's noise project Hamborghinni was scheduled to play last but couldn't due to illness, so the night ended here, fitting for two nights of enthusiastic DIY performances.

Craig Wedren
08-04-2009;

[08-04-2009]

I went into Craig Wedren's show with ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) bearing an open mind, determined not to be disappointed if he didn't launch into a set of rare Shudder To Think songs. As it turned out, not only did I get my secret wish to hear “Pebbles” again, but I also got knocked on my ass by the power of Wedren's voice combined with a classically trained mini-orchestra.

ACME began the evening with contemporary classical composer Michael Nyman's String Quartet No. 2, an ear-friendly alternative to John Cage's "String Quartet in Four Parts," which had been programmed originally. Artistic director and cellist Clarice Jensen expertly guided her fellow players through terrifyingly complicated rhythms and delicate chord structures without a hitch; a blessing, as we all know what a wrong note on a violin sounds like.

ACME cleared the stage for a visibly awed Wedren, who would later stand and smile appreciatively, almost like an audience member, as ACME wove impossibly intricate melodies around him. Wedren treated the Shudder To Think fans with “Hit Liquor,” “No RM. 9,” and more, making it incredibly difficult for me to contain my contented sighs. Ushering ACME back onto the stage, Wedren shared that he couldn't remember how long they'd been collaborating, but that it had happened within the past year.

“I have no sense of time now that I've had a child,” he admitted. “I'm 1... I'm 100... I'm not sure. Making music with ACME has been a revelation... now let's just hope we don't suck.” “One Man's Heart,” written with ACME, is one of the most tuneful and comfortable pieces of music ever to have been associated with Wedren, who is clearly embracing a more blissful muse these days. Yet, he uses his classical leanings to give new teeth to Shudder to Think track “Pebbles,” which is all the more unsettling and obtuse with the organic scream of strings and woodwinds.

The piece de resistance was latter-day Shudder To Think keyboardist Jefferson Friedman's three-part composition "On In Love," for which Wedren wrote lyrics. “On In Love” plays like the soundtrack of an imaginary stage show, with Wedren as the soulful narrator, describing the different facets of love reflected by three movements: “Refuse to Die,” “Famous Planets,” and “Tarrying.” Wedren howled and crooned, eyes closed, acting as ambassador of art rock and its chaotic and euphoric collision with the classical world. At the close of the final movement, he turned around and beamed at the musicians, as enamored of them as I was of the work as a whole.

Shellshag / Screaming Females / Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa / Saything
Spam Warehouse; Oakland, CA

[07-31-2009]

I showed up late to this show, because I was wasting time at home learning what Slash Fiction is. So I missed Cansafis’s solo saxophone set. It’s okay though, I’ll see it next week. In between bands, I stood around and enjoyed the beer-vending machine: PBR, Olympia, or Budweiser for 75 cents? Amazing.

Saything came on, and I realized that, having now seen them three times in the past month, it has become like watching Sanford & Son; my attention is held but not newly warped. It’s good though, like Modest Mouse with better vocals. Bonus -- it was Mr. Brian’s (Saything's drummer) birthday, and the celebratory vibe was heartfelt.

After Saything finished, the place got magically packed, including a whole family (raddest parents ever) with two goth adolescents front and center. Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa came on and blew my mind. The whole purpose for the show was to celebrate the release of their new album, Operation Spacetime Cynderblock: 4 Riddles of the Spheres, and they absolutely ripped through their set. The drumming was positively gymnastic. Robert and Priya’s vocals are so harsh and punk, I can’t help making Subhumans comparisons. Actually, Crass is a pretty good point of reference too, but subtract out a bit of the overt political commentary and keep the anti-authoritarian vibe, then add a hefty dose of Sabbath influence and early '90s Miami noise vibe, and you now have KLS in a nutsack.

Screaming Females and Shellshag underwhelmed me, even if the crowd came out for them. Both bands have pretty well mastered power/pop/crust punk, but compared to KLS I found their delivery sloppy, loose, and poorly mixed. Although, both bands do subscribe to the “save the best for last” setlist writing motif, which is a good way to earn a couple points from this jaded reviewer. There was another show going on next door, but I was too faded and hungry to check it out. A trip to Korean BBQ beat that easily.