Mike Watt & The Missingmen
The Smell; Los Angeles, CA

[06-05-2010]

As critics, we tend to be cynical about reunions and legends; side projects and follow-ups. We complain about the disappointment of seeing artists after the raw periods of their youth. Sometimes it’s sad, like watching Rick James take a break after every two songs, but any failure will come from simply not meeting whatever expectations history has created for the artist. There’s always the possibility that I might have seen him rock harder had I been at an original Minutemen show but, frankly, even with all the covers, it’s a non issue. When someone reaches a certain level of legitimate greatness within the rock community something shifts in their responsibility as a performer. They can do new and interesting work (Please do!), but their success will always be viewed in terms of how well they sparked whatever energy they brought to the past and how well they transported original fans to the time they inevitably see as being when “bands were bands.”  

In this way Mike Watt, backed by The Missingmen, succeeded terrifically. Every second Watt was onstage was a lesson in what jamming econo looks like. Every crease in his face. Every grimace. Every sweat stain. I think he made everyone feel at least a little excessive in some way. There was a noticeable, and refreshing, absence of cell-phone photography that I attribute to the clear sense that anything unrelated to the music didn’t matter.

Watt was plagued by an unusually large number of sound problems. Most significantly, there were no audible vocals coming from Watt at all for the first two songs. As much as that sucked though, it did present a chance to see just how much he puts into a performance. It’s something else to see a man pushing it all out, veins popping, just to have his vocals escape over the music for even one word. 

After Watt yelled for the sound lady to, “just fucking turn it all the way up,” and getting nothing in the way of results, Tom Watson gave up his own mic and they switched back and forth depending on who had primary vocal duties. It was a bummer to lose the backup vocals, but it was worth it to see Watt hand the dead mic to someone in the crowd and say, “Here, stick that up my ass or something.” Watson, for his part, continued to scream all of his parts directly into the empty mic stand as if nothing was wrong. 

It looked like everything was going to be fine. They brought someone’s kid onstage to replace Raul Morales on drums and the tyke was rock-solid. The vibe was great and everything felt familial, with bouncy adolescent curls collided with grey manes in the mild pit. As the set went on though, Watt began to look increasingly uncomfortable onstage and occasionally would step back from the mic clutching his ear and screaming, “Fuck.” He definitely yelled at someone in the front that he couldn’t hear anything while his companion played with the wires running down the wall in a way that evoked memories of trying to find the sweet spot on tin foil-covered bunny ears. Every time Watt flinched though, his next move would be a fierce attack on his bass. That image will stick with me for a long time and I’m left wondering who’s going to show my kids the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.

Starfucker / Butterfly Bones
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[05-14-2010]

The Rickshaw Stop used to host an 18+ dance party called “Blow Up” every Friday night. I went a few times in high school, and by the last time I felt dirty for going — the crowd was an awful mixture of 15 year olds with fake IDs, wannabe American Apparel models, creepy mid-twenties guys who had come to grind on the 15 year olds, and an endless sea of amateur “party photographers” firing flashes onto the whole sweaty mess. The Rickshaw Stop had to shut it down last year — more than 500 people were showing up to cram into a 200-capacity venue.

It seemed about half the crowd at this show consisted of people who hadn’t gotten the memo that “Blow Up” wasn’t happening anymore, and Butterfly Bones sounded like they could have been played at Blow Up. Their music is catchy and danceable, but after half an hour of the same predictable breaks we heard all over MSTRKRFT remixes in 2006, I got the queasy feeling that I was back in high school, trying to dodge drunk guys’ attempts to grope me. To BB’s credit, electro-pop is pretty hard to get right, but their version didn’t bring any new ideas.

Starfucker (who, thankfully, are back to that name and not Pyramiddd), however, do have great ideas regarding electro-pop. They use guitars and synths equally and for interesting effects, and their songs sound like songs rather than an endless, unchanging pulse. They also know to take a break, and some of the best parts of the night were mid-tempo tracks from their newer material. They still wear dresses when they perform and they still got the room dancing so hard that sweat dripped off the ceiling, but they back up the antics and the beats with solid pop music. Electronics augment, but don’t define, Starfucker’s music, which is an important nuance to notice when you can still dance to something. I hope the “Blow Up” transplants appreciated it, too.

Silver Apples / Burning Star Core / Love Like Deloreans
Coco's 66; Brooklyn, NY

[05-16-2010]

Silver Apples played two shows in New York last week, and while the second — at the modest but well-equipped Coco’s 66 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — may not have been able to boast the indie-scene cred of Oneida, the visual power of the Joshua Light Show, or the art scene cachet of the Abrons Art Center that the first had going for it, it did have good DJs playing in between sets, an impressive bill, and even some visual fireworks.

In the case of Brooklyn retro-techno trio Love Like Deloreans, who opened the show with a set of masterful Yellow Magic Orchestra-style synth jams, the band bounced around gamely behind their keyboards and provided a more interesting stage show themselves than many groups of their ilk do. But it was the projections, created by artist Jon Williams, played over the band that were most visually stimulating. While the forward progress of the songs was never in doubt, the projections played with the momentum of the set by variously interlocking and disengaging with the band’s rhythms.

Burning Star Core followed, turning in an astoundingly varied performance by way of six “parts” (for lack of a better word). The first part featured building violin loops, followed by a sparser movement of discordant riffs over a minimal drone, a quadrant featuring sampled vocalizations, a frighteningly intense noise section along the lines of Wolf Eyes’s “Dead Hills II,” and a finale during which lone member C. Spencer Yeh layed long violin double-stops over what could’ve been an ESG sample. Between the impressive volume, the often-harsh visual element — which ran from almost complete darkness to strange, diffuse, and disorienting floodlighting, to wild strobe flashes — and the stylistic shifts in the music, it was the sort of set that inspires strong opinions in all but the most indifferent. I, for one, thought it was amazing.

And with that, Silver Apples’ Simeon Coxe III took his place behind his oscillators and other assorted electronics and the main event was on. While some members of the crowd may have been surprised to see only Coxe up there, under a floppy hat, if he had internalized any particular expectations about what a Silver Applies performance was supposed to be, he wasn’t letting on. He quipped early on that he would be “playing old stuff, playing new stuff, and having some fun,” and while this was a simple plan, he followed it to the letter. Coxe’s voice, only mildly aged from the one you hear on Contact, carried each song to a new place. And, if somewhat lacking in the propulsive, paranoid character found in their original recordings, the current live incarnations of Silver Apples’ older songs have gained a weathered quality that allows them to reveal their history while also relieving them of the burden of imitating the 1960s versions of themselves.

This could explain why, while “A Pox On You” and “Oscillations” received a warmer welcome from the audience than some, Coxe was able to give every song its due and equal place in the set. Newer, spacier, more minimal numbers suited his sparse, acoustic-instruments-less setup and fit in perfectly with their environment. Oddly enough, for a show featuring a band reduced to one member, reformed to great acclaim 15 years prior following 25 years of silence, playing a small, recently established club in a generally neglected corner of an outer borough on a Sunday night, the whole thing seemed natural. The highest pleasure the show provided was that of witnessing a relaxed, seemingly happy performer with nothing to prove playing for the love of the game.

Jozef van Wissem
Morden Tower; Newcastle, UK

[05-12-2010]

Last time things got cosmic at Newcastle’s Morden Tower, it was with Californians James Ferraro and Spencer Clark, whose strip-mall explorations were of a different mind than tonight’s more string-based (or, to be precise, “minimalist”) show. Mythos comes pretty easy for this place; it’s a small circular room in a stone tower set into a roman brick wall (that actually now backs onto Chinatown, whose restaurants spray a pretty steady steam of grease onto the cobbled stones). Not sure if the rats (outside) aided an “authentic baroque/medieval” experience, which Van Wissem’s lute seems to emulate in a modern setting (or throws back to in order to find new poignancy).

Sometimes found wearing medieval robes, this Brooklyn by way of Netherlands soloist was tonight in jeans and a flannel shirt, which served even more the dichotomy of new and old means: distant car alarms slipping in between the lengthy rests that marked the beginnings of a certainly stripped-back set, a slow couple of notes then a pause (repeated over 4-5 minutes) that would’ve perhaps seemed particularly drawn out to fans of local support Richard Dawson, whose more song-based finger picks (and vocals) came off actually tearjerkingly humble, like some Northeast English Basho or Rose.

Van Wissem’s set, though, eased the semi-circular room into a distinct and subtle lull, zoning out with swiped classical tidbits, deconstructing an obscure set of musical histories into songs of varied rhythm, usually preferring the more plodding sorts that sometimes confounded but summoned weirdly lunar and timeless slips of consciousness. Whatever varied songform he decided, the results were quietly subversive.

Broken Social Scene / Julie Doiron
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA

[05-01-2010]

The Fillmore has a bit of a resemblance to another venue, the defunct Avalon Ballroom in Boston, right across the street from Fenway Park. The comparison here is relevant to tonight’s Broken Social Scene show: The first time this writer saw them, it was on a whim 5 years ago at the latter venue, in support of the self-titled album. Back then, Feist opened for them, long before The Reminder, and a man with a perpetual black turtleneck sent her down a separate transcendent path. The show was the stuff of legends. Admittedly, such a show is unlikely to happen again outside of the Greater Toronto area, so expectations have to be blunted, even for a new album and a tour.

Canadian Julie Doiron opened, and though she has an uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to the opener of a half-decade prior, that’s where the comparisons end. On stage, it feels more like The White Stripes in their early years in Detroit, only with the roles switched (though that might be a bit harsh for drummer William, who is actually good at both drums and guitar). Julie herself acted incredibly hokey and chummy at times. Worse though were the couple of songs where dissonance was employed, as well as one song where her singing rhythm sounded incredibly awkward. For a folk artist who has collaborated with the likes of Mt. Eerie and Okkervil River, she was exceptionally mediocre.

There is a lot of virtual-water-cooler (where the water is cleanest) talk about Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record around here, to the effect that this album lacks something pivotal. This writer suspects a single culprit, but will not elaborate for the sake of wanting to live in said culprit’s home city again one day. That said, whatever qualms fans may have for Forgiveness Rock Record can be put to rest: Live, these new songs really do sound like Broken Social Scene songs. Opener (and opening track) “World Sick” sounded much more natural and wet than the recording, as did fiery number “Texaco Bitches” and lead single “Forced to Love.” Lisa Lobsinger, recruited during the self-titled’s recording partly as a means to replace the eventually departed Millan-Feist-Haines trifecta, finally came into her own, captivating the crowd with “Sentimental X’s.”

“Lobbie” also performed exceptionally well with “All is All” and the legendary “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old.” For all the 2-hour set could cover though, the band only glanced briefly at the “BSS Presents” series, playing only “F-cked Up Kid” and “Been at It a Long Time,” the latter of which went into a jammy headspace. The band obviously enjoyed themselves and went at the set with the ferocity they always have. Even co-frontman Brendan Canning, sick with flu, pushed like he could run the Boston Marathon. That the band played 2 hours straight, with only a brief 3-minute break, is a testament to that. While it may be another couple years before we witness epic glory again outside Toronto, Broken Social Scene remain the incredible living force they were years ago on stage.

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

High Places / Mi Ami
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[03-24-2010]

This show was so easy to space out at, in a good way. Two bands that play noisy music doing it pretty well makes for a satisfying night.

I saw Mi Ami open for HEALTH a while ago, and they’ve definitely honed their live act. By “honed” I don’t mean “polished” as much as “there is a much more noticeable dissonance between their instrumentation and their vocals.” Their music by itself is hypnotic, complicated and nicely jam-heavy. With Daniel Martin-McCormick’s vocals, though, it got sort of crazy. He just doesn’t look like he can make the kind of noises he squeals into a microphone jammed halfway into his mouth. But it’s not insincere, and it works. Mi Ami are not for the faint of heart.

High Places are, though, definitely. They’re warm and fuzzy and full of droning noise sure to envelop anyone in spacey bliss. Unfortunately many of their strongest moments – intricate instrumentation and sampling or complex vocals – get lost in the dense, overpowering guitar washout present in their live set. A rare moment of clarity came on “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House,” from their latest record High Places vs. Mankind, as both their vocalists joined to sing a repeating string of words that guided the whole song beautifully. I think they sound better in the studio, where they can take the time to layer components of their music to the best effect.