LAGO; Ottawa, ON
The day before Canada Day, four of us are huddled in a kitchen in Ottawa, Ontario. Three different kinds of Canadian Whiskey are stocked in the freezer, and 2-liter bottles of Canada Dry litter the counter tops. There's Alberta beef on the propane barbecue, and there's already the odd firework going up around us, even though we're still a good 6 hours until Wednesday. In the room, there's somebody from Winnipeg Manitoba, one from Montreal, another from New Brunswick, two clowns from Cape Breton, and this writer, born and raised in the Nation's Capital itself. We could of filled two chesterfields if we needed to.
As the cab convoy pulled up to the venue, we get our first look at LAGO, an uppity-looking bar & grill on the edge of a beautiful waterfront that's been converted to handle throngs of people lookin' to get their dance on. MSTRKRFT have come all the way from Toronto to throw down at the biggest party of the summer not sponsored by the Government of Canada. As we trickled in, DJ Kid SL kept the crowd occupied while the liquor flowed. Many people peaked too early, and we watched on with smiles as their plea's fell on deaf gorilla ears. Two of our own party fell victim to that fate themselves at some point during the night. We're not sure when.
The crowd started chanting for Mas-Ter-Kraft, and the two distinctive heads of Jesse and Al-P pushed through the dry ice and set up shop in front of a bevy of knobs and pads. For the uninitiated, MSTRKFRT and their ilk produce an updated form of electro that goes by a few names, including fidget house and filthy/dirty electro. Music that lives and dies in a live setting by beat drops. The music builds on itself, generally overlaying an increasingly high frequency wave until the beat is filtered out completely. This serves a double purpose, both letting people breathe and to build anticipation for the beat to drop back in. When it does, it's coupled with bowel-moving wobble bass or synth stabs so distorted that they may as well be a bass line.
The crowd behind me pushed in, the bass wobbled, and the lights burst into a neon cavalcade. The masses around me moved to the beat with what room they had, and the floor suddenly became a tribal experience. Almost every song has a similar beginning and end point to facilitate easier mixing. There's something about a heavy 4/4 beat and a gathering of sweaty people that exposes our history as a race.
Eventually, words become irrelevant in describing the experience. Albums and singles shouldn't form an opinion of this updated version of electro -- it needs to be experienced live.
John Vanderslice / Tallest Man On Earth
Exit/In; Nashville, TN
When Sweden's The Tallest Man on Earth (a.k.a. Kristian Matsson) steps on stage, he's given the warmest reception I've seen for an opener in recent memory. I'm only mildly familiar with his music, but I can't help thinking it's funny a guy called "tallest man" looks like a miniaturized Bonnie "Prince" Billy with less facial hair and better guitar chops. Characteristically, Nashville crowds tend to swoon over singer/songwriters, and there's plenty of that going on as Matsson sings "If the whiskey doesn't kill me, I don't know what will."
I'm not saying Swedes don't drink whiskey or anything, but the only thing legitimately great about TMoE is his guitar-comping. Maybe it's slightly antagonistic, but I find his super-gritty vocal style not only confrontational but unwelcoming, as he shows off guitar-slinger cold stares and brandishes his Taylor in a ridiculous fashion. Is it TMoE's BM-pushing vocals or my terribly-chosen Ramen noodle dinner that messes with my bowels? I may never know. I do know, however, Matsson seems like a nice enough guy in between songs, but there's little excuse for an opener to disrespectfully play an encore — which is exactly how his lengthy set ends.
When Vanderslice and full band break into the lilting and lyrically razor-sharp "Tablespoon of Codeine," I know this performance will be opposite to Matsson's. Although the band is roaring, I sadly notice people trickling out until only the modest-sized, full-fledged fans remain — whispers of "JV" (a term of endearment) are a surefire sign I'm in welcome company. I enjoy the initial sentiments that set the tone of the show, "What happened in September was a fake" ("Tablespoon of Codeine") and "freedom is overrated" ("Too Much Time"). To say the least, Vanderslice wasn't aiming to popularize any catch-phrases in the southern land.
Throughout the night, the capable backing band did well supporting imaginative rearrangements and open interpretations of older favorites "They Won't Let Me Run," "Angela," "Pale Horse," and newer tunes from Romanian Names. Keyboardist Ian Bjornstad deserves special recognition, holding things down despite minor sound issues. Fans groove when unexpected "White Plains" begins, and "Exodus Damage" became the night's most punctuated moment. While a few of the improv sections could vibe better, all's well that ends with an acoustic, crowd-encircled, on-floor-participating rendition of "Keep the Dream Alive" from 2001's classic Time Travel Is Lonely. For the first time, each person on the floor is face to face not only with the band, but with each other — unable to look away from the shared mouthing of lyrics and recognition of what they see: the JV fan within.
When Vanderslice embraces each member of his band and proceeds to make himself available to chat with anyone and everyone, I realize the moment is better than any encore.
The Paramount Theatre; Seattle, WA
Decked in white, David Byrne and his ensemble of musicians, singers, and dancers set the stage for a big tent revival, the sort of affair most associated with backwoods evangelists and Steve Martin’s Jonas Nightengale from Leap of Faith. Unlike the snake oil salesmen Byrne resembled, he sold no false prophets or wisdom, rather delivering a sermon on high full of existentialism and whimsy.
The Brian Eno-fueled evening kicked off with “Strange Overtones” from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, as Byrne regaled the eager crowd with a story of love, basking in the glow of beats 20 years past due. It’s hard to come to grips with such a flippant idea since much of Byrne’s canon still sounds fresh and groundbreaking. The dance rhythms of “I, Zimbra” followed, further proving the point that what is old is new again in the hands of both Byrne and his young but talented band. It was the first time the crowd laid eyes on the skillful dancers in Byrne’s employ, each re-enacting the akimbo limbs and devil-may-care movements that made Byrne an early music video star to throngs who had not witnessed his outrageous choreography for themselves. No amount of stage antics distracted from the pulpit from which Byrne spoke, and when he launched himself into “Help Me Somebody” from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, it was evident that, while we may have been a willful congregation, the person Byrne was speaking to was himself. Granted, his words dripped of irony and wit, but the frenzied state the crowd worked themselves into mirrored Southern Baptist parishioners being saved by the word of Byrne.
Of course, the evening did not carry the weight of sin and salvation, but the fervor blanketing the crowd carried Byrne and crew increasingly higher. The stakes were continually raised, and aside from the crowd sitting through the slow sides of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (“Life is Long,” “One Fine Day”), not one ass was to be found in their assigned seat. Old Talking Head favorites garnered the largest responses, and as “Heaven,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Once in a Lifetime” wound down the set, not an ounce of energy was spared by performers and crowd.
The encore ratcheted up the pomp, with “Cities” building the tension for Byrne’s big surprise: an invasion from the San Francisco outfit Extra Action Marching Band. The blend of 60s hygiene, 70s glam, and 80s decadence emitted from the flashy freaks paraded down the aisles to astonished gasps and unbridled cheers. Once they made their way to the stage, it became an all-out assault on Talking Head classics “Road to Nowhere” and “Burning Down the House.” If Byrne were to preach about the ride to hell being worth the fun, there’s no doubt this would provide more than enough proof. It was hard to take your eyes off of the 30 bodies heaving and shaking with the spirit of Brian Eno and David Byrne, and it wasn’t until the subdued finale of “Everything That Happens” when the dust settled and our souls were set free.
Jens Lekman / Tig Notaro
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA
I have a confession to make: I used to not like Jens Lekman. I used to think his voice was forced and that his instrumentation was overbearing. As the friend with whom I attended this show used to say, I didn’t have a soul. Luckily, I've recently changed, and now I love his music. I say “luckily” because seeing Jens Lekman has made me a happier person.
I thought Tig Notaro would be Swedish, but she’s a California stand-up comic who has appeared on The Sarah Silverman Program. She was also a better start to the night than 97% of opening bands I’ve seen. She adapted her consistently laugh-out-loud jokes very well to the audience. Thanks to her, I’m finally able to say I’ve used the self-defense classes my parents made me take in high school; when Tig asked the audience for feedback on her martial arts skills, I gave advice that she deemed useless with her razor-sharp wit. I didn’t mind being insulted, and neither did the other crowd members she skewered during her set. If opening bands are meant to warm up the room, she ranks with Dan Deacon and Final Fantasy as the best show-starters I’ve seen.
But as stellar as she was, Jens was better. He started off with a request: don’t post show recordings on the internet. Not because he is against recording, but because he wanted the show to be a special experience shared only between him and those in attendance. After a couple minutes, I felt lucky to be in that audience. The set was filled with as much humor as Tig’s standup. A new track with the self-explanatory title “I Had An Argument With Myself on a Strange Street in Melbourne” included the lyrics “Fuck you/ No, fuck you/ Why are you hitting yourself?/ Stop hitting yourself!” (replete with Jens actually hitting himself), and Jens’ between-song storytelling had the crowd in stitches. But we weren’t there to see Jens Lekman The Comedian; we were there for Jens Lekman The Fantastic Musician.
As it turns out, Jens Lekman The Fantastic Musician plays songs that could fill up a small stadium. His albums don’t really come off as epic, but this concert did, and it worked incredibly well. The melodies were particularly notable, as they were unencumbered by the heavy arrangements that turned me off for over a year, and Jens’ voice sounds surprisingly better live than on record. Watching the set was an escapist experience, with the crowd singing and clapping along with Jens’ instruction.
As the night came to a close, Jens invited the audience to the venue's back patio if they wanted to say hi. Many people, including myself, took him up on it, and he talked to everyone in earnest. It was a perfect end to the night and achieved what he’d set out to do: create a communal, positive experience. In a world where people are regularly injured at shows, we'd do well to learn a little from Jens.
PJ Harvey and John Parish
The Warfield; San Francisco, CA
I first heard PJ Harvey when I was 14 and scared to death. She’s the reason us riot grrls survived high school without blowing our heads off or cutting too deep. She’s also the reason behind some very sexy nights. I traded in my flowy skirts and Tori Amos fairy sensibilities for red lipstick, latex, and a snarl that could cut glass. And age hasn’t dulled her blade either; PJ Harvey is still a musical schizophrenic, shape-shifting over the years from a bra-and-boots 90s rock goddess to a sleek city girl singing duets with Thom Yorke to a Victorian ghost-like piano player. We have yet to see her make the same record twice.
Ten years later, I see her in concert for the first time at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Needless to say, it was kind of a big deal for me. She is touring with John Parish in support of their second collaborative effort, A Woman A Man Walked By, and early on in the show, she let us know that they would only play songs from their two records, the first being Dance Hall At Louse Point. I secretly hoped she would dip into her back catalog and give us “Angelene” or “Man-Size.” But PJ kept her word and performed a setlist comprised of only two albums.
Despite the absence of her solo material, I found myself overwhelmed by every single song. It’s not that these songs are some of her best stuff — there are some melodramatic missteps on Dance Hall — rather, it is the spectacle of PJ Harvey, and I mean spectacle in the most creatively thrilling way. Her performances are physical manifestations of the sounds produced by John Parish and the backing band. In songs like “Pig Will Not,” PJ dashed across the stage, barking like a mad dog as the drums thundered and Parish’s guitar got gritty. In “A Woman a Man Walked By,” PJ growls, “Stick it up your fucking ass!” and I feel something like catharsis. Then there are moments like “Rope Bridge Crossing” where PJ sways seductively and Parish turns into a bluesy saloon player. “Civil War Correspondent” ends with the band standing frozen in the white lights as PJ trembles out front, her voice crying, “Gunfire, gunfire.” The lights dim and she bows her head. The audience breathes.
Le Poisson Rouge; New York, NY
Fiery Furnaces always have something jingling in their pockets. The last time they zigzagged across the country, they were touting “Democ-rock” and allowing fans to vote on which songs they played. This time, as part of the run-up to their new album, I’m Going Away, they pulled out another novel set list approach. Sandwiched between some toasted classics, the band stuffed a helping of fresh and juicy meat from the new disc. And they didn’t throw on just a few slices. They stacked up the whole thing.
The Furnaces have always had a knack for pulling together disparate parts and making them work, and this live concept was right in line with that. They combined the ATP/Don’t Look Back trend of having artists perform entire albums with the leak-battling efforts that have forced bands like Wilco to offer streaming previews before their street dates. The result: a unique live experience that trumps the banal “listening party” and also pulls fans away from those pesky Rapidshare vices. Why scour the net for that illegal download when you can go shake it with the Friedberger siblings themselves?
The Le Poisson Rouge show began with the timely “Here Comes The Summer,” and then laid on a little more familiarity with “Leaky Tunnels” and “Chris Michaels.” The in-the-round setup made it easy to see that there would be no keys for the night, only strings. This was quite a move for Matt Friedberger, who often comes off like a mad scientist behind his synths, but the band showed that they can roll even as a four-piece riff machine.
I’m Going Away was next, and the band bowled through the 12 tracks with a directness not typical of their prog-y history. With the new songs, the band dwells a little longer and digs a little deeper. Eleanor described three songs as being about ex-boyfriends, and the band joked about running out of ideas, but it mostly seems that the Friedbergers, along with the ace rhythm section of Jason Loewenstein and Bob D'Amico, have carved out a more steady and mature sonic groove.
Another helping of older tunes served as the night’s desert, and they were a pleasant reward for the somewhat overwhelming task of digesting an entire new Fiery Furnaces release. A kraut-y version of “Single Again” was the final number, proving once more that the band’s catalog can swim in a variety of sonic seas, whether surrounded by EP’s punchy synths and drum machines or this night’s guitar feedback and propulsive grooves.
Overall, the evening provided a wholesome meal of both old and new, with everything prepared and seasoned to match the Fiery Furnaces’ current aural palate. Satiation was achieved, for sure, but the band also managed to leave mouths watering for their upcoming release.