No Fun Fest 2007: Day 1
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY
It was No Fun Fest weekend, and my friends and I made damn sure we booked out of work an hour early. With ride and shelter situations straightened out, we hit the highway, but I’ll be goddamned if New York City traffic planned our night differently. Missed Orphan Fairytale’s opening ceremonies, which all of us were looking forward to, but at least we made it to the festival, which was chock-full of friends and acquaintances.
Rounding the un-genrified, dockside neighborhood, a faint buzzing wandered within earshot as we jogged to The Hook’s front door. After a frisking and ticket securing, we opened the black curtain to an all-too-familiar scene: darkness punctuated by a red-lit bar and a green-lit stage with roughly 200 music-hungry fans and a handful of stragglers on the dancefloor. Evil Moisture welcomed us to the four-day weekend by slaying the audience with madcap, rage-filled hums and squeals.
After some loud yelps, I wandered outside, escaping the scent of stale beer and body odor to catch up with friends from around the states. Two smokes and a few beers later, Lambsbread’s opening chords summoned the audience back. When we arrived indoors, Rat Bastard announced the band was just plugging in. A few minutes later, those evil mothers cranked out one helluva mind-bender. Kathy sketched a dissonant fuzz landscape, while Zac blurted out some Hendrix-of-noise noodlings and Shane spackled a percussive foundation. A brief foray into Sabbath-style doom gave the head a rest from fast banging -- then BLAM... right back into lightspeed, free-hardcore riffage, ending at just the right point in the meltdown. A goddamn smoker fer sure.
Hive Mind and Damion Romero's set sounded like New Order tunes melted into one super-long drone, but it also was super boring to watch. Time to hit up the merch stands. Unlike the previous three years, organizers dedicated the basement solely to merch, not the manic intensity of small bands. Hospital Productions, AA Records, Los Angeles Free Music Society, Fag Tapes, Hanson, Bennifer, et al -- Thurston Moore running around with an underarm full of vinyl and tapes. Limited-edition cassettes and lathes galore, but since funds were limited, the place seemed more like an art museum piece on underground record packaging or a study in rampant consumerism.
Upstairs, Kim Gordon and Yoshimi began setting up. Grabbing a three $3 Pabst, I weaseled my way into a good spot. I had pumped the first Royal Trux album for the whole week prior and hoped something at the festival could approximate the feeling of that album. Thankfully, Kim and Yoshimi pulled it off with an energetic set. Kim’s noticeably improved guitar technique sounded like Neil Hagerty’s primitive playing on Royal Trux' [#1], but with a penchant for dissonance and an amateurish earnestness on par with early Half Japanese. Yoshimi’s ritualistic banging kept things in motion, while Kim’s breathy poetics drove away some power electronics fans.
Preparation for Hair Police: smoke, piss, drink, patiently wait for the crew to do a soundcheck. Now it is time to watch skulls melt. On this night the band blurred the barrier between the spastic punk squalls of the past with drawn-out, black metal soundscapes, creating a crowd-pleasing glimpse into the band's future trajectory. Crazed no-wave synth blurts and echoing train-track bass smacks plotted a dark underworld accentuated by Mike Connolly’s horrific, high-pitched screams. Two encores and a few minutes worth of psychotic clapping later the best set of the night ends, and I kick scattered Pabst cans out of the way to see if my friends are still alive.
The night ended with a set by the legendary harsh-noise artist Pain Jerk. While the Japanese extremist wailed on some sort of metal-cased keyboard of death, John from Slogun stood on the side of the stage, flipping people off and spitting on the people in the front of the crowd. He made crying gestures and continued to provoke the crowd as Kohei Gomi shredded eardrums, constructing a wall-thick, scraping metal sound. Slogun punched a few people and a mini-melee started, with Gomi intervening. I didn’t understand the violent stage show surrounding Gomi’s performance, but the barrage of sound distracted one from dwelling too long on ersatz.
For the first time in a few months, I walked home with a severe ringing in my ears and a smile on my face. I couldn't wait to see what No Fun Fest curator Carlos Giffoni had planned for the second night.
The Dismemberment Plan
Black Cat; Washington, DC
It seems like every band that has ever broken up and still has at least two living members is reuniting. From Iggy and the Stooges to The Police, the past few years have been rife with half-assed reunions. Most have been uninspiring, some have yielded God-awful new albums, and almost all seem to be supported, if not instigated, by major corporate interests. The tickets are expensive, the bands are phoning it in, and we, as fans, eat it up with a spoon, ignoring our misgivings and clinging to the hope that our loyalty will pay off.
But The Dismemberment Plan are not like any other band, and their “reunion,” if that’s what we must call it, went down much differently, too. D-Plan reunited for no more than two consecutive nights at hometown club the Black Cat. Both shows were benefits for Callum Robbins, the son of producer and erstwhile Jawbox frontman J. Robbins. Callum was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitating neurological condition that kills more babies than any other disease.* Tickets cost only $15, and neither the band nor the label made any money on the show. With no new material introduced onstage, one can be sure there is not an upcoming album waiting in the wings for promotion, either.
Without the taint of any hidden agenda, D-Plan were free to rock, and I was free to guiltlessly enjoy it. As a longtime fan who lived in Baltimore from 2001 until well after the band broke up in 2003, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen them live. Basically any time they played in Baltimore or DC, that is, at least every other month, I went. If I had to change plans, that’s what I did. They were simply that good live. This show was no different and was perhaps even better because this time I didn’t take for granted that I’d ever be able to see them again.
After a grateful introduction from J. Robbins, met with both respectful silence and heartfelt applause, The Dismemberment Plan opened with “Do the Standing Still.” I’m pretty sure they were reminding us that, even though a few years had gone by, dancing was still de rigeur. Much like the farewell shows four years ago, the set was packed with hits and crowd-pleasers. D-Plan have always known how to give the people what they want. They performed for two hours; they took requests; they played on, good-naturedly, while fans packed the stage (as has long been the tradition) and crushed them in during “The Ice of Boston.”
"Seeing" The Dismemberment Plan is not really a passive experience at all — it’s completely interactive. Almost every song has a call-and-response element, whether it be singing along to the torch-y “What Do You Want Me to Say” and anxious “Time Bomb” or shouting “Dismemberment Plan gets rich!” at the end of the noisy, high-speed farce that goes by the same name. During “Back and Forth,” Travis Morrison exhorts the crowd, deadpan, to “Throw your hands in the air / And wave them like you just don’t care” — and that’s just what everyone does. All of this happened on Saturday, and neither the band nor the audience skipped a beat, as though no time had passed. This is the kind of show we’re all betting on when a band that we love dearly reunites and we go to see them. As far as I can tell, this is the only reunion show that I’ve ever left totally satisfied, without a hint of ambivalence.
According to Morrison, the band have always known they would reunite from time to time for benefit shows in their hometown. Hopefully this means we’ll be able to see D-Plan again in a few years and help them give back to the community that was so instrumental to their success. Meanwhile, I’m not hoping for a permanent reunion, new songs, or even an East Coast tour. The Dismemberment Plan gave us 10 years of intelligent, experimental songwriting and (have I belabored this point enough yet?) some of the most exciting live shows of all time. They quit while they were ahead, and though it’s impossible not to miss them, we can be proud that they’re keeping both their legacy and their commitment to the DC community intact. And when they ask us, as they always have and always will, “How’s Washington?” we can actually believe that they care about the response.
*It’s no secret that working in independent music is not especially lucrative, and care for children with SMA is prohibitively expensive. To donate to Callum Robbins or Fight SMA, an organization that is searching for a cure for spinal muscular atrophy, please visit J. and wife Janet’s blog.
No Fun Fest 2007: Day 2
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY
As the cold night’s air wafted its way through Brooklyn, a thick molten steam rose in The Hook. Around 500 music fans caught Incapicatants’ screaming jovial mess and reciprocated the lunacy by leaping about, shaking each other in celebration, banging heads and pumping fists. No Fun Fest day two’s lineup simmered with a screaming, cerebral harsh noise set and their infectious affability spread to the crowd. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Highlighted by mind-bending collaborative performances from Mouthus and Axolotl and Raionbashi and Kutzkelina, Friday’s artists spanned the globe and the experimental music spectrum. As variety is the spice of sound anarchy, virtually no one performer overlapped aesthetically with another. The schedule saw a power electronics performer opening for drone rockers and an analog sound designer following bizarre European sound terrorists.
If there’s one thing I learned in life, it’s you can’t depend on friends. We waited for our ride for around two hours before he called and bailed out. His loss and ours too, as the wait made us miss Charlie Draheim’s set. My friend also missed an amazing night of music and a marked improvement over the festival’s first night. We arrived in time for Princess Dragonmon’s laserbeam punctuations and push-button Atari feedback attack. Not a good start to the night, but the set allotted us time to stock up on beers and puff a few smokes before Grunt.
Grunt took the stage with some kind of metal box, which he shook and hit to create sharp metal sounds. He yelled into the box and delayed his voice while constructing an eerie backdrop with knobs and pedals. Although faulty amplifiers kept shorting out, it added an extra thematic quality to the set. Eventually, something amp-wise burned and forced him to start over. Fantastic for the crowd, as Grunt proved innovative in the tough realm of harsh noise. I think the metal box contained magic.
The most ethereal set of the night belonged to the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration. The trio created two long-form drones that kept the crowd’s attention with thick layers of morphing sludge. The first drone saw Mouthus guitarist Brian Sullivan playing with pedals, while Axolotl’s Karl Bauer caressed violin strings, processing them through a series of electronics. Mouthus' Nate Nelson accentuated the jam with free-jazz drumming. Though the trio’s sound-making method was in touch with Bauer’s musical approach, the jam sounded more like a loud, hard-nosed Mouthus skronk than Axolotl’s psychedelic, space-alien drone. After the first piece, the band couldn't ignore the loud cheers and kicked out another -- Sullivan picked up a guitar and laid down a warped vortex of fuzz while Bauer fiddled with his table of tricks. As the view of Bauer’s gear was obstructed from most of the crowd, the noises he generated seemed otherworldly. The tune sounded like an Axolotl composition generated using Mouthus’ set-up. Sullivan and Nelson ended the set with a frenzied guitar/drums duel, accentuated by a cacophonous avalanche of sound snowballed by Bauer.
As good as the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration was, Raionbashi and Kutzkelina nearly schooled them on their home court. The duo inter-cut harsh scraping with atmospheric creepiness and yodeling, constructing a disorienting, masterful set. Raionbashi sported the coolest haircut ever: a normal cut with the front portion of his scalp shaved bald. He lingered in the background with Kutzkelina in the forefront. As Raionbashi spackled layers of industrial hiss, Kutzkelina began taking off clothing. With memories of Macronympha dancing in their heads from last year's fest, males stood on their tippy-toes to catch a glimpse of what they thought would be Kutzkelina’s nude body. Instead, she unearthed a milkmaid dress. The noise stopped and a silence fell over the crowd. “YEEE-DE-HAA-DEEEE-OOOO-HAAA-DEEEE-OOO-HEEE-HEE,” she sang in an old-world yodel. In a few minutes, she became the set's centerpiece, and Raionbashi's freaky fade-in sounds further bewildered the audience. The set ended with the blow of an air horn and a few seconds of silence before the crowd erupted in applause. In an era where droves of dissonant sounds are no longer all that strange, it was nice to discover bizarre factions remain in the noise universe.
Giffoni performed next with analog gear and didn’t disappoint. Though he meditated on a group of boring video game sounds for awhile, his performance contained transcendent passages lacking in his previous festival sets. Sissy Spacek blasted through a set of spazz core on par with Man Is The Bastard. The band destroyed punk-rock concepts for about three minutes before their guitarist smashed his axe to shreds and the singer dove into the crowd, effectively ending their set. The best was yet to come, however, as the legendary Incapacitants stormed the stage around 1 am.
Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosaka smiled devilishly while creating a large spiked ball of fluctuating feedback and horrific noise-treated yelps. Both bounced around the stage, occasionally pausing to immerse in the frenzy they created, rolling their eyes in the back of their heads, shaking. Of all the bands playing the festival, Incapacitants received the best response. The mosh-pit kids swayed with glee, and the rest of the crowd gyrated to the wild non-rhythms. Some dude even pounded his face bloody to match the band’s intensity. He couldn’t.
After the show, I couldn’t hear friends talk. We limped to the subway to patch ourselves up. Our ear fibers better strengthen by Saturday, because Merzbow and Keiji Haino surely won’t be playing acoustic sets. Can’t fuckin’ wait.
Modest Mouse / Love as Laughter / Grand Archives
The Orpheum Theatre; Minneapolis, MN
After having my Friday night flight from Chicago to Minneapolis delayed due to a mechanical problem and after watching the pilots and mechanics scratch their heads in the cockpit for an hour, I luckily was rushed to a new plane and was able to make it straight from the airport to the Orpheum just in time to miss Love as Laughter's set. I was bummed I didn’t get a taste of Grand Archives (ex-Carissa’s Wierd), but I was just glad to have made it at all. I should have known when my friend bought the tickets and I said “I’m sure my flight won’t be delayed” that I was asking for trouble.
After having seen Modest Mouse twice in the most horrible venues in the country for sound (Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom and Milwaukee’s Eagle's Ballroom -- stay away from those ballrooms people), I was thrilled to finally get a chance to hear them in a theater designed to house music. True, their popularity has surged immensely since those two shows (I about died when I heard a Muzak version -- placid male singer, drastically reduced tempo and all -- of “Float On” in my local CVS Pharmacy the other day), but I’ve really been digging the new album and figured I was prepared to hear mostly post-Good News material. My anticipation only grew when I saw our seats; I don't know how it happened, but apparently two aisle seats in row 'P' (read: not too shabby) were still available the day before the show, something that would never happen in back in Chicago.
Modest Mouse took a stage randomly decorated with fake streetlamps. They were sporting two drummers and Johnny Marr, who added some fun backing vocals and let Isaac take a crack at him midway through the show but was otherwise relatively unnoticeable. The band kicked off with "Paper Thin Walls," one of the more thrilling songs of the night and one of the few pre-Good News tracks we were treated to. Even though I was prepared to hear mostly new stuff, I guess I still hoped for some surprise classics; only "Dramamine" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" qualified for that tag, with additional representation from typical live favorite "Doin' the Cockroach." Probably not coincidentally, these were the songs that turned into some crazy 10-minutes-long jams (I didn’t remember Isaac Brock usually going on for five minutes about "quotas" during "Tiny Cities"), while the new stuff was played pretty much straight off the records. Not unexpectedly, the Modest Mouse crowd has changed from what was once a mix of hipsters and hippies to a mix of hipsters, hippies, fratboys and scantily clad young girls. Gross.
Overall, everything sounded good and Isaac was doing some good, crazy rockin' on stage, but I think the size of the venue, though smaller than what they usually play these days, was still too big for me to feel much connection with the band. For once, I couldn't blame the sound for that. "Bukowski" had some fire and "Missed the Boat" was certainly nice, but relatively close as I was, I still felt too far away from the band. Being constrained to a seat probably didn’t help much, either, as it took away from the “rock show” vibe; it's hard to get the audience engaged from afar. As a result, the excitement I've been getting from listening to the new album seemed to be frustratingly missing for me when I heard the same songs live.
I hate to think I'm becoming too snobby about venue size, but I’m sad to say I've been pretty spoiled with life at the Empty Bottles and Triple Rock Social Clubs of the world. I think I just need to accept that the live Modest Mouse experience I wanted happened about five years ago and isn't coming back; I’ll just continue to worship their recorded material in the meantime.
Photo: Aaron Farrington
Of Montreal / Loney, Dear
Irving Plaza; New York, NY
This show went from suck to rock faster than your flashy sports car does zero to 60. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh — it took a bit longer than that, specifically, the duration between the end of Loney, Dear’s set and the beginning of Of Montreal’s.
Loney, Dear had already been riding the wave of Swedeophilic hype for a few months (though their U.S. release hadn’t even hit stores yet), so I was interested in checking them out. I’d heard a song or two here and there, and nothing really stuck out as fabulous to me. Perhaps the magic is in the live show, I thought. Well, so much for optimism. Their performance began with at least two minutes of humming from vocalist and songwriter Emil Svanängen, who later attempted all sorts of vocal gymnastics beyond his range. The songs themselves were, somehow, simultaneously anthemic and bland. “I Am John” seemed to be the favorite of the crowd (who were, for the most part, really into the set), and it impressed me a bit more than everything else but still seemed simply competent. Mostly, Loney, Dear are representative of indie rock’s laziest and most derivative tendencies, a copy of a copy of a copy.
More exciting than Loney, Dear’s performance was watching Of Montreal’s road crew set up. Though they worked behind a screen, I could see a golden owl statue and cardboard flames peeking out the sides and just knew that something fucking weird and fantastic was in store. And then someone — perhaps from onstage, but I can’t say for sure — started blowing up condoms and passing them around the crowd like beach balls at a frat party. All of this was good preparation for the dramatic, sexually-liberated, and altogether bizarre shit that was about to go down.
Before the band made its first appearance, we caught a glimpse of the vague but spirited morality play that would persist throughout the set as a figure in a Darth Vader costume (not kidding, guys!) slunk about the stage. Later, we would be treated to the appearance of a mustachioed gentleman clothed from head to toe in a skintight, white, spandex suit. To my eyes, it seemed like these two were meant to be playfully emblematic of the struggle between good and evil, here represented as sexual freedom vs…. well, I’ve never sat through an entire Star Wars film, but I have to guess that Darth Vader doesn’t have that much sex. No matter — no deeper meaning could overpower the sheer spectacle of this polysexual pageant. I mean, it’s hard to conjure up your analytical skills when you’re watching a guy in spandex do nasty things with Kevin Barnes and a banana.
And Of Montreal? It almost goes without saying that they're in top form. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is a big fucking album that demands a big fucking stage show, and Barnes, et al were hell-bent on making it happen. New songs like “Suffer for Fashion” and “Heimsdalegate Like a Promethian Curse” rocked the house like only upbeat tunes about mental anguish can. Favorites like “Disconnect the Dots” from Satanic Panic in the Attic and “The Party’s Crashing Us” from The Sunlandic Twins were revitalized in an all-new, all-glam context. The one dark moment during the show, the band’s performance of “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” was a standout for its exorcism-like intensity — which was surprising, as I almost always skip the twelve-minute track when listening to the album.
I had hoped that Barnes would strip down so as not to leave TMT out of the hot, nakey pix party, but this was a 16+ show, and it was not to be. Instead, we were treated to three costume changes, the most ambitious of which involved our hero, on something like stilts, in a twelve-foot-high silver dress. What this all adds up to, among other, more prurient things, is that Kevin Barnes is a performer in the true sense of the word, drawing from and worthy of comparisons to both Prince and David Bowie. Thirty years ago, the guy wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without fans of all gender throwing their undergarments at him. And just as we might hate the idea of our favorite bands becoming popular beyond their wildest dreams… perhaps then we’d at least have the pleasure of seeing Justin Timberlake (I mean it, dude), instead of Loney, Dear, open for Of Montreal.
Photos: Sean Ruch
Menomena / Field Music / Land of Talk
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL
It’s always reassuring to approach the entrance of a club and see sign stating “Sold Out” posted on the door. More precisely, it’s reassuring if you’ve already procured your tix. While such a sign indicates that you will likely be packed in so closely to your fellow showgoers that you’ll all become far too familiar (or still not familiar enough?) with each other’s concealed anatomies before the night is over, it is more importantly a guarantee that you are in a hot spot of cultural activity for the evening. And when they have $2 Old Styles to boot, how could a poor little indie rocker ask for more?
Such was the case on March 20 when I approached the Empty Bottle for a heady triple bill. First up were Land Of Talk. To be completely honest, I knew little of the band and hadn’t done my homework, but it made no difference. When I entered the stage area midway through their set, the crowd was already quite thick, and a lot of affirmative head
nodding was going on. From the sound of it, I assumed there were four or five band members, but upon inspection, I counted just three. I was wholly impressed with the level of ruckus they were managing to kick up.
Similarly striking was the way singer/guitarist Elizabeth Powell was wailing away with both her instruments. Her guitar work was tenuously controlled chaos, deftly veering between riff-rocking and more intricate lead lines, and her voice was strong but still slightly fragile, eerily similar to Chan Marshall’s but with a hell of a lot more gumption behind it. The set closing “All My Friends” had me awestruck with its overall intensity and stealthy melodicism. A great set closer that left the audience (as represented by me at least) wanting more, the tune is still lodged firmly in my head as of this article.
With enough time to gulp down a few of the aforementioned Old Styles and buoyed by the pleasant surprise of Land Of Talk, when Field Music hit the stage I was primed for optimal enjoyment. After a tepid false start due to some problems with the monitor mix, a rapid succession of the first four tracks from the recently released Tones of Town showed that these fellas absolutely have the chops to pull off their quirky, tense pop in a live setting. Having seen them a year ago during SXSW, I wasn’t surprised, but getting to hear many of the new tracks was a real treat. Making the most of being confined to a 45-minute set, they stuck largely to upbeat numbers, maintaining an admirable consistency in energy throughout. Their nearly seamless set was made all the more stunning by the constant switching of Peter and David Brewis between guitar or bass and drums. Although David implored three-quarters through the performance that for the “real Field Music experience” one would need to purchase the album for sale at the merch table, with all three members singing and playing together as harmoniously as on record, I have to say that I’m not fully in agreement.
Following Field Music, the excitement level was piqued for Menomena, who have been generating significant buzz over Friend and Foe. Again, to be completely honest, I was only recently introduced to their slightly skewed pop experimentations, and the recordings hadn’t grabbed me too much. Well, from the moment that the band really kicked in on the opener, “The Pelican,” I felt any resistance melting away. The nasally/unsteady vocals that had befuddled me a bit on the album became endearing (almost courageous?) in the live context amid all the multi-instrumentalism going on. For a third time in the evening, here was a three-piece band proving that the mythology of the rock power trio is still alive and kicking. The heavy presence of baritone and alto sax in the set was somewhat unexpected (I guess I hadn’t listened closely enough to the album) but completely wonderful for giving the music an almost funky quality. The response of the crowd was enthusiastic and the subtle danceability that Menomena created had more than a few indie stiffs, including myself, unable to hold back from shuffling and bobbing.
At the conclusion of the evening, I felt I was lucky indeed to have witnessed a display of such epic talents in such a microscale setting. Walking out into the cold night air, I couldn’t help but think that, given my experience and the reactions of the audience, that it might not be long before I’ll be having to pay separately to see each of these acts in larger, less intimate and affordable venues. That is if I’m smart enough to have the foresight to buy my ticket in advance.