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.
St. Vincent / Pattern Is Movement
The Mercy Lounge; Nashville, TN
There's a reason most quality bands avoid Nashville. Aside from the infinitely lame white-horse carriage rides and hollow, slicked-up bar bands, there's the simple fact that citizens of "Music City" don't usually attend good shows. That's not to say the burgeoning house show scene isn't a welcome antidote to the general awfulness of most local music, but when the good bands come through Nashtown and only three people make it out, bands don't forget and don't return.
Imagine my surprise when a full house greeted St. Vincent and Pattern Is Movement Thursday night at the Mercy Lounge.
A few friends and I walk in on Pattern Is Movement just as "Right away" — off 2008's super-ambitious and rewarding All Together — kicks in. I'd once played a barren show in Michigan with these lads and was infinitely ready to have my mind blown by their musical acrobatics. Drummer Chris Ward flails and grooves like very few can, and lead singer/keyboardist Andrew Thiboldeaux is a contender for operatic crooner of the decade.
But alas, the glistening sweat on these two beardos was a tell-tale sign — it's the last song of their set and I've been victim to the rare "thirty-minute blunder." Who ever heard of a show starting at listed time? Well, needless to say, I was kicking myself when Ward later tells me they played a Beyoncé cover and two new songs. At any rate, it was an exceptionally good four minutes.
Just as I'm coping with a cold one, my idol walks in. No, not early '90s Christian Contemporary singer Amy Grant, but a close second: David Motherfucking Byrne. In Tennessee for Bonnaroo, Byrne is apparently a good friend of Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), and his zen-like demeanor energizes the room in the best kind of way. By the time St. Vincent hits the stage with a four-man backing band — touting an impressive array of clarinet, flute, tenor saxophone, violin, bass, drums, electric guitar and keyboard — all eyes are on Annie and she's more than easy on the eyes.
From breaking into opener "Marry Me" and finishing with thunderous rock-jazz-freakout encore "Your Lips Are Red," however, the real transcendence is found in St. Vincent's remarkable performance. Between these bookends, Clark and band filled the set with inspired renditions of new songs "The Strangers" and "Marrow" (from last month's brilliant Actor) as well as older favorites "Now Now" and a solo rendition of "Paris Is Burning" — the latter being a ringer for the Aguilera ditty "Genie In A Bottle." Oh yes, I went there.
Due credit to the band's ultra-lush arrangements, which were air-tight in their execution. During set highlight "Marrow," between ping-ponging clarinet and sax arpeggios, I realized: as excellent as St. Vincent records are, they don't do justice to the woman's live capabilities. Even her Hendrix imitations didn't feel superfluous but ultra-melodic and on point. The only drawback was the occasionally excessive light and fog show. I even caught Byrne giggling a bit when the dry-ice reached its meridian, completely shrouding the band. Still, when used succinctly, as in the final, slowmo verses of showstopper "Your Lips Are Red," the visual effects were basically magical — a reminder that we were all witnessing an event worthy of spectacle.
Sublime Frequencies: Omar Souleyman and Group Doueh
Star and Shadow; Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
Newcastle's premier cult cinema/low-key music venue filled up pretty quickly with people whose perceptions of Sublime Frequencies were probably as uneasy as mine. It's definitely problematic to want to imbue the music with a certain esoteric quality, something that lifts it above some “World Music” compilation state of faraway-ness with manufactured "authenticity." Naturally, the music of this excellent UK tour is just more oblique sounds from unknown places (to me at least). Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop (who also Djed and MC'd between bands) certainly has an ear for it.
Syrian Omar Souleyman interestingly took a turn opening the night with his massively electric colors and hyper-rhythms, adopting an aloofly stoic presence in white tunic dark glasses and red kieffa. The five-piece band maintained a deadpan stoked-ness, too, applying additional percussion and wobbly, wailing melodies to the rhythmic bombardment. Sometimes it almost felt like another whole dancebeat grooving underneath the main staccato sitar, coming off in every direction -- real delirious and vibrant.
Group Doueh were scheduled to perform before Souleyman on all other UK dates, so the reversal tonight seemed a contrast to the enthusiasm of many. Not that it really mattered -- the diverse crowd seemed just as excited for slower-paced rock as schizoid dance rhythms. Group Doueh are from the Western Sahara and have a more live feel, a desert rock kind of vibe: ultra melodic and recalling scorched 70s moments of the likes of James Brown with a dash of Holy Mountain-flavored psych. The performance was massively electric, and even if physically most of the group had a similar steadfastness to Souleyman's, they must've been focusing on transcendence, sometimes feeling like some mutant Jimi Hendrix. Their guitars were highly rhythmic and their tones mostly sunny, leaving a warm glow to the concrete venue.
Not sure if the show was what everyone expected in Newcastle (a city usually skipped by good tours), but it invariably met my high hopes.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs / Grand Ole Party
First Ave; Minneapolis, MN
There are rock bands, and then there are Rock Bands. It’s like the difference between an actor and a Movie Star: there are people who do their job, and then there are people who completely entrance while doing it. When Karen O. slinked onstage at First Avenue, with her face lit up by a pink neon mask, the category in which she belonged was clear: capital letters only.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs emerged in the post-rock early 2000s, but they were different from the other bands that came out back then: sure, they had the same garage-band feel as, say, The Vines, but they also had a commitment to creativity that the members of Jet could only dream of. Two albums and three trends later, it’s clear Yeah Yeah Yeahs were meant for greater things.
The band’s newest album It’s Blitz! consists almost entirely of lit fuses. Opening track “Zero” starts with an alarm clock buzz, followed by Karen O.’s purr, then everything explodes. This is also how Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Minneapolis show went, as the band quietly started the thumping “Heads Will Roll” before the song took on a volatile life of its own.
The show was easily one of the best Minneapolis concerts of the year, and while much credit is due to bassist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, it was the magnificent Karen O. who kept the audience in the palm of her hand. She bounced and strutted around the stage like Mick Jagger, but was never out of breath, and she smiled from ear to ear as if she just won a contest. Highlights included “Date With The Night,” “Cheated Hearts,” and “Skeletons,” which reminded the audience that, while Yeah Yeah Yeahs know chaos, they can also craft a hell of a ballad.
Then, of course, there was “Maps,” the inescapable and inevitable hit that propelled Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the top of every imaginable list. Although they would be forgiven for being sick of the song, Karen O. treated it like the masterpiece it is, giving a brief introduction (“this is our love song”) followed by an understatedly gorgeous performance.
While most bands suffer in comparison to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I felt rather bad for opener Grand Ole Party. Not only does the San Diego band specialize in the same pop-punk that Karen O. and co. have perfected, they are a trio – two men backing up a female singer with short dark hair. This isn’t to say Grand Ole Party ripped off Yeah Yeah Yeahs, rather that they were given an unfair deal, especially since they put on a good show.
Singer Kristin Gundred banged away on drums, steadily and propulsively, while guitarist John Paul Labno and bassist Michael Krechnyak provided ample support. The whole operation chugged along mightily, with plenty of hooks and stomping rock beats. At their best, Grand Ole Party resembled The Pretenders, Franz Ferdinand, and the Talking Heads – bands who likewise made whole canvases out of spare arrangements.
A particular highlight was “Redrum Heart,” which featured Gundred at her Chrissie Hynde-iest, and her bandmates at their most focused and concise. The song sounds like a B-side from pop-punk’s heyday, with a modern twist. This formula is especially apparent on their record Humanimals, which was produced by Rilo Kiley’s Blake Sennett. Grand Ole Party sounds better on record than they did at First Ave., where the band looked nervous and small – outsized, surely, by anticipation of Karen O.’s personality (not to mention the giant sphere, part of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ stage setup, hanging above their heads).
Grand Ole Party has been in the opening-band role for a while now, joining headliners Rilo Kiley and Rogue Wave in the past. At First Ave., the trio looked and sounded ready to be the main attraction for once, to be compared only to themselves.
Animal Collective / Grouper
Fox Theatre; Oakland, CA
Oakland’s Fox Theatre is probably the most perfect venue to see Animal Collective. Futuristic Jedi-Buddhas sit on either side of the stage, their eyes glowing like hot embers as they watch all the indie kids spaz out to a couple of boys playing machines on top of what look like three giant pieces of day-glo ice and a projector casting moving images of stencil art onto a giant white ball that dangles above the stage. And there’s a purple and gold ceiling, too, with stars shining like operatic pieces of glitter. It’s what a theater on Jupiter might look like.
The show is sold out, but most fans are waiting to pile in after the opening act, Grouper — a one-woman showcase of bullshit. Imagine Enya making airport symphonies for hipsters. I try to salvage something from the fuzzy reverb and her long, lonely wails, but I can’t stop picturing her masturbating in front of a full-length mirror. Self-indulgence, indeed.
Grouper plays a 30-minute set, and then it’s time for Animal Collective. A good thing, too, because the place is packed. Usually, I opt for seats in a theater setting — my 20s are starting to feel like my 60s — but I knew I’d want to dance, and so I went with the general admission floor. I wasn’t sorry. Oakland knows how to throw down. I haven’t seen so many white people dancing since Bonnaroo. It was joyful.
Like a good lover, Animal Collective take their time opening the show with “Chocolate Girls” (from Spirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanished) — a gorgeously eerie love song that’s also a coming-of-age story, complete with images of death and salvation. The song gallops softly until Avey Tare interrupts with a deafening scream. The Geologist nods his head with mathematical precision, as he charges the song forward behind Avey Tare’s public bloodletting, and Panda Bear exudes an affecting coolness as he harmonizes the song into something sweetly sinister — like a bunny dripped in blood. “Chocolate Girls” blends seamlessly into the opener from Sung Tongs, “Leaf House.” The song is transformed from a three-minute opener into a 15-minute tribal meltdown, the song drenched in melancholy — "This house is sad" — but also pulsating like a heart that feels too much. The dancefloor explodes.
I briefly consider the notion that Animal Collective is a postmodern jam band, but wonder if their studio albums are too good for the group to be considered a “better live” band. Of course, the albums are too good, but in concert, Animal Collective transcend the limitations of recorded material in ways that are very similar to some kind of jam band, maybe one from the future. I’m further convinced of this when they play “Fireworks,” and I’m still dancing 10 minutes later to the same song. Later, “My Girls” brings out the lovely quirkiness of Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s voices — both guys incredibly in sync and on key the entire show — and they seem comfortable playing with one another’s voices, bouncing yelps and grunts off each other like echolocation.
They end the night with “Brothersport,” and we are dancing as fast as we can to catch up with the shape-shifting chaos of a song that is like electronic reggae. Welcome to the pastiche that is Animal Collective.
[Photo: Adriano Fegundes]