The Ponys
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[07-21-2007]

Here begins the story of a show not meant to be…

In terms of rocking out or melting face, The Ponys have yet to truly misfire. Each of their three records eschew innovation in favor of brilliantly timed chord changes that melt face as much as they provoke bouts of boogie. They did, however, make one rather sizable gaff when they scheduled a headlining date in New York just hours after festivities at the Siren Festival on Coney Island had come to their sun-baked, deep-fried conclusion. And much like stomach fatigue that sets in after a day of funnel cake and Nathan’s dogs, those New Yorkers who weren’t vacationing may have already had their fill of rock ’n’ roll, as well. It happens.

So Bowery Ballroom was empty (on a Saturday, folks) when the Second City’s finest appeared just before midnight, their appearance so late and so inauspicious that it seemed nothing but obligatory. There was a bit of drone, a bit of feedback, and an awkward bit of waiting for bassist and frontman Jered Gummere’s special friend Melissa Elias. She arrived, and the foursome made do with the few heads in front of them, wasting little time in kicking out wholesome jams, the first few coming from the early reaches of their painfully underappreciated discography. Still, those who came for Memphis’s garage minimalist Jay Reatard or even those who came for The Ponys began filing out to the street just minutes into the set. “Half of our record label is on vacation right now,” Gummere muttered into the mike just before sleepwalking into old-ish jam “Little Friends.” It seemed as though The Ponys could also have used one of those.

Gummere in particular looked worn, the skeleton that adorned his T-shirt an odd portrait of the mood not just in the back of the room, but in strands of the middle and front as well. Not that many cuts like Celebration Castle’s “Glass Conversation” or Turn the Lights Out’s “1209 Seminary” didn’t bring warhead heat; they did. Notes were not flubbed, nor was any song free of the marriage between muddy J Mascis cat-hiss and squiggly Television licks that give much of The Ponys’ work such an addictive, albeit familiar, kick. But as the set lumbered on, it took the shape of a long sigh more than the brand of revelatory roar you’d hope for. A cadre of drunk girls in the front danced and screamed and snuck backstage before being chucked back into the thin crowd they came from. A squat man with his sweatshirt ’round his waist did the twist, his eyes closed tightly as he did his thing for the duration of the 40-minute set.

The encore was in line with the rest of the evening: short. They reappeared just as quickly as they would eventually leave, sprinting through a perfunctory version of “Ferocious,” the song’s title in no way indicative of the affair that evening.

If only.

Thee Emergency / The Hands / Faceless Werewolves
Sunset Tavern; Seattle, WA

[07-14-2007]

Sex appeal in the midst of garage rock testosterone -- it was certainly the theme of the evening. In a musical landscape teeming with carnal acts of male chauvinism, ladies ruled the evening with a style usually reserved for royalty and admirers usually lined up to bend their knees to Meg White and Liz Phair.

Austin's Faceless Werewolves had the dubious honor of opening the show cold, but there was certainly a lot of fire in the Texas trio. Perhaps it was the femme fetale backbone, but the blistering guitar prowess of the man simply known as Baldomero was too tough and rugged to ignore. Most eyes were fixated on the drummer, whose golden locks and Betty Boop vocal styling gave even the biggest mullets a case of the jelly knees.

The biggest musical gift of Faceless Werewolves is their ability to switch genres and tempos effortlessly. While most of the set was dominated by tilted garage stomps, noticeable hints of country swing and finely aged surf rock crept into song after song. Texas living certainly influences the state’s best up-and-comers, and it’s certainly safe to say Faceless Werewolves are reaching past the Lone Star State with their musical brand.

Local boys The Hands had the unenviable task of following up aural sex appeal, and sadly they weren’t able to live up to the task. The Austin-based openers won the crowd over so quickly that The Hands either phoned in their set or just couldn’t get their mojo working sandwiched between the ladies of rock. After a few songs, I was ready for some fresh air (as was my company), but little changed in the set from my viewpoint outside. I chalk it up to an off night, as the buzz around the guys has been nothing but positive in Seattle.

Death-by-garage concluded with Thee Emergency. A steady blend of frazzled hair and old-world soul, Thee Emergency come across as the party-band answer to MC5. As tempting as it is to make a lame “Kick Out the Jams,” joke, the curvaceous Dita Vox did just that as she dominated the place with sex appeal and confidence. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t produce women like Dita (though the boys of Thee Emergency — at least in appearance — come a dime a dozen), and though I wasn’t seduced by her performance, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to see men fawning over her like a school crush. But don’t let her sexiness foul you; Thee Emergency knew how to pack ‘em in and keep ‘em talking well after the evening was through.

Photo: [Gregory A Perez]

Bob Dylan
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts; Bethel, NY

[06-30-2007]

"No Smoking."

I stared, dumbfounded, at a sign bearing this proclamation at the site of the original 1969 Woodstock. No smoking? I'm sorry, but is it possible for the entire staff of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts to have suffered massive memory loss and forgotten just where they were? A girl wearing rhinestone sunglasses strolled past me, talking on her cell phone: "Yeah, I'm at a Bob Dylan concert. Yeah, I dunno, I don't really like him." It then struck me that a more appropriate name for this ... place might be "Woodstock, Inc." Fighting the urge to clap my hand to my forehead, I made my way through a sea of lawn chairs, peering toward the stage. One of those little black dots down there had to be Bob Dylan. The wavering, smoky strains of his voice were unmistakable.

A performance from Bob Dylan these days might be disappointing for those who remember him as the prickly, chain-smoking hipster in D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 documentary Don't Look Back. Still, this show was attended by a sizable amount of twentysomethings (myself included), proving that new generations of us young folks still appreciate this man's significance.

The mass of lawn dwellers (in various states of consciousness, I might add) and the ineptitude of the beverage vendors robbed me of the first few songs, but I managed to settle down on the grass to a fixed-up rendition of "The Levee's Gonna Break." Peering through my binoculars, I noted that Dylan (And His Band) wore matching black cowboy hats. The band's slick, bluesy sound was crisp and a little too calculated, but that crackling voice cut right through it. Bob Dylan would sing however he damn pleased, and we were lucky buggers for getting to hear it.

Still, Dylan can be a nice guy when he feels like it. The crowd-pleasers abounded, with "Just Like A Woman" (which I was lucky enough to hear as I approached the lawn), "Tangled Up In Blue," and "Highway 61 Revisited," though some were barely recognizable as a result of elaborate new musical arrangements and his wandering pitch. A full minute of "Blowin' In the Wind" passed before some of the audience members caught on and applauded appreciatively. "Spirit on the Water," a musing tune from 2006's Modern Times, drove the crowd to shout "NO!" as he sang, "You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime." I was not one of the chorus, but I was pretty proud of the man for being there in the first place.

Rounding out the encore with "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan introduced his band in a rare show of crowd interaction. He then went on to make this myopic statement: “It’s nice to be back here. Last time we played here we had to play at 6 in the morning, and it was a-rainin’, and the field was full of mud.” A jab at the original Woodstock, which Dylan declined to play? If he wants this aside to remain a mystery, you can be sure that's just how it'll remain.

Setlist:

Animal Collective / Marnie Stern
The Coronet; London, UK

[07-11-2007]

During live shows, some bands like to perform songs that the fans pooled before them have heard before that night — favorites that engage and inspire, setting in motion infectious sing-alongs and a sort of dancing that sheds any indication of self-awareness. Some bands even like to return to the stage for encores. Apparently, Animal Collective does not fall within the ambit of some bands. This is a different sort of group, a truth made evident from just a single glance through their fascinatingly unpredictable catalog (one that includes a collaboration with a British folk singer whose first LP hit wax in 1970 and this year’s polarizing solo album, Avey Tare's Pullhair Rubeye).

Unfortunately, the queue outside the venue was so tremendously long that it prevented me from catching all but the last bit of Marnie Stern’s opening set. I enjoyed what little I heard, particularly, as it tied into her easy stage presence and her irreverent sense of humor. Following her set, she dispensed of her musician persona and became a fan herself, lurking visibly through the darkness on the side of the stage to witness the future of Animal Collective.

Just after 10 PM, Animal Collective spread across the stage in a row of three. Looking like a spelunker with his electronics awash in the light beaming from his headlamp, Geologist occupied the left of the stage, while an unassuming Panda Bear hunched over his equipment on the right. Avey Tare, peering out from beneath a hat cocked coolly to one side, grabbed the center position, leaving himself room to switch feverishly between some sort of equipment standing at the rear of the stage and a partial drum kit parked between Panda and he. Save the drum kit, all of the night’s music was to be generated electronically.

Three songs into the set — just after “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” which followed devastating renditions of “Doggy” and “Hey Light” that had Avey destroying a cymbal with one hand while steadying a bobbing microphone near his lips with the other — Avey announced that the trio intended to perform some new material. The guy behind me quickly called out “#1” (which is, for the uninitiated, one of nine tracks from the forthcoming full-length Strawberry Jam), assuming aloud that we were about to be showered with pieces of the great new record. They couldn’t possibly ignore the fanboy buzz that’s surrounded “Fireworks” during the past week, nor could they escape rocking “Peacebone,” which is slated as the first single from Jam. Well, in typical AC fashion they resisted these seeming inevitabilities, choosing instead to unleash a barrage of even more recent material, presumably to be released at some point, on some label, and in some format. And so went, at least for a bit, the possibility of massive sing-alongs and fits of cathartic fist pumping.

For the most part, the new songs sounded fantastic set against the backdrop of lush and choppy electronic soundscapes. The band was tight throughout, and the audience seemed to really take to the material, despite struggling with a ponderous unfamiliarity. The tracks were properly and expectedly diverse, and they succeeded at keeping AC relevant and exciting for at least a couple more years. When the band finally ripped into some older tunes near the end of the set, the crowd was quick to release the energy it had conserved while the newer stuff ran its course. “Leaf House” was a particularly lively closer. Suddenly, the guy with the black tank top and the terrific odor was not the only fan showcasing some wonderfully awkward dance steps.

Daniel Johnston / Sister Suvi / Dog Day
Zaphod Beeblebrox; Ottawa, Ontario

[05-04-2007]

The question was not whether the pudgy, graying, tentative man on stage should be singing such lovely sentimental, vulnerable pop songs but whether he would make it to the stage that night at all. At least that was the covert opinion of many young scenesters among the crowd for this sold-out show in Canada’s capital city. The artist was none other than everybody’s favorite tortured soul, Daniel Johnston; hence, the voyeur faction was out in full force. Those expecting zany escapades not featured in the special features section of the The Devil and Daniel Johnston DVD would have to be disappointed, but those anticipating a heartfelt set by a truly unique songwriter would leave the venue on cloud nine.

Johnston ambled onto the stage at this club’s ungodly 10pm headline act set time to a barrage of cheers and claps as a man befitting of his “legendary,” “cult,” “outsider” status. Armed with only a battered acoustic guitar, he played a handful (literally) of his sickly-sweet and sentimental solo songs before being bolstered for the rest of the show by a crack backing band consisting of local musicians to great effect, even though more solo stuff would have been appreciated (especially a stint at the piano).

With trusty lyric notebook in hand (“Please keep the lights on, I can’t read my lyrics.”), the man known for delicately balancing his numerous disorders seemed very in control of the show, choosing wisely from his massive oeuvre of songs. Although he could have drawn more selectively from the over 400 compositions, he fed the sheep (including this wide-eyed hack) a great gruel consisting of songs that people would have called out for regardless. “Casper the
Friendly Ghost,” “Walking the Cow,” “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” “Funeral Home,” “Speeding Motorcycle,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” were delivered using that same lisped voice and messy strumming that we all have grown to expect and love.

Of course, much of Johnston’s appeal is his vulnerability and the amateurish qualities he brings to the stage -- songs are off-centered, off-kilter, and missing parts; his voice cracks, goes off-key at times -- and it makes it all the more endearing. Earnest, revealing and always emotional, Johnston had the crowd eating out of his hands before we or he had even arrived at the club.

Sister Suvi is a side project of Patrick Gregoire, of Islands notoriety. A trio prominently featuring singer Merrill on tenor ukulele (seriously!) and fiddle, they played an impressive set of jumpy, catchy songs that the audience absolutely adored. I am looking forward to an album release soon, partly to confirm that my scribbled “acoustic female-fronted three-piece Pixies” is still an accurate description of the band but mostly because quirky, confident songs like “Monsters,” “Nothing,” and “Run Run Run” were in my head for days after the show.

I missed most of the opening set by Halifax’s co-ed quartet Dog Day, but I overheard someone saying how much it “rocked.” I believe it. On a night when Daniel Johnston not only made it on to the stage but wowed the crowd and which saw an opening band that had the notoriously staid government grunts and restaurant servers of Ottawa swaying and clapping, I’ll believe anything.

Illustration: Ryan Flynn; full version [here]

Califone / Curtis Harvey / The Bitter Tears
Blender Theater at the Gramercy; New York, NY

[06-07-2007]

The stage was overflowing with instruments. At least six acoustic and electric guitars were scattered across the floor, accompanied by drums, a banjo, classical bass, violin, keyboard, trombone, and trumpet. Before even catching a glimpse of the first act, I had the sense that we were in for a night of good, old-fashioned music making. These days, when it’s common for bands to be accompanied by synthesizers, laptops, and even iPods, such an array of instruments bring to mind a sort of timeless musical ideal. The evening that was to follow lived up to these high expectations, with performances evoking those fantasies we all must have, of secret cabals of mind-bogglingly talented musicians jamming for hours on someone’s back porch in the mountains. I’ve heard Califone referred to as “Americana,” and while for me that term will always be inextricably bound up with vitriolic patriotism, it seems an apt description for the folk and frontier influences that the band embodies.

Before I get too philosophical, though, let’s talk about The Bitter Tears. Three members of the all-male, five-piece band showed up onstage in ill-fitting vintage wedding dresses. The drummer opted for cat ears, and the comparatively tame keyboard player sported a hat and pipe straight out of a 19th century hunting lodge. Their horror-film facial expressions and penchant for falsetto (among other unexpected vocal affectations) were difficult to process at first. Was it all just some big, ironic joke? Well, whether it was or not, The Bitter Tears won me over as they blew through genres, from folk to cabaret and blues to silent film scores. The singer assumed various exaggerated characters, often jumping into the audience, still in that wedding dress, singing and grimacing into the faces of spectators. Though I’m still not sure what exactly I saw, I’m pretty sure I’m glad to have seen it.

Curtis Harvey is a veteran of Rex, Pullman, and Loftus, a collaboration between members of Rex and Red Red Meat, the cult favorite from which Califone evolved. This is all to say that he’s an old friend of the Califone family, a talented guitar player whose sound complimented that of the evening’s headliner. Harvey performed the first few songs solo, beginning by recording guitar parts, looping them, and using the loops to accompany himself. At first I wasn’t thrilled with his lyrics, on standard topics like love, regret, and the passage of time, but these reservations fell away as I got lost in the rich country and blues guitar and Harvey’s smoky, seasoned voice. His set only improved as members of Califone and The Bitter Tears began to join him onstage. I even bought into some of his unadorned lyrics, like the simple, witty, “I heard you started smoking… nice.” Harvey even took the time to teach the audience to sing the chorus to one of his final songs, instructing us to sing along as though we were singing to someone who had wronged us. It was a great moment, with each audience member transforming the personal betrayals that everyone has lived through into something universal.

“I guess it’s not cool, like, rock stuff,” said Califone frontman Tim Rutili, setting the mood for the evening with a heartfelt speech about a mentor who had introduced him to the arts when he was in junior high. As it turns out, that old friend, a bearded fellow named Tony, had recently moved to New York, and Rutili brought him onstage to sing a song and help launch his career in the city. The two men hugged, and Rutili looked like he might have been about to tear up. He was right, of course—it wasn’t “cool, rock stuff,” but it was emblematic of the identity that Califone has created for itself. They have no need for skintight jeans or rock star snarls; their music speaks for itself.

I have long been impressed by the way that Califone avoids and transcends the passing trends and fascinations of the independent music world. The band makes sleepy, gorgeous albums perfect for warm, languid summer nights. Their contemporary, improvisational brand of folk incorporates electronic elements without allowing them to overwhelm the traditional instruments that are integral to each song. Last year’s Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey) is probably their best work to date, and I was pleased to see it dominate the set.

They played each song into oblivion, with “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” transforming into long, rambling jam. Because of its hushed quality, I had worried that Califone’s music wouldn’t translate to live performance, but the band adapted well onstage, producing a far bigger and more saturated sound than I had expected. Standout tracks from Roots and Crowns felt even stronger live, with Rutili murmuring the lyrics to Psychic TV cover “The Orchids” as though they were ancient secrets too sacred to say aloud. Califone, like Curtis Harvey, collected more and more members culled from the evening’s other acts as their set progressed. By the time they performed “Pink + Sour,” towards the end of the night, the stage was packed. I didn’t realize that I could love that song, which turns on the simplest but most exquisitely sour four notes, even more than I already did. Well, the live version, complete with strings and brass, was so good that time just stopped. The song could have gone on for five minutes or two hours. I have no idea because I was completely lost in it. Later, walking back to the subway, I could barely speak, but I did start to understand what Rutili means, in that same song, by “lost my language.”

[Photos: Sean Ruch]

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