Sharon Van Etten / Meg Baird
Joe’ s Pub, New York, NY

[09-04-2009]

Two ladies. Two crystalline, pure voices. One acoustic guitar, one electric. The quiet, candlelit confines of Joe’s Pub rumbling every few minutes as subway trains pass beneath the venue. This was the setting for Meg Baird and Sharon Van Etten’s Friday night engagement. While the subway claimed the low end and the venue offered a dim, lounge-y vibe, Baird and Van Etten dominated the high registers and offered up bright, moving sounds.

Baird, a member of Philadelphia folk rockers Espers when not performing on her own, was the first to perch on the stage’s stool and display her talents. Talking very little between songs, she offered a mix of traditional and original folk songs, deftly plucking her acoustic strings and singing in a smooth, timeless tenor. She steered away from tunes from 2007’s terrific Dear Companion, but treated the crowd to equally satisfying material. Baird’s approach to folk is somewhere between Appalachian traditions and the roaming English folk of Anne Briggs and Sandy Denny. This leaves her hovering somewhere over the Atlantic, and such territory seems appropriate for the expansive, blue-sky aura of her music. Steady and composed throughout her set, she seemed to channel the deep knowledge and well-worn comfort of the musical traditions that she has assumed.

Sharon Van Etten followed and brought a different but equally impressive approach. While Baird had lightly plucked her acoustic strings, Van Etten passionately strummed her electric guitar. Where Baird sang with a reserved, effortless beauty, Van Etten channeled heaps of emotion into her soaring voice. Her songs are simple in theory, but full of spirit and spunk when performed. Stopping a few times to tune and retune, she bantered and joked with the audience, displaying a humble but charismatic stage presence. Van Etten’s set included numerous songs from her recent debut, Because I Was In Love, but closed with the stellar “Damn Right,” which can be found on her self-released demo.

The thoroughly Manhattan vibe of Joe’s Pub was a strange place to witness this pair. Meg Baird’s songs would make more sense sitting on a log in a grassy mountain pasture. Sharon Van Etten’s music feels more at home in a no-frills Brooklyn bar, the type of place where one could often find her over the last few years. But both women are gaining momentum, and they excelled in the well-deserved spotlight of the city.

[Photo: Cat Stevens]

Party At The Pines! Big Sur Festival
Henry Miller Memorial Library; Big Sur, CA

[08-29-2009]

The Henry Miller Memorial Library, about 50 miles south of Monterey in the middle of Big Sur, right on the Pacific Coast Highway, is a rather odd place. Formerly a fan’s house, it is intended to serve as a dedication, a testament to a 20th century writer whose work has slowly been forgotten in recent decades. Surrounded by redwoods and a mountain, the space is marked by an open area that is only slightly larger than a backyard, with a stage built off to one side. According to its website, it has hosted many acts over a variety of genres, including Neil Young and Animal Collective. Yet it feels like the place is more suited for the former than the latter: A grassy area, a wooden stage, a large deck. Any show at this place would resemble a backyard party.

And that was the problem with Party at the Pines, a Kemado Records/Mexican Summer showcase. Despite several quality acts performing at the stage, none of them fit well with the venue or the crowd. Which is not to say any of the acts performed badly, only that they struggled to connect with an audience more attuned to the redwoods than the stage. The majority of the time, the crowd just sat on the grass and listened with lazy intent. Rousing them was a perplex challenge, since it was not entirely certain the music was even reaching them. Songs from the likes of Woods and the much-hyped Kurt Vile became less enjoyable simply because the crowd and venue prevented activity. It did not help matters much that the crowd was incredibly small for the venue: never exceeding 300 people, in an area that could easily fill to about 500. Given that advance tickets were sold out, it makes one wonder if the crowds were intentionally small.

For the most part the bands played as well as they could. Wooden Shjips’ psych-rock was pleasing and solid. VietNam’s bluesy jams catered to the audience’s relaxed attitude, though of course not without feeling disparate at times due to crowd inactivity. Farmer Dave Scher put up a respectable act, and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti actually did quite well, given their back history of poor showings. Gang Gang Dance (pictured) deserve props particularly for rousing at least some of the crowd within 3 minutes of starting, with Lizzi Bougatsos having a pronounced effect on the audience through her front-drumming and chanting. Dungen’s psych-pop was effective in the evening, and gave a nice allure to the whole setting. Saviours stuck out as the closer, their metal almost needing to have come sooner rather than later.

If all these bands played in a more confined setting, their performances would probably have been at least decent, if not fantastic. Many of them would do just that the next day in San Francisco, though in separate venues. Chalk up this experience as not a band issue, but a venue issue.

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes
Ravinia Festival; Highland Park, IL

[08-26-2009]

Chicago’s Ravinia is the perfect concert venue for people who don’t like to go to concerts. With its capacious outdoor lawn seating and BYOB policy, it leaves plenty of room for you to sprawl out on the grass and crack a few beers with some friends. Unfortunately, if you actually enjoy seeing something while you’re at a show… well, you may just have to learn to live with disappointment. Ravinia is the only place I’ve ever attended where the stage under the pavilion is actually below ground level. Even the LCD screens are too low to see over the crowd.

Fortunately, the band still sounded excellent. British singer/songwriter Elvis Costello buckled down for an evening of rambling Americana. Although backed by his latest studio ensemble, The Sugarcanes, Costello’s two-hours-and-change performance was surprisingly light on material from 2009’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. The bulk of his set consisted of re-workings of classic Costello songs, as well as a bevy of covers, such as Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” a Rockabilly'd-out rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Don’t You Lie to Me” and The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” re-imagined as a soothing country Waltz.

For the most part, Costello’s concert standards played well in the hands of his new outfit. My favorite moment of the evening came early on with “The Delivery Man.” The song sounded sharper and more ominous than the recorded version, and Costello’s voice approached a snarl as he spat out the final refrain and the whole thing combusted into a searing jam. Aside from that magnesium-flash of intensity, however, the rest of the concert unfolded much as one would expect: a seasoned performer, backed by a cadre of consummate professionals, giving an expert rendering (or in most cases, re-rendering) of several well-written songs. Staunch Costello-ites in the audience were doubtless thrilled to watch such a skilled craftsman re-interpreting some of his best material. For a more casual fan such as myself, it made for an enjoyable, if not especially memorable, performance, one suited to the casual atmosphere of the venue.

Setlist:

1. Mystery Train
2. All Time Doll
3. The Bottle Let Me Down
4. Down Among the Wine and Spirits
5. Blame It on Cain
6. Femme Fatale
7. Delivery Man
8. The Butcher’s Boy
9. Indoor Fireworks
10. Hidden Shame
11. Condemned Man
12. Friend of the Devil
13. Poisoned Rose
14. Mystery Dance
15. Don’t You Lie to Me
16. Every Day I Write the Book
17. Complicated Shadows
18. She
19. Brilliant Mistake
20. Sulphur to Sugarcane
21. Alison
22. ???
23. Happy
24. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
25. The Race Is On

Photo: [Ex-Magician]

Underwater Peoples Late Summer Showcase (Real Estate, Ducktails, Julian Lynch, etc.)
Market Hotel; Brooklyn, NY

[08-22-2009]

Underwater Peoples is a summertime label. Its circle of bands have soaked up the East Coast’s rampant humidity and used that liquid to fill up their own aquarium of saturated pop sounds. From the label’s name to the pool scene album cover of its Summer Showcase compilation, the aquatic theme pervades. And, at this 13-band show at Brooklyn’s Market Hotel, loads of sweat, reverb and enthusiastic youngsters turned an average August Saturday into Underwater Peoples’ own vibrant sea of musical celebration.

Thirteen bands (14 if you count Julian Lynch performing live via the internet from Wisconsin) is a daunting lineup. The event was definitely in danger of melting into one massive sonic mess, but the bands fought through the stifling heat and self-imposed layers of reverb to deliver many moments of pop goodness.

Ex-Titus Andronicus guitarist Andrew Cedermark (pictured below) and his buds ran through a set that mixed thoughtful, unhurried twang with noisy climaxes and spaced-out strums. Beach Fossils pulled together rickety, effects-ridden sonic layers to form a paradoxically satisfying pop blend. Ducktails, the solo project of Real Estate’s Matthew Mondanile, displayed dexterity by steering from initial swirling ambient soundscapes to a more straight-up guitar-and-vocals approach. Fluffy Lumbers harnessed a full-band lineup to turn its catchy bedroom tunes into full-force blasts of rockin’ pop. Air Waves helped keep the night from being a completely male-dominated affair, with frontwoman Nicole Schneit delivering numbers that sparkled with both lyrical and sonic simplicity. The other acts didn’t stand out quite as much, but no one dropped the torch, and even the mediocre moments helped augment the evening’s good vibes.

Real Estate finished out the night, offering up its own amalgamation of Underwater Peoples’ common themes. The band has a simple but effective approach, creating music that intertwines with itself to become more than the sum of its parts. They, too, are in line with Underwater Peoples’ aquatic tendencies, but in way that’s based less on liquefied reverb and more on melodies that ebb and flow like Jersey Shore tides. Following their set, after a little prodding from the crowd, the band members picked their instruments back up and jammed through a sloppy but jovial encore of Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song.” It was an apt finale for a night that rode a constant crest of positive, effortless fun. The crowd shouted along and things seemed just as they should be in the world of Underwater Peoples: a deep summer night with a plenty of tunes, drinks and friends.

Jay Reatard
Amoeba Records; San Francisco, CA

[08-22-2009]

As an English major, I had my fair share of run-ins with words that had seen their meaning warped or distorted (if you're a positive person, you'd call it evolution). Apparently the great music “tour” has gone that way. The oddity of a three-location tour separated by roughly five hours of driving time aside, I headed over to Amoeba SF for Jay Reatard's in-store. If you live outside California, chances are you haven't experienced the intimidatingly large space that is Amoeba. I say “chances are” because among TMT's readership these stores can be something of a tourist attraction. In any event, where most stores are packed so tight it feels like shopping in a taco truck, Amoeba luxuriates in its expansiveness and boasts a respectably sized, raised stage.

The main virtue of seeing Jay Reatard used to be that the sound quality would be superior, but with the cleaner production on Watch Me Fall that's no longer the case. This show in particular ended up being noticeably worse, as Reatard blew something out a few songs in. The other selling point I used on the uninitiated was that almost anything (e.g. technical difficulties) could piss Reatard off and lead him to “act a fool.” Success seems to agree with him though, and they just turned everything up to ear-bleeding levels to compensate.

So should you go see this new, mellower Jay Reatard? Of course you should. He still tears through sets as though he got a bonus for turning us out early, and watching him run around trying to switch guitars and plug in as fast as possible would be almost comical if I didn't know he was trying to cut us off before we could start clapping. Stephen Pope is still the relatable face of the band, mouthing the words and making some hilarious expressions throughout. You're never going to get a “cozy” Jay Reatard show, but this was probably the absolute closest he'll come to a Kurt Cobain-setting-up-candles-around-you moment. He took me and at least one extremely flustered kid by surprise when he handed him his guitar during the finale and encouraged him to add some noise to the freakout. If he keeps this up, “Jay Reatard live” might evolve to mean something other than “punches kids.”

[Photo: Caitlin @ Amoeba SF]

Vetiver / Beach House
08-16-2009;

[08-16-2009]

Beach House's pop has always sweltered, so even if the long, narrow, and low-ceilinged Magnet Club seemingly retained and tripled the heat of one of Berlin's warmer late-summer days, it was probably for the best: as the Baltimore duo launched into “Master Of None” midway through their set, it was like they channeled the added temperature into that scruffy sensuality of theirs, all narcotic and drowsy.

Those condensed and old-worldly organ drones built further layers onto the vibrato melodies and, in this live setting (with the help of an additional touring musician), crammed those dusty velvet textures full of warmth. But it wasn't until they moved onto the new material (kind of humbly, actually; Alex Scally almost apologized for being more excited for new rather than old material) when it got really powerful; the first from their upcoming record swirled with ridiculously hard-hitting analogue bliss, organs coming out strong and starry-eyed, their gritty euphoria as lucid as ever. Here's where their style was at its most realized: a transcendent modern humanness drenched in a baroque ornateness, total beauty without contrivance.

Vetiver's cover of Fleetwood Mac's “Save Me A Place” was laced with all the hazy sentimentality of the original, but their set felt more structured and conventional. The crowd seemed to have thinned out slightly, too. It was my own preference for their earlier and lo-fi-er ballads, the abstracted college mysticality of “Arboretum” or “Belle”'s just plain prettiness that made their more solid or straight-up folk come off less rich. The newer Sub Pop stuff has a similarly band-y feel to their four-piece live show (i.e. more drums than hazy vibes), rolling out songs tightly and effortlessly. But even if their relaxed balladry felt endearingly lulling under all that heat, it was a little lighter on the naturalismo than I would have hoped.