The Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA
“Oh shit” were the cries heard throughout the metal world when the 2010 Sleep reunion tour plans were announced after the band’s appearance at the 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties. The band was together for a short amount of time in the 1990s, but conflict with London Records over Dopesmoker, their long-form album comprised of one hour-plus track of trippy doom sludge, caused the band to break up (and eventually birthed Jerusalem). Holy Mountain, their first official release, became part of the canon of stoner metal and Sleep’s position as one of the primary progenitors of the genre has been confirmed and cemented.
Elvis deMorrow and I, who will be swapping the dialogue below, were privileged enough to attend the first Sleep show of a two night run at San Francisco’s fancy-pants Regency Ballroom during the recent reunion tour. Their epic set would feature Holy Mountain in its entirety, plus most of Dopesmoker. A thick haze of marijuana smoke enveloped our heads as we entered the beaux-arts room with 35-foot ceilings and 22 turn-of-the-century teardrop chandeliers.
E: The triumphant, glorious Iommi photographic backdrop prior to the Sleep set was inspiring, but there was a deep incongruity in the seemingly random, 90-second snippets of fucking awesome Sabbath tracks that ran through the house PA for the entire setup process.
C: Yeah, the whole on/off Sabbath intro session was annoying, but it all served as an effective reminder that, although they might be the most essential purveyors of stoner metal ever, Sleep are also in many respects a tribute to Sabbath and Iommi in particular.
E: There was no logic to the track sequencing, and deeply familiar riffs would drop without proper preamble, and end almost before they were established. I am strongly inclined to blame the venue for this inauspicious introduction, but I was compelled to protest in extreme yogic ‘prone’ regardless.
C: You fell right on your butt, twice! Apparently the tiny amount of weed smoke we directly inhaled was significantly amplified by the enormous quantity we inhaled second-hand. It hit you like a ton of bricks, eh?
E: Fortunately I was rapidly revived by the astronaut as he tuned the gain knobs on the five amps laid before Iommi’s gaze — projected by fools, but suffering none.
C: Yeah, the astronaut would prove to be a key figure in the whole affair.
E: In retrospect, perhaps the entire soundman botch job on the preliminary Sabbath riffs was some sort of extreme binary exercise to prepare the audience for what was to follow.
C: Come again?
E: Anyone who suspects Sleep ride an inappropriately lengthy & monochromatic canon across their recorded catalog is strongly recommended to attend a live performance. It is quite remarkable to be pummeled with the same essential aesthetic for close to two hours and not find much at all lacking in nuance, texture, timbre, or propulsion along the way. It is not out of line to compare these San Jose gents to Shankar, rather than to their droning brethren & the bands they sired.
C: I guess you’re hitting on something important there, but I will say that a raga and stoner metal sludge begat remarkably different mental states. Being spaced out at a Sleep show is not that close to meditation. I think it’s more akin to being aurally hypnotized into repetitive head-nodding and bull-horn brandishing.
E: The initial guitar chord from Pike’s dual-stringed ax was of the most earth-shattering variety I could imagine hearing. Either they dialed in the absolute most efficient equation of wattage to room size, or they certainly stumbled upon it that night.
C: Sounded bout as good as The Melvins — same room, equal auditory squashing.
E: Good fucking lord. Sudden & rational questions arise regarding why a guitar band would need to be that horrifically loud to accomplish their objectives, but that is like asking why Jarred Allen sports the number “69” on his Vikings jersey; the answer is immediate, inarguable, and extremely disconcerting. In this case, there was no choice but to plug the ears and go along for the ride.
C: I made a quick trip to the bar to find some napkins. I learned my lesson the first time I saw Lightning Bolt. Tinnitus is no fun.
E: I am generally prepared for the sonic level and approach at any given live show I attend, but this set took a solid 15 minutes before I could begin to penetrate beyond the sheer loudness. Once I had my wits about me I began to dig deep into the subtle ritard they would bring again and again, at both predictable and rare moments, within otherwise stable propulsion, and of course their ability to transform simple tempos and time signatures into eerily transcendent polyrhythms by nature of their repetition and heavy magickxs — in this way they do in fact bring new riffs.
C: Sleep has this amazing ability to create space within the violence of their riffing for feedback and drone. Two moments stick out — number one was a section with what felt like five minutes of Matt Pike feedback, and the second was a moment with Cisneros facing the drums and playing an ULTRA-slow bass line that felt like it lasted for days.
E: Bearing witness to new riffs in a live setting is a rare & special treat, and it can arise from many different bases of intent. Most are stoopid, though some are founded in extensive composition. After watching this trio pummel such a limited pentatonic system with minor tonal variance for well over an hour, you are either fundamentally awed at what they have accomplished, or verging on bored tears. These are both valid responses, and I found the performance to be significantly stronger by virtue of their avoidance of numerous small choices that would have put me out of the mesmer they were willfully creating in us. The worship of marijuana may be disturbing to some, and is confounding to me, but the worship of time is fundamentally sound, massive, and difficult to grasp — I can dig it.
C: After staring at the projections, watching the repeated passage of the astronaut back and forth across the stage, and having my brain melted by metal, what it all came down to for me was this simple message: smoke weed and blast off into outer space.
Eastern State Penitentiary; Philadelphia, PA
On May 17, 1929, Al Capone got snagged in Philadelphia for packing heat and ended up spending 9 months in the city’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). As one of the country’s first gangster-celebrities, his release date was a raging media spectacle. On the scheduled morning, mobs of people lined up around the massive compound to catch a glimpse of the murderous anti-hero. Their anticipation, however, was never satiated. To the crowd’s dismay, Capone had already been released. The event concluded with only Sartrean nothingness where living, breathing spectacle was expected.
Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, most well known for his film Decasia, accidently stumbled upon this never-before-seen archival footage in 2008 and transformed it into a mirrored, kaleidoscopic, 12-minute piece that shows the empty streets evolving, slowly blooming to life as gawkers swarm the anticipatory doors through which Capone was expected to pass. Pianist Vijay Iyer, whose Historicity sat at the top of almost every year-end list for 2009’s best jazz album, was asked to provide a score for the film. This collaborative audio/visual project, Release, has been on display since March 2010 at ESP — which stopped being a prison in 1974 and became a museum in 1994 — where the installation is housed in a cell adjacent to the one where Capone spent his sentence.
On September 11, as part of this ongoing installation and Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival, Iyer wheeled in a Steinway and gave a solo performance in ESP’s circular chamber. Located at the center of the prison – the optimal surveillance position — this main chamber contains eight long rows of cells radiating from it like sunbeams. Navigating the dark tunnels to reach the quasi-panopticon-turned-performance-space was an eerie experience, as guests were given the freedom to explore the guts of the cells in order to intimately feel the horror that will always haunt the space.
Despite Iyer’s charm and warmth — he stood and bowed for claps and spoke in detail on the significance of the pieces — the lingering terror was unshakeable. When operational, the chamber had held a piano used for musical purposes, namely for choir rehearsal and, on one occasion, when the prison band was conducted by North American composer Conrad Susa. Iyer’s playing summoned these ghosts, and while many arguably expect a solo piano concert to be soothing and tranquil, his delivery was oftentimes panic-inducing due to its precision and density. However, those familiar with Iyer’s research and publications on the relationship between cognition and music — he holds a PhD from Berkley in Technology and the Arts, a degree created especially for him — have come to expect and enjoy the cerebral experience that he aims to produce.
Many of the nine pieces he performed were from his recent solo album, Solo. On “Autoscopy,” a piece motivated by a prison escape as metaphor for the soul’s out of body experience, he created heavy but playful patterns with repetitive phrases and slight variations. The quick shifts in mood and tempo evoked the frantic mind in the planning stages of an escape or the mad dash away from confinement and toward freedom. In what was sadly an instance of missed contextualization, Iyer subtly dedicated “Remembrace,” a piece from a recent collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, to victims of September 11. Asking the audience to overlook their present location, namely one where the screams of torture and the sadness of solitude were pervasive and embedded, was somewhat of a demanding stretch.
His interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was particularly impressive, as he chose to meditate on the dark transition out of the chorus, and then improvised on the two droning bass chords. For the penultimate tune, Iyer chose Solo’s “One for Blount,” which takes its inspiration from Sun Ra’s earth-name, Herman Blount. This composition, equally capable of dancehall excitement or avant-garde genre-stretching, exemplifies Iyer’s technical and compositional capacities. For the finale he performed a thoughtful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By intensifying the pace and shifting to a minor chord arrangement, he emphasized the shadowy traces that are normally brightened by Lennon’s lyrical optimism. The reversal was especially suitable and effective, momentarily allowing the audience to connect with the gloom of those who were so recently chained where they voluntarily sat.
[Photo: Jennie Shanker]
Panda Bear / Nite Jewel
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA
Even after the universal acclaim of 2007’s revelatory Person Pitch, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the overwhelming popularity of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). I don’t, of course, mean to suggest his success is in any way undeserved — in fact, there are few, if any, artists who’ve demonstrated greater creativity, equally wild experimentation, and sheer originality in recent years. So, as I witnessed frat-bros, raccoon-eyed teenagers, girls in stuffed panda hats (?), and even a fucking t-shirt that read Sigma Fi’s Panda-monium 2008, I wondered: why did Monday night’s show at Oakland’s swanky Fox Theater draw a crowd so foreign to my expectations? As it turns out, there’s a lesson to be learned — one, thankfully, that goes beyond simply bitching about bros and hipsters.
But before any such realizations, I quickly became aware of the ill-fitting opener Nite Jewel. I’m not sure how this LA band — essentially a keyboard pop group with an uninspired, lazy front-woman — ended up opening for a musician who is light years beyond in terms of musical artistry. In all fairness, perhaps their white-boy funk grooves would be better experienced in a smaller setting than the augmented acoustics of the golden, behemoth venue. Still, when a band has some of the worst-rehearsed endings in recent memory, it only makes Lennox — who effortlessly navigates, fades, weaves one song to the next — sound even better. But hey, they covered Sparks, managed a decent drum and bass hookup, and even featured a nifty, David Gilmore-esque guitar solo. That’s cool, right?
It wasn’t until a handful of stoned, drunk frat-boys began singing the worst rendition of “Comfy in Nautica” as they impatiently awaited the headliner did I reach the pinnacle of irritation — or was it the teenage pot-head who spilled beer all over me? Either way, I was certain that when Panda Bear’s set began, its unconventional, challenging nature would not only knock everyone on their ass, but secretly, selfishly, I hoped no one else would dig it.
I knew there’d been a recent wave of music critics who, having witnessed Panda Bear’s current live show, offered negative sentiments concerning the length of new songs, ill-suited outdoor venues, etc. But as soon as Lennox lays down his finger, triggering the opening, squelching whole-note of “Drone” (off soon-to-be released Tomboy) and the psych-freak projected visuals of a skeleton face pulsating between wavelength flashes on screen, there’s no doubt the Fox is more than a fitting theater for the experience. “Just a signal in my head,” Lennox sings out, revealing an unexpected transition into his stutter-stop rendition of “Daily Routine” — a personal favorite off AC’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Teasing out each individual syllable on Person Pitch favorites like “Ponytail” and “Comfy In Nautica,” Lennox demonstrates an even more refined vocal performance than I had expected. Not only vocally innovative, it’s wonderful to see him playing guitar again on several new songs. Amid hip-hop grooves, “Surfer Hymn’s” four-on-the-floor pounding, and “Last Night at the Jetty’s” clapped march, Lennox strums a propulsive, murky rhythm on the outstanding “Tomboy” title track. All the while, projected visions of little children dancing, sharks, explosions, and 70s porn — yes, even sex on a roller coaster — supplement any moments that lacked momentum.
After the swaying, sentimental closer “You Can Count on Me,” I half-expect the surrounding audience to be baffled by what I consider an incredibly brilliant yet assuredly challenging performance. Instead, the crowd appears to have enjoyed everything as much, if not more, than myself. When Lennox is finally coaxed into performing an encore — probably the chillest and least-showy encore I’ve ever witnessed, complete with the reoccurring skeleton visual — I realize: just who the hell do I think I am? Sure, many of these fans aren’t the folk I’d want to be around for more than an hour — well, the panda-hatters, beer-spillers, and Sigma Fi’s might be squeezing that down to about five minutes — but, if the music makes them happy, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, we’re all just learning to stretch our ears anyhow. And, to steal an expression concerning bros, give me the space I need, and you may find that we’re alright.
Grizzly Bear / The Walkmen / Gang Gang Dance
The Beach at Governor's Island; New York, N.Y.
A bus, two subways, and a ferry ride brought me to Governor’s Island on Thursday night to see what Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste called a “dreambill.” I agreed with him in theory, but the rain tried its hardest to stifle the night. Largely because of waterproofing, set changes took forever, meaning rain-soaked waiting time.
This didn’t prevent the memorable moments on stage, though. Openers Gang Gang Dance were arguably the most enjoyable of the night. Their percussive bang was powerful and cohesive, their elevator music-on-acid instrumentals were convincingly contoured, and singer LizBougatsos looked thrilled to be on stage.
Next were The Walkmen. Either they missed their soundcheck or didn’t get one, because it took about four songs before you could even hear singer Hamilton Leithauser. Leithauser lamented his band always played in rain, as the downpour intensified. Maybe I just felt sorry for him, but I was impressed with how well the band bounced back from the atmosphere, perhaps betraying their old school indie-rock blood. Their satisfying guitar rock was a sobering contrast between their effects-drenched stage mates.
After another 45-minute set change, Grizzly Bear apologetically took the stage. Chris Taylor looked peeved by equipment complications. Once again, the sound was mediocre until a few songs in, and it was hard to stay compelled by the light show, on-point as it was. Although the momentum of the evening was in shambles, “Lullaby,” “Two Weeks,” and “Knife” rocked as hard as ever, a testament to one of the most creative bands of our era. A bit of synergy was found on the moody “Foreground,” an apt song for the evening.
It was hard not to smile as Droste commented every few songs that everyone there was a trooper. Before the encore, “Fix It,” Taylor half-seriously suggested we stick around, catch a later boat, and talk to our friends or maybe even meet new ones. The line for the ferry back to Manhattan seemed to politely decline his suggestion.
Kid Koala / The Slew
Prospect Park Bandshell; Brooklyn, NY
“We’re gonna play some old-fashioned vinyl records… incorrectly,” came the mischievous voice of fun’s favorite turntablist, Kid Koala, whose slight smugness is always undercut by his chuckling self-deprecation and visible appreciation of his supporters. The lone performer in front of a self-declared “unnecessary” amount of equipment, he explained, “It’s gonna be like a reverse babushka: we’re just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Koala (aka Eric San) began the night with a beautiful ode to Louis Armstrong, a song from his first album, Drunk Trumpet, perhaps to immediately dispel any doubts from the free-concert audience as to the turntable’s ability to produce soft, warm melodies. Next, he brought on The Slew’s touring DJ, P-Love, and the two attempted a track from San’s LP Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs. The Holy-Grail-sampling duet ended in impressed applause, but San shook his head, mumbling, “I don’t know…” The duo then launched into a warbling, crystalline rendition of “Moon River.”
Before the rocking began in earnest, San paused for a brief bingo interlude. Audience members, handed a bingo card featuring San’s simple cartooning upon entry, were asked to play along as he projected slides of various drawings and explained how easy they were to draw. “Birdseed… anyone can draw it. You don’t need to go to art school.”
The still-engrossed crowd began to cheer as ex-Wolfmotherers Chris Ross and Miles Heskett took the stage and hard rocking began posthaste. After executing their debut album’s titular track, “100%,” with frightening precision, The Slew allowed no chance to catch one’s breath, thrashing their way through the rest of their catalogue with increasing sweat and attitude. Had the audience had their eyes closed, they would have been hard-pressed to determine the group possessed no guitarists or singers. But then, they would also have missed Ross soaring through the air to slam down on his pedal-laden keyboard, or San loudly mouthing the words to every sample.
As the band left the stage for the second time, the dancing mob in front of the stage refused to yield in spite of the efforts of several burly security guards. Aware the situation was not going to resolve itself, San returned to his tables. “We only have those songs,” he explained, promising The Slew would be returning to the studio this fall, this time with their drummer and bassist. “I know this is kind of a punk thing to do.” He laid a record on the platter before returning to the wings, calling the cut, “My favorite song in the universe.” As the crowd accepted its fate and slowly filed out of the venue, the now-lamplit park gradually emptying, the sweet, scratchy voice of Louis Armstrong sang to them, “What a wonderful world…”
The Slew setlist:
1. Drunk Trumpet *
2. Skanky Panky **
3. Moon River **
4. 100% ***
5. It’s All Over ***
6. Problem Child ***
7. You Turn Me Cold ***
8. Grinder ***
9. Robbin’ Banks (Doin’ Time) ***
10. Shackled Soul ***
11. Blues in 12 ***
12. Battle of Heaven and Hell ***
**Kid Koala and P-Love
***The Slew (full band)
New Capital City Music Hall; Ottawa, Canada
I fought through a freak rain storm and horrifying drivers to arrive at the Chromeo show, just as Holy Ghost from Brooklyn were taking the stage. The four-man opening act was low on energy, yet high on dance-ability, slowly winning over the crowd that was patiently waiting for the headliners. Holy Ghost sounds like Holy Fuck if you stripped away the funk, the groove, and just left the electro. Sprinkle in some spacey lyrics and you’ve got Holy Ghost.
After a lengthy equipment change-up, Chromeo hopped on stage, with the crowd chanting in rhythm with the opening track of their breakthrough album, Fancy Footwork. Both David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel were all smiles, as the former set up behind a guitar and mic while the latter behind synths, a vox box, and a stand-up drum kit. Chromeo have dubbed themselves the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership in the history of mankind, and it’d be tough to argue otherwise, as the duo ripped through bits and pieces off their debut album (“Needy Girl”) and a majority of their follow-up records (“Tenderoni,” “Fancy Footwork,” “Bonafied Lovin’”). The order of the setlist was impeccably chosen too, as it’s no secret people love what they know. Playing true to the album order is a surefire way to ignite a crowd of fans, especially if your last album came out three years ago and the new isn’t released until September.
Sure, Chromeo don’t add much to their sound in a live setting, but they were clearly having a boatload of fun. The enthusiastic audience, of course, ate it right up.