Spoon / Deerhunter / The Strange Boys
House of Blues; Boston, MA
My first reaction to hearing that Deerhunter was opening for Spoon on its tour for Transference was “Ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHH! Spoon AND Deerhunter!?! Tickets! Need tickets!” I instantly handed over the cash to see them in Boston – fitting considering my history of catching some other amazing double bills there, such as The New Pornographers with Belle & Sebastian and Feist with Broken Social Scene.
The venue was the new House of Blues, formerly the Avalon, in the literal shadow of Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street.
Openers The Strange Boys kicked off the evening with a post-punk-meets-rockabilly sound. Lead singer Ryan Sambol’s voice was a low-energy combination of young Bob Dylan and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which is to say, it wasn’t good. However, the band did provide an entertaining story about “the real Spoon,” from the previous tour stop at Radio City Music Hall. Sambol explained that the group amassed a handful of parking tickets from prior New York City shows. “We thought: ‘They’ll never get us.’” Well, the city got ’em, towing their van and slapping them with a whopping impound fee of $900.
Spoon to the rescue. Sambol told the crowd to show the headliners some love for picking up the tab and emancipating the van for their tourmates from Austin.
When Bradford Cox and his crew emerged, the club was still well short of capacity – a fact I could not believe. When gushing about the show to friends beforehand, my refrain was “I love Spoon, but I think I’m more excited to see Deerhunter.” Bradford engaged the crowd right away, cracking jokes, chatting, declaring his love for Boston and improvising a dreamy little song about the cold weather. “Cold weather … keeps us together … like we are tethered … ” I wondered what side of the group we’d see – hard and driving, soft and trippy, or pop-song craftsmen. The answer was all three, which is exactly what makes Deerhunter great. Bradford and Co. were equally adept mashing out rockers like Fluorescent Grey’s “Wash Off,” or cooing delicate pieces like Microcastle’s title track. Interspersed throughout the set were myriad effects, some turning whatever Bradford uttered into a sound best described as a soaring choir of angels on LSD, others imbuing his guitar with a life of its own as he continuously toyed with dissonant tones and ample feedback.
The highlight was unquestionably a raucous version of “Nothing Ever Happened.” The dominant bass line and opening riff drew a cheer from the crowd, and the crashing chorus had Spoon fans in crowd looking at each other, thinking, “I don’t know this band, but I’m getting their album as soon as I get home.” Bradford pushed the song even higher in its coda, hitting gorgeous high notes in his solo with a finger-tapping technique. “Since when is Bradford Cox a guitar god?” I asked myself, with a stupefied grin on my face. With Ted Williams’ turf right outside the club, just over the Green Monster in left field, Bradford’s passionate performance made me think indie rock has its own Splendid Splinter to anoint.
When they wrapped up their set, the word on everyone’s tongue was “more.” It felt downright cruel to give us a taste then take it away, but they did have to make time for the main performance. Oh, right! Spoon is playing now! The headliner!
One thing separated Spoon from Deerhunter right away: image. About 30 minutes was spent between sets, adorning the stage with light panels and strings of bulbs hanging over amps and mike stands. When the band stepped on stage, Britt Daniel very much looked the part of a rock star – cropped leather jacket, designer pants with weird stripes on the sides, and a gorgeous, mussy mop of blond hair that either hadn’t been touched since rolling out of bed, or was fussed over for a solid hour to appear so. I’d say the smart money is on the latter. But these things ceased to matter as the band started off with “Before Destruction” and “Nobody Gets Me But You,” the first and last songs from their current record, Transference.
The initial songs’ halting rhythms didn’t allow the crowd to go nuts right away, but the groove of “Rhthm & Soul” and the near-bubblegum approach to the danceable “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” pulled everyone in. Afterward, there was a quick detour to Kill the Moonlight’s soothing farewell track “Vittorio E,” before ripping into the chorus of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “Don’t Make Me A Target,” and making heads bob again.
Gimme Fiction leadoff, “The Beast And Dragon, Adored,” was the show’s apex. I consider it the band’s best song. If making moving music is based upon tension and release, which I believe it is, then this blows away the rest of the group’s canon. The verse is a simple, yet effective walk from perfect 4th, to diminished 5th, to perfect 5th, and back again. The diminished 5th (aka tritone or Devil in Music) provides the tension. When the major chords of the chorus finally kick in, it’s a revelation. As one might expect, hearing and seeing this unfold live added even more power. The set gained in energy as it neared its close with more up-tempo dance-friendly numbers, “I Summon You,” “Trouble Come Running,” and fan favorite “The Underdog.” “Trouble” earned the prize for loudest song of the night, and while the piano had to substitute for the horn section for “The Underdog,” it remained exceedingly fun.
During the show I kept wondering about the headline spot vs. the opening spot. It seemed odd to confine a band of Deerhunter’s caliber to the warm-up set. Ultimately, headlining is about money. Whoever can pack the most bodies in the building is going to get the lead spot. Examining the tale of the tape for these two bands, though, it’s hard to say which is more deserving. Spoon are veterans at this point – indie stalwarts with some decent mainstream success and a catalogue of great albums cementing their legacy. Have you ever heard a bad Spoon album? You haven’t, because there isn’t one. You know what you’re going to get with Spoon – gorgeous, polished pop songs.
Deerhunter, on the other hand, are just hitting their prime. There’s an energy and an unpredictability that bands only have when they’re young and still enthusiastically exploring their sound. For lack of a better word, Bradford Cox and Deerhunter are still dangerous. With them, you don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s what makes their performance exciting.
So, who should’ve had the top spot? It’s a tough call – one that comes down to personal preference more than anything else. For me, it’s a toss-up. They’re great for their own reasons, and more than anything I’m just happy I got to see them both in one night.
The Bootleg; Los Angeles, CA
“That’s just how people dance to punk rock music,” Patrick Stickles tried to explain to The Bootleg’s staff. “What happened?” He asked. “We were dancing and having a good time and it was OK and then it wasn’t OK. Well, it’s OK by us but I can’t speak for theater.” Bouncers had just broken up what was a pretty mild group of slam dancers and it was beginning to look like The Bootleg was under the ownership of puritans. While Stickles’ singing often invites comparisons to Conor Oberst when he’s lamenting the fact that people don’t speak Spanish as Desaparecidos, when speaking, he sounds cool and collected. Tension would build between slam dancers and bouncers over the next couple of songs and result in one guy getting dragged out kicking and screaming.
But Titus Andronicus wouldn’t comment on it again. I was initially quite upset about the fact that someone could have been carried out of the show, and I was bummed that from that point on the bouncers were dispersed throughout in order to quell any bursts of movement. As someone not immediately affected (it’s kind of hard to take notes while getting shoved around), I realized that my feelings were based on a preconception and that Titus Andronicus and those dancers had a more flexible and admirable understanding of a punk-rock show. “Who cares that I can’t slam into my buddy,” they said. “I am listening to the best sound quality given to a punk band that Thomas Dunlap has ever heard. While most bands can barely carry anything longer than a half-hour set, Titus Andronicus is playing awesomely for an hour and a half!”
“How is that even possible?” you might ask. “The Monitor is only an hour long.” In a surprising display of outside-the-box thinking, Titus Andronicus didn’t just play straight through their concept album. And they didn’t have to. If you’ve heard the album then you know that it’s a little more complicated than the “about the civil war” tagline everyone’s been assigning to it, meaning that we won’t have to worry about The Monitor becoming a Broadway musical, the fact that The Monitor isn’t set in the Civil War period and doesn’t feature a direct narrative account of any battles, not even of the USS Monitor duking it out with the CSS Virginia, allows Titus Andronicus to choose songs that complement their newest endeavor in the live setting. Those spoken introductions disappear and we get to hear songs from all the way back on their first EP.
Stickles referred to one such oldie as “a song devoid of context,” but I would disagree. We knew those songs weren’t new, but each song added to the set was linked somehow to a division within or a struggle between forces equally matched as those two warships. At the end of the day, Titus Andronicus are successful live for the same reason they are successful on wax: They understand that a concept is just a place from which to start and they refuse to let it determine where they’ll go.
The Appleseed Cast / Dreamend
The Hi-Dive; Denver, CO
“Hi, my name is Gumshoe, and I like The Appleseed Cast because they’re… good and… because they’re emo.”
This faux-monologue was once employed to make fun of me for my unabashed love of The Appleseed Cast ever since I picked up Mare Vitalis at 4,000 Holes Records in Spokane, WA. But I still insist: If you call A. Cast “emo,” you’re missing out on three of the best examples of guitar rock circa the late 90s/early 00s (not to mention their three-way split orgy with Planes Mistaken For Stars and Race Car Riot, the latter being one of the great instrumental-rock “one-hit wonders” of the scene, never releasing anything afterward).
When I saw a flyer for this show, I was shellacked by memories; high-fret guitar arpeggios filled my head and those heady days of college radio — hooray? — came back into focus. For many, the idea of The Appleseed Cast playing Low Level Owl Vols. I & II is just another one of those full-album shows. For me, for obviously personal reasons, it ranks as one of the all-time great ideas, scraping the same sky as Slint’s full Spiderland run-through and GZA’s Liquid Swords-in-its-entirety (though LLO I/II have never commanded the same acclaim as the aforementioned).
Ha! Did I say “personal reasons”? Fact is, the Low Level Owl records deserve — and will eventually receive — their place in history, a perfect combination of an as-yet undefined junkyard post-rock, post-Sunny Day Real Estate twin-guitar bluster (super-post-Sunny Day, I should say), ornate, spiritual rock (if they’re Christian, they do a good job of not douchin’ it up), and some strange hybrid of gunky, effects-driven electronic music. These dudes used tape effects, old junk/kettle drums, samples, and several other at-the-time novel means to make their masterpiece. I still remember a lot of its reviews mentioned Radiohead — an example of how clueless many were in regard to classifying the lumbering glow of such a glorious beast (and, of course, it was mid-2001, and the Kid A hangover was already upon us).
After missing Dreamend’s set — damn those 16+ shows — it was time to settle in and let the music take over. The Appleseed Cast have a new drummer and have advanced in years, but they certainly understand what made the LLO albums great (truckloads of ride-cymbal-bell tapping, the aforementioned arpeggio-pie, the urgent mood, the keen buttressing of slower songs with euphoric break-outs), my only quibble with the whole presentation being that perhaps a few of the tunes received readings slightly slower than on the albums (and as any Sepultura fan knows, live yr supposed to fuckin’ play fast as shit!).
But this is an inspirational double-album, to say the least, and the Cast treated it with the care befitting a much-cherished museum piece as a litany of images flashed on a makeshift movie screen behind them. As always (I’m a big-time cherry-picker), I bode my time, saving my attention for the tracks that truly make the Owls “hoooo hoooo” (good lord I’m a terrible writer): “On Reflection“‘s somber spareness, the never-ending drone of “View of a Burning City,” the creeping wrath of “Strings,” the bass-y slow-motion break-beats of “Ring Out the Warning Bell,” and, one of my top-five all-time favorite instrumental dirges, “Sunset Drama King.” I’d be remiss not to mention how the butterflies in my stomach all seemingly started to cry as the homestretch of this all-important document began; when “Reaction,” the tune that somehow ties it all together, blasted through I was close to tears. And I’m not one of those people that weeps at Sigur Rós shows; there’s just something about “Reaction” and its Christmas-day tingle that ties my past into my present and future every time I hear it, a signpost that I visit when real-life matters seem almost too tough to tangle with.
And with that, it was over. I realize it might be boring to play the same album(s), note-for-note, night after night, but it results in an exultant experience for the concert-goer who has been listening to said album(s) for years with unrequited adoration.
Charlemagne Palestine’s Carillon Bells (AV Festival Opening)
Civic Centre; Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
If the certainly eccentric New York composer Charlemagne Palestine’s M.O. is to challenge Western audiences’ expectations of “what is beautiful and meaningful in music,” then his ribbon-cutting bells at the AV Festival certainly did the trick. Palestine performed a trilogy of bell works at various cathedrals and other-places-with-bell-towers in Northeast England as part the “energy”-themed European electronic arts, films, and media festival (the largest, or at least one of the largest), and this opening was loaded with the most potential spiritualism and symbolism.
A projected live video of his small “studio” (read: bell tower) in Newcastle upon Tyne’s Civic Centre provided clear insight into his self-aware quirk. Dressed in a tripped-out, wildcat-patterned jacket, Palestine paced frenetically with nose to handkerchief before a warily audience-/performer-debasing introduction in which he spoke about the trueness of the bells as a musical form and his days playing carillon bells in New York in the 60s. His mention of not being able to see the people “down below” on the streets seemed particularly relevant in his windowless box, especially when he started stamping the keys with both fists and feet with a palpably spiritual but low-key fervor.
The slightly funny thing was that when he begun, no sound could be heard indoors (thanks to good insulation and huge concrete walls), which wasn’t accidental and added to the mythos as everyone moved outside into a suitably lucid, blue dusk. Weird crystalline textures in the reasonably fragile and initially quiet bells came off pretty synathestic against the near-dark, and the metaphor of expansiveness was mirrored in the gradual build up of volume and density as Palestine played on for an hour or so. And despite the probably high level of expectation from the nature of such a performance being diffused by the abundance of nearby AV Festival art openings (and free wine), as well as the loadedness of the monolithic structure in which the quirky, humble musician sat, there was a distinct and calm grandeur to his triumphant and oblique harmonies ringing out across the city.
Joanna Newsom / Jens Hannemann
Jefferson Theater; Charlottesville, VA
The setlist for Joanna Newsom’s Wednesday night concert at Charlottesville, Virginia’s Jefferson Theater belied a certain simplicity. It listed 10 songs, plus one encore, with brief titles like “In California,” “Soft as Chalk,” “Monkey and Bear,” and, perhaps most suggestively, “Easy.” Those unfamiliar with her work might have imagined her as an artist who has boiled her message down to such succinct phrases. But, once Newsom positioned herself at her towering harp and began letting a myriad of notes fall from her fingers, they would have quickly discovered a different reality.
That reality is one in which Newsom is an undeniable virtuoso and far from a minimalist. Wednesday’s set featured seven songs from her latest and most ambitious release, the triple-album Have One on Me. Tunes ranged from the steady but colorful chug of “Good Intentions Paving Company” to the sprawling swirl of the album’s 11-minute title track. Newsom’s ensemble included multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi and drummer Neal Morgan, who both contributed to “Have On on Me.” Along with three others, they offered a perfect compliment to Newsom’s polyrhythmic plucking and endlessly nuanced singing. Francesconi switched out instruments — often multiple times in one song — to recreate the album’s ever-changing orchestration, and Morgan hit his drums sparingly and deliberately, riding on the music’s momentum rather than propelling it himself.
While the new songs breathed with the same unreserved spirit of the album, the older ones revealed how much Newsom has changed since Milk-Eyed Mender, her 2004 debut. She pulled out three tunes from that album, “Inflammatory Writ,” “The Book of Right-On,” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” as well as “Monkey and Bear” from 2006’s Ys. All moved at a more brisk and assured pace than their recorded counterparts, and Newsom’s voice, which changed following a bout with vocal chord nodules, took on a much smoother, sensual tone.
Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen opened the show as satirical drum instructor Jens Hannemann and also returned the later to play percussion on “Good Intentions.” As the night came to a close, it felt cut short despite Newsom’s lengthy set. That feeling is a testament to her rare ability to charm you into forgetting that the minutes are flying by. Commanding such enrapt attention is less and less common in the days of Twitpics and 140-character reviews, but Joanna Newsom is, after all, anything but common.
Slow Club / The Pleasure Kills / The Saucy Jacks
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA
Dear Internet Overlords of Music, or IOM: who decided that playing thoroughly fun music isn’t enough anymore? Why are you so derisive of people who stick to trusted ideas and interpret them exceptionally well? What’s so damn wrong with sacrificing innovation for the sake of, you know, being really good? Dudes, you should have seen this show. It would have turned you right around.
IOM, I want to organize a sock-hop just so San Francisco’s Saucy Jacks can play it, and you will be there. You would love their nice suits and how they sounded like The Strokes channeling The Beatles. In other words, heartbreakers, for sure. This band knows how to self-edit and excels at turning out one short, irresistibly catchy and clever song after another. It would be the best start to a night that would eventually turn you around and remind you why twee and indie pop happened.
After my sock hop, we’d change into a leather jackets, get drunk, and see The Pleasure Kills in a basement. Hopefully, their totally badass singer, Lydia, would spit beer on you like she did to her bandmates. You would renounce your allegiance to Karen O and flail around your arms like a teenager at a ska show, but you would feel less awkward because you’d be listening to scuzzy rock with killer synths. We’d stay for a while and probably trip over their bassist’s cord as he jumped out onto the floor. It would be exhausting because there is no way to avoid dancing with this band.
And at the end of the night as we’re sobering up, Slow Club would gently ease us into our hangovers. Watching Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson feels like overhearing a conversation between two best friends picking apart the highs and lows of their respective romances and falling outs, and we’d feel nostalgic and make some self-depracating comments about our own failed relationships. Taylor’s astonishingly clear voice and Watson’s skilled guitar work would keep us in that perfect place between waking and sleeping, and as they strolled out into the audience to play their last song, we’d gently drift off into dreams about sunny afternoons and frenzied dancing.
I hope you’ll come with me on this night I’ve imagined for us. You’ll need to open up your hearts a little bit.