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]
Wolves in the Throne Room / A Storm of Light / Thrones
Club Europa; Greenpoint, NY
Memorial Day weekend started off with a bang this year, as an early egress from work led to a full afternoon of cartoon-watching before dragging myself off the couch to jet over the Pulaski Bridge for a night of ambient black metal. Of course, the Pulaski was drawn to allow for the passage of some bullshit freightliner, arousing fears I would not get to Club Europa in time for opener Thrones, but alas the drawbridge quickly descended and I made it to the venue with time to spare; in fact, I wound up standing in line for quite a while just outside the Greenpoint police precinct, where three canine officers eyed me curiously. Eventually, I was let in by a man wearing a mauve ascot and directed to the end of yet another line until finally I was admitted. For those who checked out of the hardcore and metal scene decades ago, Club Europa has emerged as New York's premier punk, hardcore, and metal venue, holding shows that in a different era might have been held at CBGB's or Coney Island High -- that is, when it's not being used in its intended role as a Polish disco.
This would be my second Friday in a row seeing Thrones. Fresh off the previous Friday's set at No Fun Fest (and a show later in the week with Blues Control), Joe Preston walloped the crowd with his one-man juggernaut. Tying his hair in dual braids like Pocahontas, Preston worked through a set largely similar to his No Fun set. He bookended his romp with tracks off 2000's Sperm Whale, beginning with "Ephraim," a moody dirge that sounds like humpbacks mourning the loss of a fallen leader, and ending with the epic "Obolus," which, when sung through a vocoder, sounds like The Melvins (of whom Preston has been a member) covering Neil Young's Trans. In between those tracks, Preston worked through a few less sprawling and more pummeling grind-influenced tracks, providing a couple head-bangers to please the hair- and tat-heavy crowd.
A Storm of Light was up next and their post metal stylings felt like a watered-down Neurosis (Neurosis Lite). The interlocking and sometimes harmonized male and female vocals, delivered by Josh Graham and Nerissa Campbell, were transcendent at times but painfully off key at others. Although the bassist thrashed around with brutish force, A Storm of Light's sound had less of a tough exterior, coming off like a slightly heavier Slint or a less tongue-in-cheek Swans. The swirling visuals provided some eye candy, but soon enough, I had drifted towards the back bar, where a heavily siliconed Polish waitress poured me a drink.
Wolves in the Throne Room capped the night off with their distinct brand of trance-inducing thrash. As they adorned the stage with their aromatherapy candles, I perused the merch table, pet the small skull, and handled the piece of fool's gold that were laid out there. The band's core, brothers Aaron and Nate Weaver, were flanked by former tour bassist-turned-guitarist Will Lindsey, Ludicra, and Impaled member Ross Sewage, who stood lankily and mustachioed to the side of the stage. Aaron led the group rhythmically through infinite spirals of transcendent darkness and never ending tempo changes, while brother Nate screamed and bellowed away, a beam of blue light emanating from his guitar and through the fog-covered stage.
Working through material mostly from the new Black Cascade album and a few from the previous album Two Hunters, the Wolves' brand of unrelenting, cathartic black metal transformed the crowd's sense of foreboding and pain into a triumphant wail. Musically, their sound borrows most from the earlier waves of BM -- Burzum, Emperor, Darkthrone all could be named as musical touchstones, but the group generally shirks BM-purist tendencies, opting for a more organic feel, one informed more by the natural forces of the universe than church-burning and corpse paint. Some audience members banged their heads as others stood humbly in a satanic trance, but few prostrated themselves and wept into the floorboards, which is the band's preferred method of taking in their live shows. In the end, which ever way you choose to take in WITTR's sound, whether physically or spiritually, their bottom line effect is the same: cleansing metal for the blackened soul.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy / Old Calf
Fry Springs Beach Club; Charlottesville, VA
“You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” quipped the bartender as I left a tip on my tab and headed out of the nearly empty Fry Springs Beach Club. The venue, with its art deco glow and pleasant ’50s musk, had a time capsule vibe, so a vintage Peanuts reference didn’t seem like a very strange way to cap off the night. Will Oldham and his crew were some of the few faces still lingering, as they packed up their gear and loaded it into the van out front.
Earlier, though, Fry Springs had been far from empty. A sold-out crowd filed past the front lounge’s outdated couches and into the venue’s spacious ballroom. Will’s brother Ned, of Anomoanon and Palace Brothers, teamed up with accordionist Matty Metcalfe to kick off the night under the clever moniker Old Calf. The duo boasted expertly crafted tunes as well as sidesplitting t-shirts depicting an elderly bovine walking with a cane.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s ensemble soon took the stage and chugged through a lengthy set, adding momentum with each riff and refrain. Tunes from Oldham’s latest album, Beware (TMT Review), were interspersed throughout, but the evening felt more like a continually blossoming musical moment. As things heated up, Oldham wished aloud for the room’s old disco ball to be turned on and, just as the switch was flipped, the night really hit its peak. The energy was palpable, from those sweating at stage front to those peering from the wings.
For the encore, Ned returned to the stage and joined his brother’s band for a couple more songs. The brothers belted together into the microphone, channeling the unbridled spark and spirit of their familial bond. It was a special moment and a perfect conclusion to the night’s sonic progression. The crowd spilled out into the Virginia night and Oldham and company prepared to descend deeper into the South.
93 Feet East; London, UK
While I should have been at 93 Feet East watching the support bands, I missed the opening acts because I was at an Indian restaurant eating Lamb Vindaloo. It was delicious, but probably not the most ideal pre-show bite given Telepathe's propensity for massively heavy bass. Sure, Dance Mother, their meticulously produced debut full-length, is big on the low-end as much as the high melodies and percussion, but live... good grief, I was certainly feeling the lamb in my tummy.
Telepathe's skewing of hip-hop sounds lets the bass propel their pop/dance ballads like a heartbeat, and although the sheen of Dance Mother was slightly lost in a live setting, the group's semi-detached fervor was in full force, with beats plodding and vocals soaring just slightly above. Their sound exudes a particularly sensual feeling, taking dance music's overt sexuality (that often ends up either cringe-worthy or kitschy) and subverting it, enjoying the small emotive flights and club aesthetics as much as the pop romanticism.
I was never sure how ‘danceable’ their stuff was, though, and this full-to-the-brim venue didn't make that any clearer: you could barely move, let alone flail. But the performance did shed light on their paradoxic bedroom vs. club dichotomy; it's a bit of both, deftly combining respective feelings for something warm and in between. Working on a couple of synths and samplers and playing pretty much all the songs from the album, there was always a distinct and audible passion. And even if, like these two, it's stylized, dressed up in white, and surrounded by smoke, the music resonated and felt especially real.