Roundhouse; London, UK
After years of doubt and suspense, The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual was released in April, and its delivery did more than satisfy the gnawing need that had been building among their fans in the seven years since their release of genre-defining masterpiece Silent Shout. Not only is the highly conceptual album more than an hour-and-a-half long, it was released alongside a manifesto, comic strip, and rare interviews from the band laying bare the radical feminist and egalitarian principles the LP espouses. How they would bring this vision, a radical departure from their previous work, to their live show was a mystery. Would they have a “band”? Would their faces, for once, be visible? Would they just throw some bell hooks quotes up on a screen and walk away?
The Knife’s performance at London’s Roundhouse on May 9 was more spectacular and satisfying than I had dreamed. Their opener, simply advertised as “DEEP AEROBICS,” was a buff, black drag queen wearing a dreamcatcher as a necklace and a long white wig, who comedically worked out the crowd with hip and rib isolations and synchronized jumping as thumping electro played. If this seemed an odd choice for a band whose last round of shows had more in common with a horror movie than a jazzercise class, the inconsistency was quickly compensated for by their performance.
Shaking The Habitual is explicitly about breaking down our assumed perceptions in order to open ourselves up to different truths, and that’s exactly what The Knife’s show accomplished. They came onstage with a band consisting of five or six people in shiny hooded cloaks, playing, shockingly, what seemed like honest-to-god instruments. This in itself put this show in a different realm than the Silent Shout tour, which found Karen and Olaf standing alone between four screens of trippy projections. This time, one of the performers was playing an unrecognizable, custom-made, bass-like instrument that looked like a sawed-off part of a tree laid horizontal, and was used to replicate the unsettling strings on experimental track “A Cherry On Top.” It got better — at the conclusion of the song this instrument was flipped over to reveal a drum machine on the other side, which was played for the next few tracks.
But we hadn’t seen much yet: after a few songs as a “band,” the cloaks came off, revealing brightly colored sequined outfits, while Karen, Olaf, and cronies assembled themselves for what would be a nearly hourlong dance routine, while their music played in the background. Though they clearly aren’t professional dancers, their performances had obviously required a lot of training and forethought. The choreography riffed on everything from musicals like West Side Story to the Nutcracker to traditional African dance, creating a disconcerting post-modern atmosphere while both older tracks and new singles like “Full Of Fire” blasted into the incredible space, sounding like a showtune from hell. To me, this was the most important part of the show. As a former high school dancer, I’ve been mystified by the lack of dance in underground and DIY art spaces in recent years, so to see a band that is creating some of the most interesting and risky music today make such perfect use of it was awe-inspiring. Aside from the theatrics, to have the whole band, who we’d just seen in a traditional live music set-up, abandon their instruments as tracks were obviously played back out of their control certainly shook up at least a few long-standing ideas of what it means to play live as an electronic artist, a debate that has been raging for decades and has resurfaced recently in light of the EDM explosion.
But The Knife are never satisfied with one interpretation of anything, and what it became clear they were saying with their intentionally glitzy set was to force upon the audience the realization that what we consider truth is always a matter of perception, and human interaction always a performance, be it of your gender, sexuality, or belief in governments, economies, and traditions. Just as The Knife seamlessly transitioned from their seemingly sincere act as a “band” playing instruments to their winking experimentation with artificiality of show, what the experience was meant to teach us was that a world where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, and class are equally permeable is possible. But most incredibly, none of this intellectual politicizing felt oppressive — to the contrary, it felt like a celebration. It was no accident that they ended their set with a rave-infused version of “Silent Shout,” thanked the crowd warmly and then left us to dance to their DJ’s beats, while the crescent of lights at the beautiful Roundhouse lit the audience with rainbows. After a show like that, what else was there to do but revel in the ecstasy of breaking down the walls that oppress us — whether politically, physically, psychically or emotionally? In seven years, The Knife has gone from icy, creepy, and detached to sparkling with warmth and humanity, succeeding ecstatically in giving us hope that we can still try to change the world.
Lincoln Hall; Chicago, IL
Do you have any idea of the aural impetus required to cause a power failure through volume? It’s hard. Really. Fucking. Hard. Professional venues are designed, and staffed, in order to accommodate a frat-sized party of decibels ransacking eardrums and the concert hall. Boris is the only band I’ve ever known that are notorious for their ability to rend PA systems and power supplies apart, and they’ve been doing it for more than 20 years. In their maturity the trio refined and polished their performance into a seamless assault of Japanese metal, the Ghost of Power Failures Past felt like it was looming over the stage, waiting to take the sound system in its jaws and shake the life out of it. Boris chose Lincoln Hall for a two-night stint of shows, the first covering their “classics” (I’m feign to use that term in that all of their songs play like an assault on the listener), and the second an experimental set trying out new material.
Boris’ set was exhausting even when viewed from 20 feet up in the balcony. They played for two hours straight, with maybe a couple of minute-long reprieves peppered in. My favorite to watch was Atsuo, the drummer. He had hair down well past his legs while sitting down, with eyeliner and neon lights all over him. Wata, the wildly skilled guitarist wielding a Les Paul Custom, who also happens to be an attractive Japanese woman, had an enclave of sweaty, long-haired dudes in the pit who all looked like they had seen more than one tentacle monster in their life. Bluh. Anyway, the show was incredible, one of the most enjoyable abrasive concert experiences in recent memory.
Purity Ring / Blue Hawaii
The Metro; Chicago, IL
Purity Ring have mastered the dangling-keys sleight. Similar to an irreverent toddler or an idiot crow, I’m easily distracted by bright lights and pretty colors (and booze, plenty of booze). When you reduce Purity Ring to their essence, the entire musical aspect is Corin Roddick on Ableton with a synth and Megan James flitting around on stage singing. In any other case, this would be boring as shit. However, they bring one of the best sets of dangling keys to the table: a massive branching network of 20 light-up cocoons responding to both music and the movements of Megan James. After four or so gin and tonics, the Purity Ring live experience felt weirdly similar to when I would get too hyperactive when I was 5 and my grandma would put on Fantasia. In both instances, I shut up immediately and watched.
Unfortunately for opener Blue Hawaii, also consisting of a dude (Alexander Cowan) on synth/sampler and a chick (Raphaelle Standell-Preston) running around singing, they did not have a wild light-up tree to distract people from the fact their show is basically a DJ set. Ergo, the experience felt like a lanky guy who looked weirdly similar to DJ Qualls and a girl who looked like one of the violinists in Arcade Fire trying to fill out The Metro, one of the best live venues in Chicago. The effect was underwhelming.
Purity Ring, however, made up for the boring-ass first 40 minutes of my time spent at this show. The crowd was way more eclectic than I’d envisioned. I was expecting a herd of attractive vacuous faces clad in overpriced neons from American Apparel; what I got was these same people interspersed with dudes in True Religion jeans and Wrigleyville beezys who look like they have memberships at Flirty Girl Fitness. I swear to god there was a couple in their 50s. Whatever. Anyway, the trap bass rattle, epileptic lights, and Megan James wandering around the stage in some sort of weird wedding dress (she makes her own clothes; I had an internal dialogue the entire show over whether or not she made it) kept me entertained for an hour, which is all I ever wanted. Oh, and there was a Soulja Boy cover. Let that be the rest of my life: Soulja Boy covers and Blue Hawaiians.
Wonder Ballroom; Portland, OR
I’d better just go ahead and admit that I fucking love Spiritualized. If J. Spaceman were to walk onstage and sing the alphabet, I’d punch myself in the face. Irrational enough? There’s a certain mood here that I’m trying to capture and make the metaphorical crux for this review.
I like to show up early, because I like to see the other kinds of people that show up early. Plus I don’t have a lot of friends. And I’m short, so venue floor space gains the price of Times Square reality once a 6-foot-5-type jerk-off tries to squeeze their ass right in front of me. I assumed watching Spiritualized wasn’t going to be the kind of activity during which I would dance senselessly with a bevy of strangers, and with the exception of a drunk and/or shrooming girl with great hippie dance moves who knew all of the words, I was right.
So here’s the kind of people who would show up early to a Spiritualized show: other short people who really like this band, “gear” dudes who love taking pictures of other people’s pedal boards (p.s. this shit is boring, no one cares, stop), mid-30 year olds who like to talk about their interactions with “famous” people (one lady went from some dude in Cake, to Wayne Coyne, to Gus Van Zandt in the same breath), some other folks with no friends who were actually nice to talk to (we spoke of rent prices in various cities), and people who love living their concert experience through a fucking iPhone (also, stop, no one cares, etc.). Also, the venue decided to get its fog machine on nice and early, and nothing is weirder than hanging out in a pre-fabbed fog room in full light with strangers.
I take a lot of vitamin-D to help deal with the sun-less Portland winter, and I also listen to a lot of feel-good music. I mean, all music experiences should be feel good, and I’ve not had one in recent memory that wasn’t, but hearing J. Spaceman and co. (which included the incredibly enthusiastic drumming of Oneida’s Kid Millions) play a cycle of songs that included “Shine A Light,” Rated X,” and “Let It Flow” kind of compounded all of my bullshit into one burst of physical joy. Not only that, but these were songs that weren’t played the last time I saw Spiritualized about a year ago at the same place, and thank god for that. Even my fan boy-ness isn’t impervious to a recreation tour, and this set was nothing like the last one I saw. I mentioned Kid Millions above, but it looked as if Mr. Spaceman had kicked everyone out of last year’s band except the guitar player Doggen, (who looks to be a close friend).
Last year’s arrangement had everyone spaced out into a semi-circle, with one half wearing all-black, the other white, the presentation a part of a post-album tour process. This arrangement had everyone jammed together as close as possible, and felt like a new group of musicians presenting fresh interactions. The free-jazz blowouts were frequent and varied. The guitars of J. Spaceman have straps, which he doesn’t use because he sits down, and my favorite signifier of sound assault came when he leaned back and held his guitar towards his amp, strumming the neck while everyone else took it as a sign to go all, “Pound! Pound! Pound! Errereerrrrr! Thud! Thud! Thud!” It drowned out the Wayne Coyne BFF-groupie lady and her annoying penchant to snap about a thousand iPhone photos right next to my head, an act which more or less spoiled my closed eyes enjoyment of the quiet-yet-sporadic breakdown of “Rated X.” Why do people do that? Can’t you talk about the years you used to be cool at home? Once again, vindictive sounding, but my garden-variety hipster ass dressed up for this shit; favorite button-up shirt, clean brown blazer; I take my selfie-dates seriously.
Did I mention that Kid Millions is a fucking boss? I once saw him play drums/hold together a Plastic Crimewave Sound Guitarkestra, which was about 30 or so guitar players jammed into New York City’s Cake Shop all playing “E” (or “in E,” or “maybe E,” or “E-ish”) for half an hour. That guy has energy; something of which I was afraid would overshadow the group. But it enunciated parts, especially the freak-outs. I didn’t imagine ever seeing this guy play with Spiritualized, but now it makes sense. He’s been playing with Yo La Tengo recently, as well as a number of other groups. Flat out, he’s a good musician who melds well with others.
Some songs were rearranged to the point of being almost unidentifiable. They ended the pre-encore set with “Take Your Time,” which is more or less a segway song on Lazer Guided Melodies, but as they did it, a great finale. Better than the single song, semi-reluctant encore of “Walking With Jesus.” Last year’s set ended with an exhaustive 40-minute “Cop Shoot Cop,” an experienced I was enthralled by but happy to leave in its time and place. The end of this show didn’t have that same amount of gravitas due to such, but it seems that J. Spaceman isn’t the kind of performer who looks to redo on past successes. Enough of an indication would be that they started on a new song rather than “Hey Jane” or some other album opener. In total I think I counted three new songs (memory’s a little fuzzy, and the internet tells me so).
I wish I could end this with some sort of great summarizing line, or clever coda, or other writing device that wraps up some logical conclusion, but I have none. Memories don’t work in that way; I don’t have a succinct way to encapsulate my thoughts with endpoints. I’ll still be thinking about this show, thinking about listening to music in the dark, thinking about poor attempts to turn off my collective frustration, whatever related comes around. We all want to think of ourselves as better than the adversary (in my case, the people I found myself so annoyed with), but now I realize how much I missed by vexing over the problem so much.
Shepherd's Bush Empire; London, England
“I’m feeling a little out of sorts,” Channy Leaneagh muttered after “Fist Teeth Money,” the bass humming in the air after a delightful rendition. I couldn’t help but feel deflated after hearing the lead vocalist divulge feelings of disappointment about her performance that night. In the wuthering throes of spectacle, Leaneagh appeared assertive, sparkling, and aligned with the rest of the band, but after each combined rush of percussion at the end of a song, she would apologize for how nervous she felt. The Empire was packed to the rafters, a sold-out show for an act with just one album to their name, but who come with substantial celebrity props.
I followed C-Monster’s lead and took my young lady to the gig, or rather, she took me. I wasn’t too geared up about seeing Poliça live because of how their debut, Give You The Ghost, comes across; it’s eerie, illustrious, and beautiful pop that’s so personal it sounds purpose-built for small venues and private playback. Perhaps that’s an unfair judgement call, perhaps not; “There are so many of you,” Leaneagh said somewhere between one auto-tuned frenzy and another. The band played for just more than an hour, which was enough time to hammer every track on their album along with a couple of new songs, much to my gal’s delight. There were screams, whistles, and rapturous applause, but very little movement from the crowd, which was transfixed on the singer as she pranced awkwardly amongst the bass player and two drummers. She seemed fragile, but constantly trying to overcome her anxiety by belting most of the material in a different key to the record, which sounded bold and spirited on tracks like “Darkstar” and “I See My Mother,” but fell considerably flat on the much-anticipated “Lay Your Cards Out”.
We had seats on the first upper level, which gave us a near perfect view — the Empire is an impressive venue, large enough to hold 2,000 people while retaining a degree of intimacy. Only on this occasion, the most intimate moments were shared by Leaneagh and the band, as opposed to the performers and their audience; the singer was so unsettled she darted off stage after the encore without so much as a “Goodnight, London!” They played a new track to finish, which proceeded a gorgeous a capella version of “When I Was A Young Girl”. Those two songs remain our personal highlights of the evening, and a glimmer of promise that Poliça’s new material is going to live up to the growing reputation they have hurriedly crafted — I just hope Leaneagh is ready for it.
[Photos: Carolina Faruolo]
Bad Credit No Credit / Blood Not Paint
The Bowery Electric; New York, NY
Of the innumerable “up-and-coming,” “rising,” “crossover-potential,” “omg like soOoOOo cool” bands that inhabit Brooklyn, many of them fall into one of two categories: those who work hard to attain a tightly controlled and hip aesthetic (though their success-rate varies widely) and those who rebel against this by being as bland and apathetic as possible (see: most bands involving four straight white dudes playing “garage rock”). Bonus points for those who manage to do both!
Blood Not Paint, who opened at Bowery Electric last Thursday, are a decent example of a band that tries a bit too hard to do something I can’t quite figure out. Although they were killing it on the matching black tights and creepy face paint front, their music wasn’t as interesting as their outfits suggested, which was stuck somewhere between power pop and post-hair metal. Although their sound was tight, the whole thing was a bit too much of a put on for me. It was more enjoyable to watch them on the screens by the bar than actually standing in front of them.
But it was cool; I was there to see Bad Credit No Credit, a band with more brass instruments than a high school marching band, a charmingly manic lead singer, and zero pretense. Lead singer Carrie-Ann alternates between playing jazzy, Baltic-influenced horn hooks on sax (where she’s joined by a trumpet, another sax, and two trombones) and singing in a voice that can jump from sultry to screaming in a matter of seconds. She is a total Performer, and her facial expressions convey as much about her dedication to drama as her tendency to unexpectedly launch herself into the crowd and play her sax from the floor. Their set was ecstatic and the crowd responded in kind, doing the Charleston, skanking, and spastically dancing in ways that most New York concert attendees would rather not be seen participating. They are always a great time, and the new material from their 2012 album, The Whole Buffalo, didn’t disappoint. (It should also be mentioned that their lead singer’s side project Clapperclaw is incredibly worth checking out — creepy looped jazz vocals with backing electronics and, or course, more horns that evoke a dream sequence from a Lynch film.)
Guardian Alien sadly cancelled, but it was a night well spent anyway, or at least I seemed to think so, as my night spiraled into raved-out oblivion at a strange Puerto Rican club where the only reasonably priced drinks were electric blue and came in fishbowls. I’m sure the members of BCNC went home and hung out with their cats or practiced the clarinet. They seem like they’ve got their shit together.
[Photo: Emily Wheeler]