The Thermals / History / Reporter
The Black Cat; Washington, DC


Maybe the guy holding the bloody rag to his head outside the club would portend the other events of the evening. This would be my third Thermals show of the year (one in Portland, Oregon and once before at the Black Cat), and even though the previous performance had been sold-out, none of the crowds reflected the fire and anger The Thermals detonated on their newest album The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

This time the club seemed empty. The Black Cat is a dive-bar with bad sightlines and a stage that is elevated a few feet off the ground. If you stand below six feet tall and you are not right up front, you’re screwed. There is also the “lounge” in the rear of the room replete with musty couches, cigarette-singed tables, and some withered chairs. It’s a good place to wait and have a drink while hapless opening bands drone on and on.

At least the place has character: low ceilings and cramped bathrooms. All that is missing is the obligatory haze of cigarette smoke that has gone the way of the Beta cassette since DC banned smoking indoors. We walk right up to the front.

The Thermals took the stage some time after 11 PM. Billed as a threesome -- Hutch Harris on vocals and guitar, Kathy Foster playing bass, and Lorin Coleman hitting the drums -- The Thermals had carried another guitarist the last two times I saw them. This time they came on as three. Where was the fourth guy? Two weeks eclipsed between my first shows in the winter, and during the second one, the guy had done something to his leg; he wore a big cast and had to sit on a stool. Maybe he just evaporated. No Spinal Tap jokes, please.

The roughly one-hour set favored tracks from Body. In fact, they played the entire album, peppered with songs from More Parts Per Million and Fuckin A such as “No Culture Icons” and “How We Know.” Harris leaped and yelped about the stage, neck strained, veins rough cords, like a Billie Joe Armstrong before he discovered the spread-legged Rock God stance. Foster kept up on the bass, her curls bobbing and eyes rolled up.

But how did it sound? The first few songs were bass-heavy, making it hard to hear Harris’ vocals. The tempo of a lot of the songs had been sped up. There was very little stage banter (and after hearing Kevin Barnes’ banal nonsense a few weeks before, this reviewer is glad) and the band ripped through a lithe set in what seemed to be no time. Songs such as “Back to the Sea” took on a new life, the droning structure gaining urgency not found on the album. The Thermals poured energy into each and every song, including highlights like “An Ear For Baby” and the first set-closer “A Pillar of Salt.”

On their newest record, The Thermals incorporated a lyrical bias against church hypocrisy that added a potent message unheard in previous songs. But this significance seemed lost on an audience that stood stone-cold in the half-filled room (except the four or five teenagers that tried to scrabble to the front for most of the show). As Harris tore through tirades against natural disasters, the price of oil, and Nazis, most stood impassively and sipped their Yuenglings. If lyrics such as “Our power doesn’t run on nothing/ It runs on blood/ And blood is easy to attain” or “They can tell what to read/ They can tell me what to eat/ They can feed me and send me the bill/ But they tell me what to feel?!/ I might need you to kill” don’t get you pumping your fist and angry, what does? Harris must have wanted to let the lyrics speak for themselves rather than pontificate. At one point, he told the crowd, “DC! You speak my language!” I wonder what the hell language was he talking about.

The Thermals returned for a brief encore comprising of a Built to Spill cover (“Big Dipper”) and their light, rollicking theme song “Everything Thermals.” At the end of the set, Harris promised to see the crowd “next year.” The place cleared out pretty fast after that. The bloodied guy decided not to stick around, either.

[Photo: Tom Oliver]

Man Man / The Extraordinaires / Men of Gentle Birth
The Union; Athens, OH


The pungent odor of beer and stagnant body odor permeates the air. The sound of clanging fire extinguishers, pots, pans and a variety of other miscellany reverberates from the stage and into the teeming, writhing crowd. The Union in Athens, Ohio is not the typical locale for the moderately visible band to play. An act of significant import usually plays the sterile, boxy stage at the Ohio University Baker Student Center. However, tonight, Man Man crowds its motley crew of white uniform-clad musicians onto a meager stage at a dive bar in a podunk college town in the middle of nowhere.

The anticipation before the show was palpable. Two opening acts got the night off and running: Athens' own cerebral indie-pop outfit, Men of Gentle Birth, as well as South Philly's the Extraordinaires, who describe their sound on their website by conjuring up images of Shaq slam dunking a b-ball. Both bands seemed a likely introduction to Man Man's general inexplicability, especially the Extraordinares with their bizarre onstage personas and affinity for animal- inspired toggery. Early in the night, rumors were flying about that the show's nearly hour long delay was caused by the boys of Men of Gentle Birth and their inability to finish their dinner on time. Whether or not that was the case, their dilly-dallying resulted in a very short opening set.

The Extraordinares, on the other hand, played a sprawling set including, among other things, carnival-esque folk ballads and a lackluster cover of "Maneater." The guitar-driven band often shouted at the crowd, spewing somewhat indistinguishable melodies. While their set was entertaining enough, it seemed to drag on, yielding one jangly tune after another.

Man Man descended upon the stage in a rather whimsical fashion, donning embellished hats and wielding bedazzled dream catchers in hand. War paint coated their faces. They sported their traditional costume of white t-shirts and trousers. In interviews, Man Man's members often regard this clothing staple as a way in which to pull the emphasis back to the music and performance element of the show. Indeed, this seemed to be the thematic idea of the night, seeing that the band didn't stop once to casually converse with the audience or take a break between songs. The irreverent energy was led by the group's eccentric front man, Ryan Kattner, a.k.a Honus Honus. His frenetic percussive clanging and unintelligible vocals mixed into a sort of symphonic cacophony that could only be matched by the sound of a Jack in the Box leading the chants of Amazonian tribesmen.

The only difficult task of the evening? Imagining an instrument or banging object that Man Man didn't utilize. There were flute interludes, jingling bells, and even an old-style slide whistle. Man Man's inventiveness didn't end there, either. While flailing about the stage, band members often kept time by smacking amplifiers or pounding on the walls. The icing on the proverbial cake--although I wouldn't have been surprised if one was used as an instrument--was the presentation of our old favorite, Weebles. Certainly, the round, musical toys wobbled, but they didn't fall down.

The inclusion of the band's most recognizable song, "Engrish Bwudd," off their 2006 release Six Demon Bag, sent the crowd into an even more audible and visible frenzy, as if their earlier musical craziness wasn't enough. The set focused mainly on the releases from Demon Bag but also included enough from their 2004 album The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face to appease those die-hard fans who loved them before all of you hipsters did. And as if this wasn't enough, Honus Honus broke his adamant stance on white clothing and suited up in a iridescent, sequined black top and matching headband. As if sensing the crowd's extreme discomfort with the escalating heat of huddled bodies, he then doused the audience with bottled water in a manner befitting a holy man cleansing his followers.

Surely no one embarks upon the experience of a Man Man show expecting to leave clean, dry or with their entire hearing capacity. The visceral stench, sweat and ringing of the ears is part of the band's enigmatic charm and lunacy. Reviewers, journalists or others who seek to categorize music may be tempted to liken Man Man's sound to everyone from Tom Waits to Animal Collective or any other artist who is vaguely experimental or who otherwise evades description. But there will be no pigeonholing of this band. Their most recognizable performative traits, of course, are their whirling, honky tonk melodies, energetic delivery and, of course, the Weebles.

[Photo: Mike Persico]

Josh Ritter
Workplay / Laser’ s Edge; Birmingham, AL


Last year, around the time Josh Ritter’s Animal Years was released, I got a chance to hear him play at Workplay. There was a dilemma, though: Black Heart Procession, whose spell I was then under, was playing the same night at BottleTree with Castanets and The Devics. I was happy as a little songbird, then, when Laser’s Edge, a local independent music retailer, announced that Ritter would be playing in the store several hours before his Workplay show. Unlike most nights in this town, which has begun to offer some tough choices in the way of national touring acts, I got to see Ritter strum his guitar for 30 minutes before I beat it over to BottleTree for BHP.

Halloween night was no less difficult. Celebration, Dragons of Zynth, and local cred-worthy up-and-comers Lonesome Spirit Device were playing a free show at BottleTree in the midst of a Halloween costume contest, where I later discovered that the winner was dressed as a Nikon camera and the award presenters were dressed as Nelson.

Despite my knowledge of all I would be missing on the hipster side of town, however, it’s true that I’ve been spinning the ambitiously named The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter since my promo copy arrived in the mail a few months ago. Also, I love it. I let myself become beguiled by the record’s one sheet, which tells a story of delightful barn recording sessions, and I imagined swaying horns skronking over messy bales of hay and “string sections screamin’ like horses in a barn burnin’ up,” as Ritter sings in “Rumors.”

So a friend and I belted up in our Ginny Weasley and generic cat-with-a-litterbox-filled-with-rolled-oats-and-Tootsie-Rolls costumes, respectively, and made it to Workplay about four songs into Ritter’s set. The band was costumed; there were two instrumentalists with a pink wig and a blue wig, a drummer with a half-mask, a guitar player in some sort of mummy get-up, and Josh Ritter, barefoot, dressed as a Greek god. Wearing a huge, boyish grin, he referred to himself repeatedly as Optimus Prime.

The band was evidently in a great mood, and their onstage banter and jaunty performance suggested as much. I sat with friends and listened intently during the quieter and more reverent songs such as “Girl in the War” and the philosophically lewd “Temptation of Adam” but was excited to run down to the floor and dance foolishly during more upbeat songs like “Night Moves,” “Rumors,” and “Real Long Distance.” For the most part, the audience was not of a like mind, and this is something that is annoying about many singer-songwriters’ live shows. There are usually rows and rows of staring, obsequious fans too enthralled by the songwriter’s poetic turns of phrase to realize that, hey, this is a FUN song. It’s upbeat. and, AND... I can DANCE to it! I mean, admire the lyrics during an intimate listening with iPod and liner notes in the quiet of home, right?

Fortunately, the crowd was a bit stirred up by Ritter’s rendition of the lovely “Kathleen,” which couched an unexpected interlude of Ritter reading (paper in hand) Vincent Price’s rap from “Thriller.” The band mimicked a few of the signature dance moves from the video, and Ritter’s goofy grin once again won over all the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings in the audience. It was quite an amusing spectacle, and something special since it was only to be caught on Halloween night.

Ritter played a brief encore that included “Harrisburg,” one of my favorite songs from 2004’s dynamite Golden Age of Radio, and “Lillian, Egypt” from Animal Years before announcing that the party would be moving to Laser’s Edge for a final midnight in-store performance.

Expecting a fun and casual setting, I dragged my Ginny Weasley to Laser’s Edge and walked in on a hush-hush audience once again adoring to the point of annoyance. We stuck around for the whole performance, which included lots of jokes and acoustic guitar sing-a-longs. Watching everyone try to keep up with Ritter during the wordy “To the Dogs or Whoever” was the highlight, and before we all expected it, the night was over. We bid farewell to “Optimus Prime,” who left a final impression by popping one of my litterbox Tootsie Rolls into his mouth and dousing the “litter” with blue Pixy Stix dust, “messing it up for the other cats,” he said, laughing, with that winning smile.

[Photo: Traci Edwards]

Two Gallants / Blitzen Trapper / Songs for Moms
Media Club; Vancouver, BC


It doesn’t happen very often – hell, my success rate of being told I’m on the guest list and actually being on the list is barely above 50-50 – but occasionally, I feel like I’ve ripped someone off by getting in free to a show. This was one of those rare nights. Not that it started off all gangbusters, mind you. The doors were supposed to open at the standard 8 PM, so my girlfriend and I rolled in blazed and mildly drunk at quarter to nine. With the inside of the hundred-odd-capacity Media Club pitch black, the nice man at the door informed us it would be at least another twenty minutes till he’d have some info for us. All we knew at that point was the bands weren’t there yet. I’m a stickler for detail myself, but what can you do?

We circled around Library Square with the justifiably striking union CUPE Local 15 till 9:40 when, by some miracle of fate, the advertised triple bill fashionably arrived. They set up with no time to spare for tuning or proper mixing and hit the stage without pause. Rawk ‘n’ roll!!! There was barely enough time to grab a beer before the openers Songs For Moms landed balls-deep in their set.

With Carey hammering away on a pared-down kit while Molly and Alana split the bass, guitar, and lead vocal duties, they constitute one of the most pungent all-girl power trios ever to come out of San Francisco. Their songs mostly ran in three-four time, but they jammed through their bluntly relationship-based waltzes and occasional post-punk, rock jaunts with all the swagger of a young Sleater-Kinney. The inadequate number of female attendees migrated steadily forward, feeding on the groundbreaking vibrations, forcing the guys to ditch their inhibitions and join in. Waves of swaying and nodding ensued. I haven’t seen a vibe like that for an opening-opening band in years. I gave the band props at my earliest opportunity, while picking up both EPs (a bargain at $8) and a t-shirt they had for sale. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for these guys, for sure. Hell, if I had a label, I’d have signed them myself. Thank gawd for nice surprises.

Next up was the real reason I was there: Portland’s favorite sextet Blitzen Trapper. Several month’s previous, I’d said in a review for their self-released third album, Wild Mountain Nation, that “it’s a wonder they’re not on a major label.” The next month, their signing to the famous Sub Pop was announced, leaving me feeling quite vindicated. Their set easily lived up to my own hype, mostly grinding out songs from their latest and obviously greatest record (save a bizarre track from a supposed unreleased children’s album, the likes of which Bruce Haack would thoroughly approve). Replicating some of the angular Steve Miller nightmare riff constructions off that album is no small feat with all those fingers, but they pulled it off in spades. Those six guys created a full, big sound for such a small venue. You can bet your ass it’ll be the last time BT will be seen there again, though. They seemed like honestly nice, down-to-earth guys from their stage presence and the brief conversation I had with a couple of them, so I’m happy for them.

Sadly, the late start forced my girlfriend home before the headlining Two Gallants, nor was I able to stay much longer, but I liked what I heard. They’re a duo from the Bay Area with roots in Robert Johnson delta blues, so White Stripes comparisons are a critic’s standard. However, from my vantage point, they’re completely unwarranted, no doubt formed out of journalistic laziness by their numbers, not by their music. Yes, they had a similarly explosive sound, but it’s pretty hard to be subtle and remain interesting as a pair with all that stage to walk around on. Adam Stephens picked away on his vintage red Gretsch while drummer Tyson Vogel exploded viciously on the kit, after initially building suspense with rubber mallets. This, in turn, beckoned Adam to cross over from quiet confession to vibrant, screaming expression. It’s easy to see why they’ve been playing together since childhood ‘cause they push all the right buttons for each other.

The whole experience was fantastically inspiring. The one-two-three knockout punch of bands all clearly on the upward path paid off in one of my most thoroughly enjoyable concert experiences of recent memory. I’ve found myself waning on the whole music thing, but this show totally reinvigorated my life’s passion. For all these reasons and more, this show was a robbery at the price of admission.

The National / The Forms
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY


After staggering through the new & im-poshed (and eerily familiar I might add -- Bowery Ballroom, anyone?) basement bar entrance of what used to be Northsix and hissing "I hate it" to my girlfriend Liz about 57 times, we make our way into the small crowd that has gathered in front of the (now fucking humongous) stage. I tap a guy on the shoulder and ask if the opening acts have gone on yet, and he's refreshingly friendly, telling me the first act had already gone on, prompting me to feel slightly ridiculous about dreading a show in Williamsburg.

Four young'n'earnest lads shuffle onstage and treat us to some of the prettiest four-part harmonies I've heard since Mrs. Woolever's select chorus. The Forms are pretty cute, and their drummer gets ten points for having obviously taken music theory, but sadly, their scope is limited. Some semblance of fingerpicking is needed to break through the albeit pleasant but monotone wall of guitars, but there is none to be found... sort of like hearing an instrumental Sunny Day Real Estate break on repeat. Launching into a cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies," The Forms induce a bit of a sing-a-long, but we're restless. After dedicating their final song to Reggie Jackson, they pack it up, and I run downstairs for another G&T, which causes me to run smack into my junior prom date. I kid you not.

Back upstairs, Liz informs me that we have a "music critic" on our hands. He is standing directly behind us and expounding on his infinite knowledge of rock music, which includes the following fun facts: (1) girls don't like classic rock; (2) girls don't like any type of music featuring a deep voice; and (3) girls don't like him, and that is why he is waving his arms around pretending to know what he's talking about. (I made that last one up.)

Moving along. The National takes the stage, and Matt Berninger gives Northsix a nod, mentioning that they used to practice in the basement, which now houses a bar. Berninger doesn't look like he's quite sure he's allowed up there, but his warm baritone eases us right into “Brainy,” an ethereal, drum-driven track from Boxer, an album that you've heard of by now, I'm sure. The crowd is small but focused. I'm guessing most people caught them the night before with electric guitar songstress St. Vincent, and it's a relief to not be fighting for space. I perk up when I hear “Mistaken For Strangers,” a song that at one time signaled how my boyfriend-girlfriend housemates were, uh, wishing to be left alone. I look around and realize that most of us are couples in various states of tenderness ranging from “get a room” to “awww.” Girls don't like The National, indeed.

My personal highlight is a charged-up rendition of “Squalor Victoria,” including a calculated yet sparkling guitar interlude; you can tell the kids have been waiting. I spot my junior prom date across the crowd and can't help but crack a smile. And as always, it is a great day when a roomful of Brooklyn concertgoers raucously applaud a violinist. Gets me right in my orchestra-geek heart. I'm a relatively new fan of The National; so many songs sail by unnamed. But at no point am I bored, which speaks volumes of this band in concert. There's enough for me to recognize, however, and when a cute girl comes out to play tambourine for “Fake Empire,” I'm genuinely happy. (Note: I have been informed that this “cute girl” is Marla Hansen, a member of My Brightest Diamond and also a member of Sufjan Stevens' brigade. Sweet.) The crowd sings along in a hush, which is at once eerie and romantic, to say the least. The band rounds out the “official” segment of the show with “Start A War” from Boxer, and at the song's close, a throaty voice screams, “BEST. CONCERT. IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.” Okay, sure.

We are treated with a lovely, long encore, and the veteran fans are feeling it because the final song of the evening is “Mr. November” from 2005's The Alligator. With a final shy grin, Berninger exits, and every couple has one thing on their mind: getting home as quickly as possible. Oh yeah.

Girl Talk / Dan Deacon
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA


Dan Deacon was scheduled to open this show as a supporting act that has arguably become larger than the headliner, Girl Talk. In truth, I was most excited to witness a performance from the man whose shows are increasingly mythologized in exclusive circles of quirky hipsters and Magic: The Gathering enthusiasts. As it turned out, Mr. Deacon failed to show (due to the now infamous "coughing up weird chunks of yellow+blood" incident), and the only indication of his slated appearance was a gigantic green spider placed on the right of the small stage.

While most in attendance seemed understandably disappointed, the energy in anticipation for Girl Talk was incredible as the crowd bided time before the dance party that would eventually erupt. Thankfully, Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis did apparently drop by that night, though I don’t think I ever saw him above the many craning heads and cool haircuts. I might have heard him say something through the sound system, but I can’t be entirely certain of that, either. All I really noticed was the crowd pressing toward the stage, mounting it, and then dancing convulsively. I’ll concede that I, too, engaged in a bit of ironic dancing — it was nearly impossible not to, given the club-like atmosphere and the conveniently empty bars.

While all the familiar elements of Girl Talk’s mash-ups were present, including the tendency for tracks to jump from one to another with little or no transition beyond those linking samples several times per song, the pieces of tracks were assembled differently than they were on the last record (Night Ripper), a fact that contributed a novelty to the show that also made it feel more like a rave than I maybe would have liked. Considering the emerging feeling that I was at some sort of indie rave (and yes, glow sticks were twirling) and the presence of that giant green spider, I felt that drug use was likely all around me. It had to be, now that I really think about it. What else could possibly explain hundreds of hipsters getting crunk to music that they would never listen to without an über-cool DJ who makes the effort to splice “Juicy” with “Tiny Dancer”? When I see kids in skinny jeans and high tops go apeshit for the detonation of Top 40 hip-hop, I can’t help but wonder if they do the same on the weekends in the clubs downtown. My guess is no, but I suppose that’s one of the beauties of indie culture: neither consistency nor rationality ever seems to have found its place.