Willis Earl Beal
Schuba's; Chicago, IL
Presence, stage presence, is an unwieldy weapon. Ambling between concrete musical talent and presenting self and work as a spectacle people would be interested in dropping $20 to catch a train and show up at a venue laughably over fire capacity is a needle point some musicians take care to tread. They’re admirable musicians. But like Francois 1 or Derrick Rose (when his career’s over, they’ll be in the same tier of history), some dudes are just fucking born with it. The ease they radiate in snaring a crowd is infuriating and the tandem hatred/admiration only surfaces after you leave the show.
Willis Earl Beal has a backstory constructed meticulously from Americana mythology Kerouac supplicants can only fetishize; joined the army, discharged, bummed around in Albuquerque, left cryptic drawings and CD-Rs around, discovered by tastemakers as a force of both storytelling and American music tradition. After seeing Beal in flesh and Ray-Bans, I think that’s all a front. I think he actually pulled himself out of an unfinished Jarmusch script to walk the earth and spread the word of “swagger” from the Delta Blues and the rock & roll of the mid-decades of the 20th century. He has the off-kilter oddball gait and cadence of Tom Waits (his acknowledged hero), the good looks of a young Chuck Berry, and the caterwaul of Lead Belly. He’s so goddamn cool he could roll a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and no one would call him an asshole.
His CD release of Nobody knows. at Schuba’s saw him for the first time outfitted with a full, highly capable band. Foregoing his staple Wayfarers for a black Venetian mask, the set saw a seasoned Beal parsing through Louisiana Pentecostal devil shake-downs, 12 Bar Chicago Blues sweats, and the hot-breath confessionals that marked Acousmatic Sorcery. I use the descriptive “seasoned” intently; at a young age, Beal is a showman, and a good one. Schuba’s was so full I stood on a wooden bench lining the venue like a kid at an overcrowded 50s dance hall, and I didn’t mind. His theatrics and stage positioning changed scene with every song; writhing on the floor, perched on the stool, wobbling on the mic stand. His astoundingly level speaking voice in banter between songs provided a (probably intentional) confusing contrast between the hard-life bluesman he affects and the “outsider artist” he purports. In Beal’s own words, “I equate the live experience with watching my uncle sing songs drunk.” With the nephew, it’s impossible to tell whether he cracked the bottle or drained it.
Since he began garnering attention, questions of authenticity and presentation have swirled around Beal. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what percentage is facade and what percentage is pith. My dad’s been a blues-bar musician for nearly 40 years, and I grew up in rural Indiana with appreciation and reverence for the sneer and saunter music embodies. I know of way too many acts today who clad their name in neon prints and perform what amounts to an aerobics routine without ever touching an instrument. When Willis was done, he walked off stage-left and into a sweltering Chicago alley.
Zola Jesus with JG Thirlwell & Mivos Quartet
Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral; Brooklyn Heights, NY
This shit was a listed event, which I attended under pal Stephen’s name, yet they let me in without ID, so really anyone could have just snooped a name on the list and got in at the door. But it took place in a legit CHURCH, making me feel a mixture of knowing I’ll end up sore by the end of the “service” and potentially bored, but my accomplice and I found a solid pew up front and to the side, much to our excitement. My girlfriend (also attending) felt the church gave her a guilty vibe, which I wondered what others took from it too, considering most of Zola Jesus’ shows are, well… not in churches.
A suited dude (JG Thirlwell: crucial music legend) came out with feathered hair around headphones on both ears, followed by the Mivos Quartet. Then Zola Jesus came out in an unflattering dress (making it WAY more flattering), introduced herself, thanking everyone, and began with the first track “Avalanche (Slow)” off her 2013 album Versions. The Mivos Quartet strings were featured most in the accompaniment as JG Thirlwell’s was conducting, trying not make a full cross while standing in front of the altar. And Zola Jesus was fucking serious. Which was appreciated in the world she builds musically AND the world she placed us in that night.
Zole Jesus let it all out there too. Way unabashed and beautiful, completely free in the moment comprised so intimately, while welcomed guests nodded and moved their shoulders. And as she continued through her album, she strolled around the audience, who were stiffly trying to keep an eye on her. Not really, but really, there was a pew marked/reserved for the full cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Then she played a track for Sacred Bone’s owner Caleb; a track she has never played live before. During this track she jerked around less while singing. I’m actually listening to it now, but am unfamiliar with the name of it: I got everything/ I got it going on/ I’m not going home without a fight x2/ And I will only wait for so long. Ben Greenberg, who also attended, suggested I don’t share the live recording, which he’s right: it wouldn’t do her voice justice.
As she walked back to the accompaniment, Zola Jesus adorned the altar after stating she was performing her last song, and sang it on high. My girlfriend and me appreciated that because people had periodically tried to stand in front of us to take photos and such, but we I gave ‘em good New York taps and line-of-sight motions to move. But “Collapse” wasn’t sung last, though it’s her last track on Versions. However, before she sang “Collapse,” she mentioned the song was about the audience, which interestingly enough put the attendees at a fair, but awkward distance from Zola Jesus; her statement made “Collapse” a performance than a preach piece, and I really dug that.
“Fall Back,” the last song, ended with the strings as she left, but then came back as they all bowed down, and we bowed OUT to try and beat the crowd. Like an IDIOT, I tripped out the pew, just after watching my girlfriend do the same, only I lost my balance and got handy with one of the Sacred Bones people, which consisted mostly of hair; totally professional shit; PAY ME! On that note, we booked it outta there faster, found a cheap pizza joint around the corner from that Brooklyn Heights classicism shit, and feasted post-Yom Kippur style on a full meal at $7.14.
Soliton (Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf)
Monarch; Berlin, Germany
Soliton — a recent collaboration between Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf — played the only set of this particular event to an audience sitting on red velvet stools beneath still-in-Saigon ceiling fans: a Sunday night’s light entertainment, short and, as they say, sweet. Well, sweet may not the most apt of descriptions for the sounds, but it might be apt enough for the warm feelings induced in my innards. And I say short, though I don’t really know; the sense of time passing was lost to me as the music quieted my inner monologue’s inane witterings. But when the pulses, thrums, and clattering were abruptly withdrawn with a quiet off-mic “thanks” from Gräf, I felt both calm and — like some other members of the audience — that more would certainly have been welcome.
Jenny Gräf (one part of Metalux, sound and film artist) synthesized sounds by turns murky, grainy, jagged, or shrilling; she sang too, all meaning lost along the signal chain; sometimes she looped little guitar figures, also quickly lost in the mass of sounds created with or processed through a particularly intriguing device, the tranoe. One, I’m told, of only four in the world, it’s a synth that can be patched in any which way, including skin contact: an interestingly tactile instrument, put to good use in the construction of diverse and gritty sounds. And while Gräf provided the texture and much of the shape of the performance, Corsano’s ever-frenetic drumming was responsible for driving up the tension, pushing and pulling on Gräf’s muddy loops and distorted vocals. As he has been known to do, Corsano manipulated the timbre and pitch of his drums with blocks of wood, bowls, and other miscellaneous objects without even so much as hinting at slowing down, circling around the beat and studiously avoiding the temptation to lock too rigidly to it — not so much accompaniment as provocation.
Afterward, Corsano told me he would rather push things toward falling apart than just watch it happen; maybe so, but from an external perspective, the way the two played off each other was pleasing. Soliton may be a newish collaboration (this was their fifth show), but the two are old hands at collaborating, and it’s easy enough to see in their give-and-take. Their combined tendency to avoid stagnation ensured it was a performance that never became settled, never too satisfied with finding itself or anyone else. Taken with the abrasiveness of many of the surfaces provided by Gräf, this might seem to preclude inducing any sense of bliss or tranquility; all the same, at the end of the evening I left with a peaceful feeling.
The Echo; Los Angeles, CA
While everyone in Los Angeles was anticipating the sold out Pixies shows at the El Rey and Mayan Theatre next week, Frank Black & Co. threw a curveball by announcing a secret show at the tiny yet historic Echo. Just four months ago, The Rolling Stones played a secret $20 show downstairs at the more spacious Echoplex, and not to be outdone, Pixies not only charged $10 less, but also capped the tickets at 100 so everyone could have a little space to enjoy the spectacle.
A mere eight hours after the gig was announced, the band took the stage, wasting no time with banter and immediately getting the crowd rocking with a duo from Surfer Rosa, “Brick Is Red” followed by “Break My Body.” For a band that hadn’t played live in almost two years and was introducing new bassist Kim Shattuck for the first time, their 28-song set was tight, aside from when Black’s heightened self-criticism caused him to stop “Here Comes Your Man” 90 seconds in, saying his vocals were an eighth of an octave off. After a bit of banter with the band and the crowd, Black chose to move onto the next song and never return. Aside from that hiccup, this was truly a band in top form.
Shattuck fit comfortably into the other Kim’s impossible-to-fill shoes, killing all those much-beloved bass lines while lightning the stage with her upbeat energy. It was clear she was having a blast just being on stage with the boys. Joey Santiago was unsurprisingly terrific, seamlessly transitioning for the early portion of the show’s more downtempo pace to the second half’s more aggressive and noisy approach, while drummer David Lovering’s dutiful pounding was confident and unerring. And Black’s vocals held their own without Deal’s assistance, even if they’ve lost their edge.
After recent tours centering on Doolittle, last night’s setlist had a little something for everyone: six tracks off Surfer Rosa, four from both Trompe le Monde and the new EP, three off Doolittle and Come On Pilgrim, one from Bossanova, a Neil Young cover, and even a few unreleased songs for good measure. While the band’s freshly pressed EP1 has taken a beating in the music press for the past several days, it’s reassuring that the Pixies can still destroy on stage.
Brick Is Red
Break My Body
I’ve Been Tired
Motorway to Roswell
Another Toe in the Ocean
What Goes Boom
Here Comes Your Man
Something Against You
Wave of Mutilation
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Planet of Sound
Where Is My Mind
Sebadoh / Octagrape
Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO
Aug. 6 at the Larimer started off with a band called Octagrape, and the only note I could really think to scribble down during their set was “four dudes, eight grapes.” And it was true of them in a figurative-literal sense, I guess, but it also played a bit to their general doofiness, which helped to explain an awkward, if at times powerful and truly rocking, show from the opening act. The lead singer at some point in life decided he’s best while clenching the guitar in the armpit instead of using a strap to hold the thing up, while also keeping the microphone about a half-foot above the nose to make singing and playing at the same time as awkward a task for himself as humanly possible… And I can’t for the life of me get through this review without mentioning the time he stepped on his monitor, only to have the thing topple beneath him. And yes, he did indeed wind up flat on his ass! But I will say the whole spectacle added an odd and beneficial sense of suspense to the band’s Pixies riffs and epic squalls of chorus, a rock ‘n’ roll attack thrilling enough to inspire the lady in front of me to dance a very, very strange dance. As the crowd filed in throughout and the band tightened up over time, applause got heavier. Still, I caught myself peering at my phone’s clock on a regular basis. It’s a Tuesday night people; I have to work tomorrow, and by God, people are reading Tiny Mix Tapes live blog to read about Sebadoh! Let’s get to it shall we? We’re not getting any younger. We’re getting… older.
Which, by the way, will someone tell me whether or not I’m old? Nothing makes you feel more unsure about your age than being about 10 years younger than the average Sebadoh concertgoer, yet also being one of the only folks in your immediate surroundings who seems to know the lyrics to “Skull.” I’m not even exactly sure what feeling that phenomenon gave me, but it wasn’t “good.” However, my body fought my brain’s apprehensive disbelief and trembled before Sebadoh’s awesome sonics. It was the type of show that hurt the next day, mostly neck pain and a slight headache. Worth it. So worth it. And who cares about age anyway, right? I’m not quite at liberty to reveal the birth year of Lou Barlow, but dammit if he isn’t the best bass player I’ve seen in the last five years. One cool thing about seeing Sebadoh in the flesh is that it’s something of a great reveal as to who wrote which song, if you were like me and didn’t ever bother to research the liner notes of Bakesale. Loewenstein and Barlow’s voices are just so close to one another, but when you see Jason howling away for the climax of “Not Too Amused,” the world makes a little more sense somehow. And yeah, they played most of Bakesale, and yeah, that was a good thing. But the band also ripped through the entirety of their excellent new EP and even a couple of as-yet-unheard tracks from the forthcoming full-length, which promises to rule with a fairly hard and/or iron fist. In comparison to Octagrape, it was better, sure, but that’s not so much a diss to the former as it is just a fact of life; that Sebadoh got big in the age before the internet for a specific reason: They’re good. They write good songs. Bob’s a kick-ass drummer, etc. Best to not even worry about dealing with the why, and just recognize that you might have to put up with a sore neck the next day.
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY
The Julianna Barwick album release show at Judson Memorial Church felt like a music recital. The atmosphere was surprisingly adult considering most of the audience was 25 or younger. The church’s interior, which I was told is used for multi-denominational services, is beautiful, painted pale blue with stained-glass windows and a high ceiling. There even were white flower arrangements on the music stands (yes, music stands) in front of the empty chairs on stage. Barwick was the only performer, and it was hard to know what to expect. I’d seen her a few times before, always solo, and she always was fantastic at summoning the almost inhuman beauty of her music into a physical space, whether that was a dive bar or the Guggenheim.
I haven’t heard the new album yet, but from both what I heard at the show and recent interviews with her, it seems Nepenthe is a new direction for Barwick. Her last album, the stunning The Magic Place, had a consistent and winning formula: all of the songs started with a few lone ethereal sighs that built through looping into sonic jacuzzis full of flower petals or kittens or something else unbelievably calming. It was very nice, almost spiritually so (hence the appropriateness of her playing in a church). The new album seems like it takes a somewhat more experimental route. The songs she performed alongside a viola player and guitarist did not swell into climaxes and then sigh into silence, but had unpredictable structures and sometimes surprisingly stark moments of just her keyboard playing or squeaky viola sounds. Whereas on her first album each song was a gorgeous free-standing whole that was slowly illuminated into view and then dimmed out over the course of a few minutes, her new material feels more like a painting you never see in its entirety, different sections of which are lit up and then darkened again.
There is something otherworldly about watching Julianna Barwick perform; unlike many artists that employ vocal loops, there seems to be a distance between what she sings and what eventually is heard, and the melodies don’t add up as you think they will (the only other artist I’ve seen who does this in quite the same way is the under-appreciated Lichens). In the past, Julianna Barwick was always a solitary artist, and she’s spent most of her life making music totally alone, so the slight awkwardness and tentative feel of her collaborations was understandable. Later in the set, she had the girls from Prince Rama and two other women join her for backing vocals, which didn’t add as much as I’d hoped. She came back for an encore of one of her songs off The Magic Place, and her ease made it clear she is still much more comfortable as a solo artist. Then the concert was unceremoniously over, and we all drank the free champagne.