Wiz Khalifa / U-God / Jasmine Solano
The Aggie Theatre; Fort Collins, CO
I’d been meaning to check out a show at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, CO for a long-ass time, largely because I’m sick of driving to Denver; I figured it’d be a lot easier to take the dreaded “You’re not on the list” conversation if I hadn’t just driven an hour-and-change out of my way. It’s too bad, however, that I had to pop my Aggie cherry on such a strange concert. There’s no doubt the Ag’ has the space, live sound, and “pull” to bring in good bands and good fans, so seeing such a wildly inconsistent show has left me blaming rappers and/or rap in general.
A few notes to rappers interested in putting on concerts:
• Don’t scratch unless you can scratch cleanly; that fingernails-on-chalkboard warble sounds like dogshit.
• The one thing you should never, ever do is let your buddy/buddies sit on the side of the stage diddling a Blackberry while you do your thing. Between Jasmine Solano and Wiz Khalifa, there were 3-4 people onstage who not only looked bored, but were also somehow able to transMIT their boredom to all in attendance. When I see a 350-pound tour-bus driver on the side of the stage, flanked by some chick straight off a rugby-team bus and a scrawny white kid in a backpack — who looks so starstruck my wife thought he was Elijah Wood; I corrected her by reasoning, “There’s no WAY Elijah-fucking-Wood would (HA!) be standing on the side of the stage like a giddy vagrant; there’s just no way” — I assume the rapper(s) are needy. Rappers should never appear needy. Ditch the entourage!
• You don’t have to make the crowd sit around for FOUR HOURS; if the concert is listed to start at 8PM, at least BE IN THE BUILDING by the time 11PM rolls around.
• If some white kid — whose shitty rap group probably just got done opening for you — yells, “Get off the stage,” you gotta sink your FANGs into that motherfucker.
• Between-jam circumlocution is the lowest form of time-passing.
Now that I’m done giving pointers, I’ll jump into the review. Jasmine Solano takes the stage after a few unmentionable white rappers “kill it” (“it” being my boner for white-guy rap). She plays a few records. Eventually, she shows us she can do something worthwhile by bringing out U-God of The Wu-Tang Clan. I am ready for a set that hits the brain like “Cocaine straight from Bolivia,” and what I get is an unsure performance from a flu-addled rapper more suited to being a sideman. I can see he feels passionately about his music, and the aforementioned jeer directed at him (“Get off the stage”) gets him pumped-up enough that he dares anyone to take him off, but his set carries with it the feeling of inertia, of not knowing what to do now that the hype has thoroughly passed him by. And if you’re going to do medley-esque snippets, why not hit-up your slot on Only Built For Cuban Linx or Enter the 36 Chambers? I don’t get it.
Wiz Khalifa? Now that man knows how to work a crowd. Not only that, but he’s young and tattoo’d, just as a rapper should be. No nostalgia trips here; this is the sound of a young man who has figured out his style to the tip-top “T.” His charisma is as apparent as his booming, easy-to-understand voice; I almost forgive his entourage I’m so into it. I love the way his voice slippery-slides over the beats, like Nelly, 50 Cent, and a half-dozen Southern rappers had sex with each other and birthed one pure, destined golden child. What a bad-ass (and I don’t use the term “bad-ass” lightly; not at all).
I should mention that, at one point, I noticed Khalifa lip-syncing. Yeah, that’s right: He took the mic away from his mouth and the rapping continued. It wasn’t on a chorus, either. Was he faking the funk? I’d rather not examine it because I really don’t know; it’s possible parts of the show were canned, it’s possible just that one snippet was. I do know what I saw though; take note and hold rappers to their mics! If Khalifa ever does iron-out this discouraging hiccup (that hiccup being, ahem, a partial lack of actual rapping), there’s really no telling how high his wicked brew of weed tales, tattoo declarations, and trash-talk can take him, even in a live setting rap so-often fails to take advantage of.
Memory Tapes / Birds & Batteries
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA
Despite being one of the only San Francisco public city services that measurably and directly benefits taxpayers, our bus system – Muni – is always first on the budget chopping block. Service cuts hit hardest at the end of the month, so I missed Letting Up Despite Great Faults because my bus was horribly late. Other people at the show said they were fantastic. Thanks, 22 Fillmore, you really did me a solid on that one.
Luckily I caught most of Birds & Batteries. I love vocal harmonies and catchy beats, and B&B managed to pull off sounding funky without falling into the kitsch trap. They play guitar-heavy synth pop transported back to the 1970s via outer space, with all the bad things that happened between that decade and this one removed. Have you seen the “Future Sailors” skit from the Mighty Boosh? Birds & Batteries are reminiscent of a good, fleshed-out version of that. This band is on tour right now. I suggest you see them.
For a guy who’s never been on tour before, Dayve Hawk’s Memory Tapes does a much better job than many bands well-versed in live performance. It’s probably because his music is just so good he’d have to work hard to make it sound bad, and with the addition of live drumming and guitar, it sounded totally fantastic. It took me a while to warm up to Seek Magic, but live his work is clarified, catchy, and precise, more immediate than on the album. Vocals and instruments rose above sound effects. Indeed, a Memory Tapes record is for spaced-out, sunny afternoons; a Memory Tapes show is a place to let go and dance. We always need more of those. Thanks for giving us another one, Dayve.
Wild Beasts / Still Life Still
Chop Suey; Seattle, WA
About three minutes into Still Life Still’s 45-minute set at Seattle’s Chop Suey, I realized I wasn’t going to get through this review without mentioning Broken Social Scene. The young Torontonians would get high marks at Canadian Indie Rock College for their grasp of prevailing aesthetics and sonic concepts. Scruffy and half-bearded, their laid-back jams were charged with an energy meandering between raw and relaxed. Nothing particularly new there, but the band’s chemistry was effortless. They weren’t particularly tight, but they weren’t particularly tight in the exact same proportion to each other.
Wild Beasts, on the other, were extremely tight. And by time the English four-piece took the stage, the 250-capacity club was packed. On paper, Wild Beasts shouldn’t be perplexing: four guys playing two guitars, bas, and drums, pinning down grooves with brutal focus. Their metronome beats and precisely picked guitars compelled onlookers to consistent head-bobbing and concentrated ass-shaking.
But it was the vocal interplay that stole the show. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming share lead vocals, and the contrast between their styles is transfixing. Fleming’s voice is deep and steady, while Thorpe’s vibrato-heavy falsetto is startling, even unnerving, cutting through the thick instrumentation. They only indulged in a few vocal harmonies, but their traded vocal duties were clearly the highlights of the show.
Yet, while Wild Beasts constantly threaten greatness in a live setting, they’re a little too static overall. After building solid grooves and cranking up the tension, a lot of the songs stop as soon as you expect them to climax or change up the beat. They never build on the momentum. Still, it was a captivating hour of music and proof that, in a world of electronic music-making gadgets, a traditional four-piece rock band can still sound fresh on stage.
White Denim / Brazos
The Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO
In case you didn’t know, when it comes to band names, White is the new Black.
Fuck-fuck-FUCKK Black Lips, Black Hollies, Black Time, Black Eyes, Black Heart Procession, Black Milk, Black Rice, Black Dahlia Murder, Starless & Bible Black, Black Sea, Black Angels, Black Keys, Black Mountain, Blackstreet, Blackfield, Black Uhuru, Black Flag, Black Sabbath, Blackhearts (Joan Jett and), Black Box, Blackbyrds, Blackfoot, Black Sheep, Blackhawk, Blackjack, Black Oak Arkansas, Black Girls, Black moon, Black Lab, Blackwell, Black Star, and all the rest; give me WHITE Shit (a better-than-the-mothership side project of Big Business), WHITE Lion, WHITEsnake, WHITE (Barry), WHITE Hills, WHITE Lies, W-H-I-T-E, WHITE Stripes, Average WHITE Band, and, of course, WHITE Denim, perhaps the best-named band in all of America.
Although my wife and I failed to find matching white-denim outfits at thrift stores before the show, we did manage to listen to the entirety of White Denim’s Fits two times on the way to the Larimer Lounge in Denver. It was no preparation; I’m not sure if they used condensers the size of a small pick-up truck or recorded in an air-proof bomb shelter, but Fits doesn’t come close to harnessing the proud pummel-horse that is a White Denim show. So sick they should give H1N1 shots at the door, White Denim are a sexless three-piece with the chops of Comets On Fire, the drugganaut bluster of Black Mountain, the ham-fisted proto-punk power of early Melvins, and the endless-jam power of fellow power-trio Titan.
Rarely giving the crowd the chance to catch their breath, W. Denim covered our noses with an ether-soaked rag of technical virtuosity, only letting up occasionally to look at each other and burst into another long-form creation full of stops, starts, ticks, tocks, ups, downs, breakdowns, shakedowns, stutters, hesitations, jukes, jives, staccato, arpeggio, triple-F blastissimo, and more tricks I don’t know the names of (and wouldn’t want to). Best of all, W(M)D don’t have a saxophone, clarinet, flute, oboe, or trumpet player giving the audience a Talibam! teabag, so you can concentrate on the guitar, bass, and drums, which the trio derive so much life from you wonder why so many acts feel they need a 12-piece neo-classical arrangement to “wow” a crowd.
Any attempt to describe specific moments of this show would be akin to detailing a high-speed car crash in which I was a participant, so I’ll just say I was visibly shaken by White Denim, unable to do much save sweat, stare, and drool. They were so dead-on I seem to have blocked out the set by openers Brazos. But just let me say, there ain’t no Cane left for Brazos; there just ain’t.
The Black Lips / No Bunny / Jemina Pearl
The El Rey; Los Angeles, CA
Saturday night, I went to The El Rey in Los Angeles to see Jemina Pearl, No Bunny, and The Black Lips; despite the fact that the bill made complete sense, this show felt like three distinct events. Each of these bands makes their living portraying themselves as bad kids who aren’t really that threatening, which is really what just about every teenager spends their time doing. There’s no point being so bad ass that everyone is afraid to be around you; all successful and loved cool kids understand the difference between being a lovable rascal and a villain.
It may surprise you, but out of a pack of scuzzy boys toeing the line here, Jemina Pearl was probably the best at playing that role. It’s hard to see The Black Lips and No Bunny telling a crowd it sucks, but the former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman seems perfectly content to, “burn every bridge down on [her] way out of town” and “wave goodbye with a middle finger.” It’s not to say that she comes to a show with a predetermined attitude; she’s just more willing than most to engage with her audience in any way, including antagonistically. That’s what makes her so interesting to me. She’s an explosive performer, virtually incapable of ignoring the audience. For all the punk egalitarianism that’s represented by sharing the stage, bands typically treat those individuals as obstacles to play through. Pearl seems more interested in response than anything else, and on nights like this, when she doesn’t get it, she’s not afraid to give you hers. “Who here’s looking for trouble? No? Well maybe I’ll give you some of mine.”
No Bunny was up next, dressing conservatively in a pair of red briefs. He easily outplayed every other performance of his I’ve seen due, in part I’m sure, to the fact that this was far and away the largest audience I’ve seen him in front of. No Bunny is the type of act that benefits from the stupidity masses bring. By donning his bunny mask and wig, he has taken himself completely out of the equation and turned himself into the ultimate party cheerleader. He’s probably the best dancer since Chris Chris (winner of LVHRD’s first DNCHRD competition), and it’s pretty much impossible to resist throwing in with him the way some of his call and responses are designed. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, but the bros probably didn’t quite know what to make of it and held back. Oh yeah, there were bros. If I’m going to stick to high school clichés, then No Bunny would be more of your enthusiastic goof, whereas The Black Lips are easily the coolest kids in southern-tinged-garage-throwback school. At this point, I guess their reputation precedes them, and when you hear that a band has had to sneak out the bedroom window of an entire country (India), you expect to get rowdy.
I was vaguely aware of guitarist Alexander Cole playing with his teeth and jumping off the drum set, but I was far more engrossed in the power struggle playing out in the crowd as bros, fashion victims, and regular people collided. Things actually calmed down after a tiny girl decked one of the burlier guys in the face. The resulting armistice left me free to actually watch the set and remember just how much filler The Black Lips have produced over the years and how long they’ve been touring. The Lips are fifth-year seniors, and they’ve got copies of all the old assignments. Question 1A: play guitar behind your head. No one else seemed to notice, and cups continued to fly all night, but the sense that I was watching a band who had it all figured out grew and grew until Ian St. Pe, a guy who probably hasn’t worried what his parents thought for a decade, happily reminded the crowd, “It’s Saturday night and our parents are back in Georgia.” There are far worse things than being good at your trade but when it comes to compelling figures I’ll take someone with a little left to learn every time.
Stellar Om Source / Daniel Higgs / Zomes
Brickbat Books; Philadelphia, PA
Though I had romanticized it a bit in my mind the night prior, going to see a show at a bookstore isn’t really any different than seeing one at a more conventional indie venue. If you don’t manage to score the perfect real estate you’ll still be staring at the backs of heads, and the vast majority of those heads will belong to white men. The only difference, which may be a big one for the well-read aesthete, is that if the low-end gets especially heavy there’s a possibility that it may rattle the bones of some dusty text such that it jumps off the shelf and into your hands. Aside from absorbing some interesting sounds, I walked away from the night with a copy of Louis Althusser’s The Future Lasts Forever, the memoir he wrote about accidently strangling his wife to death during a routine Sunday morning massage.
Zomes is the recording project of Asa Osbourne, who used to play guitar in Lungfish alongside Daniel Higgs. As on his 2008 Holy Mountain Records debut, Osbourne’s performance gear consists of a series of pre-recorded percussion tapes and a keyboard run through several effects pedals that distort, fuzz, and sustain the phrases. The consequence is a mesmerizing and head-nodding pop world stripped of all frills; minimal, and confidently basic. The beats and simple pop phrases conjoin in a sonically sophisticated and architectural way, and while there may be better comparisons, the repetitive sounds instantly reminded me of Jackie Mittoo. Osbourne’s bare sound structures leave much space for autonomous thinking, namely for the listener to imagine the possibility of additional pop fills that the artist cleverly denies due to his well-practiced restraint and allegiance to pop minimalism.
Daniel Higgs has a sage presence that warms up a room. He’s some sort of hyper-spiritualized and worldly warrior/comedian who has returned from outside places to deliver coded messages, warnings, laughs, and blessings. Armed with a profound understanding of oratorical power, his mostly improvised parables and chants fully absorb the listener like opium. His banjo sounded like it was played through an amplified radiator, jagged and brushed with steel wool, transitioning between folk phrases and violent raga outbursts. While his stories and lessons are enticing, they quickly become preachy. Given our constant bombardment with persuasive language – the politician, the preacher, the monsters of advertising, the boss, the culture industry, and so on – silence and non-verbal sound may be more appropriate for healing and learning. Higgs’ aesthetic, though, is deeply rooted in the oral tradition.
The crowd significantly thinned during and after Higgs’ performance. By the time Stellar Om Source, the sound project of synth-lord Christelle Gualdi, juiced up her sound stations and got the green-light waves swirling around the room it was possible to see her furiously spinning and tweaking the countless knobs and pedals. Gualdi has created a sizeable discography over the past 5 or so years, though I’m most impressed with her 2009 self-released CDR, Ocean Woman. The moods and sounds are concurrently meditative and intense, flirting with New Age sound without falling into sweat-lodge-dehydration ridiculousness and pounding the keys toward some unrealized past or future world like fellow hypnagogist Daniel Lopatin. Her synth waves delicately washed over and pulsed through the room, soothing and blasting minds out into other spaces. Without being restricted by time and beat, the rootless sounds are free to linger and float, searching for some curious ear. Seeing this music performed live only increases the joy: leaping and grooving behind the multiple sound-stations like some deranged astronaut who’s attempting to remember which button delivers the ship to eternal bliss. Regardless of whether you prefer to call this recent return to the synthesizer h-pop or neo-Kosmische or something else, Gualdi is constructing some powerful sound-worlds that deserve exploration.
[Photo: Dan Cohoon]