The Black Keys
Moda Center; Portland, OR
On Halloween, The Black Keys stopped by Portland during their fall tour to play for us, and what could possibly be better than seeing The Black Keys on Halloween?! Well, for one, The Black Keys performing IN COSTUMES on Halloween! But unfortunately that didn’t happen. What did happen, however, was pretty great, anyway. They played the Moda Center, home to the Portland Trailblazers, 20,000 seats, and a really big stage. So it was nice to see that the duo added two members for the tour to round out their sound and fill up more of that expansive stage. While it’s not impossible to put on a great stage show with just two people, it’s a lot harder when one of those two is an immobile drummer and harder yet when the stage is humongous. The lighting was simple, no complex show competing for attention. Just four dudes, bringing the rock.
This Halloween, there was only one trick to go with the treat of The Black Keys; early in the show, a false curtain behind the band dropped to reveal a huge wall of lights. Not the greatest trick and not nearly as cool as it would have been to see Dan and Patrick in costumes, but when a band can put on a great show without relying on tricks, well, you can’t really complain.
Zona Tapes presents: FREEFORM
Radio Bushwick; Brooklyn, NY
So it was September 11, 2014 and the traffic going into Brooklyn from Long Island never changes: rubbernecking is by nature or something we collect socially? But goodness, we all get to where we need to go (most days), as did I upon arriving at Radio Bushwick, and just looking at the place, I’m thinking, My boii Andre (Zona Tapes CEO and coordinator of FREEFORM) moving on UP. This place is a legit-ass venue and bar, where the tender talks about paling ‘round with Rraro, and I’m just like, “Budweiser!”
Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut was first up on a player-piano with a fellah on drums. The build-up of this set — up and down, left and right — was enormous. Shurdut scaled just about every note, flinging fingers across the bones of percussion the piano contained. The drummer (borrowed-borrowed set) played everything: all cymbals with other cymbals, feet on drums, sticks inside spilled water glasses, etc. As the set constantly sifted between climaxes and declines, the duo was one with music and unmatched cooperation of sound; picture the percussionist hunched over just about every drum, muting them with a thousand silent beats, and Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut slapping the side-wood of the piano while scraping the key cover across the top; everything. All in all it amounted to about 45 minutes of sheer improvisational bliss.
Then came a furry of spontaneous jazz via Rob Magill. The back of Radio Bushwick’s stage was blue-lit, as was the room, with swells of breath and clicks from Magill’s beard against a tenor sax. Button-upped and tucked-in, he flared out a plethora of notes, by way of core-brainstem urges, into a single mic in front of band-less musical equipment, being filmed for a documentary by Alix Spence. And it was nearly a performance piece, unintentionally so: the constant sax playing and visual destination of the curiosity. Is there ever a moment you just know? Should he play more? Of course.
Next act was Kallie Lampel, whom I’d never heard before, but gave it a whirl because anything following a saxophone that entails a fellah sitting on the floor with two or three electronics means something drastically different, and was exactly why the night worked out so well in favor of Zona Tapes Presents FREEFORM aesthetics. Employing a sampler and some various (personally unfamiliar) effect [arrangements], the New York-based Lampel went boundlessly between timbres of life-like/-recorded sounds and melted, effects-driven squelches. Between unlocks and old samples, the set was more hip-hop-based than I initially expected, but warped into what DJ DJ Tanner does with crackle vinyl samples.
Dali Vision was up next, stocked up with his table-of-shit (as Samuel Diamond once eloquently put it to me), and unfortunately, the sound was sort of off for the first five minutes, or so. Eventually, the bass evened out with the treble and a vision of adventure emerged, as Dali traversed through scape after scape of sound and collage, on a journey of paradise and existence. With the action of Nick James and the voyeurism of AceMo, Dali Vision overcame the initial hiccup of Radio Bushwick’s set-up, and became the night’s bard, telling of a land not far from the future.
As Dali Vision’s set faded, Rob Magill Trio, including Sam Blum on drums and Shaine Scarminach on guitar. Instantly, they ripped apart the Bushwick neighborhood (audibly) until midnight. With blight matched only by the JFK runway, Rob Magill Trio, lead by Magill raising and lowering his arm, began an set of symbiotic mind cooperation. It was as if improvisation was merely fitting in puzzle pieces, when those last remaining bits began to slid in so easily, yet the images don’t match, is exactly how the three fell into a parallel. At the strike of 12, the well-oiled night, organized by Zona Tapes, came to an end as Zona’s founder DJ’d, playing out as I was leaving — and into the car, highway, and home I went, seeing a beam raised, still, in the rearview mirror.
Zu / Guardian Alien
Cave12; Geneva, Switzerland
Other than having incredible drummers, you might think there’s not much uniting Zu and Guardian Alien. One plays aggravated, hyper-surgical jazz-math rock, while the other creates fluid psychedelic universes that discard all structure. Yet even if Zu can be defined as the brutal yang to Guardian Alien’s more tranquil yin, witnessing the two groups at Geneva’s Cave12 on a humid Friday night revealed they have more in common than initially meets the ear. Namely, they know their shit when it comes to amalgamating chaos and control.
This sounds unlikely at first. Unlikely, because from the beginning Zu’s onslaughts were tightly wound and rigidly partitioned into dogmatic architectures, laid down by a tyrannical rhythm section that includes new drummer Gabe Serbian (also of The Locust, Cattle Decapitation, Holy Molar, and the recently reunited ‘supergroup’ Head Wound City).
The Italian trio’s execution (probably as good a word as any) was vastly more precise and meticulous than is proper to expect from a band dealing in such ridiculously loud volumes, with the imposing Goodnight, Civilization’s new material leaving the crowd without any room for maneuver. But even with this almost totalitarian level of accuracy and domination, it became apparent over the course of the 40-minute set their systematic aggression has one aim: the liberation of an unbound emotional response, which in my case involved going fucking mental during rampant versions of “Carbon,” “Chthonian,” and set-closer “Ostia.” This is why, throughout the relentless assaults, Luco Mai’s baritone sax flurried wildly over the mechanistic rhythms deposited by Serbian and Pupillo, in the end providing visceral evidence that wherever extreme rationalization takes hold extreme irrationality is nearby.
And it was with much the same paradoxical balance between awe-inspiring discipline and anarchic liquidity Guardian Alien took to the intimate Cave12 stage. Appearing as a three-piece of Greg Fox, Alex Drewchin, and Alex’s brother, Silas, the New Yorkers streamed through a playlist that reconciled expansive, freeform electronics with intense percussive athleticism and reworked sections of “Spiritual Emergency” and “See the World Given to A One Love Entity” into blends of metaphysical static undercut by torrential drumming.
Edges were blurred to the point of nonexistence as the crew’s gadgetry buzzed and oscillated restlessly from one plastic state into another, Fox’s long-suffering skins an aural blur of ceaseless change. As the night’s soupy rendition of “One Love Entity” burst into an all-consuming finale, and as Drewchin repeated the echoing chant of “All things one thing” with an increasing mania, the haziness of the band’s music — the lack of clear boundaries between one gurgling noise-cluster and the next or one amped paradiddle and the next — revealed itself as the perfect complement to their universalizing philosophy, denying the separateness of every musical note just as the band themselves deny the separateness of everything those notes could be said to represent.
I wasn’t the only one in awe of Fox’s drumwork, so forceful and loose, and how the threesome improvise the multifarious sounds of the universe’s necessary oneness, since the receptive Geneva crowd managed to coax the trio into performing an unplanned encore. Despite being an afterthought, this encore became a high point; not only were we treated to an unheard work that exploited a reverb’d, staccato guitar pulse to engender an eerie and unsettled atmosphere, but Fox also confirmed his subscription to his own worldview by carrying his snare into the crowd, where he and the two Drewchins became one with us all. Well, at least until we all left and went home.
[Photo: Baron von Kissalot]
The Mountain Goats
Wonder Ballroom; Portland, OR
In the past, I’ve used this live blog to air personal grievances. Whether or not it was proper, it was nonetheless publishable. So with apologies to Merge (who got me into the show for free) and Loamlands (who seem like lovely people and who play lovely music) and The Mountain Goats (who, no offense, put on a really tepid and somewhat patronizing show last night) and the many people who were clearly enjoying themselves (I don’t begrudge you), I would like to hone my focus entirely on the strange couple who stood in front of me:
Hi, couple. It wasn’t that you pushed through the already-existing, awkwardly partitioned, and funny-smelling crowd to stand directly in front of me. I’ve dealt with that at virtually every show I’ve attended since I started going to shows. It is — and was — a minor annoyance. But your positioning didn’t help. Between my eyes and the stage, you — the two of you — took up most of my field of vision, so I had to watch you, together, foremost. Every song was interpreted through — and worse — by you. “High Hawk Season” and “Black Molly” were alright — a few small pecks, some gentle PDA. “Old College Try” was a little more risqué (mostly light groping), but manageable. But what the fuck happened during the rest of the set?
It began with heavy groping and swaying to the beat of “Twin Human Highway Flares.” It morphed into making out, in starts and stops, to the pace of “San Bernardino.” It continued through “Linda Blaire Was Born Innocent,” and coalesced during “Tallahassee,” in a bizarre blur of ugly and spit and hands. All of this, during the same “Tallahassee” that sings prayers to summon the destroying angel. Listen, I’m no prude. I understand love and its physicality. But love and exhibitionism are not the same thing; the latter is a display of insecurity, and, yeah, it’s unfair to force others to watch. In the future, and in the spirit of infamous mistakes, would you please relegate your interpretive dance to the venue’s dark corners? The rest of us really would appreciate it.
Otherwise, like I implied above, the show was alright, I guess.
Man Or Astro-Man?
Le Romandie; Lausanne, Switzerland
I know we’re all a little jaded when it comes to reformed bands of yesteryear, and I realize it’s old hat to marvel at the necromantic power of the internet and its globalized fan bases to resuscitate underappreciated groups of past decades , but still, I’m a little nonplussed that the new Man or Astro-Man? LP didn’t receive more attention when it was released last summer.
Not only was Defcon 5…4…3…2…1 overlooked by the humble site you’re reading now (though we covered their set at Psych Fest 2013), but it was also denied the review treatment by “the essential guide to independent music,” which more or less entails that it doesn’t really exist. And this is a shame, because their first album since reuniting in 2010 is no mere nostalgic regression to the already “hyper-nostalgic” sounds of Is It … Man Or Astro-Man? and Experiment Zero. To give it my capsule review, it’s freaking ace, so it’s a good thing Tiny Mix Tapes got the chance to make amends, sending me all the way to a country none of us had ever heard of before, where I watched the quartet detonate their spaceage circus before a captive and impeccably sober audience.
Touching down to the anticipatory techno of “Defcon 4,” the Astromen said hello by immediately flinging themselves “Inside the Atom” with characteristic neglect for earthly standards of restraint. Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard may not have beamed down with them, but the Alambamian’s didn’t want for energy or exuberance, twitching and rushing around the small Swiss stage to the point where taking a non-smeared photograph was an impossibility. With their famed banter kept to an efficient minimum, they sped from one turbo-charged, uranium-soaked bombardment to the next, their selection balanced perfectly between older and newer cuts, ranging all the way from a scalding “Invasion of the Dragonmen” to a punishingly moody “Antimatter Man.” That said, their patented crowd interaction made the occasional appearance, since after a particularly rowdy version of “Sferic Waves” Birdstuff jumped into the crowd with a mic, handed it to some bearded and dreadlocked cheesemonger, and coaxed the guy into producing an indescribably profound hum for several seconds.
Then he announced that the band were to going to play “Aunt’s Invasion” by Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, at which point I mouthed a silent thank-you prayer to the Almighty, Steve Jobs. Without wanting to detract from the evil genius of Man Or Astro-Man?, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet are so great even Rod Stewart himself could come out, play one of the Canadian trio’s numbers, and then get back to his personal mission of euthanizing music, and it would still be one of the greatest gigs ever. And if their alive and affectionate rendition wasn’t enough, MOAM? topped it off with “Man Made of CO2,” which sounded no less crazy than its recorded template and yet all the more snappy and virile.
Things only became more energetic from there, with “Defcon 5” from the newie and “Maximum Radiation Level” from Experiment Zero being two simultaneously gleeful and intense highlights. Even 20 years after their debut, Man Or Astro-Man? exist in a dimension unto themselves, apart from any single rock scene or domain that might potentially dilute the novelty and impact of their sci-fi surf rock by reproducing it ad nauseaum. Of course, it could be argued their anachronistic “goofiness” has prevented them from ever representing modern life as it unfolds for millions of people, in all its pettiness and gritty detail, but it also could be replied that it’s precisely their seeming detachment from reality that makes the whole MOAM? aesthetic so pure and potent.
Either way, Star Crunch, Birdstuff, Avona Nova, and Victor Vector never let up from start to finish, with the noisy Vaudois crowd lapping up every second of their kinetic freakshow. After Birdcrunch praised a short, dancing guy in front of me for having a well-shaped head (seriously), they rounded off their set (and the European leg of their tour) with the Venusian one-two of “Destination Venus” and “Transmissions from Venus” before a final salvo of “Special Agent Conrad Uno” saw Nova dive into the pit with her guitar, much to delight of fools with cameras and the arm-waving chap she’d accused of flashing her halfway through the performance. And like the gentle astro(wo)men they are, the four-piece capped this overspilling closer by trashing their equipment, leaving us all with stupid grins on our faces as we were transported safely back to Earth.
[Photo: Baron von Kissalot]
00: Defcon 4
01. Inside The Atom
02. Evil Plans of Planet Spectra
03. Anitmatter Man
04. Put Your Finger in the Socket
05. Planet Collison
06. 9 Volt
07. Sferic Waves
08. Aunt’s Invasion (Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet cover)
09. Man Made of CO2
10. Invasion of the Dragonmen
11. Defcon 5
12. Maximum Radiation Level
13. Escape Velocity
14. Name of Numbers
15. Televsion Fission
16. Destination Venus
17. Transmissions from Venus
18. Special Agent Conrad Uno
Georgia's apartment; Chinatown, NY
I’m sitting at work, and usually when a number I don’t have saved calls me (which, I don’t have ANY numbers saved right now ‘cause I’m fucking with an old phone), I answer with my headphones plugged in, no mic, and just let the caller talk. I hear background chatter, a hang-up, and then a text: “YO man — private Sun Araw show in Manhattan in a few minutes man, totally forgot to invite you earlier. I’m so sorry!!! It will start around 6.” It was 4:30, and I’m out on Long Island. I find a train at Mineola (around the corner) that leaves at 4:53, I duck outta work telling ‘em I forgot about a dental appointment, blast it to the bank, blast it to the train, train is late by 14 minutes, buy two Four Lokos and two Black & Mild wine’s, train comes, I drink an entire can of Four Loko as I’m standing up, and arrive in the city around 5:20.
Around this time in NYC, especially the devil’s asshole that is Penn Station, people are EVERYWHERE. So I did some pushing, which was shitty, so I’m sorry if I pushed you yesterday and you’re reading this Live Blog. Ran around outside looking for the yellow line, couldn’t find it, the line to grab a cab was stretching back INTO Penn, and I see a dude on one of them bike gondolas. I grip a ride from him, his legs are individually both larger than my torso and he tells me something about Obama being in town, and I drink the second Four Loko, am probably smashed, and my buddy calls me and says, “We’ll wait 10 more minutes. It’s on the fifth floor. Ask for Georgia.” I get off the bike around Chinatown, see Fatima Al Qadiri doing yet ANOTHER interview, and the biker charges me $100 for the ride. -_-
SMASHED on booze and JACKED adrenaline, I run up to the door, buzz it and say, “Georgia, it’s Clifford, and I’m here for the show!” Georgia is a dude, which is chill, and hugs me SUPER tite. Alex Gray and Cameron Stallones already have played “Like Wine” and are in the middle of “Right Out of Town.” There’s hardly anyone here, maybe 20 people MAYBE.
I take a spot on the floor inches away from the aura Sun Araw is pulsating. Then they get into this original jam, unrecorded, and zones become deeper than dirt. It feels like Chinatown is going to stop all at once outside and look in. To the left, Stallones is occasionally shredding the most minimal licks while keying some slippery synth sounds. On the right, Gray is fucking around on a sampler and completely going to town on them buttons — maybe it’s a drum machine – flinging out tin bongo sounds, while he also moves his finger on a laptop mouse pad as if it is a Kaossilator, and it sounds like liquid metal, or as if all the programs and software on his computer are melting together. Once they finish flaying music into next-level dimensions, I foolishly forget they are about to do a collaborative tour with Laraaji and are all in New York ‘cause they are leaving that next day for Europe, and thus the legend joins them on stage.
The three played together for about 20 minutes. Honestly, I couldn’t tell who was doing what. The only time I noticed a single person’s sound was when they were either playing a solo-ish part or when Laraaji used the electronics to his left, or chose a different way to play his zither (options: fingernails, a bow, brushes, sticks). And Laraaji was decked OUT in orange, including a fanny-pack and fisherman’s hat, which blended well under the red lights above the stage and philodendron sprouting out from corners. I didn’t even notice it getting darker, but considering it was an early show, I didn’t give a shit. Oh, I also didn’t give a shit about most anything else ‘cause it was Sun Araw with Laraaji, live and intimate.
When they finished, Stallones and Gray came over and hugged everyone still in attendance. Georgia put out a bunch of wine, of which I probably had a bottle, ‘cause after I wished them a safe trip and I left, I gave a homeless lady $10 for walking directions to Penn and she hugged me really hard, and I don’t remember finding Penn or getting on the train. I just remember not being able to get into the other train car for the bathroom and now a train in Long Island smells like cheap wine. A passenger on the train asked if I wanted gum, but I couldn’t because of my braces, and Ken thinks she was picking me up. BOTTOM LINE: Sun Araw brings the adventure, always.
Red Bull Music Academy: Robert Henke's Lumière / The Haxan Cloak (US debut)
The Brooklyn Masonic Temple; Brooklyn, NY
I arrive with minutes to spare after bumping between Fulton and Greene for 10 minutes, stupidly having misread Google Maps. My thinking was not focused on finding the temple; I was considering the structural meaning of sound, how it is ensnared by language and such — fitting. I arrive at the temple, emerging out of a mass of classic, distinctly upper-middle class Brooklyn homes. Surrounding the temple is a large line, winding around the building. But there is a second mass — press. That was for me. I merge in, state my name — in. The temple features open hardwood floors leading to a stack of speakers and a fenced-off stage covered by a screen for projection. Hanging in the periphery, eclipsed by piercing spotlights, was the balcony, which is nearly full. I wait.
The thing about this performance is that the ideation of space, real space — so not the ideation, its point, weight in space — will be under attack. I’m excited by the possibility of being bowled over by sound, physical warpings of resonant frequencies and the congealing of sounds heard and unheard collapsing spaces within a zone. I remember the first time I heard “Taku” from Monolake’s Ghosts, the sound of a metal, spherical object hitting, bouncing, multiplying, and then dividing back into a singularity, sliding from one ear to the next.
Rising before his oddly jovial audience, Robert Henke appears docile and chipper, with a sheepish demeanor that’s infectious (isn’t it strange how shy and happy the “headier” musicians appear to be?). But despite his sheepishness, Henke requests no mobile phones be used during the performance, to which the crowd responds with strangely resounding applause. With a nod, Henke darts off the stage, appearing moments later behind a wall of projectors.
Although the press essentially calls Henke’s performance an advancement of the Pink Floyd laser-light show trope, the idea of spectacle is all but lost on me, as a single slither of light dots the massive screen. Before long, the room is submerged in dangerously low tones paired with panning drones and blistering snaps. Tumultuous, chest-shattering kicks strike and tumble half a breath behind the anchoring beat, as the two-dimensional, line-and-point-oriented lights shift into a generative and measured body of pivots and throbs.
I’ve always felt a romantic dystopianism in the sounds of dubstep, and Henke’s performance proves this to be more true than I initially thought. The fidelity-draining, form-twisting aspects of dub, applied to a firm beat pattern, is spectacular in its pinning-down of sonic qualities. Despite much of the “light show,” which was phenomenal in itself, the sound design is what strikes me the most: even as fog is expelled, bridging the lights toward an evolved three-dimensional prismatic shape, I am entranced by the uncanny valley-breaking sound objects employed by Henke.
Quickly after, The Haxan Cloak (real name Bobby Krlic) takes the stage for an intensely physical set. Through gauzes of white noise spiking suddenly into broad strokes of blatantly acoustic deconstructive scapes, my earplugs become a handy friend.
Russian Circles / KEN mode / Helms Alee
The Metro; Chicago, IL
Chicago is a brutal town. How brutal? A building on the south side caught on fire, froze over from the influx of water from firehoses, and then caught fire again while frozen. This city is brick and concrete and hard angles and six-month winters and natives who’d rather see a tourist get hit by a taxi than offer directions (myself included). Naturally, brutal music would spring out of this unforgiving soil.
Russian Circles fucking destroy live. I’ve been a huge nerd for this band since they played a show at my alma mater in 2007 in support of Enter, and they’ve only honed their craft in the ensuing years. It is dizzying how cavernous three dudes on a stage can sound, and the support for Memorial is their magnum opus of making and playing crushing, enormous, desolate music.
Everything about this show lined up. They played The Metro, one of my favorite venues in the city, and brought along two other trios, KEN mode and Helms Alee, as openers. A friend whom I was meeting at the show ran late and asked me to describe KEN mode in 10 words, but I only needed nine: “Hating god through a Drop D Southern Metal barrage.” I stand by the accuracy of my statement. Also: big ups to surprise hit of the night Helms Alee. Their show was all syncopation and prog riffs and making me wish I was alive for metal shows in the 70s.
The Metro was writhing by the time Russian Circles took the stage. The last time I saw them was 2011 at their Fun Fun Fun Fest aftershow in Austin, and Dave Turncrantz was still operating floodlights behind him with his hi-hat foot when he got the chance. Their set-up post-Memorial is now a solid two-row track light of pivoting flood lights and enough fog to give one/all of the Bronte sisters a ladyboner. Russian Circles have always been able to mold and cut a set list for maximal dynamics, but at this point they have it down to an art. From opening with “309” and slinging at least twice the decibels of Helms or KEN, Dave Turncrantz, Mike Sullivan, and Brian Cook covered the entire discography. My two favorites from the night were by and far “1777,” in my opinion their best-crafted song to date, and “Deficit” because it’s the most punishing track on Memorial and the second half of the song sounds like the most metal Zelda dungeon ever. Can that be the rest of my life, metal Zelda dungeons?
[Photo: Robert Elwood Photography]
Commodore Ballroom; Vancouver, Canada
Chances are if you have heard of any music venue in Vancouver, it’s the Commodore Ballroom. With a capacity of about a thousand, the Commodore is the tipping point between the city’s many fine clubs (The Cobalt, Biltmore, Fortune, etc.) and fabulously appointed concert halls (Orpheum, Queen Elizabeth, Vogue, etc.). It ties the city together, and there are few music venues in North America still thriving that boast its kind of history.
Designed in brilliant art deco style by H.H. Gillingham, the Commodore Cabaret was built in 1929. Unfortunately, that also was the year of the great stock market crash and subsequent depression, which had the effect of forcing the venue to close mere months after it opened. A section of the original stylized wall paneling is still on display near the coat check, a small piece of the art deco design puzzle that becomes rarer by the day in this terminal city presently infected by condo gentrification. To keep the Commodore alive in those lean years, the owners focused on dinner and dancing, with an evolving house big band (12-14 piece orchestras) the venue would maintain into the early 1970s. From the 30s to the 60s, the shadows of traveling artists Count Basie, Cab Calloway, George Burns, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tommy Dorsey all darkened its stage. However, it wasn’t until Drew Burns took over its lease in 1969, and changed its name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom, that it became iconic.
Under Burns’ direction, Captain Beefheart, New York Dolls, Kiss, Tim Buckley, Bo Diddley, Canned Heat, Talking Heads, and the Ramones all played there in the 70s, including the first Vancouver appearances by Patti Smith, Blondie, Devo, Tom Petty, The Police, and the North American debut of The Clash. The ’80s saw gigs from U2, XTC, the Cure, the Cramps, Iggy Pop, Gang of Four, Echo & The Bunnymen, Pixies, and others, while the 90s hosted the likes of Nirvana, The Pogues, The Buzzcocks, Primus, Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Beastie Boys, David Byrne, P.J. Harvey, Jesus Lizard, Stereolab, and too many more to name here.
Good times can’t last forever, though. When Drew’s lease ran out at the end of 1995, his vision went with him. The venue sat empty for three years, leaving a big hole in the local scene, until Live Nation (then House of Blues) dumped $3.5 million into renovations, replaced the bouncy dance floor and colored bubble pillars with a more subtle design, and started filling the venue with impressive names again. Under their control in the 2000s, the Commodore landed marquee performances once again, even convincing Tom Waits to play his first club show in nearly three decades to commemorate the venue’s 75th anniversary.
The great sightlines of the open floor design make the Commodore a near-perfect place to see an explosive artist like St. Vincent. Her sound is so vibrant, her performance so captivating, both of which have exponentially improved even since her last appearance at the Commodore in 2011.
Indeed, a former Polyphonic Spree cultist and touring bandmate of Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark has been through a lot of changes. She released her major label debut, moving from the legendary independent 4AD to a Republic sub-label for her eponymous 2014 record, which has reached her highest point on the U.S., UK, and Canadian charts yet. Her music popped up on Boardwalk Empire and Twilight, while her appearance on a Season 4 episode of Portlandia all but cemented her pop culture relevance for this generation. Perhaps most importantly, though, her 2012 full-length collaboration and tour with David Byrne (who also has multiple Commodore appearances to his credit) seems to have given her wings on stage and in life. It’s with no false modesty that her new album was self-titled. She has just arrived.
Eventually, the lights dimmed and, after fashionable pause, the synth lead from “Rattlesnake” kicked in and Clark drifted into position. She was totally pale, save her piercing blue eye-shadow and a floral disemboweling on her summer dress, her wild blond mane channeling the kind of Einstein-crazy of which Wayne Coyne would approve. Clark’s guitar sound and technique is impossible. It sounds something like Steve Vai or Tom Morello, but placed in an indie art-pop context well beyond the comprehension of either. On this tour, she relied on supporting guitar/synth player Toko Yasuda (formerly of The Lapse, Enon, and, briefly, Blonde Redhead), keyboardist Daniel Mintseris (who Clark later introduced as “a priest of ones and zeroes”), and percussionist Matt Johnson (“thrower of hot lava” and former drummer for Jeff Buckley) to create the skeletons for her to flesh out with her elegant vocals, delivering cerebral yet relatable lyrics, and tasteful guitar. She shreds with alien theatricality, ever mind-boggling yet never showboating, favoring intuition over classical training as a dozen assorted pedals forge her distinctive timbre. Her voice was incredible too, an angelic tone pure as the driven snow one minute and modulated with guttural tones the next.
Apparently working with artistic director Willo Perron (of Lady Gaga fame) and choreographer Annie-b Parson for this tour, Clark gave off a far more confident vibe onstage than she did when I first saw her at the 2010 Calgary Folk Fest. She seemed reluctantly thrust into the spotlight by her undeniable talent and vision back then, just after her sophomore album Actors hit the shelves. Now, her nervous energy has been channeled into effortless smiles and plot-driven gestures, like trading skitter walks with Yasuda as they swapped riffs, slowly rolling down a set of stairs at the back of the stage, taking her pulse during “Digital Witness,” and head-banging harder than Beavis and/or Butthead on “Your Lips Are Red” (which bore little resemblance to the version on her 2007 debut Marry Me).
Some of the biggest cheers and sing-alongs went to older material, namely “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” from 2011’s Strange Mercy. Her set-list heavily favored her new album, though, and she did an amazing job of balancing her older tracks with her present style, having evolved from its comparatively simplistic beginning and baroque development to the maximalist noise-pop present, what she described as “a party record you could play at a funeral.” Nothing was played exactly as it was on record, but nothing was alienating. The arrangement for “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” from Actor was more dramatic than the studio version, using electric instead of acoustic guitar and driven by digital strings rather than embellished by an organic string section, likely out of necessity but employed to great effect. The titular track from Strange Mercy received the most drastic change, performed in the encore with only Clark’s emotive vocals and mournful electric guitar.
As of late, the Commodore’s soundsystem has been sounding tired, the victim of too many excessively loud shows tipping over the distortion boiling point, yet Clark held it together admirably while demonstrating Bowie-level charisma. While Yasuda added essential ingredients on the Theremin and Moog Voyager, Mintseris triggered choir and synth patches with a MIDI keyboard, and Johnson filled in the blanks on a hybrid drum kit, you couldn’t take your eyes off Clark for a second. She twitched, shrugged, and nodded, burning a hole in the fabric of space/time with her smouldering glare. She’s unreal. It doesn’t seem possible by the laws of physics and chance that a human being could be this weird, gorgeous, and talented.
But seeing is believing. It’s heartwarming to watch someone who came out of the gate so full of promise realize their full potential. Annie Clark is a fantasy become corporeal, maximum skill and style. Right now, she deserves all the fucking praise she can get.
[St. Vincent photos: Caily DiPuma]
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Reitschule; Bern, Switzerland
“We just like to swear a lot,” is probably as frank an explanation of a song title as you could ever hope to hear from a frontman, and it suits the bellicose path Silver Mt. Zion have been forging of late, what with Fuck Off Get Free being a hail of fuzzed guitars and amped violins. Accordingly, their set at Bern’s Reitschule — a reclaimed horse-yard now functioning as a cultural center for people of an anarcho-socialist-communist-feminist-leftist persuasion — was coruscatingly direct, and as the opening quote implies, it began with a surge through the title track from their latest. And it didn’t end there, since the band thrashed out renditions of every other track on the album, reveling in their migration from the plaintive elegies of yesteryear to the indignant tirades of the present.
Moving from “Fuck Off Get Free,” they bullied “Austerity Blues” and “Early Grave Blues,” producing voluminous walls of sound that fattened as they were increasingly reminded of everything that pisses them off from day to day. “Austerity Blues” was introduced as a tribute to, “How the rich keep wanting more, and the poor keep getting less,” and though the sheer force of the assault threatened to singe ears, the space provided by the live setting allowed the heavily FX’d violins of Sophie Trudeau and Jessica Moss to take the foreground, wherein they could venture into and explore new melodic territory, territory that radiated the quintet’s inimitable fusion of sorrow, vitriol, melancholy, and determination.
In fact, it’s this inclusivity and openness that’s one of the most striking aspects of the Mt. Zion live set. The band were assembled in a symmetrical V formation, with Trudeau and Moss opposite each other at the front, Menuck and Thierry Amar mirroring each other in the row behind, and finally David Payant manning the drums at the V’s tip. Coupled with the fact that each member is equipped with a mic for vocals, this arrangement subtly communicates their ideals of equality and democracy, which they also artfully manage to unify with the ideals of individuality and individual expression evoked by the deeply personal laments of each instrument. This marriage was borne out when, after the escalating heat of “Austerity Blues,” Menuck confessed its blurry ending is “all noise, it’s all just noise; we’re all just making [self-absorbed, uncoordinated] noise,” but that they nonetheless end together as a unanimous entity, since they “look at each other, and we go 1, 2, 3, 4 — uh, the end.”
Outside of the gracefully punishing Fuck Off Get Free material, they treated the audience to Kollaps Tradixionales closer “Piphany Rambler,” and to newie “All Their Kings Are Dead,” another prolonged, transcendent punk jam that showcases an aggravated breakdown and newfound taste for semi-falsetto vocal hooks. Yet despite the energy streaming out of the amplifiers the Swiss crowd were, for whatever reason, a little polite in their applause, with Menuck at one point asking them, “Is everything OK, what the fuck is going on? Are you guys alright?” Regardless, the band said goodbye to them with a powerful, St. Valentine’s version of “What We Loved Was Not Enough.” And for me at least, this was more than enough.
01. Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)
02. Austerity Blues
03. Rains Thru the Roof at the Grande Ballroom (For Capital Steez)
04. Early Grave Blues
05. ‘Piphany Rambler
06. All Their Kings Are Dead
07. What We Loved Was Not Enough
Encore: Little Ones Run