Bill Callahan / Sir Richard Bishop
The Gravity Lounge; Charlottesville, VA
The show was set in what seemed like a hybrid coffee house-bookstore, buried beneath several floors in Charlottesville’s historic downtown. Rows of seating insured a quiet ambience that was supplemented with candlelight and a backdrop designed as a faux red sky emerging behind a prop of tree outlines that rose above a grey stone wall. In all, it seemed like the kind of place the kids on The OC might visit to hear some Ã¼ber-hipster recite bad poetry. I expected to witness finger snapping.
Opening act Sir Richard Bishop was solid, even if he seemed to appear from some other time and place. Seated with his acoustic guitar, sporting a beard and an awesome ponytail, Bishop put his virtuoso talents on display for all to behold, lending vocals to just two of his many tracks. When he did sing, his voice proved haunting, dripping with an age that made the music seem nearly timeless. Early in his set, Bishop asked whether anyone in attendance was on LSD. At times, during his impressively complex acoustic pieces — particularly when met with droning background sounds and effects — I felt as though I might have been. I suspect that may be taken a tremendous compliment.
Callahan walked to the microphone dressed like a man returning from a southwestern funeral, as he was neatly attired in dark dress topped with grey hair. The onstage setup consisted of a fiddle, a drum and percussion set, a bass, and a guitar manned by the lead. The music matched Callahan’s appearance, as his deep, nearly monotonous voice rolled atop the many downbeat numbers. Much like the supporting act, Callahan’s set was enlivened by a folk sentiment that twisted through songs exploring human connections to physical environments and grounded the music in an earthy plot of inspiration and unity between band and audience. The band was very cohesive, and the whole set felt very egalitarian. The strange setting actually lent an intimacy to the show that is rarely experienced with acts so firmly established. Toward the end of the main set, Callahan even began discussing his dinner plans for after the show.
Throughout the show, the band marched through several of the tracks from Callahan’s newest record, Woke on a Whaleheart, including “Sycamore” and the brilliantly titled “A Man Needs a Woman or a Man to be a Man.” The highlight of the show, however, came at the end of the encore, as the band eased into an effusive rendition of “The Well.” The track did well to bring all the night’s themes together in one final sonic moment, and I managed to escape the scene without ever seeing a guy with a beret and an awkward goatee scanning the room from behind a shiny cappuccino machine.
[Photo: Mark Parsons]
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Rather than bore you with an individual breakdown of each day and my wanderings, I figured it'd be best to highlight some of the best bands of the three-day Labor Day institution. Bumbershoot is full of minutia, and the last thing anyone needs is a three-part article focusing on my fascination with how young kids dress like their belief system is straight out of an '80s teen movie or on how a high school kid caught me off guard while offering me a selection of 12, 13, and 14 year old girls. If I weren't in such a haze, I certainly would have responded with my usual "How much for the women?" but walking back and forth throughout Seattle Center's concrete jungle saps one's impromptu abilities. This lack of motor skills cost me my shining moment when I happened to pass by the likes of Greg Propps and The Gourds' Kevin Russell as I made my way from stop to stop.
Yes, Bumbershoot is really the place where gonzo Austin country artists, former TV personalities, and jaded teenagers eagerly awaiting their wristbands to see Panic at the Disco and Fergie intermingle with ease. As with most festivals, Bumbershoot is a microcosm of Seattle; the haves and have nots chatting up alligator on a stick as old ladies out for a good time dance to the Latin and Caribbean rhythms emanating from stage(s) unknown. Last year it wore me down, and I loathed every aspect of the festival, but this year I came better prepared to handle (and expect) the worst -- and other than how they handle the comedy stages, the staff and volunteers went above and beyond this year to make sure everyone had plenty to see and do.
When I decided to undertake Bumbershoot once again, I was a little apprehensive as I checked out the lineups. There wasn't much meat to sink my teeth in, but I slipped on my journalistic demeanor and decided that I would hunt for the good bands. It didn't take long for the allure of checking out nostalgia act Crowded House to grab me and drag me off to the main stage. I've been a fan of Neil Finn's solo work, but I was hesitant to check out his '80s incarnation for fear they'd sound stuck in a period I was happy to forget. But lo and behold, Crowded House sound like a band that has grown with the changing pop landscape. Other than the dreamy acoustic pop of "Don't Dream It's Over," many of the band's older tracks had an updated sound that played well to the young and not-so-young alike.
Soon after, I made way for the Starbucks Stage (hey, it's Seattle -- who else do you think would sponsor a stage?) to check out Magnolia Electric Company. Sadly, Molina found it easiest to play ballads to an early afternoon crowd more intent on soaking up the sun than on hearing him go for broke with his best Neil Young impression. He was killing my high with the mundane, so I ran across the center to catch The Cave Singers. The local trio, whose Matador debut is gaining a bit of buzz, stole what was left of my breath. Though the guys claim to be folk-ignorant, their tunes are so infused with the blood of the dust-bowl migrants and rail riders it's a wonder they didn't ditch their punk roots ages ago. I would have stayed for the entire set if I didn't have a prior engagement with the KEXP Music Lounge to catch an early performance of The Gourds. After some initial soundcheck problems, the Austin quintet tore the house down with their blend of bluegrass, country rock, and interpretive rap (in other words, they played “Gin and Juice”).
After the early adventures of joys of Saturday, many of the performances began to blend together. While I can tell the difference between the classic rock riffage of Iceage Cobra and the lounge jazz of Victor Noriega (Trio + 2), none of it bowled me over. Bumbershoot certainly had a dearth of talent, and there were very few acts that left me speechless. Menomena's act was riddled with bad sound and even worse pacing; The Watson Twins were a nice Sunday afternoon treat, but other than two beautiful women, there wasn't much soul to be found in their Kentucky brand of country and blues. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club slept their way through a set, and the likes of Kings of Leon and The Shins were as bland as their detractors claim. Those acts that did step up, however, turned in some of the best performances I have witnessed.
One of these highlights came in the form of Tibetan chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo. Her calm, collected demeanor was an unusual site for most of the audience. As she praised togetherness and preached against confusion, hoards of people would leave their seats as even more would apprehensively make their way closer to the stage. Yungchen had an allure that is unexplainable, and though she couldn't coax the crowd to join her in song or sit upon the stage for shade, she had them eating out of her palm with her beautiful voice and glowing aura.
Monday's only highlight (note that I was too sick to stay for Steve Earle and Wu-Tang -- both I have seen before and know to be tip-top) was Smoosh. At the time, the sisterly duo was joined by youngest sis Maia on bass, and though this wasn't the best Smoosh could offer, they're always a pleasure to watch because they remind many of us that music isn't to be taken as seriously as it is. But the festival's best act backs up this thought in spades: Art Brut.
Yes, I said it. I couldn't give two shits about Art Brut until I watched them tear Bumbershoot apart limb from limb. Their performance was energetic, kinetic, and electric. As they won over fan after fan (myself included), I couldn't help but wonder what it was that I was missing prior to this. Maybe it was actually watching the band live the brand, but more so I found myself realizing that Art Brut is just fun. There was a time when music was fun and the messages behind it were nothing more than anthems of good times and social revolution at the tiniest degree (such as the band's cry for actual albums in records store, not DVDs and video games). Art Brut may be Brian Eno's and Andy Warhol's wettest dream, but we shouldn't hold that against them. Never have I misjudged a band as I have Art Brut.
And perhaps that's the meaning behind Bumbershoot. Last year, I misjudged the festival, and though I didn't take the sage advice of a reader e-mail I received last year (“Take more drugs!”), I still found the high that is dragging oneself through thousands of people just to hear music, to see a band you may never see again or to discover a band you'll fall in love with for the rest of your life. Festivals may be the ultimate buffet, and you may be weary of who didn't wash their hands or who ducked under the sneeze guard while selecting your items, but sometimes throwing caution to the wind produces the best results. Bumbershoot won me over, even if the rampaging, teenaged crowds never will.
Dark Meat / Filthybird / The Savage Knights
Local 506; Chapel Hill, NC
Any band that claims to be of the zeitgeist (see Karen Mann’s interview in the TMT archives) and allows its 18 members to be major contributors has got to be having some good barbeques and fuckin’ sofa crashing, if you ask me. Especially Georgia maelstrom bands like Dark Meat that make me believe that a large number of them wouldn’t be afraid to don leather, climb trees, race vehicles, and engage in other wild, outrageously rural behavior. That could just be a projection, but one look at the cover of their album Universal Indians seems to indicate that I might very well be right about these crazed crazies.
Before I ever saw Dark Meat, I figured people got their necessary auditory blasts from watching old tapes of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem or Parliament. Now after seeing Dark Meat live, I have a newer vision of what a party freakout band can be, especially one founded on a centralized but collective notion. Officially, Dark Meat are known as Dark Meat Vomit Lasers Family Band Galaxy, which is a true amalgamation of self-referential, philosophical mumbo jumbo of the finest pedigree. Athens bands make it to North Carolina often, and Dark Meat have begun to occupy their own niche that seems to appeal to R&B cats just as much as to extra-fried, zombo-rock dudes and ladies who seem to kinda bop around to the music rather well.
Taking the stage after two opening bands of equally fine local acclaim (Filthybird and the Savage Knights), Dark Meat shamble up an impressive but actually kinda sparse 11-member brigade with a trusty horn & winds section and dueling drummers. From the first song, I felt like I was being assaulted in the most jovial way by a giant wall of driving, pulsing rock music. It was dense, soulful stuff, and authoritatively so. At various moments, I was reminded of Bruce Hampton’s tours with The Code Talkers, as well as a much more fuzzed-out and blasted Lynyrd Skynyrd. It seemed completely appropriate that several members of the band, including a couple of the horn players (Vomit Lasers) up front, were dressed at least partially as Indians. I could see the Vomit Lasers’ painted faces and headbands better than the two in the back battling with joints of hickory or maple.
You do have to have patience sometimes with Dark Meat. It seemed like every song would inevitably drift into a psychedelic blues jam with a wall of sound behind it. Minimalism was sparse (appropriately) and banter was short. There were several moments when some of the Muppets in the front would turn around and consult with the sages in the back, seemingly reaching important decisions about the intent, length, and number of the songs that they intended to play for the rest of the show.
And so it would be that after each huddle, they’d plow right back into a tune. The first song, which I mistakenly identified as “Proximity” (actually called “In The Woods”), evoked visions of driving sequences from skin flick film montages set in purple mountains. “Freedom Ritual” felt like a revival, with tons of horns and guitar and soulful singing to wake zombies or stoners with giant bedroom alarms of fiery density. I remember a good, short little sax breakdown that lasted for about 30 seconds before the guitar/bass bridge came tumbling down the steps, and then it was electric street funeral parade once more. While I watched the drummers pummel their cymbals, I thought about how nice it is to see a couple members not play their instruments, instead waiting patiently for the songs to reveal themselves. Bands with rotating casts and collective minds could do better sometimes by letting the noise and ferocity occasionally die down.
The crowd thinned out for a little bit at the start of the fifth song, which I believe was “3 Eyes Open.” The song began slowly, starting off like a slow funeral eulogy for past offenses. Then it quickly broke into the familiar, rocked-out hot tub of swamp boogaloo. There weren’t any noise freakouts still, just solid, integrated, quasi-granular sounds that formed the larger country garage boogie sound that they do well.
After the show, I went to try to get the names of the songs from a couple Dark Meat members. The resulting scrawl in no way helped me get an accurate setlist, but the trombone player did mention that Dark Meat were picking up a cello player in Detroit. And I’m pretty sure he told me sometimes they have 18 members on stage, but he might have said 21. I can't remember. I do know for a fact, though, that Dark Meat have been known to have dancers (which I believe is essential for a truly amazing band -- Konono No. 1 and Derek Bailey anyone?). Hell, if Dark Meat recorded an album with live dancers on the tape, it would likely add at least one or two key jingle-jangle or swishes of fabric that would lend even further authenticity to the playful, downright wholesome fun.
Overall, there were brief moments of clarity that night, but they were very brief. Most of my experience was swirling a little bit, so perhaps I wasn't mentally prepared. Though, getting schlockered on Dark Meat was really fun (like the day after having drank multiple glasses of vodka). Really, once the local bands were thanked and I had given hi-fives to a couple people, I left the venue totally content in the knowledge that Dark Meat Vomit Lasers Family Band Galaxy are a perfect version of themselves. If they were in the program at the Macy’s Day Parade, I would watch just one more time. Only for Dark Meat, though.
Tokyo Police Club / Ra Ra Riot / The Futurists
Vinyl; Atlanta, GA
I'll let you in on some simple truths: Spilled drinks are most often wet, especially when spilled on my new shoes. Cowboy hats, when worn by people almost certainly birthed by a taffy puller, tend to suck even more. Sweat is usually really gross, especially of the ass variety and when you can feel it dripping down your thighs. And Tokyo Police Club... well, they rock. On Thursday night, amid the cries of so many teenyboppers and the glowing lights of a bar television broadcasting the Braves-Astros game that was never once silenced, the Atlanta venue Vinyl was reunited for the third time with TPC.
Atlanta locals The Futurists were up first, their army of fans swarming the stage like promiscuously clad, underage honeybees. While I wasn’t expecting much from the band -- they could have passed for freshmen in high school -- their performance was just as impressive as their lead singer was nervous (that is, very). The tiresome ascending/descending vocal howling, the cement in the bassist’s shoes, and the giggling lead singer in the most somber of moments would have made the set a mediocre one, had it not been for the ardent enthusiasm with which the band played. Their energy set the room ablaze and may have even turned a head or two at the bar, effectively setting the mood for the remainder of the evening.
The second band up, New York’s Ra Ra Riot, started with a train wreck that wasn’t satisfied with the mechanical destruction, so it gassed the passengers aboard. Whether it was the sound panel in the back, the monitors up front, or the musicians on stage, it wasn’t until four or five songs had passed until they really got it together, pulling everything together at once: sound, movement, and balance made uniform with a 6/8 waltz. Fortunately, once they found it, they found it hard, utilizing the multitude of instruments they had at their disposal on stage, reminding the audience that they were indeed there for a reason.
And then, finally, there was Tokyo Police Club. Opening with a potent rendition of “Cheer It On” to the screams of the audience whose ears were quick to recognize the unmistakable drum set intro and raw braying of “Operator!” they set to work without hesitation. Although up until this point the various hipsters, drunks, and underage teens were busy spilling drinks on my shoes, they were now fully engaged and "playing their parts" all the more furiously.
Surprisingly, Dave Monks (vocals, bass) and John Hook (guitar) didnt' have the energy on stage you might expect from their vivacious sounds, but Graham Wright on keys made up for any slack that they might have left behind (or perhaps it was simply by comparison that they seemed lethargic). Throughout the show, Wright was immersed in a different world, vertebrae curling with a drooping head, his nose inches from the keys. His driving shouts during “Cut Cut Paste” were like an incitement of a frenzy; the previous dull roars subdued, rattled over the instrumental lines as he shouted through his raised hands forming a megaphone.
Things only improved as the show progressed, and while Wright continued in his performative madness, the rest of the band took cues, becoming enveloped in the emotional current (to some extent) that their music was assuming. At the end of the show, following “Be Good” -- a song made all the more entertaining as someone immediately behind me was clanking the beat with two empty beer bottles -- the audience was swept up in the moment, faces gleaming, feet lifting off the floor in ecstasy, roaring after that final song because they knew it wasn’t quite over; they’ve still got an encore waiting for them.
And then there was nothing. The band took it a step further and didn’t even issue a farewell before leaving the stage to sell their merch. Now, don’t get me wrong; it was a brilliant show -- all the right songs and amount of energy were there, but the fact that I was listening to a drunk guy on the train ask me about hernias at a time when I should have been hearing just a little more TPC is simply not right.
Highline Ballroom; New York, NY
Documenting the complexities and oftentimes illogical variations of love is certainly no enviable task for any artist, no matter how formidable. "Imitation of Life," Diamanda Galas' song cycle based on the "thrill and pain of romantic love," however, finds one such artist capable of confronting the endless variations of this most primitive of experiences with the profound fervor and conviction that it demands. Throughout the evening at the Highline Ballroom, the invested subtleties and extremes of this subject were interpreted and projected with the virtuosic reach and power we have come to know and love her for.
Entering quietly in the darkness, she sat behind the lone piano occupying the stage. With a flick of her black mane and the glinting of a cued light off her glitter-dusted eyelids, she proceeded head-on into "A Soul That's Been Abused" by striking out a set of slow, sforzando chords. With each gesture at the piano, her face and body responded, emphasizing the fury by which she engaged her instrument. Shifting effortlessly from lovelorn to disgusted to dismayed, she attacked every word in the manner that only she can, her arms dropping to her side during a passage of the arrangement in order to fully address the series of vocal explosions that tore themselves un-mercilessly from her body. Witnessing this physical navigation of her delivery is as equally engaging as the result, with her entire body resonating under the weight of emotive strain. This is not a series of "for effect" hand flutters; it is self-induced exorcism.
The Juliette Greco staple “Amours Perdues” manifested itself beautifully with Diamanda’s gentle vocal glissandos rolling out across the carpet of blue light projected beneath her. It is not to say that I don’t love every well-honed extreme technique that she is capable of, but I just as thoroughly admire her restrained approach. Especially because I can tell everyone who has ever thought her incapable of vocalizing in this manner, “Up yours, I told you. She is a musician first and foremost, learn it.” Equally stunning was her delivery of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Introduced with rumbling chord and note dynamics and then alternating to a gentle tinkling of piano keys, her voice rose forth colored with an unabashed plaintiveness and longing. It was one of the high points assuredly, absolute in its understated effectiveness.
The Rembetika “Keigome Keigom” (I’m Burning, I’m Burning) raged forth with the intensity and full sum of fury and gutteral wailing that she is capable of projecting in a cleansing ritual of pain and betrayal. Following an opus of this magnitude is no easy task, but the challenge was duly met with a thunderous and deep reaching delivery of “8 Men
and 4 Women.” Every second was breathtaking, with her encircled by blue vertical lights as if placed in her own Parthenon adding to the drama. The space resounded with thunderous piano while her voice descended into harsh, throat-driven passages in a preemptive assault to the main verses of the composition. Really, I can think of no other present artist capable of doing justice to O.V. Wright quite as effectively as Diamanda. A vocalist needs to dig deep on this one; it demands no inhibition or posturing, and she is thoroughly qualified, make no mistake about it.
Working her way through a volcanic “You’re My Thrill,” she stamped her feet and tossed her black mane about, fingers nimbly trailing across the piano keys fully embracing and possessed by the devotional theme of the lyric. Her voice rose as a swirling vortex at times and then focused in others as if it were being strangled, collapsing into gasps. She grabbed this one by the balls baby, because you know she can mix it up with the best. She proceeded into “Autumn Leaves,” the lyric dissolving beneath the intensity of her every gesture, transforming into mere hallucinations of their former selves. “Le Chanson Des Vieux Amants” followed, seeming to hang in the air motionless and aching, captured by the red-lit stage.
Ending the main body of the performance with a somber and weighty rendition of “Heaven Have Mercy” that was every ounce as exquisite as Piaf herself would have done, rest her soul, Diamanda promptly stood from her piano and exited. Cheers, shrieks, and applause immediately followed, and she graciously responded with her first encore, “The Thrill is Gone.” I have seen her perform this several times before, but this was the most devastating version I have thus been witness to. It was distinctly somber, moving forth like a funeral procession to the grave.
She returned for a second encore after once again leaving the stage to furious applause and howling, closing out the evening with what has become a signature of hers, if you will, “Gloomy Sunday.” She, of course, performs the Desmond Carter translation, as if we would have it any other way, ensuring that as an audience we are left haunted by
every phrase, tone, and timber that emanates from the stage. Leaving for the final time with a bow in the darkness, the house lights come up, letting us know that we must once again wait some time before we share another moment with our diva of choice. Well, at the very least, mine, though I do feel that drag queen sharing the bathroom with me might have given me some competition in proving who has the greatest adoration of her. She was truly fierce, and as Diamanda surely knows, you never get into it with a drag queen because they will own you.
[Photo: Paula Court]
Logan Square Auditorium; Chicago, IL
I first saw Mirah a few years ago at a hippie co-op in Madison. It was just her and her sister with guitars in the middle of a room (no stage even), and while it definitely had its charm seeing her in such a setting, I definitely thought the experience would be even better with, say, some drums ("Cold Cold Water”'s impact is so much less without the drums). Luckily, on this occasion at Logan Square Auditorium, Mirah brought along a drummer and keyboardist, both of whom very much enhanced her amazing songwriting skills and sweet voice.
Mirah began her set with my favorite song, the heartbreaking "We're Both So Sorry" from 2004's C'Mon Miracle. She started out alone before the drums and keys slowly made their way in just in time for the song's powerful ending, and it was gorgeous. The beginning of her set was made up mostly of songs from C'Mon Miracle, and in between songs she won the crowd over with her adorable anecdotes about angry bus drivers and her own clumsiness. Seriously, Mirah was so cute, you could hear the "awwwww"-ing over the crowd every time she spoke. Unfortunately, these asides also gave the audience the opportunity to start talking amongst themselves, often creating a low buzz that didn't die out until a few seconds into the next song. Luckily, before this could become a serious annoyance, Mirah ever-so-sweetly called the audience out on it by saying "are you guys going to do that thing where you talk over my guitar intros and then stop when I start to sing?" And it never happened again.
As some Mirah fans may be aware, her forthcoming album, done in partnership with Spectratone International, is a series of 12 songs about insects set to a suite of animated films. Because she didn't feel she could play the songs live without her collaborators, she still gave the crowd a fun taste of what to expect from the album by playing a sort of game: she would sing a verse of a song, and we would guess what insect she was singing about. We heard verses about the dung beetle, glowworms and more, and much fun was had by all.
The last third of Mirah's set fell more heavily on material from Advisory Committee, including "The Garden," "Make It Hot," and "Mt. St. Helens," with the big, obvious finale being the aforementioned "Cold Cold Water". After a brief exit from the stage, her bandmates returned without her, and after a hilarious rendition of some hip-hop song that I'm sure is popular now but I've never heard, Mirah returned. After reminding us that she recently put out a remix album (Joyride: Remixes), she told us she was going to do "someone else's remix of one of her own songs," and then proceeded to sing "The Light" while her drummer beatboxed in the background. It was hilarious and awesome, and certainly nothing I'd ever seen done at a concert before. Finally, she wrapped things up with her self-proclaimed "sing-along song", Advisory Committee's "Apples in the Trees" and its chorus of "You don't have to wait until you die," which for some odd reason, only the right half of the audience seemed to be singing along with. Either way, it was a great song to end on.
I can't say enough good things about Mirah; her music is subtle, beautiful and thought-provoking, and in person she is utterly sweet, funny and unpretentious. She doesn't tour often, but let's hope she and Spectratone International do get on the road (with the videos perhaps?) so we can learn more about the intricacies of insect life.
[Photo: Nicole Chavas]
The Levon Helm Band / Ollabelle
Ryman Auditorium; Nashville, TN
As Emmylou Harris, guest # gazillion, trotted out onto the stage of the Ryman in a knee-length black gown, sparkly black fishnet hose, and cowboy boots, she softly uttered in her sweet, Southern voice: “Well hi, Levon! It’s about time you come on down to Nashville.” Damn right, Ms. Emmylou! When southerners catch wind of a Levon Helm “with special guests” appearance, said southerners might do well to make every effort to attend.
This night at the Ryman was unlike any other show I’ve seen before, there or anywhere else. It was special, fabulous, and bittersweet, and those who attended will likely remember it for many years to come.
The Levon Helm Band performance began shortly after the concert promoter presented Mr. Helm with a sparkly new mandolin, which he accepted graciously whilst wearing that familiar smile we all know so well from The Last Waltz. As he crossed the stage to sit down at his drum kit, a large, black pit bull followed him happily. Before sitting down, Helm carefully laid out his coat on the floor for his dog, which would come and go throughout the night as it pleased.
This lineup featured seven people at its smallest, including a two-person horn section, an organist, a pianist, and two guitarists, one of whom was the accomplished Larry Campbell. Helm, ever the entertainer, introduced a steady stream of special guests throughout the night. Little Sammy Davis, one of the first of these, tore it up on his harmonica during the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Sam Bush and Helm’s daughter Amy joined in on the Springsteen-penned “Atlantic City,” which appears on The Band’s Jericho. Joining in on the finale, which was, of course, “The Weight,” were Harris, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Amy Helm, and Theresa Williams. The encore, “I Shall Be Released,” featured these in addition to John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow, who were pulled out of the audience to join in.
The Helm/Harris duet “Evangeline” was an early highlight of the evening. With that great big grin, Helm strummed his mandolin during the performance, and despite his frail appearance and recent bout with throat cancer, his vocals were surprisingly strong. Harris’s voice rang out as sweetly as ever, and with eyes closed, listeners might think they had traveled back in time to hear the two in their glory days.
For every highlight, of course, there was a sad moment. In the most sobering performance of the evening, Helm Band guitarist Jimmy Vivino mimicked Richard Manuel’s soulful performance from Big Pink’s “Tears of Rage” (which also appeared on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, on which he was backed by The Band). One was instantly reminded of Manuel and, by extension, the more recently deceased Rick Danko. The appreciative crowd grew silent, as if they were meditating about the members of The Band who couldn’t be onstage that night.
Another performance that wound up being somewhat of a downer was the encore, “I Shall Be Released.” A virtual devalued counterpart to the version on The Last Waltz, this piece was marred by the fact that many of the guest singers did not seem to know the words (ahem: Sheryl Crow). It was hard not to think about the star-studded array from that Thanksgiving Day performance in 1976 where everyone from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to Van Morrison to Bob Dylan to.... you get the picture, was singing along proudly and confidently.
These disappointments seem inevitable, however, when a performer whose prime has passed returns to the stage. The band certainly made up for it with other favorites by The Band that include “Ophelia,” “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up My) Rock ‘N’ Roll Shoes,” and “Chest Fever.” Guitarist Larry Campbell attempted to guitarize Garth Hudson’s famous organ intro to “Chest Fever” and damn near pulled it off. There wasn’t a question about any of these performers’ musical prowess: they were good, and they knew it. That’s why they were onstage with Levon Helm.
Having heard a weird and difficult-to-place performance by Ollabelle back in 2004, I was not anxious to hear them a second time. Their music is more folkily gospel than gospelly folk, and I remember feeling nothing but confusion when I heard them open for Ryan Adams right before Hurricane Ivan blazed through the South. A friend and I opted for a steak and spaghetti restaurant instead, where I learned from a lady in the restroom that the restaurant was packed not because of the Levon Helm Band but because of Beyonce, who was performing across the street at the Coliseum. As we pulled out into the night after my one (and probably only) experience hearing one of my musical idols, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Beyonce would still be keeping audiences equally entranced 30 years from now. Something tells me she won’t.
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
Here begins the story of a show not meant to be…
In terms of rocking out or melting face, The Ponys have yet to truly misfire. Each of their three records eschew innovation in favor of brilliantly timed chord changes that melt face as much as they provoke bouts of boogie. They did, however, make one rather sizable gaff when they scheduled a headlining date in New York just hours after festivities at the Siren Festival on Coney Island had come to their sun-baked, deep-fried conclusion. And much like stomach fatigue that sets in after a day of funnel cake and Nathan’s dogs, those New Yorkers who weren’t vacationing may have already had their fill of rock ’n’ roll, as well. It happens.
So Bowery Ballroom was empty (on a Saturday, folks) when the Second City’s finest appeared just before midnight, their appearance so late and so inauspicious that it seemed nothing but obligatory. There was a bit of drone, a bit of feedback, and an awkward bit of waiting for bassist and frontman Jered Gummere’s special friend Melissa Elias. She arrived, and the foursome made do with the few heads in front of them, wasting little time in kicking out wholesome jams, the first few coming from the early reaches of their painfully underappreciated discography. Still, those who came for Memphis’s garage minimalist Jay Reatard or even those who came for The Ponys began filing out to the street just minutes into the set. “Half of our record label is on vacation right now,” Gummere muttered into the mike just before sleepwalking into old-ish jam “Little Friends.” It seemed as though The Ponys could also have used one of those.
Gummere in particular looked worn, the skeleton that adorned his T-shirt an odd portrait of the mood not just in the back of the room, but in strands of the middle and front as well. Not that many cuts like Celebration Castle’s “Glass Conversation” or Turn the Lights Out’s “1209 Seminary” didn’t bring warhead heat; they did. Notes were not flubbed, nor was any song free of the marriage between muddy J Mascis cat-hiss and squiggly Television licks that give much of The Ponys’ work such an addictive, albeit familiar, kick. But as the set lumbered on, it took the shape of a long sigh more than the brand of revelatory roar you’d hope for. A cadre of drunk girls in the front danced and screamed and snuck backstage before being chucked back into the thin crowd they came from. A squat man with his sweatshirt ’round his waist did the twist, his eyes closed tightly as he did his thing for the duration of the 40-minute set.
The encore was in line with the rest of the evening: short. They reappeared just as quickly as they would eventually leave, sprinting through a perfunctory version of “Ferocious,” the song’s title in no way indicative of the affair that evening.
Thee Emergency / The Hands / Faceless Werewolves
Sunset Tavern; Seattle, WA
Sex appeal in the midst of garage rock testosterone -- it was certainly the theme of the evening. In a musical landscape teeming with carnal acts of male chauvinism, ladies ruled the evening with a style usually reserved for royalty and admirers usually lined up to bend their knees to Meg White and Liz Phair.
Austin's Faceless Werewolves had the dubious honor of opening the show cold, but there was certainly a lot of fire in the Texas trio. Perhaps it was the femme fetale backbone, but the blistering guitar prowess of the man simply known as Baldomero was too tough and rugged to ignore. Most eyes were fixated on the drummer, whose golden locks and Betty Boop vocal styling gave even the biggest mullets a case of the jelly knees.
The biggest musical gift of Faceless Werewolves is their ability to switch genres and tempos effortlessly. While most of the set was dominated by tilted garage stomps, noticeable hints of country swing and finely aged surf rock crept into song after song. Texas living certainly influences the state’s best up-and-comers, and it’s certainly safe to say Faceless Werewolves are reaching past the Lone Star State with their musical brand.
Local boys The Hands had the unenviable task of following up aural sex appeal, and sadly they weren’t able to live up to the task. The Austin-based openers won the crowd over so quickly that The Hands either phoned in their set or just couldn’t get their mojo working sandwiched between the ladies of rock. After a few songs, I was ready for some fresh air (as was my company), but little changed in the set from my viewpoint outside. I chalk it up to an off night, as the buzz around the guys has been nothing but positive in Seattle.
Death-by-garage concluded with Thee Emergency. A steady blend of frazzled hair and old-world soul, Thee Emergency come across as the party-band answer to MC5. As tempting as it is to make a lame “Kick Out the Jams,” joke, the curvaceous Dita Vox did just that as she dominated the place with sex appeal and confidence. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t produce women like Dita (though the boys of Thee Emergency — at least in appearance — come a dime a dozen), and though I wasn’t seduced by her performance, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to see men fawning over her like a school crush. But don’t let her sexiness foul you; Thee Emergency knew how to pack ‘em in and keep ‘em talking well after the evening was through.
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts; Bethel, NY
I stared, dumbfounded, at a sign bearing this proclamation at the site of the original 1969 Woodstock. No smoking? I'm sorry, but is it possible for the entire staff of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts to have suffered massive memory loss and forgotten just where they were? A girl wearing rhinestone sunglasses strolled past me, talking on her cell phone: "Yeah, I'm at a Bob Dylan concert. Yeah, I dunno, I don't really like him." It then struck me that a more appropriate name for this ... place might be "Woodstock, Inc." Fighting the urge to clap my hand to my forehead, I made my way through a sea of lawn chairs, peering toward the stage. One of those little black dots down there had to be Bob Dylan. The wavering, smoky strains of his voice were unmistakable.
A performance from Bob Dylan these days might be disappointing for those who remember him as the prickly, chain-smoking hipster in D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 documentary Don't Look Back. Still, this show was attended by a sizable amount of twentysomethings (myself included), proving that new generations of us young folks still appreciate this man's significance.
The mass of lawn dwellers (in various states of consciousness, I might add) and the ineptitude of the beverage vendors robbed me of the first few songs, but I managed to settle down on the grass to a fixed-up rendition of "The Levee's Gonna Break." Peering through my binoculars, I noted that Dylan (And His Band) wore matching black cowboy hats. The band's slick, bluesy sound was crisp and a little too calculated, but that crackling voice cut right through it. Bob Dylan would sing however he damn pleased, and we were lucky buggers for getting to hear it.
Still, Dylan can be a nice guy when he feels like it. The crowd-pleasers abounded, with "Just Like A Woman" (which I was lucky enough to hear as I approached the lawn), "Tangled Up In Blue," and "Highway 61 Revisited," though some were barely recognizable as a result of elaborate new musical arrangements and his wandering pitch. A full minute of "Blowin' In the Wind" passed before some of the audience members caught on and applauded appreciatively. "Spirit on the Water," a musing tune from 2006's Modern Times, drove the crowd to shout "NO!" as he sang, "You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime." I was not one of the chorus, but I was pretty proud of the man for being there in the first place.
Rounding out the encore with "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan introduced his band in a rare show of crowd interaction. He then went on to make this myopic statement: “It’s nice to be back here. Last time we played here we had to play at 6 in the morning, and it was a-rainin’, and the field was full of mud.” A jab at the original Woodstock, which Dylan declined to play? If he wants this aside to remain a mystery, you can be sure that's just how it'll remain.