No Fun Fest 2007: Day 2
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY
As the cold night’s air wafted its way through Brooklyn, a thick molten steam rose in The Hook. Around 500 music fans caught Incapicatants’ screaming jovial mess and reciprocated the lunacy by leaping about, shaking each other in celebration, banging heads and pumping fists. No Fun Fest day two’s lineup simmered with a screaming, cerebral harsh noise set and their infectious affability spread to the crowd. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Highlighted by mind-bending collaborative performances from Mouthus and Axolotl and Raionbashi and Kutzkelina, Friday’s artists spanned the globe and the experimental music spectrum. As variety is the spice of sound anarchy, virtually no one performer overlapped aesthetically with another. The schedule saw a power electronics performer opening for drone rockers and an analog sound designer following bizarre European sound terrorists.
If there’s one thing I learned in life, it’s you can’t depend on friends. We waited for our ride for around two hours before he called and bailed out. His loss and ours too, as the wait made us miss Charlie Draheim’s set. My friend also missed an amazing night of music and a marked improvement over the festival’s first night. We arrived in time for Princess Dragonmon’s laserbeam punctuations and push-button Atari feedback attack. Not a good start to the night, but the set allotted us time to stock up on beers and puff a few smokes before Grunt.
Grunt took the stage with some kind of metal box, which he shook and hit to create sharp metal sounds. He yelled into the box and delayed his voice while constructing an eerie backdrop with knobs and pedals. Although faulty amplifiers kept shorting out, it added an extra thematic quality to the set. Eventually, something amp-wise burned and forced him to start over. Fantastic for the crowd, as Grunt proved innovative in the tough realm of harsh noise. I think the metal box contained magic.
The most ethereal set of the night belonged to the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration. The trio created two long-form drones that kept the crowd’s attention with thick layers of morphing sludge. The first drone saw Mouthus guitarist Brian Sullivan playing with pedals, while Axolotl’s Karl Bauer caressed violin strings, processing them through a series of electronics. Mouthus' Nate Nelson accentuated the jam with free-jazz drumming. Though the trio’s sound-making method was in touch with Bauer’s musical approach, the jam sounded more like a loud, hard-nosed Mouthus skronk than Axolotl’s psychedelic, space-alien drone. After the first piece, the band couldn't ignore the loud cheers and kicked out another -- Sullivan picked up a guitar and laid down a warped vortex of fuzz while Bauer fiddled with his table of tricks. As the view of Bauer’s gear was obstructed from most of the crowd, the noises he generated seemed otherworldly. The tune sounded like an Axolotl composition generated using Mouthus’ set-up. Sullivan and Nelson ended the set with a frenzied guitar/drums duel, accentuated by a cacophonous avalanche of sound snowballed by Bauer.
As good as the Mouthus/Axolotl collaboration was, Raionbashi and Kutzkelina nearly schooled them on their home court. The duo inter-cut harsh scraping with atmospheric creepiness and yodeling, constructing a disorienting, masterful set. Raionbashi sported the coolest haircut ever: a normal cut with the front portion of his scalp shaved bald. He lingered in the background with Kutzkelina in the forefront. As Raionbashi spackled layers of industrial hiss, Kutzkelina began taking off clothing. With memories of Macronympha dancing in their heads from last year's fest, males stood on their tippy-toes to catch a glimpse of what they thought would be Kutzkelina’s nude body. Instead, she unearthed a milkmaid dress. The noise stopped and a silence fell over the crowd. “YEEE-DE-HAA-DEEEE-OOOO-HAAA-DEEEE-OOO-HEEE-HEE,” she sang in an old-world yodel. In a few minutes, she became the set's centerpiece, and Raionbashi's freaky fade-in sounds further bewildered the audience. The set ended with the blow of an air horn and a few seconds of silence before the crowd erupted in applause. In an era where droves of dissonant sounds are no longer all that strange, it was nice to discover bizarre factions remain in the noise universe.
Giffoni performed next with analog gear and didn’t disappoint. Though he meditated on a group of boring video game sounds for awhile, his performance contained transcendent passages lacking in his previous festival sets. Sissy Spacek blasted through a set of spazz core on par with Man Is The Bastard. The band destroyed punk-rock concepts for about three minutes before their guitarist smashed his axe to shreds and the singer dove into the crowd, effectively ending their set. The best was yet to come, however, as the legendary Incapacitants stormed the stage around 1 am.
Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosaka smiled devilishly while creating a large spiked ball of fluctuating feedback and horrific noise-treated yelps. Both bounced around the stage, occasionally pausing to immerse in the frenzy they created, rolling their eyes in the back of their heads, shaking. Of all the bands playing the festival, Incapacitants received the best response. The mosh-pit kids swayed with glee, and the rest of the crowd gyrated to the wild non-rhythms. Some dude even pounded his face bloody to match the band’s intensity. He couldn’t.
After the show, I couldn’t hear friends talk. We limped to the subway to patch ourselves up. Our ear fibers better strengthen by Saturday, because Merzbow and Keiji Haino surely won’t be playing acoustic sets. Can’t fuckin’ wait.
Modest Mouse / Love as Laughter / Grand Archives
The Orpheum Theatre; Minneapolis, MN
After having my Friday night flight from Chicago to Minneapolis delayed due to a mechanical problem and after watching the pilots and mechanics scratch their heads in the cockpit for an hour, I luckily was rushed to a new plane and was able to make it straight from the airport to the Orpheum just in time to miss Love as Laughter's set. I was bummed I didn’t get a taste of Grand Archives (ex-Carissa’s Wierd), but I was just glad to have made it at all. I should have known when my friend bought the tickets and I said “I’m sure my flight won’t be delayed” that I was asking for trouble.
After having seen Modest Mouse twice in the most horrible venues in the country for sound (Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom and Milwaukee’s Eagle's Ballroom -- stay away from those ballrooms people), I was thrilled to finally get a chance to hear them in a theater designed to house music. True, their popularity has surged immensely since those two shows (I about died when I heard a Muzak version -- placid male singer, drastically reduced tempo and all -- of “Float On” in my local CVS Pharmacy the other day), but I’ve really been digging the new album and figured I was prepared to hear mostly post-Good News material. My anticipation only grew when I saw our seats; I don't know how it happened, but apparently two aisle seats in row 'P' (read: not too shabby) were still available the day before the show, something that would never happen in back in Chicago.
Modest Mouse took a stage randomly decorated with fake streetlamps. They were sporting two drummers and Johnny Marr, who added some fun backing vocals and let Isaac take a crack at him midway through the show but was otherwise relatively unnoticeable. The band kicked off with "Paper Thin Walls," one of the more thrilling songs of the night and one of the few pre-Good News tracks we were treated to. Even though I was prepared to hear mostly new stuff, I guess I still hoped for some surprise classics; only "Dramamine" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" qualified for that tag, with additional representation from typical live favorite "Doin' the Cockroach." Probably not coincidentally, these were the songs that turned into some crazy 10-minutes-long jams (I didn’t remember Isaac Brock usually going on for five minutes about "quotas" during "Tiny Cities"), while the new stuff was played pretty much straight off the records. Not unexpectedly, the Modest Mouse crowd has changed from what was once a mix of hipsters and hippies to a mix of hipsters, hippies, fratboys and scantily clad young girls. Gross.
Overall, everything sounded good and Isaac was doing some good, crazy rockin' on stage, but I think the size of the venue, though smaller than what they usually play these days, was still too big for me to feel much connection with the band. For once, I couldn't blame the sound for that. "Bukowski" had some fire and "Missed the Boat" was certainly nice, but relatively close as I was, I still felt too far away from the band. Being constrained to a seat probably didn’t help much, either, as it took away from the “rock show” vibe; it's hard to get the audience engaged from afar. As a result, the excitement I've been getting from listening to the new album seemed to be frustratingly missing for me when I heard the same songs live.
I hate to think I'm becoming too snobby about venue size, but I’m sad to say I've been pretty spoiled with life at the Empty Bottles and Triple Rock Social Clubs of the world. I think I just need to accept that the live Modest Mouse experience I wanted happened about five years ago and isn't coming back; I’ll just continue to worship their recorded material in the meantime.
Photo: Aaron Farrington
Of Montreal / Loney, Dear
Irving Plaza; New York, NY
This show went from suck to rock faster than your flashy sports car does zero to 60. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh — it took a bit longer than that, specifically, the duration between the end of Loney, Dear’s set and the beginning of Of Montreal’s.
Loney, Dear had already been riding the wave of Swedeophilic hype for a few months (though their U.S. release hadn’t even hit stores yet), so I was interested in checking them out. I’d heard a song or two here and there, and nothing really stuck out as fabulous to me. Perhaps the magic is in the live show, I thought. Well, so much for optimism. Their performance began with at least two minutes of humming from vocalist and songwriter Emil Svanängen, who later attempted all sorts of vocal gymnastics beyond his range. The songs themselves were, somehow, simultaneously anthemic and bland. “I Am John” seemed to be the favorite of the crowd (who were, for the most part, really into the set), and it impressed me a bit more than everything else but still seemed simply competent. Mostly, Loney, Dear are representative of indie rock’s laziest and most derivative tendencies, a copy of a copy of a copy.
More exciting than Loney, Dear’s performance was watching Of Montreal’s road crew set up. Though they worked behind a screen, I could see a golden owl statue and cardboard flames peeking out the sides and just knew that something fucking weird and fantastic was in store. And then someone — perhaps from onstage, but I can’t say for sure — started blowing up condoms and passing them around the crowd like beach balls at a frat party. All of this was good preparation for the dramatic, sexually-liberated, and altogether bizarre shit that was about to go down.
Before the band made its first appearance, we caught a glimpse of the vague but spirited morality play that would persist throughout the set as a figure in a Darth Vader costume (not kidding, guys!) slunk about the stage. Later, we would be treated to the appearance of a mustachioed gentleman clothed from head to toe in a skintight, white, spandex suit. To my eyes, it seemed like these two were meant to be playfully emblematic of the struggle between good and evil, here represented as sexual freedom vs…. well, I’ve never sat through an entire Star Wars film, but I have to guess that Darth Vader doesn’t have that much sex. No matter — no deeper meaning could overpower the sheer spectacle of this polysexual pageant. I mean, it’s hard to conjure up your analytical skills when you’re watching a guy in spandex do nasty things with Kevin Barnes and a banana.
And Of Montreal? It almost goes without saying that they're in top form. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is a big fucking album that demands a big fucking stage show, and Barnes, et al were hell-bent on making it happen. New songs like “Suffer for Fashion” and “Heimsdalegate Like a Promethian Curse” rocked the house like only upbeat tunes about mental anguish can. Favorites like “Disconnect the Dots” from Satanic Panic in the Attic and “The Party’s Crashing Us” from The Sunlandic Twins were revitalized in an all-new, all-glam context. The one dark moment during the show, the band’s performance of “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” was a standout for its exorcism-like intensity — which was surprising, as I almost always skip the twelve-minute track when listening to the album.
I had hoped that Barnes would strip down so as not to leave TMT out of the hot, nakey pix party, but this was a 16+ show, and it was not to be. Instead, we were treated to three costume changes, the most ambitious of which involved our hero, on something like stilts, in a twelve-foot-high silver dress. What this all adds up to, among other, more prurient things, is that Kevin Barnes is a performer in the true sense of the word, drawing from and worthy of comparisons to both Prince and David Bowie. Thirty years ago, the guy wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without fans of all gender throwing their undergarments at him. And just as we might hate the idea of our favorite bands becoming popular beyond their wildest dreams… perhaps then we’d at least have the pleasure of seeing Justin Timberlake (I mean it, dude), instead of Loney, Dear, open for Of Montreal.
Photos: Sean Ruch
Menomena / Field Music / Land of Talk
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL
It’s always reassuring to approach the entrance of a club and see sign stating “Sold Out” posted on the door. More precisely, it’s reassuring if you’ve already procured your tix. While such a sign indicates that you will likely be packed in so closely to your fellow showgoers that you’ll all become far too familiar (or still not familiar enough?) with each other’s concealed anatomies before the night is over, it is more importantly a guarantee that you are in a hot spot of cultural activity for the evening. And when they have $2 Old Styles to boot, how could a poor little indie rocker ask for more?
Such was the case on March 20 when I approached the Empty Bottle for a heady triple bill. First up were Land Of Talk. To be completely honest, I knew little of the band and hadn’t done my homework, but it made no difference. When I entered the stage area midway through their set, the crowd was already quite thick, and a lot of affirmative head
nodding was going on. From the sound of it, I assumed there were four or five band members, but upon inspection, I counted just three. I was wholly impressed with the level of ruckus they were managing to kick up.
Similarly striking was the way singer/guitarist Elizabeth Powell was wailing away with both her instruments. Her guitar work was tenuously controlled chaos, deftly veering between riff-rocking and more intricate lead lines, and her voice was strong but still slightly fragile, eerily similar to Chan Marshall’s but with a hell of a lot more gumption behind it. The set closing “All My Friends” had me awestruck with its overall intensity and stealthy melodicism. A great set closer that left the audience (as represented by me at least) wanting more, the tune is still lodged firmly in my head as of this article.
With enough time to gulp down a few of the aforementioned Old Styles and buoyed by the pleasant surprise of Land Of Talk, when Field Music hit the stage I was primed for optimal enjoyment. After a tepid false start due to some problems with the monitor mix, a rapid succession of the first four tracks from the recently released Tones of Town showed that these fellas absolutely have the chops to pull off their quirky, tense pop in a live setting. Having seen them a year ago during SXSW, I wasn’t surprised, but getting to hear many of the new tracks was a real treat. Making the most of being confined to a 45-minute set, they stuck largely to upbeat numbers, maintaining an admirable consistency in energy throughout. Their nearly seamless set was made all the more stunning by the constant switching of Peter and David Brewis between guitar or bass and drums. Although David implored three-quarters through the performance that for the “real Field Music experience” one would need to purchase the album for sale at the merch table, with all three members singing and playing together as harmoniously as on record, I have to say that I’m not fully in agreement.
Following Field Music, the excitement level was piqued for Menomena, who have been generating significant buzz over Friend and Foe. Again, to be completely honest, I was only recently introduced to their slightly skewed pop experimentations, and the recordings hadn’t grabbed me too much. Well, from the moment that the band really kicked in on the opener, “The Pelican,” I felt any resistance melting away. The nasally/unsteady vocals that had befuddled me a bit on the album became endearing (almost courageous?) in the live context amid all the multi-instrumentalism going on. For a third time in the evening, here was a three-piece band proving that the mythology of the rock power trio is still alive and kicking. The heavy presence of baritone and alto sax in the set was somewhat unexpected (I guess I hadn’t listened closely enough to the album) but completely wonderful for giving the music an almost funky quality. The response of the crowd was enthusiastic and the subtle danceability that Menomena created had more than a few indie stiffs, including myself, unable to hold back from shuffling and bobbing.
At the conclusion of the evening, I felt I was lucky indeed to have witnessed a display of such epic talents in such a microscale setting. Walking out into the cold night air, I couldn’t help but think that, given my experience and the reactions of the audience, that it might not be long before I’ll be having to pay separately to see each of these acts in larger, less intimate and affordable venues. That is if I’m smart enough to have the foresight to buy my ticket in advance.
Grizzly Bear / Beach House / Papercuts
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
Passing as much time in the restroom as possible, I am relieved of the tortuous compulsion that causes me to wash my hands repeatedly when I hear The Papercuts play a chord upstairs. The quietude that is near the stage of the Bowery Ballroom is a godsend, rivaling the booming forget-me-nots and sweet nothings that are being bellowed amiably by the bar flies downstairs. As the "cathedral of sound" — so aptly christened by record label Gnomonsong — of guitarist/vocalist Jason Quever's Papercuts begins to fill the empty corners of the room, I, along with the small crowd, give in willingly to the gospel drone. Unfortunately (and rather quickly), Quever's nasal pitch and the awkward pairing of his band mates become a little boring to watch. It is like walking down the street and coincidentally getting trapped in the traffic of a funeral parade.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with drone! It's been shown time and time again how much a good drone can perk your ears up. But this is just a lethargic bear trap (no pun intended) that makes me dread waiting two more hours for the headliner. Whatever Quever's brainchild was meant to be apparently sounds better on record in one’s living room, and it's easy to attribute this to his touring band: the insecure drummer, the stiff keyboardist, and the syncopated playing of the bassist who clearly belonged in a band more like Jane's Addiction (he was the one redeeming quality, albeit). Soon the nervous Papercuts are cut short due to a late start (they were "lost in the cold"), but fortunately, the next act would alleviate the frozen boredom of the room.
It's nice to see bands lugging their own amps, guitars, and drums onstage without the entourage of roadies and venue employees running amok, so it is even more pleasant when the graceful Beach House duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally set up a couple of keyboards and small amps within 10 minutes and initiate their show. A drum sample fills the now-thick air of the Bowery, preceding the soft synth anomalies of Legrand's throat. The latest success of their self-titled debut is nowhere to be found. In fact, this stage seems too minuscule to hold the power that Legrand possesses with her compelling gaze and pious vocals and Scally's ever-present shadow — this is a shocking realization. My eyes attempt to search the stage for something larger, something to complement the sounds that are encumbering me, but all I find is the small duo seated one behind the other: the boy lurched superfluously onto his guitar, the girl pounding away treacherously at her keyboard.
Legrand and Scally soar immaculately through songs like "Tokyo Witch," "House on the Hill," and mixtape favorite "Apple Orchard" before asking Papercuts' Quever to join on drums and tambourine on a slightly heavier version of "Childhood." Layers of tambourines, Scally's wavering guitar plucking, and Legrand's deep coo make this tiny duo's set enormous. Even a few new songs are thrown in that hint at a more complex, rhythmic, and pop direction for their next project. What makes Beach House a larger-than-life entity on that tiny stage is Legrand's big gaze, which scans the room relentlessly, possibly eyeing every person watching — a trait missing from The Papercuts. Between songs Legrand nonchalantly addresses two overlapping keys on her keyboard that make some chords sound off-kilter and quizzically, with soft sarcasm, asks the meaning of this vice: "a metaphor for tortured love?" With a rhetorical question that becomes preeminent throughout the night, Legrand perfectly summarizes the evening's delicate deliverance of languid, seductive, lo-fi synth pop.
Now, picture this: A flute trembles softly through the moist air of a hazy wood while a guitar is picked slowly and serene vocals lead you through a path to a yellow house, an ethereal wall of sound that materializes with Grizzly Bear's arrival. So went the stellar intro of the Brooklyn foursome as they cut the anticipation of the room with a mellowed "Easier." Immediately the intricacy of the band was at the forefront: Chris Taylor fidgeted with a number of instruments from the flute to bass to clarinet in the far left while the others harmonized impeccably with one another and their respectful instruments. Most of their set was full of derivations of some of Grizzly Bear's best songs. However, much to my disappointment, the steady flow of Yellow House was hardly present, contrary to what they would have had you believe with the "Easier" intro. Instead, there was a strange, blues-guitar-driven "Showcase," from their debut Horn of Plenty, seemingly out of place and reminiscent of a rehearsal rather than a band who within the last year have seen a large amount of recognition for their efforts.
Deviations are always a welcome subtlety, especially with a sound as eclectic as Grizzly Bear’s, but the problem was not the deviations, but how and where they occurred. On songs such as "Little Brother," "Colorado," and "Fix It," the originals were remade into rock-driven anthems that really jumbled my limbs, surprising me that these songs could be made so much more stirring. However, others, like "Lullaby" and "Showcase," left me wondering what was missing in these maladroit numbers compared to the epic monsters to come later. Whatever the answer, I was glad to see them pull it together for a fantastically raunchy version of "Little Brother," which immediately brought attention to drummer Christopher Bear. Airborne a score of times throughout the night, Bear slew each drumhead and crashed each cymbal with the intensity of a titan fighting a war, singing along to every lyric that head vocalist Ed Droste and guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rossen belted out, seemingly the greatest fan of what this band had accomplished within the last three years.
"Knife" followed, bringing Droste's incredible vocals into the spotlight, showcasing the diversity that his brainchild could bring not only to record, but also to a live audience. If anyone didn't get enough of the brilliant doo-wop here, it was certainly exciting to hear a poignant cover of The Crystals' hit "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" (a strange homage to the R&B beauties that Asobi Seksu have contributed to as well, covering "Then He Kissed Me" on their tour). "Fix It," also from Horn of Plenty, began with echoes of Droste's eerie recorder and ended with chanting that acted almost like a bridge assimilating the early recordings with the new.
They closed the night with "On a Neck, On a Spit," followed by a mellow encore from Rossen and Bear of a traditional song called "Deep Blue Sea." Strange how the night began with such a delicate tinkering of sound that quickly blew up into almost psychedelic territory, ending again on a subdued note. Maybe this was supposed to evoke a state of confusion. Once Taylor, Droste, Rossen and Bear left the stage, they also left the audience wondering if the songs played were really the songs they knew, if Grizzly Bear were capable of rendering so much credibility to their hype in roughly an hour. Simply put — befuddlement and bewilderment aside — yes.
by Mila Matveeva
Girl Talk / Dan Deacon / The Texas Governor
The Middle East Downstairs; Cambridge, MA
The Texas Governor had begun their set already when I climbed downstairs of the Middle East. Despite the fact that Girl Talk’s headlining there had just been confirmed by the transfer of the show, to my surprise, to the larger of the venue’s two rooms, the current performers had me second-guessing -- posturing on stage to the sound of a generic pop-punk instrumental backing fit more for the divey nearby Abbey Lounge was The Governor’s vocalist, a contrived persona of jittery, disheveled drug-addledness in a gray, unkempt suit with a large rectangular Coca-Cola sticker duct-taped to his jacket sleeve: a ‘cultural commentary’ so heavy-handed it was insulting. He quaked with the manic intensity of an OCD case, meticulously touching his trembling fingers together, rubbing his palm, or tugging on his clothes, an act whose authenticity was never more in question than on the several occasions that he stopped to shamelessly hold up the CD they were trying to sell. It was like satire. The guy on the Korg was pretty good though; I felt bad for them mostly.
The stage was then cleared of everything but a long table, littered with various electronics and decorated with a green skull. A dough-y guy with large orange glasses, thinning hair, a beard, and a yellow t-shirt covered in green, hand-drawn peace signs had some help lowering the table to floor level, and as he positioned himself behind it, it became clear that this was Dan Deacon. I’d never heard of the guy, but the unmitigated enthusiasm of what had to be his 12 biggest fans, tightly packed together in front of an audience approaching half capacity, made me optimistic. After testing the integrity of the squelch and warble machines in front of him, he taped his glasses to his head, reminded us that it was 2007, and asked us to countdown from 20.
We gave it two tries, both ridiculous failures, and then he made with the flipping of the switches and the turning of the knobs. It was a filthy four-on-the-floor electronic eruption, a more danceable Les Georges Leningrad, Dan taking breaks from his flailing and sweating to talk unintelligibly into his vocoder. Each song ended abruptly, cuing some big applause, and between songs he would pant exhausted into the microphone, commissioning new countdowns and assigning tasks: “On 12 you have to look at a stranger,” or “This time you gotta be really excited, like your dog, like, just got hit by a car, but somehow that made him stronger, and you’re like, ‘Awesome.’ ” He also preached that the problems of the world could be solved with more Big Gulps and Playstations. Admittedly this doesn’t translate well to print, but this guy pulled it off, keeping the whole room dancing and raptly entertained.
I had to wonder what Girl Talk would be like in performance in anticipation of his set. I’m pretty sure he has some other material, but like most, I’ve still only heard Night Ripper. He’s not going to use turntables, is he? That would be near-impossible. But he can’t stray too far from Night Ripper -- there would be rioting. What, then?
The question was answered by an almost bare table, back up on the stage, little more than a laptop resting on it. Dressed in a red t-shirt, someone announced, “My name is Gregg, I’m gonna play some music in a little bit.” Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, disappeared backstage, reemerging minutes later in full alter-ego mode: oversized black sunglasses, hood up on his white sweatshirt, hopping around onstage to the cheers of the crowd like a boxer. As he peered into the glowing screen and clicked a button, those first familiar inhales of that Ciara song came over the speakers. Gregg clapped his hands and jumped back from the table, hopping and shaking his head for a second with an almost exaggerated enthusiasm before reapproaching the laptop, clicking with conviction on what would be the next sample, then leapt back again. And it continued.
As he (and the crowd) danced, his sweatshirt and glasses were flung off, and the set paralleled Night Ripper pretty tightly, straying a bit in chronology and content. About five minutes into it, he pulled a girl up onto the stage; her friend followed behind her, and in under 30 seconds the whole thing was filled shoulder-to-shoulder, ass-to-ass, and Gregg became lost in the swarm, the music being the only remaining sign of his presence.
I found myself watching the crowd in an almost sociological way, as some basked in the attention they found at the front of the stage. It was surreal; until that moment, I had been an ‘audience member,’ and I felt that I continued to be one for a while, until my mind began trying to reconcile that role with what the stage was presenting to me. This was no longer a ‘concert’ at all, but it wasn’t a party, either. In theory, the only difference between the stage and the floor at that point was height. But simply by virtue of there being a stage, we remained the ‘watchers’ of that scene, of whatever occurred on it. Yet those who were on stage weren’t entirely stripped of their role as ‘audience members,’ which they had much more clearly been only minutes prior. Instead, they became removed from themselves, watching us watch them, simultaneously performer and audience. And we, as their proxy, watched them watch us watch them.
Not a dancer myself, I moved to the back of the room, finished my beer at the end of the set, and left. Besides, I have that CD at home. But it looked like they were having a hell of a time.
SXSW: Day 3
Friday was the last day of SXSW for me and most of my friends. I think that if we’d stayed any longer we wouldn’t have made it out to the shows until early evening, anyway. While I would like to say I missed Birds of Avalon and Voxtrot Thursday night to get some much needed, quality alone time with my hotel mattress, the truth is that the lot of us wound up plying ourselves with whiskey and beer into the wee hours of Friday at the restaurant next door and having a mini iPod party in the hotel parking lot. “What’s your favorite Band song? ‘Bessie Smith’? DUDE, me too, let’s listen!”
Sound lame to you? Trust me, it wasn’t nearly as lame as the line to get into the early afternoon Chunklet party, a.k.a. the “Mess with Texas” party, at Red 7 on Friday. We called our Chunklet connection about helping us break the line to get inside to see Les Savy Fav and a few others, but it just so happened that said connection was out with Tim from Les Savy Fav planting drug paraphernalia on people and pretending to be narcs. Supposedly we’ll be able to catch a video within a week or so at SuperDeluxe.com.
After a few minutes, we retreated from the Red 7 line and waited on a table for some barbecue (finally!) at Stubb’s. In the meantime we drank free beers and margaritas and went out back to hear Galactic play a craptastic set for a bunch of people who, unbelievably, were into it. The only explanation I could come up with was that they were very, very drunk and probably didn’t understand what they were doing.
Instead of getting back in the line for the Chunklet party post-barbeque and fried okra, we headed a few blocks over to the No Depression party at Habana Calle 6. We made it just in time to catch the end of Elvis Perkins’ set around 4:30 p.m. and to see Jim White, who was on my short list of must-sees, play at 5. I had seen Jim White open for The Handsome Family at the Echo Lounge in Atlanta back in 2003, and I loved him in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. He had lost quite a bit of weight, had become a bit gaunter as a result, and had gotten a much shorter haircut, but he was as witty and entertaining as he always is. He asked his wife to come onstage and sing with him. He commented that she had “just given birth,” so he figured he could get her to sing with him. He didn’t exactly indicate what it was she gave birth to, and we weren’t sure what the connection between giving birth and being able to sing was, but it was a good performance nonetheless. He told several jokes and engaged the crowd in laughter, but my favorite moment was when he played “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes.” As he sang the lyric “When the wild wind whips around your head you know/ that you have found a perfect day to chase tornadoes,” the wind began to blow very hard and gave the song an eerie atmospheric quality that made him seem prophetic. That wind gave his lyrics more weight than they would have had in a more ordinary setting, and of course the Alabama in me loves his notion of the God-haunted South coupled with trailer-trash aesthetics and small-town folklore. After all, the man does have a song about bars being like churches that serve beer.
We met a few industry folks after White’s set and made nice before heading to the Austin City Limits studio to catch Beirut at the KEXP showcase. I’m a casual Beirut fan; I’ve listened to several tracks on The Hype Machine and have generally enjoyed what I’ve heard, but I loved their live performance. Horns seemed to be a popular addition to indie rock sets at SXSW this year in general, but Beirut get major props for going all the way. In fact, I think we’d find it challenging to come up with many wind instruments that weren’t represented in their set. Zach Condon reminded me of Jody Nelson from the Through The Sparks show we caught earlier in the week in that he spoke quietly and infrequently but maintained a hushed confidence. When he stopped playing to sing, he hoisted his flugelhorn on his shoulder proudly and in doing so somehow made it seem cool to play a flugelhorn. Still, it was hard to shake the impression of the band as a bunch of dorky high school marching band kids who got together and thought it would be neat to start a horn-toting rock band.
A quick cab ride back downtown took us to the Billions Showcase at Antone’s. We were particularly interested in hearing the amazingly beautiful Annie Clark perform as St. Vincent. I really like her music, and I thought her presentation was ideal. She came out alone and played a few songs on her guitar and on her keyboard. Before the audience had a chance to become bored (if that were possible), her boys, as she called them, came out dressed in brown button-down, collared shirts with small black ties. My friend pointed out that they looked like a cross between western cowboys and boy scouts. Clark played a few songs with them before calling out the horn section for her grand finale. The gradual addition of instrumentation really helped to build crowd interest and energy, and the guys in our group were mesmerized by her Billie Holiday-ish vocal phrasing. The really humbling thing is that she could probably play guitar much better than any of them, too.
Next up was Margot and The Nuclear So and So’s, but I hardly felt like reliving that mistake since they played in my hometown too recently for me to forget. Instead of hanging around, we wandered out into the street and somehow wound up in the crappy Viper Room being hit on by a dude whose best pick-up line was “All I care about right now is your hair” and another dude whose line was one of those wrist slappers we all used to carry around with us in the ’80s. Perhaps we should’ve stayed at the Margot show? Perhaps.
A few creepy dudes, beers, and slices of pizza later, we wound up sitting in the lobby of the Austin Convention Center watching Aqualung -- who was playing in the next room — on the television set propped up just outside the venue. It’s not so much that we cared to see Aqualung; our next plan of attack was to make it to the front row of The Polyphonic Spree showcase for a grand SXSW finale. I’m not a big fan of Polyphonic Spree records, and that song “Soldier Girl” makes me want to become a violent woman, but we were aware that witnessing the band live would be quite a different experience.
Surely enough, their set was an aural and visual overload. We couldn’t watch musicians on one side of the stage for very long because we worried about missing something on the other side of the stage. There were six singing/dancing girls in the middle of the stage, Annie Clark in front of them playing her guitar and making “I keep surprising myself” faces at the audience, Brian Teasley to her back-right throwing his drumsticks up in the air (not catching them more than half the time), and wild-eyed Tim DeLaughter creeping us out with his over-the-top antics in front of it all. And this doesn’t even cover half of the people onstage. Luckily for me, there was no “Soldier Girl,” and the songs the band did play were epic in scope, quite the spectacle. For the final song, the band went nuts; Clark threw down her guitar and danced upon the strings, Teasley grabbed a snare drum and jumped into the crowd, and the girl choir thrashed around rabidly. I still can’t say I’ll ever own a Polyphonic Spree record, but I’m now sold on the idea that their live show is not one to miss.
The Polyphonic Spree ended their set — and my first SXSW experience — around 2 a.m., and I went back to our hotel feeling like I had seen plenty. I’d missed countless bands I had wanted to see -- The Broken West, Bob Egan, the M’s, Les Savy Fav, and the Bon Savants, to name a few — but I’ve learned that one of the biggest mistakes SXSWers can make is to stand in long lines or even travel across the city to see certain bands when so many others are right there. After all, SXSW is supposed to be all about discovery, and who’s discovering anything new if everyone’s lined up for a mile to hear The Stooges?
All photos by Leah Hutchison, except The Polyphonic Spree photo by Traci Edwards
The Apples in Stereo/ Casper & the Cookies/ caUSE co-MOTION
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
Just when you start to think that indie rock is dead, The Apples in Stereo come back to save it. Okay, that’s a little optimistic. At least the Elephant Six stalwarts managed to release an album that, without transcending the genre, reminds us of why we fell in love with it in the first place. Sure, the band’s first full-length since 2002 is bigger and louder than ever before. Yes, it’s on freakin’ Elijah Wood’s Simian Records. Saddest of all, longtime drummer Hilarie Sidney left the band in late 2006. Whichever of these facts is hanging you up, get over it. That’s right. Get the fuck over it because the album is great and the live show is even better.
Brooklyn’s caUSE co-MOTION opened the night playing to a crowd of screaming friends in the audience. Although their noisy, pop-punk sound didn’t do much for me, I’m not totally writing them off. I was mostly annoyed by what I call the “monotone lisp,” a vocal affectation that innumerable singers have employed throughout the past 30 years. The band saved their best material for the end of the short set, and I did enjoy a few songs that featured fun, unpredictable guitar riffs and catchy new-wave bass lines. I was surprised to find that they’ve been around for close to five years, but nonetheless, I stick by the judgment that they need some more time to cook before moving beyond the boroughs.
As I watched Casper & The Cookies set up, I knew that something, well, kooky was in the works. Casper Fandango (nee Jason NeSmith), in champagne crushed velvet pants, and his bandmates, bedizened in false, metallic eyelashes and exaggerated makeup (these are the guys, mind you) decorated their mic stands, bass drum, and keyboards with fake flower garlands. I worried that they were all gimmick and no substance, but my fears were in vain. In fact, if The Apples in Stereo hadn’t been so goddamn exciting, Casper's Cookies would have stolen the show. The band members’ androgyny contrasted with the fairy tale concept of their new album, The Optimist’s Club, which, as Casper told us, is about “falling in love in THIS EXACT CITY!” It all made me wonder whether these Athens indie-pop folks are making a concerted effort to bring the glam-rock aesthetic back. I mean, have you seen Kevin Barnes recently, all sparkly make-up and, um, naked? None of them sound anything like David Bowie or Roxy Music to me, but I’ll take Casper & The Cookies’ charming, exuberant, multi-effects-pedal pop any day and consider the eyeshadow a bonus.
The Apples in Stereo had some glitter of their own to show off. Decked out in a silver spacesuit, complete with matching cape and light-up goggles, the keyboard player looked like a refugee from Mothership Connection.
About half of the set comprised songs from the new album, New Magnetic Wonder. 1998’s dreamy concept album Her Wallpaper Reverie will probably always be my favorite, and I can’t get enough of The Apples’ early psychedelic stuff. That said, I wasn’t particularly unhappy about the predominance of newer material. Do I wish they had played “Haley” (from the ’96 rarities collection Science Faire)? Sure. But the band’s peppy delivery of tunes like the celebratory “Energy” and bouncy “Same Old Drag” made me forget any qualms I may have had with the setlist. It didn’t hurt that Schneider and co. tore it up on Wallpaper classics “Strawberryfire” and “Ruby.” An as-yet-unrecorded song rocked harder than even the New Magnetic Wonder material. Now that early influences The Beach Boys and The Beatles have faded into the background, perhaps Cheap Trick is providing fresh inspiration?
The Apples in Stereo, if not better than ever, are bigger than ever. Persistent shouts of “Stephen!” were a constant reminder of Schneider’s appearance on The Colbert Report in late 2006 (see also Someone Got Into My Subconscious and Made Half an Hour of Television About It). To their credit, they teased once or twice but ultimately didn’t play it. It’s far from their best song, and it just wouldn’t have been that great out of context. And hey, its omission didn’t stop one zealous fan from screaming, “Rob, you’re a genius!” after every song. Think of it as a “Clapton is God” for the indie-rock set.
The Arcade Fire
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY
I'm visiting the restroom in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church when the strains of "No Cars Go" float downstairs. "Jesus Christ!" I hiss, and then clap my hand over my mouth. Church. Right.
Feeling like I should be reprimanded for my tardiness, I guiltily dart upstairs into the chapel, but no one could give two shits about this hack of a journalist because a massive Neon Bible is creating a halo above a pack of exuberant Canadian musicians. The crowd is at once ecstatic and reverent, drinking in a song they first heard on the Arcade Fire's self-titled EP, now resurrected in splendor in this stained-glass chapel. We're treated with "Haiti" next, another familiar tune, and handclaps abound. Coffee and water are the drinks of choice on stage; no booze that I can see. Lead singer and lyricist Win Butler, a true master of stage banter, explains between songs: "My doctor told me to stop doing shows, and to go home and sleep... but here I am!" His face splits into huge grin, masking the fatigue that comes with a solid month of touring Canada and the U.K.
Tonight is the second of five (count 'em) sold out dates at this little church in Washington Square Park. While stumbling through the slushy streets of Manhattan, I felt as if I should have been wearing a sign announcing my destination, in hopes that my intent would make up for my obvious lack of street smarts. Tickets for this show popped up on craigslist.com mere hours after the 5-minute sellout, with prices topping $600 a pair.
Butler is obviously wise to this. "I had a dream last night," he tells us. "I dreamed that I was sneaking people into this show, but some people were getting upset that they weren't getting in and others were, so I threw all of these wristbands up in the air for people to catch, and then they all fell on the floor and people walked on them." Nice dream, but everyone in this room knows they had a stroke of luck in getting here tonight.
A flying leap is the best visual I can give for how the Arcade Fire launch into "Black Mirror," the radio-friendly single from Neon Bible. I was admittedly not impressed when I spun it on my radio show, but live, it took on new, er, life! There's as much to watch as there is to hear, and the lights catch Richard Reed Parry's silver upright bass as Regine Chassagne holds her face in her gloved hands as she sings. The resulting effect is positively angelic, echoing throughout the church in heavenly waves.
Butler introduces the pipe organ-fueled masterpiece that is "My Body Is A Cage" and nods to Chassagne. "We don't celebrate Valentine's Day in Canada... but this is for my wife." For the first time, I notice the aforementioned instrument on stage and get chills.
"Windowsill" brings on a change of pace, moderately timed with singing string solos, and as the audience remains positively pious in nature, we're laughingly reprimanded by Win: "Stop being so quiet! I know it's a church, but... okay, everyone pick a word, like 'turtle' or 'fuck,' and yell it! Talk to your neighbors!" The band is soaked with sweat at this point and Win's bro William's eyes are squeezed tightly shut in a smile that seems to run in the family.
There are 11 new reasons as to why the Arcade Fire can sell out a lower Manhattan church five nights in a row, and one of the better arguments is the shoegazy use of violins on "The Well and the Lighthouse." "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" and "Rebellion (Lies)" from Funeral send the crowd dancing with familiarity before we're sobered up by "Intervention," the majestic, pipe organ and choir-heavy track from Neon Bible. It's the last song of the set, but we barely have time to get depressed as the band exits and enters again almost immediately, armed with extra French horns. The deceptively mellow "Ocean of Noise" ends with a raucously organized orchestral flourish. I'm scribbling madly and nearly become one with a French horn by accident as the musicians stream through the audience.
The wind is whipping the snow madly as I stumble outside, but I'm humming "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" to myself in a glazed state of bliss, thinking that was an excellent song to end on, indeed. I'm still seeing trails from the gigantic Neon Bible, and while that may not have been a religious experience, it's the closest this heathen's been in a long time.
SXSW: Day 2
My group of friends got off to a late start on Thursday morning. Other than a few sleepyheads, most of us had gotten to bed around 4 a.m., and someone made sure to draw the curtains over the hotel window so that 4 a.m. looked no different than noon.
When we did make it out, we discovered a beautiful day. Our first stop was around 3 p.m. at Schuba’s 11th Annual SXSW Roundup. There were a handful of acts I was looking forward to seeing: Benjy Ferree, Cold War Kids, Elvis Perkins, and Russian Circles, in particular. I had also considered the possibility of free beer and barbecue. There was free beer; there was not, however, free barbecue. I’d heard all this talk about free grub at SXSW and hadn’t yet managed to find any.
We walked into Yard Dog Art Gallery and immediately out the back door, where we found a crowd of people in a relatively small space pushed up to a tent where a band had already started to play. I grabbed my beer in a plastic cup -- the boys grabbed two each -- and we joined the herd to hear a band whose identity we had yet to discover. After we posed a few questions to irritated listeners one offered the answer “Cold War Kids.” I figured they were irritated not only because I was asking them questions, but also because they couldn’t see anything. I had a lovely view of a bunch of dudes’ heads, and what I could hear didn’t make me very interested in seeing anything more. I’ve heard lots of talk about soulful singing and blues-flavored indie rock, but what I actually heard at Yard Dog was loud singing and guitar that didn’t sound very “bluesy” to me.
My girlpal and I opted for Mexican food for the second day in a row and left our boys at the Midlake show. We both liked Midlake but had seen them not even a month earlier at the BottleTree in our hometown of Birmingham, AL. We took a quick ride across town on Austin’s Golden Dillo (that’s what their transit system is apparently called), to catch some bands at Filter Magazine’s High Noon at Cedar Street party. When we arrived, Kenna was playing. I would tend to file them under “decent-sounding indie rock,” a generic label that now encompasses too many of the bands I saw at SXSW. They had some appealing, if typical, vocal harmonies, and the lead singer gave us plenty of photo opportunities. He bounced around stage, used his hands for emphasis since he played no instrument, and wound up climbing up the stairs and standing atop a rail by the end of the band’s set. His ego-driven behavior was a comic distraction to the blandness of the music, and most of the audience was amused watching his antics.
Next, I enjoyed standing in the front row for Sydney, Australia natives Youth Group’s set, and there wasn’t anything terribly special about their music, either. Like Kenna, they played listener-friendly, guitar-driven indie rock. They’ve been compared to and have toured with Death Cab For Cutie and have even been featured on The O.C. They also remind me of Dirty On Purpose in a good way, and I think it was the pretty, delicate melodies and the guitar reverb that did it for me. Had their set been much longer I might have gotten tired of the sameness of it all, but as it was I quite enjoyed it.
During Youth Group’s set my girlfriend went inside to rest her feet, and I switched places with her for Badly Drawn Boy. I know he was the headliner of the party and I know I probably should’ve stayed out there to watch, but one of the glories of SXSW is getting to see so many bands and not really caring about the ones you miss even though they might be ones to see in a hometown scenario. I found a comfy couch where I could hear but not see. Damon Gough was alone, and he played a man-and-a-guitar set, which was the perfect accompaniment to resting my ass on that oasis of a couch while people five feet away crowded toward the stage. His set ended around 6:30 p.m. and gave us plenty of time to go next door and devour some yummy veggie spring rolls in plum sauce at Saba Blue Water Cafe before heading to the Mohawk for the Secretly Canadian showcase.
The longest line I stood in the whole week was the line to get in to see The Besnard Lakes at the Secretly Canadian showcase. I wanted to hear them and possibly Richard Swift at 11:30 p.m., but we were able to hear quite enough of The Besnard Lakes whilst standing in line by the fence lining The Mohawk. We ran into some old friends, and as we chatted, a cloud of thick smoke came wafting through the holes in the green fence accompanied by what surely couldn’t have been The Besnard Lakes. I was expecting the pretty Beach Boys sound of “Disaster,” but what I heard was much more jam bandish. We sat on the curb and listened until I heard “Disaster,” which wound up sounding very different from the lovely version on The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse. Figuring this show was a complete wash, we trucked it over to Antone’s to catch Sondre Lerche at the Astralwerks showcase.
Small Sins were in the middle of their set when we arrived, so we caught the rest of their set and thoroughly enjoyed watching the guitar player dance around like a huge dork and the auxiliary percussionist beside him bang two tambourines together like a three-year-old having a temper tantrum. Their self-titled album on Astralwerks sounds more subdued, but if they’d been that subdued live they probably would’ve been more commonplace and boring. Good for them that some of them act foolish onstage, because their behavior made them memorable.
Sondre Lerche finally played, around 10:30 p.m., and I was surprised to hear how much his music has changed since I caught him with Ed Harcourt at the Exit/In in Nashville in ’03. For the most part, he played songs from his 2007 release Phantom Punch, which is incredibly different from the last release of his I heard, 2002’s Faces Down. Back then he had an instantly recognizable pop sound with sunny melodies and memorable hooks. The songs from Phantom Punch are more straightforward rock songs with little to set them apart from other straightforward rock songs. Even so, he charmed the audience with his gorgeous smile and upbeat banter, as always, and I couldn’t help but notice that the first three rows of fans consisted of cute females.
My friends and I were debating an early night, but we hung around long enough to catch The Little Ones’ set. They are a fun, hand-clapping, lollipops-and-sunshine indie pop band that had SXSWers out of their hot, tired, grumbly pissypants mood in no time. I bet if you’d wandered through the crowd you would’ve seen some typically head bobbing indier-than-thous dancing retardedly -- or at least caught off guard. My grumpy boyfriends, for example, had been ready to go home, but they, too, were caught up in The Little Ones’ set and were particularly geeked-out by the band’s use of a Mellotron.
After this set, most of us were ready to retreat to our hotel before the 12:30 a.m. headliner bands. I stopped by Habana Calle 6 briefly to check out Birds Of Avalon, but I was yawning so much I couldn’t make it past one song. Thursday for me was the most disappointing day of the festival. I hadn’t seen any particularly stand-out shows, and most of what I did see has since globbed itself together in my mind to form indie rock band 'X.' Sifting back through each one to focus on stand-out differences has been difficult because there just isn’t that much to say about one that can’t be said about the others.
All photos by Leah Hutchison