No Fun Fest 2007: Day 4
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-20-2007]

No Fun Fest never lasted four days before because doctors told Carlos Giffoni ears could not take that much stress. Incredibly, audiences were able to survive three days for three years. So, Giffoni, being accredited in Science and all, expanded the festival to four days. Here’s the catch: he took basement bands out of the equation and let merch hounds rule the downstairs. Boo, on that count. Yeah, for day four.

We made damn sure to be in front of The Hook at 6 PM sharp on Day four ‘cause our boys Air Conditioning were slated to jam with American Band. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the weekend, as the conglomeration cranked out about a half hour of brutal sludge. The destruction unit sacrificed Air Conditioning’s usual horrific melodies for a room-engulfing harsh noise sound. Air Conditioning’s Matt Franco’s guitar fed into effects and Robert cackled his bass and screamed. Lee Counts drilled some sheet metal and Facedowninshit psycho Jason Crumer twisted pedals, channeling the god in a black mass celebrating decadence via electronics. The set was raw and damn good.

Deathroes took the stage next, demanding a blackened room for the strobelight in their set. This paid off, as the lights accentuated Gerrit and Sixes’ creepy drones. Sixes, who has long been one of the best at creating an interesting, subtle drone, managed to invigorate throughout with his electronic maelstrom. Gerrit, who I ignorantly never bothered to seek out, mirrored the amazing sounds, playing perfect counterpart. In all, the band achieved what Damion Romero and Hive Mind failed on the first day; generating excitement from a live drone.

Ludo Mich read a poem and created a capella noise with two beautiful women. Hurrah. Stegm, featuring Dominick Fernow (a.k.a. Prurient), blasted ear drums with blasts of electronics that teetered between harsh noise and black metal. Fernow sang with a doom-, then black-metal voice.

Leslie Keffer presented some interesting ideas during her set, such as “Can Rodger Stella stay onstage with two dozen beautiful, dancing women without touching a single breast?” Answer: “Apparently.” Her alleged collaboration with Stella featured a few blips of heathen noise greatness before degenerating into a Madonna-driven dance party. Stella stood onstage with some kind of keyboard, slowly lifting it and lowering it, then climbing off the stage mid-set to take a stroll through the crowd. When Keffer cranked Madonna and invited noise ladies to shimmy onstage, Stella wandered back, obstructing the view of the spectacle and glaring at the audience with his slack-jawed moon-face. Interesting, to say the least.

Burning Star Core and Aaron Dilloway, two of the final acts, boasted impressive sets at No Fun Fest in years past. This year was no different. Aaron Dilloway’s set was more sustained and just as incredible as last year’s ten-minute masterwork. Okay, maybe it was a little less, but Dilloway built a heady toxic stew of a soundtrack to dismembering a corpse. Clicks, clacks, rings, and screams all melded into a spontaneous composition which was sound logically and just plain nasty. Burning Star Core jammed with Zaimph, better known as Marcia Bassett of Double Leopards/UN/GHQ fame. The collaboration laid down a ’70s rock stomp and proceeded to blast the piss out of it, adding drones and, of course, C.S. Yeh’s outerworldly mic-spittin’. Outerspace sonics were a great way to end the evening.

We left before Thurston Moore took the stage. After all, we could see Thurston anytime in Northampton. Right? Saying goodbyes to worldwide friends in the basement, I spotted Rob McCulloch, guitarist for NEGATIVE FUCKING APPROACH. After shaking hands with McCulloch and explaining how much I love his band, I begged my ride to stay at the venue. Just for one song. PLEASE! C’mon, I just want to hear them play “Lost Cause.” It’s only 40-fucking-seconds long. Please. No! NO? No fun, indeed. I don’t wanna go back to work. I want to live in a deviant noise community forever. No fuckin’ fun. Oh well, someone dope me up until next year.

{Day One} + {Day Two} + {Day Three} + Day Four

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 1
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-17-2007]

It was No Fun Fest weekend, and my friends and I made damn sure we booked out of work an hour early. With ride and shelter situations straightened out, we hit the highway, but I’ll be goddamned if New York City traffic planned our night differently. Missed Orphan Fairytale’s opening ceremonies, which all of us were looking forward to, but at least we made it to the festival, which was chock-full of friends and acquaintances.

Rounding the un-genrified, dockside neighborhood, a faint buzzing wandered within earshot as we jogged to The Hook’s front door. After a frisking and ticket securing, we opened the black curtain to an all-too-familiar scene: darkness punctuated by a red-lit bar and a green-lit stage with roughly 200 music-hungry fans and a handful of stragglers on the dancefloor. Evil Moisture welcomed us to the four-day weekend by slaying the audience with madcap, rage-filled hums and squeals.

After some loud yelps, I wandered outside, escaping the scent of stale beer and body odor to catch up with friends from around the states. Two smokes and a few beers later, Lambsbread’s opening chords summoned the audience back. When we arrived indoors, Rat Bastard announced the band was just plugging in. A few minutes later, those evil mothers cranked out one helluva mind-bender. Kathy sketched a dissonant fuzz landscape, while Zac blurted out some Hendrix-of-noise noodlings and Shane spackled a percussive foundation. A brief foray into Sabbath-style doom gave the head a rest from fast banging -- then BLAM... right back into lightspeed, free-hardcore riffage, ending at just the right point in the meltdown. A goddamn smoker fer sure.

Hive Mind and Damion Romero's set sounded like New Order tunes melted into one super-long drone, but it also was super boring to watch. Time to hit up the merch stands. Unlike the previous three years, organizers dedicated the basement solely to merch, not the manic intensity of small bands. Hospital Productions, AA Records, Los Angeles Free Music Society, Fag Tapes, Hanson, Bennifer, et al -- Thurston Moore running around with an underarm full of vinyl and tapes. Limited-edition cassettes and lathes galore, but since funds were limited, the place seemed more like an art museum piece on underground record packaging or a study in rampant consumerism.

Upstairs, Kim Gordon and Yoshimi began setting up. Grabbing a three $3 Pabst, I weaseled my way into a good spot. I had pumped the first Royal Trux album for the whole week prior and hoped something at the festival could approximate the feeling of that album. Thankfully, Kim and Yoshimi pulled it off with an energetic set. Kim’s noticeably improved guitar technique sounded like Neil Hagerty’s primitive playing on Royal Trux' [#1], but with a penchant for dissonance and an amateurish earnestness on par with early Half Japanese. Yoshimi’s ritualistic banging kept things in motion, while Kim’s breathy poetics drove away some power electronics fans.

Preparation for Hair Police: smoke, piss, drink, patiently wait for the crew to do a soundcheck. Now it is time to watch skulls melt. On this night the band blurred the barrier between the spastic punk squalls of the past with drawn-out, black metal soundscapes, creating a crowd-pleasing glimpse into the band's future trajectory. Crazed no-wave synth blurts and echoing train-track bass smacks plotted a dark underworld accentuated by Mike Connolly’s horrific, high-pitched screams. Two encores and a few minutes worth of psychotic clapping later the best set of the night ends, and I kick scattered Pabst cans out of the way to see if my friends are still alive.

The night ended with a set by the legendary harsh-noise artist Pain Jerk. While the Japanese extremist wailed on some sort of metal-cased keyboard of death, John from Slogun stood on the side of the stage, flipping people off and spitting on the people in the front of the crowd. He made crying gestures and continued to provoke the crowd as Kohei Gomi shredded eardrums, constructing a wall-thick, scraping metal sound. Slogun punched a few people and a mini-melee started, with Gomi intervening. I didn’t understand the violent stage show surrounding Gomi’s performance, but the barrage of sound distracted one from dwelling too long on ersatz.

For the first time in a few months, I walked home with a severe ringing in my ears and a smile on my face. I couldn't wait to see what No Fun Fest curator Carlos Giffoni had planned for the second night.

Day One + {Day Two} + {Day Three} + {Day Four}

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 3
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-19-2007]

Of all the bands I forgot to mention in my No Fun Fest day two summary, Anti-Freedom rocked the hardest. A one-off band featuring Shane Mackenzie and Zac Davis of Lambsbread and Dennis Tyfus, the band blasted through a set of faux-punk songs with Tyfus seemingly singing the same set of lyrics for every song. Davis melded Black Flag chords and Demo-Moe feedback with Sonny Sharrock-style skronk accentuations while Mackenzie wore any remaining white spots off his skins. Eventually, John Olson joined in the fun, drumming in place of Mackenzie.

I mention this set because a lot of Saturday’s No Fun Fest lineup was, well, no fun.

Although we were in Brooklyn, a ride mishap made us miss Demons’ set (my friends argued they’d already seen Demons twice this year, and though I've seen them before, I wanted to check them out with Twig Harper). We eventually arrived just in time for Sickness, who I’d esteem as one of the best ‘noise’ artists out there. He took the stage and began to play a subdued set plagued with amplifier shortages. Wandering to the back of the audience, I couldn't hear Sickness’ performance, save for a few murmurs. This led me to believe he did not play through the PA. After another false start, he left the stage but not before telling the audience to have fun at their “hug fest.” And so began the bad vibes.

Sickness stayed onstage to help his buddy Slogun with the next set. Slogun, known for confrontational, violent performances, sounded absolutely abysmal in the best possible way. Horrific harsh-noise ambience and serial-killer clips slinked out of the sound system as he stood cross-armed, stage left. He spit at a few unlucky concert goers, swore at a few more, then shouted hyper-manipulated battle chants into the microphone. A few guest vocalists joined him onstage, kicking the audience in the face and yelling at the “fucking pussies” in the crowd in a ploy to get someone to fight them. Before leaving the stage, he told the “fucking pathetic” crowd they weren’t even worth his time. The crowd played right into Slogun’s hands, booing him off the stage. From message boards and various interviews with Slogun’s John Balisteri, I gather Slogun’s live shows are supposed to place violence in the face of those who watch it from a distance on the television. I guess I’m just a hippie pussy, then, because I shied away from it.

Or maybe I’m not enough of a hippie because I found most of Religious Knives’ set very ho-hum. Their first tune, a heavy psych ditty complete with a cool bleeding fuzz guitar line, lacked passion. Vocally, Mike Bernstein just doesn’t sound great unless he hums into the mic over a layered drone. On the other hand, their fractured dub song elated me with its jubilant slack beat and seamless melding of dissonant sound elements and dub music.

My hippie ass loved the old hippies of Los Angeles Free Music Society’s set. Ju Suk Reet Meate, Tom Recchion, and Jackie Oblivia created the best sounds of the entire festival. Recchion sketched an ambient desert with his laptop, while Oblivia processed records on an old Califone portable player run through a few pedals. Meanwhile, Ju Suk slowly tortured a keyboard and strange stringed instruments. The records’ disorienting, looped vocal sounds joined the creepy noisescapes, birthing a soundtrack to a bad trip. Moments of harsh dissonance furthered this concept -- pure fucking magic. A drunk kid climbed onstage mid-set, stripping off his shirt and falling down, taking Recchion’s equipment with him. The Smegma one-off jammed for a few more minutes before calling it quits. The crowd cheered loudly and part of the band looked as if it would play an encore. Oblivia waved off the idea, though, as the drunk guy ruined some of the group’s equipment. After the show, Ju Suk said the performance was the closest thing to a LAFMS performance this generation is going to receive.

Keiji Haino kept the magik going with a three-part, hour-long performance. He began the night strumming a small, abnormal acoustic instrument and shouting incoherent melodies, sounding like an aboriginal Jandek with a violent side. Soon, he picked up his axe and amps flowed with majestic walls of chord-reverberation glory. He swaggered about the stage with a Hendrix-at-Woodstock pomp, bleeding his doom metal chords before engaging in a psych-noise spazz-out. Putting down his battered guitar, he grabbed a mic and proceeded to scream unintelligibly into it. Processed through a series of pedals, the vocals became blistering sound missiles protruding from the speaker. My ears rang for three days afterwards, but each time I thought about why they rang, I smiled. Haino’s set proved more interesting and enthralling than any of the festival’s harsh noise acts.

Merzbow’s thundering set ended the night with a high-water mark. The thundering, scraping set composed by a stoic Masami Akita overpowered any idle chatter in the audience. Sitting in front of a laptop with a layout of mixers and electronic devices, Akita composed with command, ensuring fluidity within the cacophony. The grinding, oscillating industrial sounds constantly morphed and demanded attention. Though my body felt some ware, Akita entranced me. The spirited energy would continue into Sunday’s performances, proving a few bad apples can’t ruin a fun festival.

{Day One} + {Day Two} + Day Three + {Day Four}

The Dismemberment Plan
Black Cat; Washington, DC

[04-28-2007]

It seems like every band that has ever broken up and still has at least two living members is reuniting. From Iggy and the Stooges to The Police, the past few years have been rife with half-assed reunions. Most have been uninspiring, some have yielded God-awful new albums, and almost all seem to be supported, if not instigated, by major corporate interests. The tickets are expensive, the bands are phoning it in, and we, as fans, eat it up with a spoon, ignoring our misgivings and clinging to the hope that our loyalty will pay off.

But The Dismemberment Plan are not like any other band, and their “reunion,” if that’s what we must call it, went down much differently, too. D-Plan reunited for no more than two consecutive nights at hometown club the Black Cat. Both shows were benefits for Callum Robbins, the son of producer and erstwhile Jawbox frontman J. Robbins. Callum was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a debilitating neurological condition that kills more babies than any other disease.* Tickets cost only $15, and neither the band nor the label made any money on the show. With no new material introduced onstage, one can be sure there is not an upcoming album waiting in the wings for promotion, either.

Without the taint of any hidden agenda, D-Plan were free to rock, and I was free to guiltlessly enjoy it. As a longtime fan who lived in Baltimore from 2001 until well after the band broke up in 2003, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen them live. Basically any time they played in Baltimore or DC, that is, at least every other month, I went. If I had to change plans, that’s what I did. They were simply that good live. This show was no different and was perhaps even better because this time I didn’t take for granted that I’d ever be able to see them again.

After a grateful introduction from J. Robbins, met with both respectful silence and heartfelt applause, The Dismemberment Plan opened with “Do the Standing Still.” I’m pretty sure they were reminding us that, even though a few years had gone by, dancing was still de rigeur. Much like the farewell shows four years ago, the set was packed with hits and crowd-pleasers. D-Plan have always known how to give the people what they want. They performed for two hours; they took requests; they played on, good-naturedly, while fans packed the stage (as has long been the tradition) and crushed them in during “The Ice of Boston.”

"Seeing" The Dismemberment Plan is not really a passive experience at all — it’s completely interactive. Almost every song has a call-and-response element, whether it be singing along to the torch-y “What Do You Want Me to Say” and anxious “Time Bomb” or shouting “Dismemberment Plan gets rich!” at the end of the noisy, high-speed farce that goes by the same name. During “Back and Forth,” Travis Morrison exhorts the crowd, deadpan, to “Throw your hands in the air / And wave them like you just don’t care” — and that’s just what everyone does. All of this happened on Saturday, and neither the band nor the audience skipped a beat, as though no time had passed. This is the kind of show we’re all betting on when a band that we love dearly reunites and we go to see them. As far as I can tell, this is the only reunion show that I’ve ever left totally satisfied, without a hint of ambivalence.

According to Morrison, the band have always known they would reunite from time to time for benefit shows in their hometown. Hopefully this means we’ll be able to see D-Plan again in a few years and help them give back to the community that was so instrumental to their success. Meanwhile, I’m not hoping for a permanent reunion, new songs, or even an East Coast tour. The Dismemberment Plan gave us 10 years of intelligent, experimental songwriting and (have I belabored this point enough yet?) some of the most exciting live shows of all time. They quit while they were ahead, and though it’s impossible not to miss them, we can be proud that they’re keeping both their legacy and their commitment to the DC community intact. And when they ask us, as they always have and always will, “How’s Washington?” we can actually believe that they care about the response.

*It’s no secret that working in independent music is not especially lucrative, and care for children with SMA is prohibitively expensive. To donate to Callum Robbins or Fight SMA, an organization that is searching for a cure for spinal muscular atrophy, please visit J. and wife Janet’s blog.

No Fun Fest 2007: Day 2
The Hook; Brooklyn, NY

[05-18-2007]

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.

{Day One} + Day Two + {Day Three} + {Day Four}

Modest Mouse / Love as Laughter / Grand Archives
The Orpheum Theatre; Minneapolis, MN

[04-20-2007]

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

[03-10-2007]

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

[03-20-2007]

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

[03-06-2007]

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

[01-20-07]

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.

Photo: scenefeeder