The Mountain Goats / Christine Fellows
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
The Mountain Goats bring people
together. Maybe it's because there's nothing hip about them. The band's
unadorned music is unabashedly personal and narrative, with each new album
serving as a volume in the often depressing but always enthralling chronicles
of lovers, friends, and family — some drawn from John Darnielle's own life,
some fictional, and some blurring the line between the two. Real or imaginary,
the characters draw you in, and their loneliness, failed relationships, and
ugly feelings become mirrors of your own. Just by showing up to a Mountain
Goats show, you're laying your emotional cards on the table.
With that in mind and my heart on my sleeve, I guess, I walked into Bowery
Ballroom. Over an hour after the doors opened, I had expected that opener
Christine Fellows would already be onstage but was surprised to see the
venue's lights on and concertgoers seated in small groups on the floor.
Something about it reminded me of a junior high slumber party. As if to
confirm that impression, a few college guys sitting next to us introduced
themselves to me and my friend. Our chatter about the show soon led to a
spirited discussion of Terence Malick films and last year's Olivia Tremor
Control performance. Throughout the night, our new, admittedly tipsy friends
probably introduced themselves to 20 people, and our part of the audience
became a sort of small community.
When she finally appeared, Christine Fellows, a folky Canadian singer and
keyboard player, provided a good preface to the main event. She was joined
onstage by two other musicians, playing the cello, xylophone, and drums. Her
songs shared basic structural elements with The Mountain Goats': minimal
instrumentals — plus the percussion, minus the guitars — backing memoir-style
lyrics. Though sometimes a bit too quirky and hyperbolic for my taste, the
majority of her songs were funny and insightful. During his set, Darnielle
praised her at length, beseeching us to "Please buy her album [The Paper
Anniversary (Six Shooter)]. It's fucking astonishing." Though my
enthusiasm for her is no match for his, I have a feeling that Fellows hasn't
yet reached her peak. I wouldn't be surprised if her next album turns out to
be a revelation.
The scene when The Mountain Goats (really just John Darnielle and bassist
Peter Hughes, joined later by a keyboard player) took the stage was what I can
only call the indie rock version of that footage you see of Beatles audiences
in 1965. Darnielle returned the audience's enthusiasm in spades, in a way that
suggested he was fragile enough to need their support to power him through the
performance. The opening riffs of each song were met with widespread applause.
Everywhere, people were quietly singing along.
Much has been made of how different this year's Get Lonely is from
earlier Mountain Goats releases. While you'd be hard pressed to call it sadder
than, say, The Sunset Tree, it is palpably quieter than its
predecessors. Large stylistic shifts can make for difficult performances, but
here, the integration of often anthemic, old songs with ghostly, soft-spoken
new ones created a balance. Just as in life, there were loud moments and quiet
ones. In this context, the new material seemed more an elaboration on the
previous albums than a departure. The same audience that sang along with lines
from "You or Your Memory" ("St. Joseph's baby aspirin!") and "Jenny" ("A
pirate's life for me!") stood silent and rapt for whispery numbers like "Maybe
Sprout Wings," which opened the show, and "In Corolla," the song that finally
closed the set, after two encores.
Insistent, intractable "This Year" and "No Children" provided the most
exciting moments of the night. It was truly surreal, but also strangely
powerful, to hear an entire roomful of people shouting, "I am gonna make it
through this year if it kills me" and "I hope you die/I hope we both die."
Toward the beginning of "No Children," I looked over and realized that one of
our new friends had <i>picked up</i> the other one, who became all flailing
arms and utter exhilaration. At any other show, I almost certainly would have
found those antics annoying, but here, I kind of understood. They weren't
trying to be a pain in the ass — they were just that consumed by the
experience. Even the people screaming out requests didn't bother me. They
weren't yelling for hits at the exclusion of everything else — they were
begging for the songs that meant the most of them. So when I say that The
Mountain Goats bring people together, that's probably what I mean.
1. Maybe Sprout Wings
2. Jeff Davis County Blues
4. Color in Your Cheeks
5. Love Love Love
6. Game Shows Touch Our Lives
7. Shadow Song
8. In the Hidden Places
9. You or Your Memory
10. Dance Music
11. Moon Over Goldsboro
13. Your Belgian Things
14. This Year
15. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (Johnny Mercer cover)
16. No Children
17. Houseguest (by Frank, the keyboard player)
18. In Corolla
Photo: Sean Ruch
Sufjan Stevens / My Brightest Diamond
Murat Egyptian Theater; Indianapolis, IN
It is always a pleasant surprise
when an artist visits Indianapolis without just skipping on over to the more
accessible Chicago. The very articulate Sufjan Stevens entertained a sold-out
crowd at the Murat Egyptian Room on Saturday night with a generous reaction
from the crowd. As soon as Stevens took the stage it was apparent that he
considers himself an entertainer, and he takes himself seriously as an artist.
The show began with opening act My Brightest Diamond, aka Shara Worden, who
has been a long-time collaborator and friend of Stevens. I didn't expect too
much from Worden, as I only got a taste for her solo project by listening to a
few tracks off of her debut album Bring Me the Workhorse. My first
impression was comparisons of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but Worden's live
performance molded her into a special, must-hear new artist. With string
arrangements adding to Worden's captivating vocals, the only thing that took
away from her performance was the radio station that was somehow transmitted
through her amp. Worden made the best of the situation by jokingly dancing to
the radio music and by staying undisturbed and focused during her most intense
Worden's sensibility and playful, dry humor foreshadowed the audience to the
behemoth that is Sufjan Stevens. I really didn't know what to expect this time
around from Stevens. I anticipated a more orchestral performance, and I was
delighted to see a 14-piece band walk onto stage along with Stevens, all
dressed with butterfly wings. The group promptly proceeded into an uproarious
take on "Sister," which led to a crescendo opener. A giant projector screen
behind the band began to play random tranquil images and later, home movies
from Stevens himself. My first thought of this spectacle was a reminiscent
experience watching a middle-school band play with an arts and crafts theme
attached. Most of the violinists, trumpet players, and other members appeared
quite young. The thematic element that Stevens often carries along with his
live performances encompasses a visual of a family or cult-like stage presence
that breathes in vein of Danielson Famile.
After the opener, Stevens modestly greeted the crowd, "Hello, I am Sufjan
Stevens and I am here to entertain you tonight." This quickly dispelled any
arguments anyone had over the pronunciation of his name. Soof-"yawn," as I
like to say, then plucked away on his banjo as he began "The Transfiguration."
This made me excited, anticipating that the show would feature some different
versions of songs from Seven Swans, which was the first album that got
me into his music.
Each song had an exploding intensity that kept everyone locked to their seats.
It was difficult for me to imagine how brilliantly Stevens was able to write
all of the arrangements for each instrument in the performance. In between
each song Stevens would have a monologue with the audience, which varied in
dry humor to the background story of the NPR-inspired "The Lord God Bird"
about a rare woodpecker. Stevens also had beside him a stool with bells that
he would constantly ring during climatic portions of each song as well as a
plastic rooster that Stevens explained they stole from a Perkins restaurant
and named "Hendrico."
Another highlight from the show had to be the new song "Majesty Snowbird,"
where Stevens delivered a chorus with a grand falsetto, and the epic "Seven
Swans." Stevens ended with the obvious but glorious favorite "Chicago."
Stevens swore that was the end of the show after that, but I didn't believe
him for one minute. Yeah, he lied. Steven's returned with a few others to play
"To Be Alone With You" and "The Dress Looks Nice on You."
The whole performance was epic and warm. Although a deaf man may have seen the
show as a goofy, arts and crafts middle school band performance, a blind man
would be able to hear the talent of each every performer of Steven's
self-proclaimed "Butterfly Brigade." Unfortunately, if you are a deaf, blind,
mute midget you really missed out. I formally apologize to my brother. It was
irresponsible for me to bring you to that show for your birthday, Charlie. At
least I enjoyed it.
The Lord God Bird
Dear Mr. Supercomputer
(Short Reprise for Mary Todd...)
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head
The Predatory Wasp...
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
A Good Man is Hard to Find
Casimir Pulaski Day
To Be Alone With You
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Photo: Denny Renshaw
Chad VanGaalen / Band of Horses
Bottletree; Birmingham, AL
Hipsters have become a clean
bunch. Never before have I stood packed in a throng of people in a smallish
venue and been so... pleased with the scents wafting from those around me —
this time, soapy and deodorant-y. No patchouli, no pesky bad breath, and no
body odor. Now, where was I? This show was a would-be Sub Pop showcase, save
the fact that the night was opened by Simon Dawes, whose set I was unable to
In my world, late as I was, it was Chad VanGaalen who opened the show to a
crowd obviously present to hear his more rockish, buzzed-about labelmates Band
of Horses. As delightfully weird as he is on his records, VanGaalen was quite
talkative and agreeable to the crowd, initially dashing my expectations of him
as some quiet, hermitic mountain man who crafts his own instruments out of
wood he chops down from the wilderness.
That's not to say that his talkativeness meant he wasn't a bit strange. After
the first song he took out a pair of sunglasses and explained to the crowd
that he had gotten a little bored in the van and had bought a pair of
sunglasses. "You see," he said, opening them up to put them on his face, "I
melded a crystal to them to make them look cool." He put on the glasses for a
good part of the set and acted unaware of the flashing crystal that certainly
added to his quirkiness.
He sat center-stage in front of a kick drum; a guitar comfortably rested on
his knee, and a harmonica was strapped around his neck. One walking in mid-set
might imagine a full band on stage based on the full sound emanating through
the crowd, but it was only VanGaalen until he pulled a drummer onstage. Later,
he drew out the same drummer along with Band of Horses for a weird jam session
he'd warned us about after the first few songs.
"We're gonna play a few more songs, and then we're going to jam out a bit." As
some members of the crowd groaned, he explained that he was bored on tour and
tired of playing the same songs night after night. He promised not to "whack
off in [our] faces." When awarded with further groans he added, "I meant that
metaphorically. You see, I don't have a penis."
The majority of the songs VanGaalen played were from Infiniheart.
Naturally, the more intricately crafted songs were left off since VanGaalen
was playing alone, but he did a bang-up job on simpler tracks such as "Blood
Machine" and "I Miss You Like I Miss You." He threw in a cover of
Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and good-naturedly acknowledged a rude
fan's insistence on the Neil Young comparison by playing half of "Everybody
Knows this is Nowhere." He stopped halfway through, insisting that he didn't
know the whole song.
Then came the mini-jam session. Several unidentified men, later to be revealed
as part of Band of Horses, came out with knowing smiles on their faces; one
picked up a bass, one grabbed a guitar, and one settled down in front of a
laptop. VanGaalen picked up a toy piano and a recorder. An off-kilter bass
line coupled with the drums and midi sequences to provide a weird background
for VanGaalen's manic-sounding recorder and toy piano melodies. It was
ridiculous. And it was so weird and so quirky that I couldn't help but laugh
gleefully while of course noticing all the irritated/bewildered faces of those
in the crowd. I couldn't have asked for a more entertaining set by VanGaalen.
By the end of his set, he had nearly completed the transformation into what
I'd expected him to be in the first place — weird, talented, and quirky — just
much friendlier and accessible than the version I'd pictured.
Band of Horses came out later to an enthusiastic crowd. Their set was quite
uneven. Probably the most anticipated songs, "The Funeral" and "Monsters,"
were not close to perfect, both being performed a little too fast. I got the
idea that the band wasn't comfortable playing the songs at the slower speeds
that they were recorded at, almost like people who are so afraid of silence
that they feel the need to chatter incessantly, if only to prevent those quiet
and uncomfortable spaces. In the case of these songs, the space was much
needed. Their cover of David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Call Me by My Name"
smacked of insincerity, a song by a brawlish country fella imitated by
tattooed city boys trying to sound similarly brawlish and country. However,
Bridwell and co. nailed "The Great Salt Lake" and ELO's "Showdown" and won
over the crowd despite their inconsistencies. They are a band to see live
because I must admit, their highs much outweigh their lows — if due to the
sheer energy of the band, who just seemed friendly and happy to be out playing
Photo: Whitman Dewey-Smith
The HotHouse; Chicago, IL
Every summer when the winds turn
warm and everything becomes a little bit calmer, I always turn to bossa nova
to reflect my mood. Getz/Gilberto ends up on repeat, and Astrud's voice
becomes the soft whisper in my ear, so it was only great timing that I
discovered Cibelle just as summer was starting. And after a summer of
obsession, it was only fitting that Cibelle's visit to Chicago as part of the
World Music Festival should bring with it a respite in the unseasonably cold
weather we had been grunting through in preparation for a long, dark winter.
The walk to the HotHouse was even lit by a summer's sunset, its colorfulness
anticipating the performance to follow after the moon's rise.
Cibelle took to the stage at eleven, an hour after the advertised time ("It's
a Brazilian thing," my tablemate assured me) to excited and curious applause;
this was her first time back in Chicago since the release of newest album
The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves. The evening started out simply with a
straightforward rendition of Tom Waits's somber "Green Grass," the first track
off of the new album. It was everything you'd expect from a Brazilian band:
plucked nylon string guitar, soft percussion, and a beautiful woman singing
delicately over all of it. The song ended, and the crowd applauded
emphatically — then Cibelle came into her own. Vocal overdubs created cascades
of electronically manipulated sound while small bells clinked and processed
recorders fluttered about and played with the electronic sounds. It was a
At a first, quick listen, this could seem to be the perfect definition of the
so-called "freak folk " sound. But the amalgamation of so many genres (bossa
nova, psychedelia, samba, electronic, folk) with so many timbres (beginning
with nylon string guitar and expanding to electronic programming, live
sampling and vocal overdubs that head almost into noise) belies Cibelle's
strongest talent: her cosmopolitanism. It is her ability to meld these genres
and mold such interesting, original, and varied sounds into perfect songs.
Sorry, but this is not your golden-haired, wilderness recluse freak folker;
Sao Paolo is a far cry from Kansas.
The Gossip / Erase Errata / Mika Miko
New York, NY; Irving Plaza
Walking into Irving Plaza, a
mediocre, mid-sized urban venue if ever there was one, the first thing I
realized was that I was going to be able to see the stage from anywhere in the
audience. Now, if you're a guy in excess of six feet tall — as it seems like
80% of the audience for most shows is — that sort of epiphany doesn't mean
much to you. Fair enough. But for me, at five foot four and a half, it's
pretty damn exciting. So, beyond making it possible for me to see the
performance without standing on my tiptoes or injuring my neck, what was this
shorter-than-usual audience all about? In a word: ladies. I love guys and all,
but let me sell you on the advantages of majority-female audiences. For one
thing, there is less pushing. There's less shouting of stupid shit like "Freebird."
There's less cheap beer spilled on shoes and in hair. And, best of all,
there's more dancing.
I was a little late and only caught the last few songs of Mika Miko's set, but
they were adorable. The music was loud, thoroughly danceable rock ‘n' roll.
With lead vocal duties shared amongst the band members, almost everyone on the
stage took a turn singing into the bright red telephone receiver that had been
rigged with a microphone.
Next up was Erase Errata, a band that's been called everything from "no wave"
to "experimental" by frustrated reviewers (with whom I truly feel a kinship)
desperate to put a label on their spontaneous, frenetic, sprawling, weirdo
music. I'd seen them a few times before, following the release of their first
album, Other Animals. At the time, the music was colder, but the shows
were more theatrical. I recall matching, multicolored sweater outfits and
choreography. This time, things were more casual and highlighted the way the
band has embraced a poppier, still eclectic but more melodic, sound. Though
the increased accessibility of their music was a welcome change for me, I did
miss the pageantry of earlier performances. Lead singer Jenny Hoyston warned
us that she was sick — "running a fever," even — so it was impressive that she
even made it onstage, let alone managed to put on a solid set during which her
energy never seemed to flag.
I'm tempted to say that there were no words for The Gossip's performance, but
that would be the end of the review, and you probably wouldn't like me much
anymore. So I'll do my best to describe their set without gushing all over the
place. This, however, must be said: Beth Ditto is a force of nature. She is a
star. A superhero. Diana Ross by way of Tracy Turnblad. Give this bitch her
own goddamn Broadway show already! She moved around the stage like James
Brown, unembarrassed to mop away the sweat that comes from wholehearted
dancing. Charismatic to the extreme, she interacted with the audience between
every song, even stopping to pick up a love letter-via-paper airplane that
landed at her feet and graciously thank its sender.
The minimal, two-piece instrumental contingent of the band, Brace Paine on
guitar and bass and Hannah Blilie on drums, competently pounded out new
wave-influenced melodies without interfering with Ms. Ditto's position at
center stage. The juxtaposition of the singer's soulful voice and the upbeat,
danceable instrumentals create a fresh, unique sound that puts a whole new
spin on the past 50 years of pop music. Songs like "Swing Low," "Fire with
Fire" (dedicated "to the fat people"), and "Standing in the Way of Control"
were far more intense than they are on record, with Beth hitting and savoring
At the end of the set, Jenny Hoyston returned to the stage to share the
microphone on — ready for this? — Aaliyah's "Are U That Somebody?" Now, given
this newfangled penchant for the ironic, most indie rock covers of popular R&B
songs are nothing but elitist send-ups. It's an easy path to take, but Hoyston
and Ditto completely avoided it, belting out each phrase without a hint of
derision. Call me all the names you want, but I've always genuinely thought it
was a good song and was happy to see them do it justice.
After a generous encore, chicks upon chicks descended from Irving Plaza into
the street, energized and grinning. Perhaps they were only excited because
they were able to view the stage for the entire time, but something tells me
it had more to do with the exuberant fun of the night's performances and the
endorphin rush of three hours of dancing.
Cat Power with Memphis Rhythm Band
Vic Theatre; Chicago, IL
Cat Power's reputation certainly
precedes her. Though I'd never seen her live before this night, countless
tales of her extreme shyness and frequent onstage meltdowns definitely left me
intrigued to witness the disaster that was supposed to be her stage show. I
was almost disappointed to learn that in the past year, the formerly fragile
chanteuse seemed to gain some confidence and energy on stage, or perhaps
finally get the right medication. After canceling her tour last spring due to
the always ambiguous "health concerns," my curiosity only grew. Finally, her
Chicago date was rescheduled and I got my chance to assess Chan Marshall's
mental state for myself.
After a late start, the Memphis Rhythm Band's eight-plus members made their
way out to play a couple of jazzy numbers on their own before they launched
into the intro to "The Greatest" and Chan emerged in jeans, a button down
shirt, and the most ridiculous pair of five-inch heels I've ever seen. "They
were a gift from a friend of my in France," she later told us. "He got them
for free. He didn't want them- he's a small queen. He doesn't wear heels."
Barely into the song, she started looking flustered and tapping the monitors
before making a big "T" with her hands and forcing the band to quit so the
sound guys could fix whatever monitor situation was bothering her. What, a
meltdown so soon? I thought. But the band merely took it in stride, starting
the song over again once Chan was satisfied, and she enthusiastically took to
the mike to showcase her incredible voice. From then on Chan and the band
ripped through the majority of The Greatest while she paraded around on
stage, taking her shoes on and off, buttoning and unbuttoning her shirt,
completely incapable of standing still or keeping her arms at her side. Even
with the slowest numbers, like "The Moon," she still danced around with her
hands waving around out of time. It was as if as long as she kept moving,
she'd be fine.
As Chan closed out the final notes to "Where Is My Love," the band slowly left
the stage one by one, leaving Chan alone on stage to kick off Cat Power, Part
II- the Solo Show. Without the burden of a band to rein her in, Chan took full
liberty in letting her quirks show. Moving back and forth between the piano
and guitar, she traipsed her way through pieces of her back catalog for at
least an hour, playing songs at half-speed, stopping mid-tune to adjust her
seat, frustratingly cutting songs off halfway through only to launch into
another one. At one point she told us she was going to sing a new song about
"a city that wasn't Chicago," but some form distraction led her to a
five-minute monologue about the city, Arrested Development (and a
pretty good Gob imitation), her shoes, and the saying "what's up chicken butt"
before finally getting back to the music after audience members started
yelling out song requests. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized
she never even played the song she was introducing! But even if hardly anyone
in the audience got to hear a full rendition of any of their favorite older
songs, no one seemed to care--the audience seemed to love everything that came
out of her mouth. I guess when all you have to live up to is crying and
back-turning, it doesn't take much to excite long-time Cat Power fans. Low
expectations are the key to success.
The Memphis Rhythm Band returned to the stage after Cat Power's solo
ruminations to begin Cat Power, Part III- The Covers Portion. After letting
the band do their own thing for a song that sounded like a blues version of
Kelly Clarkson's "Since You've Been Gone," Cat Power rejoined the stage to do
a number of high-energy covers, including The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"
and every band's favorite cover song of the moment, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."
Again, with the band behind her, Chan limited her ramblings and
idiosyncrasies, letting the music once again come to the forefront and showing
that Chan really can be a great performer when she wants to be. As "Crazy"
came to an end, Chan had several of the members stand up with her for a final
bow. While the band slowly filed off the stage, Chan wandered around the stage
and lingered by the mike, seemingly unable to leave. It seemed ironic how a
woman who has spent so many years trying to get off the stage now didn't seem
to be able to leave it. I left the show with mixed feelings; Chan's voice is
amazing and it's definitely fun seeing her enjoy herself on stage (especially
in the form of her Mick Jagger impersonation), but at the point when her
antics take precedence to the music, it becomes too much. When you're getting
lost in the delicate piano chords of "I Don't Blame You" and she suddenly
drops everything to run over to her guitar, it leaves a little to be desired.
Photo: Nicole Chavas
Ulster County Performing Arts Center; Kingston, NY
There's been a lot of talk about
how Lou Reed isn't far from paying his debt to debauchery, but quite frankly,
I've discovered it to be a crock. A cancelled show date in Poughkeepsie, New
York (from where I hail, approximately) inspired rumors of sickness, heroin
addiction relapses, yada yada. The truth? Dude was playing a surprise show in
the Czech Republic, where he's hailed as an anti-Commie cultural god of sorts.
Take that, Hudson Valley!
Anyway, he made good on that split and played a date in Kingston (best known
for absolutely nothing except the fact that the Pixies and Jeff Tweedy also
think it's kinda cool), New York, and I piled into a 1990 Crown Victoria
station wagon with some kids from my rock journalism class after some pulled
strings landed us on the guest list.
We shivered in the cracked leather seats of the Ulster County Performing Arts
Center, a venue more suited for the local symphony than the likes of Lou. The
crowd was pure Mid-Hudson Valley fare: drunk middle-aged men totally stoked to
be at a rock show without the old ball & chain, hipsters from local colleges,
and finally, some theatre club members who'd probably confused it with a
Martin Sexton show.
Cue electric green light and a couple of startled, spilled beers (contraband
in a joint like this). Some dude from Long Island ambled onstage in a cutoff
t-shirt and jeans, opened that mouth of a million cigarettes and god knows
what else, and I knew I was home. Let's cut to the facts: The Rolling Stones
look like shit because they haven't taken a second to say "Hey, we're getting
a little older ... it's time to relax and have some tea." Graceful agers, my
ass. Lou Reed had the sense to go on vacation for a bit, find God or whoever,
and take up tai chi.
Launching right into "What's Good" from Magic and Loss, he quelled
earlier reports of being a stationary showman, twisting his hips with a few
little half-turns and a snap of his fingers. Like a conductor, he pulled down
on an invisible thread and cinched the end of the song closed with his
fingers, his band following suit. I barely caught my breath as "The
Proposition" began to caress the crowd, and I was even able to ignore the
crazy guy who insisted on yelling "WOOHOO!" and running back and forth from
one end of the balcony to another (Lou Reed cut the junk and you can, too).
Later on, with a half-smile, Lou stretched the intro of "Waiting For the Man"
an extra twelve bars, fully aware of the agony he was causing. Bathed in red
light, he sang of New York City drug deals long gone, and our knees went weak.
In a leap of faith, he dove into the title track from The Raven, a
widely misunderstood spoken-word album of Edgar Allan Poe's work released in
2003. Sales were dismal, but tonight, he ripped into the last stanza,
finishing with a deliciously tortured "I love she who hates me more!" and a
roomful of people suddenly got it.
Line by staggering line, he painstaking released "Perfect Day" to us during a
hard-won encore. Images of Ewan McGregor sinking into a red carpet at a drug
dealer's flat long gone, we got the ultimate hit: the original gravelly voice
of an icon whose name leaves hipsters' lips every second.
A small wave of his hand, a swoop of the house lights, and I sat staring into
space, knowing I'd go home and slap my copy of Rock and Roll Animal on
the turntable and write to let you know that it is indeed possible survive the
white light/white heat.
Bumbershoot: Day Three
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
day three be any worse than day two? The bill was far from stacked. I was
growing weary from the large crowds, the long miles, and the exhausting heat.
My goal was to gut it out to catch festival closer A Tribe Called Quest, but
it was not to be. Sorry to spoil the ending so early. How often does a hip-hop
group reunite and immediately tour? Never mind — bad rhetorical question.
The first (and quite possibly only) positive of the day was the lack of crowd
compared to Sunday's free-for-all. Most of that can be attributed to the
winding line to score a pass to the main stage to catch the Steve Miller Band.
Any Midwesterner can tell you it's easy to catch Steve Miller and his band any
summer of any year. From 1992-2003 (when I left the Hoosier state) I can
safely say the Miller played at least once a year in Indiana. I don't know his
track record for Washington, but judging by the size of the line and the wide
discrepancy of age groups, he must rarely play the state. Sadly Steve Miller
fans, I didn't waste the time of checking out the greatest hits concert that
I've seen before. I knew that even with a depleted roster of artists and
comedians, I could find better ways of entertaining myself.
Just as quickly as I said those words, they would become my dooming moment.
But not for awhile. My first break of the day came with the relative ease of
getting into the Arj Barker/Morgan Murphy/Paul F. Tompkins show. Sunday's
press debacle aside, the staff had no problem throwing me in front of the
line. I was assured that I would be able to get in later to see the show
featuring Zach Galifianakis while chatting up the staff, so my hopes of
lasting until A Tribe Called Quest were burning eternal. As for the show
itself, Arj Barker was tearing shit up left and right. For fear of ruining his
material (and making myself sound like a fool), I won't divulge his
repertoire. I will just pressure you to catch his act should it roll into your
town. In an age when unfunny comedians (Carlos Mencia, Ray Romano, Kevin
James, et. al.) get millions of dollars and attract an audience with a
shortage of funny bones, it was great to get genuine laughs out of Barker.
Even the elderly set in attendance were copping an extra puff from their
oxygen tanks. Unfortunately, his momentum was stopped quickly by the unfunny
Morgan Murphy. Her Stephen Wright shtick was not working on the crowd at all —
not because no one enjoys Wright's deadpan delivery and observational humor,
but because Murphy just wasn't capable of pulling any of it off with her own
spin. Paul F. Tompkins came out to try to save the show, but the wind was out
of the sails by then. The crowd had lost interest thanks to Murphy, and
Tompkins had no shot of recovering.
No matter how boring and uninspired Morgan Murphy's set may have been, it
could never have trumped the destruction and ennui of Greil Marcus' reading.
Sitting in the same seat in the same auditorium that gifted me the dual attack
of Charles Burns and Chuck Palahniuk, Marcus read sections from his latest
novel — particularly talking about Alan Ginsburg. In a moment of sheer
hypocrisy, Marcus accused Ginsburg of loving the sound of his own voice. Pot
meet kettle. I barely stomached half an hour of Marcus' rhetoric. It was
thick, messy, and most of all, boring. It wasn't his monotone delivery or
pompous posture, but the material itself. The passages were cold and
unrelenting. There was no soul to his book, and what's worse was he clearly
wrote the novel for a group that no longer cares about what he has to say.
Clearly, Greil Marcus has lost touch with his readership. I was hoping his
fellatio on Bob Dylan in the music edition of The Believer was just due
to his obsession with Dylan — not born out of being out-of-touch. Nothing
could be further from the truth. Marcus is stuck in the 60s, both musically
and socially. I'll never claim to be half the critic or writer Marcus is, but
to see a man who should be admired for his work a generation ago fall into a
recycled pattern of telling the same stories with few changes is truly
saddening. I might have shed a tear had I not been fighting off sleep.
I followed the mass exodus (apparently I wasn't alone in my assessment
considering Marcus' generational peers couldn't leave the auditorium fast
enough) and decided to check out the Indie Market. While chatting up some
McSweeneys employees while I bought David Byrne's The New Sins, I
heard the faint sounds from the NW Court. Heading over to the stage, I caught
the middle of Jacqui Naylor's set. Her form of jazz is definitely aimed for
the Norah Jones/Lizz Wright/Madeline Peyroux set, not because she happens to
be a female jazz singer, but because of the nature of her slow, cautious
melodies. Her backing band was fantastic, nailing traditional jazz standards
with ease. Even each member's solo was to be applauded and admired. Too bad
Naylor just doesn't have the pizzazz of a Jones or Wright.
I decided it was time to make haste towards the Intiman Theatre to catch Zach
Galifianakis. Having been assured a seat, I still wanted to beat the crowd.
The line waiting to get in was large (as expected — it had been all weekend),
but as I made my way to the front, the same staffers who had guaranteed my
entry told me to go away. Once again, denied after being told it would be no
problem to get in to the show. The one comedian I wanted to see all weekend
and I was denied. I wasn't upset that I was going to miss him so much as I was
upset that I let myself get excited at the promise of entrance by staffers who
sent mixed messages to most of the press corp all damn weekend. I felt even
sorrier for those in line that would be told they'd get in but were turned
away as well. Hopefully Bumbershoot organizers will take notice of how in
demand certain acts were and accordingly fix the problem. When someone buys a
ticket to get into a festival to see certain acts and artists, there shouldn't
be a competition and a waiting game to maybe, hopefully, possibly see someone.
After hauling ass to try to get into the comedic interpretation/breakdown of
R. Kelly's hip-hopera "Trapped in the Closet" and being denied once more, I
gave up and called it a festival. I was too tired to fight anymore, and the
crowd was swelling in size.
One good day doesn't trump the mismanagement, confusion, and errors of two
days. Bumbershoot 2006 will go down as a massive failure. I'm sure plenty
festival goers will say they had a good time, and I'm sure they did. But as
for overall presentation, Bumbershoot is happy to skimp on the important
features. The staff that dealt directly with the press and paying customer at
the ticket booths, markets, and lounges were fantastic. However, the staff
that played hardball, bullied patrons, didn't know their heads from their
asses, and didn't get their facts straight ran wild all over Bumbershoot. What
should be an experience to catch bands you love and discover new loves (if any
members of PK and What Army comes across this — please e-mail me pronto)
turned out to be nothing more than another run-of-the-mill mistake of a
festival. Will I do it again next year? Probably — there's a bit of an
optimist in all my pessimism, but I'll be ready to endure a lot of hell to
enjoy just a little purgatory.
Bumbershoot: Day Two
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Day two was not kind to me or many
of the festival goers. It had nothing to do with the temperatures or a lack of
food and water, but with the size of the mob trolling the grounds. Compared to
Saturday, the amount of festival goers doubled, causing massive headaches and
massive lines. With Key Arena shut off, there were fewer bathrooms, fewer
concessions (not that it was noticeable), and fewer places to seek the indoor
cool of air conditioning.
It didn't help matters that two of indie music's hottest acts — The New
Pornographers and Spoon — were sharing the early bill at the main stage. Minus
a few scraps of shade emanating from the stage's massive rig, the sun beat
down on the beer- and cigarette-soaked turf. Those smart enough to seek the
shelter of the stands were doing themselves a favor. However, I am a fearless
(also known as a pale white boy willing to roast in the abnormally hot Seattle
sun) journeyman seeking any inkling of a story to share. I arrived just in
time to catch the last few licks of the New Pornographer's set. Perhaps it's
an indie sin to state that I just don't enjoy the New Pornographers as a
group. I'll pay money to see Carl Newman or Neko Case play solo shows (or in
the case of the later, with her “Boyfriends”), but other than a track or two
from each of the band's albums, I don't find myself fully enjoying their brand
of super group power pop. Of course, the sizeable audience negated any
negative aura I was giving off.
Deciding to kill some time between the sets of indie juggernauts, I exited to
the grounds to check out what smaller treasures the other stages hid. First
stop was Dengue Fever. A large cluster of dancers were fighting for territory
among the grass loungers, so getting an up close look at the band was near
impossible. Factor in that press access to smaller stages was nigh, and you
can pretty much see that the day was starting off terribly. Bumbershoot
mistake #2: Shitting on the press.
Before I go any further, I should clarify my views of being a "member" of the
press. I didn't expect to have better treatment than the paying festival
goers. I didn't strive to cut in lines, get in people's way, or shove cameras
in between the audience to capture a band in performance. I never trampled
over people to get to a show, and I sure didn't expect some giant spread of
food and drink at the press room. I was, however, under the impression that
press would have access to viewpoints and stages easier than we did. I'm sure
complaining about getting into a festival for free is something many of you
could care less about, but I noticed I wasn't alone in feeling alienated — a
large majority of paying customers felt that Bumbershoot was falling flat on
its face. Usually a festival is organized enough to get people to where they
want to be and into the shows they want to see; this year everything collapsed
under the weight of neglect. Everything was hurried, and everyone paid the
price for it. It was easy to ignore during the first day's activities because
the crowd was significantly smaller than that of day two, not to mention more
Back to the action, I was tired of trading elbows and shoulders with the crowd
at Dengue Fever, so I made my way to the Northwest Court to catch the Kelley
Johnson Quartet. Needless to say, the jazz was just what I needed to calm me
down from an early overload. I was beginning to dread Bumbershoot, but the
cool and collected Kelley Johnson soothed me back to health. Once she wrapped
up, I sucked it up and returned to the main stage to catch Spoon.
The crowd for Spoon was exceptionally large for this time of day and this type
of music. I guess more and more folks are getting turned on to Spoon via word
of mouth and car rides where friends thrust the CD into their player of choice
and will their passengers to like Spoon. Fortunately, Spoon is a great enough
band that the forced exposure isn't needed. Spoon came out to thunderous
approval and began tracing over their catalogue's sharpest numbers. The
highlight of the show came from a surprise appearance from David Cross, who
gave us an interpretive dance to "The Beast and Dragon Adored." Before I knew
it, flocks of teenagers began thrusting themselves closer and closer to the
stage to catch a glimpse of Cross. I guess I never knew how popular he was. I
couldn't take the swells of kids, and since I had seen Spoon just last year
and the set was quite familiar, I decided it was time to roam the grounds
I was pretty much killing time until Vashti Bunyan's set. I thought about
checking out some comedy acts, but it seems they weren't friendly to the
press. I'd beat the long lines and yet I was continually turned away. The time
I'd waste standing in line would not be worth all the missed music, so I
sucked it up and went on my merry way. In retrospect, killing time in line to
get a few laughs, wasting an hour or so, and soaking up some air conditioning
would have been the wiser move. No matter where I ran, no matter the artist or
band — Matt Costa, Jeremy Enigk (admittedly, I was a pretty big Sunny Day Real
Estate fan. Shut up!), the Crystal Skulls or even Floyd Standifer at my
favorite pavilion; the NW Court — no one was very entertaining. Each was more
boring, harder to stomach, and easier to ignore. Never the signs of good
performances. Sunday was turning into a wash. By the time Vashti Bunyan hit
the NW Court stage, I was ready to endure the bus ride and head home. I stayed
long enough to hear Bunyan serenade an older crowd for a few numbers, but I
just wasn't in the mood. I know someday I'll wake up and kick myself for not
staying, but sometimes a cold beer and a comfortable loveseat trump a unique
Bumbershoot: Day One
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Taking the bus can be a daunting
task even for the most fearless explorer. Whirling south from the Ballard
neighborhood, I expected every stop to be packed with teens and twenty-somethings
eager to make it to through the pearly gates of Bumbershoot only to wait in a
contrived line to maybe, hopefully, possibly grab mainstage passes to check
out the unholy trifecta that was Hawthorne Heights, Yellowcard, and AFI.
Bumbershoot mistake #1: Making your paying customers waste hours under the
blistering sun to get an additional pass to see the mainstage action.
Thankfully I was armed with a press pass as well as no desire to check out the
bland trinity. I had bigger fish to fry.
I arrived, checked in, and then headed for the nearest musical stage. I
stumbled upon P:ano's set, which was winding down to much anticipation. The
band was on fire, adding fuel to what was to be an abnormally hot September
day for Seattle. Classify the band as chamber pop if you must, but today they
blazed a trail into jazz country. Perhaps it was the surroundings of the
jazz-sponsored stage they inhabited. No matter, they were sharp in front of an
older and appreciative audience. Playing to a crowd of no more than 80 either
brings out your best or your worst and P:ano happened to entertain 80 people
Not wanting to miss the speaking engagement of Charles Burns and Chuck
Palahniuk, I made a quiet exit and backtracked to Boeing Performance Arts
stage — the true beginning of my day. Burns, best known for his graphic novel
Black Hole as well as his cover illustrations for The Believer,
opened up with a slide presentation. At least it wasn't of his most recent
vacation. Much of the crowd was enthralled as he juxtaposed his favorite
comics of his youth with his sketches and stories. The more Burns settled in
to his speech, the more involved the audience became. I was beginning to
regret this misstep until Burns began to explore his work beyond the central
themes. Finding inspiration from his high school yearbooks, parallels between
the fictitious characters and the very real peers of Burns' yesteryear
overtook the presentation. After fielding a few benign questions from the
audience, Burns yielded the stage to big applause and bigger anticipation —
anticipation Chuck Palahniuk quickly met and exceeded. Ever since the days of
Fight Club's big screen adaptation, Palahniuk has been an author in
demand. His stories are larger than life and his details only blur the lines
between fantasy and reality. After showering the crowd with airplane bottles
of Wild Turkey and Crown Royal ("If you caught on of those and you're under
21, you're now breaking the law."), and showing us a suitcase of plastic
severed arms (which were inspected by Homeland Security) he read from "Guts,"
his prized story of childhood exploration through masturbation. If you've
heard it, consider yourself a survivor. I've never seen a room of men who
thought themselves to be tough as nails succumb to the uneasiness and sheer
brutality of Palahniuk’s descriptive prose. Thankfully I had eaten long before
journeying to Bumbershoot, so my stomach chose not to revolt. However, I saw
plenty of people make hasty b-lines for the exits. "Guts," is not for the
squeamish. Space Mountain be damned.
I slipped out shortly after Palahniuk wrapped up to avoid the exiting mass and
made my way back to the NW Court Lounge to catch Jarboe. After Palahniuk,
Jarboe's hushed beginnings weren't making the impression on me I desired.
After sitting on my hands for a few songs, I decided it was time to just
wander the grounds and see what I could find. My first stop was eavesdropping
on the set of Jaime Lidell. The set was very uneven, stretching from gnarled
soul to broken hip-hop. Perhaps I needed a different surrounding, or just a
beer or two in my stomach. Either way, I backtracked towards Key Arena to
check out the roller derby tournament and grab a beer from the stadium
concessions. Both were the mid-afternoon pick-me-up I needed. Ladies — all
elbows and knees, lukewarm beer, and the roars of a crowd enthralled by the
hometown all-star team beating the living hell out of a lesser team from
Carolina (North or South, we never were told. Perhaps it's like the Carolina
Panthers except without Steve Smith or Jake Delhomme) — were the recharge I
was looking for.
I absorbed the last bit of air conditioning I could muster and headed south to
catch Laura Veirs. While her performance wasn't as rousing or rocking as I was
hoping, she had a captive audience and the help of Karl Blau to help her power
through "Fire Snakes" and "Galaxies" in front of the hometown crowd. As she
was picking up steam, I decided my goodwill was needed elsewhere. I grabbed my
pack and headed to the far south end of Seattle Center to catch Rogue Wave
entertaining the chill, pro-KEXP crowd gathered 'round the Backyard Stage. By
now the temperature was beginning to cool and shade was taking over most stage
areas, so many in the crowd grabbed a large piece of land and set up camp. I
watched the crowd as the band plowed through the best Out of the Shadow
and Descended Like Vultures have to offer. I liked this crowd — it was
quiet, receptive, and captivated without the rowdy teenage hipsters or the
obnoxious 40 year-olds drunk and stumblebum as if Bumbershoot was their first
day out in the world. Of course I hate them — because I'm destined to become
one of them.
Soaking up enough indie music to last me for awhile, I made my way towards the
roller derby tourney once more to empty my bladder. After a quick peek to see
the hometown Rat City Rollergirls blasting the visiting San Francisco team, I
exited the premises to hear the members of NOMO finishing up their soundcheck.
Hearing the blast of horns, I figured a change of pace was needed. I strolled
over to the Bumbrella stage and was rewarded with free-jazz blasts of
saxophone and trumpet accompanied by African-influenced beats. The herd of
wanderers was quickly summoned over to watch Nomo's set from the first note.
Not one band attracted as much diversity, appreciation, and devotion as NOMO.
The music melted away my sadness that pitcher Hideo Nomo was not part of the
band, but I'm sure Bumbershoot could have used a decent hurler in case of an
The moving bug bit me again, but I still had 30 minutes to kill until
Alejandro Escovedo took the More Music Stage, so I returned to the homebase of
the NW Court to catch the improv stylings of PK and What Army. NOMO may have
advertised 4 horns, but PK and What Army boasted as many as 13 (during one of
my counts) out of the 17 people I was able to catch onstage. It was a
psych-jazz free-for-all as the band wailed and conductor/composer/all-around
nice guy PK led the band like a true-to-life Bugs Bunny. The music was
mind-melting and I began to contemplate leaving the festival right then and
there, for who was able to usurp PK from day one's top perch? Surely not
My decision to stay and let it ride on Alejandro Escovedo was a wise one. Two
guitars, a bass, a synth, and a cello certainly bested PK and his army on this
day. After Escovedo's battles with Hepatitis C, it was good to see the man
back on stage and tearing everything to shreds. Escovedo and his backing band
didn't take one note off, quickly gathering the passers-by with each number.
It's no secret that my first musical love was alt-country and roots rock —
Escovedo being a poster boy for the genre after Wilco left for greener
pastures, but tonight Escovedo was about nothing more than turning every one
of his songs into one giant mass of molten rock. Song after song he made new
fans. I noticed a rush to the nearby Tower Records tent, presumably people
looking to nab a few Escovedo albums. Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the
entire set — Deerhoof was calling towards the north end and I answered.
I made it to Deerhoof's stage in time to grab a beer and pull up a seat in the
beer garden before the doors opened and the Pitchfork indier-than-thou kids
began their fashion show: vintage t-shirts, obscure band t-shirts, shaggy yet
well-groomed hair. This is the uniform of the indie kid generation. Some of
the kids seemed thrilled to be seeing Deerhoof — usually the band is relegated
to the over 21 crowd — but I noticed the majority of people were just here
because folks like us tell them to. Don't misconstrue my words, I don't think
we have that much power and hold on the indie blog readers, but I'm sure many
of these festival-goers who happen to read sites just like Tiny Mix Tapes were
just towing the indie kid line. Unfortunately, their lack of energy rubbed off
on Deerhoof and the band's set never took off. They were doomed from the start
when the snare head broke on the first smack of the stick. Halfway through the
torture, I downed another beer and ran to check out Of Montreal at the
Backyard Stage. Sadly, I made it just in time to catch their last gasps. Both
tracks were ridiculously over-electronic and the crowd seemed restless. I was
growing tired and restless as well and decided it was time to endure the
trauma hell ride back home.
Photo: Ben Clark