The Books / Jack Rose / Essie Jain
Webster Hall; New York, NY

[01-27-2007]

Music preferences can be seasonal. Summer brings sweaty, bass-heavy backbeats and punchy, sing-along choruses, while the colder months demand slower, deeper, quieter but more complex and nourishing fare. When the elements are at their harshest, we start craving aural comfort — and not the mindless kind we get from Super Mondo Rad Dance Party Hits of the '80s. We want something serene yet challenging, something that warms us on the inside while still acknowledging the deep freeze outside. In other words, The Books are as perfect for mid-winter as wool sweaters and ice skates. Lucky for me (and the rest of the assembled crowd), the rest of the night’s bill was not only equally appropriate for January, but also a refreshing departure from indie rock as usual.

Singer-songwriter Essie Jain set the tranquil mood for the night, sharing a cozy corner of the Webster Hall stage with only a keyboard and her guitar player. Her folk-tinged music recalled late-'60s Joni Mitchell, with a broader vocal range and thicker sound. Essie’s personal lyrics and powerful voice were most prominent, bolstered by simple, deliberate instrumentals. Though I had never heard her music before, every song felt like a familiar lullaby.

Jack Rose was so unassuming that it took me a few minutes to notice his performance had begun. An acoustic guitar soloist, his instrumental music conjured string traditions from around the world, flowing seamlessly between idioms as disparate as Indian raga and Appalachian folk. Each song was an intricate, meandering journey. I spent much of the set just watching his fingers move across the strings and wondering how he managed to get so much sound out of just one guitar.

As for The Books, here’s my theory: There are two types of transcendent concerts. The first, more common, kind is an active, intense experience. You drink; you dance; you scream the lyrics; you make new friends and share in a room-wide adrenaline rush. You come home drained but sated. And that rare second type? Well, that’s the concert that expands your mind.

How it expands your mind, exactly, depends on the concert. This one wasn’t so much about the music itself (though I have no complaints on that front), but about the entire experience. Before I really get into it, you’re going to have to allow me one little anecdote that I’m pretty much only including because it amuses me. Humor me the way you would your verbose grandpa, huh? So the first thing Nick Zammuto said when he got onstage was, “The only people that used to come to our concerts were a lot of nerdy Pitchfork-type writers.” He remarked that he was seeing a lot more couples at The Books’ shows, and that made him happy. My first thought was, “Haha, Pitchfork.” Then I looked down at my notepad and pen and remembered that I was in no way exempt from the nerddom Zammuto described. End of anecdote. Back to transcendence.

The band warned us that they didn’t have much “radically new” material, but what they lacked in previews, they more than compensated for with their unique combination of visual and aural elements. This may seem like nothing new — from Le Tigre to The Faint, it seems like every other band is integrating video elements into their live performances. The Books themselves have been accompanying their performances with video for a few years now. The real innovation comes in the way Zammuto and Paul de Jong have begun to meld video-making and songwriting into something simultaneous and interconnected. The few new pieces that the band did play featured complex, often witty and pointed, interplay between live performance, pre-recorded audio samples, and video elements. For one song, they explained, they synched the frame rate of the video to the tempo of the music. During the slow introduction, the video appeared as a series of still shots, with glitchy transitions in between. As the tempo picked up, the video speed approached 24 frames per second (the traditional frame rate for color film) and eventually exceeded it, images flying by almost too quickly to process.

There were other memorable moments, including The Books’ rendition of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” Zammuto’s brother, Mike, joined the band onstage for his own impressive song, “The Classy Penguin,” while the screen showed a series of photos of the musicians as children. The duo left the stage completely as the clever, Japanese-themed video for (what else?) “Tokyo” played, challenging the entire notion of what live performances can and should be.

The Books have always been an idea band, and it’s exciting to see them expand further into multimedia experimentation. I left the show wondering whether I should call what I just saw a “concert” or whether it was time to invent a new word altogether. It made a lot of sense when Zammuto announced the band doesn’t have a new album in the works but is planning to release a DVD of their videos — The Books may be the first band in the world to evolve past the LP.

Photo: Sean Ruch

Cable #11: One-Night Experimental Fest
Blockhaus 10; Nantes, France;

[Blockhaus 10; Nantes, France]

Cable #11 was a noisy, nasty, wonderful night of music held in a cramped bunker built during WWII by the Nazis. Homemade benches and tables. Homemade instruments too. The soirée was organized in part by Will Guthrie, an Aussie and Nantes resident whom I saw perform at Pannonica a few months ago.

Keith Rowe and Ben Patterson showed early on that this was going to be a special night. Their set was, at once, medical, visceral, and abstract. They sat at a card table and scraped rocks across rocks, sometimes knocking them together, occasionally employing the amputated neck of an electric guitar with a motorized toothbrush sitting atop the strings. Everything was closely mic’d and reverbed. The smallest movement of the stones on the table created sounds that made the bones in my chest vibrate. I imagined steps down a corridor to a giant morgue or boulders falling in a deep crevasse. The duo performed two pieces in one stunning half-hour burst. I love how experimental music can bring your focus back to essentials; in this case, I rediscovered my appreciation for the simplicity and power of rotation, vibration, and friction as musical agents.

Next, Fabrice Favriou unleashed a distortion fetishist’s dream: a 30-minute screed where the dude recorded the carnivorous feedback from his guitar with pedals and then looped the shit over top of new noise he made by jamming a wire brush from a drumkit across the pickups. His show had a nice crest and release that finished with some pecking at a cymbal with the headstock of his guitar. I must emphasize the violence of the sound and technique here: halfway through the set, I could no longer hear and he was no longer holding his ax like it was an instrument. It was swinging in front of him, parallel to the ground. It looked like he was holding his guts in.

The best act of the night was Anthony Pateras / Sean Baxter / David Brown, a trio of Aussies that improvised on prepared piano and guitar and drums. The music was somehow raucous and sophisticated all at once, and the dynamic tension among the three was fascinating to watch.

The oldest member of the group sat in the middle and tweaked the prepared strings of his polished guitar with the precision of an acupuncturist. He remained stoic throughout the set. The men to his right and left, however, let fly. For a while I thought the pianist had even taken the strings completely out of his instrument. In fact, he had loaded that baby with handfuls of common bolts and screws which somehow yielded tones remarkably similar to those from an African mbira. I loved his playing style: he often looked more like a furious stenographer than a pianist, his fingers typing madly over each other at the high end of the keyboard. He used the butt of his palm to mash rows of keys at once. The playing, however, was passionate without being wayward. It was the perfect counterpoint to the broad poise of the guitar and the childlike violence taking place on the drumkit a few feet away.

The drummer used a large set of wind chimes as “drumsticks” and simply pulverized his kit with them. He shoved the chimes into the drums, as if they were long metal pills to be swallowed by the drums’ flat mouths. His foot was always on the kick pedal, sending agitated rolls of bass tone through the cacophony spilling out above them. At one point his drumsticks were actual sticks (like from trees), which he broke and dropped onto the drums from two feet above.

In the last piece, he used tin flatware to attack his drums. After several minutes of battering breadpans and platter covers, the piece reached its dramatic peak as he cracked a plastic plate with agonizing slowness.1 He and the pianist often looked at each other as they played: the pianist’s head bobbed; the drummer’s eyes widened with what looked like the fierce hope that he could keep assaulting his kit all night.

The final set came courtesy of Brit Tim Goldie, who poured beer on himself, struck kung-fu poses, put a snare drum over his face and screamed through the surface of it, and generally did his best to torture us with acute metal-on-metal screeches. It was a fittingly discordant end to a night that was altogether beautiful thanks to the originality of its attendant terrors.

1This, to me, was amazing. P, B, & B had developed the tension in this piece so thoroughly that a room full of people was fucking {mesmerized by a guy bending a plate. This is the only thing that was happening. No guitar, no mad piano. Just a man and his bare hands and a Frisbee. And it was musical.}

Pierre Gordeeff / Pierre Bastien
Pannonica; Nantes, France

[10.12.2006]

When I walked in there was a metal frame about the size of a walk-in closet set up on the left wing of the stage. An incredibly elaborate assembly of homemade instruments and machines was affixed to the joints and struts of the frame. It looked like the coolest science fair project ever, or maybe a prototype for the game Mouse Trap that got rejected for being too dangerous. Toilet brushes, CDs, computer hardware, springs, strings, forks and spoons, miscellaneous Erector set components, probably even the obligatory chewing gum and shoelaces: this thing, whatever it was, caught the attention of anyone who came in the room. I was intrigued but also a bit worried. It seemed like this show could become obnoxiously gimmicky real quick.

Luckily, that was not at all the case.

Like almost every concert I’ve gone to at Pannonica, this show did not disappoint. I am now a fan of Pierre Gordeeff because his built-from-scratch apparatus and the ambient music he makes with it have changed my understanding of electronic music, the relationship between humans and machines, and light and space. The man made a drum out of a fork wrapped in a sock striking a compact disc.

When his set began, all the lights in the place were turned off, save a pair of little bulbs attached to two of the stations of his Great Glass Elevator, Supercalifragilistic, whatchamacallit: the big instrument thing. As his songs progressed, different stations went to work - simple machines in motion. The lights were connected to the machines; they moved when the machines did. The ingenious part of the performance was its visual component. Gordeeff had arranged the lights in such a way that they created a stunning shadow theatre on the walls, making the room shrink and expand as they became large or imperceptible according to the position of the light. One bulb shone through a fly swatter, freckling the wall with circles of light and dark.

The accompanying music was mostly a minor key drone with occasional percussion. Although the songs were simply constructed, I think he made a compelling statement about electronic music by showing the intermediary nature of any instrument. He situates himself between those who play traditional musical instruments and those who work primarily with computers and synthesizers, but he does this without relying on traditional electro-acoustic techniques (i.e. modifying the sound of traditional instruments with computers). Anything beyond a cappella involves a machine of one kind or another, and Gordeeff’s performance was a captivating case for the legitimacy of any kind of machine as medium, so long as it is used with skill.

Pierre Bastien had what seemed like a miniature version of Gordeeff’s equipment. His frame was closer to the size of a shoebox. A small camcorder fed the footage of his ensemble onto a projector screen. Among other instruments, he had constructed a kind of music box sans box: a collection of rods with studs in them turned and pressed the keys on a small electronic organ. For percussion, he used slowly turning, asymmetrical wheels whose spokes would push down small metal prongs. He had carefully mic’d the prongs so that the sound approximated that of an actual drum kit; he used a small mixing board to shape the tone of the “drums.” Once he had his organ and erector-set drum loops rolling to his liking, he played standard jazz hooks with a very small trumpet, employing a variety of peculiar mutes to elicit unexpected sounds from the instrument. At one point he took a long straw and inserted it in the hole of the mute and the bell of the trumpet. He put the other end of the straw in a glass of water and blew a Framptonesque solo into the Dixie cup.

The toymanship of the two Pierres made for a provocative, dramatic show. Cheers once again to Pannonica for continually softening the boundaries of its identity as a jazz club by giving these artists a chance to show their stuff.

H Burns
Le live; Nantes, France

[12.07.2006]

It’s fascinating how much changing languages changes a personality. I tutor a French girl on Thursdays who develops a lisp and severe shyness as soon as she starts speaking English. It still surprises me every time how the shift from French to English immediately changes her from sassy to meek and a bit clumsy. “I have... boughten?” “You have bought.”

On this particular Thursday, I took the 12 euro I made during our hour of preterits and simple pasts and invested it in a pint of Beamish Red and a ticket to H Burns’ show. I found him all alone at the bar about a half hour before his set was scheduled to start. He was writing his setlist on a napkin. We chatted briefly, congenially. He’s opened in France for Okkervil River, Smog, and Magnolia Electric Co. He’s waiting on word back from SXSW about a possible slot in Austin this spring. His real name is Renaud.

When H Burns sings in English, he loses all the soft amiability that whispers through his lovely, aspirated French. He sounds like a miner’s son. Who’s had his nose broken. By more than one family member. He knows how to use his throat and sinuses to torque pathos from ordinary notes, but there’s a humility in his intonation that keeps his stories, no matter how emotionally bare, from seeming pressed upon the listener. He convinces without pushing. He gives the listener the space -- to get inside the narrative, inhabit his scenarios, and empathize with the characters he sketches -- all while giving his guitar a smart, harmonic beating.

Typically, the 15th-Century castle that marks the center of Nantes is visible from the back windows of this little bar. I couldn’t see it on this Thursday because the tiny plywood stage was set up in front of the back entrance to the bar, which was covered (incompletely) with black sheets. It creaked beneath his sneakers when he leaned into the microphone. Sitting in the second row of folding chairs, I could see single eyeballs peeking through the window behind him. He didn’t know they were there. His guitar was the same shade of red as the walls. This unassuming staging helped bring about the delicious feeling that these songs were being sung, these stories told, for me. It seemed almost as if H Burns was telling me my own history, but cleverly and passionately enough that I could still be captivated by it.*

He played for an hour straight, taking a quick break halfway through. We heard his entire solid debut album (Songs from the Electric Sky -- being re-released this spring on Boxson records) alongside some covers of Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co. and Dylan. He stepped back onstage for one encore and bashfully refused a second. He had run out of songs.

We shook hands. “À bientôt.” I hope so.

* I wonder if this is really the kernel of folk music: simple instruments played skillfully alongside simple stories that seem to belong to everyone. But that belonging to everyone: doesn’t that make it pop? And with the wide availability of music software, aren’t computers just as much of a folk instrument now as an acoustic guitar was 50, 70, 100 years ago? Which witch is which? (I love how an hour of songs played in a hole in the wall can confuse all the categories.)

Dinosaur Jr. / Thalia Zadek
Rebel; New York City, NY

[12-02-06]

The surly doorman stamps my hand at the Rebel, a brand new club in Midtown Manhattan. I look down and realize the stamp features a unicorn penetrating a porpoise, which I later learn is the club’s logo. Oookay. Obscene hand decorations aside, I am pumped. Born way too late to catch the essence of true post-punk, I am getting a second chance tonight, because the newly reunited Dinosaur Jr. is playing a sold-out show.

I catch Thalia Zadek’s opening set, which I can best describe as “morning after music.” I’m talking the mornings when you fall out of bed, claw for some ibuprofen and water, and have a 10-minute debate with yourself about whether or not a shower is worth sacrificing 15 minutes of sleep. This is soft on the ears, yet powerful; androgynous, plaintive moaning with guitar reminiscent of The Walkmen and a smattering of violin and soft drums brings me to the following conclusion: yes, indeed, you can be low-key without being a snore. As my college radio station would say, RIYL (recommended if you like) Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

In between sets, I realize I am quite possibly the youngest person here. A few audience members have clearly come straight to the show from work. One of the few exceptions lies in the teenage boy who approaches me and asks me to buy a beer for him. The cruelty of being surrounded by cold beverages at an all-ages show is fresh in my mind, and I briefly ask myself what Lou Barlow would do, but I decline the kid’s request. This place is freaking me out already. It’s awkward and L-shaped, and there are cages on the walls with staircases leading up to them, plainly marked “Do Not Enter the Cages.” The between-set music ranges from amazing to nonsensical, from Tears for Fears to Beat Happening to uh, Fountains Of Wayne.

The club is crisp and tense with expectancy, and the applause is akin to shattering glass when Dinosaur Jr. take the stage around 10pm. J Mascis grunts, “Awrightthanksforcomin’ ” and we’re off. He’s still got that hair, all right, but it’s silvery. Forget it. I’m dancing, and I can almost see memories of 1989 forming above the audience’s heads. The band draws out the final words of “Freakscene” like they almost can’t believe it, lingering on “… when I need a friend it’s... still... you... ”

Murph, sans hair and looking a little bit like a misplaced accountant, is whaling on the drums, but the hollow, crashing beats are exactly as I remember them -- on record, of course. I wonder how they sound to the audience members who recall the real thing. Dinosaur Jr. obsessively tune between every single song, and while they’re not big talkers, Lou smirks during one break and comments, “Me and Murph are really sweatin’ up here... but J never seems to sweat.” J’s looking pretty smiley, in fact, with sort of a sideways grin that doesn’t leave his face for long throughout the set. His solo during “Raisans” lasts nearly five minutes.

Ripping through most of You’re Living All Over Me and Dinosaur, plus a couple solo tracks from Lou and J, it seems they’ve done good by the audience, who are screaming every single lyric along with the Dinos. The vocals are mixed a little low in the PA, but no one seems to mind. I’m still in a mild state of disbelief that I’m in a club seeing THE Dinosaur Jr., but the encore finally makes it real. Their now-famous “Just Like Heaven” cover ends with a punched “YOU!” and somewhere, Robert Smith is suddenly ashamed of himself. The show closes with “Chunk,” but I’m in a fog after they play “In A Jar,” due to the mild existential crisis that is my 21-year-old self getting to see my favorite Dinosaur Jr. song played live.

We’re eating pizza next door after the show, our ears ringing. A couple of fellow audience members around our age wander in, looking dazed.

Yeah, we’re some lucky kids.

Joanna Newsom / P.G. Six
Somerville Theatre; Somerville, MA

[11-14-06]

I'd never before seen a concert at the Somerville Theatre, so I was surprised to learn that it's the same Somerville Theatre I've caught a couple movies at, its big yellow marquee glowing in the dusk of the tree-lined, brick-and-leaf-paved Davis Square. It didn't occur to me until I entered that the choice of this venue was such an intentional one. Few of the burgundy seats had yet been occupied in the fully-lit theater when I was directed inside; I passed under the balcony and bent my neck to the high ceiling and the box seats that hung on either side of the tall, heavy, drawn open curtains. And between those curtains, surrounded at its feet by wires, microphones, guitars, and drums, stood Joanna's harp, large and inert. I thought of the beer-soaked places I'd seen Les Georges Leningrad, Art Brut, Portastatic, Ladytron in recent months, and saw that this venue was offering far more than max. occupancy.

As the rows filled up, members of the crowd staked out the most prized vantage points, their eyes often examining a digital camera's LCD. Before long, the lights dimmed and Pat Gubler of P.G. Six emerged from backstage. With black hair, black glasses, a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a young face, he picked up his acoustic guitar, stood with eyes half-closed and sang politely about a jealous murder and his subsequent trial, stepping back between lyrics to study his fingers as they ably picked at rapid arpeggios. Upon finishing, he introduced his small band of drummer, bassist, and guitarist, and the four of them comfortably strolled through a forgettable set of sometimes melancholic, sometimes explosive blues-folk-rock. Nobody was inconsolably displeased.

The lights came back up and the stage was re-set. The anticipation became even more palpable when the lights dimmed again and a spotlight shone down, illuminating the harp, as several wings of dust were borne slowly up the lone column of light. A recording of some pastoral woodwind teased us for what felt like half an hour until finally Joanna stepped briskly from the dark toward her instrument, to the release of our suspended applause. With a red smile and a "Thank you," she thoughtfully situated herself against the body of the harp and swung her hair from her cheek before plucking the familiar gallop of "Bridges and Balloons."

To watch her play is just mesmerizing. It's difficult to believe that such an unassuming presence really can be responsible for those piercing squeals and syrupy coos, the resonance of her lungs and her tongue and her sinuses more vivid than even the sight of her. Her head is cocked, her brow is knit, and her eyes are fixed on her fingers, with only an occasional and deliberate and precious glance into the crowd. Her wrists are buoyed by the tempo and her arms spring from the notes in wide arcs in the shape of a figure 8, or an ellipse. In more spirited passages, the alternating strokes of her arms rock her torso mechanically, like a marionette's. Few instruments afford this degree of expressiveness, and Joanna knows this instrument very, very well.

Next came "The Book of Right-On," after which she announced that, following a Scottish traditional, she would be joined by her band to perform the entirety of Ys, front to back, to the delight of the crowd, and coinciding with the day of its release. Four men and one woman completed the semi-circle of which Joanna was the center, supporting her with banjo, guitar, glockenspiel, drums, accordion, jaw harp, singing saw, and a Bulgarian stringed instrument resembling a mandolin. The bulk of Ys' string section was approximated by the accordion, to convincing effect, with the finer details tended to by the rest of the band, and almost every person singing at one point or another.

Given the length of each song, every break was met with extended applause while Joanna sipped water, flashed grins with a rehearsed sheepishness that we forgave, or explained "Sweaty hands" as she wiped her face and palms on her dress. Predictably the band rested during "Sawdust & Diamonds," the solo piece of the album, and though the rest of the time I found myself wishing on more than one occasion for them to keep it down (particularly the late appearance of the frequently off-key and unusually abrasive singing saw), the sound was well balanced and we couldn't have asked for a better translation of this record to a live setting.

The standing ovation persisted well after they had shuffled offstage, as we demanded Joanna unencumber herself and take the spotlight again. When she finally did, walking without pause back to her seat, the newly relaxed, almost celebratory mood of the room was marked by exaggerated yelps and whistles. Her belting out of the word "Sadie!" was met with wild cheers, the first time all night anyone dared interrupt her. She sang a song about her dog, then she sang another song about a peach and a plum and a pear, and we sat, spellbound.

Sean Lennon / 8mm
Richards On Richards; Vancouver, BC

[11-21-06]

The lineup outside of the walls of the place the locals so affectionately call "Dicks On Dicks" consists of about ten people. It's a few minutes past eight o'clock, the official 'doors open' time for this, Sean Lennon's first solo show in Vancouver since 1999. There is truly an odd mix of people in the lineup for the show; the middle-aged Beatles obsessives are the ones that really stick out like a duck's ass. After a few minutes of waiting and a generous frisking outside the club's inner sanctuary, we are ushered into the scummy little bar.

As the minuscule crowd gathers around the sticky bar tables and wobbly barstools, opening act 8mm takes the stage. The group (consisting of former NIN/Marilyn Manson engineer Sean, his wife Juliette, and drummer Jon Nicholson) plays trip-hop-oriented 'alternative' music reminiscent of early Portishead or Goldfrapp. Their sound is built largely from pre-recorded sequences via Sean's stack of sequencers and filters and the cooing vocals of R. Unfortunately, the group isn't getting much of a break here in their first Canadian appearance. There is a grand total of two people on the dance floor, and the rest of the half-assed crowd is distributed amongst the barstools lining that area, like a bunch of perverted girl-watching drinkers. Sounds harsh, but there is some truth here; there are quite a few whistles coming from male patrons in response to lead singer R's choice of attire.

Sadly, the beautiful girl with the tight red dress carries less presence than the enthusiastic backing by the drummer and guitarist, who seem to thoroughly enjoy playing the music that they do. Juliette is, quite simply, a rather uninteresting performer on this occasion. This is why the most memorable song of their set is "Forever and Ever Amen," a track where Sean takes over the lead vocal position. After nine songs of distilled, rigid performance, the band finally allows themselves to get a little unhinged for their final song, the aptly titled "Give It Up." The apathetic audience gives them some obligatory farewell applause, and the band exits the stage, leaving me to believe that this band would be much more interesting on record.

After at least half an hour’s worth of equipment shuffling and audience member repositioning, Sean Lennon and his band approach the stage. I feel a tinge of excitement to see Yuka Honda position herself behind the keyboards, as the group launches into the opening chords of the title track of Friendly Fire. Sean is an entertaining performer who peppers in comical little anecdotes between some otherwise straightforward performances of his songs. He is a charming man with a deadpan wit, which he uses to share his thoughts on such deep subjects as Pamela Anderson ("Pamela Anderson is Canadian? It's just that she's so American. But you know the one good thing about Pamela Anderson? She'll never drown. Okay, that was inappropriate.") and clouds ("They look like they're taking a nap on the mountaintops.").

This is a show of limited surprises when looking at the choice of songs (one B-side and only one track chosen from Into The Sun). But all things considered, Lennon and his band turned in an incredibly tight, thoroughly enjoyable performance. The sound was almost flawless, the bass tone was nice and phat (note the exceptional use of a fancy hip-hop adjective there), except for some slight buzz from Sean's acoustic guitar. One of the most enjoyable performances of the evening was the inclusion of Friendly Fire outtake "Piano Epic," which sounded far more interesting in the live format, versus the rather uninteresting MP3 available on his MySpace account.

The one misstep in the set was a recalculation of the boppy "Headlights," which Lennon and his band opted to take from a mid-tempo clap-along to a higher-tempo rock number. Unfortunately, the new pacing of the song leaves it feeling slightly empty and drives the chorus' hook beneath a surface of distraction. That said, if the group had continued to play each song in such a similar manner to the album, it could have left the gig feeling contrived. So "Headlights" became the suicide bomber in the set, designed to lift up the remainder of the songs.

What is most apparent during this evening is the fact that Lennon has mellowed, and his music has become slightly more melancholic than that of his Into The Sun days. After a ridiculously obvious encore cue after a vastly extended cover of Marc Bolan's "Would I Be The One," Lennon re-emerges to perform an intimate solo acoustic version of "Tomorrow." The song thrives without the hindrance of the additional musicianship in the background, leaving him with more room to extend notes, prolong rests between chorus and verse, and play with his captive audience. He is an engaging performer who doesn't seem to mind if anyone else is enjoying what he's doing.

"I have to play a song from my first record," quips Lennon, as the rest of his backup entourage joins him on the stage once more. There is more truth to this statement than I think he is aware; had he opted not to rewind his life for that moment, this gig wouldn't have had the same kind of impact. Sure, it's understandable if he doesn't want to have to play ten-year old songs that don't have a lot of relevance to him now, but this is not the case with the audience, who is waiting for such a moment with much anticipation. The crowd gives an enthusiastic cheer as the band begins to play "Mystery Juice," the first track on Into The Sun. One couldn't help but wonder if there would be a distortion-filled chorus a la 1998, and when the moment finally arrived, it didn't seem cheesy, but incredibly satisfying.

As the band meandered along the song's addendum, Sean concluded the evening with a warm thank you and a "see you next time," which is an incredibly encouraging thing to hear from a person who waits eight years between album releases. And while this set of 12 songs did seem relatively short, there is something to say for leaving one’s audience wanting more. Which is precisely what Lennon did: leave these Dicks on Dicks patrons yearning for more. Perhaps if Friendly Fire manages to create enough forward momentum, we, as music listeners, won't have to wait so long for the next solo release by Mr. Sean Lennon.

Aberfeldy
International Cervantino Festival; Guanajuato, GTO. MX

[10-22-06]

The Cervantino Festival invites a different country every year to honor its artists and culture. The honored country this year was the UK. Originally Belle & Sebastian were scheduled to play. For unknown reasons, they cancelled and decided to send in Aberfeldy to save the day! Sure enough, Aberfeldy came in a rocked this ancient city of Mexico along with all the hippies in it. No one really knew who they were, so they had no clue what to expect. They started off their set with "Friend Like You," and these older senior citizens were happy they weren't playing Satan rock. The crowd consisted of children, yuppies, students, government officials, and tons of hippies. The outdoor venue can hold about 7,000. For that night, since it was the closing event, it held 10,000. It could have been disastrous but thankfully wasn't.

The Scottish band was dressed in white to bring out those Arian skin tones, but the drummer was such a badass he wore his sunglasses throughout the set. That's what drummers do after all. They followed up with "Don't Know What It Means"; the xylophone used in this song was a lot of fun to dance to. The seated area stayed seated, but I couldn't resist dancing to such an indie-pop beat. I immediately got up and started dancing my pants off. This encouraged others to get up and do the "Hustle." Aberfeldy played "Surly Girl" and "Vegetarian Restaurant" off of their first album, and the songs brought back feelings of the very first time I heard Aberfeldy. This Aberfeldy love was spread like an STD through mix tapes my friend and I had made each other. This is what TMT is all about; our lives consist of mix tapes and bad jokes.

Back to Aberfeldy, they were talking about the video for their song "Hypnotized" and how they used Mexican wrestling masks. Little did they know that the masks they wore were those of some lame-ass wrestlers. The band's sound consisted of violins, banjos, keyboards, and love. Don't let the violin or banjo throw you off. The girls in this band are very talented and could play just about any instrument. I must mention their great smiles as well. They went on to play "Tom Weir." This is when the students started dancing and chanting "El que no baila es joto!" ("Whoever doesn't dance is a fag!") So immediately, that half of the crowd started dancing. The other half had already accepted their sexuality and stayed seated.

"Setting Your City On Fire" was a little more calm; this gave everyone a chance to sit down and take a breath. They finished off the 90 minute set with a cover of Devo's "It's a Beautiful World." At this point everyone got up; even the government officials were clapping along, and everyone danced. All in all, it was a great night for everyone in Guanajuato.

Beirut / A Hawk and a Hacksaw / Animal Hospital
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL

[10-12-06]

It's been awhile since I've been presented with performances as unique and
bizarre as those I saw during this night of worldly tunes. Everything about
this show defied my expectations, mostly for the better (save for the weirdly
mainstream crowd that constantly yelled stupid things at the bands all night).

One-man band Animal Hospital kicked off with a self-described "economical" set
of three fairly long songs. Featuring endless drum and guitar loops with the
occasional vocal, Kevin Micka's music was certainly imaginative and
interesting, if not especially remarkable. Still, his style was a good fit
for, and a great introduction to, the eccentric stylings of the remaining two
bands.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw is the work of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy
Barnes and violinist Heather Trost. I found myself fascinated in watching the
thickly-mustachioed musician, who looked like something out of a sepia-colored
photo from the 1800s, set up his most unconventional drum kit around his
chair; each cymbal, tambourine and drum piece looked like something out of a
kindergarten band class. The kicker was when he strapped a drum stick and some
bells to his thigh positioned precisely to hit a cowbell when he tapped his
foot, and then put on a hat of bells with another drum stick attached,
positioned to hit a cymbal that stood to his left. And with that, Jeremy
pulled on his accordion and coordinated a striking display of dexterity as he
played the drums and tambourines with his feet, the cowbell with his thigh,
the accordion with his hands, and the cymbal and bells with his head. I
couldn't help but smile every time he flicked his head to the side and then
shook it- I don't think it ever got old. Meanwhile, with Heather on the
violin, the two filled the venue with some very pleasant and
traditional-sounding instrumentals. After taking a break from the bombast to
sing an intense and haunting cover of an old anti-war song, the band wrapped
up their performance with Heather jumping into the audience and Jeremy
standing at the edge of the stage looking down on her while they serenaded
each other back and forth with their respective instruments. Very cute.

Finally, it was time for the Eastern waltzes of Beirut. Even though I knew
Beirut was primarily the work of 20-year old, I guess I'd forgotten in my old
age what 20 actually looks like; I was a little taken aback by how young
singer Zach Condon looks, especially since he has such an "old" voice. Not
only that, but the nature of the music had me picturing a very shy,
introverted loner, not the boisterous kid who took the stage with his trumpet
held high over his head as he belted his songs out over the crowd and swiped
mouthfuls of Jack Daniels when he thought no one was looking. Adding to the
youthfulness on stage, Zach brought along six friends to participate in his
backing band, all looking to be barely out of their teens as well. Aside from
a few instances of sloppy, between-song banter, however, their youth proved to
be an asset to the live show as their exuberance breathed new and exciting
life into the more mature and sophisticated old-world sounds. Parading onto
the stage from the back of the room, playing a variety of brass instruments
and drums, the band took their places amongst a deluge of instruments and
proceeded to spend the next hour having the time of their lives. Peppering a
few (really good) new songs amongst the majority of Gulag Orkestar,
Zach alternated between blaring his trumpet and singing while his band mates
bounced around between ukuleles, violins, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones,
accordions, recorders, and pretty much every other instrument you can think
of. As the weeknight 2am bar time approached and the sound guy urged the band
to wrap up, the young'ns of Beirut defied orders and leaped into the audience
to squeeze out two more utterly triumphant fist-pumpers (if you can pump your
fist to an accordion), while the audience enthusiastically cheered and danced
around them.

Photo: Nicole Chavas

CMJ Report: Hello Sir Records Showcase: We Versus the Shark / Tiger Bear Wolf / Cinemechanica / Ho-Ag / Megaband
11-02-06;

[11-02-06]

CMJ is rough on a working man. With most of the festival running Tuesday
through Friday of November's first week this year, the prospect of staying in
Manhattan 'til 1, 2, or later on weeknights was anything but appealing for
this Brooklynite. Train construction woes ensured that late-night returns
could seriously jeopardize my beauty rest. As it happened, reprehensible
organization by CMJ's planners took care of the problem for me, rendering it
impossible to see any of the big name acts: Girl Talk, The Rapture, or any of
the participants of the Sub Pop showcase (The Shins, among others).

For those not in-the-know, CMJ is a huge, NYC-wide festival featuring at least
a thousand bands, broken up into (mostly) label-specific showcases at venues
around the city. As many of the bigger indie labels, like Sub Pop, featured
all of the biggest names in one event, it was necessary for attendees to show
up around eight o'clock to get guaranteed admittance, which as any regular
concert-goer knows, is LAME. As such, I was only able to attend one evening of
music, despite my flashy press badges. For the record, just about everyone I
saw had either a performer or press badge.

Anyway, I chose to attend a label showcase on Thursday night at the tiny
performance art venue The Tank in Tribeca, close to my workplace. I figured
the relatively low profile of the bands would make it a good pick. I was
right, mostly – although the venue was crowded, $3 beer from a cooler and the
lack of a real stage made the Tank a friendly, intimate environment for the
math-rock stylings of the
Hello
Sir Records
showcase.

The first band to play was the only one I'd actually heard before, Georgia's
We Versus the Shark. Their screamy, jittery post-hardcore was a refreshing
punch in the face for me, as I was able to stand right next to one of the
band's guitarists for their set. For whatever reason, however, the band's
keyboardist/vocalist's singing seemed muffled, and it was harder to discern
what the group was trying to do musically than with any of the acts to follow.

After
the We Versus the Shark set, I wandered back to the back of the venue to check
out merch and shot the shit with Ho-Ag's Matt Parish, who convinced me to buy
the band's latest record, The Word from Pluto, sound unheard. I also
bought their only remaining t-shirt, which happened to fit quite nicely. I
told Matt that Ho-Ag had better be good. They were; more on that later.

The second band of the evening was Tiger Bear Wolf. I paid relatively little
attention, though they were certainly better than most opening bands I've seen
lately. Less spazzy and more bluesy than the other Hello Sir bands, the long
haired dudes of TBS definitely hail from the jammier side of hard-indie...not
exactly my thing, and really fucking loud, but not bad, frankly.

Next were the heavy hitters: Cinemechanica, another Georgia band (I think
Hello Sir's band, with the exception of Ho-Ag, are all from the state;
Cinemechanica members run the label), took the stage with a stage-filling
lineup that included a pair of drummers, who helped produce both complex
polyrhythms and a colossal amount of noise for the firmly math-rock, mostly
instrumental Cinemechanica set. For a big Sweep The Leg Johnny (RIP) fan,
Cinemechanica was a pleasant surprise; the hardcore/math rock genre has
produced a lot of (some would say all) duds, and I found myself, along
with the rest of the crowd, rocking out pretty hard. Like a lot of bands from
their scene, Cinemechanica's songs were long, involved, and complex. They were
more or less awesome.

Finally,
I got to evaluate my purchases as Ho-Ag took the stage. I stood directly in
front of Matt, no doubt obscuring the views of many (I'm one of those tall
dudes with big hair who always stand in front). No matter – it was worth it to
get steady-the-mic-stand duty and dodge flying guitars as Ho-Ag one-upped
Cinemechanica for stage presence and energetic mayhem. Like a coked-up hybrid
of The Dismemberment Plan and The Blood Brothers, Ho-Ag's set saw the
five-piece – two guitarists, bass, drums, and a singer/Moog player –
annihilate everything in the best, catchiest way possible. Parish shredded the
strings on at least one guitar and broke his first mic stand, along with
plenty of other damage that I probably didn't notice.

The crowd had noticeably thinned by the time Megaband took the state, despite
the early hour (around 11:30). Members of Cinemechanica make up this Nintendo
music project, who play the score from Megaman II while one member plays and
flawlessly conquers the game, projected behind the band on a screen.
Unfortunately, due to venue curfew restrictions, the band's eardrum-bursting
set (really, they were unnecessarily loud) was cut short, forcing Noah, the
resident gamer, to finish the game's final stage 'a cappella' – that is,
scored only by the TV's modest volume.

In summation, I would have been an unhappy camper to have paid the hundreds of
dollars required for a full pass to CMJ, which still wouldn't have gotten me
into any of the full-up venues to see the fest's brighter lights. As it
happens, however, the showcase I did attend nearly made up for it, since I
didn't much feel like staying out every weeknight anyway. Next time, I won't
bother trying with the bands I already dig – CMJ declares that they're about
acts at the tipping point, and my experience at the Hello Sir showcase proved
that point. Thanks are due Ho-Ag and Cinemechanica, acts that definitely merit
a look. So, uh, CMJ... cool?

  

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