Beirut / A Hawk and a Hacksaw / Animal Hospital
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL
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
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
Photo: Nicole Chavas
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
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.
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.
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?
TV on the Radio / Grizzly Bear
First Ave; Minneapolis, MN
this place is big... and Prince! I mean, Purple Rain!" That was what
the Grizz guitarist in the cardigan said after two songs. The best thing I
overheard in response was, "Everyone in Minnesota is so over that." It would
have been true of a twenty-one plus show, but there were plenty of eighteen
year-olds who are currently discovering the purple export of Minnesota
flipping out and requesting indie rock covers of that Sexy M.F. For some
reason this all stuck in my head, and when TV's singer gave his obligatory
shout, everything gelled as a weird theme in my head.
"We got here and looked at the stage, saw the lights, it's a little different,
but when we saw Prince's star. I'm sorry I'm sure you're sick of hearing it...
" That makes up for it, kind of, but what really cemented the reparations for
the damage of the one millionth Prince reference from a touring band I've
heard was the fact that this was an incredible show.
The greatest thing a five-piece band can do is to sound like a five piece
band, and the sonic wall bombarding the audience was incredible. Members
served a purpose, which was successfully capturing the dramatic and anthemic
nature of their recorded material while keeping it "live." The charisma of the
lead singer — with his dramatic arm movements punctuating lyrics delivered
with the conviction of a devoted believer in the power of music, coupled with
the impressive falsetto backing vocals of the rhythm guitarist — is an
experience that commands a viewer's attention. Between falsettos and freak-out
shouting, there is a comparison to be drawn between his royal Prince-ness,
begging the question of what it would sound like if contemporary indie rock
were substituted for the funk, soul and sex of Purple Rain-era Prince.
As for Grizzly Bear, their opportunity to be the supporting band for such a
strong act should prove very beneficial. To be honest, I was somewhat non-plussed
by the milque-toast delivery of this low-key four piece, but the intellectual
aspect of this hipster-pandering indie group was intriguing enough to make me
want to spend some time with their recorded material. The drums, in
particular, were well orchestrated; they were very laid back, but in each song
they would masterfully build to a decisive crescendo delivered with an
impressive amount of force. At one point during their set, they utilized an
Autoharp and a clarinet, intriguing choices that worked successfully, and
during the last song the drummer retired his sticks and played his kit
TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear: go, watch, listen, enjoy.
Encore: I am oftentimes in the camp that feels encores are kind of bullshit —
looking at my notes I saw that I had written, "My feet hurt, I have to pee,
and I want another beer." Sorry, but thirty minutes is the ideal amount of
time to watch most any live act; anything more than that, and my experience
can be distracted. But... BUT, every time I like the band and they do an
encore I find myself saying, "Ooh, I love this song!" TV was no exception;
they performed a three-song encore, coming to a dramatic finish when the four
fellows of Grizzly Bear joined them onstage with an array of rhythm and
percussion instruments. The energy of that final song was a masterful way to
end an evening of great music.
Serena Maneesh / Woven Hand
State Theatre; Falls Church, VA
completing a fancypants internship this past summer in Washington, D.C., I
just decided to stay in the nation's capitol. A new music scene is enough of a
bitch to immerse yourself in, especially when you've come from such a solid
environment as Athens, Georgia. However, having to learn how to get to venues
and figuring out when shit actually goes down can be equally as frustrating.
The District's quadrant layout is inspired in theory, but between multiple
roundabouts (why, why, why do these exist?), nearly identical street names,
and unclear signs, I've spent more than half my time making illegal U-turns
and desperately trying to find the interstate.
Such was the case driving into Falls Church, Virginia, what seems to be a
pleasant little suburb of D.C., and the reason why I missed half of Woven
Hand's set. However, when I walked into the rather impressive State Theatre,
all anxiety was quickly taken over for the deep, Gregorian drone track
underpinning "Chest of Drawers" from Consider the Birds: "Go into the
Lord's house / And go in a mile / The world will bow / The knees will be
broken for those who don't know how / He delights not in the strength of
horses / He takes no pleasure not in the legs of men." David Eugene Edwards,
completely focused on Woven Hand now that 16 Horsepower has officially
disbanded, sat solo on a short stool and slashed at his knees with an open
hand as he sung these words.
What struck me most about this performance was Edwards's connection with the
audience. Four years ago, I saw Woven Hand close out a festival on an Illinois
farmland – then accompanied by an organist and drummer – months before his
self-titled album was released stateside. Similarly, he sat on a stool
stomping violently with boots, but he played as if possessed. Almost paranoid
in demeanor, he'd whip his head around as if he heard voices and stare
dead-eyed into the stage lights. It was as alienating as it was intriguing.
Tonight he still stared into the ether but performed with an unfettered
inwardness that seemed to invite the audience. And despite his solo stature,
his unmistakable and resonant voice (and selected pre-recorded backing tracks)
filled the theatre with desperate urgency.
The much-warranted hype behind Norwegian band Serena Maneesh was met with a
small audience, but still, the sextet put on a show with a sound made to
reverberate the walls of a large auditorium. In fact, portions of the
performance reminded me of the stories I heard about My Bloody Valentine's
decibel-destroying volume heard streets away from the 40 Watt club in Athens.
(There you have it, folks, the requisite MBV reference. Happy?) Before
launching into the killer Stooges riff of "Sapphire Eyes," it was like
listening to a noise-rock band (Magik Markers strangely comes to mind) but
watching a fashion-forward frontman spitting up into the air before cooing
into the microphone. Okay, maybe the two aren't all that different.
The dynamic remained throughout the evening, even on the softer, more blissed-out
pop songs from the self-titled debut and escalated at two calculated "noise"
sections as indicated on a set list I grabbed. The first looped and reverbed
freakout came out of the two guitarists as the band patiently stood by, which
was a bit distracting to the visual, but their psychedelic Sonic Youth-like
explorations didn't disrupt the pace. The band was remarkably in tune with
each other. The sheer loudness of the set had the potential to obscure Emil
Nikolaisen's meticulous arrangements, but nearly every nuance came through
clearly. In fact, the closer, "Your Blood In Mine" – quite rhythmically
indebted to Confusion Is Sex now that I think about it – really warped
out the textured drone to great climax. The violinist sawed long notes while
the two guitarists once again explored every sonic corner of the theatre. One
by one, the band left the stage, leaving the second guitarist alone amidst
bubbles falling from the proscenium under lighted purple hues and the small
crowd roared appreciatively as he left the stage smiling a goofy Norskie
Selina's Melodie Fountain
Don't Come Down Here
Your Blood In Mine
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