CitÃ© de CongrÃ¨s; Nantes, France
Accordion! Homo-eroticism! Chanson
FranÃ§aise! We are merely players!
Last Wednesday, I had just finished eating some mushy rice and vegetables and
was casting uninspired glances at the mess I had left on the stovetop when
Edith, landlady extraordinaire, arrived breathless at the door, telling me she
had tickets to a concert that was starting in 20 minutes downtown. I bundled
myself up and clambered into the front seat of her Peugeot, and a scant
quarter hour later I was sinking into a first balcony seat at Cité de CongrÃ¨s.
I arrived knowing little about the music I was about to hear. Edith had
mentioned something about "chanson franÃ§aise" on the way.
This was a show in an old sense of the word, like a vaudeville variety or a
riverboat nickelodeon. The chanteuse was a giant woman with a curly mane of
black hair, belting out everything from lovelorn breakup tunes to
dispassionate tales of ennui to jazzy Latin rumbas. She held down
center stage with a shoulder-width stance and swaggered around in pirate
boots, leather pants, and a black, ankle-length topcoat, tossing off
one-liners and playing the straight woman in a handful of running gags that
gave her top notch, six-man backing band a chance to cut loose. These guys
showed off killer chops on everything from train whistle and kazoo to upright
bass and piano. Of course, being chanson franÃ§aise, a jaunty accordion
finagled its way into a number of songs where it probably didn't belong. All
the more charming. The lyrics were all French, but many songs had a Latin
intonation, claves and classical guitar busking around Juliette's brazen alto.
The set strutted at a brisk, cocky pace, with non-sequitur skits and a
technical difficulty with the piano, giving the audience a chance to take a
breath and fall in love with the characters on stage. They handled the piano
problem so well that I'm not sure it wasn't a planned part of the act.
In my favorite piece, the lights went down and the band came on stage with big
military marching drums and glow-in-the-dark drumsticks. Juliette rattled off
some lyrical commands and her boys put on the best percussion routine I've
seen since the high school pep rally. A cute, "spooky" number followed, where
two guys dressed as railway porters performed a dance routine I can only call
The Sodomite Choo Choo. In the next song, again with lights dimmed, Juliette
and Co. got their haunted house vibe on, the band scampering about in
newspaper masks and rubber noses. They shot fuchsia glowsticks out of a flute
and danced around a goblin face painted on the back of the bass. For the first
encore, Juliette planted herself on the paino bench at the center of a smoky
cone of spotlight and proceeded to carefully clobber the keys while evoking
memories of her childhood. The second encore was a surprisingly competent
rendition of "Honky Tonk Woman," introduced as a work by the noted English
poet "Michel Jaguerre."
The leading lady of this spectacle pulled off one of the wild manipulations of
time that great performers do: a two and a half hour concert bowled past me in
what felt like twenty minutes, and I've been thinking about it for two weeks
since. This was clever musical theatre that put questions of identity and
character into play without ever failing to elicit chuckles and admiration of
some versatile musicianship. Juliette went at the "performance" with gusto,
then had us believe that we were hearing from the "real" woman as she chatted
and deadpanned in the down time between songs. The least hip and most
enjoyable show I've been to in months.
Photo: Lisa Roze
Deerhoof / Leg & Pants Dans Theeatre / Le Ton MitÃ©, L'ocelle Mare / Martha Colburn
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
are some bands that compel me to track down every bit of information about
them, whether it's band members' names, place of origin, favorite animals, or
social security numbers*. Deerhoof is not one of those bands. Before the show,
I didn't know much about the group, except for their music.
That's why it was a surprising to see the members of the band. A tiny, Asian
woman and three anonymous-looking white dudes? It was hard to believe these
people were the force behind Deerhoof.
This was the feeling particularly after the barrage of supporting acts. It was
an odd combination featuring musicians, a dance troupe, and most painfully,
two sets of short films by Martha Colburn. The movies were not particularly
enjoyable; the shock value wore off after watching so many shorts in a row.
Colburn's work was like a film version of Kathy Acker stories. During the
first set of films, the venue was relatively empty and most people watched
silently, not knowing how to react. But by the second set of shorts, the
polite crowd grew restless. "Deerhoof! DDEEEERRHHOOOOFF!!" they clamored for
After the interesting opening acts, it was underwhelming to see the band
finally come on stage. However, they played an excellent set. One would think
that their catalogue is full of simple, childish songs, but the band proved
these songs need precision and power in their delivery. It was exciting to see
how physical their performances were. The drummer—Wikipedia says his name is
Greg Saunier, and y'all know Wikipedia don't lie—was absolutely wild, flailing
his arms in every direction. He wasn't just about banging the drums, either;
he also sang some lovely backup vocals to guitarist Chris Cohen's lead in
"Odyssey," one of the highlights of the night. "Odyssey" countered the more
psychedelic, noise-fueled parts of the show with a more straightforward, calm
Another highlight was "Running Thoughts," which has one of the most beautiful
melodies Deerhoof has ever created. The band members took their musicianship
very seriously, especially guitarist John Dieterich, who had this demonic look
in his eye as he made sure to play his parts with accuracy and energy to
spare. It was as if he was possessed to rock and he'd be damned if anyone got
in his way.
It's curious that, although singer Satomi Matsuzaki was full of poses and cool
moves, nothing she or anyone else in the band did felt pretentious. There
wasn't much band/audience interaction, but it was palpable that there was a
mutual respect between the band and the audience. Throughout the night,
Deerhoof played material mostly culled from The Runners Four, which
came out last year. However, they did encore with a spirited version of "Gore
in Rut," which ended with many a Deerhead screaming along, "BUNNY! BUNNYYY!!"
even though the song was over. The enthusiasm was heartwarming, and so were
the thanks that each member gave to the audience. It was an extremely pleasant
surprise to see a technically-proficient, fun band who prioritized playing a
good show over annoying rock star antics.
*=editor’s note. Sorry, elizabeth u (no, our writer is not a stalkerish
Photo: Maak Newton
Coldplay / Fiona Apple
Key Arena; Seattle, WA
That's all I heard as Coldplay took the stage. Girls' screams were enveloping
me, and I knew there was no escape. At first I was reminded of ancient horror
movies and the thoughts that go through the victim's mind before the screams
finally subside into gruesome death, but somehow I escaped the bloodbath. Of
course, another thought came into my mind: This must be what the Merry
Prankster felt during their ill-fated journey to see the Beatles. Somehow the
music isn't as important as making sure your girlish scream is the loudest and
you prove your fandom above all others.
I should state that I had no intentions of ever seeing Coldplay—at least not
in this setting—but considering I have a lady who happens to love Coldplay and
I can easily tolerate them, I bit the bullet and figured that at worst I could
tap my foot along to "Clocks" and chalk up the evening to a learning
experience. Thankfully we got our money's worth when Fiona Apple was announced
as the opener. That's all I needed to change my attitude.
Of course, how would Apple's intimacy translate with an arena audience? Very
well in all fairness, so much so that she even had to acknowledge as much.
Apple started off her opening slot with a couple of tracks from her latest, Extraordinary
Machine, before erupting into old classics such as "Shadowboxer,"
"Criminal," and "Paper Bag." What amazed me is how animated and happy she was
during the whole set, either energized by the beaming crowd or the warming
introduction given to her by Chris Martin. Apple's greatest strength was
making up for her raspy and overworked vocals by putting in an emotional and
soulful performance. After sprinkling a few more tracks from her latest album,
she closed the set with a frantic and bouncy version of "Fast as You Can." She
had won me over all over again.
I wish I could say the same for Coldplay, but it's not for a lack of trying.
Say what you will about the value of X & Y, but tracks such as "Square
One" and "Talk" thrive in the live setting much more than the album could
capture. However, the light show was too much to bear. For fear of seizures
and burnt retinas, most people turned away from the hectic and oft-changing
lights. They blinded the crowd from actually seeing the show. Even when Coldplay turned down the lights to perform a set of "Til Kingdom Comes,"
"Trouble," and a butchered version of "Ring of Fire," it was too late. Most of
the crowd was ready to be done with the whole production. Coldplay's folly
lies in their acceptance of U2's crown, and the spectacle has certainly
overshadowed the music, no matter how many acoustic breaks they throw into the
Hem / Ben Weaver
Workplay; Birmingham, AL
Hem makes it through Birmingham
about once a year, drawing slightly more of a crowd each year and charging
slightly more for tickets each year. Although I feel sympathy for the folks
who skip the annual Workplay Hem-fest, I can't help but feel like part of a
small, elite group of fans clued in to the fact that Hem is one of the best
folk/Americana bands making music right now.
For this tour, fans got to see a stripped down version of Hem featuring
songwriter Dan Messé on piano and accordian; Steve Curtis on guitar, mandolin,
and backing vocals; Gary Maurer on guitar and mandolin; and the lovely Sally
Ellyson on lead vocals. The harmony of these instruments blends so perfectly
live that listeners become malleable clay responding with shivers and warm
approval to each crescendo and fall of the songs. It's a reaction fans can
count on, and that's probably why Hem gets a healthier crowd every time they
visit the city.
Claiming Workplay as one of their favorite places to play, Ellyson confided
that they had chosen Birmingham as the place to debut four new songs off of
their upcoming release, tentatively titled Funnel Cloud. Despite the
band's confession that the songs had never before been played live, each new
song sounded as effortless as their live staples such as "When I was
Drinking," "Sailor," and cover songs "Jackson" and "The Tennessee Waltz." Gary
Maurer's mandolin solos were a complex yet flawless intermission to Ellyson
and Curtis's unique vocal harmonies. A friend commented on Messé's preference
for playing below "middle C" on the Yamaha baby grand piano, and once my
attention was called to it I began to notice the full-bodied warmth these
octaves gave to Hem's overall sound.
Dressed plainly in girl-next-door sexy jeans and a ruffled, low-cut, pink
blouse, the auburn-haired Ellyson wriggled and stamped lightly with one boot
as she gently embraced the microphone with both hands. As the frontwoman she
reinforces the laid-back, unassuming nature of a band gaining success the
old-fashioned way: through talented musicianship and clearly superior
It almost seems in poor taste to mention opening artist Ben Weaver, who might
very well have joined the tour by a serendipitous (for him) accident.
Strumming alternately on guitar and banjo and accompanied by a bassist,
Weaver's act was reliant on his vocals and lyrics. Unfortunately for him,
neither his hoarse vocals nor his terrible lyrics ("your piano fingers
dog-eared my heart," "the tattoo beneath your left breast," "there's rain in
your heart; I can smell it") were enough to make his songs interesting. His
songs, most of which had very similar melodies, contained no choruses or
hooks; I just hope members of the audience didn't leave early, thinking the
headliner might not be much better. Realistically, there is no
Photo: Joe Dilworth
The Weird Weeds
Berbati's Pan; Portland, Oregon
write-up was going to be about a Sleater-Kinney show. Instead, on a whim, I
went and saw the Weird Weeds a day before I left to go back to college, and
sometime during a set punctuated by the nervous, half-yelled conversation
between act and audience that always seems to accompany the genuine thrill of
seeing a new band, they charmed me completely.
Strolling through what I am sure was most of their recorded output, from songs
that sounded like the earliest experiments of a newly formed band to the
polished and quiet weirdness of the material on their downloadable EP Hold
Me, the Weird Weeds played songs whose subtle charms took hold of you like
a vice and then departed swiftly before you could think about them too long.
Like Deerhoof (one of the highest compliments I can think of), the Weird Weeds
write songs that lurch in directions that seem at first inexplicable and then
slowly obvious, mixing left turn time changes and song lengths that, stopping
just short of being too short, leave you both satisfied and enticed.
With all of fifteen people there (afterwards I learned that it had been the
best attended show of their tour), the whole thing had the air of a secret
meeting, a feeling that was only underscored by the initial wariness of a band
placed in a venue much bigger than they were used to. Unsigned, with only an
EP to their name, the only mention that I had ever heard of them before this
had been from an article of praise written by Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, a
notoriously picky critic. Armed with only two guitarists and a drummer, they
managed to continually surprise the jaded audience with the terrific insight
and humor of their playing. It helps that the two guitars had such different
personalities: If Aaron Russell (on the right) seemed the more accomplished,
picking and strumming his way through the material with ease, it was only
because the more experimental/unusual slide guitar of Sandy Ewan was giving
him such a warm backdrop through which to move.
Especially in the case of Ewan, seeing such unusual instrumentation used in
such a genuine way is a real treat. The bows, bells, and drums littered about
the stage were gradually employed to their various effects, yet at no point
did anything feel unnecessary. Instead it felt like the joy of experimentation
tempered by the hard-headed realism of musical invention. A friend I ran into
there who swore he saw her employ an E-bow found out after the show that it
was actually a piece of chalk used as a slide; Nick Hennies (the drummer)
rarely kept a regular beat, instead punctuating the songs with staccato bursts
of his snare.
Droning through the fits and starts of their strange songs, the Weird Weeds
proved themselves. Sitting in the audience, it was hard not to feel as if you
were there at the beginning of something truly rewarding. The Weird Weeds were
fantastic and won me over completely. If you get the chance, see them and
decide for yourself. Sleater- Kinney doesn't really need any more publicity
Lolita Bras / Wilderness / The Internet
Pianos; New York, NY
I'm not going to lie. I did not
know who Lolita Bras was when I bought tickets to this show. I went solely to
see Wilderness, a band that has crept up my spine and rendered me paralyzed
for weeks with their self-titled album on repeat. I was shocked that a band
that was on so many top 25 lists for 2005 was playing a tiny venue like
I arrived at Pianos to a fairly empty yet enthusiastic back room. I utilized
my promotional Lolita Bras Lemon Drop shot tickets and, due to an unsuspecting
bartender, quickly took the tickets back and slid them in my pocket for later
reuse. The Internet was on stage playing the last few songs of their short
set. A duo consisting of Nat Rabb and Michaelann Zimmerman: they sound a bit
like The Rapture with less punk, more house, and more humor. The crowd seemed
responsive to their pseudo-homegrown industrial dance music complete with Nat
Rabb's jagged guitar and Richard Hell-esque computer warble. I can't say my
foot wasn't tapping, although I'd like to.
After a short break between sets I turned around to realize that the place was
packed and electric with anticipation. Wilderness took the stage and started
in a seemingly unorganized and droning manner. A few things became immediately
1. It was fucking loud. I was standing right in the front in the direct target
line of the overhead PA and felt like my ears were going to bleed.
2. This band was not from New York, nor did they give a shit about New York,
which was immediately endearing.
3. Guitarist Colin McCann was convulsing like a Mexican jumping bean at a
Black Dice concert, all while finger picking and smiling broadly. When was the
last time you saw that?
They launched into their sinuous sound while frontman James Johnson matched
the waves with rave/robot-like arm curling. Johnson is an interesting and
ultimately intimidating character, a peaceful yet aggressively messianic
leader. If I were to attempt to pin him down in some way I would call him a
drill sergeant preacher reminiscent of John Lydon circa P.I.L. mixed with a
bit of Henry Rollins, David Byrne, and Anthony Kiedis. Absolutely captivating
I sensed that some of the Lolita Bras crowd was put off by Johnson's powerful
groan, but on many occasions, as I glanced about the small venue, it became
clear that Wilderness put a smile on many patrons' faces. I'm sure every
reader would agree that it always enhances a concert when the band members
seem to be enjoying what they are doing. I can safely say that Wilderness
wants nothing more than to play music and apparently get off to themselves
regularly in front of the crowd.
After Wilderness's brilliant set and an ample set break, Lolita Bras took to
the stage. Despite my immediate skepticism, I stayed and listened to a couple
songs only to confirm my predisposition. All dolled up on stage like every
other next "it" band, their music lacked any inventiveness: simple songwriting
with little or no luster to catch an eye. One might compare their sound to
Interpol's first record with insulting nods to My Bloody Valentine and U2.
They do have some clever hooks but forget that in order to make a good song
great you must push some envelopes around. Not awful, but not anything
Wilderness, unlike Lolita Bras, is a band that pushes things forward, a
perfect example of a group that synthesizes a number of notable influences
into something completely new and brilliant. Incorporation without
regurgitation. They more than confirmed that they are the real deal, and I
can't wait to see where they go next.
Photo: Justin Lin