Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Despite what its name might suggest, Vienna’s Arena is not really an arena in the traditional sense of the word. In reality, it’s a collection of a few concert halls, none particularly large, inside a heavily graffitied courtyard. The place feels like an overgrown punk/hardcore venue, sprawling beyond the tiny size typically allotted such a place and invading the surrounding buildings and yards. It’s an appropriate place to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose idealistic punk roots sit uneasily beside their multi-instrumentalist grandeur and worldwide acclaim and audience — a punk ethos stretched out on a global scale, three chords reaching toward a symphonic infinity.
Opening was Colin Stetson, sometimes member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, who brought an ensemble of various-sized saxophones out to produce his swirling, repetition-centered solo performance. His sound was surprisingly effective despite the large hall, with deep, full bass tones and twinkling half-melodies filling the space with a decidedly rich sound for a solo act. He was charmingly nervous in his brief between-song comments, dedicating a tune to his father and thanking the audience profusely for its time. With his combination of emotional directness and light experimentation, he was a fitting and engaging opening act, and was appropriately well received by the crowd.
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor came onstage. They assembled slowly, patiently, in front of their now-fabled loop of 16mm film with the word “HOPE” scrawled directly onto each black frame; seeing the image in person for the first time was a decidedly emotional experience, setting the stage for a night charged with desperate despair and hope. Yet it also set the tone for a strange current of nostalgia running through the entire show, one that complicated the experience in ways the band’s powerfully uncomplicated sound did not — with no new material performed, the collective has now edged towards the sort of experience I imagine from, for example, a recent Pixies or My Bloody Valentine performance. There’s something about GY!BE live self-presentation and audio/visual aesthetics that allows them to shy away from the easy category of the “reunion show” — they always seemed too engaged with the world to ever let their sound live outside of its social time and place. It all added up to an occasionally thrilling and occasionally off-putting performance, at least for this dutiful TMT-er.
If we focus on the music on its own terms, the show was as deeply affecting and powerful as one could hope, at once meditative and visceral. Onstage, the collective was paired down to seven members. While still a huge presence by any other band’s standards, this was enough to render their sound more direct and immediate, bringing the sound closer to that of a guitar-centered punk band — again — despite the group’s lush sound and patient approach, it was impossible to keep the halfway-punk aspect of it all out of mind. With the band leaning particularly hard on their taut, relentless, near-martial rhythm section for nearly the entirety of the performance with only brief moments of rest, the whole show took on the feel of dirt-simple punk song stretching into ambience by sheer force of will and duration, the power of a minor chord redoubled endlessly through repetition. There’s also something wonderful about audience members cheering for spoken-word samples employed in their pieces — lacking breaks between songs, the audience latched onto these now-familiar recordings of street people, preachers, and others as moments of recognition, clapping for each in term. Ambiguous but always heartfelt in their content, they placed the audience in an unusual but powerful place, grasping onto the voice as a moment of definition in the swirling mix of misery and hope.
The collective pulled pieces from their full discography, though in a move that seemed to hold to their uncomfortable relationship with fame, they avoided “East Hastings,” the one song that brought them closest to truly mainstream recognition with its prime placement in 28 Days Later. Among the wealth of material they did play, in a show that stretched to about two hours, it wasn’t missed. The band played beautifully, and when they walked off-stage without an encore, it felt appropriate. The mixture of careful restraint and widescreen scale, of obscurantist stand-offishness and popular appeal, has always been at the center of their identity. Taken along with a sound that merged a static sense of nostalgia with a rawer sound and sense of immediacy, it was a night of blunt, powerful emotion carrying more complicated, sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents. Which, in the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, isn’t a bad thing.
Deerhoof / Ben Butler & Mousepad / Fred Frith / Phillip Greenlief Duo
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA
Few groups can get away with an album title as brazen as Our Band Vs. Evil. But when 16-year veteran avant-pop, indie-superheroes Deerhoof play a record-release show for an album with such a name, the band isn’t simply out to spar with said Evil. They mean to fucking conquer it.
But before the Super Friends foursome would demonstrate how to slay wickedness with dissonant-consonant hooks, stadium-ready power chord-chugging, and over-the-barline drum fills, the night would begin with a musical veteran of a slightly different variety (and an even longer-stretching history). Although I’d seen opener Fred Frith — Oakland-based Mills College Professor and guitarist/composer/improviser extraordinaire — recently at a bar across the street from my house, his duo set with SF-saxophonist Phillip Greenlief was assuredly distinct. Navigating drone-meditations with thoughtful intention, the two men carefully move from subtlety into dynamic peak after peak. The entire performance, however, remains relatively self-contained. Filling in for Deerhoof side project Nervous Cop — due to a broken-footed Zach Hill — Frith and Greenlief’s improv-ready set made perfect sense for such a last-minute addition. Still, my “favorite” moments occurred when unknowingly disrespectful crowd-members talked through the performance and continually misplaced instances of applause. “Wait,” I overhear someone say, “They’re still going?” Yes. Yes, they are.
But if anybody got the raw end of the crowd’s stick, it was German and Scottish based duo Ben Butler & Mousepad. When Butler encourages the crowd that “this is dance music. It’s okay to move your body!” I’ve rarely seen so many self-conscious folks afraid to shake it. Butler is a Korg-splattering virtuoso while his drummer-in-arms lays it down over glitchy beatronics à la NES’s Ninja Turtles 2. After ending things with an accelerando of epic proportions, the band withholds a final cymbal crash in favor of toying with the crowd’s expectations.
By the time Deerhoof steps onstage, the sold-out crowd is treated to a strangely amusing sight: pint-sized singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, duo-guitarists John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, and drummer/spokesperson Greg Saunier all wearing tiny masquerade masks. As if we didn’t already recognize these folks — which is probably the joke. Dieterich and Rodriguez waste little time jumping into descending guitarmony intro to “Dummy Discards a Heart,” off 2003’s now-classic Apple O. “Play to the Queen of Heart,” Matsuzaki chirps in between blasts of feedback and distortion, “Sing to the one you love the best!” It’s only fitting a band that’s been “playing” and “singing” as long as Deerhoof have should open with such an anthem.
While the rollicking, dynamic-extremes of “Milk Man” is a technical-drummer’s wet dream, I’m struck by the guitar interplay between Dieterich and Rodriguez. These two have been jamming with each other long before Deerhoof and anyone can see how well they mesh. Along with a fair share of intersecting lines, the two sound like one huge impossible guitar. Dieterich — rocking a 12-string electric throughout — not only added an unusual timbre to familiar tunes but, what with the extra-octaves, gave the impression of an even greater, three-man guitar of sorts.
Although billed as an album-release show, it’s funny how rarely the band members mention the latest record. Instead, drummer Greg Saunier opted for comical moments of non-sequitors and awkward interlude banter. But even if Deerhoof didn’t talk-up their latest much, they weren’t afraid to rock the new material live. In fact, the most inspired moments of the set occurred during new tunes like “The Merry Barracks” and encore-ready “I Did Crimes for You.” The latter’s interlocking guitars suspended and drove home one of the most powerful, deceptive cadences I can ever remember. Other new ones (“Almost Everyone, Almost Always” and “Must Fight Current”) saw Saunier assuming guitar duties and Dieterich taking on vocals and drums, respectively — with quite good results.
Of course, by the night’s end, no one can deny the Vs. Evil highlight “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” With a relentlessly hooky keyboard intro and thumping, descending bass line, it’s the most un-Deerhoof pop song the band’s ever written. The term “un-Deerhoof,” however, clearly is a misnombre. There’s no sound, hook, or idea these individuals are afraid to explore. So I suppose when Matsuzaki yelps, “Me to the rescue!” and then later, “You to the rescue!”, it’s not as if they view themselves as the only superheroes in the room. Maybe by becoming a listener who’s willing to explore new sounds, regardless of initial comfort, we can learn how to fucking conquer evil too. Or at least fall in love with music for another 16 years.
Zs / Arrington de Dionyso / Moe! Staiano / Rats
The Smell; Los Angeles
LA’s three piece Rats opened this $5-for-5-shows extravaganza (just another day at The Smell)… With Jonathan Silberman (tenor sax) flanked by Kelly Kawar (bass) and Eric Kiernowski (baritone guitar), Rats made mathy, jazzy music that evoked late 1990s Thrill Jockey. Complex as fuck, but easy enough to digest to be a really effective opener even for people (like me) who’ve never heard them before, I hope these guys get big so that people will think of something besides Best Coast when they think of LA.
If Moe! Staiano is at all representative, experimental percussion might be the best of the avant-arts for the ADD-afflicted. He plays fast and tight as fuck, and never seems to keep the same pattern for more than a few measures. He plays so fast that he can play a guitar with his drumsticks in between hitting his drums. And when he gets tired of doing that, he can play the guitar by hitting a metal bat that he rests on his snare, whose other end is resting on the guitar. And when he gets tired of doing that, he lifts the guitar off the stand and drags it around on The Smell’s concrete floor to play it. And then to get the dirt off, he shoves the thing under the rotating brushes of an industrial-quality shoe-polishing machine, which is both badass and creates a pretty hum. Also, Moe! Staiano has found the best use for vibrators since using them on women, employing egg-shaped bullet vibrators (the expensive kind that have multiple speed/pattern settings) to “excite” the “heads” of his drums when he was too busy “playing” with other stuff. And, for a finale, he unspools a big roll of industrial-sized plastic wrap around several members of the audience. Good thing, too: With a performance this exciting, it’s always good to use a dental dam.
Arrington de Dionyso
How many different things can you make sounds like a didgeridoo? That was the question of the night for Arrington de Dionyso, whose improvised performance focused on the power of breath and voice. Meditative and ritualistic, this performance was much different than his excellent, foot-stomping 2009 album Malaikat dan Singa, but it wasn’t hard to see connections between the two. Sitting on the floor, his set opened with a long piece of throat (or processed) singing accompanied by a lone little snare propped up on its side a few feet away from him, “played” by the droning amp that projected onto it. Though simple and tiny, the self-playing drum felt powerful and primal, a miniature idol that had become animated through the audience’s attention. Or de Dionyso’s voice: impressively deep, seemingly wordless, the texture of rich loam. After the first piece, which seemed to go on forever (in the best possible sense), de Dionyso turned the snare off and, in sequence, used objects – some that just happened to be within his reach – to manipulate his voice: a metal water bottle, part of a saxophone, a rubber band. These short experiments didn’t make me forget everything else in the room like his opener, but it’s still good to see that a little magic can be squeezed out of whatever happens to be at hand.
Saxophonist Sam Hillmer’s head looked like it might pop he was blowing so hard. It was like watching a silent movie of a guy playing a saxophone, but shown in an art-house cinema so there’s live accompaniment of a new score by an experimental noise band.
Which is fitting; Zs were on tour performing material from their upcoming album, New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion!, a collection of remixes of material from New Slaves by folks like Ecstatic Sunshine, Cex, JG Thirlwell, and the Rapture’s Gabe Andruzzi. The upcoming album’s title puts it on sequel footing with New Slaves, but the performance put it on equal: live arrangements (or re-arrangements) of remixed tracks. In these remixes of remixes, you could only occasionally hear echoes of the originals from the band, now paired down to just a duo of saxophone and electronics. The result is murkier and more atmospheric than New Slaves, more chaotic yet less frantic. Towards the end of the set, there’s a big change; recognizable chords form, there’s a beat you might bob to. It sounded like club music. Finally, I thought, something sounds like a remix, and a catchy one at that. And just like that, it fades out. Set over.
I talked to Hillmer after the show for a minute, and he explained a little bit about the new album and the material they played. I mentioned the set’s ending. “That really sounded different,” I said. “You could really tell it was a remix there.”
“The ending?” he said. “That wasn’t a remix. That was Beyonce.”
Vacation Vinyl; Los Angeles
I’ve always thought of in-store performances as mere supplements to “real” shows. Maybe it’s because they’re usually short. Maybe it’s that they’re free, so I never feel the need to commit myself like I do when I’ve forked over lots of cash. Maybe it’s the lack of stage and formalities. They might be fine for intimate acoustic performances, where the situation’s awkwardness complements the music, but surely they’re not for the technically and compositionally ambitious.
Well. After seeing Dustin Wong play at Vacation Vinyl in Los Angeles’s Sunset Junction, I’ll have to rethink my philosophy.
Vacation’s a tiny store, with only four rows of well-selected vinyl and two aisles for the audience to cluster in. Dustin delineated his performance space with a semi-circle of eight colored pedals and boxes (just like the cover art from Infinite Love) linked by wires. For the small space, it was a perfect stage, setting the performer apart from us symbolically, but without the ego of something less purely functional. I mean, the pedals were there for him to stomp on, tap and twiddle — not to be a stage. Even a chalk line wouldn’t have worked so well, because it would have been trying too hard.
The semi-circle of gently tethered islands of metal could also be a pretty good sculptural stand-in for the music that was coming out of Wong’s amp — staccato notes linked together by his impressive knack for melody, cold and slight units that were spun into a warm, seemingly massive whole. Wong sat, looking down at his semi-circle or closing his eyes in concentration and/or contentment. But in such a close setting, his fingers’ graceful gliding over his Fender’s frets was entrancing. And, thanks to the magic of live loops (done better than any I’d seen) and fx pedals, there was more going on sonically than at most shows with full bands: melodies upon melodies like on Infinite Love, but often with a wider, wilder palette of sounds.
After 45 minutes of transforming a little record store into another world with just looped guitar, Wong sat up straight and sang a series of wordless tones straight into the air. The physicality and vulnerability of an unprocessed human voice transported me back to the record crates I was leaning against and the audience that was standing around me, slowly dispelling the illusion.
I talked to Wong after the show and asked about his performance the previous night at The Smell. He told me that his amp had broken, and he had to use a tiny, borrowed amp that might have been too small for the venue, which wasn’t that big itself. This show might have been better, he said.
[Photo: Joyce Kim]
Guided By Voices / Blitzen Trapper
The Trocadero; Philadelphia, PA
“So, how old are they?” Keith asked as I hunted through my iPod for some of the more obscure early Guided By Voices songs I thought we might hear that night. “Old,” I replied. “Put it this way: When they come out on stage, the first thing you’re going to think is ‘Wow, those guys are old.’ ” Keith laughed as “The Hard Way,” off Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, began to fill the room. “But that’s always been part of their charm,” I continued. “Bob has never looked like he belonged onstage. The fact that some of greatest pop songs ever written came from this guy, who looks like he could be your uncle, make them that much more fun.”
Being the devoted member to the cult of Uncle Bob that I am, I took the responsibility of leading my friend, one of the more dedicated music nerds I know, on a GBV crash course. His knowledge covered the band’s best four albums — Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars — which were made (in that order) with the “classic” lineup. The same lineup we’ll be seeing tonight: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell. After a few hours of educational listening to the ridiculously extensive GBV catalog, we shut off the music and stood up to leave. “I can’t believe he wrote all those songs,” Keith said.
Because of my paranoia/excitement, we bought the first tickets sold (literally numbers 1 and 2) months ago when sales first opened. Accordingly, we now walked to Philly’s Trocadero to be among the first to wait in line, trying to set ourselves up for a spot at the front of the stage. “I do not give a shit about my dignity; I will sprint if I have to,” I informed my pal. After all, this was GBV’s penultimate tour date and perhaps their penultimate gig ever. Not being able to see them before their farewell gig on Dec. 31, 2004, I was leaving nothing to chance.
Outside the club, there were many people trying to find tickets. Asking around next to us in line were two kids from Toronto. It was an 8-hour bus ride, they only had one ticket for the two of them, they were both 19 at a 21-and-up show, and they had nowhere to sleep until their bus left at 9 the next morning. Suddenly I considered myself a lot less hardcore. The four of us chatted as the line grew. A realization led me to interrupt the conversation, “Oh shit! I forgot I have to write a review of this show!” A few jokes at my expense later, our friends from the Great White North had to leave us to scavenge for their needed ticket.
The rush was not as desperate as I expected when the doors opened, and soon we parked in front of the stage, nestled between Bob and Toby’s mic stands. The ubiquitous neon sign bearing the refrain from “A Salty Salute” hung above the drum kit, yet to be lit: “The club is open.” The first few chants of “GBV! GBV!” rang out as people slowly filled the room. Blitzen Trapper went on soon after we were let in, and while the crowd enjoyed the songs, everyone’s anxious eyes fixed upon the unlit sign, anticipating the main event.
The band soon left and the GBV chants ebbed and flowed over the house music as the roadies reset the stage. Laughs and hoots resounded when the token cooler of beer was brought out and placed next to the drums. Once set, the stage stayed empty for what seemed an eternity. Then, at last, we erupted in delirious cheers as the sign’s blue-and-orange light blazed through the blackness. The club was open.
Ohio’s favorite sons climbed the steps stage-right and emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke to greet us. Demos sported his (in)famous red-white-and-blue-striped pants, a frilly tuxedo shirt, and a vest. Mitchell featured an anarchy-symbol T-shirt and ever-present cigarette. Sprout’s khakis and polo shirt made him resemble your father’s golfing buddy. Pollard brought up the rear with silver hair haloed by the lights and a bottle of Jose Cuervo, three-quarters full, clenched in his fist.
Keith turned to yell in my ear and fulfill my prediction: “Wow, they are old.” I nodded and shouted back, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter.” The band quickly confirmed my statement, wasting no time to blast into “Pimple Zoo,” the 40-second chorus-bridge-chorus classic from Alien Lanes. The crowd matched Pollard’s every note, shouting as he sang – “Sometimes I get the feeling that you don’t want me around!” The rhythmically playful Grand Hour cut “Break Even” followed, then the bizarre favorite “Matter Eater Lad.” The audience continued its enthusiastic singing, seemingly everyone knowing all the lyrics to even these lesser-known EP tracks. “Yeah, he’s mad! He’s Matter Eater Lad!”
The Fading Captain did not appear to be fading at all as he preened for his fan-boys and -girls and did his usual hop-on-one-foot dance. The jumps and microphone twirling were just as frequent and crisp. His trademark head-level kicks on cymbal crashes were just as high, if not higher, as Bob appeared to have lost a little weight since the early 2000s.
Keith tapped my shoulder and pointed behind us during a break between songs. “Check it out! They made it in!” I turned to see both our Canadian friends from the line. We smiled at each other and I gave them a nod of congratulations. I’m not sure what they had to do for that second ticket; I just hope it didn’t involve a nearby dark alley.
The already buzzing crowd exploded as fan favorites “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Cut-Out Witch” came next. The chorus to “Tractor Rape Chain” was a full-throat sing-along, with us handily matching Pollard’s PA in volume. The pregnant pause after the opening section of “Cut-Out Witch” was dutifully punctuated by the crowd screaming “Two! Three! Four!” in perfect unison before the guitars and drums kicked back to speed. I daydreamed of doing that for years. In my excitement at seizing the moment, my yelps may have weirded out some nearby fans, but I didn’t care.
Pollard and Sprout were a little out-of-sync at the start of the softer “Bright Paper Werewolves,” with Bob singing about a beat too fast. It was not clear whether the frequent belts of tequila and beer were to blame, or if he just misheard the chords. However, the duo quickly righted the ship in time for the tune’s wonderful coda.
Sprout took his turn on vocals for “A Good Flying Bird,” as Bob sat back on the drum stand and covered the harmonies, capitalizing on the respite by replenishing himself with more Miller Lite. This routine was repeated for most of Sprout’s songs, such as “Gleemer” and “Awful Bliss.” Following the latter, Pollard rose to join him for the touching Propeller stand-out “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” Most GBV fans bemoan the band’s loss of Toby and the other “classic lineup” members during 1996. They maintain that, while the post-’96 albums are good, nothing compares to when Pollard and Sprout were pushing each other. Whatever caused the falling-out appears to be water under the bridge at this point. Seeing the two creative forces together again, singing their sweetest co-penned song, provided one of the evening’s most poignant moments.
The bass-driven “Lethargy” and “Large-Hearted Boy” re-energized the audience and gave Demos a chance to flaunt and pose. The floor was particularly raucous, bordering on mosh-pit levels. Everyone smooshed together, pitching and heaving, with a sea of fists pumping in the air. Anything with a good, steady beat inspired people to hop up and down. Being packed as we were, songs such as “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Closer You Are,” “Quality of Armor,” and especially “Game of Pricks” and “Exit Flagger,” turned us into a giant, sweaty dry-hump party.
The set closed with a trio of popular tracks: the rumbling “Motor Away,” the anthemic “A Salty Salute,” and the jangle-pop classic “Echos Myron.” Pollard milked the Philly crowd before the song, pointing out that the tune contained a nod to their city: “Echos Myron, like a siren, with endurance like the Liberty Bell.” He went on to thank the city, saying Philly and New York were the first big cities to “accept GBV into your hearts.” Keith, myself, and the crowd showed our appreciation on another particularly appropriate line in the song, shouting, “We’re finally here and shit yeah it’s cool!”
The five members laid down their instruments and, considering the amount of alcohol consumed, headed off for what had to be a massive pee break. Both band and crowd knew there would be compulsory encores, the “good nights” and “thank-yous” nothing more than theater. The GBV chants began just as soon as they stepped off stage. The crew re-emerged later, minus Pollard, and started back up with Mitchell taking over vocal duties for “Postal Blowfish.” Pollard then returned from his extended break, his shirt soaked through with sweat. The lesser-known “Hey Aardvark” and “Some Drilling Implied” sandwiched Bee Thousand favorite “Smothered in Hugs,” as the crowd tried to soak up the dwindling time.
The band made another exit, but the neon sign still shone. Minutes of cheering were rewarded again, and the fivesome returned. Another track from the more obscure side of the catalog, “Dodging Invisible Rays,” restarted the party. The well-known “My Son Cool” followed, its thunderous first chord bursting through the amps as Pollard yelled the opening lines, “Deciiiiide now!” Next up was “Don’t Stop Now,” the song Pollard fondly refers to as “the ballad of Guided By Voices.” It’s a great song, and it was a great rendition, but I was worried. When GBV said farewell in 2004, it was the last song they played. Would it mark the end here, too? The audience willfully ignored this possibility, again singing every word, particularly loud at the lines “We pulled into Economy Island, King Shit and the Golden Boys.”
Afterward, the band said good night for the third time. Shaking hands with fans on his way off-stage, Mitchell heard the guy next to me ask for a beer. He promptly returned to the cooler then handed the fan a beer. Jealous fans nearby then heard Mitchell’s simple explanation for the gift: “He asked.” The stage was empty again, but now there was desperation. We thought we might have to work hard for another encore. The GBV chants rose again. We made noise. As much as we could. The sign still burned. Eventually, the band returned to the cheers of their happily exhausted fans. Pollard’s bottle of tequila was now half-empty, and as he returned to his post he handed the bottle to a fan, saying “Here, pass that around.” It was gone in less than a minute. The guy next to me who got the beer screamed for “Johnny Appleseed,” and as luck would have it, the song began. Pollard went up an octave to exclaim “I’m first lieutenant to you, I am Johnny Appleseed!” and the crowd swayed contentedly to the cooed refrain “Sooo cherry.” Next was the two-and-a-half-minute tour-de-force “Weed King.”
The serene start belies the middle section’s Bolero-esque build to a bombastic finish. Pollard plays it beautifully, bellowing as the fireworks begin, “And watch colored lights shine down, dancing ‘round the lady’s face!” We summoned up what little energy we had left to sing and pump our fists. The song drew to a close and the band shook hands with the crowd again as they made their triumphant retreat. Just as before, we were determined not to let it end.
We stomped feet and clapped hands. We whistled and hollered. Keith and I pounded our hands on the stage. Was a fourth possible? … Then the simultaneous groan of the 1,200-or-so present filled the air. The sign was extinguished.
As the dazed crowd slowly dispersed, I looked at Keith, exhausted. “I’m covered in sweat and I don’t think any of it is mine.” Our Canadian friends spied us and shuffled over, clothes drenched and smiling wide. “How the hell are you going to review that?” they asked.
I shook my head and gave a tired laugh, “I don’t know.”
1. Pimple Zoo
2. Break Even
3. Matter Eater Lad
4. Tractor Rape Chain
5. Cut-Out Witch
6. Shocker in Gloomtown
7. Bright Paper Werewolves
8. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
9. A Good Flying Bird
10. Striped White Jets
11. Exit Flagger
12. Closer You Are
13. My Valuable Hunting Knife
14. Awful Bliss
15. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
17. Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
18. My Impression Now
19. Hot Freaks
20. Watch Me Jumpstart
21. Gold Star for Robot Boy
22. Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)
23. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
24. Game of Pricks
25. I Am A Scientist
26. Queen of Cans and Jars
27. Quality of Armor
28. Motor Away
29. A Salty Salute
30. Echos Myron
1. Postal Blowfish
2. Hey Aardvark
3. Smothered in Hugs
4. Some Drilling Implied
1. Dodging Invisible Rays
2. My Son Cool
3. Don’t Stop Now
1. Johnny Appleseed
2. Weed King
Renegade Halloween: Real Estate with Dominant Legs, Young Prisms, Weekend, Magic Bullets, Melted Toys
The Common; San Francisco, CA
Halloween usually brings out the worst in people — streets filled with broken glass, drug-gluttons partying far beyond their means, and chicks squeezing into outfits Jabba the Hutt would find immodest. But occasionally, it’s also a great excuse to host a slew of talked-up bands, spread word-of-mouth invitations, and facilitate rumored guest appearances all in the name of said holiday. With this in mind, I attended San Francisco’s “secret” Renegade Halloween party on Saturday night. Hosted by such taste-makers/labels as Yours Truly, Underwater Peoples, and Blood Drank Magazine, I knew I’d be getting my lo-fi fix. It turned out to be a night filled with seven bands, unlimited free booze, and a 4 AM denouement; what a fix it was.
This isn’t to say this kind of sensory (and alcoholic) overload goes completely without consequence. Dressed as my favorite character from my favorite 90s movie of all time — the single-scene appearing, panama hat-wearing, shaving cream-touting bagman Dodgson from Jurassic Park — I doubt I was the only costumer less than enthused with the poor sound quality for most of the acts. Were the bizarre acoustics of The Common to blame? It’s hard to say. Basically, shit was loud… really loud. Decibel-wise, it’s not that all the groups were completely indecipherable from one another — SF’s mime-wearing, Smiths-/Cure-alike Magic Bullets brought a welcome charisma along with cranked-up pop musings. But for another SF band I’d heard a good deal of buzz about — Young Prisms — the peaked volume and the hypnotic rhythms resulted in dizziness rather than entrancement. In a different context I might’ve enjoyed the psych-out, but what with all the free booze, I had to sit down.
An early regret was missing the full set of one-man, LA-based opener Speculator. Catching his final tune, which sounded ultra-murky yet surprisingly pleasant, I was later reminded of a TMT interview he did last March. Meeting the singer, who informed me of his respect for music mags that hate on artists and that his Ecstasy still hadn’t worn off, it probably could’ve been less of a vibe-out. Still, a party is a party, and few bands understood this better than locals Dominant Legs. Bringing the funk with well-calculated, strummed seventh chords, it was nice to hear a steady groove instead of wave upon wave of reverb. As Melted Toys singer, briefly flustered onstage, put it earlier: “I used to think it wasn’t possible to have too much reverb. Guess I was wrong.”
And maybe that’s another contributing factor to the groups who melded together into indistinguishability. For example, as much as I dug Slumberland-signed Weekend’s heavy, swirling sounds, the trio’s tunes weren’t exactly enhanced by the thick coat of echo. It’d be easy to quip, “Oh, you’re just not sophisticated enough to know the difference.” And maybe there’s some truth there. But, hell, I know what guitars and vocals can sound like when they’re not completely buried beneath reverb and chorus. And if there’s a perfect example of what happens when effects compliment rather than befuddle, it was seen in headlining act, New Jersey natives Real Estate.
As iPhone clocks were striking 3:30 AM before the Deerhunter-tourmates finally hit the stage, rumors concerning an Atlas Sound appearance had all but dissipated and the best costumers (Tim & Eric Awesome Show’s The Snuggler, Mia Farrow of Rosemary’s Baby, etc.) including San Francisco darlings Girls, had all but split. Nevertheless, Real Estate brought an incredibly welcome change of atmosphere. As if everyone in the crowd momentarily forgot what crystal-clear vocals and solid, intricate musicianship sounded like, the Woodsist-label group weren’t afraid to remind us. With a punctuated, rhythmic gallop and woozy twang, selections off their most recent self-titled album had a special feeling of urgency. Or maybe, in light of the endurance-testing program, the band was eager to keep things short and sweet. Either way, standout “Fake Blues” — a folk-rock tune in the same way Pavement’s “Folk Jam” is a folk-rock tune — never sounded so immediate and ultra-catchy. The solid bass playing of Alex Bleeker (and The Freaks) and complimentary guitar riffing by Matt Mondanile (Ducktails) shouldn’t go unnoticed.
As Real Estate ended the relatively short set with quick instrumental “Atlantic City,” not only did I wish it wasn’t 4 AM, but that my eardrums, in at least some small capacity, still existed. Regardless, I was thankful to spend Halloween eve filled with loud, but worthwhile bands and relatively friendly folks. And even if Halloween brings out the worst in people — thanks, whoever popped my tires! — there’s also something to be said for seeing another dressed in an equally bizarre costume as you. Me: “Wait, you’re Sharon Tate from the Manson Murder?!” Person: “Yeah. Too soon?”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion / Thee Oh Sees
Bimbo's 365; San Francisco, CA
Before I could even begin the process of rocking into oblivion, I had to first overcome the atmosphere of stuffy class at Bimbo’s 365. It is positively mind-boggling to balance pricey $6 bottles of Budweiser with the frantic garage sound of Thee Oh Sees, which is exactly how I was inundated within the first 10 minutes of arrival. Bimbo’s is arranged like a club from gangster cinema, and although the prospect of sitting near the rear in a booth by a circular table while admiring red velvet was slight, it didn’t keep me away from the stage. Although somewhat late, I arrived with enough time to confirm that Thee Oh Sees live experience is the equivalent of a chihuahua, born during the Truman years, on steroids with a guitar. Jon Dwyer’s yips and high-pitched, fuzzed-out vocals flooded the room and deafened me. But ultimately, I was there to see The Blues Explosion, and although my respect for Thee Oh Sees wanes and waxes, it will never compare to my feelings for Jon Spencer’s outfit.
So with much excitement and a push towards the front of the stage, I needed no breath when it came time to react to the initial notes of the Blues Explosion. 1994’s Orange essentially prevented me from being too overtaken by the grunge movement, reminding me that in an age of flannel rock there could still exist a sound between the blues and punk that wasn’t either. Being my first opportunity to see the trio at work, I wasn’t let down for a moment. They didn’t let up either — the songs bled together as my ears bled from the relentless volume. That includes some incredibly well-timed bass explosions from the kick, an effect I attribute to an out-of-house soundman brought in specifically for the Blues Explosion. I also realized that a band such as the Blues Explosion needs nary a second of banter, for the repartee is already cemented into the structure and lyrics of the song.
“THANK YOU VERY MUCH LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, RIGHT NOW I GOT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE FABULOUS, MOST GROOVY, BELLBOTTOMS!”
Although Jon Spencer is clearly the focal point of the band and the lead sweathog, seeing the group in a live context made me realize two things. First, Judah Bauer is truly responsible for the amazing tone and richness behind the band’s guitar solos and melodies. Second, Russell Simins plays drums the hard way — with little filler or flair, but fast as hell and on-point. Some of the songs are almost exclusively rooted in the snare and kick, with only an occasional hi-hat or crash cymbal to punctuate an entire verse. From that simple approach, a visceral lather of sexiness is applied to a crowd that becomes putty in the hands of these masters.
[Photo: Danielle St Laurent]
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA
So, this is where it all started?
It’s impossible not to ask such a question when you’re staring at enormous photos of Ken Kesey and The Dead, iconic sparkling chandeliers, and, literally, hundreds of astonishingly trippy concert posters of significant 60s musical artists at San Francisco’s historical Fillmore Auditorium. Obviously my first time at the venue, I can’t stop walking around the polished wood floor, imagining all the crazy shit that took place over the years. And yet, knowing I’m about to witness one of the most quintessential bands of my generation, I wouldn’t trade this moment for that of any Fillmore hippie — present or past.
Upstairs, amid the enormous pastiche of Joplin, Airplane, and Hendrix memorabilia, sits a fat, white-bearded old man plunking on drums and howl-chanting into a reverb-soaked mic. He’s backed by a mad-scientist character who feverishly cranks knobs, detuning his Korg while an electric bassist scratches out the melody to “Shortin’ Bread.” It’s like some bizarre, psychedelic ghosting ritual.
It isn’t long before 19-year-old Floridian ghetto-star rapper Dominique Young Unique — quite possibly the most in-your-face, confrontational opener I’ve ever seen — takes the stage in full command. With a skirt shorter than William Henry Harrison’s presidency, flawlessly “good hair” tosses, and ultra-dirty, near-unspeakable lyrics, Ms. Unique not only loosens up the crowd in a major way but drops some seriously killer rhymes. “What about me, Miss Unique!?” she hollers over a heavy flux-groove. I seriously doubt I’m the only one thinking, “Who, me?! I didn’t say shit about you, Ms. Unique! I swear! I didn’t say shit!”
The atmosphere is a beautiful combination of humor (“Did she really just say ‘pussy-popping?’ “), awkwardness (“Dude, she just started that entire song over because people didn’t clap on the outro!”), and, most significantly, admiration (“I don’t know what this is, but it’s fun as hell and she’s amazing at it”). Backed by a Macbook-wielding beat-maker and a German keyboardist named Yann — a talented headbanger who’d be right at home with Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem — Unique ends her gutsy set on a short-and-sweet note. “If you’re not feeling it, y’all can go home!” she says as most of us laugh and cheer in response. It’s a funny thing to say, and not only because Dirty Projectors have yet to perform. In light of her ferocious stage presence, well-crafted grooves, and razor-sharp rap flows, it’s clear nearly everyone was feeling it. “Just playin”,” Unique says with a well-earned smile.
When bandleader/vocalist/singer/composer/guitarist/genius Dave Longstreth comes out with his all-white, left-handed Strat behind a purple haze — sorry — of lights, I feel momentarily corny because old Jimi — who stood in that very spot numerous times — springs to mind. But as Longstreth proceeds to tear the ever-loving shit out of his guitar on Getty Address-ed set-opener “I Will Truck,” I’m really not too far off-base. In simple terms, I don’t recall hearing a group so tight, in-the-pocket, and incredibly captivating. When “No Intention” hits with its hip-hop-paced march, chiming guitar hammer-ons and parallel fifths, I can’t stop repeating: “Goddamn. Goddamn. Goddamn.”
Covering all 10 tracks off last year’s astoundingly good Bitte Orca, the Projectors also dip into past favorites like New Attitude EP’s “Fucked for Life” and “Imagine It,” the latter being a tried-and-true demonstration of the band’s diverse talents. For example, while many props are given to female guitar slingers Marnie Stern and Khaki King, I attest Amber Coffman not only has a better voice than the two, but can hold her own on 21-frets at the same time. Just watching her keep pace with Longstreth’s mind-jumbled, spiraling guitar phrases on “Imagine It” and others is more than adequate proof. Aside from astonishing instrumental prowess — Longstreth’s unconventional, inspired solos, gifted bassist Nat Baldwin’s vacuum-sealed hookup with drummer Brian McOmber, etc. — the three-parts female, one-part male vocal harmonies of Dirty Projectors are, possibly, the band’s most identifiable trademark.
During no moment is this more clear than on encore “Remade Horizon” ‘s ping-pong female-vocal acrobatics. Echoing Longstreth’s call-and-response, serpentine guitar line, keyboardist Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle, and Coffman sculpt harmonies so irregular I swear it’s the work of illusion. After a raucous rendition of David Byrne-collaborated “Knotty Pine” — acoustic guitar flails making up for any lack of Talking or Head — the band showcases Deradoorian on the lyrically Nico-esque (à la “These Days” ‘s “Don’t remind me of my failures”) tune “Two Doves.” Surprisingly, an ill-placed capo makes the acoustic accompaniment a bit rough on the ears. Deradoorian digs in deep, however, and her exceptionally capable alto thoroughly rescues the song from the momentary lull.
If there’s a brief patch of sloppiness toward the end of the set — “Stillness is the Move,” the most widely known jam, strangely, isn’t the highlight I expect despite Coffman’s determined vocal delivery — it’s quite plausible the band’s lack of onstage inhibition is at fault. Between songs, Longstreth jumps up and down to introduce the next tune, even extending his mic stand in an unsuccessful, but charming, attempt at pole-climbing during “Useful Chamber.” Given the effortlessness displayed during the first half of the set’s more rhythmically, stylistically complex moments, it’s as if the band’s exhaustive mastery of technique and groove frees them to now deconstruct these forms.
Of course, such pseudo-intellectual, music theory speculation means very little when I witness a couple hundred people chant “Rise Above!” and yell, “What hits the spot like GATORADE?!” in unison during set-highlight “Temescula Sunrise.” Not just a half-camp vibe of product-placement, it’s a lovely little reminder we’ve all listened the hell out of the same track. But it’s only when Longstreth sings “Definitely, you can come live with us,” does the vibe of fan-inclusion reach it’s pinnacle. We’re all there, in the place it all started, smiling, waiting for the beat to drop.
Ducktails / Dolphins Into The Future / Idiot Glee
Madame Claude; Berlin
It’d be pretty easy to pun on the “tropicalness” of Madame Claude’s tiny basement room (particularly in relation to these recent pioneers of like-it-or-not, plastic palm tree lo-fi) but SHEESH; this was one sweaty room! Belgium experimenter Lieven Martens, aka Dolphins Into The Future, probably reveled in the vision-quest-inducing heat of the place with his Hawaii-obsessed drones, tapping less into the overly aquatic focused ambience of …On Sea-Faring Isolation for a more rhythmic and Ferraro/Clark sort of almost-pop.
Draped on a microphone stand at the front was his “Hawaii” trucker cap; he wore a ’90s floral jacket. A postcard of Hawaii with grass-skirted dancers leaned in front of his sampler. He has a moustache, wears aviator sunglasses, and sips from a bottle of red as he moves gradually into liquid-y, exotic textures, part intrepid explorer and part washed-up cruise-ship veteran, perpetually in search of an “ultimate” form of leisure and relaxation. The cruise ship (cf. David Foster Wallace’s Esquire essay re: the cruise ship as perverse/forced leisure) is the perfect vessel for the unlikely but not really ironic spirituality that these oceanic loops and isolation-tank spaces tap into; while ostensibly tacky and stuck in the hypnogogic mode of recently failed futuristic ideals, Martens employs this certainly “cool” set of ideas to strive for (and often gain) a sort of genuine transcendence and relevant spirituality.
If fans of Dolphins and experimental music are only familiar with Eckhart Tolle or indeed the absurd-seeming book after which he swiped his name through ironic, outsider points of view, this plastic New Age stuff, vapid and unbelievable, becomes poignant and real when assimilated into the lengthy and repetitive loops more easily equated with esoteric and noise tropes. It dropped out just before the end into a furry tape sample of some sort of Tahitian luau, replete with outdoor chants recorded with a colonial enthusiasm, cementing a positively lucid set in a very plastic system of borrowed exotica and personal insight. It’s an appropriate template for contemporary existentialism; the Do U Believe In Hawaii? (i.e. Hawaii or similar locale that is grimly hedonistic and humorously distant in its paradisiacality) school of relaxation or freedom; good-humoured but aware of the need for some meaning amongst the paradox. Anyway …
Next up, Idiot Glee’s one-man kaleidoscopic, merry-go-round ballads maintained their plasticity while being stripped back and hammed up with the wobbly, one-man-band vibe and a couple of obviously cheap Casios. Utilizing his preset drum-machine to super-endearing effect, Idiot Glee is woozy. Apparently he is a mormon, or at least was raised by mormons, but I’m not sure if that is what gives his songs a stoic, loner quality; it’s more abandoned carnival really, the stark but colourful loops.
The basement heat seemed to have increased a whole bunch by the time Matt Mondanile began his Ducktails set with guitar and sampler, splitting vibes straightaway between the Ridgewood neighborhood pop and the more delirious, beach-styled loops he initially experimented with a few years back while living in Berlin.
Most of the set was marred by sound issues. My friend riffed hilariously on how the ill-aligned Mondanile’s annoyance with the sound guy was with “chillwave,” but I could feel his frustration, as the latter obviously preferred smiling and nodding to requests rather than actually doing anything to fix them. It didn’t stop the obliquely “nice” pop sensibilities from shining through. Whether his ultra-cosy and suburban half-memories took the form of recent jams like “Hamilton Road” or older rhythmic warblers like “Beach Point Pleasant,” it came off lucid, warm, and pretty delirious in the heat. Like Dolphins’ Tahitian samples and general vibe, the trademark hand drums evolved the fake paradisiacal imagery and atmospherics into an engaging blur.
New material seeped out later in the set, coming off substantial and more structured than usual; one had a Panda Bear kind of metre, with his trademark mesmeric synths packing more punch than usual. Another (called “Sit Around With Ya”) laid slow surf guitar twangs over a sample of waves (splashing every 3-4 seconds), a total end-of-summer lament. It wound down an evening of at least partially manufactured nostalgia, sure, but one full of proof of the virtues of reappropriating those lost tropes.
[Photo: Darius Sabbaghzadeh]
The Flaming Lips / Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti / Thee Oh Sees
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA
There is something strangely illustrious about the Fox Theater in Oakland, from its statues and acoustics to the lights in the ceiling. It makes sense The Flaming Lips would employ this venue for a two-night stand. A coincidental bonus was the first show falling on the same night as the Oakland Art Murmur, just a few blocks up from the venue, filled with cool galleries and awesome grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Thee Oh Sees seemed destined to be forgotten on this particular night. It’s not their fault; they played a great set, but their style and approach aren’t quite ready for big venues yet, and they had to contend with opening for two expansive bands. They had their psych moments, which were amazing. Still, it seemed like most had forgotten about them an hour later.
Say what you will about Ariel Pink’s sets, but there’s one thing for certain: He’s getting better. Coming out with his Haunted Graffiti, decked out in M.I.A.’s street clothes, he talks about wanting to French the crowd, which he proceeds to do to an unsuspecting Flaming Lips fan (she seemed happy about it) during “Beverly Kills.” His mannerisms and singing have gotten to the level where he could easily be nominated to become the next official Hedwig for her Angry Inch. Sadly, the numbers from House Arrest and The Doldrums, which sounded incredible, didn’t resonate with the crowd that much. Ariel Pink also clearly missed an awesome sing-along opportunity for “Round and Round.” Still, definitely one of his better sets.
Ever been to a Pentecostal megachurch? The experience one gets out of those churches is similar to what one gets out of a Flaming Lips concert, which is why you should go to one in your lifetime. Beyond all the confetti and balloons and other eye candy, Wayne Coyne played a pastor with a spiritual message, bent on making people feel hopeful about themselves, to connect with each other in, oh so many ways. Whether through reaching out with the Spaceball or just facing the camera behind his microphone, Wayne Coyne exudes an aura of hope and sincerity. That charisma and the ability to stretch songs into something both original yet recognizable make the Flaming Lips not just a band, but a revival of sorts.
[Photos: Ze Pequeno]