Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 2
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 10-14, 2010]

We’ve no need for wordy intros for recap # 2. With over 17,000 artists on 72 stages over the span of two and a half months there is no way to see everything. Very slight exaggerations aside, here is what we saw, heard, smelt, and felt on days 5 through 9.

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“I’ll Take Potent Potables for $600, Alex.”

Just keep your ears open and eventfully someone, onstage or off, will fill them with nonsense or a laugh …

“Two years ago we were almost wasted in a car crash … but like herpes we keep coming back!”

– Your similes are not wasted on us, Loudlove.

“I dare you! I dare you to punch me in the stomach. I DARE you!!!”

– Some roid case yelling at the guy in the Subway costume. You can bet the German Subway mascot “Sub-Wayne” would have been up for the challenge!

“Oh c’mon … that’s got chords. Like, more than two!”

The Gories' Dan Kroha self-deprecatingly responds to a fan request.

"People, people! Only 10 bucks, fer crissakes!"

-- A hard working under-aged kid trying to raise enough cash to get his under-aged ass drunk warms our hearts. A manic, zit-faced loner holding a copy of E.T. on BluRay over his head kinda creeps us out.

"Hey, you at the back! Drop that hot dog and put your fuckin' hands together!"

-- Command obeyed, singer from Dream Theater!

"That Flaming Mouth band was a novelty act. They need to write better lyrics, and stop being so lovey-dovey."

-- A friend's lawnchair/tilly-hat-toting father

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Great Expectations

If we said that The Flaming Lips show at Bluesfest was a life-affirming overdose of magic and compassionate entertainment would you believe it? If you have seen them live before, then, um, I guess you would, right? Wayne Coyne and co. moved from show-opening mind-fucks into a visceral “Silver Trembling Hands,” from the recognizable bombast of “She Don’t Use Jelly” into delicately done versions of “I Can Be a Frog” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with enrapturing grace. The Lips are ridiculously fun live but also achingly tender at times, with Coyne’s earnest anti-war appeal willing the crowd to pitch emphatic peace signs above its collective head before the beautiful coda of “Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips delivered one of the most inventive, charming, and downright wonderful shows this town has witnessed.

A mix of the strange, beautiful, and powerful was what Arcade Fire sought to replicate a few days later, with a great deal of success. Although not quite bettering Alanis or Avril in the stadium stakes, Arcade Fire are a fully-fledged festival band now. A festival band, but still “our” band to many Canadians, important but not self-important (yet). New tunes collided with old and everything was more than hunky dory to the clamoring congregation; but still, nothing ever hit the potent heights of, say, The Flaming Lips show described above (we hate to pull that cheap comparison out of the bag, but it’s true). Never ones for balking at an impromptu vocal jam, their greatest moment of the night might have been when they took to the streets after their show to join this Hanson-esque band of pre-teen rockers that played fund-raising shows outside the park every night.

Last year we happened by a stage where a man was standing by his lonesome next to a massive apparatus seemingly bolted together from spare junk-yard parts. The show ended up being a festival highlight as, That 1 Guy’s only member, Mike Silverman, is a virtuoso talent on an instrument of his own design. For the unitiated, Silverman’s “Magic Pipe” is a combination drum-kit, bass guitar, and midi-keyboard. The keyboard isn’t really a keyboard, but instead a series of contact points placed strategically on the instrument that, when touched, trigger samples on a laptop hidden out of sight. The bass guitar comes in the form of two fret-less strings on different parts of the instrument, with filterable sound provided by a twistable second pipe/string. Finally the drum-kit is another midi-triggering device on the lower part of the instrument that Silverman plays with his feet. To state That 1 Guy is unique doesn’t even scratch the surface of the talent on display here. One part Frank Zappa and two parts Les Claypool, That 1 Guy is not content writing songs about girls and good times; they’re about butts and a gross moon made of dirty cheese. Although clearly not for everyone, That 1 Guy delivered again this year with a high-energy set that was weird for even a seasoned festival goer. While the crowd dwindled throughout the performance, those who stayed witnessed something entirely unique and a firm affirmation that live music is, in fact, awesome.

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Homebrewed Heroes

A Canadian festival without Blue Rodeo? For shame! Unexpected, for sure, but their place was amply filled by fellow compatriots Sarah Harmer and Basia Bulat, two singer-songwriters with an abundance of talent and impressive fan bases to boot. Both shows were light on raucous entertainment, heavy on delicate introspection and lyrical nous. Harmer had her nimble band a-buzzin’, but we’ll give a slight nod to Bulat’s cozier tent show this time.

Metric continue to rise through the hierarchical pecking order of venues each and every year, landing on the main stage in 2010. Will headlining be far off? It’s doubtful. While they get older each year, their following seems to stay the same age, perpetually hooked on the catchy-but-less-than-thrilling energy pop of “Monster Hospital” and “Dead Disco.”

Timber Timbre played a raucus set for the small yet boistrous crowd in the opening hours of Day 6. Lead singer, guitar player, and principle member/songwriter Taylor Kirk donned a sexy mosquito-net hat, either for fashion points or to actually benefit from its purpose to keep pests away from his face while he ripped through some material from his big debut on Arts & Crafts. Violin player Mika Posen was unbelievably stoic throughout the performance, which was odd considering the man seated beside her was giving it 110 percent.

Moneen from Brampton, Ontario, exploded onto stage with a blistering set of indie-rock heavily influenced by both punk and thrash as they bounded about, whipping the young, mostly male crowd into a frenzy. More than a few bodies went over the front fence and were manhandled out of the pit by the guerilla security guards. Chris ‘The Hippy’ Hughes, in particular, was a sight, with dreadlocks – almost reaching down to his ass – being spun around in perfectly executed arcs (I’m sure there was some practice involved) that had all the concert virgins buzzing.

Alexisonfire took the stage quickly after Moneen, trying to capitalize on the crowd energy before it peetered out. The band delivered their brand of radio-friendly hardcore with an intensity lacking from most heavy acts. Unfortunately their sound is a muddled mess on record that doesn’t come across much better during a live show. The lyrics were buried deep in the mix, just like the face of lead screamer George Pettit, but these nitpicky comments were lost on a crowd that wanted nothing more than to mosh the night away. On that note, the band delivered.

Down With Webster have been quickly climbing the charts here in Canada; evidence of that was the mainly teen audience, and the music itself. A combination of early ’00s boy-bands, passable rapping ala Kanye West, and a guitar presence that looks remarkably like John Mayer, the band were young audience candy. With the exception of the drummer and the guitarist (tied down by pesky cables), none of the band members stopped moving for even a second, busting out numerous call and responses and even pulling the tired (yet novel for some) move of “filming” the audience for later viewing (most likely discarded before the check clears). Drenched in sweat by the third song, DWW will be a big name in coming years, just not amongst those who ignore the Top-40.

Plants & Animals were a surprise, bucking the sonic trend that has overrun the city as of late. A combination of both classic- and post-rock mentality, the Secret City Records band were an absolute delight in a live setting, whereas their recorded output has occasionally left this reviewer a little bored. Their energy was projected onto the crowd with little or no fanfare, and after telling myself that I would only listen to a song or two before checking out Santana on the main stage, I ended up staying for the entire set and loving every second of it. Plants & Animals are one of Canada’s best kept secrets, and everyone who witnessed them put on one of the strongest shows at the festival this year headed straight to the merch tent to revisit 2008’s Parc Avenue and check out this year’s La La Land.

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And the rest…

Certainly one of the bigger surprises we witnessed arrived care of Caravan Palace, an electro-beat-driven, swing-era spectacle from Paris. It might not be something you would ever put on the hi-fi to impress the neighbors, but in this context, it was a sure fire hit that attracted a curious storm of people that grew exponentially as the set whisked by.

In an age of worshipping past idols for no more a reason than, “It’s kitchy and ironic, tee hee!” the lack of love for Supertramp, even of the novelty variety, is depressing. You’re not likely to see Roger Hodgson popping up in our Chocolate Grinder section anytime soon, but you can’t deny the man’s gigantically popular oeuvre. In Ottawa, where vintage bands go for one more kick at the can, Hodgson was enthusiastically received by a large throng of nostalgia tramps as he played a sick amount of spot-on, recognizable songs from his past (“Take the Long Way Home,” “Breakfast in America,” “Dreamer,” “Give a Little Bit,” “The Logical Song,” “It’s Raining Again,” etc., etc.)

A band you catch often on the blahgoszfere is Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven, who played a tense set culled primarily from their impressive Beast Rest Forth Mouth album. Meanwhile Steve Dawson brought his Mississippi Sheiks tribute project to live fruition. Joined together by the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jim Byrnes, Dawson’s collective played old-time tracks by the Sheiks, which brought out lovers of country, blues, and Southern gospel the likes of which get scarcer at Bluesfest every year, despite its brand name.

Steve Winwood took the stage early in the evening to a polite crowd of festival goers looking to be entertained by the seasoned industry veteran of Traffic, Blind Faith, and the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood was stoic behind his piano at the age of 62, but still managed to deliver a set consisting of exactly what the audience was hoping to see, which was not a difficult feat for a man with more than 40 years of performance experience.

The Swell Season emerged from the other side of the road from both Rush and The Levon Helm band. Normally a quiet, reserved set like this would play out perfectly at the Black Sheep Inn stage, naturally sequestered by a hill on one side and the War Museum on the other. Unfortunately, that stage has migrated to a tent this year, and a lot of acts were pushed out to the Hard Rock Cafe stage as a result, which offers no sort of auditory protection from other stages. All of this is relevant because lead singer and principle song writer for the Swell Season, Glen Hansard, spent most of his set brooding like a child who’s had his milk taken away because of the bleeding sound from other stages. Hansard’s anger was primarily directed at Rush, since they were the headliner, but in reality a lot of the noise was coming from the Levon Helm band (which played a wonderful set we didn’t catch much of). Despite his bickering and mocking, The Swell Season played a lot of the material that has made them relatively famous, including “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “Lies,” both of which engaged the crowd on a much higher level than ripping on Neil Peart for having too many drums.

More than halfway through our festival experience, youthful exuberance and dexterity have made way for bloodied feet, stomachs, kidneys, and livers. Stay tuned for Part 3 to see if we fall further to our failings or redeem ourselves with triumph as we near the end of this live behemoth for another year.

by David Nadelle and munroe

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 1
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 06-09, 2010]

A festival this prolonged has something for everyone, but with less (quote-unquote) independent bands playing there seems to be an increased reliance on acts from days long passed. Shows by these veteran acts tend to be hit-or-miss, depending on the toll that hard living has had on band members’ bodies over the decades. However, if you have been playing the same songs for 40 years, there is no real reason to not have it spot on. In an effort to cover both the “veterans” and the other groups, we’ve broken down our first part of coverage into two major categories: “Respect the Vets” and “Brief Look At The Rest.” In addition to those categories, we’ve included the “Dem B’ys is Full-a Humour” and “Look at Me! I’m Famous!” categories about stuff we found amusing with a distinct Canadian spelling, and the acts that clearly inspired this year’s bizarre theme of “Bluesfest Goes Hollywood.”

On with the shows!

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Look At Me! I’m Famous!

The Bacon Brothers, featuring the “footloose” Kevin Bacon on guitar, harmonica, and tight black t-shirt, was the first Hollywood-linked act to take to the stage. Unfortunately, they played a limp set of sub-Mellancamp, countrified pop. Kudos to Bacon for trying his darndest and taking a stab outside his comfort zone, as he has for years with The Bacon Band, but this act was booked because of its name, not its content.

Rotten behavior is what people expect from Courtney Love, but the train-wreck rubber-neckers would have been disappointed by Hole’s show. Trying valiantly to resurrect her musical career instead of her tabloid-fodder career, the confident and jovial (seriously!) birthday girl ran the latest version of Hole through songs off new album, Nobody’s Daughter, faithful versions from her back catalog (“Miss World,” “Celebrity Skin,” Violet”), and a covers of Leonard’s Cohen’s “Take This Longing” (chosen instead of Canuck anthems like “Summer of ‘69” or “Black Velvet,” joked Love) and the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Musically, Hole was as unimpressive as always, proving that Love’s strongest suit is her ability to draw a crowd, not her ability keep them entertained.

The big-screen biopic of The Runaways hasn’t hurt to rekindle Joan Jett’s popularity, but Day 4’s headliner proved the real deal is always better than Twilight’s “it-girl” facsimile. Beginning with her classic “Bad Reputation,” the still-cool-as-fuck Jett and The Blackhearts rifled off crowd pleasers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Do You Want to Touch Me There,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Throw in a few Runaways hits like “Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild” and the show was great enough to make me want to see Light of Day again.

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Brief Look At The Rest

The Gipsy Kings opened the second night on the Claridge Homes stage to a staggering number of people for an early show. The band responded kindly with an energetic set perfect for an open-air festival. Grupo Fantasma and SEPTENTRIONAL d’Haiti are excellent World bands, who played to small crowds of enthusiastic fans in the blacksheep tent. We also caught up with MonkeyJunk for a moment while they worked over the crowd with their brand of quality local blues.

The hillside setting at the Hard Rock Cafe stage is conducive to more intimate sets, and this year is no different. On Day 3 alone, mellow yellers were treated to a captivating show by Ottawa-born, Montreal-based Laurent Bourque, the standard, rustic fayre from Great Lake Swimmers, and quiet magic from Andrew Bird. Bird just can’t lose at festivals. Every time we’ve seen him he plays haunting sets that show off his sickening versatility and musicianship (yes, we’re a little jealous). Needless to say, his appearance was much appreciated by the dedicated contingent of indie fans and lovers of heartfelt songwriting alike.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band were suggested by a friend, and we’re happy we agreed after witnessing one of the best blues acts on the first leg of the festival. Randolph himself looks stuck between a hip-hop MC and somebody on their way to a wedding, neither of which would indicate he was a phenomenal slide-guitar player with a knack for improvising within a lock-tight groove, in this case provided by Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph. Similiarly gifted were the John Butler Trio, a chart-topping Australian group with a revolving set of musicians except for the guy in the band name. The trio play exceedingly well off each other, ending its set with a wall-of-noise drum finale that could be heard two stages over.

Caravan Palace are the type of festival band that do exceedingly well with a live audience but flounder a bit in the studio. The Parisian band consists of several members playing a variety of instruments, including an electric stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, clarinet, bass-heavy synth, and a female singer rocking a ’20s jazz style. In lesser hands you could deride an act like this for trying too hard, but the earnest delivery and high-energy set sold the gimmicky aspects. Another high-energy act that hasn’t lost an ounce of their grip on the 16-18 local demographic in the last 10 years are The Planet Smashers. They tore through a set of aging material, but the youthful crowd ate it up, circle moshing with a ferocity only found at the best ska shows.

We skipped much of the Kelp Records Revue (with the exception of the ever-reliable Andrew Vincent) and sidestepped most of the saccharine electronic sounds of Lights, the guitar goddess freakout of Ana Popovic, and the tedious heavy rock stylings of Dream Theater for the opportunity to see Iron Maiden’s long-awaited return to town.

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The Vets

Iron Maiden were their usual selves. Whirling dervishes Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris commandeering the large stage with the gusto of men 30 years younger, three guitarists trading solos, a massive drum set (and Nicko McBrain somewhere behind it), and a fleeting appearance by Eddie (who now looks like a cyborg linebacker, in case you were wondering). All “newer” songs sounded great and wouldn’t be completely out of place on the band’s early albums but, with the exception of five tracks from the first three albums, the entire setlist consisted of tracks post-Somewhere in Time. The band were fantastic as always but there was an anticipatory feel in the air that didn’t subside until “Iron Maiden,” “The Number of the Beast,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and “Running Free” were done.

Snippets of sets by The Moody Blues, Steve Hackett, and the rain-delayed Renaissance came next. All flashed some golden-years form. Babe Ruth, in particular, stole pieces of hearts with a wonderfully arranged spectacle led by the overpowering presence of frontwoman Janita Haan, who is THE template for women rock singers. Her swaggering confidence and chops brought fans like flies to sherbet as the sun was setting on the Ottawa River.

The crowd at Further with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir was dense but peaceful, as most were in an altered state or were waiting for the perfect moment to enter an altered state without being noticed by the red-shirted security slinking about. Lesh and Weir sounded laid-back and comfortable, which only furthered the distinct vibe coming from within the crowd. This TMT-er is not familiar enough with past work to comment on their dedication to classic material, but they sounded great.

The B-52’s were radio dynamite in their day, but have been reduced to the following statement overheard from a young audience member: “I think is the band that did that Family Guy song about lobsters.” With their legacy on the line, the B-52’s put on their best “show faces” and rehashed their hits in front of a diverse group of just about every age, from 5 to 65. To their credit, the main trio of Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, and Kate Pierson have plenty of enthusiasm for both the performance and music that has been paying their bills for the last 30 years.

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Dem B’ys is Full a Humour

Metal bands attract a certain type of crowd, but metal bands of a certain vintage attract an even more certain type of crowd. Where else but at a Maiden show would a hoary rock chick (sorry, she could only be described as such) deafen those in the vicinity with, “I don’t need a bike, this is MY BITCH!” as she straddled her startled husband’s back like he was a well-worn Harley seat? Alright, that could happen anywhere – and should happen more often – but it seemed more at home on this night.

The Subway stage, which has a glorious backdrop in the Ottawa river, and offers up some more eclectic musical choices for the city, is also unfortunately home for some of the more “aggressive” blues, including Jonas & The Massive Attraction, a band that really “wants it.” The stage theatrics of lead singer Jonas Tomalty were incredible in how uniformly awful they were, and even better when noticing the smirks on the faces of his band members. Jonas’ wife-beater tank-top, greasy curls, and rippling body mass might of attracted a very specific demographic (the type that enjoys chillin’ on the Jersey shore), but his Blueshammer level of terrible should of earned him a spot in the comedy tent instead of on a stage.

The laughs provided by Mr. Jonas inspired a visit to the Black Sheep music and comedy tent, a new addition to Bluesfest this year, and after getting past the crack security team of volunteer children (well, teenagers) we were presented with some relationship advice from Finesse Mitchell, a former SNL cast member. His routine was amusing and he delivered the material well, but the topic of relationships is a well-worn path in the comedy world and Mitchell didn’t offer any new insights. Louis C.K., on the other hand, was brutal, vicious, and absolutely hilarious. Even though some of his material can border on mean, his delivery and cushy personality sell jokes that would drown a lesser comedian.

The first slab of days at Bluesfest was a struggle of attrition for our already overworked sweat glands, but the heat wave is over. Whatever nonsense Mother Nature throws at us for the rest of the Bluesfest, it couldn’t be worse than what we endured (though we would probably endure razorblade-and-dirty-diaper tornadoes if it meant standing in a field drinking beer and watching an overwhelming amount of music). Bring on days five to nine!

by David Nadelle and munroe

Lou Barlow
The Hobby Shop; Los Angeles

[07-01-2010]

When I walked through the front door of The Hobby Shop, I was expecting to find a small crowd milling around inside a record store. Instead, I was met instead by an incredibly cozy, wood-paneled recording studio. There was just enough room for two rows of people to stand and still leave a reasonable walking path between the audience and the band, whom were lit warmly by tiny lights hanging off their mic stands. Beyond them was the booth, and beyond that was a beautiful backyard.

The space shouldn’t be the star of this review, but if The Hobby Shop does bring this weekly concert series back in August, you’re going to want to check it out. Besides the fact that it feels like watching a show in a really hip humidor, the perk of going to a show in a recording studio is that each attendee receives a digital copy of the show, delivered via e-mail.

The whole thing felt very homey, with the proprietor, Andrew “Mudrock” Murdock, revealing he’d heard every band in the series play, with the exception of the night’s opener, Woolen, whom he’d booked off the strength of their sort-of-sister-band, Random Patterns. That was okay, though, since I had. Woolen is one of my favorite local bands and they’re incredibly flexible live. Their sets can emphasize the proggy, 90s-influenced side or take you into wavering, twang-tinged bliss. They leaned toward the latter and were accompanied by a steel guitar. The set was more fluid and serendipitous as a result of breaking from the standard line-up, which probably led to the inclusion of a song frontman Paris Patt claimed he hadn’t decided on the lyrics for yet. Come to think of it, they did the same thing when I saw them a number of months ago, so this might just be a long running joke. Truth or fiction, the steel guitar player adapted admirably and it sounded just as polished as the rest of their material.

The aesthetic choice was logical given the stripped-down quality of a lot of Barlow’s solo material and the smaller space, but didn’t pan out completely in terms of matching the headliner. Barlow came out with more force than I had anticipated, backed by Mike Watt’s Missingmen, Tom Watson and Raul Morales. Strummy acoustic numbers like Emoh’s “Round-n-Round” became full bodied rockers in the trio’s hands and there were brief moments where they veered off and flirted with the stoner-rock elements of Dinosaur Jr. that always made me slightly uncomfortable. (Read: bored.)

In a neat twist, Imaad Wasif, who played with Barlow on Emoh and in The New Folk Implosion, was also in attendance. There was a great moment where Watson mentioned how weird it was to be playing Wasif’s own parts back to him, which led to musings on a word that could function as, “Thank you,” and, “Sorry,” simultaneously. Verdict: “Sorry,” with a lisp, or, “Thorry.” My verdict: no apologies necessary; fans and musicians should enjoy hearing old songs in a new way.

Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio / JG Thirwell and Steroid Maximus
Prospect Park Bandshell; Brooklyn, NY

[06-18-2010]

Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio sound like the footsteps of three tiny cartoon men running up and down a stairwell at extreme speeds. Smith’s organ ramblings lay a quietly complex framework for the dancing guitar of Jonathan Kreisberg and the psycho-syncopation of Jamire Williams’ drums. Smith’s scatting, occasionally bubbling to the top, almost always consisted of the syllables “ba ba dee ba dee ba da!”

Listening to the swelling and deflating sounds of JG Thirwell’s least electronic, most orchestral project, the all-instrumental Steroid Maximus, it is hard not to imagine a movie in one’s head. While Thirwell has a knack for high-energy, fight-scene music, this particular program boasted many subtler, more gradually mounting compositions. “I saw a chase through a swamp on motorboat,” came one audience member’s interpretation of the third piece. In the opinion of this reporter, however, the correct interpretation was, “The montage in a heist movie in which all of the members of the team get into position.”

Thirwell closed the evening with a rendition of perhaps his most famous composition, the score to The Venture Bros. An essential element of the heavy stylization of the cartoon, this music takes on a different dimension in live performance. Though certain instruments (mostly horns) lacked the aggressive loudness of their recorded counterparts, the greater dynamic range and number of tonal voices allowed for a different intensity and an ending epic enough to appropriately conclude the evening’s sonic drama.

Although Thirwell seemed to have little communication with the musicians onstage, the 20 or more instrumentalists executed his opuses with a flawless tightness regardless of his conducting. But as the final medley came to a close, his passive motions finally began to intensify until he leapt into the air, slamming back down on the stage and gesturing the cutoff with both hands. He then quietly acknowledged his band, thanked the festival organizers, and walked offstage.

Pavement
Hearst Greek Theatre; Berkeley, CA

[06-25-2010]

You’d think reunion tours would have something … special to them, some spark that would be powerful enough to invoke an emotion affecting the mindset of those involved. Minds being blown, especially to a crowd that, mostly, never even witnessed the band originally. A vibe that could shake the foundations of the venue.

None of that happened when Pavement played at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA. (And if you find that awful, stop reading. NOW)

Perhaps an imminent warning sign is the notice that tickets were still available to the show prior to opening at the box office. Now, at the time Pavement started playing, the venue was at about 90 percent capacity (based on observation), and the venue is pretty large (8500 seats). But given the sold-out shows in Central Park this fall, and the close proximity to hometown Stockton, CA, (which they just happened to play for the first time the night before), one would think this particular show would have sold out in the same amount of time those four shows did. That it didn’t may not just undermine the importance of this show, but the tour in general.

Pavement rolled in shortly after 9 PM, opening with the classic “Cut Your Hair,” followed by another, lesser-known “cut,” “Frontwards.” Steve Malkmus and crew threw down some weight: The set was filled with the hits, including “Spit on a Stranger” and “Gold Soundz,” and some lesser gems like “The Hexx” and “Unfair.” They also played a new song, supposedly titled “Linden” (though that title may have be mixed up with “Lions (Linden)”). A big surprise was calling in original drummer Gary Young during the encore, who played a couple numbers from Slanted & Enchanted.

It all should have made for an incredible night. Yet, the concert felt incredibly underwhelming. Everyone except the unpredictable Young was playing solidly, but not much more. The band got along and were enjoying themselves, and Stephen Malkmus behaved himself, but there were few if any shining moments that could raise the crowd into a frenzy. Every song was played with little deviation. The setlist’s depth was, at best, predictable. The more time they played, the more the crowd was into it, but it felt so standard. Their set length, 1 hour and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute encore, made the show as a whole seem more like part of a tour for an album (which, given the release of Quarantine the Past, it partly is) than a full-blooded reunion. Any person, never having heard Pavement or understanding their significance, would have simply seen this as an unexceptional indie-rock show.

Maybe they’ll improve by the time they reach New York in September. Maybe, like their ’80s brethren Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr., they’ll return to the studio and turn this reunion into a comeback. But for now, Pavement’s reunion tour just seems to cover the fans. And it doesn’t feel like enough.

[Photo: JessicaSarahS]

Conan O’Brien: The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour
The Wang Theatre; Boston, MA

[06-05-2010]

You may not have heard this, but a few months ago Conan O’Brien lost his gig hosting The Tonight Show to Jay Leno. No, really. Apparently it was a clusterfuck of Hollywood drama, inept network management, internet campaigns, Nielsen ratings, and the perceived lust of the unwashed masses for the boring, tired comedy of a man whose best-known bit is reading newspaper typos.

Despite the self-deprecation and low-level martyrdom melodrama that swirled around Conan in the aftermath of NBC’s reneging, the great redhead’s ensuing tour is looking more and more like a victory lap. The chain of events garnered great media coverage and galvanized his dormant fan base, allowing the quickly thrown-together 32-city tour to sell out without a dime being spent on promotion. Marching into November, Coco will still be wielding public goodwill and a fat settlement as he begins his new job at TBS, not only with a longer leash for his content, but with complete ownership of his show and all its creative properties.

Not exactly the unluckiest man in showbiz.

As for that public goodwill, you’d be hard-pressed to find more of it on the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour” than Conan’s stop in Boston. As his stereotypical Irish appearance may suggest, Conan grew up in Boston and even attended college at Harvard, just across the Charles River in Cambridge. Multiplied by the fact that his comedy career centered in New York and L.A., the comedian’s first hometown show was a lovefest of all things Beantown.

Walking on-stage at the Wang Theater in a Paul Pierce Celtics jersey to support the basketball team’s 2010 championship bid, Conan mused, “Thank God, there’s not a game tonight or you’d be yelling at me to put it on the big screen. ‘Put the game on! Shut up! Stand in the corner and shut up!’ ” He then confessed that living in L.A. made him homesick for that abuse, saying that he occasionally hired an actor to put on a Bruins jacket and shove him while calling him “queeahh.”

Conan also joked that, due to his large Irish family attending for free, he was only making $55 from his two sold-out performances in Boston. We got to know a little more about the family during a parody of “Polk Salad,” an old Southern song of poverty and hard times popularized by Elvis Presley. With the music of The Legally Prohibited Band churning and backup singers The Coquettes sashaying, Conan sang of his own hard times growing up in Brookline — “an affluent suburb of Boston/ Most people were upper class/ We O’Briens were upper-middle class… It was hell.” He went on to bemoan his “poor mama… a lawyer at a prestigious law firm, she made partner very quickly, pulled in a couple-hundred-thousand-dollars a year,” and his “no-good daddy… a microbiologist who worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in downtown Boston, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization.”

The self-deprecating stylings that have branded Conan’s comedy served as a running theme. Perhaps the biggest laugh of the show came when the pasty string-bean emerged stage-right in an exact replica of the purple suit Eddie Murphy wore in his 80s special Raw. Conan also made light of his peculiar situation, with several bits on his recent misfortune at NBC. The show opened with a video chronicling the past few months of his life. A closeup shot reveals Conan with long, unkempt hair, a long scraggly beard, and a dead-eyed stare. As the camera slowly widens, we see a substantial (fake) weight gain, numerous half-eaten pizzas, and empty beer bottles surrounding him as he lies on the floor. When a ringing phone interrupts his wallowing, Conan springs toward the phone, answering “JOB?!? TV JOB?!?” He continues to mope around the house to the tune of “All By Myself” (of course), having a few pathetic exchanges with his wife and then daughter, who walks away yelling “Mommy! Daddy smells like pee!”

Another video featured Conan sporting a cheap bald cap and glasses to play Generic Network Executive. Evil Exec strokes a token white cat while insulting the “sad little stage show,” and asking “Do you miss television? Well television doesn’t miss you! … We’re now one of the top-17 broadcast networks.” Exec then kills the cat by petting too hard, tosses it aside and has another handed to him.

In a musical number, Conan sings his own version of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again,” replacing the lyrics with “My own show again. I just can’t wait to have my own show again. On any network, even Oxygen.” And in what has become a running joke since his appearance at Google, a squeaky impression of a Tonight Show host-that-shall-not-be-named led Conan to assure the audience that the imitation was of “rapper Ludacris,” since he is contractually bound not to bad-mouth NBC.

A number of guests added to the night’s festivities. Former co-host, announcer, and “bosom chum” Andy Richter often shared the stage throughout the night, and one of Conan’s writers, Deon Cole, delivered a short set mid-show. Noting that he was Conan’s only black writer and has to field all of the staff’s “black questions,” he asked the crowd if there was an activity they hate to do around black people. “Dancing” was the answer, to which Cole responded “And we hate watching you dance.” He continued, “One lady told me she didn’t like to go to the ATM with black people around. I said, ‘Me too.’” Earlier, eccentric opening act Reggie Watts had the crowd laughing and scratching their heads at the same time. Armed with an array of voices and accents, the dead-pan afro’d comedian/musician toyed with effects pedals to loop his voice, creating a beat first, then layering more melodies and noises on top of it. The bizarre raps and songs Watts then unleashes are unforgettably funny.

Noting the venue, all the comedians made requisite cracks about “the Wang.” Conan intimated that, while growing up, “It was my dream to perform in a giant penis.” Watts observed that we were in “one of the biggest Wangs in the world.” (By my research, the Wang accommodated about 3,600 this night. The Wang was busy.)

Boston barroom staple and unofficial Red Sox house band the Dropkick Murphys also made an appearance to belt out the anthemic “Shipping Up To Boston” (a.k.a. that accordion song from The Departed that’s everywhere now).

Some old favorites from Late Night came along for the ride, as intellectual property rights seem to remain unsettled. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mailed in a hastily made video with (intentionally) poor dubbings of city-specific barbs. The Walker Texas Ranger Lever was rechristened the Walker Texas Ranger Handle, and the crowd was treated to a number of classic scenes, including the infamous “Walker told me I have AIDS” clip.

Even the Masturbating Bear joined everyone on stage for a Dropkick Murphys-aided encore of “The Weight” by The Band and old rockabilly number “Forty Days” by Ronnie Hawkins. The crowd of fans happily ate it up as the finale went into full swing. Strobe lights pulsed, a giant inflatable bat swayed and smiled awkwardly (bought second-hand from Meatloaf’s Bat Out Of Hell Tour, they claimed), and Conan ran through the theater as giant balls — featuring his face — dropped onto the crowd, to be batted around Flaming Lips-style. It was a helter-skelter send-off, and it was more than fitting that, after a night featuring some wonderfully juvenile humor, Coco’s Wang performance ended with the audience playing with his balls.

Who knows what life at TBS will bring, but the past fiasco and ensuing tour have proven that Conan will always have followers, be it on TV, YouTube, Twitter, or the stage.

[Photo: Senor Ryan]

The Missing Link Festival: Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness
The Fox Theatre; Oakland, CA

[05-08-2010]

On May 8 in Oakland, CA, two high-and-mighty heavy metal tours collided and cooperated to create a huge metal-fest at one of the East Bay’s classiest joints, The Fox Theatre. The Fox originally opened in 1928 as a movie theatre and was designed with ornate, delicate crafting inside and out, with the architectural flair of an Indian Temple and a wholly unique style that redesigned building styles on the West Coast. After being closed down in 1966, the venue only recently reopened after a massive renovation. Although an unlikely choice for a crusty metal-fest, the class and spiff of the Fox could not deter a horde of the Bay Area’s finest metal fans from coming out and getting sick with metal. The lineup was so thick that many days of mental preparation were not out of line — Mastodon, Between The Buried And Me, High On Fire, Baroness, Priestess, Valient Thorr, Black Cobra, Bison B.C., and more.

I attended with a good friend, Elvis deMorrow, in tow and we sat down for a post-concert conversation about the show as we let our metal hangovers subside.

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Chizzly St. Claw: Metal brain. I laid in bed the next morning and felt tinnitus from earhole to earhole, despite the fact that the biggest complaint was the lackluster sound up until Mastodon. It was still loud enough to cause some sort of damage to my faculties.

Elvis deMorrow: Yeah, it was a dangerous brew: The early bands sounded terrible through the mix, but they were still pretty punishing volume-wise. Worst of both worlds.

C: It’s a bizarre venue for eight metal bands.

E: Also, as you know, earplugs generally filter out mid and high frequencies more than the low. So because the drums were overpowering guitars in the mix, it sounded even more unbalanced with ear plugs in. I kept switching mine in and out. There was a clear move upward in volume for High On Fire; the drums sounded like stampede under the second floor. I could tell Mastodon were too loud up front, but the guitars sounded so good I opted to take the punishment. My skull got rung pretty good.

C: I couldn’t help thinking the High On Fire drums had some kind of effect on them, like a slight delay or reverb. They sounded supernatural, like thundering horse’s hooves. High on Fire was the only 3-piece we saw, but they sounded so big.

E: Agreed. The cut down from two guitars to one for High On Fire clearly benefited them. I think they likely brought their own soundman, whereas the openers probably had the “house” man on the boards. There was something weird & thunderous about their drums, though I remain underwhelmed by their songwriting approach, leaving me clearly in the minority at this point. They just don’t interest me very much at a riff, vocal, or solo level. A solid ensemble, but nothing special to my ears.

C: I can’t help wanting to call Between The Buried And Me the Coldplay of metal.

E: Between Buried & Me are the NIN of metal!

C: Fair enough. NIN and Coldplay are the Phil Collins of noise. Between The Buried And Me seemed so out of place compared to the other bands.

E: I was loving Baroness because they brought the disco beats. No one should ever be afraid of the disco beats — all good guitars work well with disco beats. Then Mastodon played the entirety of their latest record, which is maximum disco beats. Every song moves in full circles, which becomes hypnotizing then a bit monotonous.

C: I was impressed by Baroness as well. Except for the dude’s vocals, which were too monochromatic for my tastes. I guess I have such a soft spot for Eric Adams that anyone who only re-enacts the chorus from “I Turned Into A Martian” underwhelms me.

E: It’s too bad that a band “ambitious” as Mastodon don’t push the vocal melodies much past the status quo of the last 10 years. The metal genre always benefits from dynamic and inventive singers, from Ozzy on to today. But they are always in short supply. Ozzy & Halford had more than three vocal melodies. Even Hetfield & Anselmo are diverse by current standards. I think Mastodon successfully broke the “taboo” of singing in a proper contemporary metal band; now they need to sing more than a handful of melodies.

C: Even though the crowd brought it up a notch for the Mastodon slampit, it still was a sub-par performance by the Bay Area metal thugs.

E: Any time you have a guy in a Zappa shirt who just wants to “watch the band, man” up in front of the stage two feet away from a Kerry King doppelganger, then the GDF (Gross Domestic FUN) is going to be negatively impacted all around. Everyone has to compromise in how they want to enjoy the show, which will prevent the overall magic from rising through the roof.

C: We saw no death or thrash metal on this bill, which I think contributed to the overall lackluster slampit scene. Well, that and the jackboot efficiency of the Fox security force. Their stormtrooper approach keeps it clean… Perhaps cleaner than metal should be? At least first aid was quick to aid the puking waste-oid with road rash on his nose in the smoking hole. That’s one squad that should always show up quicker than later.

E: Yeah, I thought for the most part the security had the PRC style down: omnipresent but seldom seen in action. I think a lot of the incongruent behavior was simply due to how classy the joint was. It is rare to see anything tougher than Santana in a venue like that, or maybe Tool would play there.

C: Avett Brothers. Eww.

E: I think this speaks a lot to the civilising potential of one’s surroundings and why most contemporary Americans have been severely insulted, degraded & retarded by our architectural and civil engineering environments over the past several decades. A Minnesotan once told me: “if you don’t clean your apartment before you host a party, the guests will totally trash the place.” He was correct. You go to the Fox Theatre, I don’t care who is playing — you don’t feel compelled to piss on the carpet. In general, venues that implicitly ‘invite’ more use and abuse will make for better tribal catharsis/raw thrills. Venues that look like the Fox interior will make for better Santana solos.

Shrinebuilder
Club Europa; Greenpoint, NY

[04-16-2010]

With plumes of volcanic ash spewing forth from the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, a major havoc was wrought upon air travel and, as nearly all flights in and out of Northern Europe were frozen, many musicians on their way to major festivals and gigs were forced to change their plans and cancel scheduled concerts worldwide. On Friday morning, a number of performers (including Mighty Boosh star Gary Numan) announced they would be unable to catch their scheduled flights to the Coachella Festival in California. Later, around midday, it was announced the mighty stoner super-group Shrinebuilder would be stranded in New York, and wouldn’t be playing at the legendary Roadburn Festival in Tilllsburg, Holland. It was bad news for Roadburners but good news for us in New York, as Shrinebuilder would attempt to appease the volcano by booking a last-minute show at Club Europa, the Polish disco in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where they would deliver their own brand of volcanic spew. 



Scott Kelley of Neurosis, Al Cisneros of Om and Sleep, Dale Crover of The Melvins, and Scott “Wino” Weinrich of the seminal groups Saint Vitus and The Obsessed took the stage in what would ordinarily be a nocturnal-emissions-causing dream for napping doom fans. But the site was indeed real, and the cadre of slow-metal pioneers would proceed to barrel through an incendiary set that set the sparse but dedicated crowd ablaze in a firestorm of Hawkind-inspired space rock, punishing metallic riffs, and shamanic grooves. As Wino shook a head full of long, gray hair, Cisneros grooved righteously to the slinking karma loops of his own bass. Scott Kelley pounded away on his wood-grain guitar while bellowing deeply in his inimitable and proprietary growl. As a gestalt, the group was unbelievably tight and had the chops to change gears on a dime, going from pummel mode to cryptical envelopment in a heartbeat. The sharing of vocal duties between the four added a depth to their sound unheard in each members’ flagship projects. On tracks like the epic “Solar Benediction,” Shrinebuilder stretched to the great reaches of inner space, allowing plenty of room for some long-form, free-rock exploration. As an extra treat, Scott Kelley, after stating his unpreparedness to play their third show in NYC in six months, announced they would try something they had not tried live before. It turned out to be an absolutely electric version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blues-laden “Effigy,” which had the crowd unequivocally roaring for more.



It may seem a somewhat inevitable observation, but it’s at least a bit noteworthy that, in the end, not even a giant volcano could stop the mighty Shrinebuilder.

Holy Fuck / Nice Nice
Troubadour; Los Angeles, CA

[06-10-2010]

On stage right of the Troubadour in West Hollywood was a pile of keyboards in a box. It seemed fitting, given they were all made probably before 1992, with some carrying the name Casio. But if there’s something to be understood about Brian Borcherdt, it’s the pile doesn’t matter: Those keyboards can and will last a long time, and they are his primary arsenal in fighting the Zerg enchanting and blowing people’s minds as co-leader of the dirty electronic group Holy Fuck. If nothing else, it was a casual display of power.

Opener Nice Nice were ending their tour as opener for the band. The Portland duo played the co-headliner more than the opener: They had an utter confidence that was pleasing, and a strong momentum to boot. Their layering was nuanced, and worked in building tension in the performance, very similar to label-mates Battles. It also filled the room quite well, and the chant-like rhythm coming out of the drums gave the crowd something to work with. This act is as much a testament to their new label Warp’s ability to pick up incredible talent as it is a solid back-up to Holy Fuck. Expect them to really hit it big in the next year or so.

Holy Fuck jumped in, complete with their keyboard arsenal and ground-floor strobe lights, and kept punching it loud with very little let-up. Even when they were switching up for the next song, somebody kept playing. Opening with Latin number “Stay Lit,” and segueing into LP’s opener “Super Inuit,” the momentum was meant to be fierce. Really pulling through were drummer Matt Schulz and bassist Punchy McQuaid, who provided exemplary rhythm, keeping Borcherdt and Graham Walsh’s antics on a leash when needed. Not that such antics, such as switching between the start of “Safari” and “Lovely Allen,” were unnecessary: Their liveliness made their sound much more powerful, and made the crowd equally vibrant.

There were awkward moments, such as the melody loop of LP single “Lovely Allen” being off-key, but nothing that could bring down the set and its ferocity. Set (and Latin) closer “P.I.G.S.” culminated the ferocity into one final explosion of layering and improvisation that left a mark on the crowd that stepped in for the evening. One has to wonder what magic or processor in those old Casios would make so much noise …

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

Mike Watt & The Missingmen
The Smell; Los Angeles, CA

[06-05-2010]

As critics, we tend to be cynical about reunions and legends; side projects and follow-ups. We complain about the disappointment of seeing artists after the raw periods of their youth. Sometimes it’s sad, like watching Rick James take a break after every two songs, but any failure will come from simply not meeting whatever expectations history has created for the artist. There’s always the possibility that I might have seen him rock harder had I been at an original Minutemen show but, frankly, even with all the covers, it’s a non issue. When someone reaches a certain level of legitimate greatness within the rock community something shifts in their responsibility as a performer. They can do new and interesting work (Please do!), but their success will always be viewed in terms of how well they sparked whatever energy they brought to the past and how well they transported original fans to the time they inevitably see as being when “bands were bands.”  

In this way Mike Watt, backed by The Missingmen, succeeded terrifically. Every second Watt was onstage was a lesson in what jamming econo looks like. Every crease in his face. Every grimace. Every sweat stain. I think he made everyone feel at least a little excessive in some way. There was a noticeable, and refreshing, absence of cell-phone photography that I attribute to the clear sense that anything unrelated to the music didn’t matter.

Watt was plagued by an unusually large number of sound problems. Most significantly, there were no audible vocals coming from Watt at all for the first two songs. As much as that sucked though, it did present a chance to see just how much he puts into a performance. It’s something else to see a man pushing it all out, veins popping, just to have his vocals escape over the music for even one word. 

After Watt yelled for the sound lady to, “just fucking turn it all the way up,” and getting nothing in the way of results, Tom Watson gave up his own mic and they switched back and forth depending on who had primary vocal duties. It was a bummer to lose the backup vocals, but it was worth it to see Watt hand the dead mic to someone in the crowd and say, “Here, stick that up my ass or something.” Watson, for his part, continued to scream all of his parts directly into the empty mic stand as if nothing was wrong. 

It looked like everything was going to be fine. They brought someone’s kid onstage to replace Raul Morales on drums and the tyke was rock-solid. The vibe was great and everything felt familial, with bouncy adolescent curls collided with grey manes in the mild pit. As the set went on though, Watt began to look increasingly uncomfortable onstage and occasionally would step back from the mic clutching his ear and screaming, “Fuck.” He definitely yelled at someone in the front that he couldn’t hear anything while his companion played with the wires running down the wall in a way that evoked memories of trying to find the sweet spot on tin foil-covered bunny ears. Every time Watt flinched though, his next move would be a fierce attack on his bass. That image will stick with me for a long time and I’m left wondering who’s going to show my kids the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll.