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]
The Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA
“Oh shit” were the cries heard throughout the metal world when the 2010 Sleep reunion tour plans were announced after the band’s appearance at the 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties. The band was together for a short amount of time in the 1990s, but conflict with London Records over Dopesmoker, their long-form album comprised of one hour-plus track of trippy doom sludge, caused the band to break up (and eventually birthed Jerusalem). Holy Mountain, their first official release, became part of the canon of stoner metal and Sleep’s position as one of the primary progenitors of the genre has been confirmed and cemented.
Elvis deMorrow and I, who will be swapping the dialogue below, were privileged enough to attend the first Sleep show of a two night run at San Francisco’s fancy-pants Regency Ballroom during the recent reunion tour. Their epic set would feature Holy Mountain in its entirety, plus most of Dopesmoker. A thick haze of marijuana smoke enveloped our heads as we entered the beaux-arts room with 35-foot ceilings and 22 turn-of-the-century teardrop chandeliers.
E: The triumphant, glorious Iommi photographic backdrop prior to the Sleep set was inspiring, but there was a deep incongruity in the seemingly random, 90-second snippets of fucking awesome Sabbath tracks that ran through the house PA for the entire setup process.
C: Yeah, the whole on/off Sabbath intro session was annoying, but it all served as an effective reminder that, although they might be the most essential purveyors of stoner metal ever, Sleep are also in many respects a tribute to Sabbath and Iommi in particular.
E: There was no logic to the track sequencing, and deeply familiar riffs would drop without proper preamble, and end almost before they were established. I am strongly inclined to blame the venue for this inauspicious introduction, but I was compelled to protest in extreme yogic ‘prone’ regardless.
C: You fell right on your butt, twice! Apparently the tiny amount of weed smoke we directly inhaled was significantly amplified by the enormous quantity we inhaled second-hand. It hit you like a ton of bricks, eh?
E: Fortunately I was rapidly revived by the astronaut as he tuned the gain knobs on the five amps laid before Iommi’s gaze — projected by fools, but suffering none.
C: Yeah, the astronaut would prove to be a key figure in the whole affair.
E: In retrospect, perhaps the entire soundman botch job on the preliminary Sabbath riffs was some sort of extreme binary exercise to prepare the audience for what was to follow.
C: Come again?
E: Anyone who suspects Sleep ride an inappropriately lengthy & monochromatic canon across their recorded catalog is strongly recommended to attend a live performance. It is quite remarkable to be pummeled with the same essential aesthetic for close to two hours and not find much at all lacking in nuance, texture, timbre, or propulsion along the way. It is not out of line to compare these San Jose gents to Shankar, rather than to their droning brethren & the bands they sired.
C: I guess you’re hitting on something important there, but I will say that a raga and stoner metal sludge begat remarkably different mental states. Being spaced out at a Sleep show is not that close to meditation. I think it’s more akin to being aurally hypnotized into repetitive head-nodding and bull-horn brandishing.
E: The initial guitar chord from Pike’s dual-stringed ax was of the most earth-shattering variety I could imagine hearing. Either they dialed in the absolute most efficient equation of wattage to room size, or they certainly stumbled upon it that night.
C: Sounded bout as good as The Melvins — same room, equal auditory squashing.
E: Good fucking lord. Sudden & rational questions arise regarding why a guitar band would need to be that horrifically loud to accomplish their objectives, but that is like asking why Jarred Allen sports the number “69” on his Vikings jersey; the answer is immediate, inarguable, and extremely disconcerting. In this case, there was no choice but to plug the ears and go along for the ride.
C: I made a quick trip to the bar to find some napkins. I learned my lesson the first time I saw Lightning Bolt. Tinnitus is no fun.
E: I am generally prepared for the sonic level and approach at any given live show I attend, but this set took a solid 15 minutes before I could begin to penetrate beyond the sheer loudness. Once I had my wits about me I began to dig deep into the subtle ritard they would bring again and again, at both predictable and rare moments, within otherwise stable propulsion, and of course their ability to transform simple tempos and time signatures into eerily transcendent polyrhythms by nature of their repetition and heavy magickxs — in this way they do in fact bring new riffs.
C: Sleep has this amazing ability to create space within the violence of their riffing for feedback and drone. Two moments stick out — number one was a section with what felt like five minutes of Matt Pike feedback, and the second was a moment with Cisneros facing the drums and playing an ULTRA-slow bass line that felt like it lasted for days.
E: Bearing witness to new riffs in a live setting is a rare & special treat, and it can arise from many different bases of intent. Most are stoopid, though some are founded in extensive composition. After watching this trio pummel such a limited pentatonic system with minor tonal variance for well over an hour, you are either fundamentally awed at what they have accomplished, or verging on bored tears. These are both valid responses, and I found the performance to be significantly stronger by virtue of their avoidance of numerous small choices that would have put me out of the mesmer they were willfully creating in us. The worship of marijuana may be disturbing to some, and is confounding to me, but the worship of time is fundamentally sound, massive, and difficult to grasp — I can dig it.
C: After staring at the projections, watching the repeated passage of the astronaut back and forth across the stage, and having my brain melted by metal, what it all came down to for me was this simple message: smoke weed and blast off into outer space.
Eastern State Penitentiary; Philadelphia, PA
On May 17, 1929, Al Capone got snagged in Philadelphia for packing heat and ended up spending 9 months in the city’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). As one of the country’s first gangster-celebrities, his release date was a raging media spectacle. On the scheduled morning, mobs of people lined up around the massive compound to catch a glimpse of the murderous anti-hero. Their anticipation, however, was never satiated. To the crowd’s dismay, Capone had already been released. The event concluded with only Sartrean nothingness where living, breathing spectacle was expected.
Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, most well known for his film Decasia, accidently stumbled upon this never-before-seen archival footage in 2008 and transformed it into a mirrored, kaleidoscopic, 12-minute piece that shows the empty streets evolving, slowly blooming to life as gawkers swarm the anticipatory doors through which Capone was expected to pass. Pianist Vijay Iyer, whose Historicity sat at the top of almost every year-end list for 2009’s best jazz album, was asked to provide a score for the film. This collaborative audio/visual project, Release, has been on display since March 2010 at ESP — which stopped being a prison in 1974 and became a museum in 1994 — where the installation is housed in a cell adjacent to the one where Capone spent his sentence.
On September 11, as part of this ongoing installation and Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival, Iyer wheeled in a Steinway and gave a solo performance in ESP’s circular chamber. Located at the center of the prison – the optimal surveillance position — this main chamber contains eight long rows of cells radiating from it like sunbeams. Navigating the dark tunnels to reach the quasi-panopticon-turned-performance-space was an eerie experience, as guests were given the freedom to explore the guts of the cells in order to intimately feel the horror that will always haunt the space.
Despite Iyer’s charm and warmth — he stood and bowed for claps and spoke in detail on the significance of the pieces — the lingering terror was unshakeable. When operational, the chamber had held a piano used for musical purposes, namely for choir rehearsal and, on one occasion, when the prison band was conducted by North American composer Conrad Susa. Iyer’s playing summoned these ghosts, and while many arguably expect a solo piano concert to be soothing and tranquil, his delivery was oftentimes panic-inducing due to its precision and density. However, those familiar with Iyer’s research and publications on the relationship between cognition and music — he holds a PhD from Berkley in Technology and the Arts, a degree created especially for him — have come to expect and enjoy the cerebral experience that he aims to produce.
Many of the nine pieces he performed were from his recent solo album, Solo. On “Autoscopy,” a piece motivated by a prison escape as metaphor for the soul’s out of body experience, he created heavy but playful patterns with repetitive phrases and slight variations. The quick shifts in mood and tempo evoked the frantic mind in the planning stages of an escape or the mad dash away from confinement and toward freedom. In what was sadly an instance of missed contextualization, Iyer subtly dedicated “Remembrace,” a piece from a recent collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, to victims of September 11. Asking the audience to overlook their present location, namely one where the screams of torture and the sadness of solitude were pervasive and embedded, was somewhat of a demanding stretch.
His interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was particularly impressive, as he chose to meditate on the dark transition out of the chorus, and then improvised on the two droning bass chords. For the penultimate tune, Iyer chose Solo’s “One for Blount,” which takes its inspiration from Sun Ra’s earth-name, Herman Blount. This composition, equally capable of dancehall excitement or avant-garde genre-stretching, exemplifies Iyer’s technical and compositional capacities. For the finale he performed a thoughtful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By intensifying the pace and shifting to a minor chord arrangement, he emphasized the shadowy traces that are normally brightened by Lennon’s lyrical optimism. The reversal was especially suitable and effective, momentarily allowing the audience to connect with the gloom of those who were so recently chained where they voluntarily sat.
[Photo: Jennie Shanker]
Panda Bear / Nite Jewel
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA
Even after the universal acclaim of 2007’s revelatory Person Pitch, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the overwhelming popularity of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). I don’t, of course, mean to suggest his success is in any way undeserved — in fact, there are few, if any, artists who’ve demonstrated greater creativity, equally wild experimentation, and sheer originality in recent years. So, as I witnessed frat-bros, raccoon-eyed teenagers, girls in stuffed panda hats (?), and even a fucking t-shirt that read Sigma Fi’s Panda-monium 2008, I wondered: why did Monday night’s show at Oakland’s swanky Fox Theater draw a crowd so foreign to my expectations? As it turns out, there’s a lesson to be learned — one, thankfully, that goes beyond simply bitching about bros and hipsters.
But before any such realizations, I quickly became aware of the ill-fitting opener Nite Jewel. I’m not sure how this LA band — essentially a keyboard pop group with an uninspired, lazy front-woman — ended up opening for a musician who is light years beyond in terms of musical artistry. In all fairness, perhaps their white-boy funk grooves would be better experienced in a smaller setting than the augmented acoustics of the golden, behemoth venue. Still, when a band has some of the worst-rehearsed endings in recent memory, it only makes Lennox — who effortlessly navigates, fades, weaves one song to the next — sound even better. But hey, they covered Sparks, managed a decent drum and bass hookup, and even featured a nifty, David Gilmore-esque guitar solo. That’s cool, right?
It wasn’t until a handful of stoned, drunk frat-boys began singing the worst rendition of “Comfy in Nautica” as they impatiently awaited the headliner did I reach the pinnacle of irritation — or was it the teenage pot-head who spilled beer all over me? Either way, I was certain that when Panda Bear’s set began, its unconventional, challenging nature would not only knock everyone on their ass, but secretly, selfishly, I hoped no one else would dig it.
I knew there’d been a recent wave of music critics who, having witnessed Panda Bear’s current live show, offered negative sentiments concerning the length of new songs, ill-suited outdoor venues, etc. But as soon as Lennox lays down his finger, triggering the opening, squelching whole-note of “Drone” (off soon-to-be released Tomboy) and the psych-freak projected visuals of a skeleton face pulsating between wavelength flashes on screen, there’s no doubt the Fox is more than a fitting theater for the experience. “Just a signal in my head,” Lennox sings out, revealing an unexpected transition into his stutter-stop rendition of “Daily Routine” — a personal favorite off AC’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Teasing out each individual syllable on Person Pitch favorites like “Ponytail” and “Comfy In Nautica,” Lennox demonstrates an even more refined vocal performance than I had expected. Not only vocally innovative, it’s wonderful to see him playing guitar again on several new songs. Amid hip-hop grooves, “Surfer Hymn’s” four-on-the-floor pounding, and “Last Night at the Jetty’s” clapped march, Lennox strums a propulsive, murky rhythm on the outstanding “Tomboy” title track. All the while, projected visions of little children dancing, sharks, explosions, and 70s porn — yes, even sex on a roller coaster — supplement any moments that lacked momentum.
After the swaying, sentimental closer “You Can Count on Me,” I half-expect the surrounding audience to be baffled by what I consider an incredibly brilliant yet assuredly challenging performance. Instead, the crowd appears to have enjoyed everything as much, if not more, than myself. When Lennox is finally coaxed into performing an encore — probably the chillest and least-showy encore I’ve ever witnessed, complete with the reoccurring skeleton visual — I realize: just who the hell do I think I am? Sure, many of these fans aren’t the folk I’d want to be around for more than an hour — well, the panda-hatters, beer-spillers, and Sigma Fi’s might be squeezing that down to about five minutes — but, if the music makes them happy, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, we’re all just learning to stretch our ears anyhow. And, to steal an expression concerning bros, give me the space I need, and you may find that we’re alright.
Grizzly Bear / The Walkmen / Gang Gang Dance
The Beach at Governor's Island; New York, N.Y.
A bus, two subways, and a ferry ride brought me to Governor’s Island on Thursday night to see what Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste called a “dreambill.” I agreed with him in theory, but the rain tried its hardest to stifle the night. Largely because of waterproofing, set changes took forever, meaning rain-soaked waiting time.
This didn’t prevent the memorable moments on stage, though. Openers Gang Gang Dance were arguably the most enjoyable of the night. Their percussive bang was powerful and cohesive, their elevator music-on-acid instrumentals were convincingly contoured, and singer LizBougatsos looked thrilled to be on stage.
Next were The Walkmen. Either they missed their soundcheck or didn’t get one, because it took about four songs before you could even hear singer Hamilton Leithauser. Leithauser lamented his band always played in rain, as the downpour intensified. Maybe I just felt sorry for him, but I was impressed with how well the band bounced back from the atmosphere, perhaps betraying their old school indie-rock blood. Their satisfying guitar rock was a sobering contrast between their effects-drenched stage mates.
After another 45-minute set change, Grizzly Bear apologetically took the stage. Chris Taylor looked peeved by equipment complications. Once again, the sound was mediocre until a few songs in, and it was hard to stay compelled by the light show, on-point as it was. Although the momentum of the evening was in shambles, “Lullaby,” “Two Weeks,” and “Knife” rocked as hard as ever, a testament to one of the most creative bands of our era. A bit of synergy was found on the moody “Foreground,” an apt song for the evening.
It was hard not to smile as Droste commented every few songs that everyone there was a trooper. Before the encore, “Fix It,” Taylor half-seriously suggested we stick around, catch a later boat, and talk to our friends or maybe even meet new ones. The line for the ferry back to Manhattan seemed to politely decline his suggestion.
Kid Koala / The Slew
Prospect Park Bandshell; Brooklyn, NY
“We’re gonna play some old-fashioned vinyl records… incorrectly,” came the mischievous voice of fun’s favorite turntablist, Kid Koala, whose slight smugness is always undercut by his chuckling self-deprecation and visible appreciation of his supporters. The lone performer in front of a self-declared “unnecessary” amount of equipment, he explained, “It’s gonna be like a reverse babushka: we’re just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Koala (aka Eric San) began the night with a beautiful ode to Louis Armstrong, a song from his first album, Drunk Trumpet, perhaps to immediately dispel any doubts from the free-concert audience as to the turntable’s ability to produce soft, warm melodies. Next, he brought on The Slew’s touring DJ, P-Love, and the two attempted a track from San’s LP Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs. The Holy-Grail-sampling duet ended in impressed applause, but San shook his head, mumbling, “I don’t know…” The duo then launched into a warbling, crystalline rendition of “Moon River.”
Before the rocking began in earnest, San paused for a brief bingo interlude. Audience members, handed a bingo card featuring San’s simple cartooning upon entry, were asked to play along as he projected slides of various drawings and explained how easy they were to draw. “Birdseed… anyone can draw it. You don’t need to go to art school.”
The still-engrossed crowd began to cheer as ex-Wolfmotherers Chris Ross and Miles Heskett took the stage and hard rocking began posthaste. After executing their debut album’s titular track, “100%,” with frightening precision, The Slew allowed no chance to catch one’s breath, thrashing their way through the rest of their catalogue with increasing sweat and attitude. Had the audience had their eyes closed, they would have been hard-pressed to determine the group possessed no guitarists or singers. But then, they would also have missed Ross soaring through the air to slam down on his pedal-laden keyboard, or San loudly mouthing the words to every sample.
As the band left the stage for the second time, the dancing mob in front of the stage refused to yield in spite of the efforts of several burly security guards. Aware the situation was not going to resolve itself, San returned to his tables. “We only have those songs,” he explained, promising The Slew would be returning to the studio this fall, this time with their drummer and bassist. “I know this is kind of a punk thing to do.” He laid a record on the platter before returning to the wings, calling the cut, “My favorite song in the universe.” As the crowd accepted its fate and slowly filed out of the venue, the now-lamplit park gradually emptying, the sweet, scratchy voice of Louis Armstrong sang to them, “What a wonderful world…”
The Slew setlist:
1. Drunk Trumpet *
2. Skanky Panky **
3. Moon River **
4. 100% ***
5. It’s All Over ***
6. Problem Child ***
7. You Turn Me Cold ***
8. Grinder ***
9. Robbin’ Banks (Doin’ Time) ***
10. Shackled Soul ***
11. Blues in 12 ***
12. Battle of Heaven and Hell ***
**Kid Koala and P-Love
***The Slew (full band)
New Capital City Music Hall; Ottawa, Canada
I fought through a freak rain storm and horrifying drivers to arrive at the Chromeo show, just as Holy Ghost from Brooklyn were taking the stage. The four-man opening act was low on energy, yet high on dance-ability, slowly winning over the crowd that was patiently waiting for the headliners. Holy Ghost sounds like Holy Fuck if you stripped away the funk, the groove, and just left the electro. Sprinkle in some spacey lyrics and you’ve got Holy Ghost.
After a lengthy equipment change-up, Chromeo hopped on stage, with the crowd chanting in rhythm with the opening track of their breakthrough album, Fancy Footwork. Both David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel were all smiles, as the former set up behind a guitar and mic while the latter behind synths, a vox box, and a stand-up drum kit. Chromeo have dubbed themselves the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership in the history of mankind, and it’d be tough to argue otherwise, as the duo ripped through bits and pieces off their debut album (“Needy Girl”) and a majority of their follow-up records (“Tenderoni,” “Fancy Footwork,” “Bonafied Lovin’”). The order of the setlist was impeccably chosen too, as it’s no secret people love what they know. Playing true to the album order is a surefire way to ignite a crowd of fans, especially if your last album came out three years ago and the new isn’t released until September.
Sure, Chromeo don’t add much to their sound in a live setting, but they were clearly having a boatload of fun. The enthusiastic audience, of course, ate it right up.
Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 3
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada
The last trimester is the toughest but most rewarding, or so we have heard. After nine days of seeing bands, even the absent uteruses of TMT’s two intrepid reporters are tired. We know, we know. No one wants to hear about the labor pains; they just want to read capsule reviews about the babies playing live shows. Or something like that. Anyway, here is our third and final roundup of Ottawa Cisco Bluesfest 2010. If you want even more coverage of the acts we saw and many that we didn’t, the organizers have loads of interviews and backstage coverage of many of the festival’s artists at this handy link.
Hollywood Minute…Spoiler Alert!
The battle of the Kevins — Bacon vs. Costner — concluded during the home stretch of Bluesfest, with Costner taking home the golden nothing for his show with his Modern West band. Costner might have won the battle but not the war, as K.C. and the Modern West delivered competent heartland roots music, but nothing that turned LeBreton Flats into a field of dreams.
Although not Tinseltown royalty, Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle has spent recent time away from his band to cavort around Sherwood Forest with pal Russell Crowe for the upcoming Robin Hood flick. Doyle’s main gig resides with GBS, however, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of popularity of the band is staggering considering their conservative take on trad-pop. Still, Great Big Sea know how to whip a crowd into a frothy mess, which is more than we can say about 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.
Time will tell if Drake returns to the acting stage. For he is no longer Degrassi’s Jimmy; he is Drizzy and surely enjoying all the star trappings that the role demands. This festival night, it means facing a shitload of mostly teenage, screaming females. Drake gave the girls what they wanted: a flirting, overtly sexed-up come on, leading to a feature performance of his monster hit “Best I Ever Had.”
It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to tell you that there are dozens of outfits up and down the Ottawa Valley playing the same down-home stew as Old Crow Medicine Show. Still, it is hard to fault a band laid bare at the front of the stage giving it their acoustic all. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is a mystery still not solved. Categorizing Perkins is tricky, but the band’s genuineness to each genre shone through, and showbiz family ties aside, there’s no novelty act at play here.
Islands are a novelty, but a decent one. It is hard to say if the band has lived up to its promise on record, but live the white-attired crew seems to put on a distinct and different show every time we’ve seen them, possibly due to Nick Thorburn’s penchant for mixing up lineups and the consequences that has on Islands’ tracks. On the other hand, could familiarity be breeding contempt as far as Stars are concerned? There is really nothing to dislike about Montreal’s charmers, but they rubbed against the grain with their Bluesfest show. It might have been our lack of enthusiasm for the many songs played from latest disc The Five Ghosts. It may be that Torquil Campbell’s showman schtick grows tiresome at times (we still looove Amy Millan though). It might have been the stinky, shirtless superfan standing nearby belting out every lyric at the top of his lungs…
Has Craig Finn always been such a diva? Wethinks The Hold Steady’s frontman used to actually play the guitar than simply have it hanging off his body while he acts out his whip-smart words, but that may have been the heat thinking. Regardless, Hold Steady’s set soothed all the right spots, as the band played through a long and lively set of favorites (“Hurricane J,” “Chips Ahoy!”, “Sequestered in Memphis,” Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” etc.).
Darting in between stages and shows, we caught glimpses of a well-attended gig by Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi, The Joe Krown Trio representing the more traditional end of the Bluesfest spectrum (and who ended with a fantastic Hammond-led rave up of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billy Joe”), suburban power poppers Hollerado, a pleasant but ultimately unobtrusive headlining concert by longtime faves Crowded House, great acoustic noodlery courtesy of Matt Andersen, high school heartache reminiscences from Matthew Good, and Marcia Ball & The Voise of the Wetland Allstars, who, as a multiple Grammy nominee with a stacked band of Louisiana veterans in tow, should have commanded a bigger audience and stage.
Speaking of veterans, Jimmy Cliff, rocked like a man half his age, playing a set of perrenial favorites like “Sitting in Limbo,” I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Rivers of Babylon.” But were we in the john during “The Harder They Come” or did Cliff not play his signature song? Devastating!
We’ll Meet Again We Know Where We Know When
Devastating is the only way to describe the sparsely-attended but spectacular tent show by Konono Nº1. Small crowd be damned! The extra space just gave those in attendance the nice opportunity to shake some of the rust off their undercarriages. Congolese thumb piano wizardry and fearsome unison singing and dancing collided at high speeds, and in 20-minute trance doses, sweeping everyone in sight up in a rhythmic wall of sound. We left elated but silently cursing ourselves for missing even a little bit of the beginning. Simply intoxicating.
Even early in the day, the big stage gives bands a leg up to play to bigger crowds; there is just much more space to gather, watch performers, and relax. Those wanting a breather while The Budos Band played would have no rest, for they were too busy giving themselves over to the irresistible sound of Latin jazz, 70s soundtracking, Fania, and funk grooves. It was blazing hot, but no one seemed to notice or care because Staten Island’s finest was at the top of its game.
Equally enthralling and entertaining were Blonde Redhead and The Gories. Sitting at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, both gave memorable performances. The Gories played under strange circumstances. Using a stand-in drummer when regular stickswoman Peggy O’Neill’s flight was delayed, Mick Collins and Dan Kroha relayed beat instructions between each song before joking that all their songs had the same beat anyway. No such makeshift decisions were required for Blonde Redhead, who lulled their dedicated drove into a near dream-like state with its blissful roar.
A lot has happened to both Weezer and us since we last met face to face. When The Blue Album was released, Weezer were a scrappy upstart. Now they are America’s Good Time Band. There’s not much of a debate to be had when discussing if Weezer’s albums have digressed since their first record, but one can’t argue the fact that the group is one of the more consistently great singles band around. So, along Blue Album chestnuts like “Say It Ain’t So,” “My Name Is Jonas,” and “Undone,” the large throng was treated to every other significant hit: “Hash Pipe,” “Dope Nose,” “Island in the Sun,” “El Scorcho,” “Pork and Beans,” and gonzo cock-rock set-closer “Beverly Hills.” When Weezer weren’t playing their own tunes, they took stabs at Metallica, MGMT, and Lady Gaga (with Rivers Cuomo in blonde wig). Commanding the stage, crowd, and any place he could fit (including, at one point, a garbage can on stage), Cuomo was in rare form, as was the whole band, amping up the fans mercilessly until the Bluesfest-closing finale of “Buddy Holly” was over.
It was a super-strong finish to a festival that seems, as unbelievable as this might read, to grow each year. On some nights, we witnessed more impressive mullets and cougars in the crowd than impressive bands on the stage, but each and every day was entertaining as all get out. Same time next year? You bet. Until then, we need home for a rest.
by David Nadelle and munroe
Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 2
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada
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.
“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!!!”
“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
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.
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.
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