Hype Williams / Gatekeeper / BODYGUARD / White Car
The Echoplex; Los Angeles, CA
An introduction: You know you’re in for a long night when you step outside for a drink and, immediately, hear the man in the suit jacket, vest, and Burzum shirt ask loudly, in good faith, “I’m not a hipster, am I?”
The short answer: Oh, fuck me.
+1: I took my fiancée with me. Although she was unfamiliar with the performing artists, she has a high tolerance, and sincere appreciation, for difficult music. And although she was exhausted, from both work and sleeplessness, she was excited to join me. I was excited to have her with me. I said, “I think you might enjoy this.” (I talked about James Ferraro, and I talked about Hype Williams.) Three bands in, she asked, “So, do people actually like this, or are they just supposed to like it?” During the show, she posted a status update: “I think the worst parts of the 1990s threw up on this venue.” On the ride home, she said, “It was just so empty.” “Insincere,” too.
Gratitude: I’m sure the promoter meant well, and I’m grateful for the spots on the guest list. However, I can’t imagine what those who paid for this might have thought. I’ll check Twitter later.
Drinks: Four whiskeys between the two of us. Not even a significant buzz, unfortunately.
The line-up: White Car, BODYGUARD, Gatekeeper, Hype Williams. In between sets, a DJ spun some records. I watched a girl sing along to one song in the light of her cell phone.
Words spoken from band members to audience: Zero. Unless you count middle-fingers and mocking gestures, which may or may not have been deserved.
WHITE CAR: My fiancée asked, “What am I watching?” Men, within the independent music realm, don’t have to try. Women have to try, but men do not have to try. Apparently, you can fiddle, on stage, with your sequencer, and process your David Byrne-wannabe vocals through a shitty delay pedal, and occasionally hit single keys on your synth, and get a pass. Thank your penis, guys. (Still, no one will dance to your trite, but very danceable music, because Los Angeles has magnified Portland’s up-ass-stick into infinity and stuck it up their own, into impossibly dark depths, and Burzum shirt non hipster and indoor sunglasses girl would rather be caught dead than moving to your music. They will still discuss their Record Store Day finds outside, though, while taking a drag from a blunt.)
Thesis: Los Angeles hates fun, or music, or both. It hasn’t always been the case, but all that is left, here, now, are late-twenty somethings and early-thirty somethings who still go to shows, on Tuesdays, at midnight, to stand around and look bored, or worse.
BODYGUARD: All that was on stage was a motorcycle (fuck the details) and some asshole Karate Kid’ing behind it, while “RAIN” played in the background. Twenty-five minutes of this. It was pointlessly hostile, and boring.
GATEKEEPER: A computer hidden behind a smokescreen playing danceable music that too few people danced to. It sounded like a cross between a Power Rangers fight scene and the Mortal Kombat theme. Even still, I couldn’t tell when their set ended and the DJ began spinning. Again.
HYPE WILLIAMS: This set was the least disappointing. It was dull, but it was Hype Williams-dull – which they have exploited toward incredibly interesting, and I daresay moving, ends. Not tonight, unfortunately. Before the band stood two women, bikini-clad and muscular, who flexed and posed throughout the duration of the show. I won’t patronize you by exploring their obvious function as critique. Hype Williams’ set more or less consisted of (apparent) improvisational noise. It was unremarkable. The music pulsated, deeply, through my body, but it left no impression more significant or lasting than my whiskey did. I watched part of the show through a cell-phone camera held above me; that was interesting.
Some guy: Some guy yelled for one of the women to “take off [her] shirt.” “Bikini top” is difficult to yell in a pinch. (He didn’t get the critique, obviously. Or maybe he was being ironic.)
Representative: The audience stood around, staring into the darkness of the empty stage, for a good five minutes after Hype Williams finished their set. Waiting. No encore.
Travel time: From Berlin to Los Angeles. From New York to Los Angeles. From Chicago to Los Angeles. For this? Really?
The ride home: It was better than the ride there. Into Los Angeles, we fought construction traffic, and I fought nasty heart palpitations, to make it, on time, to the Echoplex, to see a show I wanted to see for weeks. I was, if I can even admit this anymore, genuinely excited to see some artists I enjoy listening to, thinking through, and feeling through. Instead, we were given all of the above. As we got in my car to drive away, to complain to each other, and to find some consolation in the fact that we still openly feel excitement about music, about the reality of the generous show/performance, and most of all about each other, we turned on the radio, and there was Gotye, Nicki Minaj, Pitbull, Selena Gomez, and others, imbued with a new (however slight, however cynical) sense of value. I mean, at least their performances are sincerely pointless. Right?
Conclusion: I don’t know. I’m glad to be home, though.
Ty Segall / Mikal Cronin
East End; Portland, OR
I braved the bitter cold Friday evening for what looked to be a slap-happy throwdown anchored by a solo performance from the San Francisco Garage Rock Whiz Kid himself Mr. Ty Segall, he of the wavy strawberry locks and snotty stage demeanor, he of a couple very nice albums and a last name that either sounds like an ocean bird or an action hero depending on whom you ask. More on him in a jif.
The two local bands were fine: Still Caves, a drummer-singin’ scrumbucket of broke melody; and Cyclotron, all Big Star fronted by Darby Crash and way sassy. Speaking of Darby, it was my amigo that brought him up, and I realized this second wave of the ongoing garage revival really is more punk and glam-obliged than the first, less 1960s jangle, more 1970s scuzz. Fine by me. So do y’all know about Mikal Cronin? Seemed like most of the crowd was there for him, not the seagull, and who could blame them; dude’s rock action solos were serious, his band tighter than Christmas. The press predicts Cronin to have a huge 2012; I predict he covers the next Tiger Beat. I had to keep dodging an aggressive ponytail during Cronin’s set courtesy the girl in front of me, but no doubt she was lost in a moment of hunky guitarish wonder; so were we all.
Segall took the stage incredibly late, and I was oh-so-tired, but I stuck it out, most of it at least, a hot, drunken mess of fast-as-fuck solo jams and endearingly dilapidated cover songs (Sabbath, this James Gang tune, which I always thought was Zeppelin). “Everybody get high,” he not so much suggested as commanded, the crowd halfheartedly woo-hooing in response. So I decided to head home. Outside, I overheard a rather blasé fella talking to another. “I’ve been continuously disappointed by Ty,” he lamented. But who, I thought, is the young rock and roller trying to please, anyway?
tUnE-yArDs / Pat Jordache
Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA
While a handful of music critics and fans recognized her earliest potential, it only took a couple years and a sophomore release (2011’s w h o k i l l) before the buzz about Merrill Garbus’s solo project tUnE-yArDs became impossible to ignore. Being an East Bay local, I’ve taken much pride in witnessing each step of the band’s transition. Super-stoked on 2009’s BiRd-BrAiNs since her tour with Xiu Xiu, I couldn’t wait to hear what was next for the experimental, DIY soul-pop act. And though it’s easy to hate on a band or artist that hits big-time recognition relatively quickly — hell, she’s even getting nods of approval from Yoko Ono — if anyone deserves it, it’s this raw, talented, golden-throated, loop and uke-mastermind.
Being the last show of tUnE-yArDs and Montreal-based experimental pop act Pat Jordache’s tour, SF’s swanky open-spaced Regency Ballroom proved to be a more than fitting spot. Considering this was the night before Thanksgiving (or “Tofurkey Day,” as most of these bohemian San Franciscans attendants might prefer), a packed house was a modest surprise. Pat Jordache began his set promptly with a crew of three backing musicians — two percussionists doing their best auxiliary work à la Animal Collective’s Panda Bear stylings and one unquestionably skilled guitarist. With pedal-packed delay and the occasional pentatonic frills and trills, it’d be easy to mistake him for a disciple of Dave Longstreth. It wasn’t until Jordache, who pounded his way through a sharp repertoire of upbeat and occasionally dissonant tunes on bass, played a dead ringer for “Where the Streets Have No Name” did some of the guitarist’s delay-musings feel a tad too derivative.
Still, Jordache proved a friendly attitude, as he invited tUnE-yArDs onstage to accept a cake made in honor of appreciation. “We’re happy to have all our limbs intact,” Jordache mused, suggesting the tour must’ve been one to remember.
It’d been a while since I’d seen a performer completely own a crowd the way Garbus did when she finally stepped onstage. With an improvised intro of growls and looped a capella vocals, she sounded less like a woman and more like a force of fucking nature. The crowd responded in intense call-and-response: fists held high and outreached palms as if in prayer or spiritual acknowledgement. “This song will not continue until everyone’s mouth is open,” Garbus declared. The song not only continued but reached a peak of frenzy as the band busted into the opening moments of w h o k i l l standout “Gangsta.”
While some chose to dance, others chose to engage in some sort of pointing ritual whenever Garbus directed a drum stick at the audience — which she did a lot. While antics were certainly entertaining, the setlist stayed relatively within the bounds of w h o k i l l. “You Yes You” proved a strong groove between the outstanding bass work of Nate Brenner and Garbus’s stuttering ukulele strums; “Doorstep” felt just as doo-wop as it did politically relevant; “Es-So” bounced like no one’s business; “Powa” demonstrated a candid glimpse at raw sexuality yet without being perverse; and “Killa” held an almost bombastic cadence about womanhood and fierceness. Basically, an incredibly well-executed set of 80% from her sophomore sensation.
Still, the night’s highlight was the outstanding hit “Bizness.” An easy choice, perhaps. Like many, though, I can’t get over the seriously great live sax duo whose interweaving lines took the song to another level. It’s refreshing to hear how improvisation within such a finely tuned pop structure can do more than wonders. On the other hand, the band debuted a new song that felt more than a little flat to me. Set in a minor key, the spooky groove didn’t exactly go anywhere. “Someone recently asked me if I ever make any mistakes live,” Garbus said after a false start. “Now you know.”
Nevertheless, Garbus’ relentless experimentalism was the shining memory of the night. With aggressive vocal and percussion loops, seriously dissonant and precise ukulele accompaniment, the style of tUnE-yArDs is one of confrontation and complete invitation. Wielding her voice with deep expression and dynamics, the two encore songs of the night demonstrated this notion perfectly. Within the first few uke-plucks of “Fiya” (a song that gave Garbus some extra money needed to complete her last album via a Blackberry commercial), the crowd recognized such introspective lines as “When a girl feels so alone/ What a tease to throw a bone/ Should’ve just stayed at home” and “What if my own skin makes my skin crawl?” The brilliant part, however, is how such a small song can erupt into a frenzy of dance — only to be followed by final encore “My Country.” As balloons were released and practically everyone took to shaking up a leg, the lyrics of “My country ‘tis of thee” rang vaguely fitting to the national holiday soon to follow.
Crooked Fingers / Strand of Oaks
Mississippi Studios; Portland, OR
I had seen Tim Showalter perform as Strand of Oaks not three months ago; all by his lonesome, he’d managed to create something singular and revelatory. This time, he’d come armed with a full band, or almost full; no drummer, instead a machine whose volume sometimes threatened to overtake that of the three men on stage. There were instances, however, where it felt very much like a rock show. Showalter’s visage is one of stoner metal glory daze, and the music approached a soft sort of sludge. “These songs are sad as shit,” he deadpanned. “Deal with it.” It was indeed quite heartbreaking. Strand of Oaks’ medieval-meets-metapersonal sound is totally unique and captivating, and whatever record Showalter puts out next will probably be a doozy.
It was sad songs we’d come for, and Crooked Fingers delivered, Eric Bachmann himself having adopted the full-band practice for the current tour, the honey-throated Liz Durrett again accompanying him on vocals and guitar. I cannot express how utterly perfect their two voices sound together without resorting to some sort of inappropriate metaphor, so I will leave it at that. While this performance lacked the quiet magic that made Bachmann’s MFNW outing so truly special, the new band laid into some honest-to-gawd grooves. Forlorn white guy folk never sounded so hearty.
I don’t recall specific details due to being some beers deep, and I only took a couple notes because come on, I’ll remember, but I will say that Crooked Fingers is onto something good these days. If you don’t yet have it, please buy Breaks in the Armor for your health. It’s music made by a middle-aged former indie rock icon with the body of a linebacker, dagger-sharp music made by and for drinking and heartbreak, by and for Eric Bachmann and his head and heart and buddies. But it’s alright if you listen, too. And you probably should, because it’s pretty wonderful stuff.
Aladdin Theater; Portland, OR
“Shit, I had a bunch of dirty jokes I wanted to tell,” Mark Kozelek deadpanned upon seeing a child in the front row of the reverent mid-sized crowd at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. It is itself a venue that demands some reverence, an aged and atmospheric place ideal for intimate performances such as this one. Kozelek’s most recent outing as Sun Kil Moon, last year’s Admiral Fell Promises, was a chilly and cartographic affair that sent listeners across the physical and emotional distances of the American West and through the tangled recesses of its creator’s wry and yet tortured headspace.
For this show, Mark Kozelek was as warm as Mark Kozelek gets, which is to say he at least engaged the audience, if only to make fun of them. “It’s always the guys without dates who have the book,” he remarked, a shot at a timid concertgoer holding a copy of Kozelek’s Nights of Passed Over but also an edgy bit of subtle self-deprecation. It was a theme that resurfaced throughout the evening, in the lyrics of a new song (“Had a lot of female fans, and fuck they all were cute/ Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes”) and in other self-pitying barbs ostensibly directed at the crowd.
In between the good-natured (?) ribbing, Kozelek managed to play some songs; in fact, he worked impressively from his vast catalog, pulling from Red House Painters’ Old Ramon (“Cruiser”) and his consensus best-to-date, SKM’s Ghosts of the Great Highway (“Glenn Tipton”). He even did a Modest Mouse cover. It all sounded pretty great, but the performance, beset as it was by the disdain of the singer’s one-sided audience “interactions,” revealed that though Kozelek’s songs still traffic in the too-common human predicaments of alienation and heartbreak, he hasn’t yet discovered how to let his fans in.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Despite what its name might suggest, Vienna’s Arena is not really an arena in the traditional sense of the word. In reality, it’s a collection of a few concert halls, none particularly large, inside a heavily graffitied courtyard. The place feels like an overgrown punk/hardcore venue, sprawling beyond the tiny size typically allotted such a place and invading the surrounding buildings and yards. It’s an appropriate place to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a band whose idealistic punk roots sit uneasily beside their multi-instrumentalist grandeur and worldwide acclaim and audience — a punk ethos stretched out on a global scale, three chords reaching toward a symphonic infinity.
Opening was Colin Stetson, sometimes member of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, who brought an ensemble of various-sized saxophones out to produce his swirling, repetition-centered solo performance. His sound was surprisingly effective despite the large hall, with deep, full bass tones and twinkling half-melodies filling the space with a decidedly rich sound for a solo act. He was charmingly nervous in his brief between-song comments, dedicating a tune to his father and thanking the audience profusely for its time. With his combination of emotional directness and light experimentation, he was a fitting and engaging opening act, and was appropriately well received by the crowd.
And then Godspeed You! Black Emperor came onstage. They assembled slowly, patiently, in front of their now-fabled loop of 16mm film with the word “HOPE” scrawled directly onto each black frame; seeing the image in person for the first time was a decidedly emotional experience, setting the stage for a night charged with desperate despair and hope. Yet it also set the tone for a strange current of nostalgia running through the entire show, one that complicated the experience in ways the band’s powerfully uncomplicated sound did not — with no new material performed, the collective has now edged towards the sort of experience I imagine from, for example, a recent Pixies or My Bloody Valentine performance. There’s something about GY!BE live self-presentation and audio/visual aesthetics that allows them to shy away from the easy category of the “reunion show” — they always seemed too engaged with the world to ever let their sound live outside of its social time and place. It all added up to an occasionally thrilling and occasionally off-putting performance, at least for this dutiful TMT-er.
If we focus on the music on its own terms, the show was as deeply affecting and powerful as one could hope, at once meditative and visceral. Onstage, the collective was paired down to seven members. While still a huge presence by any other band’s standards, this was enough to render their sound more direct and immediate, bringing the sound closer to that of a guitar-centered punk band — again — despite the group’s lush sound and patient approach, it was impossible to keep the halfway-punk aspect of it all out of mind. With the band leaning particularly hard on their taut, relentless, near-martial rhythm section for nearly the entirety of the performance with only brief moments of rest, the whole show took on the feel of dirt-simple punk song stretching into ambience by sheer force of will and duration, the power of a minor chord redoubled endlessly through repetition. There’s also something wonderful about audience members cheering for spoken-word samples employed in their pieces — lacking breaks between songs, the audience latched onto these now-familiar recordings of street people, preachers, and others as moments of recognition, clapping for each in term. Ambiguous but always heartfelt in their content, they placed the audience in an unusual but powerful place, grasping onto the voice as a moment of definition in the swirling mix of misery and hope.
The collective pulled pieces from their full discography, though in a move that seemed to hold to their uncomfortable relationship with fame, they avoided “East Hastings,” the one song that brought them closest to truly mainstream recognition with its prime placement in 28 Days Later. Among the wealth of material they did play, in a show that stretched to about two hours, it wasn’t missed. The band played beautifully, and when they walked off-stage without an encore, it felt appropriate. The mixture of careful restraint and widescreen scale, of obscurantist stand-offishness and popular appeal, has always been at the center of their identity. Taken along with a sound that merged a static sense of nostalgia with a rawer sound and sense of immediacy, it was a night of blunt, powerful emotion carrying more complicated, sometimes uncomfortable undercurrents. Which, in the case of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, isn’t a bad thing.
Deerhoof / Ben Butler & Mousepad / Fred Frith / Phillip Greenlief Duo
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA
Few groups can get away with an album title as brazen as Our Band Vs. Evil. But when 16-year veteran avant-pop, indie-superheroes Deerhoof play a record-release show for an album with such a name, the band isn’t simply out to spar with said Evil. They mean to fucking conquer it.
But before the Super Friends foursome would demonstrate how to slay wickedness with dissonant-consonant hooks, stadium-ready power chord-chugging, and over-the-barline drum fills, the night would begin with a musical veteran of a slightly different variety (and an even longer-stretching history). Although I’d seen opener Fred Frith — Oakland-based Mills College Professor and guitarist/composer/improviser extraordinaire — recently at a bar across the street from my house, his duo set with SF-saxophonist Phillip Greenlief was assuredly distinct. Navigating drone-meditations with thoughtful intention, the two men carefully move from subtlety into dynamic peak after peak. The entire performance, however, remains relatively self-contained. Filling in for Deerhoof side project Nervous Cop — due to a broken-footed Zach Hill — Frith and Greenlief’s improv-ready set made perfect sense for such a last-minute addition. Still, my “favorite” moments occurred when unknowingly disrespectful crowd-members talked through the performance and continually misplaced instances of applause. “Wait,” I overhear someone say, “They’re still going?” Yes. Yes, they are.
But if anybody got the raw end of the crowd’s stick, it was German and Scottish based duo Ben Butler & Mousepad. When Butler encourages the crowd that “this is dance music. It’s okay to move your body!” I’ve rarely seen so many self-conscious folks afraid to shake it. Butler is a Korg-splattering virtuoso while his drummer-in-arms lays it down over glitchy beatronics à la NES’s Ninja Turtles 2. After ending things with an accelerando of epic proportions, the band withholds a final cymbal crash in favor of toying with the crowd’s expectations.
By the time Deerhoof steps onstage, the sold-out crowd is treated to a strangely amusing sight: pint-sized singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, duo-guitarists John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, and drummer/spokesperson Greg Saunier all wearing tiny masquerade masks. As if we didn’t already recognize these folks — which is probably the joke. Dieterich and Rodriguez waste little time jumping into descending guitarmony intro to “Dummy Discards a Heart,” off 2003’s now-classic Apple O. “Play to the Queen of Heart,” Matsuzaki chirps in between blasts of feedback and distortion, “Sing to the one you love the best!” It’s only fitting a band that’s been “playing” and “singing” as long as Deerhoof have should open with such an anthem.
While the rollicking, dynamic-extremes of “Milk Man” is a technical-drummer’s wet dream, I’m struck by the guitar interplay between Dieterich and Rodriguez. These two have been jamming with each other long before Deerhoof and anyone can see how well they mesh. Along with a fair share of intersecting lines, the two sound like one huge impossible guitar. Dieterich — rocking a 12-string electric throughout — not only added an unusual timbre to familiar tunes but, what with the extra-octaves, gave the impression of an even greater, three-man guitar of sorts.
Although billed as an album-release show, it’s funny how rarely the band members mention the latest record. Instead, drummer Greg Saunier opted for comical moments of non-sequitors and awkward interlude banter. But even if Deerhoof didn’t talk-up their latest much, they weren’t afraid to rock the new material live. In fact, the most inspired moments of the set occurred during new tunes like “The Merry Barracks” and encore-ready “I Did Crimes for You.” The latter’s interlocking guitars suspended and drove home one of the most powerful, deceptive cadences I can ever remember. Other new ones (“Almost Everyone, Almost Always” and “Must Fight Current”) saw Saunier assuming guitar duties and Dieterich taking on vocals and drums, respectively — with quite good results.
Of course, by the night’s end, no one can deny the Vs. Evil highlight “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” With a relentlessly hooky keyboard intro and thumping, descending bass line, it’s the most un-Deerhoof pop song the band’s ever written. The term “un-Deerhoof,” however, clearly is a misnombre. There’s no sound, hook, or idea these individuals are afraid to explore. So I suppose when Matsuzaki yelps, “Me to the rescue!” and then later, “You to the rescue!”, it’s not as if they view themselves as the only superheroes in the room. Maybe by becoming a listener who’s willing to explore new sounds, regardless of initial comfort, we can learn how to fucking conquer evil too. Or at least fall in love with music for another 16 years.
Zs / Arrington de Dionyso / Moe! Staiano / Rats
The Smell; Los Angeles
LA’s three piece Rats opened this $5-for-5-shows extravaganza (just another day at The Smell)… With Jonathan Silberman (tenor sax) flanked by Kelly Kawar (bass) and Eric Kiernowski (baritone guitar), Rats made mathy, jazzy music that evoked late 1990s Thrill Jockey. Complex as fuck, but easy enough to digest to be a really effective opener even for people (like me) who’ve never heard them before, I hope these guys get big so that people will think of something besides Best Coast when they think of LA.
If Moe! Staiano is at all representative, experimental percussion might be the best of the avant-arts for the ADD-afflicted. He plays fast and tight as fuck, and never seems to keep the same pattern for more than a few measures. He plays so fast that he can play a guitar with his drumsticks in between hitting his drums. And when he gets tired of doing that, he can play the guitar by hitting a metal bat that he rests on his snare, whose other end is resting on the guitar. And when he gets tired of doing that, he lifts the guitar off the stand and drags it around on The Smell’s concrete floor to play it. And then to get the dirt off, he shoves the thing under the rotating brushes of an industrial-quality shoe-polishing machine, which is both badass and creates a pretty hum. Also, Moe! Staiano has found the best use for vibrators since using them on women, employing egg-shaped bullet vibrators (the expensive kind that have multiple speed/pattern settings) to “excite” the “heads” of his drums when he was too busy “playing” with other stuff. And, for a finale, he unspools a big roll of industrial-sized plastic wrap around several members of the audience. Good thing, too: With a performance this exciting, it’s always good to use a dental dam.
Arrington de Dionyso
How many different things can you make sounds like a didgeridoo? That was the question of the night for Arrington de Dionyso, whose improvised performance focused on the power of breath and voice. Meditative and ritualistic, this performance was much different than his excellent, foot-stomping 2009 album Malaikat dan Singa, but it wasn’t hard to see connections between the two. Sitting on the floor, his set opened with a long piece of throat (or processed) singing accompanied by a lone little snare propped up on its side a few feet away from him, “played” by the droning amp that projected onto it. Though simple and tiny, the self-playing drum felt powerful and primal, a miniature idol that had become animated through the audience’s attention. Or de Dionyso’s voice: impressively deep, seemingly wordless, the texture of rich loam. After the first piece, which seemed to go on forever (in the best possible sense), de Dionyso turned the snare off and, in sequence, used objects – some that just happened to be within his reach – to manipulate his voice: a metal water bottle, part of a saxophone, a rubber band. These short experiments didn’t make me forget everything else in the room like his opener, but it’s still good to see that a little magic can be squeezed out of whatever happens to be at hand.
Saxophonist Sam Hillmer’s head looked like it might pop he was blowing so hard. It was like watching a silent movie of a guy playing a saxophone, but shown in an art-house cinema so there’s live accompaniment of a new score by an experimental noise band.
Which is fitting; Zs were on tour performing material from their upcoming album, New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion!, a collection of remixes of material from New Slaves by folks like Ecstatic Sunshine, Cex, JG Thirlwell, and the Rapture’s Gabe Andruzzi. The upcoming album’s title puts it on sequel footing with New Slaves, but the performance put it on equal: live arrangements (or re-arrangements) of remixed tracks. In these remixes of remixes, you could only occasionally hear echoes of the originals from the band, now paired down to just a duo of saxophone and electronics. The result is murkier and more atmospheric than New Slaves, more chaotic yet less frantic. Towards the end of the set, there’s a big change; recognizable chords form, there’s a beat you might bob to. It sounded like club music. Finally, I thought, something sounds like a remix, and a catchy one at that. And just like that, it fades out. Set over.
I talked to Hillmer after the show for a minute, and he explained a little bit about the new album and the material they played. I mentioned the set’s ending. “That really sounded different,” I said. “You could really tell it was a remix there.”
“The ending?” he said. “That wasn’t a remix. That was Beyonce.”
Vacation Vinyl; Los Angeles
I’ve always thought of in-store performances as mere supplements to “real” shows. Maybe it’s because they’re usually short. Maybe it’s that they’re free, so I never feel the need to commit myself like I do when I’ve forked over lots of cash. Maybe it’s the lack of stage and formalities. They might be fine for intimate acoustic performances, where the situation’s awkwardness complements the music, but surely they’re not for the technically and compositionally ambitious.
Well. After seeing Dustin Wong play at Vacation Vinyl in Los Angeles’s Sunset Junction, I’ll have to rethink my philosophy.
Vacation’s a tiny store, with only four rows of well-selected vinyl and two aisles for the audience to cluster in. Dustin delineated his performance space with a semi-circle of eight colored pedals and boxes (just like the cover art from Infinite Love) linked by wires. For the small space, it was a perfect stage, setting the performer apart from us symbolically, but without the ego of something less purely functional. I mean, the pedals were there for him to stomp on, tap and twiddle — not to be a stage. Even a chalk line wouldn’t have worked so well, because it would have been trying too hard.
The semi-circle of gently tethered islands of metal could also be a pretty good sculptural stand-in for the music that was coming out of Wong’s amp — staccato notes linked together by his impressive knack for melody, cold and slight units that were spun into a warm, seemingly massive whole. Wong sat, looking down at his semi-circle or closing his eyes in concentration and/or contentment. But in such a close setting, his fingers’ graceful gliding over his Fender’s frets was entrancing. And, thanks to the magic of live loops (done better than any I’d seen) and fx pedals, there was more going on sonically than at most shows with full bands: melodies upon melodies like on Infinite Love, but often with a wider, wilder palette of sounds.
After 45 minutes of transforming a little record store into another world with just looped guitar, Wong sat up straight and sang a series of wordless tones straight into the air. The physicality and vulnerability of an unprocessed human voice transported me back to the record crates I was leaning against and the audience that was standing around me, slowly dispelling the illusion.
I talked to Wong after the show and asked about his performance the previous night at The Smell. He told me that his amp had broken, and he had to use a tiny, borrowed amp that might have been too small for the venue, which wasn’t that big itself. This show might have been better, he said.
[Photo: Joyce Kim]
Guided By Voices / Blitzen Trapper
The Trocadero; Philadelphia, PA
“So, how old are they?” Keith asked as I hunted through my iPod for some of the more obscure early Guided By Voices songs I thought we might hear that night. “Old,” I replied. “Put it this way: When they come out on stage, the first thing you’re going to think is ‘Wow, those guys are old.’ ” Keith laughed as “The Hard Way,” off Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, began to fill the room. “But that’s always been part of their charm,” I continued. “Bob has never looked like he belonged onstage. The fact that some of greatest pop songs ever written came from this guy, who looks like he could be your uncle, make them that much more fun.”
Being the devoted member to the cult of Uncle Bob that I am, I took the responsibility of leading my friend, one of the more dedicated music nerds I know, on a GBV crash course. His knowledge covered the band’s best four albums — Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars — which were made (in that order) with the “classic” lineup. The same lineup we’ll be seeing tonight: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell. After a few hours of educational listening to the ridiculously extensive GBV catalog, we shut off the music and stood up to leave. “I can’t believe he wrote all those songs,” Keith said.
Because of my paranoia/excitement, we bought the first tickets sold (literally numbers 1 and 2) months ago when sales first opened. Accordingly, we now walked to Philly’s Trocadero to be among the first to wait in line, trying to set ourselves up for a spot at the front of the stage. “I do not give a shit about my dignity; I will sprint if I have to,” I informed my pal. After all, this was GBV’s penultimate tour date and perhaps their penultimate gig ever. Not being able to see them before their farewell gig on Dec. 31, 2004, I was leaving nothing to chance.
Outside the club, there were many people trying to find tickets. Asking around next to us in line were two kids from Toronto. It was an 8-hour bus ride, they only had one ticket for the two of them, they were both 19 at a 21-and-up show, and they had nowhere to sleep until their bus left at 9 the next morning. Suddenly I considered myself a lot less hardcore. The four of us chatted as the line grew. A realization led me to interrupt the conversation, “Oh shit! I forgot I have to write a review of this show!” A few jokes at my expense later, our friends from the Great White North had to leave us to scavenge for their needed ticket.
The rush was not as desperate as I expected when the doors opened, and soon we parked in front of the stage, nestled between Bob and Toby’s mic stands. The ubiquitous neon sign bearing the refrain from “A Salty Salute” hung above the drum kit, yet to be lit: “The club is open.” The first few chants of “GBV! GBV!” rang out as people slowly filled the room. Blitzen Trapper went on soon after we were let in, and while the crowd enjoyed the songs, everyone’s anxious eyes fixed upon the unlit sign, anticipating the main event.
The band soon left and the GBV chants ebbed and flowed over the house music as the roadies reset the stage. Laughs and hoots resounded when the token cooler of beer was brought out and placed next to the drums. Once set, the stage stayed empty for what seemed an eternity. Then, at last, we erupted in delirious cheers as the sign’s blue-and-orange light blazed through the blackness. The club was open.
Ohio’s favorite sons climbed the steps stage-right and emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke to greet us. Demos sported his (in)famous red-white-and-blue-striped pants, a frilly tuxedo shirt, and a vest. Mitchell featured an anarchy-symbol T-shirt and ever-present cigarette. Sprout’s khakis and polo shirt made him resemble your father’s golfing buddy. Pollard brought up the rear with silver hair haloed by the lights and a bottle of Jose Cuervo, three-quarters full, clenched in his fist.
Keith turned to yell in my ear and fulfill my prediction: “Wow, they are old.” I nodded and shouted back, “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter.” The band quickly confirmed my statement, wasting no time to blast into “Pimple Zoo,” the 40-second chorus-bridge-chorus classic from Alien Lanes. The crowd matched Pollard’s every note, shouting as he sang – “Sometimes I get the feeling that you don’t want me around!” The rhythmically playful Grand Hour cut “Break Even” followed, then the bizarre favorite “Matter Eater Lad.” The audience continued its enthusiastic singing, seemingly everyone knowing all the lyrics to even these lesser-known EP tracks. “Yeah, he’s mad! He’s Matter Eater Lad!”
The Fading Captain did not appear to be fading at all as he preened for his fan-boys and -girls and did his usual hop-on-one-foot dance. The jumps and microphone twirling were just as frequent and crisp. His trademark head-level kicks on cymbal crashes were just as high, if not higher, as Bob appeared to have lost a little weight since the early 2000s.
Keith tapped my shoulder and pointed behind us during a break between songs. “Check it out! They made it in!” I turned to see both our Canadian friends from the line. We smiled at each other and I gave them a nod of congratulations. I’m not sure what they had to do for that second ticket; I just hope it didn’t involve a nearby dark alley.
The already buzzing crowd exploded as fan favorites “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Cut-Out Witch” came next. The chorus to “Tractor Rape Chain” was a full-throat sing-along, with us handily matching Pollard’s PA in volume. The pregnant pause after the opening section of “Cut-Out Witch” was dutifully punctuated by the crowd screaming “Two! Three! Four!” in perfect unison before the guitars and drums kicked back to speed. I daydreamed of doing that for years. In my excitement at seizing the moment, my yelps may have weirded out some nearby fans, but I didn’t care.
Pollard and Sprout were a little out-of-sync at the start of the softer “Bright Paper Werewolves,” with Bob singing about a beat too fast. It was not clear whether the frequent belts of tequila and beer were to blame, or if he just misheard the chords. However, the duo quickly righted the ship in time for the tune’s wonderful coda.
Sprout took his turn on vocals for “A Good Flying Bird,” as Bob sat back on the drum stand and covered the harmonies, capitalizing on the respite by replenishing himself with more Miller Lite. This routine was repeated for most of Sprout’s songs, such as “Gleemer” and “Awful Bliss.” Following the latter, Pollard rose to join him for the touching Propeller stand-out “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” Most GBV fans bemoan the band’s loss of Toby and the other “classic lineup” members during 1996. They maintain that, while the post-’96 albums are good, nothing compares to when Pollard and Sprout were pushing each other. Whatever caused the falling-out appears to be water under the bridge at this point. Seeing the two creative forces together again, singing their sweetest co-penned song, provided one of the evening’s most poignant moments.
The bass-driven “Lethargy” and “Large-Hearted Boy” re-energized the audience and gave Demos a chance to flaunt and pose. The floor was particularly raucous, bordering on mosh-pit levels. Everyone smooshed together, pitching and heaving, with a sea of fists pumping in the air. Anything with a good, steady beat inspired people to hop up and down. Being packed as we were, songs such as “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Closer You Are,” “Quality of Armor,” and especially “Game of Pricks” and “Exit Flagger,” turned us into a giant, sweaty dry-hump party.
The set closed with a trio of popular tracks: the rumbling “Motor Away,” the anthemic “A Salty Salute,” and the jangle-pop classic “Echos Myron.” Pollard milked the Philly crowd before the song, pointing out that the tune contained a nod to their city: “Echos Myron, like a siren, with endurance like the Liberty Bell.” He went on to thank the city, saying Philly and New York were the first big cities to “accept GBV into your hearts.” Keith, myself, and the crowd showed our appreciation on another particularly appropriate line in the song, shouting, “We’re finally here and shit yeah it’s cool!”
The five members laid down their instruments and, considering the amount of alcohol consumed, headed off for what had to be a massive pee break. Both band and crowd knew there would be compulsory encores, the “good nights” and “thank-yous” nothing more than theater. The GBV chants began just as soon as they stepped off stage. The crew re-emerged later, minus Pollard, and started back up with Mitchell taking over vocal duties for “Postal Blowfish.” Pollard then returned from his extended break, his shirt soaked through with sweat. The lesser-known “Hey Aardvark” and “Some Drilling Implied” sandwiched Bee Thousand favorite “Smothered in Hugs,” as the crowd tried to soak up the dwindling time.
The band made another exit, but the neon sign still shone. Minutes of cheering were rewarded again, and the fivesome returned. Another track from the more obscure side of the catalog, “Dodging Invisible Rays,” restarted the party. The well-known “My Son Cool” followed, its thunderous first chord bursting through the amps as Pollard yelled the opening lines, “Deciiiiide now!” Next up was “Don’t Stop Now,” the song Pollard fondly refers to as “the ballad of Guided By Voices.” It’s a great song, and it was a great rendition, but I was worried. When GBV said farewell in 2004, it was the last song they played. Would it mark the end here, too? The audience willfully ignored this possibility, again singing every word, particularly loud at the lines “We pulled into Economy Island, King Shit and the Golden Boys.”
Afterward, the band said good night for the third time. Shaking hands with fans on his way off-stage, Mitchell heard the guy next to me ask for a beer. He promptly returned to the cooler then handed the fan a beer. Jealous fans nearby then heard Mitchell’s simple explanation for the gift: “He asked.” The stage was empty again, but now there was desperation. We thought we might have to work hard for another encore. The GBV chants rose again. We made noise. As much as we could. The sign still burned. Eventually, the band returned to the cheers of their happily exhausted fans. Pollard’s bottle of tequila was now half-empty, and as he returned to his post he handed the bottle to a fan, saying “Here, pass that around.” It was gone in less than a minute. The guy next to me who got the beer screamed for “Johnny Appleseed,” and as luck would have it, the song began. Pollard went up an octave to exclaim “I’m first lieutenant to you, I am Johnny Appleseed!” and the crowd swayed contentedly to the cooed refrain “Sooo cherry.” Next was the two-and-a-half-minute tour-de-force “Weed King.”
The serene start belies the middle section’s Bolero-esque build to a bombastic finish. Pollard plays it beautifully, bellowing as the fireworks begin, “And watch colored lights shine down, dancing ‘round the lady’s face!” We summoned up what little energy we had left to sing and pump our fists. The song drew to a close and the band shook hands with the crowd again as they made their triumphant retreat. Just as before, we were determined not to let it end.
We stomped feet and clapped hands. We whistled and hollered. Keith and I pounded our hands on the stage. Was a fourth possible? … Then the simultaneous groan of the 1,200-or-so present filled the air. The sign was extinguished.
As the dazed crowd slowly dispersed, I looked at Keith, exhausted. “I’m covered in sweat and I don’t think any of it is mine.” Our Canadian friends spied us and shuffled over, clothes drenched and smiling wide. “How the hell are you going to review that?” they asked.
I shook my head and gave a tired laugh, “I don’t know.”
1. Pimple Zoo
2. Break Even
3. Matter Eater Lad
4. Tractor Rape Chain
5. Cut-Out Witch
6. Shocker in Gloomtown
7. Bright Paper Werewolves
8. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
9. A Good Flying Bird
10. Striped White Jets
11. Exit Flagger
12. Closer You Are
13. My Valuable Hunting Knife
14. Awful Bliss
15. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
17. Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
18. My Impression Now
19. Hot Freaks
20. Watch Me Jumpstart
21. Gold Star for Robot Boy
22. Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)
23. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
24. Game of Pricks
25. I Am A Scientist
26. Queen of Cans and Jars
27. Quality of Armor
28. Motor Away
29. A Salty Salute
30. Echos Myron
1. Postal Blowfish
2. Hey Aardvark
3. Smothered in Hugs
4. Some Drilling Implied
1. Dodging Invisible Rays
2. My Son Cool
3. Don’t Stop Now
1. Johnny Appleseed
2. Weed King