Renegade Halloween: Real Estate with Dominant Legs, Young Prisms, Weekend, Magic Bullets, Melted Toys
The Common; San Francisco, CA
Halloween usually brings out the worst in people — streets filled with broken glass, drug-gluttons partying far beyond their means, and chicks squeezing into outfits Jabba the Hutt would find immodest. But occasionally, it’s also a great excuse to host a slew of talked-up bands, spread word-of-mouth invitations, and facilitate rumored guest appearances all in the name of said holiday. With this in mind, I attended San Francisco’s “secret” Renegade Halloween party on Saturday night. Hosted by such taste-makers/labels as Yours Truly, Underwater Peoples, and Blood Drank Magazine, I knew I’d be getting my lo-fi fix. It turned out to be a night filled with seven bands, unlimited free booze, and a 4 AM denouement; what a fix it was.
This isn’t to say this kind of sensory (and alcoholic) overload goes completely without consequence. Dressed as my favorite character from my favorite 90s movie of all time — the single-scene appearing, panama hat-wearing, shaving cream-touting bagman Dodgson from Jurassic Park — I doubt I was the only costumer less than enthused with the poor sound quality for most of the acts. Were the bizarre acoustics of The Common to blame? It’s hard to say. Basically, shit was loud… really loud. Decibel-wise, it’s not that all the groups were completely indecipherable from one another — SF’s mime-wearing, Smiths-/Cure-alike Magic Bullets brought a welcome charisma along with cranked-up pop musings. But for another SF band I’d heard a good deal of buzz about — Young Prisms — the peaked volume and the hypnotic rhythms resulted in dizziness rather than entrancement. In a different context I might’ve enjoyed the psych-out, but what with all the free booze, I had to sit down.
An early regret was missing the full set of one-man, LA-based opener Speculator. Catching his final tune, which sounded ultra-murky yet surprisingly pleasant, I was later reminded of a TMT interview he did last March. Meeting the singer, who informed me of his respect for music mags that hate on artists and that his Ecstasy still hadn’t worn off, it probably could’ve been less of a vibe-out. Still, a party is a party, and few bands understood this better than locals Dominant Legs. Bringing the funk with well-calculated, strummed seventh chords, it was nice to hear a steady groove instead of wave upon wave of reverb. As Melted Toys singer, briefly flustered onstage, put it earlier: “I used to think it wasn’t possible to have too much reverb. Guess I was wrong.”
And maybe that’s another contributing factor to the groups who melded together into indistinguishability. For example, as much as I dug Slumberland-signed Weekend’s heavy, swirling sounds, the trio’s tunes weren’t exactly enhanced by the thick coat of echo. It’d be easy to quip, “Oh, you’re just not sophisticated enough to know the difference.” And maybe there’s some truth there. But, hell, I know what guitars and vocals can sound like when they’re not completely buried beneath reverb and chorus. And if there’s a perfect example of what happens when effects compliment rather than befuddle, it was seen in headlining act, New Jersey natives Real Estate.
As iPhone clocks were striking 3:30 AM before the Deerhunter-tourmates finally hit the stage, rumors concerning an Atlas Sound appearance had all but dissipated and the best costumers (Tim & Eric Awesome Show’s The Snuggler, Mia Farrow of Rosemary’s Baby, etc.) including San Francisco darlings Girls, had all but split. Nevertheless, Real Estate brought an incredibly welcome change of atmosphere. As if everyone in the crowd momentarily forgot what crystal-clear vocals and solid, intricate musicianship sounded like, the Woodsist-label group weren’t afraid to remind us. With a punctuated, rhythmic gallop and woozy twang, selections off their most recent self-titled album had a special feeling of urgency. Or maybe, in light of the endurance-testing program, the band was eager to keep things short and sweet. Either way, standout “Fake Blues” — a folk-rock tune in the same way Pavement’s “Folk Jam” is a folk-rock tune — never sounded so immediate and ultra-catchy. The solid bass playing of Alex Bleeker (and The Freaks) and complimentary guitar riffing by Matt Mondanile (Ducktails) shouldn’t go unnoticed.
As Real Estate ended the relatively short set with quick instrumental “Atlantic City,” not only did I wish it wasn’t 4 AM, but that my eardrums, in at least some small capacity, still existed. Regardless, I was thankful to spend Halloween eve filled with loud, but worthwhile bands and relatively friendly folks. And even if Halloween brings out the worst in people — thanks, whoever popped my tires! — there’s also something to be said for seeing another dressed in an equally bizarre costume as you. Me: “Wait, you’re Sharon Tate from the Manson Murder?!” Person: “Yeah. Too soon?”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion / Thee Oh Sees
Bimbo's 365; San Francisco, CA
Before I could even begin the process of rocking into oblivion, I had to first overcome the atmosphere of stuffy class at Bimbo’s 365. It is positively mind-boggling to balance pricey $6 bottles of Budweiser with the frantic garage sound of Thee Oh Sees, which is exactly how I was inundated within the first 10 minutes of arrival. Bimbo’s is arranged like a club from gangster cinema, and although the prospect of sitting near the rear in a booth by a circular table while admiring red velvet was slight, it didn’t keep me away from the stage. Although somewhat late, I arrived with enough time to confirm that Thee Oh Sees live experience is the equivalent of a chihuahua, born during the Truman years, on steroids with a guitar. Jon Dwyer’s yips and high-pitched, fuzzed-out vocals flooded the room and deafened me. But ultimately, I was there to see The Blues Explosion, and although my respect for Thee Oh Sees wanes and waxes, it will never compare to my feelings for Jon Spencer’s outfit.
So with much excitement and a push towards the front of the stage, I needed no breath when it came time to react to the initial notes of the Blues Explosion. 1994’s Orange essentially prevented me from being too overtaken by the grunge movement, reminding me that in an age of flannel rock there could still exist a sound between the blues and punk that wasn’t either. Being my first opportunity to see the trio at work, I wasn’t let down for a moment. They didn’t let up either — the songs bled together as my ears bled from the relentless volume. That includes some incredibly well-timed bass explosions from the kick, an effect I attribute to an out-of-house soundman brought in specifically for the Blues Explosion. I also realized that a band such as the Blues Explosion needs nary a second of banter, for the repartee is already cemented into the structure and lyrics of the song.
“THANK YOU VERY MUCH LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, RIGHT NOW I GOT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE FABULOUS, MOST GROOVY, BELLBOTTOMS!”
Although Jon Spencer is clearly the focal point of the band and the lead sweathog, seeing the group in a live context made me realize two things. First, Judah Bauer is truly responsible for the amazing tone and richness behind the band’s guitar solos and melodies. Second, Russell Simins plays drums the hard way — with little filler or flair, but fast as hell and on-point. Some of the songs are almost exclusively rooted in the snare and kick, with only an occasional hi-hat or crash cymbal to punctuate an entire verse. From that simple approach, a visceral lather of sexiness is applied to a crowd that becomes putty in the hands of these masters.
[Photo: Danielle St Laurent]
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA
So, this is where it all started?
It’s impossible not to ask such a question when you’re staring at enormous photos of Ken Kesey and The Dead, iconic sparkling chandeliers, and, literally, hundreds of astonishingly trippy concert posters of significant 60s musical artists at San Francisco’s historical Fillmore Auditorium. Obviously my first time at the venue, I can’t stop walking around the polished wood floor, imagining all the crazy shit that took place over the years. And yet, knowing I’m about to witness one of the most quintessential bands of my generation, I wouldn’t trade this moment for that of any Fillmore hippie — present or past.
Upstairs, amid the enormous pastiche of Joplin, Airplane, and Hendrix memorabilia, sits a fat, white-bearded old man plunking on drums and howl-chanting into a reverb-soaked mic. He’s backed by a mad-scientist character who feverishly cranks knobs, detuning his Korg while an electric bassist scratches out the melody to “Shortin’ Bread.” It’s like some bizarre, psychedelic ghosting ritual.
It isn’t long before 19-year-old Floridian ghetto-star rapper Dominique Young Unique — quite possibly the most in-your-face, confrontational opener I’ve ever seen — takes the stage in full command. With a skirt shorter than William Henry Harrison’s presidency, flawlessly “good hair” tosses, and ultra-dirty, near-unspeakable lyrics, Ms. Unique not only loosens up the crowd in a major way but drops some seriously killer rhymes. “What about me, Miss Unique!?” she hollers over a heavy flux-groove. I seriously doubt I’m the only one thinking, “Who, me?! I didn’t say shit about you, Ms. Unique! I swear! I didn’t say shit!”
The atmosphere is a beautiful combination of humor (“Did she really just say ‘pussy-popping?’ “), awkwardness (“Dude, she just started that entire song over because people didn’t clap on the outro!”), and, most significantly, admiration (“I don’t know what this is, but it’s fun as hell and she’s amazing at it”). Backed by a Macbook-wielding beat-maker and a German keyboardist named Yann — a talented headbanger who’d be right at home with Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem — Unique ends her gutsy set on a short-and-sweet note. “If you’re not feeling it, y’all can go home!” she says as most of us laugh and cheer in response. It’s a funny thing to say, and not only because Dirty Projectors have yet to perform. In light of her ferocious stage presence, well-crafted grooves, and razor-sharp rap flows, it’s clear nearly everyone was feeling it. “Just playin”,” Unique says with a well-earned smile.
When bandleader/vocalist/singer/composer/guitarist/genius Dave Longstreth comes out with his all-white, left-handed Strat behind a purple haze — sorry — of lights, I feel momentarily corny because old Jimi — who stood in that very spot numerous times — springs to mind. But as Longstreth proceeds to tear the ever-loving shit out of his guitar on Getty Address-ed set-opener “I Will Truck,” I’m really not too far off-base. In simple terms, I don’t recall hearing a group so tight, in-the-pocket, and incredibly captivating. When “No Intention” hits with its hip-hop-paced march, chiming guitar hammer-ons and parallel fifths, I can’t stop repeating: “Goddamn. Goddamn. Goddamn.”
Covering all 10 tracks off last year’s astoundingly good Bitte Orca, the Projectors also dip into past favorites like New Attitude EP’s “Fucked for Life” and “Imagine It,” the latter being a tried-and-true demonstration of the band’s diverse talents. For example, while many props are given to female guitar slingers Marnie Stern and Khaki King, I attest Amber Coffman not only has a better voice than the two, but can hold her own on 21-frets at the same time. Just watching her keep pace with Longstreth’s mind-jumbled, spiraling guitar phrases on “Imagine It” and others is more than adequate proof. Aside from astonishing instrumental prowess — Longstreth’s unconventional, inspired solos, gifted bassist Nat Baldwin’s vacuum-sealed hookup with drummer Brian McOmber, etc. — the three-parts female, one-part male vocal harmonies of Dirty Projectors are, possibly, the band’s most identifiable trademark.
During no moment is this more clear than on encore “Remade Horizon” ‘s ping-pong female-vocal acrobatics. Echoing Longstreth’s call-and-response, serpentine guitar line, keyboardist Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle, and Coffman sculpt harmonies so irregular I swear it’s the work of illusion. After a raucous rendition of David Byrne-collaborated “Knotty Pine” — acoustic guitar flails making up for any lack of Talking or Head — the band showcases Deradoorian on the lyrically Nico-esque (à la “These Days” ‘s “Don’t remind me of my failures”) tune “Two Doves.” Surprisingly, an ill-placed capo makes the acoustic accompaniment a bit rough on the ears. Deradoorian digs in deep, however, and her exceptionally capable alto thoroughly rescues the song from the momentary lull.
If there’s a brief patch of sloppiness toward the end of the set — “Stillness is the Move,” the most widely known jam, strangely, isn’t the highlight I expect despite Coffman’s determined vocal delivery — it’s quite plausible the band’s lack of onstage inhibition is at fault. Between songs, Longstreth jumps up and down to introduce the next tune, even extending his mic stand in an unsuccessful, but charming, attempt at pole-climbing during “Useful Chamber.” Given the effortlessness displayed during the first half of the set’s more rhythmically, stylistically complex moments, it’s as if the band’s exhaustive mastery of technique and groove frees them to now deconstruct these forms.
Of course, such pseudo-intellectual, music theory speculation means very little when I witness a couple hundred people chant “Rise Above!” and yell, “What hits the spot like GATORADE?!” in unison during set-highlight “Temescula Sunrise.” Not just a half-camp vibe of product-placement, it’s a lovely little reminder we’ve all listened the hell out of the same track. But it’s only when Longstreth sings “Definitely, you can come live with us,” does the vibe of fan-inclusion reach it’s pinnacle. We’re all there, in the place it all started, smiling, waiting for the beat to drop.
Ducktails / Dolphins Into The Future / Idiot Glee
Madame Claude; Berlin
It’d be pretty easy to pun on the “tropicalness” of Madame Claude’s tiny basement room (particularly in relation to these recent pioneers of like-it-or-not, plastic palm tree lo-fi) but SHEESH; this was one sweaty room! Belgium experimenter Lieven Martens, aka Dolphins Into The Future, probably reveled in the vision-quest-inducing heat of the place with his Hawaii-obsessed drones, tapping less into the overly aquatic focused ambience of …On Sea-Faring Isolation for a more rhythmic and Ferraro/Clark sort of almost-pop.
Draped on a microphone stand at the front was his “Hawaii” trucker cap; he wore a ’90s floral jacket. A postcard of Hawaii with grass-skirted dancers leaned in front of his sampler. He has a moustache, wears aviator sunglasses, and sips from a bottle of red as he moves gradually into liquid-y, exotic textures, part intrepid explorer and part washed-up cruise-ship veteran, perpetually in search of an “ultimate” form of leisure and relaxation. The cruise ship (cf. David Foster Wallace’s Esquire essay re: the cruise ship as perverse/forced leisure) is the perfect vessel for the unlikely but not really ironic spirituality that these oceanic loops and isolation-tank spaces tap into; while ostensibly tacky and stuck in the hypnogogic mode of recently failed futuristic ideals, Martens employs this certainly “cool” set of ideas to strive for (and often gain) a sort of genuine transcendence and relevant spirituality.
If fans of Dolphins and experimental music are only familiar with Eckhart Tolle or indeed the absurd-seeming book after which he swiped his name through ironic, outsider points of view, this plastic New Age stuff, vapid and unbelievable, becomes poignant and real when assimilated into the lengthy and repetitive loops more easily equated with esoteric and noise tropes. It dropped out just before the end into a furry tape sample of some sort of Tahitian luau, replete with outdoor chants recorded with a colonial enthusiasm, cementing a positively lucid set in a very plastic system of borrowed exotica and personal insight. It’s an appropriate template for contemporary existentialism; the Do U Believe In Hawaii? (i.e. Hawaii or similar locale that is grimly hedonistic and humorously distant in its paradisiacality) school of relaxation or freedom; good-humoured but aware of the need for some meaning amongst the paradox. Anyway …
Next up, Idiot Glee’s one-man kaleidoscopic, merry-go-round ballads maintained their plasticity while being stripped back and hammed up with the wobbly, one-man-band vibe and a couple of obviously cheap Casios. Utilizing his preset drum-machine to super-endearing effect, Idiot Glee is woozy. Apparently he is a mormon, or at least was raised by mormons, but I’m not sure if that is what gives his songs a stoic, loner quality; it’s more abandoned carnival really, the stark but colourful loops.
The basement heat seemed to have increased a whole bunch by the time Matt Mondanile began his Ducktails set with guitar and sampler, splitting vibes straightaway between the Ridgewood neighborhood pop and the more delirious, beach-styled loops he initially experimented with a few years back while living in Berlin.
Most of the set was marred by sound issues. My friend riffed hilariously on how the ill-aligned Mondanile’s annoyance with the sound guy was with “chillwave,” but I could feel his frustration, as the latter obviously preferred smiling and nodding to requests rather than actually doing anything to fix them. It didn’t stop the obliquely “nice” pop sensibilities from shining through. Whether his ultra-cosy and suburban half-memories took the form of recent jams like “Hamilton Road” or older rhythmic warblers like “Beach Point Pleasant,” it came off lucid, warm, and pretty delirious in the heat. Like Dolphins’ Tahitian samples and general vibe, the trademark hand drums evolved the fake paradisiacal imagery and atmospherics into an engaging blur.
New material seeped out later in the set, coming off substantial and more structured than usual; one had a Panda Bear kind of metre, with his trademark mesmeric synths packing more punch than usual. Another (called “Sit Around With Ya”) laid slow surf guitar twangs over a sample of waves (splashing every 3-4 seconds), a total end-of-summer lament. It wound down an evening of at least partially manufactured nostalgia, sure, but one full of proof of the virtues of reappropriating those lost tropes.
[Photo: Darius Sabbaghzadeh]
The Flaming Lips / Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti / Thee Oh Sees
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA
There is something strangely illustrious about the Fox Theater in Oakland, from its statues and acoustics to the lights in the ceiling. It makes sense The Flaming Lips would employ this venue for a two-night stand. A coincidental bonus was the first show falling on the same night as the Oakland Art Murmur, just a few blocks up from the venue, filled with cool galleries and awesome grilled-cheese sandwiches.
Thee Oh Sees seemed destined to be forgotten on this particular night. It’s not their fault; they played a great set, but their style and approach aren’t quite ready for big venues yet, and they had to contend with opening for two expansive bands. They had their psych moments, which were amazing. Still, it seemed like most had forgotten about them an hour later.
Say what you will about Ariel Pink’s sets, but there’s one thing for certain: He’s getting better. Coming out with his Haunted Graffiti, decked out in M.I.A.’s street clothes, he talks about wanting to French the crowd, which he proceeds to do to an unsuspecting Flaming Lips fan (she seemed happy about it) during “Beverly Kills.” His mannerisms and singing have gotten to the level where he could easily be nominated to become the next official Hedwig for her Angry Inch. Sadly, the numbers from House Arrest and The Doldrums, which sounded incredible, didn’t resonate with the crowd that much. Ariel Pink also clearly missed an awesome sing-along opportunity for “Round and Round.” Still, definitely one of his better sets.
Ever been to a Pentecostal megachurch? The experience one gets out of those churches is similar to what one gets out of a Flaming Lips concert, which is why you should go to one in your lifetime. Beyond all the confetti and balloons and other eye candy, Wayne Coyne played a pastor with a spiritual message, bent on making people feel hopeful about themselves, to connect with each other in, oh so many ways. Whether through reaching out with the Spaceball or just facing the camera behind his microphone, Wayne Coyne exudes an aura of hope and sincerity. That charisma and the ability to stretch songs into something both original yet recognizable make the Flaming Lips not just a band, but a revival of sorts.
[Photos: Ze Pequeno]
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)