Yo La Tengo / Broken Social Scene
Cornell University; Ithaca, NY

[11-10-2007]

Heartburn: I have it tonight, and it's grinding my innards into gut-mulch. Having forgotten my obligatory roll of generic one-pop chewable tablets, I can do little but shuffle over to the drinking fountain every time it feels like the devil shot a load down my throat. My only comfort is that tonight I finally get to witness firsthand the reason people go ‘Coo-coo’ for Broken Social Scene and Yo La Tengo. Clarification: For the record, I didn't go to the show thinking my appreciation for Yo La Tengo would be bolstered by a forehead-slapping revelation. YLT boast strong studio recordings; from my experience you don't normally hear people say Yo La Tengo is one of those bands you have to see live to fully grasp. But that's exactly what occurred, and with that I became much more of an authority on a band I'd never listened to as much as, say, my go-to artists. It also didn't hurt when, a few days later, a co-worker slyly slid his i-Pod my way with instructions to listen to Painful, particularly "Double Dare." Where the F-plus has this album been my whole life?

It's funny, then, that when I first walked into the Cornell auditorium I saw Yo La Tengo from a distance and dismissed them as a local opener. "There's no WAY YLT's opening this show," I thought as red ribbons of slinky noise darted into my ears. "There's no way some wunderkind Canadian outfit could leap-frog one of indie-rock's most seminal bands after three proper albums... is there?"

Is there? Well yes; Yo La Tengo started playing at 7 PM, and as a result, I not only missed the first few minutes of their set but also disregarded them completely for at least five minutes. Once I realized I'd pooh-pooh'd the legendary trio, all I could do was make my way to the stage as if I'd known it was them all along (as opposed to hitting myself in the head and yelling "I'm so STUPID" circa Chris Farley). It didn't take long for Ira Kaplan to render his Jewish Jimi Hendrix persona more accurately than I'd ever imagined. On this particular Shabbos, Kaplan displayed a magical connection to his guitar and bandmates, groping the former like a blind man feeling up a staircase rail and synchronizing with the latter like two tapes on two decks played at the same time on two identical stereo systems. I'm struggling to remember being this Won Over by a live act I already had a healthy respect for... Bahaus reunion? Nah... Robyn Hitchcock's acoustic set @ Bumbershoot ‘04? Negatory. Corey Feldman live at (since burned-down) Ichabod's North in Spokane, Washington? Pfft; looks like we have a winner!

Watching Yo La Tengo is a lot like taking in a Sonic Youth or Stephen Malkmus show because it ALL starts with the bass player, in this case James McNew. If McNew didn't McSlang big ‘n’ tasty bass lines faster than an auctioneer pitching out bid figures, Kaplan wouldn't have the freedom to hunker over his guitar and bend over at the waist, lunging potently as if trying to nestle something -- a tiny kitten? -- between his legs. It was entrancing, abrasive and, above all else, impossible to turn away from. What's more, if you've been paying any attention AT ALL to the progression of underground rock over, say, the last 20 years, Yo La Tengo will reach -- and tickle profusely -- one of your pressure points. As they always have on their multi-tiered albums, YLT Go There; it doesn't matter where There is because the trio covers so much ground, they inevitably stumble upon nearly every genre imaginable. Everyone's happy. I dug the drawn-out, tension-building lessons in restraint (basically Youth's "Rain on Tin," Tengo-fied) and the skin-scratching noise-noise; my wife dug the bouncy, Spoon-y piano-driven ditties with Pop stenciled all over them.

Now that I'm preparing to jump into the Broken Social Scene portion of this review, I direct you to the first sentence of the preceding paragraph -- times 10 -- because BSS are one of the most bass-driven bands I've ever heard outside of hip-hop and dub persuasions. The fact that three guitarists were running around almost seemed immaterial compared to the band's obvious central theme of tub-chubby basslines that flow like a harpoon from start to finish. Kevin Drew also surprised me with his pipes, singing lead on every song and layin' it down loud and proud like Wayne Coyne would if he could actually pull his upper-register studio vocals off in a live setting. As a unit -- a six-man unit minus Feist, Emily Haines and plenty of others, btw -- the technical abilities of the BSS unit could not be called into question.

I can't, however, say the same about the ebb and flow of their setlist, which didn't change a fookin' bit until the last song. I never realized how easily their songs bleed into one another, like an hour-long version of "Stars and Sons" (though they didn't play that numba, far as I could tell), and it took away from the show. Shame is, with a more effectively chosen setlist -- not to mention the full, swollen BSS lineup rather than the Polyphonic Spree-esque 'lite' version -- this could have been a much more explosive set. As impressive as Broken Social Scene were initially, I found myself leaning over to a companion and uttering a phrase I only reserve for the most frigid acts: "I'm ready when you are."

Need I say more?

The Clean / Times New Viking
Cake Shop; New York, NY

[12-01-2007]

Allow me to pull the curtain back on the concert review genre: It is generally not very good. This is often due to a heavy reliance on cultural anthropology (as though going to a show is such an exotic thing) and ends up indulging in yawn-worthy “you had to be there” stories. With that in mind, I tend to try to stick to the music.

But, through no fault of the bands themselves, this show was actually characterized by the makeup of the audience. Because legendary New Zealand post-punkers The Clean rarely perform in the United States, and it’s also rare to see Times New Viking (pictured), Columbus, Ohio’s newest lo-fi sensation, in this neck of the woods, the concert was in high demand. Add the fact that Cake Shop is really nothing but a tiny, oddly-shaped basement with a makeshift stage area, and you’ll start to understand how quickly the RSVP list filled up. As a result, the place was crawling with industry types and music journalists, all of whom (including this reporter) had called in a major favor for the privilege of sweating through their vintage t-shirts in a room with lamentable acoustics.

I squeezed my way to the front, so close to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the vocals properly, and realized I was surrounded with, well… geeks like me. There was a girl taking photos for Pitchfork and a guy from AAM chatting up some other guy who was apparently in a band. One dude, clutching a $3 can of Sparks and looking like he’d already had a few too many, kept pushing to the front to snap Polaroids. There was even a palpable indie-celeb presence — Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo was on hand to cheer on his wife/bandmate Georgia Hubley, who’s also part of Mad Scene, the evening’s opener. The whole thing felt like a CMJ showcase, and I started to hate myself a little bit.

Patience is a virtue, though, and Times New Viking’s set more than made up for the industry clusterfuck. While most of the audience was probably there to see The Clean, TNV put on the most memorable performance of the night, packing several quick, energetic songs into a regrettably short amount of time. This year’s Present the Paisley Reich (Siltbreeze) is the best punk album in recent memory, but there is nothing quite like seeing TNV live.

With only three members and a sparse selection of instruments — a guitar, the world’s tiniest keyboard, and about two and a half drums—the band managed to create a veritable wall of screaming vocals and amplifier noise. TNV’s singer/keyboardist Beth Murphy looked so intense at times I felt I might need to step out the way to keep her searching eyes and anxious vocals from searing through me. The highlights were exuberantly chaotic renditions of “Teenage Lust!” and “Let Your Hair Grow Long,” both from Paisley Reich, but older material blended in nicely. Most exciting of all were glimpses of new songs from the upcoming LP, Rip It Off (Matador). My advice? Start counting the minutes until it comes out, on January 22.

I had to back off from the front lines soon after The Clean’s set began, to get some water and air and to keep myself from passing out. So as far as I could tell, the godfathers of indie were in top form, pounding out their poppy songs with crowd-pleasing verve. Though they certainly haven’t changed much over the years, there’s nothing dated about their sound, which recalls Orange Juice. With a new album in the works, to be released in ‘08, The Clean may be poised for a major comeback.

But to tell the truth, it was kind of hard to pay attention when some girl with bleach-fried hair was bouncing around behind me, screaming to her friends about some party she would be attending later in the evening. “There’s an open bar!” she cried. “I think it’s Josh Hartnett’s birthday party or something!”

I can make fun of it all I want, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same guest list.

[Photo: Sean Ruch]

Anthony Pateras
APO 33; Nantes, France

[11-13-2007]

This is the second time I have seen Anthony Pateras in Nantes, and for the second time, he has put on one of my favorite shows of the year. Pateras, near the end of a month-long tour of Europe, stopped in to play prepared piano for the latest in the ongoing series of CABLE# experimental music nights, which have also hosted such respected improvisers as Britain’s Keith Rowe and Australia’s Oren Ambarchi. On this night, Pateras proved again that he’s more than capable of standing alongside those contemporaries.

What’s wild is how Pateras takes such raw physical tools (bolts, screws, washers, and metal cords) to transform the piano into a richer, acoustic cousin of a crummy Casio keyboard -- every key has its own voicing, but instead of cheesy MIDI presets, his piano plays from one key to the next like marimba / bucket / live wire / icicle / D flat / buzz / buzz / tinkle / tok! It’s not a piano anymore — it’s 88 detuned voicings chattering over each other in a bubbling, percussive discourse. The colors and timbres he elicits goad the imagination: you hear a swarm of lead-footed ants marching on ice; an archaic telegraph system discovered inside an African hut; the junkyard lullaby that an infant Tom Waits fell asleep to in his crib -- there’s something ludic, starry, and wonderfully broken about this music.

Tonality and technique are important, but a performance requires more than gear and chops -- it’s got to have drama, and Pateras builds loads of it into each piece through a studied and furious abuse of the instrument. He’s great fun to watch: the two hands play on top of each other, pinkies and thumbs darting out to stab notes in distant registers. He often throws his elbows and palms deep into the keys, all while swaying back and forth to hidden rhythms. The piano may be prepared, but it’s impossible for the audience to be -- his fingers scramble over notes in the higher keys before suddenly punching a resonant cluster of low ones, or he builds up a drone at once frothy and undulating right in the middle of the keyboard before breaking into a stuttering series of pauses and bursts that leap from one end to the other, leaving you on the edge of your seat and guessing (wrong every time).

From what I can tell, these dramatic turns are the hallmarks of any Pateras gig. This one was extra special, thanks to the intimate setting (a room that held about 30 people) and the staging: his bench was planted on a large carpet of bright green felt, and a mirror slanted from behind the piano over the top of his head so that from the back of the room, even though his back was to the audience, I could watch his hands sprint and grapple for the entire performance. In the mirror, all that was visible were those hands on the keys, the top of his head, and the green carpet. It was as if he were on a Hollywood green screen, open to virtual transportation anywhere -- Pateras in space! Pateras in the jungle! Pateras in a high-speed car chase!

The great luck of the night, though, was that Pateras was right there, in that room, shredding. Go see him if you get the chance.

(Anthony Pateras has released a solo recording this year on Sirr.Ecords entitled Chasms. It’s comprised of the pieces he played at this concert.)

Bright Eyes
University of Iowa Main Lounge; Iowa City, IA

[11-04-2007]

It’s coming up on two years since the last time I saw Bright Eyes in concert, the former being a phenomenal experience at Worcester’s Palladium. That cathartic set featured a multitude of players and dug deep into the back catalogue. In the wake of this year’s modest Cassadaga, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect this time around. Would the set be heavy on the new tunes? If so, would it suck, or would those songs take on a new life in a live setting? Bright Eyes’ recent show at the University of Iowa’s Main Lounge politely sat somewhere in the middle.

The Sunday evening show began with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” signaling that he would at least halfheartedly refer to his pre-I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning era. The older track hardly set the tone for the evening, and while the student-dominated audience didn’t seem to recognize it, it was one of the finer songs of the evening. From the beginning of the show, it was obvious that the sound at the Main Lounge is inexcusably horrendous. This large, carpeted room is clearly not meant to host concerts. The acoustics are brutal, and the venue doesn't frequently host gigs. It didn’t help a performance that bristled with energy at times (“Another Traveling Song”) and likewise fell flat on certain songs (encore opener “Bowl of Oranges”).

Unlike a typical Bright Eyes experience, the performance consisted of the same five members throughout, including Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott. It felt much more like a band than a collective, as opposed to last time when they began with a harpist and consistently featured dual drum sets. They strayed from anything overly dramatic. Even the normally purgative “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” lacked its traditional bite.

The biggest uproar was for Cassadaga’s lead single, “Four Winds,” which sounds uncannily like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It isn’t a bad song, but the reaction confirmed my suspicions: These folks clearly did not have a lengthy history with Bright Eyes. There was no uproar for “Method Acting.” Perhaps the anemic crowd could be blamed on the Sunday night show, but with no singing and very little swaying, it seemed that they just didn’t understand. In his defense, Oberst didn’t give in. He toted out the piano for a magnificent run through “Spring Cleaning,” off his split with Neva Dinova. Probably the most esoteric song of his set, it was also the best glimpse into the Bright Eyes of old.

No longer his reticent self, Mr. Oberst frequently talked to the crowd, asking how everyone was doing and lamenting the current political landscape and the war in Iraq. It was disorienting to see a highly interactive, almost (but not entirely) bubbly Oberst, but not because it was unexpected. After all, it would be unfair to expect him to be the nervous performer he once was now at the age of 27 and with several major tours under his belt. Instead, it was that he seemed forced in his mannerisms, as though he knew he was supposed to be the affable frontman now but had to struggle to make that a reality.

In fact, the whole concert felt like we were watching an artist at a crossroads, unsure of how to deal with both his own fame and his audience. Whether or not he truly wanted to play all of those songs was likewise mystifying. He seemed most at home in the final song, an unnamed, unrecognized tune that sounded more Desaparecidos than Bright Eyes. On this, he passionately yelped and furiously played, emphatically punctuating the performance by kicking all of his half-full booze cups from the top of his amp in a tremendous spray. When the final notes of his encore had rung out through the dull concert hall, I left thinking less about the performance I had just seen and wondering more where he would be heading next.

A Place to Bury Strangers
The Middle East; Cambridge, MA

[11-08-2007]

The Middle East upstairs was packed wall-to-wall when I arrived. I tucked myself into a corner, facing the stage on the left. Overhearing clips of conversation from the crowd, it was fairly clear that, although Austin, TX-based psych-rockers Black Angels shared the bill, most folks tonight were there to see A Place to Bury Strangers. A palpable buzz was purring through the audience in light of the fact that APTBS has seemingly come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves with devastating live shows. Indeed, their CMJ set at Loisaida was shut down by police after just a handful of songs due to noise complaints. This show was the one time I even considered corking my ears in fear of APTBS' ear-damaging reputation.

The thing that sets APTBS apart from other brutally loud bands, though, is their tunefulness. Underneath all the chaos and noise lies the band's incredible ability to churn out beautiful squalor. They are fulminating, yes, but for every ultra-loud band comparison, one has to be made in recognition of the band's knack for writing gorgeous, melodic songs. It is that sense of balance that makes APTBS so interesting and, based on the night's turnout in Cambridge, popular.

After a few minutes of standing around, the band, led by guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann and flanked by bassist Jono MOFO and drummer JSpace, came out to scattered applause. Ackermann, who runs Death by Audio, a company founded upon the design of ear-shredding effects pedals, began unloading what appeared to be about a dozen of his company's creations and began plugging them into various amps around the stage. With all the pedals and wiring littering the front of the stage, a few people, including Jono MOFO, looked a little concerned when the husky bass player spilled his beer toward the entanglement of electronic equipment.

Without a word, the band launched into the first half of their set, which included "She Dies," "My Weakness," and the violent "To Fix the Gash in Your Head." APTBS take care of the business at hand (that is, playing songs) without extraneous talking or engaging the audience between songs. It was amazing how different the band sounded compared to their considerably less assailing album. Live, they were storming, an absolute onslaught. APTBS is a live band through and through, and what's more is the fact that Ackermann made it immediately clear that his vocals were not an integral part of the show. Unlike the album, where his voice is a prevalent part of the mix, his voice barely rose above a low grumble, like a protest buried under a wall of sound, as he focused his efforts on manipulating the sound of his guitar. Ackermann is actually quite the showman. When not singing, he careened across stage, often leaning and bending dramatically as his amp spit hellfire and white noise.

The second half the performance, about 20-25 minutes long, was a decidedly different affair from the first. Here, the show became one extended opus, as the band flowed from one song to another, never stopping, and included an Ackermann guitar swap. (It was difficult to tell, but I think I heard "The Falling Sun," "Another Step Away," and an extended "Ocean" in there.) I was floored by the constant beauty of the twists and turns, as well as their sheer ability to keep up the torrid pace. At times, it seemed as if Ackermann wasn't playing many notes, letting his various pedals do the work, sound churning over itself again and again. MOFO and JSpace, though, skillfully kept up the frenetic pace, providing a brutal rhythm section that grounded Ackermann's swirling guitar.

The show ended as suddenly as it began, but this time with Ackermann mumbling a closing remark as the band shuffled off, no doubt exhausted. The space was buzzing. My friend and I were close to the exit, and we hurried through the Middle East's adjoining restaurant and out into the cold. For about five minutes, neither of us could hear anything -- the ringing in our ears was literally deafening. A thought, one I expressed internally because I couldn't fucking hear myself talk, came to mind: A Place to Bury Strangers is gonna fuck up their hearing pretty damn quickly as they continue to straddle the line between loud, melodic rock, and blistering noise manipulation. And I think they're fine with that.

Photo: [www.aplacetoburystrangers.com]

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Verizon Center; Washington, DC

[11-12-2007]

In 1984, I sat in the nosebleed section of the now-demolished JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, shivering in the rain, waiting for the show to begin. It was to be one of the biggest concerts of the year and my first show ever. The one thing that bothered me is that my mother wouldn't let me buy a red leather jacket and sequined glove. No matter -- I was about to witness Michael Jackson and his five brothers on the Victory tour.

Michael Jackson wasn't the only big act that year. Bruce Springsteen released a little record called Born in the USA. In the United States alone, the album sold 15 million copies, produced seven singles, and catapulted not only the Boss to mega-stardom, but Courtney Cox as well.

Flash forward 23 years and look at the career trajectories of Springsteen and Jackson. Springsteen has just produced the moderately successful Magic, his third album in the last three years. Jackson is hiding behind a veil and skirting bankruptcy, and he hasn't made a record since the poorly received Invincible in 2001. What is it about Springsteen that has allowed him to maintain a modicum of integrity these past two decades while being so popular?

Getting into the concert was a major clusterfuck. A few lucky thousand fans scored general admission tickets, which earned them a chance to get a spot up front. Arriving early at the stadium, we all received numbered armbands and were told to line up sequentially at five. Can you imagine 1,000 people -- some drunk, some handicapped, some just plain stupid -- trying to figure that out on their own? Finally, someone called 821, and the 200 fans behind that number got into the pit. I had number 559. It was 5:15 PM. I decided to get out of line and get a salad.

We finally staked out spot on the floor around 6:45 PM. Almost two hours passed before the Boss took the stage. I am tall, and I could see. My friends could not. One guy stepped in front of us, a middle-aged guy with a scarred face, and after my friend asked him to move, he curtly responded, "In a civil society, maybe. This is a mosh pit." A mosh pit? What did Scarface know that we didn't? Judging by the fat, balding, suited hordes waiting for their hero to arrive, the only moshing that would go on was if one decided to have a heart attack during the show.

The Boss and his Band finally took the stage amid gasps of excitement (“There's Bruce!” “There's Silvio!” “There's the guy from Conan!”) and tore into "Radio Nowhere," the first single from Magic. While the album has received decent reviews, the common complaint is that the music suffers from Brendan O'Brien's vapid production. This guy has produced Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit, and Train (among others). What the fuck, Bruce? But stripped of that flat production, the song really took flight. Bruce had the audience from the first chord.

What is most amazing about a Springsteen show is the font of energy from which this guy draws his power. He's 58 years old, yet the amount of vigor he put into the show was astounding. He jumped around; he screamed; he spit water into the air. Bruce Springsteen was on fire.

While the Boss played most of the songs off the new album, it was the more obscure, older tracks that most intrigued a fan like me. "The Ties That Bind" and "Jackson Cage," both from The River, positively killed, and hits like "The Promised Land" and first set-closer "Badlands" still sounded fresh. Springsteen even made a few political swipes at our dear Commander-in-Chief, and while there is no doubt a good chunk of the crowd were lobbyists, GOP aides, and Log Cabin Republicans, no one could boo loud enough over the cheering of "Bruuuuuuuce" to make a difference.

Now, tickets to this show were not cheap. We're talking $100. I could have seen 10 shows at The Black Cat for the price of this one. But the encore was worth the admission alone. I had hoped to hear "Thunder Road," a song that inspires memories of college and the feelings of getting into a car and running off with a girl, and when the piano kicked in, all those feelings swirled back.

Though I've heard "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark" a million times before, nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of the one-two punch these songs would have. All the house lights went on, and I could see the entire arena, filled with people dancing and singing and smiling as Springsteen dove into these two hits. Call me a sap, but it amazed me that something simple like a song could make so many people happy. This is why Bruce is still popular. Though he doesn't have the edge of all our favorite indie bands, he can touch a special place, a little part of Jersey in all of us. It felt good to be part of it.

The show finished with a Pogues-sounding number called "American Land," and as we retreated to the back of the floor, I still found myself smiling. If I had just seen a Michael Jackson show, I knew that smile would be one full of irony. Not this time.

[Photo: Mike Kurman (bonobaltimore)]