Broken Social Scene / Julie Doiron
The Fillmore; San Francisco, CA

[05-01-2010]

The Fillmore has a bit of a resemblance to another venue, the defunct Avalon Ballroom in Boston, right across the street from Fenway Park. The comparison here is relevant to tonight’s Broken Social Scene show: The first time this writer saw them, it was on a whim 5 years ago at the latter venue, in support of the self-titled album. Back then, Feist opened for them, long before The Reminder, and a man with a perpetual black turtleneck sent her down a separate transcendent path. The show was the stuff of legends. Admittedly, such a show is unlikely to happen again outside of the Greater Toronto area, so expectations have to be blunted, even for a new album and a tour.

Canadian Julie Doiron opened, and though she has an uncanny vocal and physical resemblance to the opener of a half-decade prior, that’s where the comparisons end. On stage, it feels more like The White Stripes in their early years in Detroit, only with the roles switched (though that might be a bit harsh for drummer William, who is actually good at both drums and guitar). Julie herself acted incredibly hokey and chummy at times. Worse though were the couple of songs where dissonance was employed, as well as one song where her singing rhythm sounded incredibly awkward. For a folk artist who has collaborated with the likes of Mt. Eerie and Okkervil River, she was exceptionally mediocre.

There is a lot of virtual-water-cooler (where the water is cleanest) talk about Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record around here, to the effect that this album lacks something pivotal. This writer suspects a single culprit, but will not elaborate for the sake of wanting to live in said culprit’s home city again one day. That said, whatever qualms fans may have for Forgiveness Rock Record can be put to rest: Live, these new songs really do sound like Broken Social Scene songs. Opener (and opening track) “World Sick” sounded much more natural and wet than the recording, as did fiery number “Texaco Bitches” and lead single “Forced to Love.” Lisa Lobsinger, recruited during the self-titled’s recording partly as a means to replace the eventually departed Millan-Feist-Haines trifecta, finally came into her own, captivating the crowd with “Sentimental X’s.”

“Lobbie” also performed exceptionally well with “All is All” and the legendary “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old.” For all the 2-hour set could cover though, the band only glanced briefly at the “BSS Presents” series, playing only “F-cked Up Kid” and “Been at It a Long Time,” the latter of which went into a jammy headspace. The band obviously enjoyed themselves and went at the set with the ferocity they always have. Even co-frontman Brendan Canning, sick with flu, pushed like he could run the Boston Marathon. That the band played 2 hours straight, with only a brief 3-minute break, is a testament to that. While it may be another couple years before we witness epic glory again outside Toronto, Broken Social Scene remain the incredible living force they were years ago on stage.

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

High Places / Mi Ami
Rickshaw Stop; San Francisco, CA

[03-24-2010]

This show was so easy to space out at, in a good way. Two bands that play noisy music doing it pretty well makes for a satisfying night.

I saw Mi Ami open for HEALTH a while ago, and they’ve definitely honed their live act. By “honed” I don’t mean “polished” as much as “there is a much more noticeable dissonance between their instrumentation and their vocals.” Their music by itself is hypnotic, complicated and nicely jam-heavy. With Daniel Martin-McCormick’s vocals, though, it got sort of crazy. He just doesn’t look like he can make the kind of noises he squeals into a microphone jammed halfway into his mouth. But it’s not insincere, and it works. Mi Ami are not for the faint of heart.

High Places are, though, definitely. They’re warm and fuzzy and full of droning noise sure to envelop anyone in spacey bliss. Unfortunately many of their strongest moments – intricate instrumentation and sampling or complex vocals – get lost in the dense, overpowering guitar washout present in their live set. A rare moment of clarity came on “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House,” from their latest record High Places vs. Mankind, as both their vocalists joined to sing a repeating string of words that guided the whole song beautifully. I think they sound better in the studio, where they can take the time to layer components of their music to the best effect.

The Clean
The Bell House; Brooklyn, NY

[05-07-2010]

Thirty-two years since they formed in Dunedin, New Zealand, The Clean still seem like just another band — and that’s meant in the most complimentary of ways. Following sets from Brooklyn’s Coasting and fellow Kiwi group Dimmer, the band nonchalantly took the stage at the Bell House, picked up their instruments and leaned into a set of tunes spanning their three decades of existence.

That the group can do this is a testament to their timelessness. When the Pixies reunited in 2004, they dusted off a repertoire of late eighties/early nineties material. When Pavement reconvened this year, they summoned up a discography that, as amazing as it is, will always bear a “Made in the Nineties” stamp. The Clean … well, they’re not beholden to any of the decades in which they’ve dipped their feet, and 2010 is no exception. The band’s set moved seamlessly from tunes like 1982’s “Beatnik” to “In The Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul,” from last year’s Mister Pop.

All three members of Yo La Tengo were in the Bell House audience, a fact that inspires a comparison between the two stalwart trios. If there’s any American band that most resembles The Clean in sonic approach and career arc, it’s Yo La Tengo. But while the latter has built that arc with an LP every few years and fairly regular touring, The Clean’s equation is a little sparser, calling for a couple of albums per decade and a smattering of live dates whenever they find the time.

The band didn’t play their most well-known “hit,” their debut single “Tally Ho,” but it didn’t matter. In an era that runs artists through the hype cycle at a breakneck pace and systematically cashes in on our fond memories of tunes from another time, it’s refreshing to see The Clean still jangling along, impervious to it all.

Ariel Pink
Mercury Lounge; New York, NY

[05-04-2010]

Ariel Pink’s show at Mercury Lounge this past Tuesday was many things. It was largely a press preview — a one-off date for the music media to catch Pink’s Haunted Graffiti before the band embarks on European and US tours this summer. It was an unveiling of tunes from Pink’s forthcoming album, Before Today, his most polished release to date and his first for British label 4AD. It paired Pink with his musical mentor, the prolific, long-time home recording artist R. Stevie Moore. It also turned into a gathering of numerous musicians who have drawn from the reverb-hazed, tape-hissing sonic well that Pink has been tapping since the early 2000s (members of Real Estate, Vivian Girls, Telepathe and Neon Indian were all in attendance).

Under these conditions, the gig felt like a test for Pink. Would he and his latest Haunted Graffiti lineup — which features LA scene vets Aaron Sperske (Lilys, Beachwood Sparks) and Chris Cohen (Cryptacize, Deerhoof) — take their live show into the dressed-up, slicked-down realm of Before Today? Would they win the approval of the bloggers and critics? What might R. Stevie say of Pink’s new approach, which abandons his lo-fi past for time in a proper LA studio? What would his peers think?

All of these questions hung in the thick, muggy air of Mercury Lounge, but when Pink finally took the stage, all he had to stay was, “It’s hot in here.” That dismissive, visceral focus carried through the entire night, with Pink pouring out sweat as profusely as his band poured out solid renditions of songs both old and new. The set began with two tunes from 2004’s The Doldrums, “Strange Fires” and “Don’t Think Twice (Love),” then “Flying Circles,” from 2006’s House Arrest, before turning to new material. “Bright Lit Blues Skies” and “Butt-House Blondes,” both Before Today tracks, and “For Kate I Wait,” another Doldrums tune, stood out as highlights, but the whole show was infused with a vitality and propulsion that has been absent from Pink’s work… er, before today.

When introducing “Round and Round,” Before Today’s much-touted lead single, Pink remarked that the band didn’t have the San Jose Choir on hand to accompany them and subsequently cut short the tune’s final triumphant chorus, in which he sings, “We’ll dazzle them all.” It seemed to be an acknowledgement that, though he’s no longer hunched over a 4-track mumbling out his songs, Pink still has room for growth before he can truly dazzle everyone.

The Almighty Defenders
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA

[04-20-2010]

The Almighty Defenders put on, hands-down, the craziest show I have ever been to. I apologize in advance for not being able to find pictures from this night, because it was obscene and messy and totally great. I don’t know where to start, so I guess the church robe-clad band is a good place. They strode out onstage, solemn, as King Khan demanded that we the audience give ourselves to Jesus, praise the Lord, and testify as sinners. Much (I suspect “ironic”) hand-quivering in the audience ensued as the band tore through the first few songs on their self-titled album. It felt like church intended for atheists, serious but totally sacrilegious.

This whole show, band and audience, was thoroughly alcohol-soaked and wonderfully sloppy to match. The band passed around a fifth of Jameson throughout the set. They played their guitars in weird ways and mimed various sex acts with each other. Mark Sultan (BBQ) dedicated a cover of Elvis’s “He Touched Me” to the Pope. And about 30 minutes in, dear readers, the night became downright bizarre. My friend and I had to keep grabbing each other and making “IS THIS SHIT REALLY HAPPENING” faces:

• The Black Lips’ Jared Swilley read out of a Bible with the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher, then collapsed on the floor while still testifying and writhing around
• Mark Sultan found someone’s credit card on the stage and broke it in half in his mouth
• King Khan stripped off everything but his shoes and ate it stagediving, after which he passed out on the dancefloor for about a minute and a half (concussion suspected). When he got back onstage someone in the front row touched his dick and got a kick square in the jaw in return.
• Cole Alexander, also of the Black Lips, pulled down his pants, played his guitar with his dick, and then peed on King Khan, who subsequently took a pull on the bottle of Jameson the band had been passing around and then spat the pee/whiskey combo out onto the audience.

And for the finale, a bleeding-from-the-mouth King Khan stuck his microphone up his butt. I feel really bad for whoever had to clean up after this show, and it turns out the venue wasn’t too pleased about it. From GAMH’s Facebook page:

Last night (April 20) an incident occurred at the end of the set involving inappropriate and uncondoned behavior by two of the artists performing. To those in the audience, please accept our apologies. We will continue to strive to provide an environment and music that is appropriate for all ages.

I don’t blame them for having to cover their asses, but I’m thoroughly grateful this show happened, and that I was at it, and that I walked away covered in beer and spit and feeling the Holy Spirit raging in my blood. Amen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg / Jogger / AM
Palace of Fine Arts; San Francisco, CA

[04-17-2010]

When coming to the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for the first time, one suspects the giant pavilion/gazebo that sticks out as far away as Russian Hill on the eastern side of the city is the actual venue. The size of the structure alone suggests an outdoor amphitheatre seating a large number of people. It would certainly create a magical element in certain scenarios, especially in the case of chanson heir Charlotte Gainsbourg’s first tour. Alas, the place is simply an indoor theatre, which is a bit of a letdown, despite its impressive acoustics and rocking-chair seats.

Opener AM is surprisingly prolific in touring with big names: He had only appeared a few weeks prior in Oakland opening for AIR, and recently opened for Caetano Veloso in LA. His music could fit with either: After ekeing out the first few numbers flatly, he pulled out an eerie, bossa nova-esque number that was mellow enough to set a consistent and solid mood for the rest of the set. He was a small man on a big stage, but once he settled, he reached out to the audience well. The lone exception was closer “Self-Preservation,” a break from the mood that sounded more like Interpol than Jorge Ben. If he just sticks with the mellow, he’ll be going places.

Supporting act Jogger, on the other hand, threw consistency out the window and beat it with a shovel once it got out of the building via hot-air balloon. The duo, from L.A., tend to take a sample and just run with it, whether from Madonna or Generic Williamsburg-based Band #862. Sometimes they ran into brick walls like the Juggernaut in a tutu, going from dirges to electronica without paying attention. Incredibly, they even combined those two: “Nephicide” is the first time I’ve heard a band effectively combine bowels-of-your-lungs, black-metal vocals with techno. Even their on-stage antics were silly: Jonathan did everything in his power to rock out while behind his synths and samplers, while Amir veered between shoegazing guitar and singing into his violin. Make of that what you will.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is clearly on her first tour. In particular, her singing in “Greenwich Mean Time,” from the recent album IRM, was completely off-key, making one wonder if it was intentional. But after that, she managed to sing much better, (barring a false start on one song) playing around with the crowd’s momentum. She even channeled collaborator Jarvis Cocker in 5:55 number “AF607105,” though she sounded more like Neil Tennant. Most significant, though, was that she got comfortable to not only sing her Bob Dylan cover “Just Like A Woman” in a sultry manner, but channel her legendary father with his classic “L’hotel particuler,” from Histoire de Melody Nelson. She will definitely need more time to figure out her comfort zone live, but she can still captivate, and should make touring a habit.

Beach House
Bimbo's 365; San Francisco, CA

[04-14-2010]

A Love Letter to Beach House From a Person Who Can’t Write Love Letters

Dear Beach House,

I suspect the reason you lay ravish praise on San Francisco is obvious: Your music, on a scenic level, is much more appropriate for a city as hilly and surreal as the City by the Bay than it would be for a city as dirty and gritty as your hometown Baltimore (not that there’s anything wrong with Baltimore). You fit perfectly into the city’s landscape, be it a house show in a warehouse loft in SoMa, some cafe in Lower Haight (or bar on Upper Haight), or even the swanky Italian nightclub in North Beach that you happened to be playing at tonight. You are made for this city, and we love you for that.

You have a certain amount of bravery in carrying only one act before you at such a small venue, swank as it may be. While, arguably, your approach to music is unique and has very few imitators (which is what makes you so wonderful in the first place), for you to get on stage so early does offer the question of whether your set is that strong enough to hold the crowd from an early standpoint. That said, your friend Bachelorette was solid. The Kiwi, though still unused to to large crowds, put up a good show for it, songs like “Donkey” and “Do the Circuit” being particularly rousing numbers. It was a perfect warm-up for what was to come.

Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about your new album, not to mention how it would turn out live. It was a change in direction, something faster, more bombastic than anyone thought. Who can blame us? With that, I’m sorry for doubting you. I see the logic in your actions now: Live, these songs make sense. Their bombast and noise resonate perfectly with the crowd. They became a way for you to go nuts when you needed to. From opener “Silver Soul” on, you were energetic, even sitting down. You made slow-moving numbers that marked your first two albums, such as Devotion’s “Gila” and the self-titled’s “Master of None,” feel bouncy. You also tapped into the crowd’s emotions very well. People were shedding a tear during initial closer “Take Care,” or getting pumped and motivated with set closer “10 Mile Stereo.” More importantly though, you took it all in stride. When someone requested “Zebra,” which you had just played, you felt flattered. As were we.

We know you love us and the city, as we do you. Why else would you, like you said, come to the city the day before your show? So allow us a proposition: Please move here! We cost a bit more than Baltimore, but we make up for it in loveliness. We’ll take care of you, offer you excellent food such as cheap-yet-incredible burritos and vegan meals, as well as various collectives you cut your own niche in. And there’s no snow, too. So, please move here. Pretty please?

Love,
Ze

Growing / Eric Copeland
Coco 66; Brooklyn, NY

[04-06-2010]

Growing’s set at Brooklyn’s Coco 66 began with floor-shaking bass pulsing through the room’s sound system, and it ended with a sample of a man’s voice repeating, “This is your brain on drugs.” These two details mark the band’s current sonic wingspan, which stretches from heavy, propulsive beats to an affinity for odd — and often indiscernible — vocal slices.

The set was part of the release show for Pumps!, Growing’s first album on Vice Records and first featuring new member Sadie Laska. Like Pumps!, the band’s performance was stuffed with prickly, distorted rhythms, oscillating textures, and a variety of unpredictable embellishments. In a live setting, Growing are experimental in the most honest definition of the word: they punch buttons, twist knobs, and see what happens. Sometimes it’s great, like the otherworldly vortex of sound that whipped across the stage in the middle of their set. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work, like when a sample spikes awkwardly through the mix or skittering guitar notes seem to sink with the music’s momentum. But it’s clear that Growing weren’t looking to convey any exact message or emotion through their music. They were trying to create an immersive sonic atmosphere that will seep into their audience’s minds: “This is your brain on Growing.”

Also on the bill was Eric Copeland, member of Black Dice and, as he demonstrated with a balanced and passionate set, a terrific solo artist in his own right. Copeland’s music deftly swayed between loose, head-nodding rhythms and moments of abrasive, noisy bliss, never dwelling too long or switching gears too abruptly. In fact, he delivered the more poignant and personal set of the night, tapping into his rich well of creativity and technical prowess.

Spoon / Deerhunter / The Strange Boys
House of Blues; Boston, MA

[03-27-2010]

My first reaction to hearing that Deerhunter was opening for Spoon on its tour for Transference was “Ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHH! Spoon AND Deerhunter!?! Tickets! Need tickets!” I instantly handed over the cash to see them in Boston – fitting considering my history of catching some other amazing double bills there, such as The New Pornographers with Belle & Sebastian and Feist with Broken Social Scene.

The venue was the new House of Blues, formerly the Avalon, in the literal shadow of Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street.

Openers The Strange Boys kicked off the evening with a post-punk-meets-rockabilly sound. Lead singer Ryan Sambol’s voice was a low-energy combination of young Bob Dylan and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which is to say, it wasn’t good. However, the band did provide an entertaining story about “the real Spoon,” from the previous tour stop at Radio City Music Hall. Sambol explained that the group amassed a handful of parking tickets from prior New York City shows. “We thought: ‘They’ll never get us.’” Well, the city got ’em, towing their van and slapping them with a whopping impound fee of $900.

Spoon to the rescue. Sambol told the crowd to show the headliners some love for picking up the tab and emancipating the van for their tourmates from Austin.

When Bradford Cox and his crew emerged, the club was still well short of capacity – a fact I could not believe. When gushing about the show to friends beforehand, my refrain was “I love Spoon, but I think I’m more excited to see Deerhunter.” Bradford engaged the crowd right away, cracking jokes, chatting, declaring his love for Boston and improvising a dreamy little song about the cold weather. “Cold weather … keeps us together … like we are tethered … ” I wondered what side of the group we’d see – hard and driving, soft and trippy, or pop-song craftsmen. The answer was all three, which is exactly what makes Deerhunter great. Bradford and Co. were equally adept mashing out rockers like Fluorescent Grey’s “Wash Off,” or cooing delicate pieces like Microcastle’s title track. Interspersed throughout the set were myriad effects, some turning whatever Bradford uttered into a sound best described as a soaring choir of angels on LSD, others imbuing his guitar with a life of its own as he continuously toyed with dissonant tones and ample feedback.

The highlight was unquestionably a raucous version of “Nothing Ever Happened.” The dominant bass line and opening riff drew a cheer from the crowd, and the crashing chorus had Spoon fans in crowd looking at each other, thinking, “I don’t know this band, but I’m getting their album as soon as I get home.” Bradford pushed the song even higher in its coda, hitting gorgeous high notes in his solo with a finger-tapping technique. “Since when is Bradford Cox a guitar god?” I asked myself, with a stupefied grin on my face. With Ted Williams’ turf right outside the club, just over the Green Monster in left field, Bradford’s passionate performance made me think indie rock has its own Splendid Splinter to anoint.

When they wrapped up their set, the word on everyone’s tongue was “more.” It felt downright cruel to give us a taste then take it away, but they did have to make time for the main performance. Oh, right! Spoon is playing now! The headliner!

One thing separated Spoon from Deerhunter right away: image. About 30 minutes was spent between sets, adorning the stage with light panels and strings of bulbs hanging over amps and mike stands. When the band stepped on stage, Britt Daniel very much looked the part of a rock star – cropped leather jacket, designer pants with weird stripes on the sides, and a gorgeous, mussy mop of blond hair that either hadn’t been touched since rolling out of bed, or was fussed over for a solid hour to appear so. I’d say the smart money is on the latter. But these things ceased to matter as the band started off with “Before Destruction” and “Nobody Gets Me But You,” the first and last songs from their current record, Transference.

The initial songs’ halting rhythms didn’t allow the crowd to go nuts right away, but the groove of “Rhthm & Soul” and the near-bubblegum approach to the danceable “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” pulled everyone in. Afterward, there was a quick detour to Kill the Moonlight’s soothing farewell track “Vittorio E,” before ripping into the chorus of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “Don’t Make Me A Target,” and making heads bob again.

Gimme Fiction leadoff, “The Beast And Dragon, Adored,” was the show’s apex. I consider it the band’s best song. If making moving music is based upon tension and release, which I believe it is, then this blows away the rest of the group’s canon. The verse is a simple, yet effective walk from perfect 4th, to diminished 5th, to perfect 5th, and back again. The diminished 5th (aka tritone or Devil in Music) provides the tension. When the major chords of the chorus finally kick in, it’s a revelation. As one might expect, hearing and seeing this unfold live added even more power. The set gained in energy as it neared its close with more up-tempo dance-friendly numbers, “I Summon You,” “Trouble Come Running,” and fan favorite “The Underdog.” “Trouble” earned the prize for loudest song of the night, and while the piano had to substitute for the horn section for “The Underdog,” it remained exceedingly fun.

During the show I kept wondering about the headline spot vs. the opening spot. It seemed odd to confine a band of Deerhunter’s caliber to the warm-up set. Ultimately, headlining is about money. Whoever can pack the most bodies in the building is going to get the lead spot. Examining the tale of the tape for these two bands, though, it’s hard to say which is more deserving. Spoon are veterans at this point – indie stalwarts with some decent mainstream success and a catalogue of great albums cementing their legacy. Have you ever heard a bad Spoon album? You haven’t, because there isn’t one. You know what you’re going to get with Spoon – gorgeous, polished pop songs.

Deerhunter, on the other hand, are just hitting their prime. There’s an energy and an unpredictability that bands only have when they’re young and still enthusiastically exploring their sound. For lack of a better word, Bradford Cox and Deerhunter are still dangerous. With them, you don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s what makes their performance exciting.

So, who should’ve had the top spot? It’s a tough call – one that comes down to personal preference more than anything else. For me, it’s a toss-up. They’re great for their own reasons, and more than anything I’m just happy I got to see them both in one night.

Titus Andronicus
The Bootleg; Los Angeles, CA

[03-23-2010]

“That’s just how people dance to punk rock music,” Patrick Stickles tried to explain to The Bootleg’s staff. “What happened?” He asked. “We were dancing and having a good time and it was OK and then it wasn’t OK. Well, it’s OK by us but I can’t speak for theater.” Bouncers had just broken up what was a pretty mild group of slam dancers and it was beginning to look like The Bootleg was under the ownership of puritans. While Stickles’ singing often invites comparisons to Conor Oberst when he’s lamenting the fact that people don’t speak Spanish as Desaparecidos, when speaking, he sounds cool and collected. Tension would build between slam dancers and bouncers over the next couple of songs and result in one guy getting dragged out kicking and screaming.

But Titus Andronicus wouldn’t comment on it again. I was initially quite upset about the fact that someone could have been carried out of the show, and I was bummed that from that point on the bouncers were dispersed throughout in order to quell any bursts of movement. As someone not immediately affected (it’s kind of hard to take notes while getting shoved around), I realized that my feelings were based on a preconception and that Titus Andronicus and those dancers had a more flexible and admirable understanding of a punk-rock show. “Who cares that I can’t slam into my buddy,” they said. “I am listening to the best sound quality given to a punk band that Thomas Dunlap has ever heard. While most bands can barely carry anything longer than a half-hour set, Titus Andronicus is playing awesomely for an hour and a half!”

“How is that even possible?” you might ask. “The Monitor is only an hour long.” In a surprising display of outside-the-box thinking, Titus Andronicus didn’t just play straight through their concept album. And they didn’t have to. If you’ve heard the album then you know that it’s a little more complicated than the “about the civil war” tagline everyone’s been assigning to it, meaning that we won’t have to worry about The Monitor becoming a Broadway musical, the fact that The Monitor isn’t set in the Civil War period and doesn’t feature a direct narrative account of any battles, not even of the USS Monitor duking it out with the CSS Virginia, allows Titus Andronicus to choose songs that complement their newest endeavor in the live setting. Those spoken introductions disappear and we get to hear songs from all the way back on their first EP.

Stickles referred to one such oldie as “a song devoid of context,” but I would disagree. We knew those songs weren’t new, but each song added to the set was linked somehow to a division within or a struggle between forces equally matched as those two warships. At the end of the day, Titus Andronicus are successful live for the same reason they are successful on wax: They understand that a concept is just a place from which to start and they refuse to let it determine where they’ll go.