Andrew W.K. & Calder Quartet
Swedish American Hall; San Francisco, CA

[10-07-2009]

Let’s say you didn’t know Andrew W.K. had grown up taking classical piano; let’s say you did. Would you think that a performance with a string quartet was a “real” Andrew W.K. show? You might ask where all the partying was. I think most people understood what they were going to see at The Swedish American Hall, but there were probably a couple of confused fans at the end of the night, which is really too bad because I would say they actually got a quintessential Andrew W.K. show. The evening was W.K.’s whole philosophy fully realized and expressed. More than leading sing-a-longs during his lecture appearances or addressing the crowd at his concerts, I think this was the most successful integration of his interests in performance to date.

I may refer to separate “portions” of the evening, but to really understand this performance it pays to view it as one seamless meditation on the beauty of reality, complete with imperfections and surprises. The opening number featured a spastic beginning, as W.K. and Eric Byers (Cello) pretended to struggle in coordinating until they were joined by the rest of the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, violin; Andrew Bulbrook, violin; Jonathan Moerschel, viola.) This kind of thoughtful lack of polish continued into W.K.’s improvisations, into which he incorporated lung-wracking coughing fits, scraping his chair on the stage wildly, and sending his microphone skittering along the floor like a mouse with an extremely long tail.

Whether he intended them to be or not, these elements were a testament to the beauty of normalcy and the power of imagination. There was something this performance that reminds me of the simple pleasure one can derive from crinkling an empty water bottle. Of course, someone generally tells you to stop being annoying; or, if you’re young, takes the bottle away. The implied message of the night was, “Everything has merit. Everything is legitimate.” These moments were given just as much importance as the absolutely flawless performance from Calder Quartet, who dominated most of the first portion of the night while W.K. sat quietly behind his piano, actively listening. I didn’t realize it at first, but, when my friend noted he had been “giving us the tools” we’d need for the end of the performance, it would seem obvious in retrospect.

The intermission did not serve as a differentiating device between the classical and rock portions of the set. After a little conversation and comedy, the Calder Quartet resumed with Philip Glass’ piece, “Company.” After “Company” W.K. performed a slightly more serious improv piece before kicking off the second portion of the night with “I Get Wet.” It has been a long time since I was both psyched and confident enough to participate in a show, but Andrew W.K. successfully nurtured an environment where it was impossible not to feel good. Then there was the clapping. I’d be hard pressed to recall a time when seeing anyone have so much fun hand-slapping since pre-school. At certain moments there were no less than three dominant tempos, but it didn’t matter. Just like every aspect of the night, it was all part of the party. After a climactic ending, in which we were led around making all manner of hoots and whistles, W.K. announced he had one song left and took his place behind his baby grand, slapped the side, and sat …

The final piece was John Cage’s 4’33,” composed for any instrument and consisting of no notes. It was an excellent expression of the validity of the end of a party. Sometimes it’s fun to watch everyone leave and sit for a moment, reflecting on the incredible mess you and your fellow revelers made. This is where the active listening would prove handy. Unfortunately, not everyone was ready. The cat calls and cheek-plucking harmonies were somewhat frustrating, but I think we incorporated some of the values from W.K.'s first improv. There was a group outside who commented that there had been some very rich chair scrapes, at any rate.

Photo: [Andrew WK]

Kurt Vile / Coconuts / Birds of Maya
Kung Fu Necktie; Philadelphia, PA

[10-03-2009]

Kurt Vile played two shows in Philadelphia last weekend to celebrate this week’s release of Childish Prodigy. Friday he played a free in-store show at AKA Music, and Saturday night the band performed to a sold-out crowd at Kung Fu Necktie alongside fellow Philadelphians Birds Of Maya and New York’s Coconuts. Two of the more popular weekly papers — Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly — both devoted a few pages to Vile last week, the latter making his the cover story. Given the national attention that has been swarming around Vile for the past year, and this parochial buzz, he most likely could have sold out a much larger hometown venue. His decision to play at a record store and Kung Fu Necktie — a bar/performance space in Fishtown that maxes out at just over 100 people — is in alignment with the organic, working-class story that he has constructed thus far.

In order to properly experience the raucous energy and crucial guitar-antics of Birds Of Maya, an enclosed space packed with meltable bodies is necessary, and Kung Fu Necktie was perfect. They ripped through about 30 minutes of head-nodding tempo shifts and thrashing guitar-damage, producing the highest energy-vibe the club would feel for the night. An apt contemporary comparison of their sound can be made with San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips. However, while both bands embrace a hypnotic and repetitive drone structure, Birds Of Maya never remain settled in one groove for too long, practicing more frequent riff and beat transitions to keep things fresh and spontaneous. All those grumpy squares who whine about how rock is dead should be forced by the Rock Leviathan to stand up front at a Birds Of Maya show so that the band can unleash supreme justice and rip their fucking heads off.

{Coconuts}’ overuse of a piercing treble tone on every instrument made for one of the most unlistenable performances I’ve seen since I somehow ended up at a Belle & Sebastian show a few years ago. Anything negative that could be said — e.g., that my brain split in half from the stabbing tone, or that my ears unhappily bled from the incessant screech of poorly modified amps and guitars, or that the dub-echo on the drum was nauseating and puke-inducing, etc. — would likely please the band. They’d think those descriptions are more “cool” than negative. There’s no possibility of critiquing this aesthetic, which is what makes it more conservative than its devotees will ever admit.

I was expecting {Kurt Vile} to either open or close the show with a few solo songs, like “Blackberry Song” or “Heart Attack” from Childish Prodigy, but he did neither. Instead, he played a full set with The Violators (the ferocious Mike Zeng on drums, Jesse Turbo on guitar/bass/saxophone/harmonica, and Adam Granduciel on guitar). The band locked into a deep blues-groove on Childish Prodigy’s “Inside Lookin’ Out,” which is a modified version of “Good Lookin’ Out” from The Hunchback EP. Turbo’s reverb-drenched harmonica work gives the one-chord drone a glowing sonic dimension and, having seen the band perform several times now, I think his harmonica and saxophone contributions are an absolutely crucial element to the experience. Turbo played saxophone on Blues Control’s Local Flavor, namely on “Rest On Water,” and he provides a similarly profound and floating vibe that is essential to Vile’s vision of American rock music. One of the aspects of the band’s live performance that Childish Prodigy captures well is Vile’s confident vocal delivery — while at times on past recordings his singing is soft and intimate, his stage presence is much stronger and declarative, particularly with the vocal outbursts on tracks like “Freak Train.”

Toward the middle of the set, the band stumbled through an almost unrecognizable version of crowd favorite “Freeway.” I’m sure the stumbling was not intentional, but to interpret it so might be interesting. Many people likely attended just to hear that song, so the awkward version might have puzzled single-minded fans. Earlier in the evening, at another nearby bar, I overheard someone singing “I’ve got a trumpet and I know where to dump it,” and then express their excitement about the night’s show. While the band did experience a few more off-moments — at one point they had to restart a song after some confusion — there was enough rollicking action to keep energy and spirits high.

[Photo: Jenna Wilbur]

WFMU Fest: Faust / Cold Cave / Aluk Todolo
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY

[10-01-2009]

In his hard-to-find but continuously enjoyable Krautrocksampler, Julian Cope declares, “There is no group more mythical than Faust.” So, standing within inches of the band as it performed at the opening night of the WFMU Fest seemed like it would be a clarifying experience. Here was this legendary and elusive name, now physically embodied and definable, right there on the stage — but wait, what’s that? It’s a trumpet calling from the balcony.

Just when I thought I had identified the whole of Faust in front of me, another element beckoned from behind. Founding member Jean-Hervé Péron kicked off the set by blowing on a horn from the rear of the room and gradually making his way to the stage like a wayward member of a marching band. And throughout the night, the group continued to splinter the notion that it can be boiled down to any finite designation. A vacuum cleaner; a cement mixer; a mid-set painting interlude; a grinding wheel and piece of sheet metal colliding to shoot sparks across the stage; these were all parts of the Faust fluxus.

Sure, the band touched on much of their lauded early work, including multiple tunes from Faust IV (“Sad Skinhead,” “Jennifer,” “Krautrock") and tracks from its debut (“Miss Fortune”) and sophomore (“So Far”) albums. But those songs took on new shapes and curves with the help of recent additions James Johnston (a former Bad Seed) and Geraldine Swayne. Such classics morphed even further when plopped between spoken-word segments, playful improvisations and enthusiastic exclamations from Péron. After the group had given a post-encore bow at center stage, Péron capped the night by pretending to run headfirst into the belly of hulking drummer Zappi Diermaier. Why? Why not?

Two kinds of seriousness preceded Faust’s gleeful display. French psych-metal trio Aluk Todolo opened the night with heavy, brooding songs that stared straight into the abyss. Not even a broken string averted their gaze; guitarist Shantidas Riedacker maintained the group’s constant spaced-out squall while restringing his axe. Cold Cave followed, appearing as icy and dark as their name implies. The group’s detached Kraftwerk-esque manner came across as almost ostentatious, and their noisy synth-pop felt more fitting for a dimly lit bedroom with headphones than a bustling Brooklyn venue.

Faust quickly turned the night’s frown upside down, though, leaving Aluk Todolo to be the band most likely to have bargained with the devil and Cold Cave to be the most Teutonic. Instead of acting in line with the literary allusions of its name or conforming to the German stereotype, Faust was whatever its members’ whims dictated it to be, and that was by far the evening’s most gratifying experience.

Jeremy Jay
Zum Teufel; Heidelberg, Germany

[09-29-2009]

I’m not sure how they achieved it, but Los Angeles troubadour Jeremy Jay and his band managed to come off as focused and disengaged at the same time. None of the band members ever really looked at the audience, and Jay’s carefully bent right leg yelled hipster ennui at first glance, yet the band played with fierce earnestness.

The set was dominated by material from their recently recorded and as-yet-unreleased new album. It’s more aggressive than earlier recordings (at least live), and the post-punk vigor rarely lets up; even their icy synths sounded forceful. The intensity seemed appropriate on the tiny, red light-bathed stage in Zum Teufel (“to the devil”), a goth'd-out little bar on the outskirts of Heidelberg, though the more sedate tunes from their stellar Slow Dance LP would have lent the set some needed variation. New song “Just Dial My Number” got the crowd bobbing with its infectiously meandering lead guitar line and the band sounded exceedingly tight as they plunged into “We Were There,” with its waves of bright synthesizer and Jay’s lonely, yet confident, vocals.

When the performance ended abruptly after less than 40 minutes due its late start and the venue’s noise ordinance cut-off time, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what to think of the set. The bass bounced spryly, Jay’s croon and keen knack for melody were in good form, and the band’s shimmy toward Pixies territory is a great shift. Still, for some reason the show came off like it was building to something great, but later.

sunn 0))) / Eagle Twin
AS220; Providence, RI

[09-19-2009]

sunn 0))) and Eagle Twin packed AS220, the legendary Providence community center and art space. (Well, sunn 0))) drew the crowd, but Eagle Twin proved themselves good enough to headline a future tour.) I arrived at 8:30, half an hour after tickets went on sale and half an hour before the doors opened, and the line stretched maybe 200, 300 yards down the sidewalk. It was a long queue, but as far I know, everyone who showed up eventually got in. Those who forgot earplugs or didn’t bring them out of ignorance of the nature of the show asked to borrow from friends or neighbors; as soon as Eagle Twin plugged in and turned on, ears were plugged. For the first time in my concert-going experience, the volume wasn’t somewhere in between too-loud-for-unprotected-listening and too-quiet-for-plugs. No, the volume was somewhere in the sonic range of jet engines.

Eagle Twin played a brand of metal, rock taken to its logical conclusions, its absolute extremes. The singing was roaring; the lyrics were beyond epic and perhaps also beyond silly (one of the songs seemed to be a kind of creation myth: “Granite begat stone and violence / stone begat drum / wood begat songs” or something – there was a lot of alchemical, improbable begetting); the drumsticks were wielded like cudgels; the guitar actually deserved to be compared to an axe. It kicked ass, which is what rock music has always striven to do at its best, higher aspirations be damned. And its ass kicking was in some way manifest in the relationship between band and audience; the loudness of the sound, the aggression of the music, and the length of the performance (Eagle Twin played for 50 minutes and sunn 0))) for an eternity, I think) all suggested a fundamental antagonism. This would be more evident when sunn 0))) took the stage.

What I realized early in the night was that this music was gravitational (hence the names Earth and sunn 0))), perhaps). It took the once-in-a-lifetime decibel level of sunn 0))) for this thought to crystallize. I felt like a human divining rod. My clothes vibrated against my skin, the floorboards vibrated under my feet. When I sat against the wall, the wall conducted vibrations into my back. The entire space was in perpetual motion. sunn 0)))’s music transcended the category of music; it was a dramatic demonstration of the physical nature of sound. The wave property of the material world was constantly and thunderously evident.

Besides the initially rapturous feeling of being played like a tuning fork, I felt as though the immense force issuing from the wall of cabs on stage was trying to subsume me. And just when I thought the last chord had been struck -- the vocalist had left the stage a couple of minutes earlier -- he returned in a frightening costume: a towering, mummified corpse with a grotesque mask and an unwieldy arm resembling a gnarled, infected tree trunk. He screamed in an inhuman way, and a couple of people retreated to the bar area, apparently to recover.

sunn 0))) did some very cool things with a trombone, along with throat singing and whispering that was uncanny in its imitation of reversed vocals. Eagle Twin flaunted a jaw-dropping technique, modulating guitar feedback using an acoustic guitar and bass feedback using an electric guitar. None of that, however, is sure to remain with me. What I will remember is the feeling that the speaker cones might push enough air to make the building vibrate at its resonant frequency, might make the entire city block shudder and crack, collapsing on top of me in an ecstatic moment of relief, the sound finally succeeding in destroying itself.

Photo: [Evan Hunter]

Sir Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny, and Chris Corsano / Wally Shoup and Chris Corsano
The Sunset Tavern; Seattle, WA

[09-12-2009]

The tiny bar known as The Sunset Tavern has always played host to the misfits of the underground; musicians and artists so tired of being shoved into the small niche of genre and style that they continually push back despite the fact they’ll never be able to shake the labels we give as place-holding descriptors. Thankfully the four individuals who graced the stage at The Sunset on Sept. 12 don’t give two shits about how their albums are categorized by journos and record stores; they just want to make great music.

And make great music they did. I entered the venue just in time to catch the beginning caterwauls of Wally Shoup’s saxophone being flanked by Chris Corsano’s machine-gun rounds of snare and toms. Corsano has a reputation for being good accoutrement to any skilled saxophonist, honing his skills with legends the globe over (Paul Flaherty, Akira Sakata, et. al). The dynamic between the grayed Shoup and the baby-faced Corsano was far more explosive than that of past Corsano jazz duos, though it was Shoup who was allowed to take centerstage with a blend of jerky bellows and drawn-out blows. Shoup’s execution changes from minute to minute like a mood ring, frequently changing colors to reflect internal shifts. Corsano’s ability to gauge those rapid shifts and follow suit is a gift few rhythm musicians have. The set was short (barely 30 minutes), but it drew the interest of a scattered crowd, cowering in every nook of the small but somehow roomy club.

After a lengthy break, the crowd was treated to the main event: the unveiling of a new supergroup consisting of friends Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls), Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance, Comets on Fire), and Chris Corsano. The online marquee promised a night of free-form jazz. Shoup and Corsano delivered it in spades, but the trio of Bishop/Chasny/Corsano weren’t about to remotely hit a jazz note, launching into a skronk-filled seizure of psychedelia and classic rock. Bishop’s Middle Eastern influences were absent, Chasny’s folk tendencies replaced by angry spasms of punchy guitar, and Corsano’s earlier restraint tossed aside as his arms became the envy of Stretch Armstrong.

Over the course of 40 minutes and 5 songs, the newly minted group switched between early '80s no-wave spurred by the likes of Teenage Jesus and Sonic Youth, and more melodic psychedelia. Each and every note, chord, and drum smack was pure rock and roll ooze. Bishop and Chasny played with an old abandon once familiar to '70s arena rock, though the glossy production and slick stage show was replaced by the blood and guts of a genre that has been quartermained in every direction the past 30 years.

The crowd was immediately sucked in, with bearded and bespectacled masses bobbing heads and thrashing arms in unison — some wallflowers of course stuck to hands-in-pocket and eyes-on-shoes, but that’s to be expected in a world where dancing and movement have been relegated to signs of pop dominance, not physical displays of appreciation. Perhaps when the trio’s album arrives in the near future (they are currently in a Seattle studio working on an album with Scott Colburn), everyone will let their guard down and cut loose like Bishop, Chasny, and Corsano did at the Sunset.

Mountains / Chris Forsyth / Moral Crayfish
The First Unitarian Church; Philadelphia, PA

[09-09-2009]

The First Unitarian Church Chapel is a cozy room attached to a larger church that seats only 50 people and provides a profound space for live music, standing in direct contrast to the idle chatter and beer sweat that fills most other venues. The dark walls are brightened by the flourishes of gold-leaf stenciling that wind around the grooves of the intricate woodwork, creating a soothing glow when the lights dim. Given the mood emanating from the space and the robust sounds that Mountains captured on their excellent 2009 album, Choral (TMT Review), I was expecting nothing less than a religious experience.

Moral Crayfish, first in the lineup, is the recording project of Philadelphia’s Dan Cohoon, whose haunted guitar-drones were, on this night, accompanied by the free-percussion of Scott Verrastro, with whom he had never previously played. Cohoon built up a colossal wall of doom but allowed wraithlike shimmers to sneak through and softly cry. Verrastro’s bow-to-cymbal technique, gong-hits and bell-clangs provided a Silvester Anfang-esque, funeral-procession vibe that pushed the screeching guitar spirits out through the cracks around the edges of the windows and ceilings of the chapel.

Recent Philadelphia transplant Chris Forsyth stepped out from the secret door that connects to the altar and performed two pieces on electric guitar. The first piece exploited a repetitive phrase to induce a hypnotic effect, luring the audience into a labyrinth where high-notes rung out like seductive bells. For the second piece Forsyth built up a spiraling loop of dissonant notes that carefully taunted its own edge, always just a slip away from falling further into itself. Once the trance was established, long and calm string bends began to float above the swirl, instantly bringing to mind Peter Green’s guitar-line on Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” Eventually, though, Forsyth began ripping more furiously, unleashing interstellar runs up and down the neck, bringing his set to an intense conclusion.

If Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg of Mountains continue their collection of pedals and effects-gear, which is already a small city unto itself, then in the next few years they may be able to give Kevin Shields a run for his money. They began their long piece with effects-enhanced acoustic guitar loops to secure the foundation for their atmospheric wanderings. Once a warm layer of tones pulsed refreshingly through the room, they added various percussive loops to the soundscape. One of the most interesting aspects of Mountains’ music is their childlike playfulness and curiosity in regards to the possibilities of sound. This adventuresome spirit was exemplified by Holtkamp when he used an ordinary kitchen utensil, a whisk, for its percussive potentiality, thus challenging its established mode. Meanwhile, Anderegg played a Monkey Drum, the instrument that entered the Western mind from its appearance in Karate Kid II, providing a further element of play to the ever-expanding layers of sound.

Despite the addition of more and more instruments to the loop, a great openness remained, and when the dueling EBows were introduced they floated delicately within this space. The synth-fuzz-waves create sun-shimmers reminiscent of those that might happily awake one from a summer siesta, but the mood intensifies when the bass produces a more brooding, existential mood, calling to mind the heavy-sounds of a Michael Mann film. As the music gradually faded away, a humming was left lingering in the chapel that was either peaceful waves breaking against a shore or a terrifying wind blowing through nighttime trees. Mountains generously left this ambiguity intact for the audience to linger within.

[Photo: Jenna Wilbur]

Sharon Van Etten / Meg Baird
Joe’ s Pub, New York, NY

[09-04-2009]

Two ladies. Two crystalline, pure voices. One acoustic guitar, one electric. The quiet, candlelit confines of Joe’s Pub rumbling every few minutes as subway trains pass beneath the venue. This was the setting for Meg Baird and Sharon Van Etten’s Friday night engagement. While the subway claimed the low end and the venue offered a dim, lounge-y vibe, Baird and Van Etten dominated the high registers and offered up bright, moving sounds.

Baird, a member of Philadelphia folk rockers Espers when not performing on her own, was the first to perch on the stage’s stool and display her talents. Talking very little between songs, she offered a mix of traditional and original folk songs, deftly plucking her acoustic strings and singing in a smooth, timeless tenor. She steered away from tunes from 2007’s terrific Dear Companion, but treated the crowd to equally satisfying material. Baird’s approach to folk is somewhere between Appalachian traditions and the roaming English folk of Anne Briggs and Sandy Denny. This leaves her hovering somewhere over the Atlantic, and such territory seems appropriate for the expansive, blue-sky aura of her music. Steady and composed throughout her set, she seemed to channel the deep knowledge and well-worn comfort of the musical traditions that she has assumed.

Sharon Van Etten followed and brought a different but equally impressive approach. While Baird had lightly plucked her acoustic strings, Van Etten passionately strummed her electric guitar. Where Baird sang with a reserved, effortless beauty, Van Etten channeled heaps of emotion into her soaring voice. Her songs are simple in theory, but full of spirit and spunk when performed. Stopping a few times to tune and retune, she bantered and joked with the audience, displaying a humble but charismatic stage presence. Van Etten’s set included numerous songs from her recent debut, Because I Was In Love, but closed with the stellar “Damn Right,” which can be found on her self-released demo.

The thoroughly Manhattan vibe of Joe’s Pub was a strange place to witness this pair. Meg Baird’s songs would make more sense sitting on a log in a grassy mountain pasture. Sharon Van Etten’s music feels more at home in a no-frills Brooklyn bar, the type of place where one could often find her over the last few years. But both women are gaining momentum, and they excelled in the well-deserved spotlight of the city.

[Photo: Cat Stevens]

Party At The Pines! Big Sur Festival
Henry Miller Memorial Library; Big Sur, CA

[08-29-2009]

The Henry Miller Memorial Library, about 50 miles south of Monterey in the middle of Big Sur, right on the Pacific Coast Highway, is a rather odd place. Formerly a fan’s house, it is intended to serve as a dedication, a testament to a 20th century writer whose work has slowly been forgotten in recent decades. Surrounded by redwoods and a mountain, the space is marked by an open area that is only slightly larger than a backyard, with a stage built off to one side. According to its website, it has hosted many acts over a variety of genres, including Neil Young and Animal Collective. Yet it feels like the place is more suited for the former than the latter: A grassy area, a wooden stage, a large deck. Any show at this place would resemble a backyard party.

And that was the problem with Party at the Pines, a Kemado Records/Mexican Summer showcase. Despite several quality acts performing at the stage, none of them fit well with the venue or the crowd. Which is not to say any of the acts performed badly, only that they struggled to connect with an audience more attuned to the redwoods than the stage. The majority of the time, the crowd just sat on the grass and listened with lazy intent. Rousing them was a perplex challenge, since it was not entirely certain the music was even reaching them. Songs from the likes of Woods and the much-hyped Kurt Vile became less enjoyable simply because the crowd and venue prevented activity. It did not help matters much that the crowd was incredibly small for the venue: never exceeding 300 people, in an area that could easily fill to about 500. Given that advance tickets were sold out, it makes one wonder if the crowds were intentionally small.

For the most part the bands played as well as they could. Wooden Shjips’ psych-rock was pleasing and solid. VietNam’s bluesy jams catered to the audience’s relaxed attitude, though of course not without feeling disparate at times due to crowd inactivity. Farmer Dave Scher put up a respectable act, and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti actually did quite well, given their back history of poor showings. Gang Gang Dance (pictured) deserve props particularly for rousing at least some of the crowd within 3 minutes of starting, with Lizzi Bougatsos having a pronounced effect on the audience through her front-drumming and chanting. Dungen’s psych-pop was effective in the evening, and gave a nice allure to the whole setting. Saviours stuck out as the closer, their metal almost needing to have come sooner rather than later.

If all these bands played in a more confined setting, their performances would probably have been at least decent, if not fantastic. Many of them would do just that the next day in San Francisco, though in separate venues. Chalk up this experience as not a band issue, but a venue issue.

[Photo: Ze Pequeno]

Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes
Ravinia Festival; Highland Park, IL

[08-26-2009]

Chicago’s Ravinia is the perfect concert venue for people who don’t like to go to concerts. With its capacious outdoor lawn seating and BYOB policy, it leaves plenty of room for you to sprawl out on the grass and crack a few beers with some friends. Unfortunately, if you actually enjoy seeing something while you’re at a show… well, you may just have to learn to live with disappointment. Ravinia is the only place I’ve ever attended where the stage under the pavilion is actually below ground level. Even the LCD screens are too low to see over the crowd.

Fortunately, the band still sounded excellent. British singer/songwriter Elvis Costello buckled down for an evening of rambling Americana. Although backed by his latest studio ensemble, The Sugarcanes, Costello’s two-hours-and-change performance was surprisingly light on material from 2009’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. The bulk of his set consisted of re-workings of classic Costello songs, as well as a bevy of covers, such as Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” a Rockabilly'd-out rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Don’t You Lie to Me” and The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” re-imagined as a soothing country Waltz.

For the most part, Costello’s concert standards played well in the hands of his new outfit. My favorite moment of the evening came early on with “The Delivery Man.” The song sounded sharper and more ominous than the recorded version, and Costello’s voice approached a snarl as he spat out the final refrain and the whole thing combusted into a searing jam. Aside from that magnesium-flash of intensity, however, the rest of the concert unfolded much as one would expect: a seasoned performer, backed by a cadre of consummate professionals, giving an expert rendering (or in most cases, re-rendering) of several well-written songs. Staunch Costello-ites in the audience were doubtless thrilled to watch such a skilled craftsman re-interpreting some of his best material. For a more casual fan such as myself, it made for an enjoyable, if not especially memorable, performance, one suited to the casual atmosphere of the venue.

Setlist:

1. Mystery Train
2. All Time Doll
3. The Bottle Let Me Down
4. Down Among the Wine and Spirits
5. Blame It on Cain
6. Femme Fatale
7. Delivery Man
8. The Butcher’s Boy
9. Indoor Fireworks
10. Hidden Shame
11. Condemned Man
12. Friend of the Devil
13. Poisoned Rose
14. Mystery Dance
15. Don’t You Lie to Me
16. Every Day I Write the Book
17. Complicated Shadows
18. She
19. Brilliant Mistake
20. Sulphur to Sugarcane
21. Alison
22. ???
23. Happy
24. (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
25. The Race Is On

Photo: [Ex-Magician]