Pygmalion Music Festival 2008
September 17-20, 2008;

[September 17-20, 2008]

Music festivals, for what it’s worth, are as much about music as they are about the experience, which largely explains their draw over regular summer touring schedules. It’s also one of the main reasons I found myself at Urbana-Champaign’s Pygmalion Music Festival amidst an awesome lineup of bands composed heavily of artists that I had no clue about. Even the ones I purportedly went there to see, and claim to be a fan of, I know little about: I’ve seen Dan Deacon four times now, but still have only heard one of his records. I’ve seen Headlights four times too, but only own their most recent release. So, to be unleashed on this unfamiliar wilderness of a Big Ten college town amidst a mass of musicians was simply disorienting.



My friend and I were surprised and excited to find official Pygmalion tote bags waiting for us with our wristbands. Free goodies! Festival t-shirts! Complimentary issues of Paste! Free earplugs! Unfortunately, there was no real orientation guide for us, and we got lost looking for the first venue. We finally arrived halfway through Pontiak’s set; we were blown away by the level of musicianship displayed by this trio of brothers (all of whom resemble Will Oldham to some degree). Their riff-heavy indie stoner jams are likely to please fans of Black Sabbath and Animal Collective alike, and their continued alliance with Arbouretum is no surprise.

Pontiak was the first great revelation of the weekend, but unfortunately things went downhill from there. We saw Evangelicals stone-sober in the lobby of the University art museum, which was just plain weird. The normally effusive creators of this year’s sublime The Evening Descends were lacking in both energy and stage presence. They ran through that record like it was a hits compilation, with “Paperback Suicide” and “Midnight Vignette” sounding particularly good but overall flat.

We mistakenly missed the opportunity to see Murder By Death in lieu of the allure of beer at the Canopy Club. We ravenously attacked the $2 High Life specials (thank you, corporate sponsorship!) and then witnessed the rock ‘n’ roll swindle that is Monotonix – a really great guitar player, a shit-ton of stupid antics, and little-to-no substance. I’ve seen them twice now, and I never want or need to see them again. This must have been the evening of Spectacle.

The awful taste in my mouth left by Monotonix gave way to the blissful noise of Dark Meat. Taking the stage with something like 12 members, including 2 drummers, Dark Meat seemed to have the most fun of any band that night. They were also the loudest, just about destroying the already sub-standard sound at the Canopy Club, leaving us to revel in their wall of sound. Even if the intricacies of their sound were indiscernible, they were a blast two witness live.

The evening closed with the aforementioned Dan Deacon Fiasco. With the sound all but gone, Deacon’s music was reduced to static and a modest beat, while a host of hipsters danced to nothing. Inviting the audience onto the stage caused it to collapse. Still, the party persisted in the audience, at least until some fan got kicked in the face by a crowd-surfer and the plug on the night was pulled. It would have been unfortunate under normal conditions, except that I couldn’t help but feel that we had been spared actually having to wait through Deacon’s entire performance. It was pitiful and unfortunate, showing that a Dan Deacon show can’t be a perfect party every night.


{Friday }

With Thursday night marking the low-point of the festival, we turned to a long night of music Friday to set things right. We started off with our friends The Lonelyhearts, a duo who write lengthy narrative songs on the sparse landscape of 12-string guitar and a lone synthesizer. Their new record, Disaster Footage at Night, is one of the year’s unheralded gems, so I was among the privileged few who got to see them at their last live show of 2008. We then caught Owen at the aforementioned art museum, whose one-man confessional act was far more appropriate for the museum, balancing his acrid, stinging lyrics with an ability to make his acoustic guitar fill the room. The lineage from American Football is present and visible, and he was one of the surprise highlights of the festival.

We stuck around for Santa, the band who so graciously hosted us for the weekend, and enjoyed their manic yet pleasing indie pop. Clearly bringing out heads with their considerable undergrad following, the energy in the art museum was palpable. We booked it back to the Canopy after their performance and were delightfully greeted by the next big revelation: Titus Andronicus. Their triple-barreled guitar assault recalled the power-pop of The Thermals born out of the swamps of New Jersey. This band is seriously tremendous live. Black Mountain was next. They sounded great, but they've made little impact on my life, even after seeing their live show -- the perpetual “not my thing” band. We stumbled out into the night with the mash-ups of the Hood Internet playing behind us, more interested in carousing with bands in the downstairs VIP area than joining the crowd they attracted.



This final day of the festival presented the Yo La Tengo quandary; is it essential to go see them just because they are a legendary indie rock band? Turns out it was and it wasn’t. They played in the massive Krannert Center for Performing Arts, worlds away from the beer and atmosphere of the Canopy Club. Twenty-five minutes of their set was all I needed, and I ducked out the back. Seeing indie rock in a concert hall like that is always a little weird. To their credit, they tore it up, but they felt so distant and, to some degree, scripted. There were clearly a ton of people who were very excited about the show, but I took my chances and bailed.

High Places provided an appropriate substitute. The band has been hyped like few others in 2008, but I must admit that the buzz is justified. Their tropical-influenced take on modest pop is infectious, and the drumming is mesmerizing. They were one of the only bands I could describe as danceable, which was a good break from a lot of loud noise.

The Canopy Club provided the grand finale of the weekend with the Polyvinyl Records showcase. The M's were uninspiring and drab, but Headlights and Asobi Seksu were so impressive that the weekend ended on an unexpected high note. The lack of critical attention for Headlights' 2008 album Some Racing, Some Stopping is confounding; meanwhile, their live show keeps getting better every time I see them. It's like witnessing the reunion of old friends, with all kinds of energy and smiles and good vibes. But what really counts is how good they make these songs sound live. The translation of "So Much For the Afternoon" from slow jam to full-on pop stomp is impressive.

Headlights were followed by Asobi Seksu, the final band of the weekend. I thought about skipping them, but I couldn't resist sticking around for one last performance. Luckily, they didn't disappoint. I had always thought of them as primarily steeped in shoegaze, but their indulgences in pure pop tendencies combined with their big sound (the Canopy finally got its sound right) was a delight, a perfect way to end the weekend.

Pygmalion 2008 was long, loud, and flawed. But like any good festival, I found some new bands to fawn over. Some aspects of the festival were unwieldy and inconvenient -- it's really spread out, and the lack of alcohol at some of the venues was unfortunate -- but in offering a small, local, and cutting-edge festival, Pygmalion succeeds on the whole. Although I didn't get to see everyone, and although I didn't like everyone I saw, it was a very successful weekend of live music. When I got home, I was ready to rest, which in this case was a good sign.

Treasure Island Music Festival 2008
September 20-21, 2008;

[September 20-21, 2008]

{Day 1}

A bus with beautiful leather seats delivers us across the great silver highway in the sky to Treasure Island, a man-made island just off the coast of San Francisco, originally built for the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair. Since then, this island has housed the military, the projects, and now the Treasure Island Music Festival.

"Where are the people?" says Robyn the Photographer. Militaristic buildings and an eerie emptiness make Treasure Island feel like the North/South Korean DMZ. Or a ’70s sci-fi thriller. The strange quiet — even though people do live here — only lasts until we reach the bayside pasture where the TIMF is already alive with bright young stars.

The mechanism in place to check papers and provide infrastructure is impressive and well-organized. As I walk in, Heineken serves samples of beer in tiny plastic cups.


- {Aesop Rock}
2:06 PM: As much in support of turntablism as he is in support of rap, Aesop Rock spins, pops, and scratches out a dignified opening for this festival, which in that moment has the flavor of an MTV Spring Break party — and I mean that in a good way!

Aesop Rock announces himself as, "One of the only hip-hop acts here." He is supported by DJ Big Whiz, an astonishing turntablist.


- {Nortec Collective}

A blend of Norteno and techno, Nortec Collective is like listening to Mexican radio on ecstasy. Cheesy, high trumpet, cloying 2-beat sizzles spicily along with psychedelic echoes and bassy beats. The DJ looks like Yul Brenner in Westworld with his 10-gallon hat, western jacket, cowboy boots, and bolo tie jangling as he rocks the block with laptop and sampler.

Nortec Collective is weird, but beautifully ass-kicking. I pass someone with a vintage NES controller for a belt buckle. Another girl sits bug-eyed and nervous like it's her first time on acid. Is this the feeling of "indie"? Contradicting systems and references swirl around me.


- {Antibalas}

A 10-piece with horns, bongos, afro-cuban grooves, Maynard Ferguson screaming jazz flamboyance, and the requisite nerdy, bearded, 4-eyed frontman, Antibalas is an exercise in polyrhythm. The frontman asks the audience to chant a counter rhythm, and they do, while the horn section kicks and punches a little booty shakin' out of this slightly sluggish afternoon crowd.


- {Hot Chip}

Some independent thinkers bought Erasure albums in the ’80s.

Hot Chip's harmonies are as beautiful and well-executed live as they are on the album. Gentle synthesizers and heavily-delayed guitars dance and bobble around me like so many barely-legal strumpets in hot pants. Fueled by a second or third afternoon beer, a little ironic disco bumping and grinding commences in the crowd.

These guys are awesome. Long live synth pop! Someone yells.

Someone who sounded like Ringo Starr introduced Hot Chip as having come from "all the way across the pond." And now, this is finally a party.

Eventually, Hot Chip covers "Nothing Compares to You" and the crowd sways, the mood is dreamy. Life seems beautiful.


- {Amon Tobin}

At last, an electronic music legend, my IDM hero, my MySpace friend: Amon Tobin quietly takes the stage. Echoes and burbling, watery tones (tones that sound like they are submerged in water) swirl from speaker to speaker. Random screams bubble up from the crowd. They're eager for the beat to drop.

A beautiful girl smiles at me (or maybe someone right behind me). Her shirt caresses my arm, and I am struck by the sensuality of Amon Tobin, whose swirling echoes give birth to hip hop beats. "His secret is a combination of audiophile-approved blips and beeps, art-o-phile-approved post-structural order-from-chaos-style sound-collage, and hot-girl-approved dark-eyed smoldering Brazilian sexy man-ness" (Igloo Magazine 05.25.07). It's the kind of music that makes hips circle slowly left, then right. Unlike anyone I've seen here yet, Amon is alone on stage — a gaggle of photographers crowd below, eager to click the man who made IDM sexy.


- {The Portapotty}

Long lines. Really long lines. A girl in line who happens to be holding the same mid-size bottle of Jameson that I am tells me about a recently discovered city hidden beneath Machu Picchu, thousands of years older than the ruins there now. We talk about Graham Hancock and the 2012 apocalypse as I awkwardly dance the pee dance — from one foot to another — until we pee at last. We are pee at last! Let freedom ring.

I emerge and Amon Tobin has switched to drum and bass.


- {Goldfrapp}

The band wears all white. Goldfrapp are dreamy, heroin shimmers. There's a harp on stage. The bassist's guitar is transparent. Blond and dreamy, Mrs. Goldfrapp wails a haunting falsetto, and I'm transported to Merlin's England where dragon's breath hangs over a magical wood.

I share a joint with a wood sprite.

The instruments blow like so many rivers to a sea of soft, elegant, radiant dream pop. They're something like the Cocteau Twins, but not as weird. Does Mrs. Goldfrapp even know Esperanto? In the early ’80s, I think Goldfrapp bought Blondie's Autoamerican and The Cocteau Twins Garlands and listened to them at the same time.

Alison Goldfrapp asks the audience, "Are you okay?" Everyone says, "Yeah!" And she sings, "You're my number one…" Somehow, I feel like she is singing directly to me, as I wander away from the stage to the perimeter of the festival grounds.

Resourceful kids sit on the rocky rim of Treasure Island, outside the fence. Security guards scowl and yell things at them. I sit.


- {Mike Relm}

Earlier, I was lucky enough to interview Mike for three and a quarter minutes:

In his mashup set, Mike mixes Linus and Lucy with Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name," which he mutes on the chorus so the crowd can chime in with "Now go do what they told ya!" so enthusiastically, like they'd been expecting and practicing their part.


- {TV On The Radio}

"Thank you for your time." Drums, horns, fuzzy guitar pours like honey into a cup of tea, or over an eager audience. I am immediately aware that TV On The Radio is on a different level, a higher level of talent and experience than the other groups here. They've come all the way from the East Coast to educate these kids who are picking up the indie rock torch that TV On The Radio helped to light. The last time I saw them, they were reminiscing with the audience about SF experimental rock groups of the early ’90s. Yesterday, I read a story about them in the New York Times about their über-cool Williamsburg studio. So it goes. Good for them.

These songs are always running as fast as they can possibly go. The tempo pushes and shoves ahead not like fast music, but like a volcano. Kids keep shoving past me, toward the front, eager to leap and burn in TV On The Radio's molten sonic goo. Members of Antibalas play horns with them on a few songs.

"This is a song for San Francisco!" the heroic singer says before playing "Wolf Like Me." "We have a new record coming out on... Tuesday," he says. TV On The Radio is, as always, so good I don't know what to do. I just stand in awe. They talk about how good the other bands have been, and I'm charmed. They're right. Everyone here has been amazing.


- {Robyn the Photographer}

Robyn the Photographer has managed to get another gentle photog uproariously drunk on the absinthe she brought in a thermos. I offer him a sip of my Jameson bottle: "Hell yeah, my nigga!" he says. Familiar systems of reference are disrupted, and I experience bliss.


- {CSS (Cansei de ser Sexy) – at last.}

The photogs argue: Who is better: Justice or CSS? I assert that my respect is with Justice, but my heart is with CSS — who are beginning now.

Lovefoxxx releases a huge bunch of balloons into the air, and the show begins. Known for outrageous outfits, Lovefoxxx does not disappoint: thousands of ridiculous curly tubes hang from her body. Her hair is like Evita.

"San Francisco is the home of beaches and gays... and gay beaches... and bitchin' gays!" Lovefoxxx is so adorable, so endearing. She entreats the crowd with a sweet, girlish voice, making little quips between songs. And during the songs, she dances like Tina Turner.

"This next song is called ‘We like Obama.’ It's called ‘We cannot vote but if we could we would vote for Obama,’" and they play "Music is My Hot, Hot Sex." She walks atop the crowd like Jesus on water, and a halo of digital viewscreens surround her. She is pure goddess, pure holy power, pure good, pure evil. She speaks, my heart skips, I gasp. The power of Lovefoxxx compels me.


- {Justice}

Two angels grab my hand and scream, "Justice!!!" and I'm whisked away from CSS to the front of the Justice stage moments before they begin. Writing is difficult here, dear reader, but I press on for you.

Justice are surrounded by Marshall cabinets, nine stacked on each side, with their signature glowing cross in the middle. The bass is so powerful that it rattles my insides and threatens my ear drums. Justice is the Guns and Roses of electronic dance music. They are like Daft Punk, but with penis and testicles.

Like Daft Punk, this is minimal house, with the emphasis on making their simple basslines the biggest, most destructive, disembodying, divine sound of all time. The audience shrieks with glee, and a thousand digital viewscreens elevate in front of me.

There's really no way to describe the bass — so huge, so immersive. Like enormous, blubberous whales falling from the sky; thousands of them cascading down on so many holy, hopeful, tiny dancers. We drown in bass, we are redeemed in bass. I soak in bass and my wounds are healed. Suddenly the Marshall cabs burst in light! They're lit from the inside!! Everyone goes crazy. The shadows of a thousand hands dance on the white gauze stage curtains.

"We…are…your friends, you'll…never be along again, so c'mon..." Then synth sizzles, guitar strums, and magnanimous bass erupts to free the slaves, give birth to the soul, and enlighten the masses in holy, holy vibrations.




{Day 2}

Hungover and tired, I had the foresight to bring two flasks today. I start the day exploring the myriad of booths. The Treasure Island Music Festival celebrates independently produced music as well as independently produced art, writing, crafts, and even education via Dave Egger's own 826 Valencia, who have a booth there, too.


- {Okkervil River}

So much guitar! Okkervil River seem like they're having fun. Will Sheff does that thing that The Killers (and many others) singer does where he opens his mouth real wide when he sings his vowels: "She can't hi(iiioooiiiiyyyeee)de!" Everything sounds like a sensitive "Oiyeee!"

They're interactive. Singer encourages audience to clap, sing along:

"C'mon! It's early in the day. You've still got a lot of energy to clap! I know you have the energy deep inside you to clap! I want to see all of your hands!!" (Sheff's candor is actually really endearing.)

I, for one, don't clap. Day one was electric and exciting. Day 2 starts as a chore. This will not be helped by the fact that today's pastiche of bands are largely indie rock, so therefore they emphasize irony and sadness (which makes me feel self-conscious), while yesterday's more electronic dance-oriented groups emphasized dancing (which makes me want to live, love, be free).


- {Fleet Foxes}

A strange cacophony of beautiful (and well-executed) harmonies. At the beginning, they are The Doobie Brothers, but then they turn into dreamy, droney, echo-driven post-rock.

And then they turn into Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. They are perfect Sunday afternoon music: gentle, delicate, undistorted, with locomotive shuffle snare and golden cymbals to emphasize the golden harmonies. Like so many of these classic rock-inspired indie rock bands, you think you're getting soft rock radio, until they do something weird. The irony is subtle. It never breaks a smile.

The band pauses between songs to argue about what genre they are.


- {Vampire Weekend}

Darlings of indie pop, Vampire Weekend draws the first big crowd of the day. Photog is unable to get into the pit to click Vampire Weekend. Their managers are fussy. They take themselves very seriously, it turns out.

Wow, Vampire Weekend play these songs really well. They are pure honey-sweet bouncing afro-pop — just like on the album. Self-importance hangs over the stage like a whiny storm. But this is kind of their shtick, right? Snotty, preppy, Upper East Side kids? Life imitates art and art follows suit.

The fan kids have the fancy jeans, and even though it's windy, girls are wearing skirts. From where I sit, tired and beer-scented on the grass, I can see up their skirts.

I stew while Vampire Weekend performs certainly and elegantly — just like on their album. So, it's a good show, but they don't want my love like Okkervil River did. So, maybe something is lost. But maybe I'm just not a teen excited about my jeans anymore.

"Vibrations straight from fingertips to larynx and out the nether chakras," says Robyn the Photographer.

Where's the balls? Where's the sex? Where's the transcendence?! Where's the sheer, childlike beauty? They left it in the studio. I become distracted. The audience is entertained, but not inspired, lulled but not moved; except for the pack of douchebags nearby, who are eager to sing the album word for word, right along with the band.


- {Dr. Dog}

Dr. Dog was gracious enough to give me 7 minutes of their time for an interview earlier:

Dr. Dog played like warrior poets: beautiful, dreamy, Beatlemania.


- {Tegan & Sara}

Even though they can't be more than 11 or 12 years old (j/k!), I get the feeling that Tegan & Sara are part of the old guard here. They're sweet and sentimental. They are bright and brilliant, and they push the tempo like the Indigo Girls do when they play live, with harmonies quavering like Liz Frazier.

Next, on Bridge Stage, is The Kills. I'm wondering if it might be better to skip them so that I can get to the front of The Raconteurs show.


- {The Kills}

I decide to forgo The Kills show. Robyn the Photographer goes. They ruled, apparently:


- {The Raconteurs}

I'm finally here: crowded at the front with the other folks who have forsaken The Kills to cram up to the holy Jack White pulpit. We cram up there for an hour-and-fifteen minutes.

Suburban mom rubs against my left side. I offer her some whiskey. She accepts. We share a nice moment. And then she tells me that this is her daughter's (15) and nephew's (14) first concert. They turn out to be crammed in right behind me. Her husband is crammed behind them. It's a family affair.

And after a school of attentive roadies have turned every nob just so, The Raconteurs take the stage. Cherry chapsticked mouths squeal, pimpled faces light up, bright eyes open wide.

Jack White is like Robert Plant: he wails, ladies swoon. No matter what the publicist says, Jack White is the front man of The Raconteurs. This is his band.

Anyone can see why Jack White has chosen these extraordinary players. They possess the extraordinary talent and disciplined musicianship that Jack White has been longing for.

Brandon says, "We're The Raconteurs from Nashville, Tennessee," and I'm confused. I thought Jack White was from Detroit. They must be trying to be cute. Fucking clever steam punks.

At times, they are corny classic rock, but in spite of it all, they are just so fucking good. These are the best musicians in rock today, and they are all here to prop up the master: Jack White. Jack White who bleeds like Jesus, Jack White who hunts the great white whale, Jack White who entreats all the girls in the audience to come on over get some Coca-Cola. And he tells the boys in the audience to put on a collar, a tie, and to pray.

Holy gospel pours from beautiful harmonies and elegant rhythms. Power from electricity, power from sex, power from the pure joy of rock ‘n’ roll. Jack White might be better than any human has ever been on that guitar of his. (It's called "hyperbole")

"Though I always seem to win, I always play to lose," he sings. "That's why I think I've got the rich kid's blues."

As their momentum builds, they start to sound a bit like MC5 — but the way MC5 always wanted to sound.


- {The End}

I'm tired, but I go home electrified. Thanks, Treasure Island Music Festival! I love you!! An exercise in creative contradictions and wholesome, shameless talent, the Treasure Island Music Festival charms the pants off of even the bitterest and hippest of the bunch. I can't wait to see what these kids cook up next year.

[Photo: Robyn Johnson]

Sunset Rubdown
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL


“Looks like it’s gonna be FULL Bottle tonight.” This barely clever but totally correct statement was made as I stood in line outside the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Hearing it made me excited. It may just be my own perception, but I always thought Sunset Rubdown have never received the full acclaim that their music warrants (despite consistently appearing on year-end lists), so I was ecstatic to see the strong turnout. In fact, I was especially excited to share the Spencer Krug Experience in a venue that seemed tailor made for them. The Empty Bottle is easily one of my favorite places in the Windy City: cozy, inviting, and intimate, in a way that most venues fail to even approximate. There is nary a bad seat in the house.

I've seen Sunset Rubdown a handful of times now, and I've concluded that, for them, the bigger the venue, the less interesting the show. This show did not break that mold. This time, I was close enough to keep my eyes locked on Krug’s eyes the whole show, which created a tension and connection that only venues like the Empty Bottle could recreate. I felt as if he was singing right to me, which, despite the cliché of that statement, is indicative of how engaging the performance was. The inherent nature of his songs almost necessitates this kind of intimacy. One of the highlights of the evening occurred when, after a guitar string broke, Krug played a slowed-down, quiet version of "I’ll Believe in Anything" -- a Wolf Parade song that was originally intended for Sunset Rubdown -- as the crowd sand along with every word. This moment would have been lost in any other venue.

The majority of the set was built around a handful of new songs, but despite the unfamiliarity, they managed to get the audience moving. Although the new songs replicate the elements that make Sunset Rubdown interesting in the first place, they also push their sound into interesting and exciting new territory. The band played them with the pride seen in a new mother’s eyes, yet there was also a nervous energy present: you could tell the band enjoyed playing the new songs, and they hoped you liked hearing them, too.

The remainder of the set was a showcase for the songs that we, as fans, have come to wholeheartedly embrace. "Mending of the Gown" was played with the reckless abandon that it deserves, while "Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days" was presented with the peculiar beauty that most of Krug’s songs possess. However, anticipation had built for a pair of songs that were continually being requested throughout the night: "Stadiums and Shrines II" and "Us Ones In Between." When these songs were finally played, the whole crowd breathed a sigh of relief. They were glorious, nakedly elegant, and gorgeously played. The whole venue shook with drums, rang with guitars, and overflowed with voices. Indeed, this was a good show, loud and raucous, and, unlike so many shows where the audience and artist are clearly distanced, this show felt unmistakably connected.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Crystal Ballroom; Portland, OR


It took four songs for Nick Cave to acknowledge the repeated calls of “Happy birthday.” Appearing with the Bad Seeds for the first time on a North American tour since 2003, Cave showed up ready to kill. Up to that point, Cave and his six-piece band had barreled their way through three cuts off their newest album, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, as well as the Bad Seed classic “Tupelo.” “Yeah, that’s right, it’s my motherfucking birthday,” Cave, who turned 51 that evening, said. “I’m disgracefully old.” The band then launched into “The Weeping Song,” where Cave did double vocal duty to cover for the departed Blixa Bargeld.

I decided to get to the show early and settle into a good spot up front. I had seen Nick Cave many times before, and I knew that his style of visceral and confrontational rock is best experienced up close. Cave’s fans are hardcore. Black clothes aside, I saw more than few fans with Cave-related tattoos. They were ready to see their idol, who despite touring and recording non-stop, has not played on these shores with the Bad Seeds in a long time.

At least he did not disappoint. Dressed in a black suit, receding hairline, and porn mustache dyed ebony, Cave pulled his microphone stand to the edge of the stage and immediately burst into kicks and contortions over the drone of “Night of the Lotus Eaters.” With his shirt unbuttoned and a necklace of beads jangling against his hairless chest, Cave prowled the stage, reaching and pointing to the audience. The crowd pressed forward to touch Cave, a facsimile of the Christ that haunts his songwriting.

Cave is such a dynamic performer that it is easy to ignore the six other members of the band. Longtime partner Mick Harvey and Dirty Three virtuoso Warren Ellis led the tight Bad Seeds, a perfect complement to Cave’s ragged fury. After a period of writing stately ballads and ghostly love songs, this incarnation of the Bad Seeds did nothing short of piss fire. After last year’s garage rock side project Grinderman, Cave has been revisited by the anger and flames that occupied his earliest records. Before Grinderman, Cave either performed without an instrument or played the occasional piano. But for a few songs at this show, Cave played the guitar. No virtuoso by any means, Cave provided blasts of noise that filled in the atmospheric web created by the Bad Seeds.

The 19-song set featured a mix from Lazarus and the “hits” Cave aficionados would expect. But the newfound aggression that seethes in the latest tracks found its way into the older tunes. “The Mercy Seat,” always a slow-burner, crackled with terror, and the obligatory “Red Right Hand” sounded fresher than it has in years. Cave’s intensity hit a critical peak on “We Call Upon the Author,” where he paced the stage admonishing the audience about the end of the times. Though cliché, the mad preacher image is apropos.

Throughout the show, Cave came perilously close to the audience. At one point, a dude, obviously tripping, came flailing up to the front. He bumped off the people around me like a mad hatter, receiving blows and pushes from the fairly restrained group. As the song ended, Cave leapt forward, balancing on the rail between the stage and the crowd to signal security to get the man out. When the man refused to go, Cave tried to reason with him, offering him a seat (“a stool” or “a toadstool”) for him to sit upon on the side of the stage. When security finally dragged the guy out, Cave graciously leaned over the stage and patted him on the chest.

After putting an end to a blistering first set with “No News From Nowhere,” the Bad Seeds began the encore with “Love Letter.” This was the first actual ballad of the evening, and as Cave took his place behind the piano, the band reverted back to the torch-song reveries that filled albums like The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. But the respite was brief, and Cave soon asked the audience to join the call-and-response of “The Lyre of Orpheus.” At this moment, Cave reached into the audience (and I know I sound like a douche bag) and grasped my hand, intertwining his fingers with mine. The people around me seemed to love it as much as I did. They patted me on the back and shook my hand. The energy exchange for me was intense, but what an ego Cave must have with throngs of people just wanting to touch him.

The Bad Seeds finished off the show with the notorious “Stagger Lee” (it features one of rock’s most cringe-worthy lyrics -- see the video below). As Cave sang of rape and murder, the band thundered around him. And then the song ended. Cave, drenched in sweat, thanked the audience and rushed off the stage to celebrate his motherfucking birthday on his own terms.


Photo: [Nick Cave's MySpace]

The Builders & The Butchers
Mercury Lounge; New York, NY


The Builders & The Butchers' sound is hard to peg down. Portland's Willamette Week called them, "A demon-possessed Southern Baptist preacher leading a requiem at a swamp-set, barn-burning hoedown." I'm not quite sure that description does them justice, but my own came up short with "Americana Punk."

Waiting for the show to begin, I began to notice the deliberate lack of electric instruments. It looks as if they could play without amplifiers if not for the light conversation running throughout the crowd. But with the simple sentence "Hi, we're the Builders & The Butchers," the humble band that seemed subdued only seconds earlier explodes into a torrent of movement and sound.

Frontman Ryan Sollee has a John Darnielle-sque quality to him, in that each lyric belongs to a story of a distant place and time, but he still seems pained to sing them. His face contorts, as if the sweat dripping from his forehead is burning his eyes. His feet stomp, guitar slung high across his chest; Sollee is a man possessed, . The entire band is possessed; the audience is possessed. Sollee's like a caricature of Leadbelly crossed with Bon Jovi. One second he is intently focused on the microphone in front of him, aching to get the words out, and the next guitars become axes and are being held high against one another for dramatic effect.

There is constant movement all around the stage. Not only from Sollee, but from the rest of the band. Two percussionists surrounded by a staircase of bass drums leading up to a snare -- always in motion. Their arms are flailing, feet stomping, various smaller percussion filling in gaps left by the drums. Tambourines snap back and fourth. Banjo/Mandolin to stage left, an acoustic bass player (who looks strangely like Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls from This Is Spinal Tap) on stage right.

This show should have been played on a street corner in the 1930s, not the Lower East Side of New York City. Each song sounds like it was written by someone who has been sitting in a library too long, reading tales of deception and hardships from long ago. The Builders' "Red Hands" repeats, "When you take a man's life you fall down/ You fall from the grace of god," while song titles range from "The Gallows" to "Bottom of the Lake."

Once told by the sound tech that they only had two songs left, Sollee began to hand out tambourines to several members of the audience. For the next five minutes, the audience was a flurry of noise. I had never seen a band take such great care of an audience before. They have mastered the give-and-take that is the relationship between band and crowd. As much as we were pumping along, the band pushed us even harder, trying to get that much more out of us.

In the interest of full disclosure, both Sollee and I went to the same school in Alaska and worked at the same college radio station (albeit at different times). Refreshingly, I can still hear a bit of the openness of Alaska in his songs.

My Bloody Valentine
Aragon Ballroom; Chicago, IL


1991. I was five years old in 1991. I had barely begun developing long-term memories, let alone an understanding of music. Had someone then told me this would be the last time My Bloody Valentine would tour until I got out of college, I would have thrown my toy at them and ran off to find my parents, calling that person “weirdo” in the process.

Seventeen years have passed, and now I'm the weirdo.

Standing in the middle of the Aragon Ballroom, I saw a small contingent of people here and there who were old enough to not only remember My Bloody Valentine then, but to have also seen them perform live. But the vast majority of the crowd in the venue was around my age. And unlike the older crowd, the only expectations we had were based on: (1) listening to Loveless and Isn’t Anything, as well as any EP or compilation they could find or pirate, (2) live reviews and news reports, and (3) primitive YouTube footage of the London rehearsals and previous shows. In other words, we had very little to go by, other than that they were notoriously loud and sounded about the same as they did 17 years ago. Kevin Shields and crew met those two expectations. But there were a lot of other things they did as well.

Granted, we knew it was going to be a loud show because the bouncers were handing out earplugs, “courtesy of the band.” But the moment the band started playing, 10 minutes after the lights dimmed around 9:10, we realized that these earplugs were not just a courtesy, but a requirement. Only one person in the crowd near me went without earplugs. I pitied him, for there is no metaphor to describe the volume. It might be the loudest event that I have heard and will ever hear. By the time they finished “Nothing Much to Lose” about 40 minutes in, I could already hear the ringing in my ears. And they would play for another hour.

Another health hazard came into play at the very beginning. The moment the band opened with “I Only Said,” the stage became so inundated with bright, rapid-fire flashes from above, it would have taken only three seconds for the sensitive to commence convulsing. The situation became disorienting quick for everyone involved. And yet, you could feel that was the intent: “I Only Said” was always a very jarring piece, feeling at times like an acid trip. The volume, the intense lighting, even Shields’s slapdash approach to the wah-wah effect made that disorientation all the more poignant.

As the band continued, cutting through favorites such as “Only Shallow,” “Thorn,” and “Soon,” their stranglehold on the crowd was intense. Even when there were a few moments of silence between songs -- as Shields or Bilinda Butcher switched and tuned guitars -- the momentum was never lost. This band had confidence. In turn, the crowd was pleased, earplugs and all. There were very few request shouts and cat-calls. The only time the crowd got wary was the end of “To Here Knows When,” which dragged an extra few minutes.

The band’s presence and mechanics were subdued in comparison. Debbie Googe never moved from her spot close to the bass cabs and drums. Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drumming was clear and consistent, but never over-the-top. Shields and Butcher’s vocals were barely noticeable amongst the layers of guitars and bass, a band trademark. Even between songs, a setlist that has mostly been in place since their first official show in Glasgow, the only time the band even spoke to the crowd was to thank them before their final song. Yet the crowd never wavered. The band was calm, and there were no signs of tension or distress.

The final point that marked the night was the visuals. When the lights and generated fog were lessened, the backdrop constantly shifted in repeated projections and lamp movements. There was a synesthetic intent to these projections: they helped create a visual frame to their music. It also made the songs much more lively. This point was never more apparent than during the closer “You Made Me Realise,” which entered into a 25-minute jam that sounded like the space shuttle got stuck in ignition. Despite the drone, the crowd enjoyed it, sans one beer-throwing member who did not even reach the security fence. Even as the band walked off stage, there was a small hope amongst many for at least another song, the euphoria apparent.

Seventeen years have past since My Bloody Valentine's last tour, and with shoegazing all but dead, one wonders what could possibly motivate them to return after all this time? It helps very little that no new material, particularly of the self-hyped third album, was played tonight. And 17 years have brought in an entirely new and different audience, including myself. But no matter their motivation, My Bloody Valentine sounded like they hadn't ever disappeared, never giving any indication that they would be stopping anytime soon. And, a few days of tinnitus aside, that is something to be hopeful for.

[Photo: PictureResearcher]

Okkervil River
Crystal Ballroom; Portland, OR


“Holy shit, I can’t believe we’re playing the Crystal Ballroom,” Will Sheff shouted as his band took the stage before a marginally filled house. Ever since exploding onto the scene with his 2005 breakthrough Black Sheep Boy, Sheff and Okkervil River seem to have no intention of going anywhere but up. Three years, two albums, two EPs, a free cover albums, and countless shows later, Okkervil River are playing bigger venues now, yet they still haven’t achieved the level of fame (or notoriety) as contemporaries The Hold Steady and The National. So what gives?

“Will Sheff sounds too much like Adam Duritz,” one of my friends said, growing reed around his collar with ire whenever I play him an Okkervil River track. “Something about the music is so depressing it makes me want to curl up,” said another. But if the band may sound like a (much) better version of the Counting Crows and Sheff spits lyrics that are both thoughtful and saddening, there is no denying that this band is red-hot right now, as evidenced by a scorching performance at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom.

Okkervil River kicked off the concert with the “slow song” “Girl in Port.” Dressed in a shabby black suit and tie, moppish hair swept off his bespectacled face, Sheff is both a dynamic and shambolic performer. He is all over the stage, contorting his body in rhythms around his acoustic guitar. Flanked by a five-piece backing band, Sheff played an exciting set that numbered nearly 20 songs, highlighting tracks from the band’s recent The Stand Ins, as well as many other past chestnuts. Watching the band is as exciting as watching Sheff himself. Drummer Travis Nelsen is one of the most energetic drummers I’ve seen, singing to himself with relish while pounding his kit. Lauren Gurgiolo, the newest member of the band, stepped in for the departed Brian Cassidy and backed up Sheff well with her black Gibson guitar.

Among the standouts of the set were “Starry Stairs,” which Sheff dedicated to the people smoking the weed that pungently filled the audience, and the apocalyptic “So Come Back, I’m Waiting.” When the band segued into “Sloop John B” during “John Allyn Smith Sails,” the crowd danced and sang along. But the audience was not courteous all the time. Sheff quit a minute into “Maine Island Lovers” as the noise from the crowd threatened to drown out that solo number. He instead launched into a snarling version of “A Stone,” the fury bubbling just under the surface as he demanded all the house lights out and a lone spotlight shining down upon him.

The band closed the first set with the amazing Stage Names duo of “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe” and “Unless it Kicks.” This is the third time I’ve seen Okkervil River, and never before has the band been so tight and so unhinged at the same time. As the band returned to the stage for an encore that highlighted old gems “Okkervil River Song” and “Westfall,” Sheff said that the last time they played Portland a record label rep gave the performance a “C+.” After telling us this little anecdote, Sheff just smiled. He knew this time around he scored an “A.”


Photo: [Okkervil River]

All Tomorrow's Parties New York 2008
Kutsher's Country Club; Monticello, NY

[September 19-21, 2008]

- {Friday}

Though I may not have caught all I liked, I’m happy to say I spent my ATP kickoff right there for the first dusty amp clop and ensuing apocalyptic mottled tendril miasma that was Bardo Pond's Lapsed. No subtle way to start what’s essentially a rock fest – and not necessarily an uproarious one. With a sound like a lackadaisical Hawkwind without all of the ’70s trappings, it inspired an interesting mix of both excitement and the desire to forget you’re at anything but a Bardo Pond show spacing out. However appropriate, it was nice to start the weekend off with such a massively cool band.

Friday was the shortest day, dedicated to ATP’s Don’t Look Back series spotlighting live sets of classic albums. As one might expect, an idea like this can bond you to an album in new ways. In addition to rediscovering what a great, globular immersion in sweet nausea Lapsed is, I’m now completely won over on Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Standing there taking in Tortoise’s unique tweak on the funk aesthetic, the underlying musical themes, however augmented by odd syncopations and disruptive synth sqwuarks, put me in mind of the movie Westworld. If a THX-1138-era Lucas had made Westworld, Tortoise would have been the band to go with. Because they’re not just a good instrumental rock band: Given their precise orchestration and mysteriously evocative energy, I’d say they’re the greatest score composers of the greatest movies never made. Or at least the greatest future-noir movies never made.

Tortoise, like Growing and Harmonia after them, played a seamless set of otherwordly sounding music to get lost in. All had the dance-a-bility factor going for them, but I found them to be arrestingly out of body. Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On was more body movin'. I’d seen them along with The (unstoppable) Drones and Meat Puppets the night before, and I still found the material riveting. Something about the urgency of the vocals combined with the mundane weariness of the lines just clicks, just feels classic – especially when the triumphant “Out of Site” rolls around. Unfortunately I didn’t get much beyond the impressive technical rawkability with The Meat Puppets when I saw ‘em Thursday so I ate a gyro instead. I think they’re fun, but for every high-five inspiring turn they pull, there’s one that simply rubs me the wrong way. They’re pretty righteous in a lot of ways, but at times they have a crunchy vibe going, and it always throws me off.

Thurston's set was cool enough (Steve Shelley’s patented drum work sounded particularly fine to these ears). I hadn’t heard Psychic Hearts, and I’m not sure I want to again. It reminded me of the SY song “Panty Lies” played a lot of different ways, with some cool Pollard-sketch-like ideas thrown in. As he fumbled through his lyric sheets, he mentioned that the album was recorded in a day. The music sounded good for that. In fact, I bet he craps good music before his morning coffee. But the inclusion of Psychic Hearts as a truly noteworthy album is still somewhat mystifying to me.


- {Saturday}

Friday was pretty great, but I knew Saturday and Sunday were the milestone days, the bands whose music has been a consistent part of my life for over a decade were playing these days. Some (Low, Mercury Rev, Mogwai) have lost me with their newer material, but it doesn’t begin to upset the momentous strength of heart-wrenching pleas like Low’s “Little Argument With Myself” or Mogwai’s tectonic plate-spinning with “Like Herod.”

Unfortunately, Mercury Rev (who played Sunday) didn’t revisit their first three albums, and I got bored with the new material. Donahue’s a tough sell as a vocalist. His fearlessness is both mincing and convincing, even on their best stuff. But all these new mooning, space-gospel blasters lack the versatile what-the-fuck-just-happened madness of their best work. We’re left with gorgeous music, with what had to be the best lighting work of the festival, but distractingly inane vocals. It was a bit of a snake oily experience for me, being lured in by lush sound and showstopper presentation only to find something garish and annoying.

Good as Low and Lightning Bolt were, my main thrill on Saturday was getting to see The Drones again. THIS BAND IS ENORMOUS! I don’t mean famous mind you. Or fat. They’re all pretty skinny actually. But that sound. THAT SOUND. They sound like a rotted wind machine jammed with a thousand rusty metal filings, the house band in a lepers-only club, guns, roses and flesh-eating bacteria. They sound like defiance in the face of your compliance and a writhing wriggling gut buggy that takes you to the heart, rut by gaping muddy rut. NONE OF THIS IS HYPERBOLIC WANKERY. I’ll save that for Lightning Bolt. Yeah so, The Drones nearly cleared the room. Maybe one of the few bands I saw that did that. I didn’t want to report it, but it’s my job. I was so transfixed watching these cats, beyond cool, slapping the corpsemilk molten clay of “The Miller’s Daughter” (much better live, imho) around my head I didn’t notice till the lights came up. Man were they good! They’re not at all trendy and classically rocking without feeling too clichéd. Who knows why this crowd didn’t bite.

Lightning Bolt and Les Savy Fav were the real fun-makers of the day. Both bands know what it takes to deal with crowds – pure sound + pure presence. Somehow both bands achieve this time and again, without ever once feeling stale. I was never a big fan of Les Savy Fav, but Tim Harrington really gives it his all on stage -- and in the crowd with his cordless mic. Not a lot of frontmen to post-punk bands have this weirdo pep rally vibe, and I can’t say, as a non-fan, that I mind it at all. In fact, he made me appreciate what the band was doing all the more, rather than taking attention away from the music. It sounded like get-tough anthems for the heartbroken, and it felt good to feel that vibe whether I knew the songs or not.

LB was all new, and there was a lot of incoherent vocalating by Brian Chippendale and the presenting of a rubber mask by way of an Obama campaign plug. The new stuff sounded cool, a lot stranger with less overtly dude-rock trajectories. It sounded like colliding, so you collided sometimes with one another. It didn’t really feel like moshing. It was more, like, I couldn’t see standing still for Lightning Bolt, and I’m not about to worry about people’s personal space when we’re scrunched-in like cattle. If colliding around and convulsing is moshing, then I guess I was. Maybe the band sets up on the floor cause they don’t just wanna be gawked at. Maybe they just want to get us into a sweaty puddle and electrocute us. Why not? My only complaint is that they didn’t play on and on till B.C.’s arms flew off like pinwheels.

Shellac played themselves a gnarly little set. Tight, spindly Touch and Go punk that rained down the bad vibes. They were pretty convivial between songs, however, reminding me (much like Edan) of how little bands had been interacting with the crowd (Edan and EPDM were the only hip-hop acts at ATP, and they were all about crowd interaction). But most bands seem to want to let the music speak for itself. Shellac were just killing time while tuning, but it brought things down to earth a bit. Edan played earlier in the day with a set that was dazzling, warm, innovative, and funny, but somehow fleeting, musically.

Low looked so stark and gorgeous on that stage. Even when they rocked out with “Canada,” there was an ornate stoicism to it all that felt like old magic. Alan even made some ballsy stage patter about how the ATP crowd must’ve looked to the regular guys working security. It broke the ice. They had a uniquely insulated-feeling sort of warmth. When Alan asked us to go jogging tomorrow morning, it sounded tempting.

Harmonia was transportive and shimmering. Like LB, you didn’t need to see what the group was doing to feel it. Next to Low’s brilliant, choking set and the riproarin’ Trail of Dead, Harmonia was the best-sounding thing at the low-ceilinged second stage. I’m very grateful that my first live krautrock experience was one performed by legends of the scene. Growing actually had a similar command of that strange space, making refracted metronome glitch hypnotics out of guitar loops and lots of effects swim through our shared shallow-end.


- {Sunday}

Sunday was a let-down only on a few counts. Mogwai was pretty powerful, but kinda got dull at times for me. They never had the intrigue of Tortoise for being instrumental, nor the hooks of The Drones for being fellow mope-rockers. It’s not like I’m new to the band. Mogwai got me started on instrumental rock in the late-’90s. But aside from the moments of dazzling brutality, I failed to find much of interest in their plodding, predictable grey day jams. Then Yo La Tengo didn’t play nearly long enough, and My Bloody Valentine wasn’t nearly as loud as I’d hope they’d be. Of course, this last is an out-and-out lie. MBV was louder than an atom bomb; I defy anyone who was there or in an atomic explosion to say otherwise. And it wasn’t so bad that Yo La Tengo only played a few tunes. When one of those songs is the Mogwai-can’t-eat-this-song's-boogers greatness that is “The Story of Yo La Tengo,” it’s hard to complain. Not to mention they did a Georgia ballad! She sounded so sweet. No it wasn’t “Shadow” or “Don’t Say a Word” (though either of those would’ve been choice). It was “I Feel Like Going Home” and it was one of the most crystalline, intimate moments for me all weekend. The sentiment was counter-productive for those of us who were getting a little weary and ragged around the edges, but oh well. It’s such a damned pretty song and played so delicate and perfect, you wanna immerse yourself in the sentiment, even if only to abandon it at the song’s end.

EPMD, like fellow hip-hoppers Edan and Dagha, were much more about verbal communication and getting the crowd to liven up (sadly, I was not a success story) and wave there arms to and fro. Their rhymes and beats were hulking and rubbery, they mourned some lost legends (evidently, the duo’s not caught up enough to know about J Dilla, who one audience member vehemently appealed for a mention of) and left the frillspace to everyone else.

One surprise was the charmingly slight, art-damaged chamber pop of Le Volume Courbe. They were pretty fine and pleasingly distinctive up until an irksome cover of “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten. When you’ve heard Cotten’s version (and you should!) you’ll see what I mean. Also a nice surprise was Robin Guthrie. Unsurprisingly, it wound up sounding kinda like Cocteau Twins. I almost thought I heard Fraser’s voice in there, but it was more or less instrumental. The surprise here was how perfect the way his rear-projection imagery (something that bands either used or skipped completely) and ambient dream pop sounds turned that entire mainstage area into a sort of sound spa. You could just kick back and soak it up for once. No big nothing, just the precious precious strypps of milky gauze emanating from Guthrie’s gear. His set was a much-needed decompression chamber and a pretty keen one at that. When the evening wound down, after much schedule delay and confusion (I just barely caught a handful of songs from Trail of Dead’s set. They were a big beautiful mess – especially with their climax misplacement on the leveling finale of “Totally Natural”), Dinosaur Jr. took the stage and absolutely killed, providing a scrappy, sloppy, fun mood in between spiky blasts of shred. They were the perfect aperitif for the band of the hour, something day-glo bog before the day-glo glacier.

I’m sorry but My Bloody Valentine just can’t be compared to anyone. The music they’ve made is so beyond gorgeous and righteous and heavy as to be something purely unto itself in terms of pure artistry. It is pop. It is rock. It is punk. But it’s none of these. And seeing them live (after an excruciatingly epic lathering wait for the band to emerge) in person, I can still say without reservation that this music is the stuff of genius. Beyond having all the anthemic qualities of rockers and anemic qualities of aesthetes, there’s something transcendently tragic about their songs. Live, you could really feel emotions that can’t just be pegged down to touchstones of adolescent outsider angst. It’s the music of eternal yearning and the knowledge that grace is fleeting -- in the embodying and in the witnessing of it. It’s the music of the unnamable rogue pains brought on by living a life of escape into oblivion. When they launched (they really did launch into their songs, as though they were all rigged with jetpacks) into “Feed Me With Your Kiss,” it’s not a feeling of romance, but one of facing blind lust and shuffling the mess in your head around so much you might as well be waltzing with it. Closer “You Made Me Realize” lifted the roof off and pinned us to the ground with its unrelenting depth charge squall interlude. “Soon” (the ultimate dance-track ever as far as I’m concerned) was the ultimate pinch-me moment of the weekend. I AM SEEING “SOON” PLAYED LIVE, I thought. I was pretty damned pleased with myself then.


- {Monday}

So where did I go, and what did I do, when Monday came around? I drove home and slept away the day. Pushed the whole thing from my mind. I realize now that as great as music is, sometimes the drab, unmomentousness of everyday reality wins out. A lot of the time I was sore, tired, regretful that I’d missed this band or that. Wondering why I hadn’t just worn a backpack instead of schlepping my sweatshirt and notebook around. Sometimes there’s that person standing in front of or around you that acts so inconsiderate as to distract you from taking in the band you love. Sometimes the band takes forever to get started. As I mentioned, the sound felt imperfect (this time, there was entirely too much domineering bottom end). Perhaps the vocals were buried more than they ought to’ve been, but the instruments ably filled in a lot of the best vocal melodies. The sound throughout ATP was uneven, but I assumed no more than what was usual, as Terrastock ’08 was similarly hit-or-miss in this regard. If you loved the music as much as I did at times, you likely weren’t too bothered about the lack of album-quality balance. And, as the drink prices were astronomical, I frequently wondered if I should bother getting sauced. Sometimes it’s hard to just relax at a festival, even though that’s basically what you came to do when all’s said and done.

And this venue, Kutsher's, was absolutely enchanting. Sure it was a bit rundown, but that was what made it work. I saw Dinosaur Jr. at a club in Burlington that was so sleek that it almost made the band's scruffy image seem almost cast in shiny plastic. Despite all the irksome details I’ve mentioned, the venue itself was a very choice place to chill- and check-out some great performances and (if you could manage it!) see some Criterion screenings. I almost forgot to mention, there were comedians booked as well! I only managed to catch Patton Oswalt, and he was excellent. I got some nice hearty belly laughs that I’d desperately needed. He’s a sharp, imaginative dude with a really memorable lynchpin bit about KFC’s “Famous Bowls” that is both despairingly piteous and mean in a drop-dead funny fashion. Live stand-up comedy is new to me, but Patton is not. I would gladly see stand-up again, as it is an immense thrill. The person is under immense pressure, and you can almost hold it in your hands. I think it produces a pretty interesting bond, where you’re sort of pulling for the person to be as funny as they can be rather than sitting back and waiting to be amused. He of course picked on Kutsher's a bit, but everything he said only served to reaffirm the location as a perfect home to the spooky, elegiac, raucous, and dark sounds swirling about its grounds. As to future ATP hosting plans, I say this: next haunted old hotel resort please!

As the schedule kinda slipped out of sync on Saturday and Sunday, I missed out on a fair share of acts. For this I am truly sorry:

- Fuck Buttons (was wary of their moniker, and later kicked myself repeatedly after hearing how great they are)

- Meat Puppets (saw ’em in Northampton the night before and wasn’t into enough for another go -- they certainly did shred like hell, but I guess I don’t get totally get the appeal)

- Comedians Eugene Mirman, Joe Derosa and Maria Bamford (Thurston)

- Polvo (Low)

- Autolux (dinner)

- Bob Mould (Yo La Tengo)

- Alexander Tucker & Apse (missed these guys because I wanted to win a Gimme Shelter DVD. Turns out they were giving away a poster instead. Didn’t know the quiz answers anyway. After the movie, which was fun to watch with a group for the first time, I stuck around for Dave Markey and his film The Year Punk Broke. Hadn’t seen this since I lent out my VHS copy long ago, to never see it again. It’s a fun, aimless festival tour flick, but I couldn’t bear to miss The Drones even if I had just seen them in Northampton on Thursday. Not to mention the head of the person in front of me took up the majority of my view of the screen)

- Om (had to eat something)

- Spectrum (ditto, but they sounded pretty good from directly outside)

- Lilys (Robin Guthrie)

- Brian Jonestown Massacre (This is where things get fuzzy. From Yo La Tengo on, there was a lot of delay. Think I was seeing either Mogwai or Dinosaur Jr. at the time)

- Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra (already seen ’em, so I went with Les Savy Fav. For the record, I think they put on a pretty good show so – it was with some regret.)

Berbati’ s Pan; Portland, OR


When listening to the music of Jason Pierce, the British songwriter behind Spiritualized, his moniker could be considered in two ways: spiritualized by the cosmic interstellar rock and spiritualized by the ghost of the Holy Spirit. But in this case, it is used as one entity, space rock combined with gospel, a Wall of Sound against the thrumming of the sounds of church. It is spiritual redemption at a rock show. As we all know, Pierce was stricken by serious pneumonia that almost killed him in 2005. We also know that Spiritualized has returned this year with Songs in A&E, an amazing collection of songs that deal with love, God, and mortality. Though Pierce claims that the bulk of the songs were written before his illness, it is impossible not to hear sweet relief in his cracked voice. Playing them live is the culmination of this cycle.

Pierce and Spiritualized took the cramped stage before a crowd of 400 people. Bubblegum-scented smoke filtered over us, drenching the room in an eerie fog. Dressed in dark wraparound glasses and a Roky Erickson t-shirt, flanked by two gospel singers in white, a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, and drums, Pierce picked up his red Fender and launched into a feedback-laden version of “Amazing Grace.” It was a mixture of grit and sublime. Waves of bass and drum shook the floor and rattled in our chests. The angelic voices of the backup singers wafted above the noise, ghostly tones floating somewhere between our world and somewhere else. Then the band burst into “You Lie You Cheat.”

After more than decade of shows, you'd think Spiritualized could play to a bigger crowd in a bigger venue, but Portland's Berbati’s Pan felt somewhat empty that evening. Didn’t Pitchfork’s coronation of A&E as "Best New Music" guarantee sold-out shows? But this audience seemed to be more than fly-by-night hipster fans. The guy next to me wore a Nick Cave shirt, a woman in front of me knew every lyric. These were music fans, and as the feedback pummeled down on us, there was no pushing, no jockeying for the front of the stage.

The first part of the set relied heavily on new material. Pierce played “Soul on Fire,” “Sitting on Fire,” and “Sweet Talk” at a much quicker velocity than the album. When the band launched into “Walkin’ With Jesus,” an old chestnut from Pierce’s Spacemen 3 days, the crowd shouted and sang along. Pierce remained stoic behind his glasses, never smiling and never addressing the crowd during the first set. Another highlight was “Death Take Your Fiddle” from the new album. In a truly haunting performance that included the sounds of someone breathing on a respirator, Pierce welcomed the arrival of Death with open ears. It was a song both chilling and life-affirming.

Next came some tracks from 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which included an amazing performance of the title track that bled into “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Finally, Pierce busted out another Spacemen 3 gem, “Take Me to the Other Side,” to end the set. Unleashing a torrent of sound, the band played until it seemed it would spontaneously combust. Then they walked off the stage. A languor hung over the audience. Could there possibly be more?

The band returned for one more song. Pierce uttered “thank you” before strapping on his acoustic guitar and picking the introduction of “Lord Can You Hear Me,” an emotional stunner. The crowd remained silent for a moment after it ended. Pierce said nothing else, applauded along with the audience, and then vanished. We had been Spiritualized.

Michael Franti and Spearhead
Roseland Theater; Portland, OR



I’m sure many of our readers ask how we decide which shows are covered on this site. I hope I’m not giving away any top secret recipes here, but reviews are rarely assigned. A writer usually covers concerts that interest him or her and that means it’s usually a band that the writer likes. Since the writer has a preexisting affinity for said band, this usually translates into positive reviews. Of course, Tiny Mix Tapes has published plenty of negative live reviews in the past, but I have more than a passing interest in most of the bands I see, and this usually results in positive coverage. It’s symbiotic that way.

I’m not going to hide behind the typical excuses for seeing a concert that does not fit snugly into the hipster handbook of cool (such as I’m going because my fiancée really wanted to see the band). Call me a glutton for punishment, but the challenge of reviewing a Michael Franti and Spearhead show, a band I really don’t like, is what drew me to cover it. Besides, this guy has millions of disciples that swear by his positive message and funky jams. Even last week, I met this woman at a party who swore to me that Franti is a prophet.

Okay, bring on the prophet.

There is something about Franti’s pan-cultural idealism that smacks me as smug. Maybe it’s the manifestation of this message through his fans rather than a direct edict from the prophet himself, but it’s a bulletproof vest that guards against any sort of criticism aimed directly at the thing that matters most: the music. I have bemoaned the band’s watered-down fusion of reggae/funk in the past, and instead of criticism leveled at my taste, his fans have hit back with retorts such as, “Well, if you don’t like it, you’re just cynical.” Since when did my worldview have anything to do with whether something sounds good or not? Undaunted, I tried to enter the concert with an open mind and a somewhat open heart.

Michael Franti took the stage soon after 10 PM and kicked off what would be a nearly two-and-a-half hour set with “Hello Bonjour” from Yell Fire (2006). The crowd went nuts. I tried to hold back a smile as Franti regaled the audience with greetings from different languages (Hello, Salaam, Shalom, etc). Crudely drawn speakers adorned with a cross, a star, and a crescent surrounded the band. Eureka! I get it! We’re all one. Gimmicky? Yes. But is it any worse than Cheap Trick’s “Hello There?” What do I know? I was the only one not dancing.

Franti also had some serious mind control over his audience. When he said ‘jump,’ they jumped. When he told them to wave around their t-shirts, t-shirts were waved. I am not completely cool; I dance at concerts that move me. Here I wasn’t moved. Sure, I bobbed a little with the beat and all, but I just couldn’t give myself wholesale to the love. Besides, if Franti’s fans are all about one love, then why did security threaten to kick out at least three people around me?

The show was strictly divided into two sections, the funky and the serious, and in case the audience didn’t realize it, Franti and friends sat on stools to connote the difference. Now, I’m as much of a dyed-in-the-wool lefty as it gets, and I do agree with a lot of Franti’s politics, but it’s the idealism that trips me up. He complained that the upcoming election shouldn’t be “stolen by cynicism.” But idealists tend to forget that there is a difference between realism and cynicism. Just because I don’t enjoy Franti’s music doesn’t mean I disagree with his politics. I think there is definitely something noble in trying to push an agenda on positivism, and, sure, “Everyone Deserves Music” has a great beat. But there is a big current that runs through all of Franti’s music: his ideas manifest themselves in lyrics that are too trite. That doesn’t mean I like only obtuse lyricism; some of the best songs have ridiculous lyrics. But it’s the earnestness attached to the simplicity that bothers me. Just look at the titles -- “One Stop Closer To You,” “All I Want Is You,” “Light Up Ya Lighter.” Let’s get real, it just felt too dumbed down.

Franti ended the first set with “Hey World (Don’t Give Up Version),” where he beseeched the audience to hold hands, and “I Got A Love For You,” a song he said he wrote for his son. But explain this to me: first he did a version of the song with an acoustic guitar, then another version with a Les Paul, and then a final one with a Fender. I’m not talking about three guitar switches during the song. I’m talking about three versions of the same tune. We still had the encore ahead of us.

Away from all the touchy-feely stuff, the bottom line is I just did not connect with the music. It felt blasé, it felt bland. All the songs sounded the same. But so do the songs of James Brown, said one Franti fan. At one point of the performance, Franti’s knit cap flew off and his dreadlocks came out in a big reveal. I hear this surprise happens nightly. But James Brown did the cape trick. That’s all calculated too. But there’s a very basic difference here that I’ve been trying to spit out during this entire review: James Brown’s music is good. Forty, fifty years later, it sounds fresh; it sounds exciting. It’s dangerous. Michael Franti’s music is none of those things. I really wish it was. I’m just being a realist and an idealist.