9:30 Club; Washington, DC
IN DEFENSE OF COLIN MELOY
Why do so many people think Colin Meloy is such an asshole? If one were to scour the web for opinions on the front man of the seminal Portland collective The Decemberists, any praise found would be tempered with an equal amount of vitriol. This sentiment is never leveled at the musicality of Meloy and his cohorts, though, but squarely targets the man himself. After a period when nary an article would reach print without dubbing the band “literate” and “erudite,” the inevitable backlash appeared, attacking the very virtues that made The Decemberists famous in the first place.
Then what’s the problem? Has Meloy’s brand of nerd-rock for those who do the Sunday Times crossword and revel at online IQ tests grown tiresome? When my friend describes Meloy as “the smarmy villain from every ’80s teen flick,” did he mean the sweater-wearing Ivy League-bound James Spader from Pretty in Pink or the dickhead thug William Zabka from The Karate Kid fame? Has Meloy just grown too priggish, pretentious, and preposterous for the indie kids?
Let me be the first to admit that I am a Decemberists fan. While I waited outside the 9:30 Club for my friend to arrive, I saw a bunch of people trying to unload spare tickets. Bad sign. Usually the corner of V and 9th is jumping before a show, but beyond the unlucky scalpers, only I stood out in the cold that night. Something felt wrong. That didn’t matter too much. I was excited.
Inside, a modest crowd waited for Meloy to take the stage. I have been attending shows here for a few years, and rarely has it been so empty. What’s the story, Colin? Do you need Chris Funk to bring the noise? Is it really Nate Query the groundlings are clamoring to see?
Meloy finally appeared and informed us that DC is his “home away from home.” As he led the crowd through a series of vocal warm-ups, I asked myself if this was the self-possessed man I have heard so much about. He was positively disarming, embracing the crowd before launching into “Shiny” from the 5 Songs EP.
One thing can be said about Decemberists fans: they are wordy folk. As Meloy moved between stripped-down renditions of “The Perfect Crime” and “O Valencia!,” the crowd sang along, not missing a single word. When Meloy strapped on a 12-string guitar to play the Picaresque trio of “The Engine Driver,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” his wistful melodies presented themselves, unburdened by The Decemberists’ lush arrangements. It is undeniable that Colin Meloy has stage presence, and these three songs were the highlight of the evening. He has a strong, distinctive voice, and he employed it well during the show. The guitar sounded crisp and clear, and it is easy to lose oneself in his tales of chimbly-sweeps and scalawags.
The Decemberists announced but then promptly canceled a tour late last year, where they planned to play long songs one night and short ones the next. Meloy apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and said, “I’m doing my best to make up for it on my own. Self-flagellation in the form of a rock tour.” Though he didn’t draw the numbers that the truncated sold-out tour had garnered, the appreciative crowd applauded his self-effacement and apology.
This is not Meloy’s first solo tour, and it has become a tradition for him to hawk a tour-only EP of covers. Past collections saw Meloy covering the songs of Morrisey and Shirley Collins. Before launching into a version of “Cupid,” Meloy took a moment to pimp out his newest Sam Cooke collection. Joined onstage by opener Laura Gibson (dressed in something last seen in some Polygamist sect), Meloy turned in a serviceable version of one of Cooke’s classic songs.
Meloy closed out the first set with a humorous new track about Valerie Plame that dissolved into a sing-along of “Hey Jude” and “A Cautionary Song” from his band’s first LP, Castaways and Cutouts. As Meloy sang the lead guitar part over his own strumming, it struck me just how dependent his tunes are on the full orchestration of the band. While a lot of them are just good folk songs without the rest of the band, others are sketchy and slight. Could it be the accordion and violin that really make The Decemberists standout?
The encore did little to exorcise my doubts, but it did confuse me more. After refusing to deviate from the setlist (he blamed something in his past life that prevents him from doing so), Meloy performed a heartbreaking version of “Red Right Ankle.” Somewhere in the quiet plucking, I realized that beneath the armor of big words and tongue-in-cheek witticisms, Meloy is a sentimentalist. Most of his songs are about lost love or longing. Could all the ostentatious instrumentation and high-minded tales be the self-defense mechanism of a romantic? I think so.
But Colin Meloy the Showman soon reappeared for the evening’s finale of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” perhaps one of the best known tracks by Decemberists fans. The crowd thrilled to this shanty of madness and revenge. Meloy paused to let the audience sing the female parts and even to lecture us on the differences between “screaming” and “quailing.” Though rollicking and fun, this final song seemed safe, a big way to end the evening.
Why does everyone hate on Meloy so much? Plenty of rock stars have been pricks and have rarely gotten such a bad rap. Let’s admit it, most of us music nerds were never the most popular kids at school. We weren’t in the lowest stratum, but we weren’t the All-American football stars either. Just maybe Meloy was one of those guys below us, a shy kid with glasses who liked to read. Could it be envy? Does his success cause us to look at our lives with more scrutiny?
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY
Xiu Xiu aren’t for everyone, and that’s nothing new. But their latest album, Women As Lovers (Kill Rock Stars), is probably their strangest and most off-putting yet. It’s packed with dark, perverse childhood sexual imagery and even alludes to incest. A few months ago, it racked up a sheaf of ambiguous reviews that basically amounted to, “Well, it’s Xiu Xiu, so it must be good, but for my part, I’m weirded out.” People knew it was good, but some measure of disgust was preventing them from truly engaging with it on its own terms. But that utter awkwardness makes it one of this year’s most challenging albums to date, and every listen has revealed something new, fascinating, and, yes, frightening, too. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t always fun, either, but this is music as art, kids. We ain’t just talkin’ about the shit you can dance to.
The seriousness is just as palpable live. Xiu Xiu always form a little box of bizarre instruments, pushed into the center of the stage, that sort of isolates them throughout the show. There’s a skeletal-looking electric, upright bass in one corner, an enormous cymbal, and some gongs attached to the drum kit, a xylophone, and a flute that make brief appearances. Keyboards of all kinds are everywhere.
The entire show revolves around Jamie Stewart, who says almost nothing to the audience between songs. Someone yells, “Good job, guys!” and gets not even the slightest hint of a response. But when he sings, it’s like he has the only vocal role in the kind of opera in which everyone dies at the end. He’s a consummate performer and a loose cannon at the same time. Stewart can be violent, childlike, or completely spastic.
Equally changeable and unpredictable is Xiu Xiu’s sound. At one moment, they’re all discord, feedback, and the scream of castrated brass instruments; the next, they lay down the hottest rock riff you’ve ever heard. You only feel the transition if they want you to. They’re the horror movie and its soundtrack.
And just because the band members didn’t speak to the crowd, it doesn’t mean they failed to connect. Looking down from the balcony, I saw people jumping up and down, hugging each other, even crying. I don’t think Vampire Weekend is ever going to move anyone to tears, but I seem to remember the vast majority of their reviews being overwhelmingly positive. Coincidence?
[Photo: Sean Ruch]
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA
With anticipation for the upcoming Wolf Parade disc reaching fever pitch, Dan Boeckner’s other outfit, Handsome Furs, is still touring in the wake of last year’s debut, Plague Park. Alongside wife Alexei Perry, Boeckner uses the Furs as a conduit for the more electronic-oriented side of his musical self. Teaming his live guitar parts with Perry’s frenetic fingers while grappling with various knobs and keys, the couple creates music that's equal parts trippy electronica and conventional indie rock.
With this as a backdrop, the band greeted a small but devoted crowd with a fantastic set, especially for an act armed with such a limited pool of material. Boeckner’s throaty vocals were perhaps the most impressive part of the show, as they were more dynamic and forceful than on the Furs’ recorded output. In listening to Plague Park after the show, I’m still frustrated over its lack of the crisp and soaring quality that Boeckner and Perry are able to convey in their live performance. Throughout the set, the pair was loaded with a contagious brand of energy, and it all came spilling out through Boeckner’s voice and Perry’s impassioned electronic work. Stationed at the front of the stage, a gold necklace encircling her neck like the end of a lasso, Perry bounced about brandishing a smile that was impossible to ignore, as the duo bubbled with exuberance and communicated every bit of nuanced emotional expression.
Refreshingly, the band was very gracious and pleased with the occasion, churning out tune after tune and fitting each with both a compelling tension between live music and recorded sources and a visible harmony between husband and wife (made possible in part because of the egalitarian arrangement of the couple). All the expected standouts from Plague Park made appearances, with the euphoric momentum of “Dead + Rural” emerging as the centerpiece of an altogether engaging performance. Boeckner’s mumbling of “la, la, la, la” near the close of “Sing! Captain” was a second highlight, as the set slowed for a contemplative moment, allowing the lazy vocals to wash against an enraptured crowd.
In the dead space between songs, Boeckner’s banter was a source of additional entertainment. He laughed over his recent April Fool’s revelation that the new Wolf Parade record is titled Kissing the Beehive. He confessed that he’d been falsely telling audiences that one song (I’ve forgotten which) was about his time at Columbia, and then admitted that he’d never attended the Manhattan Ivy and didn’t vacation at Cape Cod, taking obvious swipes at the drab though upcoming Vampire Weekend. In another instance, Boeckner acknowledged some fans that had come from Indiana to catch the show, jokingly regarding the move as “retarded.”
The night didn’t settle the endless Spencer-Dan debate that captivates so many music nerds and bleeds across the internet. It did, however, provide a forum for Dan to showcase talents that seem so often overshadowed by the wondrously prolific Spencer Krug. It created excitement for what’s to come from a guy with such varied and gifted musical abilities, someone who’s been able to retain that youthful enthusiasm usually lost to the business of music-making.
Hot Chip / Mathew Dear And His Big Hands
Barrowland; Glasgow, Scotland
It is impossible to miss the Glasgow Barrowland Ballroom if you find the right street. The venue is marked by a giant sign with the word Barrowland spelled out in hot orange neon letters surrounded by bright white neon stars. Inside, the scuffed wood floors and faded orange and yellow stars scattered across the domed ceiling of the ballroom further enforce the sentiment that you have been transported to an oversized rollerskating rink from the 1970s. Matthew Dear And His Big Hands were already playing for the half-full venue when I arrived. There weren’t enough people in the ballroom to balance out the acoustics, or maybe they didn’t get a sound check. In any case, everything sounded swampy and indefinite, and in the old ballroom, it was surreally beautiful.
After Matthew Dear And His Big Hands left the stage, the sound crew quickly installed an impressive array of music making devices including guitars, a bass, four futuristic-looking synth stations, bongos, and part of a drum set. It was evident that the night’s show wasn’t going to be a pre-recorded karaoke fest. My prediction proved accurate as soon as the lights dimmed and the London quintet ripped into the first song of the set. Alexis Taylor furiously pounded away on the toms and snare, while Owen Clarke manned the bongos and Al Doyle provided that ever-appreciated cowbell groove. Soon, the whirlwind of live percussion was replaced by Felix Martin’s drum machining, as Taylor’s cry of “I’m ready to try this!” established that the gritty techno onslaught that had emerged was “Shake a Fist.”
Throughout the set, Hot Chip molded their material into a fluid club set that was often a drastic departure from the songs’ recorded versions. Gone were the candy-coated nuances that make Hot Chip a rewarding headphone listen. They rejected their dorky pop-wizard persona and attempted to reinvent themselves as red-blooded, club-shaking rock stars. And I kinda liked it. The wall of heavily distorted guitars and hungry synths became harsh and overbearing at times, but these guys know how to craft a sweet riff and channel the immediate rapture that comes with it. Despite all the distortion and stadium-ready riffs, Hot Chip couldn’t deny their roots as nerdy nice guys, which created an endearing tension with the rock star posturing. Bearded frontman Joe Goddard, looking like a jolly camp counselor, danced awkwardly behind his synth-station, while co-frontman Alexis Taylor, wearing his big glasses and singing earnestly, stood stationary behind his synth.
Although they forsook the often-gorgeous details and buoyant warmth of their recordings, Hot Chip’s live set displayed a knack for subtlety and engagement with the audience. About halfway through the show, the audience’s energy levels dwindled as the simplified renditions of their songs started to become monotonous (especially the drums, which didn’t change much). But then, quietly at first, and without any other shift from the last song, came the opening riff of “Over and Over.” And that was all it took for the audience to rush forward and dance wildly. By the time the rest of the band caught up and settled into the verse, everyone was jumping up and down jubilantly. “Ready For the Floor” was the show’s highlight, as they briefly dipped into the intro and then extended the bridge for a full two minutes of tension-building before ecstatically launching into the chorus at just the right moment. Clearly, their experience as DJs has paid off.
As they closed the set with the lyrics of New Order’s “Temptation” sung over “No Fit State,” I reflected on what seemed to be Hot Chip’s mission: to break down barriers in the pursuit of pop. Were they DJs, rock stars, nerdy bedroom divas? Throwbacks to the synth-pop of the 1980s or to 1990s techno? I don’t know. Maybe all of those things to some extent. I can’t call the gig a revelation, but it certainly was fun.
Rams Head Live!; Baltimore, MD
Okay, full disclosure time. My history with The Pogues has been a rocky one at best. I came onboard as a fan to their unique blend of Irish folk with punk sensibilities in 1994, a few years after the band fired singer and main songwriter Shane MacGowan. By this time, MacGowan had become a legend, not only for his legacy of timeless songs, but also for the amounts of alcohol and drugs he had consumed.
As a newcomer whom the music instantly captivated, I wanted to see this stuff live. The closest thing at the time was Shane MacGowan’s solo band, The Popes. But fortune had a way to keep me and Shane MacGowan separate. The first time he came to Philadelphia, I was too young to get into the show. Then I finally did see him in 1999, but MacGowan did not appear onstage until close to 1 AM, and I was too drunk to remember anything. The next chance was in 2000, but MacGowan never showed, inciting a near riot in the audience. I can still hear the shouts of “Fuck you, Shane MacGowan,” coming from some drunkard as the cops dragged him out. My last chance was the most pathetic. I was too sick to go, and my friend had to drive me to Times Square so I could sell my tickets to a scalper at a pathetic return.
I knew The Pogues had reunited in December 2001 to play some shows in England, but I had chalked them up there with Nirvana and Nick Drake as musicians I would never see in concert. In 2006, I was working in Vermont when I heard the Pogues would be coming to Boston, with MacGowan in tow! I searched for tickets, but it was too late. Sold out. I posted my sob story (very similar to the one above) on The Pogues message board. I had almost given up when a member of the band read my post and sent me two free tickets. Holy shit! The Pogues care about their fans.
Flash forward two years, and The Pogues are yet again playing a brief St. Paddy’s month tour of the eastern United States. Going into the show, the excitement of seeing The Pogues still vibrated within me, but something felt different. What had seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in 2006 had become less unique. What’s March without a Pogues concert?
Whenever a band long defunct regroups for a ‘reunion’ tour, it is only natural to be dubious. Whether it be for filthy lucre or... filthy lucre, many old bands reform, dust off some old tunes, thrill a bunch of old farts, and make a mint in the process. But is there anything wrong with that?
MacGowan took the stage wearing a bowler hat, black suit jacket, and dark sunglasses. Never a good-looking man, you could hear the sold-out crowd go all atwitter at just how bad he looked now. Bloated, stooped, and barely coherent, MacGowan seemed like he had washed up on the Inner Harbor after a night out on the piss. The band burst immediately into “Streams of Whiskey,” and as soon as Spider Stacy’s tin whistle filled the club with its familiar melody, any hesitations about a half-assed set vanished. Next came “If I Should Fall From Grace With God,” and each song thereafter sounded like a greatest hit. MacGowan’s voice, always garbled and slurred, remained strong for most of the night. Although he now shook from too much drink, he didn’t make sense when he tried to speak in between songs and did little more than shuffle about the stage -- it was as if the music itself transported MacGowan’s voice back in time to an era when he was young enough to come through a rough night somewhat intact.
There is something about human nature that enjoys a good disaster. Rather than feel pity for MacGowan’s condition, the crowd egged him on. They handed him shot after shot (in addition to the always filled glass he kept on stage), and as he got more soused, they cheered. Why contribute to his condition? Why watch this sad human who can write such heartfelt music degenerate with such bemusement? It seemed unfair and sad. Yet I watched as well.
Other highlights from the set included a sing-along version of “Dirty Old Town” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon.” The most heartfelt moment of the evening was when guitarist Philip Chevron took the mic to sing “Thousands Are Sailing.” Recently besting throat cancer, Chevron appeared frail. He had just rejoined the band the week before. He had beat cancer, and the emotion he put into this tale of Irish immigrants sailing to the New York resonated throughout the club.
The band closed out the first set with a rocking version of “The Sick Bed of CüchulaÃnn.” While MacGowan seemed worse for wear, Stacy and accordionist Jamie Fearnley jumped around the stage in manic displays of showmanship.
The Pogues closed the show with two encores that included favorites “Sally Maclennane” and “Rainy Night in Soho.” As the show wound down to the finale, “Fiesta,” I wondered if this would be my last time seeing The Pogues. I searched the faces of the eight men as they put behind years of discord to play these great songs live again. They were all smiling. As the song ended, the band waved to the crowd and headed for the wings, leaving MacGowan alone. He fumbled around, all lights on him as he tried to replace the mic on its stand. A roadie approached to help out, but at the last moment, MacGowan did it himself. He then picked up his glass and bottle and shuffled off as well.
Islands / Man Man
When The Extraordinaires first took the stage, I decided that I was on acid. Before my eyes waxed with film, there were instruments covered in colors, a swordfish guitar and totem pole microphone, solid wires of lights elongated and gleaming. Then it occurred to me that I was not in fact on acid. Rather, it took only a few moments to decide that the band probably was.
The first sound to be disgorged from their collective mouth was a raucous barbershop-esque harmony in thirds. Although this seemed interesting enough, the subsequent barrage of whoops and hollers issued forth in alternating pitches (think slide whistle) grew immediately tiresome. There were indeed a few standout moments throughout The Extraordinaires' set, but they were only partially a result of the music itself. The comical replication of carnival sounds – the swing of an imaginary hammer, the ringing of a bell – was amusing to be sure, yet the attempt to replicate a similar uncouth experience akin to that of Man Man came up short.
Then it was Man Man's turn. An eclectic array of seemingly non-musical items were clustered on the keyboards – plastic tubes and small orange horns grouped in fours and spoons – all of which would play a part in the music of the evening. As the set progressed and Man Man filled the hall with music new and old (“Black Mission Goggles” and “Banana Ghost” from Six Demon Bag among them) , the excitement that Man Man exhumed proved infectious. Their feral antics, madness in their wild faces and wide eyes, were all directly transferred into the crowd. The swelling mass of people that had originally begun with one guy gradually moved until it consumed the whole, undulating with the movement of the music onstage.
A standout rendition of “Big Trouble” from their then-forthcoming album, Rabbit Habits, with its somber droning horns, was like the calls to the dead from a funeral procession. It followed into the swaggering line of the same horns, subdued and whining. The face of Pow Pow, the drummer of Man Man, was in a constant change, alternating from contorted broad smiles to lowered pensive brows. Everything was so busy on the stage it might have been overwhelming at times had it not been for the individual energies from those on stage.
After Man Man left the stage, at least half of the once very dense crowd had vanished. As a longtime fan of The Unicorns and enthusiastic listener of Return to the Sea, I had been just as excited (if not more) to see the final performance of the evening. In comparison to Man Man, Islands’ onstage setup was sparse and unassuming. The emptiness that the absence of Man Man’s equipment had left was hardly altered with the exception of a few amps, keyboards, and mics. Yet it wasn’t simply the stage that had ostensibly changed, but the entire atmosphere of the hall. With the lack of a substantial audience, the air was no longer charged. There was something mildly depressing about it that even managed to infiltrate the actual set of Islands.
It seemed at first that Islands might have broken the funk with an absolute gem of a piece that I can only suppose would be appearing on the new album. The song itself was so stimulating with its multitude of layers – most especially the dual violin lines of Alex and Sebastian Chow that sparked an army of goose bumps up and down my arms– that, in spite of the swiftly forming mosh pit before me, I was taken away from everything for that brief amount of time. Which brings me to the part of the show that I am so reluctant to speak of: Although the majority of the mosh pit folks were gone, they had left in their wake some of the lamest people I’ve ever seen at The Blue Note. The mosh pit impersonation somehow managed (not sure how or why) to find a way to mosh to Islands – a feat in and of itself, though unbearably frustrating.
The rest of the evening continued suit. Like Man Man, Islands treated the audience to a number of new and old songs (including “Swans (Life After Death)” and “Volcanoes,” with “Humans” as an encore), yet what I remember most about the evening was the audience's reaction after Nicholas Thorburn (a.k.a. Nick Diamonds) said “We’re Man Man,” then paused. “We’d like to thank Islands for playing with us...” Thing is, no one really seemed to notice. What a heartbreaker.
The Magnetic Fields / The Interstellar Radio Company
Town Hall; New York, NY
The Town Hall is located in Midtown Manhattan, a part of town I would normally avoid like the plague, but anything for you, Magnetic Fields. I am muy happy with my 5th-row seat and settle in to watch the opening act, The Interstellar Radio Company, a highly unconventional choice for a show kickoff. They briefly explain that they would be performing a sound play to tell a story, not unlike an Orson Welles radio drama, and proceeded to read, in its entirety, Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart. The mild-mannered, pushing-30s narrator transforms instantly as he begins the tale, mastering the persona of a chilling madman, and quite a loud one at that, which is necessary to drown out those audience members who prefer the cramped lobby to this unique opener. Other members of the group create every sound effect imaginable with various food and household objects, emulating the dismembering of a body and the creak of floorboards without missing a trick. Not the most conventional of opening acts, but then again, a nice change.
After a short pause, Stephin Merritt walks on stage and assumes his usual position on a stool on house right. Distortion may be the most conventional rock record from the Magnetic Fields to date, but there were to be no Flying-V antics in store for us tonight. Claudia Gonson sits at the piano and tells us about the last time The Magnetic Fields played Town Hall, when she unsuccessfully sang a rendition of "If I Had a Hammer" and how she had "erroneously announced that Tony Bennett had died, when in fact, Tony Randall had died, and was mocked the next day in PageSix." The real question: what was a PageSix reporter doing at a Magnetic Fields concert? The paparazzi are nowhere to be seen, however, as the Fields begin with "When I'm Out of Town," a song written for Merritt's project The 6ths. I immediately notice that Merritt holds his ears during the applause, which seems strange to me until I later learn that an ear injury has rendered the sound of clapping painful to him. Now, of course, I wish I could apologize for my show of appreciation, promising to hold up a sign of some sort next time, but this is not really plausible.
Sam Davol, the cellist, sounded great, perfectly complementing the piano, acoustic guitar, and mazuki (Merritt will explain later) setup. The uplifting "No One Will Ever Love You" brings in on vocals Shirley Simms, who continues her tongue-in-cheek tirade with "I Hate California Girls" from Distortion, drawing laughter from the crowd because we can tell she means it. Otherwise, this is the most incredibly respectful audience I've ever seen, maintaining a reverent silence as the set progresses. After Claudia takes the lead with "I Looked All Over Town," Merritt matter-of-factly introduces his instrument, which looks and sounds like an exotic ukulele: "I am playing a mazuki. It is Greek. It says hello."
Though I'm beginning to wonder where the new cuts are and whether I'll ever see a drummer, my worries are quelled each time a new song begins, as this is my first live experience with a band I've loved for years... therefore, "Epitaph for My Heart" shuts me up pretty quickly. Claudia Gonson continues to obsess over the house lights, which she has already proclaimed to look like spaceships purported to hold pod people. Merritt points out that it is merely her perspective from the stage that brings her to this conclusion, as well as the fact that she has been watching an overabundance of sci-fi movies. This goes on for a while, as Gonson and Merritt's stage banter is akin to that of an extremely well-spoken pair of sparring six-year-old siblings.
The first half of the show closes out with the horror flick-inspired "Zombie Boy" from Distortion, and we get a real-deal intermission, lights up and all. When the band returns for Act Two, Gonson announces, "While you were all discussing the finer points of the Magnetic Fields show, we were discussing the finer points of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the weird thing is that for once we are not discussing Blade Runner." They get right back after it with "Take Ecstasy with Me" and slip into another new song, the postmodern "Courtesan," with Shirley back on vox. But the highlight of the show hits soon after with "Too Drunk to Dream," a barrel-thumping standout from Distortion, though I sorely wish for a percussion section to round out the beer-hall aura. Drums are indeed something that could have improved this experience, if only because of the distinctly rough-around-the-edges production of this album. Sweet and gentle the Fields are not, but the lack of skins does make the newer songs seem slightly toned down. The setup, however, is absolutely perfect for "The Book of Love," which a friend of mine swears up and down he will have played at his wedding, regardless of the fact that it is about a man and my friend is, in fact, heterosexual to the hilt. Stephin sings and plays his mazuki alone for this one, accompanied only by a nominal bit of slide guitar. Hilarity ensues when a flubbed count-off of "Drive On, Driver," another new song ending with a heart-stopping cello solo, sparks spat #57 between the Merritt-Gonson camps.
Claudia sits on the edge of the stage, and we wonder what she's up to, as her previous antics have included suggesting that people standing in the back claim empty seats in front, much to Merritt's chagrin. But no, she's just assuming her pose for "Yeah! Oh, Yeah!" a call-and-response track from 69 Love Songs (Part 3) that demonstrates no loss of love between whoever should choose to sing such a heartfelt tune. Claudia, pleadingly: "Are you out of love with me?" Stephin, deadpan: "Yes." And so on. The "last" song of the evening is "It's Only Time" from i, punctuated with cello pizzicato.
After the obligatory walk off the stage, the band returns, and Claudia attempts to tell another story that is quickly quelled by Stephin: "Backstage we were making jokes about the towels and Stephin was saying-- " "No, no, no, no, this is a censorship moment." "I'll tell you later!" hisses Claudia, and Stephin rolls his eyes, interjecting, "ANYWAY ..." I'm so busy laughing that I'm caught totally off-guard by "Three-Way," the steely, hollow kicker opening track of Distortion. The giggles continue as some newcomers slowly realize that the only lyrics to this song consist of the title, which the Fields are only too happy to gleefully shout in unison. Silliness abounds as Claudia struggles to tell her towel story yet again before the final song of the evening, an argument which somehow descends into farm animal noises, and eventually we're left with the somber "Grand Canyon," carried by a haunting cello melody.
The real testament to the musicianship of a band like The Magnetic Fields is its ability to break our hearts and coax a grin in the same instant. I leave the concert hall, a half-smile on my face.
The Egg; Albany, NY
Many of us have gone to a concert with a parent before. Usually in our preteen years, there was a comically bad show by New Kids On The Block or equally revolting band that we just HAD to attend. Dutifully, the rents escorted us and endured the soul-crushing, focus-grouped "music," because they loved us. Ungrateful little bastards that we were, all we thought about then is how we had no hope of looking cool in this exciting, new social setting with Mom and Pop right by our side. I'd like to think I matured past this aspect of my petulant childhood, but parents cramping their kids' style is a universal truth. I imagine it's actually one of the fun things about being a parent. Admittedly, I'm vain enough that I still try to look cool at concerts. No one wants to be that guy wearing the headlining band's t-shirt and excitedly eyeing the crowd looking for conversation and new friends. But alas, after all these years, any cool points earned by my skinny jeans and worn, black Pavement tee would in the end, still be rendered null and void.
Yes, I went to see Neko Case with my mom. It was a belated Christmas present and bonding opportunity. And actually, the only thing I found truly disturbing was the presence of the couple hundred AARP members in the crowd. I knew Neko had some older fans, but this was ridiculous. But, aside from being one of only about 20 on hand that didn't drive a Buick to the event, everything was... nice. Different, but nice. Neko and Co. continued the evening's theme, belting out the best from Blacklisted, The Tigers Have Spoken, and Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, while mixing in a healthy amount of new songs. Neko opened up her throat right away, leading with "Widow's Toast" and the Tigers standout "Favorite." At times, her powerful set of pipes even seemed to overwhelm the sound system.
I'd seen Neko once before in a smaller venue, sans backup singer, from about 15 feet away, but her performance and laid-back stage banter created the same sense of intimacy I'd experienced before. There were, of course, the token come-ons from girls in the audience of "Neko! Have my baby!" and "Come back to my apartment!" (I swear you'll hear some form of these at all her shows). But the mood by and large was that of music being played for, and among, a group of friends -- from Ms. Case getting several bars into "Dirty Knife" before realizing: "I'm supposed to play guitar on this song!" to the constant presence of the band's dog, Auggie, curled up and sleeping on the side of the stage.
I had turned on my parents to Neko originally by giving my country-friendly mom a copy of Blacklisted. Like me, she and my father fell in love with her voice and unique style of songwriting. This made me happy for many reasons -- I'd found music that we could all enjoy while trapped in long car rides together, I could buy more Neko albums whenever I was stumped on any looming gift-giving holidays, and sappily, because it's rare when kids and parents can get excited together about cultural touchstones like music or art. Mom didn't seem particularly excited to hear any one song over another. I, however, had a list of songs I was very much hoping to hear. No dice on the short-but-sweet "Outro with Bees" or the title tracks from Case's last two studio albums, but I was kept quite content with appetizers from the soon-to-be-recorded follow-up to Fox Confessor, and some other personal favorites from her current canon such as "Star Witness," "Margaret vs. Pauline," "The Tigers Have Spoken," and "That Teenage Feeling." Okay, so I have a lot of favorites. Sue me. Neko took full advantage of her range, impressing the theater with the strength of her voice on songs like "Deep Red Bells" and "Maybe Sparrow," while revealing a more delicate side with harmonies in songs like "Star Witness."
Once into the encore, an aging hippie capitalized on said delicate side. Before the show, he'd been milling about the crowd with an oversized card for concertgoers to sign. (I hope she reads my note! I bet people don't tell her "You rock!" enough.) After the first song of bonus time, Aging Hippie presented the card to a touched Neko. "You guys, this is so sweet! Ugh, I just got my period and you're gonna make me cry!" All in attendance seemed to react with a 50/50 mix of hilarious laughter and I-can't-believe-she-just-said-that shock, myself included.
But why was I so shocked? Despite the sea of grey hair and bald spots, this was, after all, a rock concert. Thanks to The Flaming Lips, I've seen bunnies crowdsurf, for Chrissake, how could this take me by surprise? Perhaps I made the mistake of underestimating the gumption of the gal who was banned from the Grand Ole Opry for performing in her bra in 2001 (lighten up you Dixie prudes, the woman was overheating!). Before the situation devolved into a Lifetime original movie starring Valerie Bertinelli, Neko provided some self-parody, "I just need a bag of potato chips and a good cry, Albany!"
After a glimpse into Ms. Case's night at the Ha-Ha Hole, the band resumed the encore with the poignant and melancholic "Wish I Was the Moon," before sending us off on a high-note by covering Tom Petty's "Listen to Her Heart" and closing with the clap-along gospel "John Saw That Number."
Instead of my usual post-concert routine of recreating the exact setlist with friends whilst en route to alcohol, Mom and I plopped down in a fantastic burrito place nearby and tried to ignore the mouse scurrying along the dingy floor. We were both left with the same impressions: "Wow, she's got an incredible voice," and "Wow, she was a lot of fun." From a purely musical and technical perspective, the intimate show I'd been to a few years back was superior, but this current concert was far more memorable. It may have been the scores of seniors, or that I was rocking out with Mom, but a few jokes, stories, and even flubs by a performer can make for fonder recollections than perfect song after perfect song. That's why we go to shows. We have the songs on a disc at home; what we're after is an experience. For me and Mom, that's what this was. Months from now, we'll still crack jokes about "a bag of chips and a good cry" and Neko altering songs to incorporate Auggie. This show was different alright, but in this case that turned out to be a good thing.
The Felice Brothers
Mercury Lounge; New York, NY
Brand new Team Love-rs the Felice Brothers are about to play their first sold-out New York show at the Mercury Lounge tonight, and I can't help but be pretty dang proud of my area code. The Bros hail from Ulster County, New York, located about 90 miles north of New York City, also home to my alma mater/paradise of a college town, New Paltz. I'd always seen their concert posters around the village, and I may or may not have accidentally stumbled in on a couple of their earlier shows at my favorite haunt, a dive called Snugs. But our boys are all grows up now, and balancing my drink above my head turns into a real challenge as I maneuver my way toward the front of the crowd. Their particular brand of feel-good, backwoods music is made up of drum set, keyboard, accordion, guitar, and a sheet of corrugated metal, all whaled upon by guys who look like someone you would normally chase out of your backyard for riding their ATVs on your property (or maybe that just happened in my family). Besides that, a telltale uniting factor is the absolute lack of arrogance, which keyboard/accordion player James Felice explains on the phone a couple weeks later: "We try not to get drawn into that kind of stuff. You can't get all concerned if you're going to sell out a place now because the next day you could be playing a place where there are four people there and they're all drunk and don't give a shit about you... So you take each show as it comes and don't get excited about anything. But it was a very nice feeling."
After being kowtowed into a bar tab, we muscle up front and situate ourselves near Christmas, the corrugated metal-ist (if there's a technical term in existence that I'm not using here, please clue me in). James takes a swig of whiskey from his cup, one of many, and the ramshackle barn-raiser that commences doesn't let up for the next hour or so. This is the first of sixty shows they're currently playing around the country, so we're getting a first taste of the energy they've stored up. The first standout is "Whiskey in Some Whiskey" (wildly appropriate), one of many Felice Brothers songs that talk of heartbreak and the only remedy many know of. Ian handles most of the main vocals, but the real magic happens when Simone and James harmonize, and I can't help but think of The Last Waltz. This is not entirely unfounded, as the Felice Brothers were chosen to play one of Band member Levon Helm's famous "Rambles" in upstate New York. "That was just a little bit of luck and a little bit of perseverance on our part," says James. "I think Simone had given our number to his manager and basically called her up and sent her a CD and she played it for Levon and Levon dug it. We just got the gig, which was unbelievable. That was one of the most amazing things."
As the boys ready themselves for "Cincinnati Queen," Ian quips, "This is a song about falling in love with a nasty woman." I'm already having problems taking notes because describing the sound of the Felice Brothers is simple: they just feel good. I have half a mind to throw my notebook back into my bag, which almost happens three or four times because the crowd has started dancing around me, and I gotta confess, I'm right there with them. Think about the music your parents would like, and then think about the songs they would have never played around you as kid, and that's what we've got here. The people filling the Mercury Lounge tonight are a mixed bag, all right: "It seems like our kind of music reaches out to a crowd of people that are a little older, that have a little more sway in society sometimes ... the kind of music that our father loves." The 20s and 30s set is still representing tonight, but he's got a point. The Brothers seem nervous at times, hanging onto their whiskey cups for dear life, but the stage presence that lingers beneath the surface makes itself known enough to clue me in on the way they'll be dominating in the future. Drummer Simone does everything but make love to his drum set, sans shirt for the occasion, and though he looks like he can't believe people know the words to their songs, lead vocalist and guitarist Ian has moments of comfort that hint at the frontman he's destined to become.
The Felice brothers close out the set with a Townes Van Zandt cover, "Two Hands," but I get the feeling that they could have kept on for a time. A good night's sleep is in order, though, as they'll soon be setting off cross-country via Winnebago. This is a step up from their old school buses, James notes: "We were gonna take our short bus across the country but - we were driving down the road one day and hit a pothole and almost died, so it wasn't worth it." The band members mingle in the bar after the show, and I notice Simone talking with more than a few admirers, but the air is still one of cheerful disbelief. I chat with their merch guy, who is amazed that I know where New Paltz is, and it indeed feels like two worlds are colliding.
Their new self-titled album is out now on Team Love, and a quick scan of the internet brings in rave live reviews from cities all over the U.S., so I'd have to say my boys are doing the homestead proud. "We always want to be better," says James, when I ask them what they hope to get out of this tour. "We want to explore new things, but not because of a record label. Not because we have a little bit of money now to do it. We want to do it the way we want to do it. Nothing's gonna change -- we're gonna try to find a cool place to record; maybe back in New York or up in Maine or something. We're going to do what we know. Maybe someday we'll go to some fancy recording studio in LA or something, god forbid. But until such a time, we'll just continue to do what we do, and always, always try to make it better than what we did before."
Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
The Blue Note; Columbia, MO
When bandmates Reuben Koroma and Francis Lamgba of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars first began creating music, it was not so much for the sake of art or love of music as it was a way to remove themselves from reality. They, along with thousands of others, had been thrust from their homes following an attack by rebel forces on the capital city of Sierra Leone. This massive exodus of people left their homeland, finding only fleeting refuge in the unkind refugee camps of Guinea, West Africa.
And now, after years of suffering, the group of musicians tours the world as Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, spreading their reggae/afro-beat-influenced music wrought with messages of hope and peace. In this context, it was quite amazing to see them smile so broadly as they took the stage.
The group filtered onto the Blue Note's stage, most of them wearing green cloth suits with horizontal white stripes featuring darkened silhouettes of birds in white circles. Reuben M. Koroma, the lead singer and bandleader, was dressed in a loose white robe with sequins that sparkled beneath the changing colors of the overhead lights.
As they took up their instruments, reggae began immediately pouring from the speakers, the heavy tones of the bass and the upbeat strumming of the rhythm guitar covering the hall in a flood of sound. As I looked down at the audience from above, it became clear that most everyone could feel the music rattling in their bones. Although there were certainly exceptions to this rule in the early part of the show (some of the indie kids seemed to be rather puzzled as to whether they should be dancing or not), eventually the audience became one unified, swaying movement. But as the show progressed, an increasing amount of people began to connect with the music on an individualistic level and even imitated the high-step dancing onstage.
The hope-filled music continued through the evening, taking form in infectious chants such as, "We will not cry/ We will not cry"; though, the truly significant aspect of the evening was undoubtedly the musicians on stage. Even from above, I could tell that their faces, albeit noticeably weathered and worn, were stretched wide in gleaming smiles. Numerous times, Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara ("Black Nature"), a percussionist, came to the front of the stage, took the microphone, and, in a voice raspier than anything I've ever heard, began rapping. Once he had finished his vocals, he leapt across the stage with his feet kicking high into the air, dancing with his entire body. The rest of the night followed suit, with nearly all of the band members taking their turn to dance at the front of the stage.
The only issue that I had with the concert was the venue in which it was held. When the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars came to Columbia this past fall for a community festival, they were on an outside stage and had an almost preternatural effect on the entire body of the audience. While the Blue Note show as a whole was certainly a memorable one, the cramped space of an indoor venue seems to confine the personality and music of this group, which is much better suited to the borderless outdoors. Nonetheless, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are a captivating live act, and you'd do good to check them out for yourself.