Xiu Xiu / Evangelista / Prurient / Common Eider, King Eider
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[08-28-2008]

Upon hearing that Xiu Xiu would be playing a show at the Bowery Ballroom in my humble hometown New York City with the city’s noise son Prurient, my brain involuntarily winced, an appropriate reaction to a seemingly impossible paradox. Why would the tinnitus-inducing, power-electronics testosterone fest that is Prurient be matched up with the often effete, fractured tales of hurt and emotionally honest outpourings of Xiu Xiu? Was this some promoter’s idea of a joke? Even others I told all seemed to cock their head in disbelief.

But it all began to make sense. Xiu Xiu and Prurient, if you think about it, are actually an excellent pairing. Though Xiu Xiu find themselves consistently exploring a tender side that Dominick Fernow (Prurient) seemingly doesn’t possess, both use torrents of sound to explore the same recesses of psychic territory and emotional longings. They also both use their art as a cleansing ritual, and though they’ve developed their own divergent modes of purging the pain, neither is less harrowing. The twisted tales of Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart teem with a wretched beauty both as nauseating and as moving as the layered drones, tortured screams, and microphone feedback of Dominic Fernow. I braced myself for what could be one hell of a cathartic evening.

The heartache wouldn’t end there, though. Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista were later be added to the bill, and since my exposure to the group was minimal, I decided to ask my editor, Mr P, what he knew. Well, my fears of breaking down in emotional throes were only compounded as he informed me that Evangelista’s Hello Voyager was not only one of his favorite albums of the year, but another one of those dangerous acts whose purpose lies in the pouring out of emotion and transference to their unsuspecting audiences. After taking a listen to Hello Voyager, I became really excited for this show -- or terrified, depending on how you look at it.

Entering a sparsely populated Bowery Ballroom, I came upon openers Common Eider, King Eider -- the nom de plume of Rob Fisk (7 Year Rabbit Cycle, Deerhoof) -- mid-set. Immediately, the viola drones and guitar work reminded me of Lou Reed and John Cale working out a midnight Theater of the Eternal Music jam in Soho in the late ’60s. Their dronescapes had a less is more approach, creating trance-inducing moments along with greater moments of breakout glory and grandeur, kind of like a more minimal and sparse Silver Mt. Zion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Though their set had its moments of tense foreboding, ultimately their music would be guilty of lulling everyone into a false sense of security, for Prurient was to take the stage next.

As the room started to fill out a bit, Fernow tested a few deafening squeals before the start of his set. My girlfriend turned to me to bemoan two things; first, that she didn’t bring ear plugs; and second, that Prurient was wearing a shirt. Shirt or not, his set was astonishing, and though it wasn’t as ear-splitting as I’ve witnessed in the past, it was one of the least abrasive (though it was still abrasive) and dare I say beautiful sets I’ve ever experienced from Prurient. The layered drones and distorted screams of agony were a perfect compliment to the theme of the night, i.e., the purging of pain. Prurient’s cries were marked with the black infinity of a Burzum album. Like a sputtering roman candle, Fernow created howling feedback with a microphone and a mini-amp. I’m not sure if what he performed was new material, but if so, it was promising, with less harsh noise and p.e. leanings and more of the black metal-tinted drone loops that made his Pleasure Ground album so memorable. It was all injected with an almost kosmische-influenced salute to the cosmos.

Evangelista was on next. Compiling a group comprised of the plodding bass of Tara Barnes, prepared sounds of electronics man Dominic Chas, the fractured drumming of Lisa Gamble, and orchestral swells provided by guests strings C. Spencer Yeh (Burning Star Core) and Okkyung Lee, Carla Bozulich’s Evangelista were absolutely stunning. Bozulich has admittedly used Evangelista as an outlet to overcome her innate shyness, and indeed engaging the audience is something she makes a conscious attempt to do every night she’s out there. In one of her signature stage moves, she put her arm around an unsuspecting audience member and began to powerfully coo in his ear. Choking out restrained bits of screeching guitar and walking around the stage spilling her guts in the confessional style she’s honed so well, Evangelista waded through the black mist of their signature chamber pop. Quiet moments would unsuspectingly gather gusts of wind and steam, creating the perfect spell-casting environ for Bozulich to spit her vitriolic venom through the tempest. At times throughout the set, Yeh would play his violin so furiously, the chalk residue that came off his violin made it look like the violin itself were smoking. For the epic closer “Hello Voyager,” Bozulich, in another patented act of engaging the audience, entered the crowd to deliver her message in a more intimate matter: “When there’s only one word left, one word that hasn’t dried on your parched lips, that word is love.” Amen, sister.

Finally there was Xiu Xiu. This would be my second time seeing the group this year, the first time being a bare-bones semi-acoustic set in the basement of a Lutheran church in Brooklyn, with only the accompaniment of drummer Ches Smith. So this would be my first time seeing Xiu Xiu in full-band form, and wow what a difference it made. The stage was setup in an impressive array of exotic percussion and Croatian bells. Drummer Smith sat behind an oversized kit, and his crash cymbal had the hulking circumference of a flying saucer -- though he looked diminutive in comparison to the set, Smith would nonetheless bang the shit out of it during the group’s more aggressive moments. Multi-instrumentalist and Stewart cousin Caralee McElroy played an array of different toys, from percussion to melodica to synth to harmonium to autoharp. Though the stage was almost completely covered in strange instruments, the strangest had to be Stewart’s voice itself. Shifting seamlessly from the little-boy-needing-his-mommy falsetto weirdness to Ian Curtis bravado on a dime, Stewart led the group through a set of songs culled primarily from their new album, Women as Lovers, alongside some old favorites (“Hello from Eau Claire,” “Fabulous Muscles,” “Boy Soprano”). They closed the night out with live standard “Bog People,” which featured Stewart on zither, a thankfully upbeat and buoyant way to end what wound up being one otherwise movingly disturbing night.

Photo: [Evangelista]

Outside Lands: Day One
Golden Gate Park; San Francisco, CA

[08-22-2008]

Maybe it was the fog that looked like a smoke machine rising into the air from the concert stages surrounded by sweet-scented eucalyptus trees. Maybe it was the substances that had pupils fat and eyes slanted. Maybe it was the music. Last weekend, the Outside Lands festival premiered in San Francisco to become an outlet for rebellion and chaos among more than 100,000 fans.

The tickets were $225.50 for three days, though some snuck in by jumping the fences that spanned 80 acres, encasing the fest's six stages. Another Planet spent $14 million and three years planning it. White tents and baby blue signs imbued the place with that San Francisco cuteness normally manifested in pastel multi-colored houses and streets that glitter at night. The first day welcomed Steel Pulse, Howlin Rain, The Dynamites, Black Mountain, Manu Chao, Lyrics Born, The Black Keys, Benevento/Russo Duo, Carney, The Felice Brothers, Beck, and Radiohead. It was a mixture of designer hipsters, heads, yuppies, industry figures, college kids, freaks.

Such was the overlapping that Cold War Kids is, a California band that became popular about two years ago with the release 2006 release of their LP, Robbers & Cowards. It was still worthwhile just to see them play songs like “Hospital Beds,” “Hang Me Up To Dry,” and “Saint John.” Lead singer Nathan Willett has a distinct and nasally voice that carried itself through the expansive air of Golden Gate Park. I knew that they would play Hospital Beds the moment before they did. The message is abstract, with Willett lines like “We are now fish and chips/ Italian opera,” and “Nothing’s suffing/ Doctors in tour/ Somewhere in India.” But the feeling is not abstract: this song is about malaise. It is about being sick and tense. This sort of esoteric expression is exactly what makes CWK so attractive to music fetishists. That, and the way they dance — barreling into one another like electrocuted chickens to the sound of a bluesy piano punctuated by jerky punk energy. The other highlights of the show were also from Robbers & Cowards, including “Hang Me Out To Dry” and “St. John.” I waited in Lindley Meadow for Beck to come onstage.

Beck knows how to put the Modern into Guilt, and you know this. These days, he’s sourcing his relevance from the geek-out glitch era we live in. “Nausea” from The Information peaked with a buzzy, synthy fallout towards the end. "Devil’s Haircut" and "Hell Yes" were notable for the sampling, a precursor to when the whole band had a sample machine jam that recalled video games and fried neurons. Beck played songs dominating airwaves a decade ago and longer, songs like “Loser,” “Lost Cause,” and “Where It’s At.” It wasn’t a nostalgia set, but it did feel pretty classic — especially to the backdrop of the park’s frosty bark, misty hills, and heather.

Once Beck finished his set, everyone started out towards Polo Field. Some people cut through the woods. Hundreds followed. “Storm the hill!” came the cry, as we rushed through wet brown leaves and fallen branches like gnarled hands that scratched our ankles. We got to the metal fence that enclosed the field. A row of people a dozen thick started to climb it. My tights tore on the metal twine at the top, and I fell to the ground and ran as people in yellow security jackets looked towards the debacle with their mouths gaping open, talking into their radios.

The crowd was 60,000 deep. I got about halfway through. I was alone and mostly sober. Oversaturated purples and alien-greens blinded by strobe monitors thrashed into the fog. If you have ever been to San Francisco, you should know that the fog is not a backdrop but a rolling and dominant presence. A literal cloud of gray and white unfurls like a great blanket. This close to the ocean, you sometimes can’t see three feet in front of you. To witness this fog cut by laser lights was utterly disorienting. It looked like a massive smoke machine.

Radiohead started with In Rainbows’ “15 Step,” a beat-boxy, nervy song with an erratic beat that recalls the sensation of moths. "Reckoner" showcased Thom Yorke’s pretty, wailing falsetto. His voice is more than a voice; it is an instrument. The sound went out even though you could see from the monitors juxtaposing the stage that they were still playing. “Do you think they’re pulling a John Cage?” I asked the girl behind me.

“Probably,” she said. “Otherwise, I never would have met you.”

Her eyes were pennies.

The sound came on, and Yorke sang that line from “There There” that goes “Just cause you feel it/ Doesn’t mean it’s there.” His voice looped over itself to form a wave, which was joined by thousands of voices. I had a religious feeling. Then they got sexy with "Talk Show Host." His voice teased out and was joined by a jumbling, off-kilter beat. There eeked out a creaking reverb, a single tendril of sound that twined over the funky bass and the one guitar hook so prominent along the ’90s soundscape of college dorms and Walkman headphones. Red neon lights scrambled up and down the monitors. A guy next to me lifted a crystal into the air and said, “This is how memories happen.”

Yorke played a grand piano solo to open “Videotape.” Then Phil Selway started in with pattered hand drumming like threaded wood falling open. Yorke sang slowly and emphatically that “today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen.” A couple in front of me kissed like it was their wedding night. And he was feeling it, too — during “Karma Police,” his face opened up into an ecstatic smile. Needles of moisture from the fog felt like rain on my neck.

"Jigsaw Falling Into Place" ushered forward that popular line, “You do it to yourself.” This song has more of that ’90s rock sound you can dance to. When it ended, a hairy, troll-like guy started screaming like a zombie. He wouldn’t stop. Then, something weird happened. Everyone else started moaning with him. Some kid who looked like a frat boy said, “Dude, you’re tripping balls.” They embraced.

The sound went out again and they kept playing. I wondered whether they were doing it as some kind intellectual acid trip. But then Thom Yorke said, “Sorry for the technical problems... It’s all about the music, really.”

The monitor depicted a huge zoomed-in view of his eyeball during “Paranoid Android,” a creepy and abstract subconscious expression, all subliminal with lines like “God loves his children” and “ambition makes you look pretty ugly.” It finished with an outburst of tribal drumming.

I sent a text: “im dreaming of a fake plastic trees encore.”

Then "Fake Plastic Trees" started, and I texted, “dreams do come true.”

After the last song of the night, which was Kid A’s "Everything In Its Right Place," thousands of confused people funneled out of the park. We mashed into a 38-Geary bus, where a hipster girl kind of passed out on me and someone else started smoking weed. At each stop, tons of people tried to get on. The doors wouldn’t close. Hair was disheveled. Innocent civilians grasped a little more tightly to the handrails. We barreled back into the city, and the driver blew through 10 or 12 stops without stopping, as people screamed for him to. I woke up the next morning in a funk of dirt and sweat with my sparkly neon press bracelet chaffing my wrist.

All Points West Pt. 2
Liberty State Park; Jersey City, NJ

[August 8-10, 2008]

{(Part 1)} (Part 2) {(Part 3)}

If the lineup at Friday's All Points West was evenly spread with a slew of notable bands turning in performances of varying repute, then Saturday's schedule was utterly front-loaded on the back end. The main stage (no, I will NOT refer to it as the "Blue Comet" stage, thank you) was packed with almost all of the most notable acts of the day, save for a sunset show with The Roots. As strangely anti-climactic as the day was, a minor concession offered to myself: at least it wasn't Sunday's lineup.

...

{Day Two, Saturday}

{Chromeo}

When approaching the massive crowd gathered at the end of the park that was waiting for Chromeo to (dis?)grace the stage, I did a double-take while considering the possibility that either Chromeo were a more popular band than I thought they were, or that a lot more festivalgoers were from Los Angeles than expected.

As it happens (it always does), I was wrong on both counts: turns out the turn-out was nothing more than the result of necessity, as not nearly as many audience members were interested in checking out no-namers Alberta Cross (good move) or Jersey's own Nicole Atkins (whatever). This was a fact that only rang truer as the are-they-ironic-or-aren't-they? ’80s-electro duo launched into a set leaning heavily on their relatively successful -- and, it must be said, catchy -- sophomore effort, Fancy Footwork, encouraging singalongs that weren't sung along and dance parties that never had the chance of getting crashed.

It's not incredibly fair to slot an act like Chromeo, whose tongue-in-cheek, sunglasses-at-night routine seems to only work well at night, in the first slot of a balmy afternoon on a lineup where musical kindred spirits are non-existent; thus, part of me felt bad for them, especially when dropped instruments and technical malfunctions unexpectedly made their way into their setlist. However, even though their energy waned near the end of the set, you got to hand it to them for at least consistently trying to engage the crowd, if not successfully.

----

{Metric}

Since when was this band so popular? A large crowd of audience members that had been previously still in their tracks for Chromeo morphed into a larger crowd of lyric-reciting, bad-dancing 23-year old women, as Emily Haines and several unknowns kicked off their set. Haines, wearing a skintight, gold lamé dress-thing with no clear sign of underwear underneath (something could be said here about indie-rock's devaluation of sensitivity into what has become self-destructive sexism, but I'm probably not the right person to say it), writhed and thrashed about as she knocked over microphone stands and set off keyboard runs. Her boundless energy might have made for interesting viewing, but it didn't help Metric's fuzzy musical math -- late ’90s No Doubt + early electroclash - negativity / Elastica = Live it Out -- sound like it was close to balancing the equation.

----

{Animal Collective}

It's always worthwhile to catch a live set from Animal Collective near the end of a long string of shows, rather than at a tour kickoff -- it's as if they feed off of the creative energy that gestates on the road, making their performance more effervescent than it was earlier in the year. Case in point: as the quartet whittled themselves down to a temporary(?) trio for live appearances post-Strawberry Jam, surrounding themselves with drum machines and samplers, the new material being previewed contained a dewy, tentative twilight within its looping piano lines and directly indirect lyricism.

Flash forward to APW, where the dew became undeniably sticky and the naked introversion manifested itself into a harsh, outgoing smile. New favorites "Social Status" and "Walk Around" were equal parts drum-sample-heavy dance music and Afro-pop, as Avey Tare flared around the stage with joy while running back and forth to his bed of samplers -- but it was the massive stretches of ambient meditation undercutting everything that truly floored the audience, along with a tear-inducing, crowd-deadening rendition of "Comfy in Nautica" that emphasized the band's recent mentionings of Person Pitch as a recent influence. Another three steps forward from a band that refuses to stand still.

----

{The Roots}

With frustration-fraught, knee-deep depressive anger surrounding The Roots' last several studio albums, one would expect their live show to be equally tension-ridden -- especially if one, like me, had never seen The Roots before (I know, I know). Most likely, the under-attended nature of their APW set added to their long-term shit list; onstage, however, the lean and mean six-piece played off of each other with a sense of discovery and happiness that was seldom found during the weekend.

As a showman, Black Thought's stage-commanding ability is surprisingly unnerving for a lyricist who could be considered ‘competent at best’ on record, delivering a poignant "moment of humor" for the dearly departed Bernie Mac mid-set; with all the performance-enhanced flair and grin-creating surprises, there were moments of humor all around. Even as ?uestlove's drum setup deteriorated early in the set, hilarity was had: "I'm going to need a minute," he said mid-song, as he hammered out a snap-crackling beat with one hand and winding his snare with the other, struggling not to burst out laughing at the inanity of it all. A set that was alternately tight and loose, on point and off the wall, faithful and irreverent -- why couldn't these guys have headlined on Saturday night? Which brings us to...

----

{RADIOHEAD.}

- Part 1: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

[(The following is a fictional discussion between fictional APW promoters.)]

Promoter 1: So, I just got off the phone with Radiohead's publicist. They're on for Friday night.

Promoter 2: Excellent. So we've got them for Friday, and Jack Johnson for Sunday... who do we get for Saturday?

Promoter 3: It would be pretty funny if we had Radiohead play Friday and Saturday night.

Promoter 2: Oh yeah, great fucking idea, Todd. Real great one. Radiohead as the headlining act both nights? Do you know how stupid that sounds? What, do you think that we aren't creative enough to get an interesting, crowd-drawing headlining act for Friday that isn't Radiohead?

Promoter 3: Hey, I was only making a jok--

Promoter 2: Save it, Todd. You're fucking fired. See you at Bonnaroo.

[Exit Promoter 3, a.k.a. Todd]

Promoter 2: Alright, Billy, get Radiohead's publicist on the phone and offer them $4 million for Friday and Saturday.

Promoter 1: Bob, I thought you just said that Todd's idea was stupid.

Promoter 2: No, I fired him so I could steal it and make it my own. It's genius.

Promoter 1: But, but, but... you were right about everything you said. Choosing Radiohead as a headliner for two consecutive nights does reveal a total lack of creativity and an underlying contempt for our audience.

Promoter 2: Sorry, what? I was playing with my iPhone. We're going to be rich, Billy.

[Fin.]

----

- Part 2: Just 'Cause You Hear It, Doesn't Mean “There, There”

"Do you know how much these guys got paid for playing both nights here?" the woman at the butterfly fries stand asked my friend and I while we got root beers as the titanically boring (let the tomato-throwing commence) Radiohead launched into their set of rote career window-dressing.

"No, I have no idea, I'm sorry," I said politely.

"Yeah? Well, I heard that they're getting paid a lot of money for this," the woman leaned in and whispered, as if the guy putting cheese on fries in the back might run into Thom Yorke and tell him that she was spreading rumors. I didn't even have to open my mouth for her to pleasingly tease, "Guess how much. Just guess."

"$500,000," I said.

"Higher."

"$1 million."

"Higher."

Alright, $4 million."

"Oh, not that high."

"$3 million." At this point, the woman stopped and gazed listlessly, as if caught up in her own processes. "To be honest, I don't know the exact number. I know it was high. Why would these guys be getting paid so much money? What have they done for that?"

It was an honest question, and as my friend and I stared at each other for a bit, contemplating longingly, we couldn't figure out the right answer. "To be honest with you, ma'am, I don't even know anymore."

Such is the problem that the increasingly irrelevant (yet incessantly and paradoxically relevant) art-school grads in Radiohead face. In Rainbows, while being the least lyrically sophomorically-inclined (and, by default, best) record in the band's catalog, was also a signal of defeat from a band that could never decide whether or not they should keep complaining while getting fucked or just close their eyes and let the hot tears of resignation flow. Yeah, it's a sexy record, but only these guys could make sex sound so lonely and miserable in the end.

Of course, the increasingly narrow-minded fanbase that surrounds and scavenges these guys would never admit any of that -- not because they like being miserable, but because they like the idea of it, sort of like when your friend listens to nothing but Joy Division for a year because he thinks it's going to induce suicide. Given the forever-staid attitudes of Thom Yorke and co., it could be safe to assume that they've grown sick of entertaining these widespread notions of mainstream grandeur via live settings (although it must be said that the stage setup for this current tour carries its own minimalist, glacial charms) and would rather appease their more techno-savvy fans with endless webcasts and remix contests.

I make these assumptions not because of my thinly veiled disdain for Radiohead, but because I'm genuinely trying to find an explanation for how a band that is so revered by its fans manages to go out on stage and put on a clinically perfect, absolutely bloodless performance night after night. Like a meaningless art installation, Radiohead's live presence can only be appreciated for a short while before inducing massive dopamine levels of ennui, as Yorke and crew disengage themselves in front of thousands of fans while unraveling a set that plays less like a well thought-out selection of songs with a unified theme and more like a grab bag of career highlights and forgotten repeaters.

During the last couple of weeks, I have encountered friends and strangers that attended the show who have strongly disagreed in varying amounts of elegance with me about the points at discussion here. "Do you have no soul?" "You're retarded." "But they sound so good!" Yes, but if that's why I'm going to a concert, I'd rather stay home and listen to the record. Sure, they offered some varied sonic treats (a Kraut-y, dubbed-out "The Gloaming" and that last third of "Optimistic" with its guitar-led air assault that gets me every time), but at a festival where the few simple pleasures to be had were found in acts that enjoyed sound, solidarity, and spontaneity, Radiohead ended up looking like just another brick in the modern rock wall.

[Photo: John Shearer]

{(Part 1)} (Part 2) {(Part 3)}

Boredoms Present: 88 BoaDrum
Williamsburg Waterfront; Brooklyn, NY

[08.08.2008]

I love the Boredoms; I love outdoor concerts; and I love weird, ambitious art projects. That's why I was so sad when I missed the Japanese noise legends' 77 BoaDrum performance last July. I had RSVP'ed (though, I later heard the RSVPs didn't count anyway, so people who had driven out from halfway across the country on the strength of online confirmations couldn't get in), but I woke up on the day of the show with a massive headache. At the time, I didn't think 77 minutes of drumming was such a great idea.

So this year, I was excited to hear that there would be an 88 BoaDrum, and I resolved to go, even if I was afflicted with tuberculosis or pneumonia. I knew that I wouldn't be seeing the Boredoms themselves (although they composed the piece, they were taking part in the Los Angeles performance), but Gang Gang Dance conducting the show seemed a fitting substitute. And thankfully, I felt A-OK at 8:08 PM on 8.8.08.

The Williamsburg waterfront was a perfect place to stage 88 BoaDrum — tranquil and expansive, with a gorgeous view of Manhattan. An audience of thousands clustered around the spiral of 88 drummers, with the members of Gang Gang Dance on a slightly elevated circular stage in the center. Among the assembled musicians were Animal Collective's Panda Bear and Geologist, TV On The Radio's Jaleel Bunton, Magik Markers' Pete Nolan, and a slew of other impressive folks. I was a bit disappointed that Andrew W.K. didn't reprise his 77 BoaDrum appearance, but hey, you can't have everything.

What happened once the performance began is difficult to explain. At 8:08 on the dot, everyone hushed up and listened as Gang Gang Dance and the drummers started to play. The band's guitars, electronics, and ghostly, wordless vocals guided the percussionists through 88 minutes of experimental composition. It was the kind of music you can lose yourself in — although I often chastise myself for not paying close enough attention to sprawling, instrumental music, I've come to the conclusion that the experience of losing my concentration and allowing my thoughts to wander is part of the pleasure. Like a more traditional, classical piece, 88 BoaDrum swelled and faded, moved gracefully (and sometimes purposefully abruptly) from loud and attention-grabbing to soft and pensive, as twilight yawned into starlight.

The final 10 minutes of the performance were a brain-boggling cacophony of multi-colored strobes, staccato drumming, and otherworldly wailing. It was legitimately disorienting, but it also put me into a trance-like state. I don't know how else such an intense, bizarre experience could have ended. When it was all over, I just sat on the grass for a few minutes, too knocked out to stumble to the exits.

It occurred to me later that a few thousand young people had just sat through 88 minutes of instrumental music and, judging from the silence and transfixed stares of everyone around me, loved every minute of it. Now, I'm as guilty as anyone of complaining about image-obsessed hipsters in Williamsburg and the shallowness of my generation as a whole. But 88 BoaDrum gave me a semblance of hope. If we can appreciate an hour and a half of noise and music together, we can't be all bad. Right?

[Photos: Sean Ruch]

All Points West
Liberty State Park; Jersey City, NJ

[August 8-10, 2008]

(Part 1) {(Part 2)} {(Part 3)}

The state of New Jersey is incapable of hosting a decent music festival.

Mind you, this statement isn't the product of reckless New Jersey bashing that takes place all too often amongst the ranks of cultural snobs and Pennsylvanians alike; I myself hail from the sort-of-maybe-great state and have lived there most of my life (I've also lived in Florida and Connecticut and was born in Texas, which means I must be up for some sort of consolation prize from the continent of North America). Instead, this statement is simply borne out of surveying the facts. Consider: the last music festival I went to was 2003's infamous Field Day, which was originally a two-day festival in upstate New York that, due to permit problems, was whittled down to a one-day ‘festival’ in East Rutherford, NJ's Giants Stadium.

There were a multitude of issues that I and everybody else had with Field Day, and it wasn't just the fact that the entire thing was held in a football stadium (seriously, seeing Beth Orton play on the theoretical 50-yard line provided a bizarre experience that no drug could top). For one, it rained all day, an injury made more injurious by a no-umbrella policy and an $8 rain slicker charge. Furthermore, the schlep between the second stage, located in the parking lot(!), and the main stage within the stadium was drawn out and awkward. Of course, the fact that the day was littered with sets that ranged from lackluster (Beastie Boys, Bright Eyes) to altogether non-existent (thanks for nothing, Beck) didn't help.

Field Day was a disaster, but it's not necessarily fair to place blame on New Jersey (even if the state's usual idea of a festival usually includes the words ‘hot air balloon show’ in its title). Like the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, Jersey is simply a state with bad festival-related luck (no, Warped Tour doesn't count) looking to reverse its fortunes.

While this past weekend's All Points West festival, held in Jersey City's Liberty State Park, did one-up Field Day in the fact that it actually took place, whether the three-day event could be considered a success is debatable. Yes, the stage setups were sonically agreeable (although the speaker setups may not have been -- we'll get to that later), but the lineup was fairly front-loaded and dull. Furthermore, something has to be said for the general dishonesty of the Coachella arrangers and APW dreamers Goldenvoice, who could have warned festivalgoers (both potential and confirmed) of overly restrictive alcohol regulations and lengthy traveling times to the festival grounds. There's something a little despicable about taking people's money without letting them know what they're paying (not to) do; hopefully, if there is another APW next year (which, judging from early reports of ticket sales and first-hand experience of attendance rates, seems highly unlikely), the promoters will learn from their mistakes accordingly.

All this talk of complaints and curses, but one question remains: What about the music?

...

{Day One, Friday}

{The Duke Spirit}

"Oh, cool, they're all dressed in black," my friend semi-snidely commented as we stumbled upon Brit nü-gaze also-also-rans The Duke Spirit's set at the unfortunately named "Queen of the Valley" stage. Indeed, for a band that seemed like pretty nice people in interviews I had watched prior to the festival, there sure was a lot of forced posturing on the stage. The band members stayed far enough away from each other at all times (because, you know, that's how the Pixies played live) and sneaked furtive glances so as to keep time without losing cool. Every move Liela Moss made, whether it was hitting her useless tambourine (really, do you need a tambourine in a stage setup that is mostly sludgingly borrowed guitar chords to begin with?) or shifting her body into a new position, was referential of decades studying pictures of musicians without actually resembling one.

Regardless, you got to give them points for trying to impress the woefully small crowd, and their sort-of-okay artless-rock was tolerable for a few songs. It's no fun getting bludgeoned to death with hand-me-down signifiers for an entire set, though.

----

{Michael Franti and Spearhead}

Look, if you're going to one of these festivals for free, and you're covering it for a publication, you have to be open-minded -- even if it means giving a hippie-friendly “world music” band 20 minutes of your time before Mates of State take the stage. That said, when Michael Franti and Spearhead foisted their opening notes on the unsuspecting air, I witnessed one of the most truly horrifying things in my life: The assorted dirty-clothed white people littering the field with their presence jumped to their feet as if they were part of a gospel tent revival, as scantily-clad girls jumped up and down while their dresses flew over their heads (but that's okay, man, because it's free love!) and the smell of cheap, shitty pot permeated the air. Dig this scene, man. Dig this crazy scene.

As for the music: what has heavily been banded around in the press as "loose-sounding" and "multi-cultural" ends up sounding like a rendition of Ashlee Simpson's "L.O.V.E." as performed by a group of just-out-of-college session players and repeated ad nauseam. The strangeness of the atmosphere was disorienting, and I wasn't even high. Furthermore, Franti's forced attempts at multiculturalism came off as insultingly condescending, especially when he engaged the audience in a call-and-response of saying ‘hello’ in various languages before launching into a song with a chorus comprised of the same thing. Bottom line: when he hollered into the microphone, "You guys like reggae music?" we decided that we did, which resulted in our departure from the set.

{Mates of State}

Ironically, as the ever-adorable duo Mates of State took the stage, storm clouds covered the field as fierce winds began ripping the festival's banners off of their tethers (much to the audience's delight, until said tethers began whipping into the audience). Despite the gloomy conditions, the forever-married Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel launched into a set that relied heavily on 2006's exuberant Bring it Back and this year's slightly underappreciated (but still pretty turgid) Re-Arrange Us.

Strangely, it was the more frantic older material that tended to drag at times, especially during the too-cute "Like U Crazy"; the new songs, on the other hand, came to life with dramatic crescendos and exquisite musicianship. One minor complaint: the band did look pretty awkward on the oversized stage -- but their high-octane pop was well-suited for the large crowd that had gathered to see them (although, with Michael Franti & Spearhead still ‘doing their thing’ on the other side of the field, it's not like there was a better choice).

----

{Duffy}

Ugh. Word of advice: if it sounds like shit, and it looks like shit, then it was probably produced by Bernard Butler in the last 12 months.

----

{Grizzly Bear}

One of the biggest problems I had with Grizzly Bear's last record, 2006's "nice try" Yellow House, is that it sounded like the work of a band that didn't know who they were just yet. For the majority of House, the quartet spent way too much time utilizing orchestral flourishes, organized breakdowns, and left-turn genre exercises (see: the doo-wop of #1 blog hit "Knife") and not enough time thinking about how to rise above the ‘mannered Animal Collective’ comparisons. It wasn't until the second half of "On a Neck, On a Spit" that Grizzly Bear touched upon a collective, electric propulsion that would launch them to conceive of the stellar re-imaginations on the otherwise uneven Friend EP.

The new material that the band has recently debuted through various media outlets -- the swooning "Two Weeks" on Letterman, the sexy "While You Wait For the Others" on KCRW -- has revealed a newfound confidence in the quartet's songwriting, which made their APW set, for me, a must-see. Needless to say, they did not disappoint, turning in an explosive, shimmering set was undoubtedly the best the festival had to offer.

The sheer sonic chemistry of Grizzly Bear in a live setting was incredible, based on their vocal talents alone: Daniel Rossen's rough-hewn growl, Ed Droste's Orbison-esque timbre, Chris Taylor's angelic eruptions, and Christopher Bear's velvet croon create an atmosphere that is simultaneously and alternately filled with sensuality and danger. The set was mostly comprised of new material, which was heavy on intertwining guitar work from Rossen and Droste and oft sounded as if Adventure-era Television had been shot into the stratosphere. It would be premature to do as others have done and proclaim that Grizzly Bear are one of the most vital acts that have emerged in the last couple of years – given the sonic fuddy-duddying done to death on Yellow House, these guys still have every chance to clutter these sparse hymnal rockers with extraneous bullshit – but based on Friday’s virtuosic performance, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say they’re certainly one of the more fascinating acts out there right now.

----

{CSS/Andrew Bird}

Maybe I wasn’t drunk enough. I’ve read in various publications that CSS fancy themselves to be a ‘party band’ of some sort. I’ve been to parties where the music’s way too loud and obnoxious, the girls are dressed like colorblind children, and even the guy who threatens to pour a beer on your head can’t get up the nerve to do it because he’ll ruin the carpet or something. I don’t like being at these parties – so what makes CSS think that this sort of idiotic spectacle is acceptable as a stage show?

I’ll give them the fact that they seemed to be having a blast and that the crowd was pretty energized. I really liked their self-titled debut, so we stuck around in the back -- way, way back -- through standouts “Alala” and “Meeting Paris Hilton” until the dance-grunge aphorisms of the Brazilian outfit’s disappointing follow-up Donkey were trotted out like the animal it’s named after. We followed suit and trotted over to Andrew Bird’s set, where the troubadour was proudly exhibiting his standards-flecked tunes with equal technological impressiveness and charisma. Not being able to stick around for his entire set was one of my greatest regrets about APW – my friend and I decided we should get in a decent place for Girl Talk to appropriately appraise the spectacle to come – but I was told by many that the performance was competent, if not a bit overlong. When we returned back to the final strains of CSS – including a surprisingly fiery run-through of “Let’s Make Love To Death From Above” – I was a lot less agitated and more ambivalent to Lovefoxxx (3 x’s? Is that really necessary?) and her ‘yeah, whatever’ crew of hipsters and professional photo posers.

----

{Girl Talk}

There were an alarming number of 15-year-old boys and girls packing the front of the stage for Girl Talk’s set – and we’re not talking about age in an emotional sense (just kidding, scenesters, I won’t get all Adbusters on you). Night Ripper was something of a minor hit amongst white North Jersey teenagers, and I assume from all the pre-set chanting of “Play your part!” that Gregg Gillis’ laser-precision focused follow-up, Feed the Animals, has made waves in that community as well. It’s nice to see Gillis’ fanbase extends beyond the American Apparel/Alcoholics Anonymous community – regardless, it was more than a bit uncomfortable to be surrounded by severely underage children grinding on each other at a show where the DJ is notorious for taking off articles of clothing.

After what was way too extensive of a setup for someone whose entire repertoire is fed throughout two shitty-looking laptops, Gillis took the mic and said some hilarious things about Cloverfield (my favorite movie of the year and maybe of the decade) before launching into what was a set that alternated between sonic studs (Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” and Tag Team’s “Whoomp, There It Is!”) and total duds (Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” and Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli”). Minus the missteps and an overbearing sound system (hey, it’s a festival), the music itself provided for an adequate party atmosphere.

Of course, the massive setting didn’t allow for the usual club-like intimacy that Girl Talk shows are known for; in order for Gillis to achieve some sense of communal atmosphere around him, he hosted an utter spectacle on stage alongside him, replete with hipster-dancers of various (un)dressings, toilet-paper-unfurling leafblowers, and massive inflatable toys. It was a lot of fun to look at, sure, but for an artist such as Gillis, who seems to believe in the power of unity through appreciation of all kinds of pop, this exhibition of ‘me’ culture (including an unfortunate purple-unisuit-clad woman who spent the entirety of the set standing in front of the stage vogueing and flashing her breasts) seemed a bit backwards from the music’s message. At the set’s close, however, when the unshirted, shaggy DJ himself threw an inflatable mattress into the crowd and triumphantly rocked out until he fell to the ground, his true message was delivered: he’s just in it for the music, dude.

(Part 1) {(Part 2)} {(Part 3)}

The Watson Twins / Tim Fite
Bottom of the Hill; San Francisco, CA

[07-28-2008]

Tim Fite is from Brooklyn, and The Watson Twins exude Los Angeles polish. In spite of this, they put together a show that seems if not authentically southern, then a showbiz simulation of such. This country flair is the ace that brings two very opposing acts to the same table.

They finish their summer tour off in California, playing at San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill to a somewhat packed audience: Fite is hooking the real music fiends with nerdy hip-hop, and The Watson Twins have endeared themselves to the likes of Perez Hilton and Grey’s Anatomy with soft country rock. There’s a lot of steam in that boat.

Tim Fite goes on first. From 10-feet away, he recalls a backwoods preacher or an oily circus ringmaster. See him up there swaggering and sweating as though by some undetectable heat wave, chubby and pig-faced, with big clownish pants held up by suspenders. Fite isn’t baring the dregs of his soul or even connecting with the audience in front of him. Instead, he’s in the grasp of a reverie, the kind you see in performers who have succumbed completely to their roles. He looks possessed.

Fite’s songs, which often sound like hip-hop, have more to do with the Soggy Bottom Boys than Public Enemy. The slow-twanged "I’ll Never Drown" sees him running from the devil, presumably down a river. On "It’s All Right Here," he spits Dirty South rhymes over a club beat— "rocks in the mud gunked out" and "guts in the trucks ganged up" don’t quite make sense, but they do present flashes of Southern imagery.

Fite sings along to a dorky version of himself on projector. He spins imaginary records on people’s heads. For his finale, he borrows a few pairs of glasses from girls in front rows and puts them on his face, geeking out. He even has a fake wooden boom box covered in glittering lights, a snide take on bling. These little tricks provide an intellectual bent to what could be mistaken as a frat house project.

All of this swagger and bravado are so distracting that one almost forgets the anger that drives a hard edge through the gut of Fite’s music. He never stops smiling — grotesquely — when he sings that “the rich get richer and us poor don’t get shit.” An animation on the projector, drawn on notebook paper, has its cuteness undermined by the title, “JoJo and Bobby Stab a Motherfucker.” Working class frustration fused with a faceless, absurdist rage provide the undertones that take Southern to the more complex level of Southern Goth.

What does one take down with such a bitter pill? Sugar, of course. The Watson Twins are accordingly the musical equivalent of honey. They grew up in Louisville, the kind of place where horse fields and checkered tablecloths and rocking chairs on porches massage out all of your fight... at least, one likes to think.

The first song, "Southern Manners," contains an invitation to “come on over for a slice of pie.” This seems about as likely as Drew Barrymore serving home fries through a drive-in window. Leigh and Chandra Watson are stunning: well, first of all, they’re identical. Second of all, they’re about six-feet tall with bodies and faces and hair like models. Their outfits are funky, sequined and modern. One just doesn’t envision them eating pie. And anyway, who does that anymore? As Iggy Pop so famously explains to Tom Waits in Coffee and Cigarettes, the pie-and-coffee era is dead.

Their low soprano voices twist in pretty harmonies over a soft blanket of rock supplied by the backup band. Yet while the music is robust and lovely enough, each song washes into the next without much delineation. Even their cover of The Cure’s "Just Like Heaven" takes all the punch and synth out of the classic song, falling on its face. Remember when Sharon Crow did "Sweet Child O’Mine"? Anyone who can get Guns N’ Roses onto the WB station deserves permanent status in the “adult contemporary” section. And it’s hard not to get surly when the Watsons mutter such trite comments as, “It’s so amazing to be here.”

They are writing simple, sleepy songs that are nice the way bubble baths are nice. This pleasantness will geyser into significant country music when they learn not to shy from contextual depth. Shelby Lynne wouldn’t be Shelby Lynne if she hadn’t found her parents murder-suicide-dead when she was a kid. And Dolly Parton sings with the strength and truth of water falling when she sings that, “I just never belonged/ I just longed to be gone/ So the garden, one day, set me free.”

Between Tim Fite and The Watson Twins, a complicated reality forms, a hyperbole of Southern culture presented as though from a circus or revivalist tent, then tweaked with the anachronisms of modern culture. Fite plays the wise clown, the inbred priest, the corrupted door-to-door salesman — telling ugly truths with an ugly mouth. The twins wash out this bitterness like sugar on collard greens, two performers with nothing to say, yet an utterly bewitching way of saying it.

Whartscape 2008
July 17 – 20, 2008;

[July 17 – 20, 2008]

It’s hard to believe that Whartscape is only in its third year. The DIY festival, organized by Baltimore art collective Wham City, originally started out as an alternative offering to Baltimore’s largest outdoor festival Artscape, but has since become an institution unto itself. This year’s festival featured nearly 80 performers and spanned five venues. The majority of performers ranged from established to new Baltimore musicians, including Dan Deacon, Celebration, Wzt Hearts, Double Dagger, Thank You, Matmos, Ponytail, Video Hippos, the Death Set, and Cex as well as a number of out-of-towners like: Mark Hosler (of Negativland), Parts & Labor, Trey Told ‘Em (Girl Talk and Hearts of Darknesses), Ninja Sonik, and Grand Buffet.

I took some time to ask performers and attendees a few brief questions about Whartscape and their vision of the future of music.

----

{Performers Video Interview:}

src="/media/player.swf"
width="450"
height="338"
bgcolor="ffffff"
allowscriptaccess="always"
allowfullscreen="true"
flashvars="file=/media/video/08-08-whartscape_performers.flv"
/>

----

{Attendees Video Interview}

src="/media/player.swf"
width="450"
height="338"
bgcolor="ffffff"
allowscriptaccess="always"
allowfullscreen="true"
flashvars="file=/media/video/08-08-whartscape_audience.flv"
/>

----

Whartscape this year was particularly impressive, with the majority of performances starting on schedule. Highlights included the Oxes first show in nearly three years and Dan Deacon's mind control powers to organize what may have been the largest crowd at the festival to run laps, and, well, the video speaks for itself:

src="/media/player.swf"
width="450"
height="338"
bgcolor="ffffff"
allowscriptaccess="always"
allowfullscreen="true"
flashvars="file=/media/video/08-08-whartscape-dan_deacon.flv"
/>

----

Also of note was Mark Hosler’s lecture on mass media that detailed the exploits and hoaxes of his band Negativland, including viewings of the experimental group’s multimedia work and an “illegal” screening of their video to accompany their infamous parody of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Unfortunately, Black Dice didn’t get the opportunity to play due to rain that occurred during Sunday’s outdoor performance, and the last set of performances including Who Is the Tunafish Man?, the much talked about collaboration between Dan Deacon, Greg Gillis, and Spank Rock, didn’t happen due to police shutting down the last venue of performances. However, Wham City has made an announcement that the bands that weren’t able to play are being rescheduled and that passes or tickets will still be honored.

Nonetheless, Whartscape 2008 was impressive. I'll end this with a couple sweet performances.

----

- The Death Set:

src="/media/player.swf"
width="450"
height="338"
bgcolor="ffffff"
allowscriptaccess="always"
allowfullscreen="true"
flashvars="file=/media/video/08-08-whartscape-death_set.flv"
/>

----

- Double Dagger:

src="/media/player.swf"
width="450"
height="338"
bgcolor="ffffff"
allowscriptaccess="always"
allowfullscreen="true"
flashvars="file=/media/video/08-08-whartscape-double_dagger.flv"
/>

R.E.M.
Mann Center; Philadelphia, PA

[06-18-2008]

I bought a copy of Green when I was 14 years old. It was the time when most of the country began the inevitable switch from cassette to CD, and I thought junk like “Havin’ a Roni” and “Unskinny Bop” were shining examples of complex songwriting. I took a long trip across the American West that summer, seeing a landscape so different than the subdivisions and wooded patches of my suburban Philadelphia. As I hunched over my Discman, songs like “World Leader Pretend” and “I Remember California” surging through my headphones, I could tell my understanding of good music had begun to change.

Flash forward 17 years, and I am sitting in the second row of the Mann Center in Philadelphia. It is a mild summer night, the temperatures dipping into the ’50s. I am 10 feet from the stage. Today, my musical tastes are a full palette: everything from the Beach Boys to Portishead. The band I give credit to for shepherding my musical predilections in the right direction is about to take the stage.

There has been a lot of talk lately about R.E.M. being “back.” Journalists are always looking for a good story, and with the release of this year’s Accelerate, writers act as if the band has returned from a decade-long hiatus. Granted, the last few albums did not garner the critical kudos of their I.R.S. and early Warner Bros. output, but there were still enough choice tracks on Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun to keep me interested. The band never went away; they did tour and record. The general perception of R.E.M.’s last decade is that they put out crappy albums but still put on crackerjack shows. Critics are right about the last part.

The band burst onto the stage with “These Days,” an old chestnut from Lifes Rich Pagaent. Michael Stipe, dressed in a black-striped suit and tie, looked dapper and lithe, eschewing the blue face paint that he had applied for most of the last tour. Up close, I could see his piercing blue eyes and his dance moves perfectly. Since I catch most of my shows these days in clubs, it was strange to see a performer so famous so close. The same goes for when I stood feet away from Bono. These guys are beyond musicians; they are performers. Each movement is big. Stipe worked the crowd, dancing spasmodically, hunkering down and staring us down, leaping about with a megaphone. It’s hard to look away from him.

For an R.E.M. enthusiast, the setlist was a profusion of songs old and new. Hits like “Turn You Inside-Out” and “Imitation of Life” mixed with fans-only tracks like “Wolves, Lower” and “Life and How to Live It.” Also on display were the high energy tracks from Accelerate, blending well with the fiery older songs like “Ignoreland” and “The One I Love.”

But it wasn’t just Stipe’s show. Peter Buck prowled the stage with his black Rickenbacker, a small fan blowing his hair about as if a personal breeze followed him. Though not as thin as in his youth, Buck still pulled off some pretty impressive leaps and kicks. On bass, Mike Mills has refused to return to his mousy looks of the ’80s. He wore a green suit, bleached locks replacing the bowl cut. Mills is also the band’s secret weapon. His sweet harmonies really flesh out Stipe’s more corrosive vocal stylings. If there is one thing that’s “back” on Accelerate, it’s Mills’ backups in more of a featured role like in the old days.

The music sounded fantastic. When the band played a requested version of “Find the River,” the sonic clarity of Buck’s acoustic guitar and Stipe’s voice sounded sharp and clear. It is obvious these guys are professionals and the amount of precision that goes into making such a big show somewhat intimate is an art they have mastered, and that is what sets R.E.M. apart from some of the other bands of their stature.

There is a point when a group gets so big, they become a caricature. When I saw part of Metallica’s set last week at Bonnaroo, it was almost cartoonish the way these personalities melded on the stage. I honestly felt like I was watching an episode of the The Simpsons. But R.E.M. still appears to be a working band. Sure, they played “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love,” but the set was not engineered for only the casual R.E.M. fan. “Stand” and “Everybody Hurts” did not arrive. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine” seems to have been retired. This is not the Annual Steve Miller Band Farewell Tour.

At one point, Stipe asked the audience members to raise their hands if they’ve never seen R.E.M. before. Most hands around me stayed down. It’s the quality of the show that keeps people coming back for more. It’s that good, and Stipe knows it.

Two special guests joined the band for the encore. Eddie Vedder, looking like a literate truck driver in a cap and glasses, traded verses with Stipe on “Begin the Begin.” Johnny Marr joined Buck -- with a twin version of the black Rickenbacker -- for the divine “Fall On Me” and show closer “Man on the Moon.” During the last song, Stipe and Mills stepped out along a partition that separated the pit from the rest of the audience. As the final notes of the song fled into the night, the three remaining members of R.E.M. hugged with what seemed to be genuine friendship. Stipe promised they would be back soon. I hope so.

Setlist:

Jonathan Richman Four-Night Album Release Party
Make-Out Room; San Francisco, CA

[July 16-19, 2008]

{When We Refuse To Suffer}

It is possibly simpler to feel invulnerable by being cynical and worldly and jaded. Jonathan Richman, though, thinks that it’s better to suffer.

I know this because of his new song, "When We Refuse To Suffer."

"When We Refuse To Suffer" is nice to hear, because I have been sleeping on my friend’s floor for two months and am now sleeping in a sublet bed. After that, I’m cat-sitting for a friend for two weeks, then another month’s sublet in another friend’s room. I am unemployed and peanut butter has begun to taste like loneliness. So hearing Jonathan sing "When We Refuse To Suffer" reminds me of why I moved to San Francisco.

So does Jonathan, which is what I am going to call him because that’s who he is, like how the dude in The Big Lebowski is The Dude. I first heard "I’m Straight" and "I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar" at a time when I was not straight at all — straight-edge I mean, which is what the song is about. And as for lesbian bars, the only ones in South Carolina... oh wait, nope, no lesbian bars in South Carolina.

I have still never danced in a lesbian bar, even though I live in San Francisco. I have, however, been to Jonathan’s favorite place to perform in the city. That place is the Make-Out Room, a night club with old-school class and new-school swank: red velvet curtain on the stage, deer heads of glittering metallic behind the bar. I see him the second and third of the four nights he plays.

He performs it at the Make-Out Room July 16 through 19, a four-night album release party.

The album is called Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild. It is his 23rd.

...

I am a little shocked to be seeing him, which is what I need. I have been suffering. I mean it is just that I am so very unemployed, coffee costs $3, I miss my family, my sweater smells like cat pee, and other stuff too. But that is life, my friends. So it’s reassuring to hear Jonathan sing

When we refuse to suffer

That’s when the Prozac wins

As my +1 Peter says, it is impossible to be depressed when watching Jonathan perform. He smiles from within like how a yogi stretches from the core, connecting physically to his instrument like a jazz or blues musician does. You know, a sort of abandonment. So maybe he does have a song that encourages us to go through pain so we won’t get numb. The mood he induces though, with warm classical guitar licks as Tommy Larkins provides a mellow outpouring of drum beats, is pretty painless.

----

{TIME HAS BEEN GOING BY SO FAST}

Jonathan would be boring to see if I didn’t like his back catalogue of the past 35 years. (He’s 57.) But in a friend’s roach-infested, crayon-scrawled apartment in Columbia, South Carolina last summer, I first listened to the song "I’m Straight" and got excited. The song is an answering machine monologue to a girl he likes, a girl who keeps running around with these perma-stoned hippie johnnys.

Jonathan isn’t the hot young thing with the guitar and blue eyes who wrote "I’m Straight." He’s now playing classical guitar, singing in French and Spanish; his taut face is creased the way leather creases; and he plays songs like Pablo Picasso with a glazed, even nostalgic attitude.

I wonder what it is like for him, looking out at a crowd 20 and 30 years younger than him. He plays "Time Has Been Going By So Fast" from the new album at both of the shows I see. It is a damn charming song. He actually attempts to carry notes, revealing a flawed baritone. The jangly guitar and subtly raucous cymbal clanging of Larkins are pretty upbeat, even though the message is that

"Time has be going by so fast

So that I can foresee the day we’ll say goodbye

We’ve been having fun all these yesteryears

But time keeps going by"

I think that this song is about the music community. Jonathan is still at the party, but he won’t always be.

----

{GIRLFRIEND}

"Girlfriend" has the feeling of a song like "My Girl" or an Al Green song, except with more of a slow ’70s groove. The song is like he is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and that’s fine, but something he really understands is a girlfriend. One line of the chorus is, "I’d have a G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N," which of course everyone sings with him at the show.

That song was released 37 years ago. Fast-forward to the title track of the new album. Here’s some of the lyrics:

"Because her beauty is raw and wild

She is at the core of the stars we see

Because her hair is curly and wild

She don’t need nothing in it to transcend"

Raw and wild? Core of stars? Hair transcending? What the fuck? He plays it both nights, and both times I wish that I was still a heavy drinker.

He does play a new love song that I like, "The Lovers Are Here And They’re Full Of Sweat." It is about young love, which apparently encompasses being smelly, youth hostels, trains, not changing clothes, being no good at business, writing bad checks, and making sterile places live.

“So what if they owe you five dollars,” he says during the bridge. “They’re lovers.”

Modern lovers.

----

{HERE IT IS}

"No One Was Like Vermeer" is one of those songs off Because Her Beauty in which Jonathan’s sense of humor ruins his attempt to be serious. It gets as deep as

"Vermeer was eerie

Vermeer was strange

He had a more modern color range "

What I really get out of this song is the classic rock sense of paranoia, maybe like you would expect from Jim Morrison had he gotten out alive.

He also nods to Leonard Cohen in his cover of "Here It Is," which is a dark song that comes off as not so much — he sings some lines about life and death, then busts out a shaker and starts dancing.

He’s funny, see. The best joke of the second night comes when it’s time for intermission, during which he says that “Smokers can eat cigarettes, you can put on deodorant — anything can happen!”

Jonathan appeals to me the way that pewter cookware and vintage dresses do. He brings out a nostalgia for the middle age I want to go home to one day, when I’m not too broke to get my teeth cleaned and assimilating myself constantly to the smell of urine in the street. It is perhaps indeed best to suffer. Better still if you can do it with a smile and a hip swing and a wink to the pretty people on the flanks of the stage. Life is good, according to Jonathan Richman — even when it’s not.

Robert Belfour
Red’ s Place; Clarksdale, MS

[May 2008]

Fueled by a hankering for authenticity, my father and I drove across Mississippi a few weeks ago in search of something (anything) that wasn’t a fast food chain, a home or structure wrecked by Katrina, or something too foreboding for our Northeastern psyches. We had just left Greenville, MS, a blues town with a resolute urban blight that called to mind mid-’90s Johannesburg. After tentatively checking the local haunts for any music, we left the next morning for Clarksdale, the home of the crossroads and a slightly more welcoming music scene.

Wandering around the town, we ended up in a homemade rock ‘n’ roll museum owned by Theo Dasbach, a Dutch native transplanted to the Delta. His collection was impressive, and after a tour I asked him if he knew of anything worth seeing that night. He told me he’d call Red’s Place, his favorite in town. After a short conversation consisting mostly of Dasbach saying “you gotta tell me about these things, man!” he hung up the phone and told us that Robert Belfour was playing. He explained that Belfour was as talented and experienced as any of the greats but, partly due to his intense lack of promotion, had never hit it big.

After some later research, I found out that he was right; Robert “Wolfman” Belfour may be the most under-appreciated blues musician still alive. Belfour studied with legends like R.L. Burnside and is one of the last surviving masters of the original Hill Country blues (as opposed to the Delta blues). In an unfortunate and ironic accident, Belfour was mentioned in a recent Boston Globe article as Robert Belford, another small step in the great man’s push to the obscure reaches of blues history. Nonetheless, his use of eccentric tunings, forceful vocals, and long, grizzly vamps has earned him his nickname and a heroic place among his group of dedicated supporters.

Figuring an hour and a half after the start time would be safe, we got to the outside of Red’s at 10:30 to find a rusted boiler and a closed door. I slowly opened the door to a dead-silent room of ten people and Red gazing just over my forehead. I handed him $10 and quietly took a seat at a table on the right side of the room. Belfour, fiddling with his guitar tuning, sat in a chair surrounded by an improvised merch table and a few amps. He pulled out a small bottle of gin, took a swig, and in a simultaneously heartbreaking and comedic way, shuddered violently. “I just can’t drink this stuff anymore!” he grimaced, and then asked Red for a Bud Light.

Watching Belfour tune his guitar was almost as engaging as listening to his music; his maddeningly percussive test strokes of strings that seemed impossibly out of tune would have made a great Stockhausen study. This continued for a few minutes and somehow segued into a introductory vamp, which I didn’t even realize had started until I saw Red bobbing his head from behind the bar.

Belfour took no time to demonstrate his virtuosity. His ability to separate parts, from the bassline to the drifting countermelodies, was astounding and nothing short of trance-inducing. After five or so minutes of this, he leaned in close to the microphone, closed his eyes, and howled four octaves lower than a wolf in the wild. Somehow, his vocals stole the spotlight from his guitar playing, cutting through the room with ineffable lamentations about life in a way that I couldn’t even pretend to relate to.

It was difficult to divine Belfour’s setlist, not only because many of the songs he played were mixed and matched, but also because there were only a few breaks between each piece, which averaged about 10 minutes each. This long form, deeply rhythmic style contrasts with the more concise Delta style, and at least in this setting filled with starry-eyed visitors, seemed more powerful than the local tradition.

After an hour of this soulful music, the small crowd began to saunter out into the cool, 85-degree, muggy evening, dropping money in the bucket on the way out. Belfour made sure to personally thank everyone and engaged in a conversation with two visitors from Portland. “Y’all have a safe trip back to Po’ land!” Belfour offered on their way out. The couple then proceeded to explain that they were from Portland, not Poland, to Belfour’s wry smile and raised eyebrow.