The Pogues
Rams Head Live!; Baltimore, MD

[03-12-2008]

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 Cüchulaínn.” 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.

Photo: [Dan Schultz]

Islands / Man Man
03-18-2008;

[03-18-2008]

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

[02-21-2008]

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.

Neko Case
The Egg; Albany, NY

[01–31–2008]

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

[02-01-2008]

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

[02-04-2008]

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.

Photo: [Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars]

Jonathan Richman / Vic Chesnutt
The 8x10; Baltimore, MD

[03-08-2008]

Whenever I mention to a friend I am seeing a Jonathan Richman concert, the conversation usually goes something like this:

ME: Hey man. I am going to see Jonathan Richman next month. You want to go?

A FRIEND: Jonathan Richman? Who’s that?

ME: You know, the guy who sang in The Modern Lovers. He has some famous songs, like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso.”

A FRIEND: (With a shrug) Sorry, dude. I have no idea who you’re talking about.

Then I try Plan B...

ME: I’m pretty sure you know him. Have you seen There’s Something about Mary?

A FRIEND: Yeah, I love that movie. My favorite part is when...

ME: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You remember the guy with the guitar? He’s singing in the tree...

A FRIEND: Oh yeah! I know that guy. You’re seeing him?

And so it goes. I’ve had this conversation probably 15 times in the last week, and they invariably followed the same direction. Why doesn’t anyone know Jonathan Richman? The guy has been part of the music scene since 1976’s classic The Modern Lovers. Sure, among music nerds and record shop owners, Richman’s name is mentioned in the same breath as David Byrne and Lou Reed, but while those two share a revered status in rock’s history, why is Jonathan Richman little more than a cult figure?

Jonathan Richman and his drummer Tommy Larkins took the stage after a great opening set by Vic Chesnutt. One peril about seeing a band in a bar is the noise factor. Chesnutt’s music is meant for a silent theater, a place where his gallows humor and quiet strumming can resonate. But the good folks of Baltimore had a different plan. The noise from the back bar mingled with Chesnutt’s tales of friendship, disease, and the Wheel of Fortune, and threatened to overtake it at times. My friend’s vain plea to “shut the fuck up” quieted the room momentarily, but then the merrymakers resumed talking about whatever was more interesting to them than Chesnutt’s music.

Almost everyone shut up when Richman came on. Dressed in a paisley shirt and black pants, Richman is still slender at 56 years old. His goatee may have some grey flecks to it now, but he treated the audience to an energy-filled set.

The simplicity of the show is what makes it special. While most bands today use a million different machines to go bleep, Richman’s stark stage (consisting of a mic-ed guitar and drum set) was nearly cordless. The duo immediately began the show with the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae,” and the amount of sound coming from a drum kit and a nylon-stringed guitar was amazing.

A definite theme ran through the evening, and Richman’s setup echoed it: eschew technology and get back to the simpler pleasures of life. In a re-tooled version of The Modern Lovers’ “Old World,” Richman bemoaned the destruction of the musty old bookshop to the jaws of Amazon and block stores like Borders, and on “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It,” he said we get too caught up in analysis rather than simply enjoying what is given us.

A good number of the songs played are from Richman’s upcoming album, Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild. Once again he writes about similar themes: painters (“No One Was Like Vermeer), love (the album’s title track), and anti-technology rants (“When We Refuse to Suffer”). Though some of the songs have a similar slow tempo and lack the edge of his older tunes (though he did turn in a pretty perfunctory version of “Pablo Picasso”), Richman has settled into the role of the troubadour, and these songs feel appropriate to that persona. Also, though Richman’s songs seem deceptively simple and straightforward, watching him live allows one to realize just what a great guitarist he really is.

Being Tommy Larkins must be quite difficult while drumming for Richman. You would never know exactly when he would cease playing guitar to bust out some dance moves, pause to drink, segue into another song, or simply play parts of the same song again after the applause. But that unpredictability is the beauty of a Jonathan Richman show. You never know when he’s going to break out the sleigh bells or sing a favorite tune in a different idiom (Richman demonstrated he is quite skilled in a variety of languages).

After ending the first set with “Give Paris One More Chance,” Richman came back twice more. During one of the most moving moments of the evening, he played the unreleased “Older Girl,” a tale of a frustrated 14-year-old in love with an, um, older girl. The audience picked up the chorus and sang along, and for a moment we all shared the pain of Richman’s protagonist.

Richman came on one last time to deliver an a cappella version of “Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love” in both English and French. In those final moments, as Richman offered the audience nothing but his voice, it became obvious that the mainstream fame that has eluded him for so long was never the objective. It was the love of music, the love for his audiences, that keeps Richman writing and performing so many years later.

Noise Pop 2008
;

[]

This year’s Noise Pop sees a general trend in more noise and probably more pop. It is the 16th annual indie rock festival that attracts the San Francisco swarms to hustle for tickets to sold out shows, where the guestlists are 12 pages long and people flash their passes like so many pieces of fat Kitson bling.

...

{BEAT BEAT WHISPER}

I start the day by going to Studio Paradiso to see Beat Beat Whisper record a studio session with Daytrotter. This website releases free MP3s of sessions and accompanying short essays by founding editor Sean Moeller.

I first saw this band last year at The Hotel Utah Saloon, just blocks from the studio. Ayla Nereo’s voice was shocking in its starkness, beautiful. Within such a controlled space, the voices of siblings Ayla and Davyd Nereo bounce like those of rare conservatory birds against the walls and through the vacuum tubes. It is sweet folk music.

As I leave, I come face to face with Sam Coomes, the lead singer for Quasi. He has eyes like light on ice. I blah-blah, he blah-blahs, and he stares at me with intense suspicion. Behind him, I can see Janet Weiss. She has a great haircut, bangs and her hair very dark.

...

{QUASI}

When I walk into the Rickshaw Stop that night, pEoPlEpEoPle are onstage. Antonio Roman-Alcala of Dear Nora plays lead, backed by Trainwreck Riders’ Adam Kerwin, Jesse Sabin, and Tyson Vogel of Two Gallants. It’s fuck-the-system-dipped-in-sugar music, with electric-guitar highs.

This danceable rockabilly feels good, dissolving into well-constructed jam-outs that earn such song titles as sustainable hedonism — and appropriate indeed; Roman-Alcala is finishing a documentary about food politics.

“It was one of a handful of times [Tyson Vogel] has played drums outside of Two Gallants in public since before 2002,” 2G’s manager Dan Kasin tells me later. “To see him in a different setting and band adding his signature drumming style was extremely interesting to me and the fans and friends who were there.”

Little Ones play a set that rubs smiles all over the crowd. The bass player’s countermelodies add uppers to already light and poppy vocals. His use of a hollow-body, which is an electric with a, well, hollow body on the inside, allows for more sustained notes. “I love that [Mark Redding] can smile and sing at the same time,” Misty White says.

White is the wife of Ted Leibowitz. I mention this because he has won two CMJ awards for his internet station BAGeL Radio, one hell of an alternative to illegal downloading or trolling MySpace for bands. It’s continuous radio. Leibowitz has a good radar for upcoming shows, San Francisco’s own kind of Brooklyn Vegan.

Sam Coomes, Janet Weiss, and Joanna Bolme don’t have to be intellectualized or processed or otherwise understood before I can get to the part about liking Quasi. Coomes’ voice isn’t clear through the PA system, which is too bad, because he writes things like:

And I can’t tell you when the storm is gonna end

so go ahead and cry but that wont keep you dry.

Coomes and Weiss started Quasi while they were still married in Portland in 1993. They have evolved from a ‘90s sound that newer bands, such as The Silversun Pickups, kind of just emulate.

Weiss was in Sleater-Kinney. She is one of the few drummers to out-fame the lead. Her demure countenance seems striking behind the drums.

“I am a big fan of Quasi,” Leibowitz says when I ask how he liked the show. “They are not for everyone, I know — Sam's lyrics, stage presence, and even his playing can be most confrontational — but a friend turned me on to them about seven years ago, and I have been a fan ever since.”

...

{THE DODOS}

Before the Dodos show, I trek over to the Phoenix Hotel for some Wolfgang’s Vault pre-party, where Kristen Hersh (formerly of Throwing Muses) plays beside a steamed pool. Hirsh might have 25 years of musical influence, but the crowd — myself included — is too talky to really listen. The Extra Action Marching Band (which is just what it sounds like) made a lot more sense at the Feedm party last year for this type of gig.

I party train over to the former Speakeasy Café du Nord. It’s the “hot ticket,” since people do apparently say stuff like “hot ticket.” We all need to feel important somehow.

The four-piece, LA-based Bodies of Water are too loud in this intimate venue, borrowing from Broadway, Joni Mitchell, and Queen so much that I can’t hear anything else. They aren’t bad, just too abrasive: belted harmonies and melodramatic builds. I like it okay after listening to it for awhile and reading articles about why it’s good.

San Francisco’s Or, The Whale plays next. OTW’s seven members fuse complex four-part harmonies with bluegrass elements, notably in the banjo-driven song "Crack a Smile." But "Call and Response' is the most striking song; it’s about New Orleans. (Yeah, remember that?) The lyrics are somewhat clichéd, but it sounds great. The music overcomes.

I have been listening to The Dodos (then Dodobird) since I got a copy from my friend Matt in 2006. We went to see them a year later at the Twelve Galaxies, and there were maybe 30 people there. Since I left the city:

1. They changed their name
2. The drummer, Logan Kroeber shaved his mustache off and
3. Everyone figured out how fucking great they are.

This is anthem music, people. This is music you listen to really loud while doing 50 MPH over the railroad tracks to ruin your car’s bottom entrails. Meric Long and Logan Kroeber are only two, but make the sound of many, Long’s voice echoing out in layered waves thanks to loop technology. And Kroeber shows how a drummer can contribute to the song independently, rather than just keeping beat and taking the song along. There’s no hierarchy; Kroeber even sits next to Long on the stage. He plays drums in a way that demands attention, changing his technique so as to tear the drumbeat out of the periphery. They play a lot of their new songs from Visiter before indulging in the older, more pop-conscious songs from Beware of the Maniacs, their first record.

...

{TOO TIRED.}

I stay in Friday night, even though there is a Fader electropop dance party at Mighty. This is probably good because Saturday morning at 9 AM, my friend Lauren Rosenthal calls and tells me to get out of bed. The Mountain Goats are recording a Daytrotter session at Studio Paradiso at 10 AM sharp.

We aren’t actually allowed to watch. Instead, I sit in the adjoining lounge drinking Red Bull with Chris Cantalini of Gorilla vs. Bear, Matt Jordan of You Ain’t No Picasso, Spin Magazine photographer Mischa Vladimirskiy, and Lauren. Someone from the crew says her name from the top of the stairs. “John wants to come down and meet you — something about a bracelet?”

Knowing that he is a Catholic, she gave him a Virgin Mary saints bracelet the night before at his show. Darnielle comes down, hugs her, and thanks her for it, which he is still wearing.

We go to the Pop and Shop Expo and sit in on a forum about getting signed to record labels. “You have to be distinct or you gotta do what everybody loves,” says Cory Brown of Absolutely Kosher Records. He then starts talking about creating your scene or something like that, and I go back to the apartment for a nice, long nap.

...

{THE MOUNTAIN GOATS}

Conspiracy of Venus is an a capella Leonard Cohen tribute women’s choir. Thar’s a doozy! Beautiful, hip women sing in four parts that resonate as though in a church, except that it’s actually a black box kind of place — The Independent, to be exact. They sing an eclectic mix: Cohen’s "I’m Your Man" and "Who By Fire," "Venus as a Boy" by Björk, two Medieval songs, and "Blue" by Joni Mitchell. The classy outfit busts out with “Acid, booze and ass/ Needles, guns and grass” and I kind of lose my mind. The Tom Waits songs "Soldier's Things" and "Rain Dogs" are both creepy and nice, embracing this familiar San Francisco dichotomy that embraces such as the homeless lineup against sweet pastel buildings.

Tulsa is a three-member band from Boston. To say they don’t sound like My Morning Jacket would be like saying there is no elephant in this room. It is a big, hairy, head-banging elephant that wears flannels from the Wayne’s World 2 era. But the lead singer Carter Tanton has a pleasant voice, and the music is arranged in such a way that each element shines like a prism in light: the picking of the electric guitar; the drummer playing with fuzzy mufflers like bunny slippers on his sticks, reverb pluming out with the pot smoke inside the club. The tunes are mellow and rocking, and Tanton’s voice is honey. I especially like the “Oh, Lonesome Me” Neil Young cover at the end of the set.

David Dondero goes on next. I met him and his manager, Dan Kasin at the Atlas Café a few mornings previous. I tried to talk him into a Whitesnake cover, but to no avail. Instead he plays some SF-specific favorites (he lived here for six years), including "Stuck on the Moon" and "Double Murder Ballad Suicide." The latter is a dark song that makes me laugh (but not aloud), a song about throwing his lover off the Golden Gate Bridge and some other grizzly stuff. At first, Dondero’s style confuses me: I am looking for some hidden irony behind the simple acoustic strumming and regular storytelling yarns. Then I realize that there is none, that Dondero is this really straight-up sort of guy. See, he started playing in 1979. He doesn’t need to hide behind anything fancy. Here is how Kasin puts it: “Some music moves you and makes your hair stand up or makes you dance or rock back and forth. Others just make you stand there. You can't force it. It's there or it's not.”

From where I sit at the merch booth, I get an outside view of what is happening to the crowd. It is packing in toward the front. No one moves in the set break. Rarely has such pre-show tension seemed so palpable. John Darnielle comes onto the stage with Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster — all in suits. Everybody goes nuts. Never have I seen such abandon at the Independent.

The drummer, of Superchunk fame, adds extra energy to an already frenetic set; The Mountain Goats don’t usually play live with drums. Darnielle must have performed some of these songs hundreds of times, and yet he seems to be reliving the process of turning some terrible pain into a joy that breaks his face into laughter and sweat. Some idiot next to us heckles, “Hey John, play left!” and he actually does turn his attention to his left. One highlight is Sax Rohmer #1 from the new album, Heretic Pride. He also plays "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod" from The Sunset Tree, and everyone sings along to the part where he says:

And then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face

Hoping you don't break my stereo

Because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without

So I think about that,

And then I sort of black out.

Held under these smothering waves

By your strong and thick-veined hand

But one of these days

I’m gonna wriggle up on my land.

Darnielle’s style is chameleon. He will step away from the mic to belt anthem-like or rail on his guitar like a speed freak or get really, really quiet with his guitar on the floor, as though whispering a secret into the microphone. "Dance Music" (from The Sunset Tree) is one of the best tonight because of how he sings it: very slow and in a reinterpretive way. And you can actually understand his vocals, which is so appropriate for someone who really has something to say. He is careful in his words, not just in their choice, but in their execution.

The display of emotion that makes The Mountain Goats so attractive seems quite popular in a city that generally welcomes such, but not within indie culture. Darnielle plays one of his most darkly effective songs, "No Children," last. He is still wearing Lauren’s bracelet when he exits the stage.

[Photos: Akmal Naim; 4AD]

Dri / Suzannah Johannes
Huckleberry’ s Pizza; Rock Island, IL

[02-13-2008]

The other night, four of us from Mission Creek in Iowa City piled into my Subaru Outback and made the brief trip down Interstate 80 across the mighty Mississippi. We landed in Rock Island for a Daytrotter-sponsored show featuring Dri, a.k.a. ADrianne Verhoeven, a longtime staple of the Lawrence, Kansas and, more recently, Omaha indie scenes. As a member of the Anniversary, she toured extensively throughout the early 2000s, making the connections that would lead to her seemingly playing some sort of role in just about every Lawrence and Omaha band in the last few years. And all that’s fine, except that it kept her from finally getting her own proper debut CD finished up, which she finally did late last year. Supported by the very community-based Range Life Records (also home to White Flight and Fourth of July), Smoke Rings came out in November. Patience was rewarded.

And so we barreled down I-80 to Huckleberry’s Pizza in downtown Rock Island, a decidedly un-concertlike venue that happens to sit below the Daytrotter studio and has been hosting shows along with Daytrotter recently. Suzannah Johannes opened, also of Lawrence and supporting her own forthcoming Range Life debut. She serenaded us with low-key music vaguely evocative of early Rilo Kiley at times, beautiful in its own right, but possibly overpowered by the overstuffed calzones that were plopped in front of us mid-performance. This was not your typical show.

Dri followed with a full-band performance, somewhat surprising considering that last time we saw her play, in Iowa City in December, she was using a drummer and an iPod as her backing band. And despite having thrown the band together at the last minute for this performance (and accompanying Daytrotter session), things coalesced in near-perfect harmony. The album is largely about beats and samples and programming, but the band gave new life to songs that seem almost unimaginable live after being heard exclusively through headphones.

But she tore through a short set of material from the album, her natural performance ability balancing with her relative inexperience as a band leader. “You Know I Tried” bounced jubilantly while the slinking groove of “Meet Me Out” captivated us. The set closed with the pop romance of “Don’t Wait,” but it was “Two Are One” that made the set. Her bandmates at ease, she summoned up the richest sound her synth could give her for a heartbreaking song about love and lust: “Who’s in your heart’s not always who’s in your bed/ You came looking for love and found your lover there instead/ So you hold them like you hold the one you love/ Until it starts to feel like the two of them are one.” The pizza parlor, which had been a place for both music and conversation (not everyone was there for more than just dinner), fell into rapt attention during these ethereal three minutes. And then, just as quick as it came, it went, and we were launched back into summery pop mode.

As if to parallel that, just as quickly as the show began, it ended. We glanced at our phones: 8:22. We had stepped into a brief void of time -- indulging in delicious food, we saw just over an hour of music, and in the blink of an eye, it was over. It was as much a chance to see a great show but proved that it’s extremely important to keep your friends close; folks from three states came together for just a short burst of music and spent the rest of the time catching up on life. More than anything, that’s what this whole music business thing is supposed to be about. At least, that’s what I’m able to keep convincing myself is right.

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin / Bald Eagle /Witch's Hat
Mojo’ s; Columbia, MO

[01-25-2008]

Generally speaking, I’m big on bar shows. I can dig the darkness, the oppressive fumes churned by rickety fans, the ancient bottles behind the bar, the subdued chattering of regulars on their molded stools. So, imagine my surprise when I walked into Mojo’s and was greeted not by the fumes of clove cigarettes or the wafting odor of stale beer soaked into the floorboard – but a room with lights blazing and the smell of Jamaican-style jerk chicken. Though the tropical atmosphere was only short-lived and the lights dimmed soon after I arrived, it was clear that this was to be an evening of (please indulge me on this – I need it) truly delicious proportions.

Before I embark on an attempt to capture the performance of Witch’s Hat, I should explain the nature of the Columbia band’s music. Rather than jumping upon any musical bandwagon – i.e. lame ones – the band has opted for subject matter and musical styling scantly touched upon in the music world: songs of great medieval battles, chivalrous knights, and precarious adventures on the high seas with a sound strangely reminiscent of old NES cartridges.

After they had tuned, the lead singers squatted before the drum, and with the first notes played by the band, his fist shot up into the air, following the same line as his ass crack that smiled from the seat of his pants like a great hairy beacon. From there, he catapulted himself about the stage, eyes popped and leering, arms stretched up and out like some manic composer. He galloped across the stage, the likeness of Eddie Van Halen trembling on his great gut, and he stretched out his arm as if he meant to tear the listeners from the confines of time and space and cast them into a medieval realm.

Really, if you take away nothing else, just keep this in mind: after a guitar string was broken, rather than just chatting with the audience, Witch's Hat launched into a rousing rendition of the theme song from Duck Tales.

As much as I tried, I simply couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for the following band, Bald Eagle, another Columbia local. Perhaps it was the pair of obese people who may or may not have been having sex behind me (the sounds the woman made certainly lead me to believe it to be true), my newfound and unwanted proximity to the tower of speakers that loomed before me, or the inexplicable smell of burning hair whose source I continue to be puzzled by. Either way, my experience during the band’s set was less than extraordinary. In fact, as the set progressed, I began to compose a mental list of places I would rather be.

In spite of the fact that I wasn’t having anything to do with the music – and wanted them to get off the stage with every fiber of my being – those who had come to see them certainly had a splendid evening of entertainment, as evidenced by the mosh pit formed immediately in front of me. It occurred to me following the show that they were simply in the wrong environment. For listeners of both Witch’s Hat and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, their semi-hardcore sound was harsh and relentless, striking a stark contrast with the music I must assume that most people had come for.

Unfortunately, because of the fact that my ears were ringing terribly following the second act (and continue to ring, two days following the show), by the time SSLYBY took the stage, some of my enthusiasm for them had been abated. The fact that the band had a number of technical issues for the first three songs or so certainly did not help the issue. (It occurred to me that there was substantial and irresistible irony in the lyrics of “Pangea” – one of the first songs played – “It’s always something...”)

However, as the ringing in my ears slightly subsided and the issues were cleared, the show became far more delightful. As the band began to really get their bearings, there was an instrument rotation: drummer Philip Dickey moved up to guitar, bassist Tom Hembree to drums, and singer/guitar John Robert Cardwell to bass. It was at this point that the show reached another level of excitement, most notably on “Oregon Girl” and “I Am Warm & Powerful.” It was also at that point that the band seemed to enjoy themselves far more, as evidenced by Dickey’s two running leaps across the stage, which were admirable since the stage is not actually large enough for leaps across the stage.

After Cardwell’s claim that “we can seriously play any riff Kurt Cobain ever played” and after the heat began to dissipate the energy present in the room, the band played their final song, “Anne Elephant” (which they had previously announced to be their very last song). While there were certainly a number of surprises, both pleasant and not, to be found in the night as a whole, it was certainly a night not to be missed.

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