Mutek 2008
May 28 – June 1, 2008;

[May 28 – June 1, 2008]

Driving 500 miles!? Haven’t you heard of peak-oil crisis? Oh wait, I’m going to Canada? It’s like America, but better, according to Michael Moore. They don’t have guns, I can break all the bones I want, and they don’t have that whole Puritan mentality in their public consciousness! That is basically my thought process before attending Mutek, which consisted of five days of partially government-funded electronic music goodness. With nearly 100 DJs, knob-tweakers, and audio engineers from 20 countries talking about production techniques, creating ambient soundscapes, and playing sets way past my bedtime, how could I refuse?

We arrive in Montreal, Quebec a few days into the festival, and we’re surprised to find most nearly everything is in French. Uh oh -- I thought Canada was like America, but people peppered their sentences with an occasional “aboot.” Kids who look like they are 16 are running around on the streets after midnight (I’m informed the drinking age is 18); I see signs for “Sexoteques” next to fusion Pho restaurants in commercial districts; and the majority of pan handlers are crust punks with signs asking for “4:20” (I later find out that Critical Mass is occurring). So this is the metropolis that birthed Vice Magazine... To top it off, the combined taxes on food purchases equals almost 10%! Canada, or Montreal rather, is not like a Rick Moranis movie. Be warned!

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{Ben Frost (Theatre du Nouveau Monde)}

Unfortunately, I had eaten a large amount of poutine, French fries covered in gravy and topped off with cheese curds, before I settled into the seats here. The theater was completely covered in darkness, save for some occasional moments of brief soft light that covered the Australian-born composer Ben Frost. In some respects, this really enhanced the performance. It’s said that people who are deficient in one area of sensory perception have developed heightened senses in others; a blind person might have exceptional hearing, like Dare Devil, the blind Marvel superhero with super hearing, for example. In this case, the music was literally all that the audience had to focus on, Frost’s compositions gained an added layer of hypnotic intensity.

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{Modeselektor & Pfadfinderei (Metropolis)}

Sometimes bodily injury is unavoidable and even a welcome part of the show-going experience, like a shirtless, 300-pound guy stage-diving onto your head at an Earth Crisis show, or falling off a stage during a Dan Deacon gig and cutting your leg on broken beer bottles. The next day, I noticed an intense pain in one of my knees from dancing so hard. All I have to say is, "Thanks Modeselektor, Hello Aleve!" This was the most all-out, totally in-my-face performance of the festival. The visuals from Pfadfinderei, a multimedia collective, perfectly complemented the Berlin duo’s nearly 2-hour-long set. The audience was bombarded by everything from neon punk elephants to a glowing hypnotic HAL-like orb. If you have any mortal enemies that have epilepsy, this is the event to invite them to.

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{Fennesz (Theatre du Nouveau Monde)}

By the time Fennesz’s set began, my struggle with the poutine was over and I was feeling the boost of pure energy that only grease, fat, and an accumulated amount of Octane 7.0 (a Canadian equivalent of Red Bull), could provide. Fennesz was accompanied by video artist Lillevan, who was responsible for the visual landscapes that were projected over the duo and on the screen behind them. The visuals reflected a new-age-y water theme, which was appropriate for the set, as the music and visuals transitioned from the feelings of drowning to a slow elemental ripple.

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{The Field (Metropolis) }

Axel Willner kept it simple during his North American debut, translating his studio project as The Field into a live instrumentation trio, which I had doubts about. I love 2007’s Here We Go Sublime; it’s just that it seems more suited to non-focused listening, something that gets put on before bed or when you’re behind on a deadline and staring at a blank MS Word document. I was wrong, and this is one of those times when I’m happy I’m wrong -- not, I’m wrong and I just walked ten blocks in the wrong direction.

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{Radio Slave} (Metropolis) }}

Radio Slave isn’t so much of a DJ as a master of mind control. Just when the feeling in my feet returned and the dancing crowd slowed to a zombie-like sway, he would mix in a slow build-up that would result in much fist-pumping and lighter-waving (I’m not kidding). The audience also liked to clap their hands to the beat of the music, A LOT. Sometime around 3 AM, I ran out of dance moves and resorted to cheesy candy-raver moves (think the running man). At this point, a pair of high school-looking kids come over to me and ask me where the pills are. I shrug, and they walk over to the girl who is rubbing her face into one of the speakers. His set didn’t end until around 6 AM, at which point, like a drunken fairy tale, the spell was broken and we were released outdoors to the sounds of birds merrily chirping.

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There’s nothing like traveling to shatter your pre-conceived notions of the world, pieced together from ’80s movies and Nickelodeon horror series. Would-be visitors, my only piece of advice is to check out Casa Del Popo -- it’s a venue and eatery run by members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the sandwiches won’t punch you in the gut.

Casiotone for the Painfully Alone / Datagun / The Western Front
The Mill; Iowa City, IA

[04-27-2008]

I woke up. It was Sunday, I think, but I felt unfamiliar in my surroundings and wasn't sure of anything. I could’ve been alone but wasn’t, instead accompanied by the kind of hangover that makes you reconsider your place in the universe. What. The. Fuck. Today was going to be a long day. I grumbled myself out of bed and onto the street and somehow wound up stumbling and stammering through a brutal six-hour coffee shop shift. In a cruel twist of fate, the gods of lattes and double-skim-mochas-to-go punished my Saturday night indiscretions with a steady stream of Sunday afternoon traffic. Lulls in this siege were nothing more than fleeting opportunities to sit in the office and cradle my head in my hands. It was bad.

Six o’clock rolled around, and while on a typical day I would be experiencing what’s colloquially known as a second wind, this was no ordinary day. Thus, seven hours into my day I was only getting my first wind. And were this a typical Sunday, I would probably sleepwalk through my grocery shopping and then go home, make dinner, and pass out with Sportscenter on, but this was no ordinary Sunday: we had Casiotone For The Painfully Alone coming to town on this day.

And thus, going through the motions, I found myself once again at the local watering hole, in this case the Mill; and though I felt like death, I found myself feeling better because I wasn’t alone. I was amongst friends who were far less hungover than I -- and that plus a Bloody Mary helped ease the pain. The Bloody Mary segued to beer to conversation to music, as local trio The Western Front began their set. Until very recently, this band wasn’t even a blip on my radar. I don’t know where they came from, but they’ve quickly become my favorite local band. Their setup is daunting for a three-piece, revolving around a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums, synths, samples, and just about everything else all at once. I found myself watching and thinking, “How is this band not signed to Barsuk and touring the country with Menomena now?”

Up next, Datagun, a trio of three of my closest mates, but I would be down with this band regardless. I think it’s fair to say that they’re still working everything out, but this night was the tightest I’ve heard them. Datagun is a clusterfuck of vocals and keyboards and some other shit, meeting at the place where pop meets noise and delivered by three dudes running around, switching instruments and singing into different microphones and each doing a little bit of everything. A turntable and a drum machine provide the panorama on which the screeching guitar and haunted vocals occur. You haven’t seen them yet if you haven’t come to Iowa City lately, but maybe you should. Or maybe someday they’ll visit your town, and you’ll get it, too.

Then Casiotone For The Painfully Alone took the stage, just one man and his digital setup on a night that featured a veritable bevy of digital setups. I was now in the perfect place, where my lack of sleep and beer consumption were meeting up and sparks were flying. I didn’t need to talk to anyone, finding myself beyond content to just stand and sway as I watched this surprisingly tall bearded man twiddle knobs and soothe my tattered state. I pulled the brim of my cap low over my eyes and lit up one last cigarette and allowed the fullest waves of synthesizer sound to wash over me.

Owen Ashworth was witty and affable, moreso than I expected, considering he’s made a career out of being Painfully Alone, or at least associated as such. and being in a one-man digital band made me assume for some reason that he would be reclusive and standoffish. Instead, he filled spaces between songs with tales of Swedish ‘pandas’ and being caught in electrical storms in Arkansas and so on. Highlights included “Bobby Malone Moves Home,” a blistering take on “Young Shields,” and “New Year’s Kiss.”

More than anything, I was left with the impression that, for a dude who pretty much just stands there and nonchalantly messes with some keyboards, he’s way radder live than on record. I’ve enjoyed his records, particularly Etiquette, but have never found myself getting totally lost and immersed in them like I did this performance. After he was done, my friend Andre and I stayed at the Mill long past everyone was gone and enjoyed more beers, rapping about this and that and how good it was to be able to host a show like that on a Sunday night. Around 2:00, well past the time it made sense for me to crash, I made the brisk walk home, over the river and across the train tracks. I was happy, just being blissfully alone.

Bonnaroo 2008
Manchester farm; Manchester, TN

[Jun 12-15, 2008]

Stamina and the general nature of humanity are two topics that wouldn't go away during my three days at Bonnaroo. Stamina is the easy one. Just how much can one endure at a fest like this? How many hours without sleep? How many different types of drugs, music, junk food, dancing, comedy, even just standing around can the body tolerate before going into total shutdown? I really wanted to make it to the late-night sets. I wish I could have grooved in the rain with My Morning Jacket at 3 AM or sat on the lawn in front of the What Stage watching Kanye West’s set just before dawn broke. But I just couldn’t do it.

Enter the nature of humanity. This topic is something my cautious ’Roo companion (we’ll just call him Malkmus) and I returned to repeatedly during our Tennessee experience. Does goodness define humanity with some shitty individuals thrown in, or are humans just miserable creatures with few shining exemplars of kindness and warmth? During those three days on the farm, I witnessed some of the most depraved and thoughtless acts I’ve ever seen. But I also met and talked with some genuinely fantastic people. So which is it? Can it be both ways?

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{The Journey}

We left Maryland on Wednesday morning. Both Malkmus and I were in good spirits. Two old friends on a road trip, getting time to catch up away from the hassles of work and the time constraints of everyday life. Car loaded with non-perishable food, we took our time getting to Tennessee, meandering down the Skyline Drive and stopping for greasy meals recommended by that Roadfood book. It was a relaxed journey of bonhomie, as I recounted tales from last year’s Bonnaroo. We stopped for a night in a Motel 6 in Athens, Tennessee, getting in one last night of rest before heading out to the campground.

{The Author Steps In}

All right, I know none of you give a shit about what we ate, what we listened to in the car, or what we talked about. Who am I kidding? Cut to the chase! All right, for those of you who care only about the salacious details, the next few sections are for you!

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{Drugs}

“Christ, no one smokes pot anymore!” That seemed to be the common complaint of the various festival-goers. True, drug dealers prowled the campground, peddling all kinds of shit, but as the scent of marijuana floated in the air, only the harder stuff appeared to be on offer. Mushrooms, acid, ecstasy, DMT, even opium mixed with readily available alcohol. The guy in the tent next to mine spent more time counting his money and pushing his wares than listening to music. Bonnaroo as business. Whereas pot can make a place into a communal den of peace, this abundant harder business really set the tone. The peace and love ambience I had experienced the year prior had been replaced by the frequent patrols of mounted police, squabbling over drugs and theft. In fact, this theme segues nicely into the next subheading.

{Violence}

Peace and love, man. Bullshit. When I realized my campsite would be a five-minute walk from Centeroo, I was ecstatic. On the popular message board Inforoo, members refer to a certain section of camping as BFE (I believe it’s Butt Fuck Egypt). The walk from BFE to the stages could be as long as 45 minutes. So when I pulled into Camp Darth Vadar and saw Bonnaroo’s signature Ferris Wheel just up ahead, I thanked my lucky stars and clicked my heels. Malkmus, a ’Roo Rookie (I know, horrible), was too busy sweating to care.

Once all the effort of setting up camp abated, I was able to survey my neighbors. First, the guy right next me, a truck driver from North Carolina, was a stand-up dude. Patient and kind, we spent a few hours jawing over the course of the weekend about trucks, steaks, and music. The others, now. Besides the drug dealer, we had Shauna and Dave nearby. Each evening was domestic violence night for these two. Among the best lines -- “Dave- I just want to get high.” “Shauna, you’re falling asleep.” “Go fuck Greg.” “I don’t love Greg.” “Shauna, get back in this tent. You’re naked.” The knock-down-drag-’em-fight eruption happened over heroin. Shauna wanted to shoot it. Dave wanted to sell it. I wanted them to shut up.

The worst offenders in our site were the ravers. Each morning at 5 AM, they pumped their car stereo to the max with the shittiest techno you could think of. For those of us who came back from the concerts at 2:30 AM, this dance party was less than appreciated. I blame my inability to stay up for some sets squarely on these motherfuckers. But whatever, at least they had fun.

The scariest incident, however, happened on Saturday evening. The truck driver and I sat out having a discussion when an undercover policeman took some kid down 15 yards away. I honestly think all the kid did was solicit him for pot. The cop pinned him to the ground with vigorous force and beat him. All the kid could do was apologize and scream. You get the picture.

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{Nudity}

Besides the copious painted boobs, the only other thing of note occurred as I packed up my tent. A girl got out of her tent and bent over. No pants on.

{Rich vs. Poor}

Each year, Bonnaroo offers up general and VIP tickets. To be a VIP, all you have to do is spend some money. Since I had a media pass, I had to stay in the general campground but had access to a special “guest” area in the back. Some major differences: shade, free water, clean toilets. That isn’t to say the festival neglected the johns in the general area. It’s just the populace was so big, there weren’t enough pots to literally piss in. Malkmus claimed he heard “Mother of God” more than once from an unsuspecting potty entrant. But the dichotomy was real. Pay up and be treated better. I know it’s the way the world works with capitalism, supply and demand and blah blah, but this is Bonnaroo. This is a make-believe playground to retreat to and forget about the “real” world. But fecal matter is real and so is violence. Whenever I stepped back from the airy guest area of hammocks and free barbecue meat and into the general camping area, I couldn’t help thinking of pre-Jacobean costume dramas where the rich ate from the finest crystal and the groundlings fought in the street over a piece of bread. But hey, for a few bucks more you don’t even have to think about them.

{A Pause}

Now I feel better. There was plenty of good stuff as well. Last year, my girlfriend commented that she liked the fact that rather than SECURITY t-shirts, the staff sported the more friendly SAFETY designation. Each and every staff member I solicited for help or advice was outgoing and willing to assist. It was clear the Bonnaroo bosses wanted festival goers to feel welcomed. I’ll give them that. A large festival is also a plum opportunity to meet people from all over the country. Once you found the ones not interested in talking about shrooming, rolling, and drinking, you can hear some fun stories about music and other regions of the States.

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{The Shows I Saw}

Okay, here is a blow-by-blow of what I saw. Last year, I was more gung-ho about seeing complete sets. This time I treated the festival as a smörgåsbord. The interesting thing is no one’s experience could possibly be the same. There was just too much to do, so many variables that even though American festivals are becoming more and more homogenized (Jack Johnson is headlining most), the individual can still make each day special. Here we go.

{MGMT}: I really dig this Bowie dance-pop duo. The short set comprised most of their Oracular Spectacular album. Though they suffered from the common bass-too-loud, vocals-too-low festival malaise, songs like “Weekend Wars” and “Electric Feel” felt even more electric than the album versions. Set closer “Kids” brought the crowd to thunderous applause.

{Battles}: The coolest thing about this set was the giant cymbal suspended what seemed to be two feet over the rest of the set. These guys have the tight math rock tempos down to a science, and keeping a crowd entertained with no discernible lyrics is a commendable feat. “Atlas” was a standout.

{Vampire Weekend}: It’s crazy to think the closer for Thursday night only has one album. But it’s a good album, and Vampire Weekend played it safe as they remained faithful to the LP versions. I started to get tired as the set wore on and bailed out. At least I got to hear “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.”

{The Swell Season}: I stuck around for the entirety of this one. Holy shit! Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova provided the set of the weekend. With songs primarily taken from the film Once, this set was touching and rocking. There were two or three times when I felt chills as Hansard’s tiny body shook to force out such big notes. Van Morrison covers “Into the Mystic” and “Astral Weeks” helped flesh out the set and a surprise inclusion of The Pixies’ “Levitate Me” helped keep even the snobbiest of hipsters entranced. Fantastic stuff!

{M.I.A}: Only got to catch about 40 minutes of M.I.A. (supposedly her "last gig ever.") Rather than greet the crowd, she came out bitching about too little bass and too little mic. I hate the sounds that party favors make on New Year's Eve. She seemed to blow on a big one every few minutes. Loud, incoherent, and sloppy, only her dance moves saved this one from being a total waste. By the way, I love Arular and Kala. The most telling moment is when cardboard cut-outs of M.I.A. and other generic CK models hit the crowds in a faux crowd surf. The crowd’s evil urges came to life as these guests were torn asunder. Art imitating life?

{Chris Rock}: Rock started off with an incisive topical set about the political environment that quickly devolved into a tired diatribe about differences between black and white, men and women. I heard all this stuff on the Richard Pryor box set. The most shocking aspect was the unapologetic way he urged black men to go for white women once they were rich enough. Something about the topic made me uncomfortable, especially in a crowd where 99.9999% were white. I don’t know, it felt unoriginal. But he did have some keen insights on jobs vs. careers. Malkmus especially liked the rim job jokes. But what the hell, he was opening for Metallica.

{Metallica}: I can’t take them seriously. After the melodramatic Ennio Morricone intro and the explosion into “Creeping Death,” I kept thinking about Lars crying over making a mint on his paintings in Some Kind of Monster. I made it through two songs. The crowd loved it. “Master of Puppets” and “The Unforgiven” sounded good from my tent.

{My Morning Jacket}: This set ran from midnight to almost 4 AM; I made it for about 70 minutes. These guys put on a good show, but it was raining and cold. They concentrated mainly on tracks from Z and Evil Urges during the first of two sets. Also, a whole host of R&B covers from James Brown, Bobby Womack, and Erykah Badu peppered the set. Great way to end the night. Too bad the ravers and their crappy music sapped me of the stamina to enjoy this good music. Fuck you.

{Louis C.K.}: Malkmus loved this guy. I couldn’t deal with the scat humor. So I left. He’s clearly talented.

{Against Me!}: Another kick-ass set. These guys pumped a lot of energy into 50 minutes. Tom Gabel can write trash metal tunes with a hook. I don’t normally go for this type of stuff, but these guys got me. I felt like I was watching a band, not a corporation like Metallica. Highlights: anything from New Wave.

{Iron & Wine}: I like the Shepherd’s Dog. I think it’s impossible to expect Sam Beam to keep pumping out hushed, acoustic weepers. But, although Woman King was a bold new direction for him and his backing band, the 10-minute jam workouts live did nothing for me. He didn’t even touch an acoustic guitar until the stunning closer of “The Trapeze Swinger.” Even “Upward Over the Mountain” adopted Beam’s new fascination of Afro-Cuban beats. Sounded good, but bored me a little.

{Sigur Rós}: I took a nap from 10 PM to midnight and then lined up for the 1 AM set of Sigur Rós. I love these guys. The set was amazing. They kicked it off with an inspired version of “Svefn-G-Englar.” As the soaring noise of the bowed guitar met the kick of the drum, the music transported me away from the druggies and the heat and the musty un-showered masses, and I imagined myself in a glacial wonderland taken from the band’s film Heima. They followed it with a beautiful rendition of “Vaka,” where only some technical difficulties marred its splendor. Everything else seemed to work. The backup strings of Amina and the marching band sounded great; Jonsi has a sweet voice. The band also got to showcase a few new songs from its upcoming album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. Malkmus and I only made it for 70 minutes. I was really sad to walk away from this one.

{Kanye West}: Dear Kanye, thanks for changing your set time from 8 PM to 2:45 AM. I really wanted to see your show, you bastard. During his performances, Kanye likes to project critics’ denigrations above the stage. Then he just stands there and shakes his head. You’re more than welcome to include this one, Kanye.

{The End}
5:55 AM,. The rave starts again. I decide it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. As I’m disbanding my camp (Malkmus is sleeping), all my drugged-out neighbors just stare as I sweat in the already sweltering morning. But a stoned girl walks into my camp. “Can I help you?” she asks. I am touched, but before I can answer, she turns to talk to someone else. Finally, she turns back and asks, “Anything else I can do?” I just smile and shake my head. At least the intention is there. She picks her away around my tent, unsteady on exhausted feet, and vanishes into the sea of tents behind us.

Jay Reatard
Harper’ s Ferry; Allston, MA

[04-20-2008]

On April 17, the Silver Dollar in Toronto teetered on the brink of complete chaos when a fan hopped onstage between Jay Reatard and his band, causing Jay to tear off the line-crosser’s shirt and punch him in the face, sending the man reeling back into the surging crowd, and Jay announcing that the show was over as he walked off stage.

Three nights later, Jay Reatard played a show in Allston, MA, at Harper’s Ferry. I wondered if, in light of the debacle in Toronto, Jay might address the crowd, maybe make mention of the incident, or perhaps warn anyone drunk enough to saunter onstage that they would meet the same fate as the (now undoubtedly quite sore) gentlemen in Toronto.

But I forgot something important: this was a Jay Reatard show, which means April 20 would be no different than April 17 or April 21, right on down the line. The only evidence of a scrum a few nights before was a group of well-positioned security guards standing around the raised stage, wearing all black, arms folded, facial expressions menacing.

And so it went: Jay, bassist Stephen Pope, and drummer Billy Hayes took their places, Jay set the distortion levels on his pedals to “kill,” and launched into “Blood Visions,” the opening track on 2006’s album of the same name. The band would rip through song after song, with Jay stumbling around, periodically spitting, and singing in a much throatier, lower register than he does on record. After one song finished, he’d shout the title of the next song in queue, along with something like “let’s go!” for good measure. The band was loud, tight, and efficient, and they churned through the set list expertly. What you hear on record (the set list was culled from Blood Visions and some of the various 7-inches Jay has been releasing through Matador) is what you hear in concert, except that in a live setting, the aggressive songs turn into something close to belligerent, in the best possible way.

I got the feeling watching them that punk rock had found its new mouthpiece. Of course, most of that sentiment comes from the music itself: there’s no denying that Jay Reatard’s songs – short, powerful, melodic tracks that scream out of Jay’s flying-V like a derailed subway car – bring to mind the Urinals and Buzzcocks while sounding distinctly modern. But it’s in Jay’s stage philosophy that has garnered him heaps of attention and praise from critics and show-goers alike. Take this musing from a video on his MySpace page: “We just like to Blitzkrieg everyone and just play as many songs as we can as fast as possible with no breaks or bullshit. So I think... just the energy level can make out stand out.”

And so the April 20 show at Harper’s Ferry, while stunning, was just like any other Jay Reatard experience, and the events at the Silver Dollar a few nights before did nothing to alter Jay’s game plan. Ultimately I think Jay’s ability to shrug off near disasters is a good thing. After all, don’t we go to punk shows to get “Blitzkrieged” anyway?

Kaki King
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[04-09-2008]

The instant Kaki King started playing, I was mesmerized. It happened all in a brief moment: a loud, milky voice said, "Hey guys," and before I had a chance to react, the first song had begun. The music seemed without direction, as if it were playing inside my head. My friends were making their way up the stairs to the balcony, but I staggered, paralyzed, my neck craned in the opposite direction so as not to break my gaze from what was occurring on stage.

Barely even seeming to touch the strings, Kaki King constructed an otherworldly sound, a beautiful tone that was difficult to believe was generated by someone’s fingers. Audio and video had not come close to conveying that which was occurring in front of me. The intricacies of her performance can only be perceived live, and the awe of the first experience, I discovered, can be completely overwhelming. A few minutes later I remembered where I was and suddenly noticed that, aside from a few people at the bar in the back, the entire audience was silent.

Later, a drunk person would occasionally blurt out inappropriate encouragement or shout “Call me, Kaki!” met immediately with a chorus of “Shhhhhhhhhh.” “There’s always that one guy,” smirked Kaki, about halfway through the show. This seemed to indicate not that her concerts are always disturbed by some drunkard, but rather that her audiences are usually as remarkably quiet and respectful as they were that night. Though there were times this audience got excited and cheered for a particularly difficult piece of guitar playing, more often it felt like the entire audience was lost in the music, as unaware of their surroundings as I.

The very intensity that cast a trance over the concertgoers made this a particularly difficult show to review. While paying the most attention to documenting the performance, I felt the least involved, though my lapses in attention were rarely voluntary. Many times, I became entranced by the sonic experience, forgetting to do anything other than stare and listen. As the song completed minutes later, I was released and able to scribble down a few notes but mostly reluctant to verbalize what I had just been involved in.

In a way, Kaki King is cursed by her talent. Her technique is so astounding that nothing she does can be as remarkable as playing solo on her Ovation. Inclusion of other instruments and overdubs creates an uncertainty that detracts from the fact that helps make her first album so astounding: that the sounds were created by a single human being and guitar. This is not to say that I do not enjoy any of her subsequent albums, rather that I would have given them a fairer evaluation had they been released by someone else.

This dilemma seemed somehow less relevant in a live setting. The presence of the other musicians removed the vagueness from the songs’ construction. More importantly, Kaki has chosen a strong group of instrumentalists to support her, and their communicative synergy is obvious. While I occasionally caught myself wishing I had seen Kaki’s solo tour in support of Everybody Loves You, when her inclinations towards pop melodies were lesser, songs like “Life Being What It Is” and “Pull Me Out Alive” swelled to life, far surpassing their album versions. And while I was once convinced that no musician could appropriately match Kaki in concert, the drummer’s performance on “2 O’Clock,” in which he and Kaki matched perfect thirty-second notes for some time, was enough to convince me otherwise.

Despite beginning with six straight tracks from Dreaming of Revenge, the concert felt remarkably varied. Familiar songs were given new life by interesting performances. During the already-absurdly-fast “Magazine,” Kaki pushed herself to speeds unheard on the album, until her hands were nothing but a blur. While she was friendly and funny, Kaki rarely spoke, allowing several songs to flow together. Near the end of the show, the band played environmental music while Kaki read the opening to Frank Herbert’s Dune. “They’re making a Dune movie,” she explained, “and I want to be in it.” The concert closed with “You Don’t Have To Be Afraid,” in a performance so beautiful that it could easily have stood without an encore. Of course, Kaki took every advantage of the encore, returning with a live-sampling pedal-steel solo performance of “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers.” The band joined her once more to play an intense and lengthy version of “Doing The Wrong Thing,” after which I was sure the show was over. “We really love German Metal,” Kaki told the audience, before the band launched into an explosive cover of Bubonix’s “Fashion Tattoo.” It was the perfect ending to such a varied performance. If there had been one thing the audience was not quite sure that Kaki King was capable of, it was screaming, rocking, and playing twice as loud as the rest of the concert.

During the performance of “Magazine,” I began to wonder if this was the most incredible feat of guitar I had ever witnessed. As I stood outside on the sidewalk, I contemplated this again, just as Kaki King ran out of the venue and into her van. As her tiny body brushed by me, I noticed that she looked like she could have just has easily been one of the concert-goers now congregating outside and felt the same amazement that had originally drawn me to her music: those incredible sounds, the songs -- the entire experience -- had all somehow been born of that one human being.

Surrounded
The Social; London, UK

[04-07-2008]

For those of us dwelling within the confines of modern day, urban London, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzied rush for the next big thing. Whether it’s the fast fashion clothing stores lining the streets or the glut of free tabloid newspapers competing for attention with pictures of the latest Z-list celeb stumbling out of overpriced drinking dens, the sensory onslaught is as overwhelming as it is intoxicating.

It’s a characteristic that often transfers itself over to music with numerous nightclubs attempting to hawk the same latest house/techno/disco variant or grotty rock dive after grotty rock dive filled with the latest indie pop puppets slinging their guitars around in the hopes of landing their first magazine cover. For a city that can be absolutely everything you want it to be at times, it’s surprising how narrow the musical spectrum can occasionally feel.

It’s on a cool Monday night in April, then, that the sparse audience at the Social, a hipster bar hidden behind the mass commercialism of Oxford Street, finds itself witness to a band quietly performing a sound that’s so far outside the current media-approved noises of the moment, it almost feels shocking on first impression.

Led by a school teacher named Martin Rydell, Surrounded are a Swedish quintet who specialize in crafting their own take on a lo-fi Americana that’s best compared to the likes of Sparklehorse, Summerteeth-era Wilco, and the quieter moments of The Flaming Lips’ back catalogue. Performing with that perfectly balanced, crystal clear style that appears to be the genetic birthright of all Swedes, Surrounded offer the audience a gentle sampling of highlights from their latest long player, The Nautilus Years. On record, it’s a fuzzy, slow paced emotional affair that wears its heart on its sleeve alongside the best of the modern day troubadours. Transfer it into a live setting, and Rydell’s whispering croon takes on a world-weary weight that injects his songs with some much needed gravitas -- one that, unlike so many bands living in the queen’s realm, avoids being pinned down and neutered by recent music history.

An alternative to the dreary norm, then, this also means that there’s little chance Surrounded will be making much headway in today’s one-night stand attitude toward music. There’s little flash witnessed on stage tonight. No neon hues or tight leather jackets for this bunch. No musical hybridization or even reactionary poses against the status quo. Instead, all we get is solid craftsmanship that doesn’t ask for much. They may not cause a stir among the bloggers or find themselves on the cover of the NME next week, but that doesn’t really matter. The only thing that does is the fact that, for just a few minutes, Surrounded are a welcome relief from the storm that awaits us all outside.

Kimya Dawson
The Herbst Theater; San Francisco, CA

[02-25-2008]

The gentrification of indie rock means that the bourgeois can dip toes into chlorinated waters of high-profile acts such as Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, and Spoon. Kimya Dawson has been thrown into the pool.

She is still who she is: a peacefully protesting, sloppy-mama-clothes-wearing warrior who handles death and vileness like a child fondling the feathers, broken bones, and maggots of a dead bird. And unlike most “singers” (she is more of a talker who switches tones), she lets the music deliver the message rather than drowning it or, as the existential tides rise, obscuring with sonic waves and undertows the fact that there is none.

Dawson speaks humbly about playing San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, which only barely eases the awkwardness of her playing the Herbst Theater. It’s like watching a scripted production of house party and café shows, an undeniable simulation of what normally actually happens. Next to her is a guy named Matt, who sits cross-legged on the floor. The crowd is a mass of nice heels and expensive hair cuts and shirts with pre-fab owl patches on them.

“Rocks With Holes” evokes the dissociative, sad-soaked magical realism of The Virgin Suicides. Matt tinkers on a xylophone, which finesses the song in lullaby. The anti-Bush song “Fire” resurrects Gandhi with such lyrics as "It's a mistake to just take and not give/ It's not true that we must murder to live." We could start a snuggle revolution! She calls Matt a “baby genius” and says that they have played together a lot. We never quite learn who Matt is, but he does start playing a banjo in “Trump Song,” in which the words, “Without a stinkin cotton-pickin dime” sound good against a little baby genius banjo solo. “Underground” is morbid-crass and silly-sweet, complete with her idea about tattooing instructions on her ass not to bury her when she dies. Then she plays “12/26,” which is about a woman whose family dies in a tsunami but who survives by clasping onto a palm frond. Her whispered kind of fast amplifies through the institutionalized stillness of the theater. Anybody want to go dumpster diving after this? ...um, just kidding.

Next is a song for her daughter about a little panda bear. It’s off Alphabutt e. pee., a kid’s album she recorded in Oakland. Suddenly, some really cute kids from the album get on stage to play along. The Kid’s Korner mini-set highlights include a song about Fabio riding a horse down to Mexico and the title song, an ABC’s of fart humor. The whole affair is corny and sweet, like a family barbeque.

”Lullaby for the Taken,” “It’s Been Raining,” and “Singing Machine” refute the lyrics in the latter: “They can’t all be ballads.” This last song gets funny when Matt petulantly puts the toy keyboard away because she’s going too fast even though he asked her to slow down, and then he says, “They’re all ballads to me.”

“It’s okay if at the end of the day all that I can do is be a good mother,” she sings. Then she goes into a medley consisting of snippets from Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” (yes, the greatest fan of your life) and Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” Next, she plays a rendition of a song her brother wrote about doing a “macho man.”

Her husband, Angelo Spencer, comes on stage with his band, which opened, along with those Alphabutt kids, and it is a gentle clambering that is kind of mildly engaging. “We won’t stop until someone calls the cops,” she sings, and then she leaves the stage without an encore. Thank goodness for that, because these lullabies have made me sleepy. I go to bed and have a dream that I am a frog prince threatened by death via blender, until a Huck Finn type rescues me and we go on a road trip into the Midwest.

Tokyo Police Club / Smoosh / The Static Jacks
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[04-20-2008]

I have never been fashionably late to anything in my life. I have this constant fear that I am going to be missing out on the best part of an event if I am anything but punctual. Too many times have I entered the Bowery Ballroom only to be harassed by bouncers as they corralled me and my fellow concert-goers into the dungeon bar, our prison until the doors finally opened. But this time I was going to be smart -- this time I left late. The doors opened at 8 PM, so I left my house at 8:30 to catch what I was hoping to be a long subway ride downtown. I walked into the place and once again was herded to the bar packed with what seemed to be a high school graduation party. I knew the crowd was going to be pretty young.

The openers were New Jersey's The Static Jacks, whose claim to fame was a song featured on the hit, and now pregnant show, Zoey 101, followed by the always-lovable Smoosh. During the latter's set, I kept thinking these guys are going to be even better than Tegan and Sara when they are older. Then my mind wandered to the question of whether or not they are going to be attractive when they are older, but I stopped myself before I was forced to put my name on some sort of state sex offenders list. These girls are barely teens. What the hell was I doing at that age? My greatest accomplishment at that point was obtaining a Golden Chocobo in Final Fantasy 7.

Finally, after staying up past their bedtime, Smoosh resigned and Tokyo Police Club took the stage. I looked up and could only think to myself, "Oh Canada, hockey hair." At that point I had moseyed almost to the edge of the stage by accident. I turned around to notice the cool, "I know how to show up fashionably late" kids had finally filled the ballroom.

Not one for silly things such as banter, Tokyo Police Club lurched into "La Ferrassie." Their set slowly built up until, halfway through, it just turned on a dime and melted faces. From that point on, the dedicated crowd became putty in their hands. Every clapping rhythm was met with applause/rhythm/self-congratulations. There was very little time to breathe between songs with the occasional awkward story before launching into the next. Just as soon as the crowd started getting into a song, it would abruptly end.

That's Tokyo Police Club's Achilles' heel: all of their songs are way too short. To the best of my knowledge, they only have two songs that break the three-minute mark. They have cut the fat that would normally drag the songs down, but the unintended consequence is they all end too soon. This has also been a problem with their studio work because their two EPs and one LP run roughly an hour, which isn't enough to get me to work and back.

An unexpected treat was the inclusion of a light show. Placed behind the band were six tall, skinny lights that contained several LEDs of different colors that flashed throughout the show. Below were several of, I'm assuming, the same types of lights that casted a "ghost story-esque" feel across the front three members of the band.

Almost as soon as the set started, it ended. They wrapped up "Be Good" and walked off stage only to be called back for the inevitable encore. But this is the first time I've ever seen a band walk off stage and be just as anxious as the crowd calling for their return. Unfortunately, they quickly blasted through "Cheer It On," and two minutes after the encore began, it was over... what a tease. The entire set lasted a brisk 56 minutes.

I have the perfect solution for Tokyo Police Club, and it could easily make their set twice as long. Start it over from the beginning. Not one audience member would stand there and second-guess the decision, and with such a limited amount of material, it is a great way to extend an already great show.

Setlist:

Radiohead / Liars
Nissan Pavilion; Bristow, VA

[05-11-2008]

If you’ve lived long enough in the DC-area, you will hear that the Nissan Pavilion sucks. When Radiohead first announced they would be playing this “shed” to the southwest of DC, a collective groan must've shot out of fansites and hipster message boards across the region. I have never been to the venue, but I have frequented my share of shitty places. So I bought tickets, wondering what could be that much worse here than any other corporate-owned amphitheater.

Radiohead and DC, historically, have never jibed. A show at Bull Run had to be canceled due to flooding, and lightning struck during a performance at RFK Stadium. I didn’t live in the area during those weather-related disasters, but little did I know I would be involved in yet another Radiohead vs. the weather fiasco this time around. As I left the house, a deluge of rain bucketed down and water cascaded in rivers down streets. Thankfully, I didn't possess a lawn seat. Besides, I probably wouldn’t have sat in the lawn anyhow. I’m one of those “Oh yeah, I saw Radiohead in a club 11 years ago for $15” kind of guys. Nothing but good seats for me to see this band.

I live 78 miles from the venue, so it took over three hours to get there. The rain continued to hurtle down. When we finally arrived at the venue (via a two-lane road!), it suddenly dawned on me that my seat was a mile away. Long story short, I was drenched by the time I sat down -- and so was everyone else around me. It was less than 50-degrees out, and Liars hadn’t even gone on yet. This would be a long time to wait in wet, cold clothes. Of course, I could continue with stories about the two-hour wait to get out of the parking lot, the flooded road closures, the drunk girl peeing in a cup next me in the car, but this is a concert review. Let’s focus on the music.

Liars came on promptly at 7:30. The amphitheater was still more or less empty, but that didn’t stop the band from turning in a cracker performance. As Angus Andrews prowled about the stage, his massive hands waving about in a blur, the freezing crowd danced along, desperate to find a beat to warm up to. Highlights of the 45-minute set included “Plaster Casts of Everything” and “Houseclouds.” The guys on my left had never heard Liars nor did it seem many of the others who responded with polite applause. It is easy to forget just how mainstream Radiohead is, even though they manage to defy expectations with each and every release.

Someone mentioned that the rain would only add atmosphere to Radiohead’s music. And it's true: their songs are rife with dread, and some of their crystalline piano ballads are perfect for a rainy day. I was intent on ignoring the cold in order to focus on the music. Amid a sea of beams that hung from the roof of the stage like metal stalactites (or the world’s biggest example of vertical blinds), Radiohead finally took the stage to thunderous applause. Behind us, a sea of umbrellas swallowed up the lawn, but the crowd under shelter was relatively sparse. Thom Yorke, dressed in a red T-shirt with grey hoodie welcomed “the wet people.” Then the band launched into the dirge “All I Need,” from its outstanding new album In Rainbows. Filled with looming synths and a menacing bassline, the song’s lingering intensity set the tone for the evening.

It takes something quite powerful to lift a shivering, soaked writer out of his saturated jeans, and as Yorke’s warm, fragile voice filled the amphitheater, I was taken away to someplace else. The band then transitioned into “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” and as the tempo picked up, the crowd began to dance.

What amazed me the most about the 25-song set was just how clear everything sounded. Yorke’s vocals swooped and soared on ballads such as “Lucky” and “Nude.” But it wasn’t only a grim affair. On faster songs such as “15 Step” and “Myxomatosis,” Yorke danced about the stage, his scruffy head twisting in all directions. Jonny Greenwood met Yorke’s intensity as he freaked out with guitar, synth and who knows what else.

Midway through the set, Yorke said, “We know how tough today has been for you guys and, uh, sorry.” The band then launched into OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android.” Whether or not he aimed the “Rain down, rain down/ Come on rain down on me” refrain to the freezing groundlings below, the moment was chilling. As bright blue and red lights reflected off the metal beams and Ed O’Brien’s unnerving backing vocals poured from the stage, the moment turned magical. Even a hardened concert-goer like me felt the magic.

There were just so many high points: the spastic paranoia of “Idioteque,” the sweeping beauty of “Reckoner.” By the time the band finished its first set with the rollicking “Bodysnatchers,” I didn’t think that it could get any better. But it did.

They returned for the first of two encores, with the haunting “Like Spinning Plates,” soon to be followed by “Optimistic” and “Karma Police.” Next came “Go Slowly,” a track off the bonus LP of In Rainbows. This fragile ballad felt perfect against the rain, its melody a menacing, twisted music box, Yorke’s vocals both ethereal and enveloping. After closing the first encore with “Planet Telex,” Yorke returned to inform us that many concert-goers never made it to the show. Some of the local roads had been washed away by the rain. The band offered up “Fake Plastic Trees” in dedication to the unfortunates who never arrived.

The concert ended with a raucous “The National Anthem” and the gentle “House of Cards.” Yorke and company eased us out of the show cooing “I don’t want to be your friend/ I just want to be your lover” before singing about collapsing infrastructure and lascivious key parties. Then the band retreated to drier quarters, leaving us in silence to face the rhythm and fury of the rain.

Photo: [kubacheck]

Colin Meloy
9:30 Club; Washington, DC

[04-13-2008]

IN DEFENSE OF COLIN MELOY

Why do so many people think Colin Meloy is such an asshole? If one were to scour the web for opinions on the front man of the seminal Portland collective The Decemberists, any praise found would be tempered with an equal amount of vitriol. This sentiment is never leveled at the musicality of Meloy and his cohorts, though, but squarely targets the man himself. After a period when nary an article would reach print without dubbing the band “literate” and “erudite,” the inevitable backlash appeared, attacking the very virtues that made The Decemberists famous in the first place.

Then what’s the problem? Has Meloy’s brand of nerd-rock for those who do the Sunday Times crossword and revel at online IQ tests grown tiresome? When my friend describes Meloy as “the smarmy villain from every ’80s teen flick,” did he mean the sweater-wearing Ivy League-bound James Spader from Pretty in Pink or the dickhead thug William Zabka from The Karate Kid fame? Has Meloy just grown too priggish, pretentious, and preposterous for the indie kids?

Let me be the first to admit that I am a Decemberists fan. While I waited outside the 9:30 Club for my friend to arrive, I saw a bunch of people trying to unload spare tickets. Bad sign. Usually the corner of V and 9th is jumping before a show, but beyond the unlucky scalpers, only I stood out in the cold that night. Something felt wrong. That didn’t matter too much. I was excited.

Inside, a modest crowd waited for Meloy to take the stage. I have been attending shows here for a few years, and rarely has it been so empty. What’s the story, Colin? Do you need Chris Funk to bring the noise? Is it really Nate Query the groundlings are clamoring to see?

Meloy finally appeared and informed us that DC is his “home away from home.” As he led the crowd through a series of vocal warm-ups, I asked myself if this was the self-possessed man I have heard so much about. He was positively disarming, embracing the crowd before launching into “Shiny” from the 5 Songs EP.

One thing can be said about Decemberists fans: they are wordy folk. As Meloy moved between stripped-down renditions of “The Perfect Crime” and “O Valencia!,” the crowd sang along, not missing a single word. When Meloy strapped on a 12-string guitar to play the Picaresque trio of “The Engine Driver,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” his wistful melodies presented themselves, unburdened by The Decemberists’ lush arrangements. It is undeniable that Colin Meloy has stage presence, and these three songs were the highlight of the evening. He has a strong, distinctive voice, and he employed it well during the show. The guitar sounded crisp and clear, and it is easy to lose oneself in his tales of chimbly-sweeps and scalawags.

The Decemberists announced but then promptly canceled a tour late last year, where they planned to play long songs one night and short ones the next. Meloy apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and said, “I’m doing my best to make up for it on my own. Self-flagellation in the form of a rock tour.” Though he didn’t draw the numbers that the truncated sold-out tour had garnered, the appreciative crowd applauded his self-effacement and apology.

This is not Meloy’s first solo tour, and it has become a tradition for him to hawk a tour-only EP of covers. Past collections saw Meloy covering the songs of Morrisey and Shirley Collins. Before launching into a version of “Cupid,” Meloy took a moment to pimp out his newest Sam Cooke collection. Joined onstage by opener Laura Gibson (dressed in something last seen in some Polygamist sect), Meloy turned in a serviceable version of one of Cooke’s classic songs.

Meloy closed out the first set with a humorous new track about Valerie Plame that dissolved into a sing-along of “Hey Jude” and “A Cautionary Song” from his band’s first LP, Castaways and Cutouts. As Meloy sang the lead guitar part over his own strumming, it struck me just how dependent his tunes are on the full orchestration of the band. While a lot of them are just good folk songs without the rest of the band, others are sketchy and slight. Could it be the accordion and violin that really make The Decemberists standout?

The encore did little to exorcise my doubts, but it did confuse me more. After refusing to deviate from the setlist (he blamed something in his past life that prevents him from doing so), Meloy performed a heartbreaking version of “Red Right Ankle.” Somewhere in the quiet plucking, I realized that beneath the armor of big words and tongue-in-cheek witticisms, Meloy is a sentimentalist. Most of his songs are about lost love or longing. Could all the ostentatious instrumentation and high-minded tales be the self-defense mechanism of a romantic? I think so.

But Colin Meloy the Showman soon reappeared for the evening’s finale of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” perhaps one of the best known tracks by Decemberists fans. The crowd thrilled to this shanty of madness and revenge. Meloy paused to let the audience sing the female parts and even to lecture us on the differences between “screaming” and “quailing.” Though rollicking and fun, this final song seemed safe, a big way to end the evening.

Why does everyone hate on Meloy so much? Plenty of rock stars have been pricks and have rarely gotten such a bad rap. Let’s admit it, most of us music nerds were never the most popular kids at school. We weren’t in the lowest stratum, but we weren’t the All-American football stars either. Just maybe Meloy was one of those guys below us, a shy kid with glasses who liked to read. Could it be envy? Does his success cause us to look at our lives with more scrutiny?