Six Organs of Admittance with Elisa Ambrogio / Grand Banks
University of Virginia Chapel; Charlottesville, VA

[01-25-2008]

Let’s start from the middle. Ben Chasney takes a sip out of the
Styrofoam cup that’s sitting on his amp, leans into the mic, and says,
“Okay, I’ll play a couple more quiet ones.”

He picks out a gentle, melodic narrative on his acoustic guitar. After a
few measures, Elisa Ambrogio of The Magik Markers appears on stage, picks up her red Stratocaster, and joins Chasney. She sings and reinforces his folky repetitions with a tightly-wound, single-string drone. Looping his part, Chasney abandons his guitar and frees the mic from its stand, facing toward Ambrogio as their voices pool together in a mesmerizing chant. Suddenly, his microphone cuts out, so Chasney joins Ambrogio at hers. They finish the song singing nose to nose.

The night started out with a more subdued and pristine vibe. Souls
wandered into the century-old chapel and perched themselves on the hard wooden pews. The opening band, Grand Banks, tweaked their array of noisemakers, amps, and keys, prefacing things with a long drone that saturated the spacious corridors and arched ceilings. Their set played out like a rattlesnake swallowing its prey. Serpentine noises swelled and gradually propelled themselves toward digestion. Eerie chimes and scaly synth blips slithered over sparse, rattling percussion.

Chasney, wearing a button up western shirt, came on next and began his set as the audience perched attentively on their pews. He echoed the laid back quality of his acoustic meanderings by joking about being in church on a Friday night and asking the audience what they were doing after the show.

When Ambrogio stepped up, though, the mood quickly shifted. Chasney still held up the mellower end of the sound (even after switching to electric), while Ambrogio, her face obscured beneath a red hood and her dangling hair, did what she does so well with The Magik Markers: she wrenched noisy bursts and distorted curls out of the guts of her instrument.

Tension became tantamount. Rather than propelling toward a cathartic avalanche of noise or satiating, repetitive grooves, both Chasney and Ambrogio seemed to be digging in their heels and keeping their sound taut and restrained. This made the night both powerful and
somewhat frustrating. Ambrogio offered glimpses into a world of more
engulfing noise, and Chasney flirted with riffs that could have employed a heavier hammer but only tapped lightly. The result was an intricate, shallow sculpture rather than a deep and cavernous landspace.

But maybe that was the point: Keeping more overwhelming forces at bay, this Six Organs duo etched out their own sonic path, cloaking the raw inspiration for their sounds in mystery and offering a sense of
reverence and discipline that seemed appropriate amid the chapel’s
wooden alters, looming stained-glass windows, and dimly lit archways.

[Photos: Lincoln Doolittle]

Fiery Furnaces / KI: Theory / The Tapeworms
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA

[01-26-2008]

Local punk-influenced collective the Tapeworms opened with an energetic set that recalled a less eccentric variation on the Dismemberment Plan. The band played well to their friends in the crowd, and the set was pretty good, but I found myself distracted by a desire to blast “The Ice of Boston” and shout the words alone in a starlit room. Then again, I’ve lately found myself wanting to do this a little too often.

Richmond outfit KI: Theory followed with an electronica-dominated set that actually rocked pretty hard, as the drummer hammered his kit and a bearded bassist churned out complementary rhythm, with the familiar glow of an Apple notebook there to hold the whole scene together. The band was tight and the stage show effective, with a nice introduction of darkness and digital loops running down to an ocean of wailing vocals and crisp, crunching beats.

But most everyone in the Ballroom was there to dance with the Furnaces, and the Friedbergers quickly broke into material from last year’s Widow City, starting things off with “Navy Nurse.” Eleanor was beautiful if mostly stationary, sporting a fantastic haircut that seemed a perfect extension of early hippie style. She sang with a controlled passion that she contained within the top half of her body, using hands and head to augment her vocals and mirror the frenetic quality of the music as the band fired through the set.

It was refreshing to see a group that actually encouraged crowd participation; the Furnaces asked that song requests be recorded and tossed onstage, as the second part of the set would be determined by popular vote. Fans quickly took the cue and assaulted the band with their favorite songs in paper form. We can only guess how many took this as an opportunity to make a “Freebird” joke that no one really needed. First place ended in a tie, with “Tropical Iceland” garnering the same support as “Chief Inspector Blancheflower”; the latter was one of the night’s high points. It provided a vehicle for the Friedbergers to play off one another, thus giving Matt a chance to capture some well-earned attention. Other highlights included “Blueberry Boat,” “The Philadelphia Grand Jury,” and the lovely “Evergreen.”

In all, the Furnaces put on a fantastic show, effectively showcasing the diversity of their music through both the technical aspects of performance and a song selection that spanned the length of their oeuvre. Two of the group’s best qualities are the quirkiness of the music and the ways they succeed at crafting innovative song structures that always come off as fresh and coherent. They did a much better job of communicating these qualities than they did a couple years back when I watched them try to convert electronic numbers into early New York punk jams. On this night, the electronic element was on full display, and the band showed why they’re one of the most dynamic bands in music today.

Dan Deacon and Jimmy Roche's Ultimate Reality
The Lakeshore Theater; Chicago, IL

[01-25-2008]

I wasn't really in the mood for the crazy free-for-all that a Girl Talk/Dan Deacon show entails, but when I found out Dan Deacon was taking his Ultimate Reality DVD on the road with a live solo set at the Lakeshore Theater the night before the Girl Talk show, I was very intrigued. What would this DVD entail, exactly? How would a Dan Deacon show work in a theater with seats? Would he still manage to perform his trademark set on the floor instead of the stage?

After Jason Ajemian made the kids antsy and chatty with a somewhat out-of-place opening performance involving doing strange things to an upright bass (like whack the strings with a mallet), a couple of drum sets were set up in front of a large screen. The lights went down, recorded music by Dan came on over the loudspeakers, and some old-school Arnold Schwarzenegger footage from Conan the Barbarian kicked things off. In fact, the entire DVD was a psychedelic homage to all things Arnold, with footage from Predator, Terminator, Junior, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, etc. etc. etc., all colored in neon and mashed together by Jimmy Roche into one ridiculous and hilarious assault of the senses (a pregnant Arnold is funny on its own; a pregnant Arnold in slow motion is downright hysterical). After a few minutes, drummers Kevin O'Meare of Video Hippos and Jeremy Hyman of Ponytail, two fellow Baltimore bands, provided some intense synchronized drumming. The audience seemed virtually paralyzed throughout the entire performance until one audience member finally ran up to the stage to try to dance, instigating a mass rush from the audience to the stage. Comically, this happened just in time for the DVD to end, which I appreciated, as a bunch of moshing hipsters would have been a little distracting.

Now that the seal had been broken, however, the 20 minutes before Dan began his solo set involved watching kids jump over seats trying to squeeze into the 15 feet of open space between the stage and the front row--which is exactly where Dan Deacon decided to set up. Later telling us this was his first performance in a seated theater, he proved that regardless of the venue, never shall his table rest on a stage. As usual, this meant only people right up front could see him, but he threw us a bone by having a video camera pointing down at him from the stage so everyone who chose to remain in the seats (see: me) could check out the action and see his "trippy green skull" glow. Having seen him twice before (though always outdoors sans light show), a Dan Deacon show certainly has a specific formula which changes minorly depending on the venue:
1) Begin stretching with crowd to random song (Run DMC in this case, previously "Under the Sea")
2) Provide inane story that involves audience participation, including staring at a stranger, kneeling down and pointing in various directions
3) Turn story into some strange countdown that is spoken using various emotions as the numbers go down, possibly involving Ethan Hawke's career
4) Play some music, jump/jiggle up and down; kids go crazy, lose cell phones and cameras on floor
5) Commence dance contest
6) Have audience do the gauntlet around the room
7) Sing "Silence Like the Wind Overtakes Me" with the audience

Overall Dan provided us with a good time as usual, though I'm definitely too old to get down and dirty with the crazy moshpits and gauntlets these days. But I sure did appreciate that seat.

[Photo: NicoleMC99]

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings / Ivan Milev Band
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA

[01-18-2008]

Tonight: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings with the Ivan Milev Band. Sold Out! said the slate signboard outside Charlottesville, Virginia’s Satellite Ballroom. As I leaned against a brick wall and waited for a friend, people were milling about on the sidewalk, some talking on their cell phones (“Dude, the show’s sold out and James didn’t buy tickets beforehand”) while others looked expectantly at fellow loiterers, hoping that someone would step up and say “Need an extra ticket?”

Sharon and the boys aren’t doing too badly. In fact, they’re batting a thousand so far on this latest East Coast jaunt, having sold out D.C.’s Black Cat the previous night and heading toward a third straight maxed-out crowd at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse the night after. The combination of tireless touring, knock-out performances, the top-notch 100 Days, 100 Nights and a little umph of exposure from the Dap-Kings’ work with Amy Winehouse has clearly coalesced into a successful formula.

When the venue’s doors opened, the room quickly filled with a varied crowd that included a few scrappy teenagers, your typical twenty-somethings, middle-aged record collector types, and a good amount of older folks who probably experienced the original soul and funk heyday.

Grooving had to wait, though, as the Ivan Milev Band took the stage first. Comprised of Milev, an astoundingly dexterous accordion player, and Entcho Todorov, an equally skilled violinist, the duo tore through a Balkan-hopping set of Eastern European tunes, juggling notes, tempos and time signatures as in a game of hot potato. Their songs varied from tense, raga-like pulses to frenzied, dueling solos that came off like Arthur Russell played at tape-melting speed. Letting Todorov do the talking in between tunes, Milev curled his increasingly sweaty brow and channeled all of his manic energy through his keys and buttons.

Milev and Todorov proved themselves the real deal of Eastern European virtuosity, just as Sharon Jones and her band have filled that role for modern soul and funk. The Dap-Kings emerged to plentiful cheers and warmed up the audience with a few instrumentals before guitarist Binky Griptite introduced the band and eventually Jones herself, who skipped to center stage in a black dress.

The soul queen wrapped the audience around her finger from the start, confidently leading them with her faultless inflections and occasionally pulling a lucky fan on stage to serve as a lyrical object during numbers such as “How Do I Let A Good Man Down” and “Be Easy.” Screams and more gyrations accompanied the opening measures of 100 Days, 100 Nights’ title track, and though some of the slower songs tapped the breaks on the evening’s momentum, even the timid vinyl geeks were starting to move their hips by the end of the night.

A by-the-book encore was already in the bag, given the group’s classic showmanship and the audience’s enthusiasm. After returning to bestow a few more nuggets on their loyal subjects, the Kings and Queen thanked the audience and sent them toward the door and the merch table, where one could pick up an album or a 45, one of the retro staples of the band’s Daptone imprint.

Going the “traditional” route can easily evoke a yawn and a “been there, seen that” response, especially with the cult following of vintage soul, but Jones and the Dap-Kings blew that notion out of the water from the horn section’s first brassy pop to the last wail of the front woman’s dazzling voice. Dig through the record bins for as many ’60s rarities as you want; you still won’t come close to the experience of seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings conquer a stage.

[Photo: Laura O’Neill]

Spunk Rock: Spunk Records 10th Birthday
A & I Hall; Bangalow, NSW;

[A & I Hall; Bangalow, NSW]

I seriously cacked my dacks when I first found about this birthday party (that of one of Australia’s best labels, Spunk), mostly because of the outrageously great lineup, but also because of the locale: a small community hall in a place called Bangalow, very much in the middle of nowhere on the east coast of Australia. The previous few weeks were filled with rumors that The Arcade Fire may be the ‘secret guest’ (hey, they’ve never come to Australia before!), but it turns out it was just Joanna Newsom, whom I guess I can deal with (actually I cacked my dacks a second time when I heard this). As I looked out from the back of the full scout hall, it was clear my enthusiasm was shared by most of the audience, all sunburnt backs and tight-jeaned legs crossed.

She is joined by her YYYs Street Band, and that’s probably why I didn’t recognize many of the songs at first (I hadn’t listened to Ys as much as her previous material). Her whimsy and mythology are matched by the similarly wondrous and quaint venue, dimly lit in rosey red tones, smattered with fairy lights. The place was completely hushed for her set, aside from when she announced they were going to play a brand new song, one that had never been played live before. We felt spoiled, and rightly so; this new stuff seems just as great as we’d hoped. Newsom plucked the harp with fervor and glee, filling the balmy night with just what it needed.

I’m not sure if it was just because I had seen Andrew Bird twice last year in quick succession, but he was relatively boring in between these other acts. Like last time, it was just him, no band, unfortunately, as the person next to me mentioned his show works much better when he is flanked by a couple of other whizzes. He’s got the delay pedal skills down to an absurd precision on his own, but a lot of the time it tends too far toward the insular; the way the songs unfold and buildup is often samey. I shouldn’t rag on his set, though; it was good, and his style is distinctive, his violin layers built upon by whistling, vocals, tapes of violin, and twitches of the head; his classic indie voice mixed with, uh, classical elements. It’s masterful, for sure, and basically everyone seemed engaged and mostly enthralled by these mystical pedal abilities and curious sounds.

Perhaps Andrew Bird made me snooze a little because my heart that night belonged to Jens Lekman. The swede was up next, armed with a guitar, a backing tape, and a white cotton shirt -- on it, a huge embroided flower and his heart on his sleeve, of course. He’s the cheesiest guy around, and it’s not just because he’s Swedish. Tonight, Jens is also astoundingly funny, bracketing the songs that everyone seems to know (from his past two albums) with hilarious stories and anecdotes detailing the background of the songs, which are undeniably sincere and real. The two local musicians on cello and violin who join him this evening don’t play very often, and halfway through are off the stage, so the backing tape fleshs out tracks like “You Are The Light” and “Maple Leaves.” His take on the live show is entertaining, like a good show should be, even if a few of the songs are much better on record.

Spoon serves as a terrific band to close down the night, playing a set filled with so much more enjoyment and energy than what I had seen from them the previous day at Australia’s huge and mainstream Big Day Out festival. They started off with the first two tracks from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the second of which, "The Ghost of You Lingers," is one of the best setup songs of all time. Theirs is an obviously quite subtle and refined sort of indie rock, and these decisions seem to really matter. After playing a couple more from the new album, Spoon finish off with a smattering of older "hits" for a particularly electrified set. I still think they’re much better as a studio band than a live band, but on an evening filled with such a special and friendly atmosphere, it was really something.

Photo: Nick Findlay @ [Triple J]

Godwaffle Noise Pancakes
SFArt; San Francisco, CA

[10-13-2007]

I stood in front of a black gate and wondered for a second how to get into the show. All I knew was to go to Capp St. and then find the black gate at 110. After my eyeballs engaged in a little confused meandering, I discovered the key entry pad with a washed out little sign that said “Godwaffle Pancakes Press 500.” After getting dialed in, I wandered through the alley, still a bit confused. Signage was limited, so it took me a second to find the staircase. At one point I thought I heard the sounds of a noise show, but it was actually just a big compressor likely used to refrigerate some kind of imported produce. (I did take a second to notice that the oscillation of the compressor motor could make a nice backdrop for a mixer feedback food fight.) I navigated five flights of stairs and used my nose to follow the smell of pancakes.

When I entered SFArt, the gallery revealed itself as a lovely, long room culminating in a great view of downtown San Fran replete with midday sun and blue skies. The show must have started right at twelve noon, because a couple of bands had already played, and I swear it was only 12:25. The Godwaffle mini-circus would prove to be a noise gig played out with a ruthless efficiency that belied my experience, which had shown instead through repeated empirical evidence that harsh electronic affairs are largely played out into the wee hours of the night in inexorably inefficient fashion, especially when seven or more bands are involved. The rooms are never bright. And there are usually way more fucked up people lurching about. This would be a noise show to live standing on the pedestal of contrast.

The lineage of Godwaffle Noise Pancakes begins with a noise show titled Pancakes at Pubis, which held down a spot in what is now a flooded living room somewhere in the bowels of the Mission around the turn of the millenium. Fast forward to now, and Pubis McNasty of Bullshit Detector and some of the BrutalSFX folks relocated the Pubis PA to ArtSF to curate a series with no listenable music allowed. Genesis Godwaffle Noise Pancakes. The ostensible theme is that all the bands play electronics, pancakes & waffles are served, 78s are played between bands, and at some point, a little puppet show occurs. And you better eat some pancakes, dammit.

Perhaps it was a combination of the early hour and the apparent lack of drug-fueled confusion that allowed the show to move so smoothly and quickly. No bands offered banter, there was nary an introduction, and each group or individual basically played one ‘song,’ which was some variety of noisy build-up into a wall of sound that was cut off unexpectedly or too late, then followed by applause. Most of the performers either had their gear pre-set or possessed relatively simple gear configurations, such as one mixer, a few pedals, and perhaps one contact mic or other device. All told, I believe, seven or possibly eight bands performed in just under two hours and without the prodding or tasking of any mad promoters or black-cloaked underground overlords. Plus, there was a puppet show featuring some art and characters that carried the unmistakable artistic squiggle familiar to anyone who has delved in Caroliner or Rubber O Cement. A densely packed noise cake and overall good value.

I was largely clueless as well as totally unfamiliar with all of the performers, so I tasked myself with deciphering the names of the bands playing while trying to gain an appreciation for what each of them was doing. I’ve seen enough noise sets that a certain number of them feel more like lukewarm showers than hot sticks of butter slapped across my face. That is to say that many bands forking with electronics don’t really do much to make themselves standout. Visually, knob-turning and fader crashing lacks the intensity of long-hairs stroking guitar necks or smashing drumsticks. For the less talented noise groups, it can be helpful to cover up a lack of virtuosity with a bevy of well-meaning bodily intent, regardless of whether the physicality is a concerted and planned piece or just a chaotic reaction to the music. If the audience is so inclined, they can choreograph their own noise jiggle or just pound beer and hold their fists in the air.

The noise purveyors that I saw that day (and I admit I missed a couple bands) squashed all their sets together without jumping around or feedback-induced body noodling, and the crowd’s reaction was equally tepid. Appreciation was limited to applause. I was disappointed in that regard, but a couple of sets stood out thanks to auditory excellence. I realized in the process that variance and originality in the juxtaposition of sound were factors I valued highly, and volume and mechanical energy matter less.

Running down the order, I must say that Tullan Velte of Oakland ruled more than any other. As the lone feller in dark clothes with short, spiky hair approached his card table and whipped out his pedals, I noted the casual and flippant tosses which brought dude’s gear from his briefcase to the card table pedestal that invoked late nights of Scrabble. A little bit of confidence seemed to be behind those tosses. He stood with his back to the audience and got nasty.

The TV set began with a deepish fart note, which built into a scattered mechanical throbbing permeated by a sickly smell of fevered, formless mixer shouting as the volume built geometrically. It sounded pretty good, actually, and he managed to throw in some insane laser waves. A squeaky doodle was being built to a feverish disco threat before horrific throbbing resumed. A drop of heavy and deep mixer feedback warned the earplug-less to gear up before the whole jam slingshot into hotter fever.

Then I lost interest for a second and wondered what was coming next in the mix. I was hoping the build-up was going to scatter rapid-shot into some kind of ridiculous other noise, but instead, that was it. An almost flawless build-up with no resolution beyond a cursory fade out. Beautiful use of timing, and it certainly kept with the unstated and perhaps unintentional short set motif.

Another stand-out was +DOG+, a Ventura County project that has seen numerous line-ups in the past. The only male figure in the trio was apparently the original member; he had recruited the two ladies (one on vox and the other on synth) to help fatten the sound in what was an evolving project. The strange hat on the synth member looked like Tim Burton’s version of a Vietnamese rice farmer’s headgear, and her appearance gave the scene a curious flavor. I protected my ears for this extra volume-heavy scheme, and in the process missed some mid-frequency hyper squiggle. I know this because I pulled the plugs out for a second to taste, but then my sensitive drums threatened me, sending a warning prophecy of a tinnitus ring that would keep me up later that night, and I re-plugged into the land of the cautious earhole. Even without hearing the full range of sound, I still rocked along with the thing mightily. I noticed the aforementioned lead member had some kind of mic’d or wired metal piece, not an uncommon site at noise shows, which got me wondering – which one of the sounds that I was hearing was coming from that thing?

A fun game to play at a noise show is to try to figure out what gear is making what racket. In this case, I was unable to decipher how the metal shard, bigger that two cafeteria trays, was sounding off, but from watching him perform seemingly calculated and purposeful little shudders and wiggles of the beat up scrap, I deduced that dude was definitely playing that thing. In fact, he might have practiced with it before. The overall sound of +DOG+ was a curious mix of demented carousel music combined with outrageously piercing mic feedback and a whole panoply of short-lived and finely nuanced garbledy-gook. There were sections when a whole tier of the group’s sound would drop out, and it’s always hard to tell in those cases whether equipment is fucking up or the band really wants it to sound that way.

I ought not slight the other acts I considered less than amazing, for they all had their merits. Hobby Knife from Oregon had an interesting setup which consisted of a variety of adapted toys and battery-powered junk. One of the ‘instruments’ had the look of a hair dryer but was likely some kind of kid’s laser drill with flashing revolving lights. It seemed to be working imperfectly during the sound check/set-up phase of the woman’s set, and some friends were called in. Hence, there evolved a scene which is often witnessed at the harsh electronic showcases, as a small crew of noise musicians crowd around a pedal-strewn table attempting to determine which cable, box, or connection is the faulty one. From my own experience running sound at noise gigs, I know this kind of game can be a significant factor in the stretching of shows into the wee hours, but in this case the faulty equipment was isolated and remedied posthaste. It was actually pretty entertaining to watch her play with the toys, and the demented whine sound, what I think of as the classic dentist office/woodshop aesthetic, is a personal fave. At one point, one of the taped-up box-looking things was being held to her head while she waved the drill dryer around, which was the most visually interesting thing to happen that day behind the puppet show. I don’t think the song was called “Alien Abortion,” but that moniker came to me in a momentary flash of mental imagery. It wasn’t a flawless set by any means, but it stood out from the rest and deserves mention.

Also deserving mention was the guy (I.N.R.I.?) with the plastic flute and cymbal who was playing when I entered. His was truly a sound that seemed unrelated to the action that played out. That means I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on between the flute, cymbal, and cables, but the womb-ocean lapping drone was nicely overridden with squalls and rhythmic sawing. And the fruit flies dancing in the air seemed to be right in tune.

Can’t forget the puppets. A puppet show with no point, no plot, no characters, and no introduction wouldn’t fly at the public library, but with this audience, I think the grotesque cuteness of the little characters was in line. Most of the puppets were two-dimensional, although there was one floating puffy thing that seemed to barf up fabric scraps intermittently. I saw more video cameras whipped out during this segment than at any other point in the show. Certainly, with a backdrop coming through the windows featuring some of the most high-priced real estate in the Union, the view behind said critters helped to enhance the veritable puppet mind-fuck. The skyscrapers were as much a star as the illustrated tape deck on a stick that battled another unnamed creature for a second during a pivotal moment in the incomprehensible puppet orgy.

And yes, I ate some goddamn pancakes. Well, I ate my waffle; it was good. By the time I got to my pancake, it was chewy and somewhat rubbery, so I only swallowed a bite. The namesake of the noise show got its fair due in my belly, and the sugar rush from the ‘maple’ syrup wore off just around the time the last One Spot was unplugged. Excellent timing and an all around excellent Saturday afternoon noise feast. Recommended, dammit.

Cass McCombs / Ariel Pink
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA

[11-16-2007]

Together, Ariel Pink and Cass McCombs put on a rather unusual stage show, each playing his set with the same group of musicians. Mr. Pink and Mr. McCombs were even gracious enough to remain on stage for the other’s set, selflessly falling in line with the rest of the backing band while allowing the other to step forward into the spotlight. It was an arrangement that highlighted the grassroots camaraderie that so often forms between citizens of the musical community. Throughout the evening, there were either five or six musicians on stage (it seemed to change, though I’m not certain it ever did, because everything seemed so frantic and loose), and all seemed to have arisen from some distant musical era. Most wore a grunge aesthetic, and I felt for a moment that I might have fallen backwards into a scene from Reality Bites. I wanted a dusty flannel overcoat to help fight off the cold. I might have also used a patchwork beard.

Ariel Pink’s set began innocuously, quietly looping a riff as though sound checking in a garage, free from the judgments of a paying audience. Pink eventually grabbed the microphone — one laced with an echo effect — and kick started the set, at once ending the introductory instrumental. The songs were lively and upbeat, with a smattering of falsetto included for good measure, while a lovely performance of “She’s My Girl” definitively emerged as a major high point. The innovativeness and mystery of this creature of lo-fi were clear from that first circular riff until the beginnings of a scattered applause. Between sets, the musicians retired for a cigarette break, demonstrating further the easy kinship existing within the band(s).

Cass McComb’s set brought with it the feel of a songwriter comfortable with the moment, and he quickly dashed into songs from this year’s record, Dropping the Writ, including the fantastic “Lionkiller” and “Crick in the Neck.” The chugging momentum of “Lionkiller” did well to engage the sparsely crowded venue. (It was a real shame that more didn’t brave the Virginia cold that night.) Cass even broke the seal on a new song, one called “Eavesdropping on the Competition,” a track built around a slower, country core. Unfortunately for those in attendance, he shied away from an encore, though this decision was perhaps made pardonable given that he’d already played, in effect, a double set.

In all, the set succeeded at communicating the strengths of a singer well-refined in the arts of songwriting and performance, and the music world should eagerly anticipate what’s to come from this 30-year-old Midwesterner.

The Hold Steady / Art Brut
9:30 Club; Washington, DC

[11-20-2007]

For an avid concertgoer whose typical spot is located right up front in the pit, a balcony can afford quite the distinct experience. The pit allows for total absorption into the show, eye contact with the musicians, and other fans trying to shove up to the front. While the balcony may put some distance between fan and singer, it also gives one the opportunity to watch all the little offstage dramas unfold.

Sobriety is not a word associated with a double bill splattered with the names The Hold Steady and Art Brut. Before getting into the heart of the review, I would like to present my top two non-music related events of the evening (in no particular order).

1. At one point during the Hold Steady set, some geek gets up on the stage, dances about a little, and then jumps into the crowd. A few songs later, the dude decides to try it again. I can see the bouncer waiting for him behind the speaker. Dude can’t. As he attempts to get on stage again, the bouncer crouches like a cat, springs into the air, and knocks the guy back into the crowd in a full-on tackle. Then the bouncer drags him through the audience and out the back.
2. A few dorks decide to start a mosh pit. I happen to know the guy standing right up front. He’s a big guy. The erstwhile moshers keep pushing into him. When my friend turns to ask them to stop, they rip the glasses right off his face. He mouths something about killing them, points, and gets ready to throw a punch. I am instantly thankful I opted for the balcony. (Note: Someone found his glasses on the floor and handed them back unbroken).

Alright, music time. Art Brut took the stage with “Pump Up the Volume,” the first track off their most recent release, It’s a Bit Complicated. Argos appeared in a loose flannel shirt, hair combed to one side of his forehead. A screen above the stage announced each song title and cued the audience when to applaud.

Gimmicky or not, Art Brut thrilled for the entirety of its 50 minute set that mixed 15 tracks from both the new album and 2005's critically acclaimed Bang Bang Rock & Roll. Argos, though admitting to being “a little bit drunk,” prowled the stage, jumped rope with the microphone cord, and even crawled down into the audience, bouncing up and down as he parted the crowd from the front to the rear during “Modern Art.”

“That was terrible defense,” Argos berated the crowd after retaking the stage, with helping hands from the crowd. “I managed to buy a hot dog and a 1990s T-shirt and collect the change and tip the bartender. You are rubbish at stopping me from getting to the back.”

The rest of the band kept up with Argos’ antics. Guitarist Jasper Future shredded with eyes and mouth wide open, and drummer “Mikey From the Block” took the opportunity in between songs to strike poses with drumstick in the air and hand on hip. Though the set felt somewhat calculated underneath its raggedness (the entire band froze for a moment while Mikey kept beat with the bass drum, for example), Art Brut’s joy for performing was irresistible. When they finally left the stage after “Formed a Band,” it felt as if the headlining act, not an opener, had just finished a show. This would be a tough performance to follow.

The Hold Steady kicked off its set with “Hornets! Hornets!” from second album Separation Sunday. Singer Craig Finn, wearing a button-down shirt and thick glasses, danced, snapped his fingers in glee, and mouthed unintelligible words in between his lyrics. This was the penultimate gig on a long tour, and the strain showed in the performance. Finn remembered two dates from 2006 the band had played in Baltimore and Washington and said they had been on the road ever since. Maybe it was time to go home.

With most of its lyrics about fucking, fighting, and consuming copious quantities of drugs and alcohol, life as a member of The Hold Steady could be tiring. At least two bottles of scotch, a bottle of wine, and some beers were consumed by the band during an 80-minute set that heavily favored tracks from Separation and newest album Boys and Girls in America. If this was a nightly trick, spleens and liver could be worn out.

Beyond the Thin Lizzy licks and Springsteen swells, it is Finn’s wry wordplay that makes The Hold Steady special. Lyrics such as “Tramps like us/ And we like tramps” and “When they say killer whales/ They mean they whaled on him 'til they killed him” show both a vicious precision and intelligent appropriation of pop references. But as the night wore on, Finn got drunker and drunker (or maybe more and more high, who really knows?).

Now a boozy disposition is one thing, but when it interferes with rather than adds to a performance, there is a problem. The band returned for an encore with “First Night.” There is a beautiful section of the ballad when Finn sings “Don’t bother talking to the guys with their hot soft eyes/ They’re already taken” over a swell of Franz Nicolay’s piano and a chorus of “Boys and Girls in America.” On the album, this is an emotional crescendo not reached in many other songs in the band’s oeuvre. But here, Finn was too out of sorts, and he garbled the lyrics so badly that even Shane MacGowan would have cringed.

The encore ended with “How a Resurrection Really Feels” and “Killer Parties.” At one point, as Finn tried to play his guitar, Tad Kubler (guitarist) looked at him and shook his head for him to give it up. Then Kubler climbed up on the speakers, a bunch of fans hit the stage, and hell broke loose as Finn just looked around in a stupor. It has been a recent tradition for Finn to end a show proclaiming how much joy it is for him to perform each night. Usually it is a joy to see them live. That night, he could barely get it out, but after a minute or two of stuttering, he did. Time to take a rest, boys. Time to chill out. There will be joy another night.

[Photo: Marina Chavez]

Modeselektor
San Francisco, CA; Club 222

[10-18-2007]

It is a very special night for Club 222. I’ve watched this bar grow from a small beer, wine, and pizza bar into one of the premier clubs in our noble yet crack-addled (I mean, heroin-chic) Tenderloin district. I pine for a vague vision of a vague past as I await the arrival of semi-stars Modeselektor. Radiohead’s own Thom Yorke sang on a track on Modeselektor’s last album, Happy Birthday. Maybe Thom Yorke will make an appearance! Maybe not. All the same, I’m pretty darn thrilled to be seeing these heroic Berliners in this intimate setting. The show was sold out before they even printed the flyers.

At one point in American history — when Club 222 was called “The Black Hawk” and filled an adjacent parking lot in addition to the current space — Miles Davis recorded an album here. Across the street, the famous Hyde Street Studio looms like the past; the scent of the Digital Underground, Dead Kennedys, even Tony! Toni! Toné! still hangs in the air. Even in the Tenderloin, San Francisco never fails to dazzle with relics of its rich history of cool.

By 10 PM, Club 222 is being hounded by a small mob, desperate for a ticket. Modeselektor is fashionable enough to be featured on the cover of XLR8R, and they have enough electronic music street cred to have garnered a reputation (on Wikipedia, anyway) for building their own hardware and coding their own software. I’m informed by the girl to whom I sold my extra ticket that Modeselektor titled their latest album Happy Birthday to celebrate the births of their new (respective) babies. How cute is that?!

Eventually, the house is packed to a capacity of slightly more than 120. 222’s bartenders are naughty rakes who pour my drinks with winks and giggles sexier than internet porn. Modeselektor opens their set with a thump and glitch-rich techno vamp, reminiscent of Underworld’s “Beaucoup Fish,” which loops and meanders until finally morphing into “The Dark Side of the Sun (featuring Puppetmastaz)” — a track from Happy Birthday — which they embellish with the odd skip, pause, bump, scratch, glitch, repeat while the doughy half of the Modeselektor duo lip syncs “Bitch motherfucker!” The crowd is hypnotized, wide-eyed, with heads-a-bobbing. Fans actually squeal each time Modeselektor’s laptops blurt out a kooky, new sample — like rock groupies squealing at a sexy singers rasp. As well as being composers, Modeselektor are accomplished DJs, creating new noises on the fly, and this live improvisation makes the music feel exciting.

They are playful, chaotic, enthusiastic, and full of “bump and grind.” They seem genuinely flattered and all too willing to react lovingly when adoring fans call out drunken praise to them. One yells, “This shit makes my belly wanna dance!” And into the night, the brilliant, soothing, exhilarating beat goes on, sprinkled tastefully with glitch. At one point, they cut the music and insert a horrific screech which lasts for nearly a minute — fans screeching wildly along — and then resolves into a crowd-jumping, bass-thumping, sense-erupting ejaculation of rich, beautiful beats. The brick walls sweat with the sexy dance power of the crowd. A crowd which is utterly owned by Modeselektor.

They close with E-40s “Tell Me When to Go” (better known as“Ghost-Ride the Whip”). I’m reminded of a video I saw on YouTube of someone ghost-riding their car to that song and then falling off and running themselves over.

The Twilight Sad / Broken Records / Chutes
Edinburgh, Scotland; Cabaret Voltaire

[11-29-2007]

On my way to Edinburgh's Cabaret Voltaire, I wondered whether the night's gig was going to feel like a homecoming for The Twilight Sad, considering that it was their first headlining show in the UK since their successful sojourn abroad. They'd spent the last six months playing packed shows across North America and heaping in the praise, but strangely, that hadn't been the case in Scotland. Lead singer James Graham sings in a thick accent that couldn't be mistaken for anywhere but western Scotland, yet their UK shows have mostly been poorly attended. Kind of ironic that the only people in the world that could actually understand what the man was singing about ignored them -- until recently. Hype from across the pond helped to spread the word, and days before the show, the December issue of The Skinny, Scotland's monthly alternative magazine, came out with a year-end album list topped by The Twilight Sad.

The venue was already pretty full by the time Chutes came out. Their post-punk jams weren't exactly new and refreshing, though heads bobbed and I didn't see many people retreating to the quiet of the bar. They displayed some superb songwriting throughout the set and definitely made my list of bands to watch. Next, Broken Records crowded the small stage with their keyboardist, drummer, two guitarists, bassist/vocalist, violinist/accordionist, and cellist. They strained to sound like The Arcade Fire and Beirut and ended up sounding bland.

Soon after, The Twilight Sad walked shyly on stage, and the show began with the effortless dramatics that characterized the set. Starting “Cold Days From the Birdhouse” by himself, guitarist Andy MacFarlane wove an effects-heavy wall of ringing guitar chords while singer James Graham stood stage center, motionless and with his eyes closed. Eyes still shut, Graham began to sing in his thick Scottish accent. The vocals were rich, and the words rolled easily off his tongue. Halfway into the song, the drums and bass exploded into the mix, and in an instant, things got really fucking epic. Their sound was too huge for the cramped space of Cabaret Voltaire. They should have been playing in a large church, or maybe Red Rocks or the Gorge, somewhere with giant walls and infinite reverb.

The Twilight Sad proved to be highly adept at varying their level of energy and stringing the audience right along with them. MacFarlane's majestic guitar was allowed room to breathe on its own, the rhythm section went wild at the right times, and Graham varied his vocals from a resigned croon to agitated yelps in tandem with the rest of the band's energy level.

Despite the solid turnout, or possibly because of it, MacFarlane and bassist Craig Orzel were clearly nervous and didn't have much in the way of stage presence. However, Graham did his job as frontman and made up for his bandmates' deficiencies. Maybe it's just because I saw Control a couple weeks before seeing this show, but Graham reminded me an awful lot of Ian Curtis. He didn't do anything overtly Curtis such as the arm-pumping thing, but the physical resemblance between the two -- Graham's jerky movements, his tendency to let his eyes roll back into his head, and his pained expressions -- invited Curtis comparisons. He performed with an incredible intensity, as if he was reliving the stories behind his songs on stage. When Graham sang, “The kids are on fire/ In the bedroom” during “That Summer At Home I had Become the Invisible Boy,” it didn't sound the slightest bit overdramatic; I believed the man.

Halfway through the set, the band invited Rod Jones, Idlewild's guitarist, onto the stage to play guitar and electric organ. With the acquisition of this figure of the Scottish indie scene, I reflected on just how much better The Twilight Sad were than the two opening acts. The Twilight Sad employed many of the same conventions as Chutes and so many other bands, but their gloomy, shimmering guitar work and towering crescendos helped them tweak the sonic mold enough to sound fresh and engaging. The electric organ on songs such as “And She Would Darken the Memory of Youth” was spine- tingling like the organ found throughout Bows and Arrows or Neon Bible yet managed to dodge games of spot-the-influence.

I can't say whether or not the band felt like the show was a proper homecoming gig, though Graham did make the blasphemous comment that he now preferred playing Edinburgh to Glasgow. Regardless, the combination of The Twilight Sad's frontman's intensity and their music's magnitude in a live setting made sure my expectations were fully satisfied.

[Photo: Ralph Scott]

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