Cass McCombs / Ariel Pink
Satellite Ballroom; Charlottesville, VA
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
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]
San Francisco, CA; Club 222
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
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]
The Middle East Upstairs; Cambridge, MA
Aside from the various hipsters milling about outside on any given night smoking Camel Lights and generally looking menacing, you might never know there's a rock show going on upstairs in The Middle East. The main stage lies beyond a cozy diner and bar, tucked into the back of the building where, ordinarily, a kitchen or supply room would be. Point is, it's a guarded space: while the other of The Middle East's stages, located around the block, is designated for larger, more established acts, the upstairs stage is home to bands with a seemingly pious, if relatively small, following. It's for this reason that I like seeing shows in the smaller, more intimate upstairs. Here you find yourself pressed into a corner or against the stage or another body, taking part in the indie rock equivalent of a Pentecostal church sermon. People actually (get this!) dance and move around. Everyone is having fun. I dunno, I guess I've just been to a lot of shows where it looks like nobody gives a shit, with people standing around watching the band as if they were critically viewing a de Kooning painting.
Never was this ecstatic atmosphere more apparent than during Holy Fuck's set. The four-piece took their time setting up, lugging out a seemingly endless supply of equipment. (Apparently, crowd members yelling "holy shit!" is a joke that follows the band around.) In one of the more intriguing setups I've seen, founding members Graham Walsh and Brian Borcherdt stood facing each other amid piles of stacked gear: the spaghetti mess of wires and jigsaw of pedals, keyboards, and turntables looked almost like it was all culled from the junk bin at an electronics outlet, old and leftover and pieced together. Yet the off-the-cuff sound this setup perpetuated ended up being the most endearing part of the show, as the two frontmen were allowed to pick and choose between dozens of options to bring their songs to life. Behind Walsh and Borcherdt stood the (equally integral) rhythm section of drummer Glenn Milchem (turning in a heroic effort to keep up and even propel the alacritous pace of the sound manipulation going on up front) and bassist Kevin Lynn, who did well to ground the band when it occasionally (though wonderfully) charged toward the mercurial and excitable.
After a word of thanks to the now teeming crowd, the band launched into "The Pulse," which starts with a driving bass line and drum beat, accompanied by an echoing, throbbing synth that continually swells and grows in vigor as the song unfolds. It's an extremely danceable song, and it had most of the crowd jumping around almost immediately. Of course, it's practically scripture at this point, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how incredibly energetic and frantic both the music and the members of the band were. Holy Fuck is a band that relies heavily (and thrives on) improvisation both in the studio and on stage. On any given night, an audience could hear vastly different versions of the songs from Holy Fuck and LP. And despite the band's high level of musicianship, I would imagine that, similar to even the most sagacious comedy group, Holy Fuck could have an off night here and there. It happens, I'm sure. Not on this night, though. The band nailed song after song, adding length and depth with clever flourishes and extended jamming. Borcherdt and Walsh stood hunched over their equipment, bobbing along, pressing buttons and keys, manually manipulating pedals, plugging in wires, aggressively attacking the great spread of musical artillery laid out before them.
The band's enthusiasm was infectious, and they seemed genuinely happy to see the crowd so responsive. And in a move that was damn near unfair in terms of our general health (and let's face it, PBR and whiskey aren't exactly the best workout elixirs), the band, now firing on all cylinders, fully in sync and devastating, ripped through "Frenchy's", "Super Inuit," "Lovely Allen," and an untitled new song, leaving the crowd exhausted but buzzing. Sure, both Holy Fuck and LP are notable for their ability to churn out DIY dance-pop with digestible song lengths, but their live show is another beast altogether. The grooves are still prevalent and intoxicating, yes, but with space for the songs to morph and twist and surge organically, the band had everyone rocking out on an altogether different plane. And this is where that Pentecostal sermon bit comes in: while no one (that I could see) was rolling around on the ground and speaking in tongues, there was a tangible energy purring throughout the room. I thought of the other shows I'd been to recently -- The Thermals, Sunset Rubdown, A Place to Bury Strangers (in that very same room) -- and while those bands stir up their fair share of hysteria, I cannot recall a show where seemingly everyone was slinging and heaving, unpolished and wild-eyed. It was a beautiful racket.
At the turn of the century, dancepunk bands like The Rapture, cowbells and funk bass in tow, unlocked a generation of stiff hipsters, made it safe to dance at shows again. And while Echoes is still a landmark album in its own right, the disco ball had, for the most part, stopped spinning. Holy Fuck, though (yes, based on seeing one performance and a mere handful of songs), has the potential the carry that hip-swinging torch. And really, I see no backlash coming. They seem humble, appreciative of the praise that's been heaped on them recently by the press and the public. Holy Fuck have the charisma and musical talent to be around for a while, and they deserve to be. Though to be honest, a band called "Holy Fuck" probably won't be garnering much mainstream success. And I'm sure they don't give a shit. They're just having a damn good time.
[Photo: James Mejia]
David Shrigley's Worried Noodles
Knitting Factory; New York, NY;
I was expecting an unconventional show. The release concert for David Shrigley's Worried Noodles (Tomlab) had to have some surprises. It couldn’t not have surprises. The CD’s 39 collaborative songs -- which combine lyrics from visual artist David Shrigley’s 2003 book Worried Noodles (The Empty Sleeve) with music from acts like David Byrne, Dirty Projectors, and Liars -- form a remarkably cohesive collection. It seems each band, parents out of town, decided to gorge on the same Shrigley sundaes of childlike observations, eerie portents, and skeleton doodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and this CD is the aftermath.
But I had some questions. For starters: who the hell is this Shrigley guy? And what kind of show starts at "6 PM SHARP"? Sure, to keep the employed away – a good start (or maybe not for the release of a $30 charity comp).
After a brief wait outside the club watching NYC’s first real snow of the year come through the rooftops (I felt obligated to show up on time, out of work after all), I entered to see a man with a guitar on stage just beginning his set. Christopher Francis, blond and unassuming, showcased a strong tenor, but played just three songs since it was a busy night. Shrigley’s lyrics to Francis’ contribution "One" jumped in all the right poetic puddles, and Francis’ deliberate, haunting melody delivered them with a Modern Lovers simplicity and wit.
As the second act of the evening, R. Stevie Moore, a bathrobe-wearing bearded hulk of a singer, planted himself behind a cluttered wall of keyboard and sheet music. His act was mainly riffs on Shrigley lyrics backed by a dinosaur-era psychedelic band. On a particularly inspired note, Moore co-opted Tony Basil’s "Mickey," chanting "Hey, Shrigley, you’re so fine" and christening the mantra of the evening. Moore, somewhere between a busking schizophrenic and a baseball stadium organist, ravaged his keys, his guitar, his voice, the audience. I don't think anyone knew quite what to make.
Next up, Phil Elverum from The Microphones/Mount Eerie (sporting a pair of comfy looking thermal socks) and Nick Krgovich from P:ano/No Kids/To Bad Catholics played both individually and together. Their performance of "Whatcha Doin’," a pop tune with minimalist keyboard over distorted drums, perfectly captured the whimsy of its Shrig-lyrics. Even on the medium-sized main stage, the pair looked like a couple of friends hanging out in a basement as Krgovich charmingly fumbled to change keyboard patches and Elverum played the drum kit with his hands. Though the duo stuttered a little, I was thoroughly entranced, and looking over the silent, rapt audience, I wasn’t the only one.
Islands took the stage as a paired-down two-some (one that immediately seemed to clash with the previous act’s amiable audience rapport by giving a hard time to the woman introducing them). After a short set of new songs plus their comp contribution, Islands debuted "Shrigley-eoke," inviting members of the audience on stage to improvise their own Shrigley tune with Islands backing. Lyrics projected on a screen at the front of the stage made a utilitarian, if not a bit clumsy, karaoke reader. Now, up to this point, the crowd had been near-silent -- but perhaps due to Islands’ natural fanbase, Nick ‘Diamonds’ Thorburn acting like a smug dick, or the inherent freedom and leveling karaoke encourages, things started to change. At the call for volunteers, an extremely vocal minority began to vie for a spot on stage and speak up, completely intelligible in the room’s silence. I guess Nick Diamonds didn’t like their look, but either way, none of the hecklers got picked.
The first singer, a brave female, improvised a pop melody to Shrigley’s "Elaine," followed by a crowd member and R. Stevie Moore (this guy was everywhere) reciting a call-and-response. Idiots yelled things throughout ("boobies," for example, by a charmer who had apparently never seen a woman before), but audience participation gone awry finally reached its peak when a drunk kid with a backpack stumbled on stage and attempted to strike up a conversation inches from the face of a stone-cold Diamonds. The Knitting Factory security... wait, what security? He wandered around on stage for the show’s remaining song. To me, it just seemed like sweet, sweet comeuppance. The moment was saved when a chorus of concertgoers actually interested in singing came up for the finale.
Although the appearance of Shrigley himself was oft-mentioned from the stage, I never did see the man. But I did see David Byrne eating some noodles (appropriately enough). The show cleared into the downstairs for an R. Stevie jam session followed by Tussle and YACHT, but after a couple minutes in the crammed basement, I decided to take off. The previous intimacy of the full main room -- and by the end it was full -- didn’t quite translate to a pleasurable downstairs experience, so after scrounging enough dollars bills for a CD and poster, I booked. As I walked through the snow, trying to pry open the oyster-of-a-CD-case for the hard-bound booklet inside, there was only one thought running through my head: Oh, Shrigley, you're so fine.
Yo La Tengo / Broken Social Scene
Cornell University; Ithaca, NY
Heartburn: I have it tonight, and it's grinding my innards into gut-mulch. Having forgotten my obligatory roll of generic one-pop chewable tablets, I can do little but shuffle over to the drinking fountain every time it feels like the devil shot a load down my throat. My only comfort is that tonight I finally get to witness firsthand the reason people go ‘Coo-coo’ for Broken Social Scene and Yo La Tengo. Clarification: For the record, I didn't go to the show thinking my appreciation for Yo La Tengo would be bolstered by a forehead-slapping revelation. YLT boast strong studio recordings; from my experience you don't normally hear people say Yo La Tengo is one of those bands you have to see live to fully grasp. But that's exactly what occurred, and with that I became much more of an authority on a band I'd never listened to as much as, say, my go-to artists. It also didn't hurt when, a few days later, a co-worker slyly slid his i-Pod my way with instructions to listen to Painful, particularly "Double Dare." Where the F-plus has this album been my whole life?
It's funny, then, that when I first walked into the Cornell auditorium I saw Yo La Tengo from a distance and dismissed them as a local opener. "There's no WAY YLT's opening this show," I thought as red ribbons of slinky noise darted into my ears. "There's no way some wunderkind Canadian outfit could leap-frog one of indie-rock's most seminal bands after three proper albums... is there?"
Is there? Well yes; Yo La Tengo started playing at 7 PM, and as a result, I not only missed the first few minutes of their set but also disregarded them completely for at least five minutes. Once I realized I'd pooh-pooh'd the legendary trio, all I could do was make my way to the stage as if I'd known it was them all along (as opposed to hitting myself in the head and yelling "I'm so STUPID" circa Chris Farley). It didn't take long for Ira Kaplan to render his Jewish Jimi Hendrix persona more accurately than I'd ever imagined. On this particular Shabbos, Kaplan displayed a magical connection to his guitar and bandmates, groping the former like a blind man feeling up a staircase rail and synchronizing with the latter like two tapes on two decks played at the same time on two identical stereo systems. I'm struggling to remember being this Won Over by a live act I already had a healthy respect for... Bahaus reunion? Nah... Robyn Hitchcock's acoustic set @ Bumbershoot ‘04? Negatory. Corey Feldman live at (since burned-down) Ichabod's North in Spokane, Washington? Pfft; looks like we have a winner!
Watching Yo La Tengo is a lot like taking in a Sonic Youth or Stephen Malkmus show because it ALL starts with the bass player, in this case James McNew. If McNew didn't McSlang big ‘n’ tasty bass lines faster than an auctioneer pitching out bid figures, Kaplan wouldn't have the freedom to hunker over his guitar and bend over at the waist, lunging potently as if trying to nestle something -- a tiny kitten? -- between his legs. It was entrancing, abrasive and, above all else, impossible to turn away from. What's more, if you've been paying any attention AT ALL to the progression of underground rock over, say, the last 20 years, Yo La Tengo will reach -- and tickle profusely -- one of your pressure points. As they always have on their multi-tiered albums, YLT Go There; it doesn't matter where There is because the trio covers so much ground, they inevitably stumble upon nearly every genre imaginable. Everyone's happy. I dug the drawn-out, tension-building lessons in restraint (basically Youth's "Rain on Tin," Tengo-fied) and the skin-scratching noise-noise; my wife dug the bouncy, Spoon-y piano-driven ditties with Pop stenciled all over them.
Now that I'm preparing to jump into the Broken Social Scene portion of this review, I direct you to the first sentence of the preceding paragraph -- times 10 -- because BSS are one of the most bass-driven bands I've ever heard outside of hip-hop and dub persuasions. The fact that three guitarists were running around almost seemed immaterial compared to the band's obvious central theme of tub-chubby basslines that flow like a harpoon from start to finish. Kevin Drew also surprised me with his pipes, singing lead on every song and layin' it down loud and proud like Wayne Coyne would if he could actually pull his upper-register studio vocals off in a live setting. As a unit -- a six-man unit minus Feist, Emily Haines and plenty of others, btw -- the technical abilities of the BSS unit could not be called into question.
I can't, however, say the same about the ebb and flow of their setlist, which didn't change a fookin' bit until the last song. I never realized how easily their songs bleed into one another, like an hour-long version of "Stars and Sons" (though they didn't play that numba, far as I could tell), and it took away from the show. Shame is, with a more effectively chosen setlist -- not to mention the full, swollen BSS lineup rather than the Polyphonic Spree-esque 'lite' version -- this could have been a much more explosive set. As impressive as Broken Social Scene were initially, I found myself leaning over to a companion and uttering a phrase I only reserve for the most frigid acts: "I'm ready when you are."
Need I say more?
The Clean / Times New Viking
Cake Shop; New York, NY
Allow me to pull the curtain back on the concert review genre: It is generally not very good. This is often due to a heavy reliance on cultural anthropology (as though going to a show is such an exotic thing) and ends up indulging in yawn-worthy “you had to be there” stories. With that in mind, I tend to try to stick to the music.
But, through no fault of the bands themselves, this show was actually characterized by the makeup of the audience. Because legendary New Zealand post-punkers The Clean rarely perform in the United States, and it’s also rare to see Times New Viking (pictured), Columbus, Ohio’s newest lo-fi sensation, in this neck of the woods, the concert was in high demand. Add the fact that Cake Shop is really nothing but a tiny, oddly-shaped basement with a makeshift stage area, and you’ll start to understand how quickly the RSVP list filled up. As a result, the place was crawling with industry types and music journalists, all of whom (including this reporter) had called in a major favor for the privilege of sweating through their vintage t-shirts in a room with lamentable acoustics.
I squeezed my way to the front, so close to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the vocals properly, and realized I was surrounded with, well… geeks like me. There was a girl taking photos for Pitchfork and a guy from AAM chatting up some other guy who was apparently in a band. One dude, clutching a $3 can of Sparks and looking like he’d already had a few too many, kept pushing to the front to snap Polaroids. There was even a palpable indie-celeb presence — Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo was on hand to cheer on his wife/bandmate Georgia Hubley, who’s also part of Mad Scene, the evening’s opener. The whole thing felt like a CMJ showcase, and I started to hate myself a little bit.
Patience is a virtue, though, and Times New Viking’s set more than made up for the industry clusterfuck. While most of the audience was probably there to see The Clean, TNV put on the most memorable performance of the night, packing several quick, energetic songs into a regrettably short amount of time. This year’s Present the Paisley Reich (Siltbreeze) is the best punk album in recent memory, but there is nothing quite like seeing TNV live.
With only three members and a sparse selection of instruments — a guitar, the world’s tiniest keyboard, and about two and a half drums—the band managed to create a veritable wall of screaming vocals and amplifier noise. TNV’s singer/keyboardist Beth Murphy looked so intense at times I felt I might need to step out the way to keep her searching eyes and anxious vocals from searing through me. The highlights were exuberantly chaotic renditions of “Teenage Lust!” and “Let Your Hair Grow Long,” both from Paisley Reich, but older material blended in nicely. Most exciting of all were glimpses of new songs from the upcoming LP, Rip It Off (Matador). My advice? Start counting the minutes until it comes out, on January 22.
I had to back off from the front lines soon after The Clean’s set began, to get some water and air and to keep myself from passing out. So as far as I could tell, the godfathers of indie were in top form, pounding out their poppy songs with crowd-pleasing verve. Though they certainly haven’t changed much over the years, there’s nothing dated about their sound, which recalls Orange Juice. With a new album in the works, to be released in ‘08, The Clean may be poised for a major comeback.
But to tell the truth, it was kind of hard to pay attention when some girl with bleach-fried hair was bouncing around behind me, screaming to her friends about some party she would be attending later in the evening. “There’s an open bar!” she cried. “I think it’s Josh Hartnett’s birthday party or something!”
I can make fun of it all I want, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same guest list.
[Photo: Sean Ruch]
APO 33; Nantes, France
This is the second time I have seen Anthony Pateras in Nantes, and for the second time, he has put on one of my favorite shows of the year. Pateras, near the end of a month-long tour of Europe, stopped in to play prepared piano for the latest in the ongoing series of CABLE# experimental music nights, which have also hosted such respected improvisers as Britain’s Keith Rowe and Australia’s Oren Ambarchi. On this night, Pateras proved again that he’s more than capable of standing alongside those contemporaries.
What’s wild is how Pateras takes such raw physical tools (bolts, screws, washers, and metal cords) to transform the piano into a richer, acoustic cousin of a crummy Casio keyboard -- every key has its own voicing, but instead of cheesy MIDI presets, his piano plays from one key to the next like marimba / bucket / live wire / icicle / D flat / buzz / buzz / tinkle / tok! It’s not a piano anymore — it’s 88 detuned voicings chattering over each other in a bubbling, percussive discourse. The colors and timbres he elicits goad the imagination: you hear a swarm of lead-footed ants marching on ice; an archaic telegraph system discovered inside an African hut; the junkyard lullaby that an infant Tom Waits fell asleep to in his crib -- there’s something ludic, starry, and wonderfully broken about this music.
Tonality and technique are important, but a performance requires more than gear and chops -- it’s got to have drama, and Pateras builds loads of it into each piece through a studied and furious abuse of the instrument. He’s great fun to watch: the two hands play on top of each other, pinkies and thumbs darting out to stab notes in distant registers. He often throws his elbows and palms deep into the keys, all while swaying back and forth to hidden rhythms. The piano may be prepared, but it’s impossible for the audience to be -- his fingers scramble over notes in the higher keys before suddenly punching a resonant cluster of low ones, or he builds up a drone at once frothy and undulating right in the middle of the keyboard before breaking into a stuttering series of pauses and bursts that leap from one end to the other, leaving you on the edge of your seat and guessing (wrong every time).
From what I can tell, these dramatic turns are the hallmarks of any Pateras gig. This one was extra special, thanks to the intimate setting (a room that held about 30 people) and the staging: his bench was planted on a large carpet of bright green felt, and a mirror slanted from behind the piano over the top of his head so that from the back of the room, even though his back was to the audience, I could watch his hands sprint and grapple for the entire performance. In the mirror, all that was visible were those hands on the keys, the top of his head, and the green carpet. It was as if he were on a Hollywood green screen, open to virtual transportation anywhere -- Pateras in space! Pateras in the jungle! Pateras in a high-speed car chase!
The great luck of the night, though, was that Pateras was right there, in that room, shredding. Go see him if you get the chance.
University of Iowa Main Lounge; Iowa City, IA
It’s coming up on two years since the last time I saw Bright Eyes in concert, the former being a phenomenal experience at Worcester’s Palladium. That cathartic set featured a multitude of players and dug deep into the back catalogue. In the wake of this year’s modest Cassadaga, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect this time around. Would the set be heavy on the new tunes? If so, would it suck, or would those songs take on a new life in a live setting? Bright Eyes’ recent show at the University of Iowa’s Main Lounge politely sat somewhere in the middle.
The Sunday evening show began with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales,” signaling that he would at least halfheartedly refer to his pre-I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning era. The older track hardly set the tone for the evening, and while the student-dominated audience didn’t seem to recognize it, it was one of the finer songs of the evening. From the beginning of the show, it was obvious that the sound at the Main Lounge is inexcusably horrendous. This large, carpeted room is clearly not meant to host concerts. The acoustics are brutal, and the venue doesn't frequently host gigs. It didn’t help a performance that bristled with energy at times (“Another Traveling Song”) and likewise fell flat on certain songs (encore opener “Bowl of Oranges”).
Unlike a typical Bright Eyes experience, the performance consisted of the same five members throughout, including Mike Mogis and Nate Wolcott. It felt much more like a band than a collective, as opposed to last time when they began with a harpist and consistently featured dual drum sets. They strayed from anything overly dramatic. Even the normally purgative “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” lacked its traditional bite.
The biggest uproar was for Cassadaga’s lead single, “Four Winds,” which sounds uncannily like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It isn’t a bad song, but the reaction confirmed my suspicions: These folks clearly did not have a lengthy history with Bright Eyes. There was no uproar for “Method Acting.” Perhaps the anemic crowd could be blamed on the Sunday night show, but with no singing and very little swaying, it seemed that they just didn’t understand. In his defense, Oberst didn’t give in. He toted out the piano for a magnificent run through “Spring Cleaning,” off his split with Neva Dinova. Probably the most esoteric song of his set, it was also the best glimpse into the Bright Eyes of old.
No longer his reticent self, Mr. Oberst frequently talked to the crowd, asking how everyone was doing and lamenting the current political landscape and the war in Iraq. It was disorienting to see a highly interactive, almost (but not entirely) bubbly Oberst, but not because it was unexpected. After all, it would be unfair to expect him to be the nervous performer he once was now at the age of 27 and with several major tours under his belt. Instead, it was that he seemed forced in his mannerisms, as though he knew he was supposed to be the affable frontman now but had to struggle to make that a reality.
In fact, the whole concert felt like we were watching an artist at a crossroads, unsure of how to deal with both his own fame and his audience. Whether or not he truly wanted to play all of those songs was likewise mystifying. He seemed most at home in the final song, an unnamed, unrecognized tune that sounded more Desaparecidos than Bright Eyes. On this, he passionately yelped and furiously played, emphatically punctuating the performance by kicking all of his half-full booze cups from the top of his amp in a tremendous spray. When the final notes of his encore had rung out through the dull concert hall, I left thinking less about the performance I had just seen and wondering more where he would be heading next.