Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
The Blue Note; Columbia, MO

[02-04-2008]

When bandmates Reuben Koroma and Francis Lamgba of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars first began creating music, it was not so much for the sake of art or love of music as it was a way to remove themselves from reality. They, along with thousands of others, had been thrust from their homes following an attack by rebel forces on the capital city of Sierra Leone. This massive exodus of people left their homeland, finding only fleeting refuge in the unkind refugee camps of Guinea, West Africa.

And now, after years of suffering, the group of musicians tours the world as Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, spreading their reggae/afro-beat-influenced music wrought with messages of hope and peace. In this context, it was quite amazing to see them smile so broadly as they took the stage.

The group filtered onto the Blue Note's stage, most of them wearing green cloth suits with horizontal white stripes featuring darkened silhouettes of birds in white circles. Reuben M. Koroma, the lead singer and bandleader, was dressed in a loose white robe with sequins that sparkled beneath the changing colors of the overhead lights.

As they took up their instruments, reggae began immediately pouring from the speakers, the heavy tones of the bass and the upbeat strumming of the rhythm guitar covering the hall in a flood of sound. As I looked down at the audience from above, it became clear that most everyone could feel the music rattling in their bones. Although there were certainly exceptions to this rule in the early part of the show (some of the indie kids seemed to be rather puzzled as to whether they should be dancing or not), eventually the audience became one unified, swaying movement. But as the show progressed, an increasing amount of people began to connect with the music on an individualistic level and even imitated the high-step dancing onstage.

The hope-filled music continued through the evening, taking form in infectious chants such as, "We will not cry/ We will not cry"; though, the truly significant aspect of the evening was undoubtedly the musicians on stage. Even from above, I could tell that their faces, albeit noticeably weathered and worn, were stretched wide in gleaming smiles. Numerous times, Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara ("Black Nature"), a percussionist, came to the front of the stage, took the microphone, and, in a voice raspier than anything I've ever heard, began rapping. Once he had finished his vocals, he leapt across the stage with his feet kicking high into the air, dancing with his entire body. The rest of the night followed suit, with nearly all of the band members taking their turn to dance at the front of the stage.

The only issue that I had with the concert was the venue in which it was held. When the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars came to Columbia this past fall for a community festival, they were on an outside stage and had an almost preternatural effect on the entire body of the audience. While the Blue Note show as a whole was certainly a memorable one, the cramped space of an indoor venue seems to confine the personality and music of this group, which is much better suited to the borderless outdoors. Nonetheless, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars are a captivating live act, and you'd do good to check them out for yourself.

Photo: [Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars]

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

[03-08-2008]

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

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

A FRIEND: Jonathan Richman? Who’s that?

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

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

Then I try Plan B...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noise Pop 2008
;

[]

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

...

{BEAT BEAT WHISPER}

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

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

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

...

{QUASI}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

{THE DODOS}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...

{TOO TIRED.}

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

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

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

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

...

{THE MOUNTAIN GOATS}

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoping you don't break my stereo

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

So I think about that,

And then I sort of black out.

Held under these smothering waves

By your strong and thick-veined hand

But one of these days

I’m gonna wriggle up on my land.

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

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

[Photos: Akmal Naim; 4AD]

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

[02-13-2008]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[01-25-2008]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]

  

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