A Place to Bury Strangers
The Middle East; Cambridge, MA
The Middle East upstairs was packed wall-to-wall when I arrived. I tucked myself into a corner, facing the stage on the left. Overhearing clips of conversation from the crowd, it was fairly clear that, although Austin, TX-based psych-rockers Black Angels shared the bill, most folks tonight were there to see A Place to Bury Strangers. A palpable buzz was purring through the audience in light of the fact that APTBS has seemingly come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves with devastating live shows. Indeed, their CMJ set at Loisaida was shut down by police after just a handful of songs due to noise complaints. This show was the one time I even considered corking my ears in fear of APTBS' ear-damaging reputation.
The thing that sets APTBS apart from other brutally loud bands, though, is their tunefulness. Underneath all the chaos and noise lies the band's incredible ability to churn out beautiful squalor. They are fulminating, yes, but for every ultra-loud band comparison, one has to be made in recognition of the band's knack for writing gorgeous, melodic songs. It is that sense of balance that makes APTBS so interesting and, based on the night's turnout in Cambridge, popular.
After a few minutes of standing around, the band, led by guitarist/vocalist Oliver Ackermann and flanked by bassist Jono MOFO and drummer JSpace, came out to scattered applause. Ackermann, who runs Death by Audio, a company founded upon the design of ear-shredding effects pedals, began unloading what appeared to be about a dozen of his company's creations and began plugging them into various amps around the stage. With all the pedals and wiring littering the front of the stage, a few people, including Jono MOFO, looked a little concerned when the husky bass player spilled his beer toward the entanglement of electronic equipment.
Without a word, the band launched into the first half of their set, which included "She Dies," "My Weakness," and the violent "To Fix the Gash in Your Head." APTBS take care of the business at hand (that is, playing songs) without extraneous talking or engaging the audience between songs. It was amazing how different the band sounded compared to their considerably less assailing album. Live, they were storming, an absolute onslaught. APTBS is a live band through and through, and what's more is the fact that Ackermann made it immediately clear that his vocals were not an integral part of the show. Unlike the album, where his voice is a prevalent part of the mix, his voice barely rose above a low grumble, like a protest buried under a wall of sound, as he focused his efforts on manipulating the sound of his guitar. Ackermann is actually quite the showman. When not singing, he careened across stage, often leaning and bending dramatically as his amp spit hellfire and white noise.
The second half the performance, about 20-25 minutes long, was a decidedly different affair from the first. Here, the show became one extended opus, as the band flowed from one song to another, never stopping, and included an Ackermann guitar swap. (It was difficult to tell, but I think I heard "The Falling Sun," "Another Step Away," and an extended "Ocean" in there.) I was floored by the constant beauty of the twists and turns, as well as their sheer ability to keep up the torrid pace. At times, it seemed as if Ackermann wasn't playing many notes, letting his various pedals do the work, sound churning over itself again and again. MOFO and JSpace, though, skillfully kept up the frenetic pace, providing a brutal rhythm section that grounded Ackermann's swirling guitar.
The show ended as suddenly as it began, but this time with Ackermann mumbling a closing remark as the band shuffled off, no doubt exhausted. The space was buzzing. My friend and I were close to the exit, and we hurried through the Middle East's adjoining restaurant and out into the cold. For about five minutes, neither of us could hear anything -- the ringing in our ears was literally deafening. A thought, one I expressed internally because I couldn't fucking hear myself talk, came to mind: A Place to Bury Strangers is gonna fuck up their hearing pretty damn quickly as they continue to straddle the line between loud, melodic rock, and blistering noise manipulation. And I think they're fine with that.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Verizon Center; Washington, DC
In 1984, I sat in the nosebleed section of the now-demolished JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, shivering in the rain, waiting for the show to begin. It was to be one of the biggest concerts of the year and my first show ever. The one thing that bothered me is that my mother wouldn't let me buy a red leather jacket and sequined glove. No matter -- I was about to witness Michael Jackson and his five brothers on the Victory tour.
Michael Jackson wasn't the only big act that year. Bruce Springsteen released a little record called Born in the USA. In the United States alone, the album sold 15 million copies, produced seven singles, and catapulted not only the Boss to mega-stardom, but Courtney Cox as well.
Flash forward 23 years and look at the career trajectories of Springsteen and Jackson. Springsteen has just produced the moderately successful Magic, his third album in the last three years. Jackson is hiding behind a veil and skirting bankruptcy, and he hasn't made a record since the poorly received Invincible in 2001. What is it about Springsteen that has allowed him to maintain a modicum of integrity these past two decades while being so popular?
Getting into the concert was a major clusterfuck. A few lucky thousand fans scored general admission tickets, which earned them a chance to get a spot up front. Arriving early at the stadium, we all received numbered armbands and were told to line up sequentially at five. Can you imagine 1,000 people -- some drunk, some handicapped, some just plain stupid -- trying to figure that out on their own? Finally, someone called 821, and the 200 fans behind that number got into the pit. I had number 559. It was 5:15 PM. I decided to get out of line and get a salad.
We finally staked out spot on the floor around 6:45 PM. Almost two hours passed before the Boss took the stage. I am tall, and I could see. My friends could not. One guy stepped in front of us, a middle-aged guy with a scarred face, and after my friend asked him to move, he curtly responded, "In a civil society, maybe. This is a mosh pit." A mosh pit? What did Scarface know that we didn't? Judging by the fat, balding, suited hordes waiting for their hero to arrive, the only moshing that would go on was if one decided to have a heart attack during the show.
The Boss and his Band finally took the stage amid gasps of excitement (“There's Bruce!” “There's Silvio!” “There's the guy from Conan!”) and tore into "Radio Nowhere," the first single from Magic. While the album has received decent reviews, the common complaint is that the music suffers from Brendan O'Brien's vapid production. This guy has produced Papa Roach, Limp Bizkit, and Train (among others). What the fuck, Bruce? But stripped of that flat production, the song really took flight. Bruce had the audience from the first chord.
What is most amazing about a Springsteen show is the font of energy from which this guy draws his power. He's 58 years old, yet the amount of vigor he put into the show was astounding. He jumped around; he screamed; he spit water into the air. Bruce Springsteen was on fire.
While the Boss played most of the songs off the new album, it was the more obscure, older tracks that most intrigued a fan like me. "The Ties That Bind" and "Jackson Cage," both from The River, positively killed, and hits like "The Promised Land" and first set-closer "Badlands" still sounded fresh. Springsteen even made a few political swipes at our dear Commander-in-Chief, and while there is no doubt a good chunk of the crowd were lobbyists, GOP aides, and Log Cabin Republicans, no one could boo loud enough over the cheering of "Bruuuuuuuce" to make a difference.
Now, tickets to this show were not cheap. We're talking $100. I could have seen 10 shows at The Black Cat for the price of this one. But the encore was worth the admission alone. I had hoped to hear "Thunder Road," a song that inspires memories of college and the feelings of getting into a car and running off with a girl, and when the piano kicked in, all those feelings swirled back.
Though I've heard "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark" a million times before, nothing prepared me for the emotional impact of the one-two punch these songs would have. All the house lights went on, and I could see the entire arena, filled with people dancing and singing and smiling as Springsteen dove into these two hits. Call me a sap, but it amazed me that something simple like a song could make so many people happy. This is why Bruce is still popular. Though he doesn't have the edge of all our favorite indie bands, he can touch a special place, a little part of Jersey in all of us. It felt good to be part of it.
The show finished with a Pogues-sounding number called "American Land," and as we retreated to the back of the floor, I still found myself smiling. If I had just seen a Michael Jackson show, I knew that smile would be one full of irony. Not this time.
[Photo: Mike Kurman (bonobaltimore)]
Mount Eerie / WOELV / FLYING
Lutheran Church of the Messiah; Brooklyn, NY
I'm about to breeze right past the venue (read: church in Brooklyn) when a skinny kid in a scarf waves toward the door and says, "It's in here." For a brief moment I wonder if it's THAT obvious that I'm headed to a Mount Eerie show, specifically... and then I notice that everyone else on the street happens to be an old, slightly drunk Polish man. Ahh, Greenpoint.
I pay my $8 (thank Todd P for the nice price) and take a place on the floor among kids in sweaters, sipping from bottles of Jack Daniels and 24-ounce cans. And yet, the mood of the place is somewhat reverent, as everyone's eyes are trained on the three-piece on stage. FLYING's lead singer reminds me a little of Phil Ochs in tone, and it's pretty easy to zone out to the plaintive, sweet blend of three voices. A keyboard, drums, and tambourine round this trio out quite nicely, though the keyboard begins to border on the sound of a televangelist's organ. Whether this is appropriate or disturbing for the times, I have yet to decide. Finishing with a song featuring a series of yelps, FLYING end their set, and the crowd's second beer run is under way.
Todd P himself hops up on the main stage and asks us all to respect our neighbors and BYOB, which I find particularly refreshing, because we all know dude could have made some cash on alcohol sales at any show in Brooklyn. Elverum's wife, GeneviÃ¨ve Castrée, who performs as WOELV, takes the stage next. Armed only with a guitar, some effects pedals, and a pixie haircut, she proceeds to lull us into a state of sleepy appreciation with her French-Canadian harmonies, recorded one by one and criss-crossed with the help of a repeater pedal. It proves to be a bit much for the kids sitting on the floor with their drinks, though, and I can feel the crowd's interest waning as the set draws to a close. Still, if you're looking for something to listen to as the snow comes, WOELV would be an excellent choice.
There is some debate as to whether one should sit or stand as Phil Elverum wanders onstage, but the floor-dwellers have it, and we settle in for the Mount Eerie show. Glancing back at the movie screen behind him and watching some of the projected videos as if he's seeing them for the first time, Elverum turns back to us and says, "Okay. I'm gonna start the Mount Eerie show right... NOW." In every recording I've heard of The Microphones or Mount Eerie, the guitar inevitably draws a rumble of protest from the amps, and I'm beginning to think he likes it that way. He begins with "Log in the Waves" a track found on the 2004's live three-vinyl release Live in Copenhagen, and the task of nailing each track to a particular release becomes futile, as Elverum often acts as if The Microphones and Mount Eerie are one and the same. He barely pauses as the end of the song blurs with "Say 'Goodbye' and 'No,'" another track from the same release (or so we're led to believe).
Having never experienced this much of Phil Elverum at once, I begin to see what he is fond of, noting mention after mention of being haunted by ghosts (usually of the female persuasion), mountains, cracks in said mountains, freezing; rocks. He occasionally turns to peer at his video screen and snickers to himself, as if he had been in a rather silly mood when compiling the short clips that cycle throughout the set. We later find out that it's somewhat of an awkward sales pitch, as he offhandedly suggests we buy his new 10-inch/photography book, entitled Mount Eerie Pts. 6 & 7: "Christmas is coming up. Get one for your aunt." But the highlight of the show comes a bit earlier, as he leads the now slightly stupefied crowd in a sing-along of "I Love You So Much!" found on the 2004 Microphones release Live In Japan. Urging us to sing louder, he twists the lyrics to tease, asking "What do I love?" and answering himself tauntingly, "You don't know, do you?"
Amid groans, Elverum announces his last two songs, reminding us, "I've been playing for 39 minutes... that's a LONG time... and you guys need to have time to buy my excellent merch." I realize I paint Elverum as somewhat of a ruthless DIY salesman, but a slight lilt to his voice might as well be a wink with his words.
"You have to read my mind and sing along with me," he warns. “Log on to my brain. I'm completely open. No password or anything. When you pull down the AirPort thing, it's 'Mount Eerie Concert555." And somehow, as we slouch and smile through a chillingly fitting rendition of "Where?", it works. Everyone gets home just fine, though I suspect only one of us will be returning to Mount Eerie tonight, because these lyrics aren't nearly as helpful outside that hallowed church hall.
Mount Eerie - "Where?"
Magik Markers / Grouper / Ed Diamante + Goatgirl
The Hemlock Tavern; San Francisco, CA
I must warn you. It is my belief, shaped after much discussion amongst my colleagues, that Thurston Moore has the touch. If ever a man in the underground could make something out of not much, it would be Moore. Through his label, Ecstatic Peace, Moore is actively cultivating the careers of a horde of musicians who seem to benefit mightily from the association. Take the transients Magik Markers. Magik Markers have entered their proto-famous stage, and they owe their fame in no small degree to the promotional prowess of Moore and his imprint. The legend of their early live shows provides an equally important boost of chatter that has helped elevate the group’s hype to a status that, in the eyes of many hard-working bands and jaded cynics, is way overstated and undeserved. I wasn’t quite sure if all the haters weren’t being too hard on the band. When in doubt, go to a live show.
When I mentioned to Mr P that I would be surfing on the East Bay’s finest warehouse couch for a few weeks in October, he suggested the Markers show at the Hemlock as a potential venue for review. I gladly accepted the opportunity. Magik Markers are at a curious turn in their career, which is evidenced by the latest album, Boss, which sees the band’s old school aesthetic of post-hardcore No Wave nods being eclipsed by songwriting. Curious evolution, perhaps, but then again, maybe Elisa Ambrogio (vox, guitar) got tired of spitting on the crowd. Of course, Leah Quimby (bass) left the band amid rumors that she hated the scene, and for some of us (myself included), she provided a hefty core to the scattered and loose histrionics that characterized the early gigs. To lose her was in many ways to lose the core of the Markers’ sound. For a primer on early Markers vibe, find some of the old videos on the Ecstatic Peace website and watch the chaos as it ensued. Or find some live CDR from a Markers tour with a little banter at the beginning of a set where Elisa apologizes for punching someone in Boston the night before.
And of course, it often goes unmentioned, but I think a lot of the Markers fans (especially those with penises) have a crush on Elisa. The idea of a cute female lead punching an audience member is definitely enough to move a noise rock dude’s cue stick around the pocket pool table. A lead singer inspiring minor-league crushes always helps sell some tickets.
I came to the Hemlock with heightened curiosity. I hadn’t heard the new album, but I had read the reviews and was surprised to see that as the band turned to a more structured and pleasant framework, the reviewers were eating it up. I wanted to see where the band was moving. The last time I had seen the Markers, they were but a duo, and I was unimpressed, or rather, disappointed that there wasn’t more violence or chaos. Pete Nolan’s drumming seemed to have tightened up a bit, but Elisa was just madly mashing pedals and strumming her guitar without touching the fretboard at all. That total lack of virtuosity was pissing off a lot of my musician friends who were practicing arpeggios late into the night, sacrificing their social life in a quest to really play some rock music. I heard repeated statements after seeing a Markers set in ‘06 that went along the lines of “anyone can do that.”
The Markers, it would seem, were (at least early on) relying entirely on a disrespectful vibe and improvised destruction to excite the listeners and viewers. Now that they were going more legit (ostensibly), I figured it was worth checking out, if for no other reason that it was becoming such a big-ass force.
My hosts for the evening, being that I was an out-of-towner with no expectation, made no small effort to advise me that The Hemlock is a place with a strange vibe, a place they detested for shows. Despite the warning, I remained open-minded as we sidled up to the entrance. The guy at the front checked my ID but didn’t take my cover, a curious sign. After stepping through the door, I was immediately sandwiched between bodies and, for the rest of the evening, found it nigh impossible to reach all of the key transit corridors within the venue.
See, The Hemlock has a curious layout whereby the bar, which has a semen-soaked meat market feel, is totally segregated from the venue, which is tiny and shoebox-shaped with nowhere to sit. You can’t sit at the bar and watch the band. To see the show, you pay cover to the second guy, who sits near the small doorway that leads into the music room. Thus, there is no connection between the majority of the bar crowd and the folks crammed into the actual venue room beyond their patronage of The Hemlock and a near-universal appreciation for beer. It makes for a bizarre separation, and frankly, I did not like the feel of the bar area, with its crowded elbow-crashing and claustrophobic bathroom lines. I wasn’t used to seeing so many big dudes in pleated khakis at noise rock shows.
On the flip side, the music room itself was so small and closed off that there was hardly any room to breathe, move, or see the band, unless you crept to the back and stood on a bench. The band was up on a two-foot riser, so audience interaction with the group was prevented. At least most other small rooms put the band right in your face.
When I arrived at The Hemlock, I was later than expected because pizza took priority; my belly prevented me from arriving on time. Through a drawn curtain from the sidewalk external, I glimpsed the opening band but missed the boat. It looked promising, though, at least based on the belly dancing lady. However, by the time I squirreled my way through the beer line and made it past the second door dude, nothing was happening.
After a bit, Grouper took the stage, and I was completely underwhelmed. I recognize the potentially pleasing nature of her music, which would have been nice on a hungover morning on the Cape Ann peninsula with a bloody mary and no desire to move around. However, crammed into the tiny Hemlock boxcar, the flaccid and oceanic vocal lament did nothing for me, so I retreated to the frat room and smoked cigarettes, biding my time by mentally devising innovative ways to exit the venue should a chaotic explosion make escape necessary. I was bored.
After all that was done, I re-entered the place and watched the Markers take the stage. I had heard a rumor (so much gossip about this band) that Ben Chasny and Elisa were ‘dating.’ He had played with them on some other tours, and Ambrogio, Chasny, and Brian Sullivan all just released a less-than-stellar album together. So it was no surprise to see him setting up. At least one of the guitar players that night would be showing off some virtuosity. I’m not sure who the fourth member of the band was, but from what my buddy told me, it’s Pete Nolan’s girlfriend. If all that tabloid-style info was correct, then we had a couple’s band on stage. Weirdness abounds.
The set began with little aplomb. A pseudo-tribalistic build-up transferred into a crooning low volume ballad, with little sonic bursts here and there. Not much hardcore influence peeked through. Instead, the Markers were approaching some kind of Neil Young derivative, with Chasny doing some respectable work on the low-end and Elisa picking out some primitive rhythm guitar and the occasional turtle-speed guitar solo twang. I heard what I thought were Pink Floyd-paced tarmac jams, the kind of thing I like to think airport employees listen to beneath their ear protection. Your AM radio playing a free-form structure from Piper at the Gates of Dawn could approximate the feel. The whole affair stunk of purpose and plans, and I was pretty sure that they were doing something they had rehearsed.
Little sounds here and there caught my attention, like at one point where I was struck by an unidentifiable noise (possibly synth-derived) that was just a little bit more than trippy washes, like plant dew dropping in purple. After that one ended, a break in the band’s volume was met with a shout from the crowd – a request for “Body Rot,” which I am told has the best hook on Boss. That small ignorable moment stood out in my mind, an illustration, if you will, for it showed that the Markers definitely have some fans who are paying Close Attention. The Ecstatic Peace promo machine will have Magik Markers well-positioned, should a couple of rungs on the music world ladder open up for advancement. They have a legitimate buzz and some now-legendary early work to interest new fans, and of course the good looks to inspire celebrity crushes. Teen Beat is waiting.
By the third jam, the tempo picked up a bit and evolved into a garage beat and some surf-town, cop-evading rock vibes. Predictions spewed forth in my estimations of their intent as I studied the song structures, and I fully expected this to break out into some kind of dark pop-rock circuit of Radiohead covers. Elisa has clearly learned more about the guitar in the past few years, and now the Markers seem to be more of a vehicle for her and Pete to collaborate on songs based on her poems. The act is moving beyond an homage to the violent, feminine crowd bashing late-‘70s work of Lydia Lunch that characterized their earlier work, which I must admit totally rocked my world in 2005. I was once totally stunned by the concept but am becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their attempts at maturity. Having Ben Chasny along for the ride certainly adds buttloads of depth to the mélange, but if I want Chasny, I’ll get some Six Organs or Comets. The Markers are in between stages, and their adolescence (mid-life crisis?) is attracting a lot of attention. I’d just as soon wait a few years to see how well they are able to flesh out their new sound. There are other bands to be checking out in the meantime.
Midway through the third jam, my buddies (and ride to the show) were fully disgusted, worn, and tired of the whole parade, and announced it was time to leave. I didn’t get to see the resolution of the Pink Floyd thing (or the other two songs promised) or find out if bottles still get broken at Magik Markers shows. I was disappointed because Magik Markers seem to be concentrating on acting like a ‘real’ band that plays songs that they wrote and thought about, something I never really thought that they were equipped to do. Instead, I had them pegged three years ago as a band under a microscope that would always be plowing the underground with sneers and middle fingers, looking for another dark room to vomit on.
Ultimately, the post-show philosophizing on topics of metaphysical import left more of an imprint on my brain that the Markers show, except for a prime lesson – The Hemlock is a crappy venue and a horrible place to posture yourself amidst psych-rock hopefuls and hype eaters. Why would any self-respecting band put their fans through that kind of torture when there are hundreds of much more enjoyable venues to play in the glorious Bay Area? Could it be $$? Sorry, and for the fans who are saddened to hear such a jaded and cynical appraisal of The Hemlock affair, you need not aim your vitriol any further than my e-mail inbox.
Captured! By Robots
The Annex; New York, NY
What do you get when a super nerd builds his own band? Captured! By Robots.
I didn’t know it was possible to have a one-man band if there were up to nine other “people” playing instruments. Captured! By Robots is Jay Vance, or J-Bot, with the best backup band a person who built the band could have. J-Bot definitely has DIY ethics; the band was constructed when he realized he couldn't stand playing with other real people. Each machine has a specific purpose: there is GTRBOT666 that plays a double necked flying-V guitar/bass, DRMBOT 0110 that plays drums, and the headless horn section that... well this could get tedious.
The story as I understand it is that J-Bot was captured by robots and forced to wear chains and perform with them on a nightly basis. The whole system is wired together and uses air hoses to make the looming machines move. Controls were built into each robot to make it talk through a switchboard on Jay’s guitar. As each of them talk, the eyes glow and move their mouths, as a creepy, mechanical voice argues with J-Bot.
As the band was being set up on this night of its 2007 “Dubya” Fall Tour, the crowd was welcomed by Neil Diamond's "Coming to America" as well as "America, Fuck Yeah" from Team America: World Police. It was only halfway through the show before I realized it was a rock opera about the Bush administration. Every robot was equipped with a new identity: Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Wolf Blitzer, Nancy Pelosi, Saddam Hussein, the Presidential Hopeful Horn Section, and J-Bot as George W. Bush. Nothing gets me going like a good night of poorly done political satire created by kick-ass robots. Banter between J-Bot and the robots consisted of Cheney wanting to shoot someone in the face and Rice professing her love for Bush. These were cute jokes when they were topical, but it is a little tired now, and the hit-you-over-the-head satire was a little much.
Remarkably, however, the band members aren’t just for show; they play the instruments they were built with. Although they are all machines, each song breathes life into the objects, and they become just as animated as their only living member. Nothing stands still throughout the entire performance. Even when not actually playing a part, the horn section sways back and forth in an erratic fashion, leaning back with each horn blast.
The show featured a mix of everything from thrash-metal to dub reggae, and, admittedly, it is hard not to be enthralled by a guy in chains playing hard rock with a pneumatic band. Songs held together as J-Bot put down his guitar at times, jumped off the stage, and ran into the crowd while the band continued to pulsate. At the end of the show, the crowd pushed forward to try and shake hands with the mechanical instruments.
Despite the flaws of the 2007 “Dubya” tour, I would recommend people see CBR; it is a truly unique experience. This band could easily be written off as a novelty act, but they held my attention from the moment they became alive. The only novelty that should be written off is the annoying rock-against-Bush theme, as no matter what, we have to live with him until January 2009 -- or until he is Captured! By Robots.
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The Thermals / History / Reporter
The Black Cat; Washington, DC
Maybe the guy holding the bloody rag to his head outside the club would portend the other events of the evening. This would be my third Thermals show of the year (one in Portland, Oregon and once before at the Black Cat), and even though the previous performance had been sold-out, none of the crowds reflected the fire and anger The Thermals detonated on their newest album The Body, The Blood, The Machine.
This time the club seemed empty. The Black Cat is a dive-bar with bad sightlines and a stage that is elevated a few feet off the ground. If you stand below six feet tall and you are not right up front, you’re screwed. There is also the “lounge” in the rear of the room replete with musty couches, cigarette-singed tables, and some withered chairs. It’s a good place to wait and have a drink while hapless opening bands drone on and on.
At least the place has character: low ceilings and cramped bathrooms. All that is missing is the obligatory haze of cigarette smoke that has gone the way of the Beta cassette since DC banned smoking indoors. We walk right up to the front.
The Thermals took the stage some time after 11 PM. Billed as a threesome -- Hutch Harris on vocals and guitar, Kathy Foster playing bass, and Lorin Coleman hitting the drums -- The Thermals had carried another guitarist the last two times I saw them. This time they came on as three. Where was the fourth guy? Two weeks eclipsed between my first shows in the winter, and during the second one, the guy had done something to his leg; he wore a big cast and had to sit on a stool. Maybe he just evaporated. No Spinal Tap jokes, please.
The roughly one-hour set favored tracks from Body. In fact, they played the entire album, peppered with songs from More Parts Per Million and Fuckin A such as “No Culture Icons” and “How We Know.” Harris leaped and yelped about the stage, neck strained, veins rough cords, like a Billie Joe Armstrong before he discovered the spread-legged Rock God stance. Foster kept up on the bass, her curls bobbing and eyes rolled up.
But how did it sound? The first few songs were bass-heavy, making it hard to hear Harris’ vocals. The tempo of a lot of the songs had been sped up. There was very little stage banter (and after hearing Kevin Barnes’ banal nonsense a few weeks before, this reviewer is glad) and the band ripped through a lithe set in what seemed to be no time. Songs such as “Back to the Sea” took on a new life, the droning structure gaining urgency not found on the album. The Thermals poured energy into each and every song, including highlights like “An Ear For Baby” and the first set-closer “A Pillar of Salt.”
On their newest record, The Thermals incorporated a lyrical bias against church hypocrisy that added a potent message unheard in previous songs. But this significance seemed lost on an audience that stood stone-cold in the half-filled room (except the four or five teenagers that tried to scrabble to the front for most of the show). As Harris tore through tirades against natural disasters, the price of oil, and Nazis, most stood impassively and sipped their Yuenglings. If lyrics such as “Our power doesn’t run on nothing/ It runs on blood/ And blood is easy to attain” or “They can tell what to read/ They can tell me what to eat/ They can feed me and send me the bill/ But they tell me what to feel?!/ I might need you to kill” don’t get you pumping your fist and angry, what does? Harris must have wanted to let the lyrics speak for themselves rather than pontificate. At one point, he told the crowd, “DC! You speak my language!” I wonder what the hell language was he talking about.
The Thermals returned for a brief encore comprising of a Built to Spill cover (“Big Dipper”) and their light, rollicking theme song “Everything Thermals.” At the end of the set, Harris promised to see the crowd “next year.” The place cleared out pretty fast after that. The bloodied guy decided not to stick around, either.
[Photo: Tom Oliver]
Man Man / The Extraordinaires / Men of Gentle Birth
The Union; Athens, OH
The pungent odor of beer and stagnant body odor permeates the air. The sound of clanging fire extinguishers, pots, pans and a variety of other miscellany reverberates from the stage and into the teeming, writhing crowd. The Union in Athens, Ohio is not the typical locale for the moderately visible band to play. An act of significant import usually plays the sterile, boxy stage at the Ohio University Baker Student Center. However, tonight, Man Man crowds its motley crew of white uniform-clad musicians onto a meager stage at a dive bar in a podunk college town in the middle of nowhere.
The anticipation before the show was palpable. Two opening acts got the night off and running: Athens' own cerebral indie-pop outfit, Men of Gentle Birth, as well as South Philly's the Extraordinaires, who describe their sound on their website by conjuring up images of Shaq slam dunking a b-ball. Both bands seemed a likely introduction to Man Man's general inexplicability, especially the Extraordinares with their bizarre onstage personas and affinity for animal- inspired toggery. Early in the night, rumors were flying about that the show's nearly hour long delay was caused by the boys of Men of Gentle Birth and their inability to finish their dinner on time. Whether or not that was the case, their dilly-dallying resulted in a very short opening set.
The Extraordinares, on the other hand, played a sprawling set including, among other things, carnival-esque folk ballads and a lackluster cover of "Maneater." The guitar-driven band often shouted at the crowd, spewing somewhat indistinguishable melodies. While their set was entertaining enough, it seemed to drag on, yielding one jangly tune after another.
Man Man descended upon the stage in a rather whimsical fashion, donning embellished hats and wielding bedazzled dream catchers in hand. War paint coated their faces. They sported their traditional costume of white t-shirts and trousers. In interviews, Man Man's members often regard this clothing staple as a way in which to pull the emphasis back to the music and performance element of the show. Indeed, this seemed to be the thematic idea of the night, seeing that the band didn't stop once to casually converse with the audience or take a break between songs. The irreverent energy was led by the group's eccentric front man, Ryan Kattner, a.k.a Honus Honus. His frenetic percussive clanging and unintelligible vocals mixed into a sort of symphonic cacophony that could only be matched by the sound of a Jack in the Box leading the chants of Amazonian tribesmen.
The only difficult task of the evening? Imagining an instrument or banging object that Man Man didn't utilize. There were flute interludes, jingling bells, and even an old-style slide whistle. Man Man's inventiveness didn't end there, either. While flailing about the stage, band members often kept time by smacking amplifiers or pounding on the walls. The icing on the proverbial cake--although I wouldn't have been surprised if one was used as an instrument--was the presentation of our old favorite, Weebles. Certainly, the round, musical toys wobbled, but they didn't fall down.
The inclusion of the band's most recognizable song, "Engrish Bwudd," off their 2006 release Six Demon Bag, sent the crowd into an even more audible and visible frenzy, as if their earlier musical craziness wasn't enough. The set focused mainly on the releases from Demon Bag but also included enough from their 2004 album The Man in a Blue Turban with a Face to appease those die-hard fans who loved them before all of you hipsters did. And as if this wasn't enough, Honus Honus broke his adamant stance on white clothing and suited up in a iridescent, sequined black top and matching headband. As if sensing the crowd's extreme discomfort with the escalating heat of huddled bodies, he then doused the audience with bottled water in a manner befitting a holy man cleansing his followers.
Surely no one embarks upon the experience of a Man Man show expecting to leave clean, dry or with their entire hearing capacity. The visceral stench, sweat and ringing of the ears is part of the band's enigmatic charm and lunacy. Reviewers, journalists or others who seek to categorize music may be tempted to liken Man Man's sound to everyone from Tom Waits to Animal Collective or any other artist who is vaguely experimental or who otherwise evades description. But there will be no pigeonholing of this band. Their most recognizable performative traits, of course, are their whirling, honky tonk melodies, energetic delivery and, of course, the Weebles.
[Photo: Mike Persico]
Workplay / Laser’ s Edge; Birmingham, AL
Last year, around the time Josh Ritter’s Animal Years was released, I got a chance to hear him play at Workplay. There was a dilemma, though: Black Heart Procession, whose spell I was then under, was playing the same night at BottleTree with Castanets and The Devics. I was happy as a little songbird, then, when Laser’s Edge, a local independent music retailer, announced that Ritter would be playing in the store several hours before his Workplay show. Unlike most nights in this town, which has begun to offer some tough choices in the way of national touring acts, I got to see Ritter strum his guitar for 30 minutes before I beat it over to BottleTree for BHP.
Halloween night was no less difficult. Celebration, Dragons of Zynth, and local cred-worthy up-and-comers Lonesome Spirit Device were playing a free show at BottleTree in the midst of a Halloween costume contest, where I later discovered that the winner was dressed as a Nikon camera and the award presenters were dressed as Nelson.
Despite my knowledge of all I would be missing on the hipster side of town, however, it’s true that I’ve been spinning the ambitiously named The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter since my promo copy arrived in the mail a few months ago. Also, I love it. I let myself become beguiled by the record’s one sheet, which tells a story of delightful barn recording sessions, and I imagined swaying horns skronking over messy bales of hay and “string sections screamin’ like horses in a barn burnin’ up,” as Ritter sings in “Rumors.”
So a friend and I belted up in our Ginny Weasley and generic cat-with-a-litterbox-filled-with-rolled-oats-and-Tootsie-Rolls costumes, respectively, and made it to Workplay about four songs into Ritter’s set. The band was costumed; there were two instrumentalists with a pink wig and a blue wig, a drummer with a half-mask, a guitar player in some sort of mummy get-up, and Josh Ritter, barefoot, dressed as a Greek god. Wearing a huge, boyish grin, he referred to himself repeatedly as Optimus Prime.
The band was evidently in a great mood, and their onstage banter and jaunty performance suggested as much. I sat with friends and listened intently during the quieter and more reverent songs such as “Girl in the War” and the philosophically lewd “Temptation of Adam” but was excited to run down to the floor and dance foolishly during more upbeat songs like “Night Moves,” “Rumors,” and “Real Long Distance.” For the most part, the audience was not of a like mind, and this is something that is annoying about many singer-songwriters’ live shows. There are usually rows and rows of staring, obsequious fans too enthralled by the songwriter’s poetic turns of phrase to realize that, hey, this is a FUN song. It’s upbeat. and, AND... I can DANCE to it! I mean, admire the lyrics during an intimate listening with iPod and liner notes in the quiet of home, right?
Fortunately, the crowd was a bit stirred up by Ritter’s rendition of the lovely “Kathleen,” which couched an unexpected interlude of Ritter reading (paper in hand) Vincent Price’s rap from “Thriller.” The band mimicked a few of the signature dance moves from the video, and Ritter’s goofy grin once again won over all the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings in the audience. It was quite an amusing spectacle, and something special since it was only to be caught on Halloween night.
Ritter played a brief encore that included “Harrisburg,” one of my favorite songs from 2004’s dynamite Golden Age of Radio, and “Lillian, Egypt” from Animal Years before announcing that the party would be moving to Laser’s Edge for a final midnight in-store performance.
Expecting a fun and casual setting, I dragged my Ginny Weasley to Laser’s Edge and walked in on a hush-hush audience once again adoring to the point of annoyance. We stuck around for the whole performance, which included lots of jokes and acoustic guitar sing-a-longs. Watching everyone try to keep up with Ritter during the wordy “To the Dogs or Whoever” was the highlight, and before we all expected it, the night was over. We bid farewell to “Optimus Prime,” who left a final impression by popping one of my litterbox Tootsie Rolls into his mouth and dousing the “litter” with blue Pixy Stix dust, “messing it up for the other cats,” he said, laughing, with that winning smile.
[Photo: Traci Edwards]
Two Gallants / Blitzen Trapper / Songs for Moms
Media Club; Vancouver, BC
It doesn’t happen very often – hell, my success rate of being told I’m on the guest list and actually being on the list is barely above 50-50 – but occasionally, I feel like I’ve ripped someone off by getting in free to a show. This was one of those rare nights. Not that it started off all gangbusters, mind you. The doors were supposed to open at the standard 8 PM, so my girlfriend and I rolled in blazed and mildly drunk at quarter to nine. With the inside of the hundred-odd-capacity Media Club pitch black, the nice man at the door informed us it would be at least another twenty minutes till he’d have some info for us. All we knew at that point was the bands weren’t there yet. I’m a stickler for detail myself, but what can you do?
We circled around Library Square with the justifiably striking union CUPE Local 15 till 9:40 when, by some miracle of fate, the advertised triple bill fashionably arrived. They set up with no time to spare for tuning or proper mixing and hit the stage without pause. Rawk ‘n’ roll!!! There was barely enough time to grab a beer before the openers Songs For Moms landed balls-deep in their set.
With Carey hammering away on a pared-down kit while Molly and Alana split the bass, guitar, and lead vocal duties, they constitute one of the most pungent all-girl power trios ever to come out of San Francisco. Their songs mostly ran in three-four time, but they jammed through their bluntly relationship-based waltzes and occasional post-punk, rock jaunts with all the swagger of a young Sleater-Kinney. The inadequate number of female attendees migrated steadily forward, feeding on the groundbreaking vibrations, forcing the guys to ditch their inhibitions and join in. Waves of swaying and nodding ensued. I haven’t seen a vibe like that for an opening-opening band in years. I gave the band props at my earliest opportunity, while picking up both EPs (a bargain at $8) and a t-shirt they had for sale. I’ll be keeping my eyes out for these guys, for sure. Hell, if I had a label, I’d have signed them myself. Thank gawd for nice surprises.
Next up was the real reason I was there: Portland’s favorite sextet Blitzen Trapper. Several month’s previous, I’d said in a review for their self-released third album, Wild Mountain Nation, that “it’s a wonder they’re not on a major label.” The next month, their signing to the famous Sub Pop was announced, leaving me feeling quite vindicated. Their set easily lived up to my own hype, mostly grinding out songs from their latest and obviously greatest record (save a bizarre track from a supposed unreleased children’s album, the likes of which Bruce Haack would thoroughly approve). Replicating some of the angular Steve Miller nightmare riff constructions off that album is no small feat with all those fingers, but they pulled it off in spades. Those six guys created a full, big sound for such a small venue. You can bet your ass it’ll be the last time BT will be seen there again, though. They seemed like honestly nice, down-to-earth guys from their stage presence and the brief conversation I had with a couple of them, so I’m happy for them.
Sadly, the late start forced my girlfriend home before the headlining Two Gallants, nor was I able to stay much longer, but I liked what I heard. They’re a duo from the Bay Area with roots in Robert Johnson delta blues, so White Stripes comparisons are a critic’s standard. However, from my vantage point, they’re completely unwarranted, no doubt formed out of journalistic laziness by their numbers, not by their music. Yes, they had a similarly explosive sound, but it’s pretty hard to be subtle and remain interesting as a pair with all that stage to walk around on. Adam Stephens picked away on his vintage red Gretsch while drummer Tyson Vogel exploded viciously on the kit, after initially building suspense with rubber mallets. This, in turn, beckoned Adam to cross over from quiet confession to vibrant, screaming expression. It’s easy to see why they’ve been playing together since childhood ‘cause they push all the right buttons for each other.
The whole experience was fantastically inspiring. The one-two-three knockout punch of bands all clearly on the upward path paid off in one of my most thoroughly enjoyable concert experiences of recent memory. I’ve found myself waning on the whole music thing, but this show totally reinvigorated my life’s passion. For all these reasons and more, this show was a robbery at the price of admission.
The National / The Forms
Music Hall of Williamsburg; Brooklyn, NY
After staggering through the new & im-poshed (and eerily familiar I might add -- Bowery Ballroom, anyone?) basement bar entrance of what used to be Northsix and hissing "I hate it" to my girlfriend Liz about 57 times, we make our way into the small crowd that has gathered in front of the (now fucking humongous) stage. I tap a guy on the shoulder and ask if the opening acts have gone on yet, and he's refreshingly friendly, telling me the first act had already gone on, prompting me to feel slightly ridiculous about dreading a show in Williamsburg.
Four young'n'earnest lads shuffle onstage and treat us to some of the prettiest four-part harmonies I've heard since Mrs. Woolever's select chorus. The Forms are pretty cute, and their drummer gets ten points for having obviously taken music theory, but sadly, their scope is limited. Some semblance of fingerpicking is needed to break through the albeit pleasant but monotone wall of guitars, but there is none to be found... sort of like hearing an instrumental Sunny Day Real Estate break on repeat. Launching into a cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies," The Forms induce a bit of a sing-a-long, but we're restless. After dedicating their final song to Reggie Jackson, they pack it up, and I run downstairs for another G&T, which causes me to run smack into my junior prom date. I kid you not.
Back upstairs, Liz informs me that we have a "music critic" on our hands. He is standing directly behind us and expounding on his infinite knowledge of rock music, which includes the following fun facts: (1) girls don't like classic rock; (2) girls don't like any type of music featuring a deep voice; and (3) girls don't like him, and that is why he is waving his arms around pretending to know what he's talking about. (I made that last one up.)
Moving along. The National takes the stage, and Matt Berninger gives Northsix a nod, mentioning that they used to practice in the basement, which now houses a bar. Berninger doesn't look like he's quite sure he's allowed up there, but his warm baritone eases us right into “Brainy,” an ethereal, drum-driven track from Boxer, an album that you've heard of by now, I'm sure. The crowd is small but focused. I'm guessing most people caught them the night before with electric guitar songstress St. Vincent, and it's a relief to not be fighting for space. I perk up when I hear “Mistaken For Strangers,” a song that at one time signaled how my boyfriend-girlfriend housemates were, uh, wishing to be left alone. I look around and realize that most of us are couples in various states of tenderness ranging from “get a room” to “awww.” Girls don't like The National, indeed.
My personal highlight is a charged-up rendition of “Squalor Victoria,” including a calculated yet sparkling guitar interlude; you can tell the kids have been waiting. I spot my junior prom date across the crowd and can't help but crack a smile. And as always, it is a great day when a roomful of Brooklyn concertgoers raucously applaud a violinist. Gets me right in my orchestra-geek heart. I'm a relatively new fan of The National; so many songs sail by unnamed. But at no point am I bored, which speaks volumes of this band in concert. There's enough for me to recognize, however, and when a cute girl comes out to play tambourine for “Fake Empire,” I'm genuinely happy. (Note: I have been informed that this “cute girl” is Marla Hansen, a member of My Brightest Diamond and also a member of Sufjan Stevens' brigade. Sweet.) The crowd sings along in a hush, which is at once eerie and romantic, to say the least. The band rounds out the “official” segment of the show with “Start A War” from Boxer, and at the song's close, a throaty voice screams, “BEST. CONCERT. IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.” Okay, sure.
We are treated with a lovely, long encore, and the veteran fans are feeling it because the final song of the evening is “Mr. November” from 2005's The Alligator. With a final shy grin, Berninger exits, and every couple has one thing on their mind: getting home as quickly as possible. Oh yeah.