Diamanda Galas
Highline Ballroom; New York, NY

[08-12-2007]

Documenting the complexities and oftentimes illogical variations of love is certainly no enviable task for any artist, no matter how formidable. "Imitation of Life," Diamanda Galas' song cycle based on the "thrill and pain of romantic love," however, finds one such artist capable of confronting the endless variations of this most primitive of experiences with the profound fervor and conviction that it demands. Throughout the evening at the Highline Ballroom, the invested subtleties and extremes of this subject were interpreted and projected with the virtuosic reach and power we have come to know and love her for.

Entering quietly in the darkness, she sat behind the lone piano occupying the stage. With a flick of her black mane and the glinting of a cued light off her glitter-dusted eyelids, she proceeded head-on into "A Soul That's Been Abused" by striking out a set of slow, sforzando chords. With each gesture at the piano, her face and body responded, emphasizing the fury by which she engaged her instrument. Shifting effortlessly from lovelorn to disgusted to dismayed, she attacked every word in the manner that only she can, her arms dropping to her side during a passage of the arrangement in order to fully address the series of vocal explosions that tore themselves un-mercilessly from her body. Witnessing this physical navigation of her delivery is as equally engaging as the result, with her entire body resonating under the weight of emotive strain. This is not a series of "for effect" hand flutters; it is self-induced exorcism.

The Juliette Greco staple “Amours Perdues” manifested itself beautifully with Diamanda’s gentle vocal glissandos rolling out across the carpet of blue light projected beneath her. It is not to say that I don’t love every well-honed extreme technique that she is capable of, but I just as thoroughly admire her restrained approach. Especially because I can tell everyone who has ever thought her incapable of vocalizing in this manner, “Up yours, I told you. She is a musician first and foremost, learn it.” Equally stunning was her delivery of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Introduced with rumbling chord and note dynamics and then alternating to a gentle tinkling of piano keys, her voice rose forth colored with an unabashed plaintiveness and longing. It was one of the high points assuredly, absolute in its understated effectiveness.

The Rembetika “Keigome Keigom” (I’m Burning, I’m Burning) raged forth with the intensity and full sum of fury and gutteral wailing that she is capable of projecting in a cleansing ritual of pain and betrayal. Following an opus of this magnitude is no easy task, but the challenge was duly met with a thunderous and deep reaching delivery of “8 Men
and 4 Women.” Every second was breathtaking, with her encircled by blue vertical lights as if placed in her own Parthenon adding to the drama. The space resounded with thunderous piano while her voice descended into harsh, throat-driven passages in a preemptive assault to the main verses of the composition. Really, I can think of no other present artist capable of doing justice to O.V. Wright quite as effectively as Diamanda. A vocalist needs to dig deep on this one; it demands no inhibition or posturing, and she is thoroughly qualified, make no mistake about it.

Working her way through a volcanic “You’re My Thrill,” she stamped her feet and tossed her black mane about, fingers nimbly trailing across the piano keys fully embracing and possessed by the devotional theme of the lyric. Her voice rose as a swirling vortex at times and then focused in others as if it were being strangled, collapsing into gasps. She grabbed this one by the balls baby, because you know she can mix it up with the best. She proceeded into “Autumn Leaves,” the lyric dissolving beneath the intensity of her every gesture, transforming into mere hallucinations of their former selves. “Le Chanson Des Vieux Amants” followed, seeming to hang in the air motionless and aching, captured by the red-lit stage.

Ending the main body of the performance with a somber and weighty rendition of “Heaven Have Mercy” that was every ounce as exquisite as Piaf herself would have done, rest her soul, Diamanda promptly stood from her piano and exited. Cheers, shrieks, and applause immediately followed, and she graciously responded with her first encore, “The Thrill is Gone.” I have seen her perform this several times before, but this was the most devastating version I have thus been witness to. It was distinctly somber, moving forth like a funeral procession to the grave.

She returned for a second encore after once again leaving the stage to furious applause and howling, closing out the evening with what has become a signature of hers, if you will, “Gloomy Sunday.” She, of course, performs the Desmond Carter translation, as if we would have it any other way, ensuring that as an audience we are left haunted by
every phrase, tone, and timber that emanates from the stage. Leaving for the final time with a bow in the darkness, the house lights come up, letting us know that we must once again wait some time before we share another moment with our diva of choice. Well, at the very least, mine, though I do feel that drag queen sharing the bathroom with me might have given me some competition in proving who has the greatest adoration of her. She was truly fierce, and as Diamanda surely knows, you never get into it with a drag queen because they will own you.

[Photo: Paula Court]

Mirah
Logan Square Auditorium; Chicago, IL

[07-17-2007]

I first saw Mirah a few years ago at a hippie co-op in Madison. It was just her and her sister with guitars in the middle of a room (no stage even), and while it definitely had its charm seeing her in such a setting, I definitely thought the experience would be even better with, say, some drums ("Cold Cold Water”'s impact is so much less without the drums). Luckily, on this occasion at Logan Square Auditorium, Mirah brought along a drummer and keyboardist, both of whom very much enhanced her amazing songwriting skills and sweet voice.

Mirah began her set with my favorite song, the heartbreaking "We're Both So Sorry" from 2004's C'Mon Miracle. She started out alone before the drums and keys slowly made their way in just in time for the song's powerful ending, and it was gorgeous. The beginning of her set was made up mostly of songs from C'Mon Miracle, and in between songs she won the crowd over with her adorable anecdotes about angry bus drivers and her own clumsiness. Seriously, Mirah was so cute, you could hear the "awwwww"-ing over the crowd every time she spoke. Unfortunately, these asides also gave the audience the opportunity to start talking amongst themselves, often creating a low buzz that didn't die out until a few seconds into the next song. Luckily, before this could become a serious annoyance, Mirah ever-so-sweetly called the audience out on it by saying "are you guys going to do that thing where you talk over my guitar intros and then stop when I start to sing?" And it never happened again.

As some Mirah fans may be aware, her forthcoming album, done in partnership with Spectratone International, is a series of 12 songs about insects set to a suite of animated films. Because she didn't feel she could play the songs live without her collaborators, she still gave the crowd a fun taste of what to expect from the album by playing a sort of game: she would sing a verse of a song, and we would guess what insect she was singing about. We heard verses about the dung beetle, glowworms and more, and much fun was had by all.

The last third of Mirah's set fell more heavily on material from Advisory Committee, including "The Garden," "Make It Hot," and "Mt. St. Helens," with the big, obvious finale being the aforementioned "Cold Cold Water". After a brief exit from the stage, her bandmates returned without her, and after a hilarious rendition of some hip-hop song that I'm sure is popular now but I've never heard, Mirah returned. After reminding us that she recently put out a remix album (Joyride: Remixes), she told us she was going to do "someone else's remix of one of her own songs," and then proceeded to sing "The Light" while her drummer beatboxed in the background. It was hilarious and awesome, and certainly nothing I'd ever seen done at a concert before. Finally, she wrapped things up with her self-proclaimed "sing-along song", Advisory Committee's "Apples in the Trees" and its chorus of "You don't have to wait until you die," which for some odd reason, only the right half of the audience seemed to be singing along with. Either way, it was a great song to end on.

I can't say enough good things about Mirah; her music is subtle, beautiful and thought-provoking, and in person she is utterly sweet, funny and unpretentious. She doesn't tour often, but let's hope she and Spectratone International do get on the road (with the videos perhaps?) so we can learn more about the intricacies of insect life.

[Photo: Nicole Chavas]

The Levon Helm Band / Ollabelle
Ryman Auditorium; Nashville, TN

[07-18-2007]

As Emmylou Harris, guest # gazillion, trotted out onto the stage of the Ryman in a knee-length black gown, sparkly black fishnet hose, and cowboy boots, she softly uttered in her sweet, Southern voice: “Well hi, Levon! It’s about time you come on down to Nashville.” Damn right, Ms. Emmylou! When southerners catch wind of a Levon Helm “with special guests” appearance, said southerners might do well to make every effort to attend.

This night at the Ryman was unlike any other show I’ve seen before, there or anywhere else. It was special, fabulous, and bittersweet, and those who attended will likely remember it for many years to come.

The Levon Helm Band performance began shortly after the concert promoter presented Mr. Helm with a sparkly new mandolin, which he accepted graciously whilst wearing that familiar smile we all know so well from The Last Waltz. As he crossed the stage to sit down at his drum kit, a large, black pit bull followed him happily. Before sitting down, Helm carefully laid out his coat on the floor for his dog, which would come and go throughout the night as it pleased.

This lineup featured seven people at its smallest, including a two-person horn section, an organist, a pianist, and two guitarists, one of whom was the accomplished Larry Campbell. Helm, ever the entertainer, introduced a steady stream of special guests throughout the night. Little Sammy Davis, one of the first of these, tore it up on his harmonica during the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Sam Bush and Helm’s daughter Amy joined in on the Springsteen-penned “Atlantic City,” which appears on The Band’s Jericho. Joining in on the finale, which was, of course, “The Weight,” were Harris, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Amy Helm, and Theresa Williams. The encore, “I Shall Be Released,” featured these in addition to John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow, who were pulled out of the audience to join in.

The Helm/Harris duet “Evangeline” was an early highlight of the evening. With that great big grin, Helm strummed his mandolin during the performance, and despite his frail appearance and recent bout with throat cancer, his vocals were surprisingly strong. Harris’s voice rang out as sweetly as ever, and with eyes closed, listeners might think they had traveled back in time to hear the two in their glory days.

For every highlight, of course, there was a sad moment. In the most sobering performance of the evening, Helm Band guitarist Jimmy Vivino mimicked Richard Manuel’s soulful performance from Big Pink’s “Tears of Rage” (which also appeared on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, on which he was backed by The Band). One was instantly reminded of Manuel and, by extension, the more recently deceased Rick Danko. The appreciative crowd grew silent, as if they were meditating about the members of The Band who couldn’t be onstage that night.

Another performance that wound up being somewhat of a downer was the encore, “I Shall Be Released.” A virtual devalued counterpart to the version on The Last Waltz, this piece was marred by the fact that many of the guest singers did not seem to know the words (ahem: Sheryl Crow). It was hard not to think about the star-studded array from that Thanksgiving Day performance in 1976 where everyone from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to Van Morrison to Bob Dylan to.... you get the picture, was singing along proudly and confidently.

These disappointments seem inevitable, however, when a performer whose prime has passed returns to the stage. The band certainly made up for it with other favorites by The Band that include “Ophelia,” “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up My) Rock ‘N’ Roll Shoes,” and “Chest Fever.” Guitarist Larry Campbell attempted to guitarize Garth Hudson’s famous organ intro to “Chest Fever” and damn near pulled it off. There wasn’t a question about any of these performers’ musical prowess: they were good, and they knew it. That’s why they were onstage with Levon Helm.

Having heard a weird and difficult-to-place performance by Ollabelle back in 2004, I was not anxious to hear them a second time. Their music is more folkily gospel than gospelly folk, and I remember feeling nothing but confusion when I heard them open for Ryan Adams right before Hurricane Ivan blazed through the South. A friend and I opted for a steak and spaghetti restaurant instead, where I learned from a lady in the restroom that the restaurant was packed not because of the Levon Helm Band but because of Beyonce, who was performing across the street at the Coliseum. As we pulled out into the night after my one (and probably only) experience hearing one of my musical idols, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Beyonce would still be keeping audiences equally entranced 30 years from now. Something tells me she won’t.

The Ponys
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY

[07-21-2007]

Here begins the story of a show not meant to be…

In terms of rocking out or melting face, The Ponys have yet to truly misfire. Each of their three records eschew innovation in favor of brilliantly timed chord changes that melt face as much as they provoke bouts of boogie. They did, however, make one rather sizable gaff when they scheduled a headlining date in New York just hours after festivities at the Siren Festival on Coney Island had come to their sun-baked, deep-fried conclusion. And much like stomach fatigue that sets in after a day of funnel cake and Nathan’s dogs, those New Yorkers who weren’t vacationing may have already had their fill of rock ’n’ roll, as well. It happens.

So Bowery Ballroom was empty (on a Saturday, folks) when the Second City’s finest appeared just before midnight, their appearance so late and so inauspicious that it seemed nothing but obligatory. There was a bit of drone, a bit of feedback, and an awkward bit of waiting for bassist and frontman Jered Gummere’s special friend Melissa Elias. She arrived, and the foursome made do with the few heads in front of them, wasting little time in kicking out wholesome jams, the first few coming from the early reaches of their painfully underappreciated discography. Still, those who came for Memphis’s garage minimalist Jay Reatard or even those who came for The Ponys began filing out to the street just minutes into the set. “Half of our record label is on vacation right now,” Gummere muttered into the mike just before sleepwalking into old-ish jam “Little Friends.” It seemed as though The Ponys could also have used one of those.

Gummere in particular looked worn, the skeleton that adorned his T-shirt an odd portrait of the mood not just in the back of the room, but in strands of the middle and front as well. Not that many cuts like Celebration Castle’s “Glass Conversation” or Turn the Lights Out’s “1209 Seminary” didn’t bring warhead heat; they did. Notes were not flubbed, nor was any song free of the marriage between muddy J Mascis cat-hiss and squiggly Television licks that give much of The Ponys’ work such an addictive, albeit familiar, kick. But as the set lumbered on, it took the shape of a long sigh more than the brand of revelatory roar you’d hope for. A cadre of drunk girls in the front danced and screamed and snuck backstage before being chucked back into the thin crowd they came from. A squat man with his sweatshirt ’round his waist did the twist, his eyes closed tightly as he did his thing for the duration of the 40-minute set.

The encore was in line with the rest of the evening: short. They reappeared just as quickly as they would eventually leave, sprinting through a perfunctory version of “Ferocious,” the song’s title in no way indicative of the affair that evening.

If only.

Thee Emergency / The Hands / Faceless Werewolves
Sunset Tavern; Seattle, WA

[07-14-2007]

Sex appeal in the midst of garage rock testosterone -- it was certainly the theme of the evening. In a musical landscape teeming with carnal acts of male chauvinism, ladies ruled the evening with a style usually reserved for royalty and admirers usually lined up to bend their knees to Meg White and Liz Phair.

Austin's Faceless Werewolves had the dubious honor of opening the show cold, but there was certainly a lot of fire in the Texas trio. Perhaps it was the femme fetale backbone, but the blistering guitar prowess of the man simply known as Baldomero was too tough and rugged to ignore. Most eyes were fixated on the drummer, whose golden locks and Betty Boop vocal styling gave even the biggest mullets a case of the jelly knees.

The biggest musical gift of Faceless Werewolves is their ability to switch genres and tempos effortlessly. While most of the set was dominated by tilted garage stomps, noticeable hints of country swing and finely aged surf rock crept into song after song. Texas living certainly influences the state’s best up-and-comers, and it’s certainly safe to say Faceless Werewolves are reaching past the Lone Star State with their musical brand.

Local boys The Hands had the unenviable task of following up aural sex appeal, and sadly they weren’t able to live up to the task. The Austin-based openers won the crowd over so quickly that The Hands either phoned in their set or just couldn’t get their mojo working sandwiched between the ladies of rock. After a few songs, I was ready for some fresh air (as was my company), but little changed in the set from my viewpoint outside. I chalk it up to an off night, as the buzz around the guys has been nothing but positive in Seattle.

Death-by-garage concluded with Thee Emergency. A steady blend of frazzled hair and old-world soul, Thee Emergency come across as the party-band answer to MC5. As tempting as it is to make a lame “Kick Out the Jams,” joke, the curvaceous Dita Vox did just that as she dominated the place with sex appeal and confidence. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t produce women like Dita (though the boys of Thee Emergency — at least in appearance — come a dime a dozen), and though I wasn’t seduced by her performance, it certainly wasn’t a surprise to see men fawning over her like a school crush. But don’t let her sexiness foul you; Thee Emergency knew how to pack ‘em in and keep ‘em talking well after the evening was through.

Photo: [Gregory A Perez]

Bob Dylan
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts; Bethel, NY

[06-30-2007]

"No Smoking."

I stared, dumbfounded, at a sign bearing this proclamation at the site of the original 1969 Woodstock. No smoking? I'm sorry, but is it possible for the entire staff of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts to have suffered massive memory loss and forgotten just where they were? A girl wearing rhinestone sunglasses strolled past me, talking on her cell phone: "Yeah, I'm at a Bob Dylan concert. Yeah, I dunno, I don't really like him." It then struck me that a more appropriate name for this ... place might be "Woodstock, Inc." Fighting the urge to clap my hand to my forehead, I made my way through a sea of lawn chairs, peering toward the stage. One of those little black dots down there had to be Bob Dylan. The wavering, smoky strains of his voice were unmistakable.

A performance from Bob Dylan these days might be disappointing for those who remember him as the prickly, chain-smoking hipster in D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 documentary Don't Look Back. Still, this show was attended by a sizable amount of twentysomethings (myself included), proving that new generations of us young folks still appreciate this man's significance.

The mass of lawn dwellers (in various states of consciousness, I might add) and the ineptitude of the beverage vendors robbed me of the first few songs, but I managed to settle down on the grass to a fixed-up rendition of "The Levee's Gonna Break." Peering through my binoculars, I noted that Dylan (And His Band) wore matching black cowboy hats. The band's slick, bluesy sound was crisp and a little too calculated, but that crackling voice cut right through it. Bob Dylan would sing however he damn pleased, and we were lucky buggers for getting to hear it.

Still, Dylan can be a nice guy when he feels like it. The crowd-pleasers abounded, with "Just Like A Woman" (which I was lucky enough to hear as I approached the lawn), "Tangled Up In Blue," and "Highway 61 Revisited," though some were barely recognizable as a result of elaborate new musical arrangements and his wandering pitch. A full minute of "Blowin' In the Wind" passed before some of the audience members caught on and applauded appreciatively. "Spirit on the Water," a musing tune from 2006's Modern Times, drove the crowd to shout "NO!" as he sang, "You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime." I was not one of the chorus, but I was pretty proud of the man for being there in the first place.

Rounding out the encore with "All Along the Watchtower," Dylan introduced his band in a rare show of crowd interaction. He then went on to make this myopic statement: “It’s nice to be back here. Last time we played here we had to play at 6 in the morning, and it was a-rainin’, and the field was full of mud.” A jab at the original Woodstock, which Dylan declined to play? If he wants this aside to remain a mystery, you can be sure that's just how it'll remain.

Setlist:

Animal Collective / Marnie Stern
The Coronet; London, UK

[07-11-2007]

During live shows, some bands like to perform songs that the fans pooled before them have heard before that night — favorites that engage and inspire, setting in motion infectious sing-alongs and a sort of dancing that sheds any indication of self-awareness. Some bands even like to return to the stage for encores. Apparently, Animal Collective does not fall within the ambit of some bands. This is a different sort of group, a truth made evident from just a single glance through their fascinatingly unpredictable catalog (one that includes a collaboration with a British folk singer whose first LP hit wax in 1970 and this year’s polarizing solo album, Avey Tare's Pullhair Rubeye).

Unfortunately, the queue outside the venue was so tremendously long that it prevented me from catching all but the last bit of Marnie Stern’s opening set. I enjoyed what little I heard, particularly, as it tied into her easy stage presence and her irreverent sense of humor. Following her set, she dispensed of her musician persona and became a fan herself, lurking visibly through the darkness on the side of the stage to witness the future of Animal Collective.

Just after 10 PM, Animal Collective spread across the stage in a row of three. Looking like a spelunker with his electronics awash in the light beaming from his headlamp, Geologist occupied the left of the stage, while an unassuming Panda Bear hunched over his equipment on the right. Avey Tare, peering out from beneath a hat cocked coolly to one side, grabbed the center position, leaving himself room to switch feverishly between some sort of equipment standing at the rear of the stage and a partial drum kit parked between Panda and he. Save the drum kit, all of the night’s music was to be generated electronically.

Three songs into the set — just after “Who Could Win a Rabbit,” which followed devastating renditions of “Doggy” and “Hey Light” that had Avey destroying a cymbal with one hand while steadying a bobbing microphone near his lips with the other — Avey announced that the trio intended to perform some new material. The guy behind me quickly called out “#1” (which is, for the uninitiated, one of nine tracks from the forthcoming full-length Strawberry Jam), assuming aloud that we were about to be showered with pieces of the great new record. They couldn’t possibly ignore the fanboy buzz that’s surrounded “Fireworks” during the past week, nor could they escape rocking “Peacebone,” which is slated as the first single from Jam. Well, in typical AC fashion they resisted these seeming inevitabilities, choosing instead to unleash a barrage of even more recent material, presumably to be released at some point, on some label, and in some format. And so went, at least for a bit, the possibility of massive sing-alongs and fits of cathartic fist pumping.

For the most part, the new songs sounded fantastic set against the backdrop of lush and choppy electronic soundscapes. The band was tight throughout, and the audience seemed to really take to the material, despite struggling with a ponderous unfamiliarity. The tracks were properly and expectedly diverse, and they succeeded at keeping AC relevant and exciting for at least a couple more years. When the band finally ripped into some older tunes near the end of the set, the crowd was quick to release the energy it had conserved while the newer stuff ran its course. “Leaf House” was a particularly lively closer. Suddenly, the guy with the black tank top and the terrific odor was not the only fan showcasing some wonderfully awkward dance steps.

Daniel Johnston / Sister Suvi / Dog Day
Zaphod Beeblebrox; Ottawa, Ontario

[05-04-2007]

The question was not whether the pudgy, graying, tentative man on stage should be singing such lovely sentimental, vulnerable pop songs but whether he would make it to the stage that night at all. At least that was the covert opinion of many young scenesters among the crowd for this sold-out show in Canada’s capital city. The artist was none other than everybody’s favorite tortured soul, Daniel Johnston; hence, the voyeur faction was out in full force. Those expecting zany escapades not featured in the special features section of the The Devil and Daniel Johnston DVD would have to be disappointed, but those anticipating a heartfelt set by a truly unique songwriter would leave the venue on cloud nine.

Johnston ambled onto the stage at this club’s ungodly 10pm headline act set time to a barrage of cheers and claps as a man befitting of his “legendary,” “cult,” “outsider” status. Armed with only a battered acoustic guitar, he played a handful (literally) of his sickly-sweet and sentimental solo songs before being bolstered for the rest of the show by a crack backing band consisting of local musicians to great effect, even though more solo stuff would have been appreciated (especially a stint at the piano).

With trusty lyric notebook in hand (“Please keep the lights on, I can’t read my lyrics.”), the man known for delicately balancing his numerous disorders seemed very in control of the show, choosing wisely from his massive oeuvre of songs. Although he could have drawn more selectively from the over 400 compositions, he fed the sheep (including this wide-eyed hack) a great gruel consisting of songs that people would have called out for regardless. “Casper the
Friendly Ghost,” “Walking the Cow,” “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” “Funeral Home,” “Speeding Motorcycle,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Grievances” were delivered using that same lisped voice and messy strumming that we all have grown to expect and love.

Of course, much of Johnston’s appeal is his vulnerability and the amateurish qualities he brings to the stage -- songs are off-centered, off-kilter, and missing parts; his voice cracks, goes off-key at times -- and it makes it all the more endearing. Earnest, revealing and always emotional, Johnston had the crowd eating out of his hands before we or he had even arrived at the club.

Sister Suvi is a side project of Patrick Gregoire, of Islands notoriety. A trio prominently featuring singer Merrill on tenor ukulele (seriously!) and fiddle, they played an impressive set of jumpy, catchy songs that the audience absolutely adored. I am looking forward to an album release soon, partly to confirm that my scribbled “acoustic female-fronted three-piece Pixies” is still an accurate description of the band but mostly because quirky, confident songs like “Monsters,” “Nothing,” and “Run Run Run” were in my head for days after the show.

I missed most of the opening set by Halifax’s co-ed quartet Dog Day, but I overheard someone saying how much it “rocked.” I believe it. On a night when Daniel Johnston not only made it on to the stage but wowed the crowd and which saw an opening band that had the notoriously staid government grunts and restaurant servers of Ottawa swaying and clapping, I’ll believe anything.

Illustration: Ryan Flynn; full version [here]

Califone / Curtis Harvey / The Bitter Tears
Blender Theater at the Gramercy; New York, NY

[06-07-2007]

The stage was overflowing with instruments. At least six acoustic and electric guitars were scattered across the floor, accompanied by drums, a banjo, classical bass, violin, keyboard, trombone, and trumpet. Before even catching a glimpse of the first act, I had the sense that we were in for a night of good, old-fashioned music making. These days, when it’s common for bands to be accompanied by synthesizers, laptops, and even iPods, such an array of instruments bring to mind a sort of timeless musical ideal. The evening that was to follow lived up to these high expectations, with performances evoking those fantasies we all must have, of secret cabals of mind-bogglingly talented musicians jamming for hours on someone’s back porch in the mountains. I’ve heard Califone referred to as “Americana,” and while for me that term will always be inextricably bound up with vitriolic patriotism, it seems an apt description for the folk and frontier influences that the band embodies.

Before I get too philosophical, though, let’s talk about The Bitter Tears. Three members of the all-male, five-piece band showed up onstage in ill-fitting vintage wedding dresses. The drummer opted for cat ears, and the comparatively tame keyboard player sported a hat and pipe straight out of a 19th century hunting lodge. Their horror-film facial expressions and penchant for falsetto (among other unexpected vocal affectations) were difficult to process at first. Was it all just some big, ironic joke? Well, whether it was or not, The Bitter Tears won me over as they blew through genres, from folk to cabaret and blues to silent film scores. The singer assumed various exaggerated characters, often jumping into the audience, still in that wedding dress, singing and grimacing into the faces of spectators. Though I’m still not sure what exactly I saw, I’m pretty sure I’m glad to have seen it.

Curtis Harvey is a veteran of Rex, Pullman, and Loftus, a collaboration between members of Rex and Red Red Meat, the cult favorite from which Califone evolved. This is all to say that he’s an old friend of the Califone family, a talented guitar player whose sound complimented that of the evening’s headliner. Harvey performed the first few songs solo, beginning by recording guitar parts, looping them, and using the loops to accompany himself. At first I wasn’t thrilled with his lyrics, on standard topics like love, regret, and the passage of time, but these reservations fell away as I got lost in the rich country and blues guitar and Harvey’s smoky, seasoned voice. His set only improved as members of Califone and The Bitter Tears began to join him onstage. I even bought into some of his unadorned lyrics, like the simple, witty, “I heard you started smoking… nice.” Harvey even took the time to teach the audience to sing the chorus to one of his final songs, instructing us to sing along as though we were singing to someone who had wronged us. It was a great moment, with each audience member transforming the personal betrayals that everyone has lived through into something universal.

“I guess it’s not cool, like, rock stuff,” said Califone frontman Tim Rutili, setting the mood for the evening with a heartfelt speech about a mentor who had introduced him to the arts when he was in junior high. As it turns out, that old friend, a bearded fellow named Tony, had recently moved to New York, and Rutili brought him onstage to sing a song and help launch his career in the city. The two men hugged, and Rutili looked like he might have been about to tear up. He was right, of course—it wasn’t “cool, rock stuff,” but it was emblematic of the identity that Califone has created for itself. They have no need for skintight jeans or rock star snarls; their music speaks for itself.

I have long been impressed by the way that Califone avoids and transcends the passing trends and fascinations of the independent music world. The band makes sleepy, gorgeous albums perfect for warm, languid summer nights. Their contemporary, improvisational brand of folk incorporates electronic elements without allowing them to overwhelm the traditional instruments that are integral to each song. Last year’s Roots and Crowns (Thrill Jockey) is probably their best work to date, and I was pleased to see it dominate the set.

They played each song into oblivion, with “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” transforming into long, rambling jam. Because of its hushed quality, I had worried that Califone’s music wouldn’t translate to live performance, but the band adapted well onstage, producing a far bigger and more saturated sound than I had expected. Standout tracks from Roots and Crowns felt even stronger live, with Rutili murmuring the lyrics to Psychic TV cover “The Orchids” as though they were ancient secrets too sacred to say aloud. Califone, like Curtis Harvey, collected more and more members culled from the evening’s other acts as their set progressed. By the time they performed “Pink + Sour,” towards the end of the night, the stage was packed. I didn’t realize that I could love that song, which turns on the simplest but most exquisitely sour four notes, even more than I already did. Well, the live version, complete with strings and brass, was so good that time just stopped. The song could have gone on for five minutes or two hours. I have no idea because I was completely lost in it. Later, walking back to the subway, I could barely speak, but I did start to understand what Rutili means, in that same song, by “lost my language.”

[Photos: Sean Ruch]

Sasquatch 2007: Day 2
The Gorge; George, WA;

[The Gorge; George, WA]

Any discussion, mention, or, gulp, Review of the second day of Sasquatch 2007 must begin with a description of The Mighty Wind, a harsh tear of bad weather that affected everyone who attended, from the performers to security to lil' ol' people like you and me shivering on the grass. After experiencing a maelstrom of hail the year before I figured I'd snore my way through this year's festivities, and then WOAH-WOA-godDAMN, THIS SHIT IS RIPPING APART MY FLESH, NOT TO MENTION MY BRAND-NEW WEDDING-GIFT TENT. FUCK MEEEEE... WITH WIND!

Capitalization aside, this was some bad-ass wind. We're talking Wyoming-style wind, and for anyone that's been to Laramie and lived to tell about it, that's some serious shit. Worst of all, wind is the most invisible of enemies. At least with rain, hail, sleet, and snow, you can see what you're dealing with. When wind starts blowing, there's nothing to blame. It's like being pushed around by an imaginary friend or slapped in the face by Cosby in Ghostdad. Which sucks. And when the sun goes down, a playful wind suddenly becomes a deadly cooling force, adding an icy chill to already-frigid settings and turning those gleeful festival frowns upside-down. Argh.

Appropriately, I didn't even see it coming. Day 1, save a few unpleasant visions of Blossom with a guitar, was smooth sailing, and then FLOCK ME, I arrived at the Vantage campsite – a few miles from the gorge – Saturday night and realized my tent was fighting for its life. But when it comes down to it, FUCK the tent; I was more worried about getting some sleep. Every time I was about to succumb to Mr. Sandman a fierce ripple of wind would gash my tent. It was like being inside a transparent bicycle helmet and watching a nasty fall from the inside, over and over... which doesn't make any sense really; the gist of what I'm saying is this: without the tent, I would lose all hope of shelter. Honestly, I don't know how the tent survived all night, and as for sleep, I might as well have been trying to catch a few 'Z's in a meat locker on a bed of nails and broken glass; it wasn't happening.

Upon waking up in the morning – presuming we slept at all – we cooked up some kosher hot dogs (which is a whole 'nuther story; turns out I married into a non-gentile family) and tried to prevent sand from blowing into them. We also attempted to make ourselves believe we were having fun. But it was shitty, real shitty, just like all vacations are if you can't smile through the hard times. So we sucked it up and bore the brunt of the weather with, if not good, decent humor. Besides, we had work to do. I'd sooner of met Mr. Cock (the guy that issued us the speeding ticket in PART 1, remember?) at a rest area for some good ol' fashioned dinner jamming than let the elements turn me away from a concert experience. It was time to prove just how dedicated we were by covering Sasquatch 2007 without letting our sandy vaginas (or hot dogs, for that matter) slow us down.

As my wife and I finally walked into the 'non-hip-hop' Sasquatch Festival on its second day I could hear the middling sounds of {Blackalicious} emanating from the main stage. A part of me yearned to mosey over for the possibility of hearing “Chemical Calisthenics,” but I had a promise to keep; after almost seeing {Minus The Bear} about a dozen times, I was determined to finally witness their act in person. Not because I count myself a flagrant fan of anything they've done since their debut record/EP, but because I really wanted to see Dave Knudson, formerly of Botch (making more sense, isn't it!?), molest his guitar like only a true French-tickler guitarist can.

Unsurprisingly, Minus The Bear, save the painfully average vocals, were entertaining in a Chin Up Chin Up kinda way, in a Late 1990s kinda way, in a limited-but-so-what-they're-fun kinda way. And they thrashed more than just about any band at Sasquatch. Their frenzied guitar runs were practically built to please crowds, and Knudson didn't disappoint, weaving his spider fingers all over his fretboard. More than that, seeing this performance allowed me to skip Patrick Wolf's set, and for that I was brimming with surety; I had made the right choice.

I was also thankful for {Bad Brains}, because... they're Bad Brains. No matter how bad their material got over the years (ever heard Rise?), no matter how simultaneously empty and washed-up they sounded up on that Sasquatch stage, no matter how terrible those reggae songs are compared to the Real Thing, no matter how decrepit H.R. looked and sounded, no matter how perversely funny their classic songs are when interpreted 20-plus years after the fact, no matter how sad it was to see a legend debunked, no matter how many people are duped into buying shitty Bad Brains albums looking for the good stuff, no matter how shockingly little Beastie Boys' approval means, no matter how depressing it was to see punk-shirted fans in the crowd trying to make the performance something it wasn't, I can at least say I saw Bad Brains in concert. Hell, if someone asks me what year it was, I can just tell them is was the early '80s and leave it at that. What's more, Bad Brains didn't play any of their latter-day metal jams, which in turn didn't painfully remind me of the other once-punk acts that followed suit after hardcore died down (D.R.I., Suicidal Tendencies, D.O.A., T.S.O.L.)... of course there's always parenthesis for that, eh?

Little did I know the debilitating average-ness of Bad Brains' set would be a relative glimmer of light compared to that of {The Polyphonic Spree}, which comprised what it likely the worst performance I've seen since... man, I can't even think of one. However, before I get to that I had a few things to get off my chest, which I detailed in my noteback as such:

– Holy god, what a lovely surprise! It appears that the folks that produce Chex Mix have added ADORABLE mini-bagels to many of their any-time snacks. Oh they're so cuuuute! I like to take teeny-tiny bites or pretend I'm a giant eating a handful of human-sized bagels. This is more fun than eating the heads off Haribo gummie bears!

– I'm sitting with a bunch of Canadians right now, whom live on an island near B.C. They seem nice enough, but when I told about my scaling of the two miles of steps in B.C. they don't seem to know what the Jiff I'm talkin' about. A strange bunch, these... One of the guys has an 'I Love Hot Moms' t-shirt on, which is cool but does he want to fuck my wife? Pregnancy fetishes are sick but real... They also mention there's a huge noise-rock scene in Canada that I can read about by visiting THIS SITE (www.stillpost.ca)... I, of course, tell them that only tinymixtapes covers noise with tha realness and that I'll never mention that crummy Canadian site in my review. Er, well, no, actually I promised to check it out, and did, sorry. At this point I overhear my wife telling one of the Canadians that Blossom's Mayim Bialik is playing a solo set at Ozzfest this year; I realize I've cultivated this joke for too long so I reveal the cold, awful truth: the closest thing to Blossom at Ozzfest will be Static X... which, actually, isn't too far away on the Puss-meter so hey, no reason to fret! Oh, one more thing: The Canadians are insisting I inhale some of their pixie grass, so, not wanting to be a party pooper, I do. Far the-fuck out, man, doobers!

– I'm a total fucking idiot. Just a minute ago Caro and I were kissing in the grass and a random girlie came up to us and asked, "Can I make out with you guys?" To which I instinctively replied, "SURE!!!" Then when she started toward us I saw the look on Caro's face, reconsidered and said, "Well, er, maybe not." The girlie sauntered off, disappointed. I pulled off a last-second save but I'm fairly sure my wife thinks ... hmmmm, not sure what she thinks really but I've possibly gone from being a Kevin Bacon-in-She's-Having-a-Baby figure to inhabiting a John Leguizamo-in-Summer-of-Sam space. Not good.

With a lot of tough choices coming up today I whipped out my official Sasquandary schedule and started making a diagram for Carolina. Stoned for the first time in weeks, I find myself getting downright obsessed with our order of operations. I map things out for her like John Madden detailing an off-tackle sweep, using arrows, underlines, and circles to make my point. When I'm done my schedule looks like one of Robert Crumb's brother's latter-day comics: messy, compulsive and worrying. Oh well, I'm serious about this shit!

– Caro's brother and I are having an argument-slash-conversation about Bjork's lighting scheme from the night before, which was mostly neon green. He calls it “J-lo lighting” and I don't know what in the name of Diddy he's talking about. Is it an unbridgeable generation gap separating our lines of reasoning? Is Caro's brother crazy? And who is this 'J-lo' character I keep hearing so much about? It must be a rapper in Fitty Cent's posse...

And I'm back to deliver the bad news about The Polyphonic Spree. To be blunt, after a brief infatuation with Polyphonic a few years back, I've come to realize more and more just how much I truly dislike their music. Was I lured in by their 30-odd-members-in-robes gimmick, dangled in front of me tantalizingly like an indie-rock baby carrot? Absolutely. Am I sorrowful in retrospect? You bet yer ass I am. The Spree's performance at Sasquilla outlined in florescent Sharpi everything I abhor about them. Their songs mostly sound like even-cheesier -- if that's even possible -- takes on “God Gave Rock 'n' Roll to You” by Kiss from the Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey soundtrack: anthemic, anemic, choral, bloated, lightweight, bright on the outside but dead on the inside. Tim DeLaughter, who gets props from me for his days in Tripping Daisy and his forward-thinking ambition (he did, after all, sorta pioneer the more-the-merrier band dynamic), just looks silly on-stage, inhabiting a million clichéd stances and yelping wayyy over the top of his band, which was, by the way, comprised of only a dozen or so musicians. Not that I care, but that's some false advertising, is it not?

And why did The Polyphonic Spree stop playing? With a few more tunes to build steam, they might have managed to emerge from the drudgery of their first few songs, but with the wind blowing a bit – okay, TONS – DeLaughter announced that the Spree's set was done. He also said something about not wanting to die... what? I can understand leaving the stage amid heavy rain or, COUGH, hail, but... wind? How menacing is wind, really? Who gives a shit? You sure as hell didn't see festival attendees bolting for the gates as soon as a few gales picked up. Although it's possible they were forced to put a stop to their set, I say BALLS to The Spree. Afraid of dying? Shit, I guess people from the Pac. Norte just don't think in those terms. WHAT'S THE PROBLEM TEXAS NATIVE, GET A LITTLE WIND IN YER VAGINA?

With The Spree's set long gone, we trekked over to watch Tokyo Police Club, the only band left standing at this point. It should also be noted that, at some point, Spoon played. I don't know when, but they played. Suffice to say I wasn't there to see it, but that was no huge loss as I saw them as SXSW a few years back and didn't exactly get Freaked. We also managed to see a few {Money Mark} tunes, and I will say one thing about that and leave it alone: If you don't mind G Love, you won't mind Money Mark; however, if you have taste, avoid this fucker like Wal-Mart. No seriously, RUN LUKE, RUN FOR THE HILLS and such. Get my drift? Good.

Back to {Tokyo Police Club}, a band that is demonstrating just how out-of-hand the world of rock 'n' roll is getting. How can a group that formed in 200-bloody-5 have already played the Monterey Pop Festival, formed a fan club, and seen its frontman go into rehab? Has anyone outside the realm of blogger-dom even heard of these guys? Whatever happened to spending years fine tuning your sound and coming of age on trips to Hamburg? How are we going to hear another White Album when most bands have imploded or gone through an antiquated 'experimental' stage by the time they release their third or fourth album? Rock is dead, I tellsya.

Then again, maybe not; Tokyo Police Club ROCKED MY ASS OFF. No kidding, they were tight as a goddamn tiger and ready to spring, then pounce, on the surplus crowd that gathered in lieu of the MLB-style wind delay. I'm not so much a fan of all things TPC; it's mainly a certain point in most of their songs that gets me, where the kick drum starts dropping a fatty four-on-the-floor beat, the synths shift into pin-prick-y overdrive, and bassist/vocalist Dave Monks forgets about his workmanlike singing chores and focuses on diddling his four string. FUCK, maybe I was just desperate for a rawk fix at this point in the day, but I was locked in like the Millenium Falcon following the pull of a tractor beam. Of all the Hype bands I've seen in the ball-sucking Blog era, Tokyo Police Club are one of the only acts that didn't make me want to move to Greenland and start a biker bar in protest.

And wouldn't you know it, Tokyo Police Club even appear to have a sound they could remotely claim to be their own. Shades of this, shades of that, but never so much that you can't see the sun poking out. Monks' voice is serviceable if not superb, and that synth-player guy is the type of dude everyone should have in their band, teeming with enough energy to keep his comrades honest and shouting some pretty decent back-up vocals. As thee Club, ecstatic over their suddenly huge crowd and making the most of it, ticked down their set I gleefully anticipated {The Black Angels}' performance, as I had been spending quite a bit of time with their music. I reviewed them for TMT (what's this? Did I kinda rip them?), interviewed them for a magazine based in New Zealand (coincidentally me mum's home nation), and in the process listened to Passover more than any man would voluntarily listen to anything besides Oh, Inverted World, Person Pitch, or Is Night People.

Come to find out, the Angels' militant '60s drones don't translate all that well to a live setting. Their music, technically superior to Tokyo Police Club's randy workouts, seemed to flail in the wind, losing impact with every uniformly dull drum beat and fuzzy guitar lead. And what of the multi-media feast-for-the-eyes concerts I've heard about? All I saw was a band, and an unconvincing one, at that. Which leads me head-first into another realization: The Black Angels' music isn't really that climactic. Lay down a flippant, purposely droll rhythm, a riff fashioned from the buzz of The Stones' “Satisfaction,” a few ulterior riffs to thicken things up, add some spooky Lou Reed-rippin' vocals – which did actually come off quite nicely -- overtop and you have pretty much every wing the Angels use to fly. Oh, and don't forget to ensure the songs go on forEVER without changing even a wee bit; not a recipe for concert success, especially considering the size and scope of the Gorge, which eats bands like The Black Angels for breakfast and chases them with... {The Dandy Warhols}.

That's right, being the bone/thick-headed asshole I am, I insisted we stick around for the Dandies rather than make the trek to the mainstage to check on Spoon's status. Well guess what, I REGRET NOTHING! Er wait, what the fuck am I saying, of COURSE I regret my choice, as The Dandy Warhols slumped through much of their set. And here I was hoping to come out of this with a new respect for Courtney Taylor-Taylor (puh-leeze) and co.... but how can I not deride a band so obviously aided by studio tricks? Taylor-Taylor-Taylor-Taylor-Taylor-Taylor's voice was deader than wood from a soggy tree, monotone, deeper than necessary and absolutely lacking in the sort of charisma a young, un-hyphenated Taylor must have brought to the stage a decade ago. Did I really expect the Dandies to duplicate the shrill soprano from “We Used to be Friends”? No, but... but... but... it would have been nice to be treated to something even resembling the product pressed to CD.

Even with all their flaws sticking out like a paunchy beer gut (or my wife's pregnant belly) I still found the Warhols' set to be mildly enjoyable. They were one of the only groups at the 'fest with an unapologetically rock sound and stance, and a few of the familiar songs transported me back to the Days of Yore, such as when I turned on MTV one day and saw the video for “Not if You Were the Last Junkie on Earth” and swore off the Dandies forever. But that's how they hit you; they disgust you, then they annoy you, then they irk you, then they don't impress you, then they fail to Rock you, then they... reel you in, flop on the line as you might. As despicable as Taylor-Taylor seems to be where royalties and other band-related issues are concerned, that's not the worst quality for a band to have. And so I give The Dandy Warhols neither a plus nor a minus; rather, I give them a shrug. And no, I DON'T “dig” on vegan food.

Next: {Interpol}. If you would have told me that, save the obvious highlights (Björk, Beasties), Interpol would be easily the best band at Sasquatch, give or take Grizzly Bear, I would have laughed in your face, spit in your mouth, and probably raped you. But there it was, glaring at me: Totally fucking post-punk excellence, care of a band that has some of the WORST live bootlegs you'll ever hear in your life. Surely, with a paltry four members they'd never compete with the gang-banging of The Arcade Fire, the previous night's penultimate act, right?

Wrong (and fuck you, for the record). Interpol were tighter, heavier, bass-ier, more urgent and flat-out better than the Fire, and Paul Banks' voice, indebted to Ian C. as it may be, flawlessly echoed the sheep-bleating of Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics. To be reasonable, Interpol's songs are perfect concert fare to begin with. They're consistent, each instrument is totally distinct from the other, and there's always a beautifully delicate, usually arpeggiated, guitar flourish at the end to drive home the melody. “Not Even Jail” was so sharp I'm literally getting head-to-toe chills as I think about it and write this; from the verses – which sound like an ominous mission – to the choruses – which sound like that mission's battle sequence – to the TRANSCENDENT instrumental breakdown at the conclusion, this track was so good it was almost sickening. And it was only one song; we were also privy to “Obstacle 1,” “Slow Hands” and a few tracks off the upcoming new album that, truth be told, sounded awkward enough that I'm not even going to analyze them further; Interpol obviously need more time to work out the kinks.

A tad disappointed with the non-inclusion of “Roland” and a few other tracks from the debut and dumbfounded at the stilted nature of the new tunes, I nevertheless cannot find fault with Interpol's set, a pounding, dramatic rendering of songs the indie public – and beyond – have fell in love with over the years. As obsession-affirming as Interpol's set was, it was a little bit of a letdown in that it signaled that another triumphant Assquatch weekend was coming to a close. But it also heralded the arrival of {Beastie Boys}, so it was with a giant bundle of nerves that I got ready to finally witness the spectacle of, as a stoned Canadian might say, “Beasters.”

They did not disappoint. I had a helluva time at their instrumental set the day before, but nothing touches a true-blue Beasties brew of quips, rhyme flips, production blips, and ninja kicks. In addition, considering Beck's limp show-ending puppet charade in 2006, it was inspiring to see such an old group -- I mean, who are we kidding? -- bring the goods. Mike D, MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mix Master Mike flaunted the antics we've all come to expect from hip-hop's first White Light, drilling through classics like “So What'cha Want,” “Intergalactic,” and... “Sabotage”... again? Well, I could have done without hearing a second eagle's-squawk version of their popular hit, but what can you do? Trust me, they made amends...

How they manage to throttle so hard in a live setting is somewhat of a mystery. What separates the bad live hip-hop acts (Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Beans, from what I could hear, Blackalicious) from the good ones (Kanye West, The Roots, the fuckin' Beasties)? To me, it's obviously the Phun Phactor; the Beasties were kickin' it just like they would in a studio, an apartment building, or shit, a staircase, slanging a casual flow that gains strength as each member feeds off one another. It's Energy that rules the hip-hop roost, not strength-in-numbers, bravado, or whatever else passes for panache these days. Need I even mention the trio's sense of humor? They have the the art of stage banter broken down to a true science, especially Ad-Rock, who seemed to carry with him a schtickl of extra electricity, doing most of the between-song talking and generally infusing the 2007 Sasquatch Festival with a much-needed boost of un-stuffy levity and East Coast hipster swagger. Of course calling Ad a hipster might actually prove just how old I'm getting, so I'll let mah sleepin' dawgs lie, a'ight?

And that's it. Sasquatch. Festival. 2007. Dig it, bitch.

(Day 1) (Day 2)

[Illustrations by Carolina Purdum]