Willis Earl Beal
Schuba's; Chicago, IL
Presence, stage presence, is an unwieldy weapon. Ambling between concrete musical talent and presenting self and work as a spectacle people would be interested in dropping $20 to catch a train and show up at a venue laughably over fire capacity is a needle point some musicians take care to tread. They’re admirable musicians. But like Francois 1 or Derrick Rose (when his career’s over, they’ll be in the same tier of history), some dudes are just fucking born with it. The ease they radiate in snaring a crowd is infuriating and the tandem hatred/admiration only surfaces after you leave the show.
Willis Earl Beal has a backstory constructed meticulously from Americana mythology Kerouac supplicants can only fetishize; joined the army, discharged, bummed around in Albuquerque, left cryptic drawings and CD-Rs around, discovered by tastemakers as a force of both storytelling and American music tradition. After seeing Beal in flesh and Ray-Bans, I think that’s all a front. I think he actually pulled himself out of an unfinished Jarmusch script to walk the earth and spread the word of “swagger” from the Delta Blues and the rock & roll of the mid-decades of the 20th century. He has the off-kilter oddball gait and cadence of Tom Waits (his acknowledged hero), the good looks of a young Chuck Berry, and the caterwaul of Lead Belly. He’s so goddamn cool he could roll a pack of cigarettes in his sleeve and no one would call him an asshole.
His CD release of Nobody knows. at Schuba’s saw him for the first time outfitted with a full, highly capable band. Foregoing his staple Wayfarers for a black Venetian mask, the set saw a seasoned Beal parsing through Louisiana Pentecostal devil shake-downs, 12 Bar Chicago Blues sweats, and the hot-breath confessionals that marked Acousmatic Sorcery. I use the descriptive “seasoned” intently; at a young age, Beal is a showman, and a good one. Schuba’s was so full I stood on a wooden bench lining the venue like a kid at an overcrowded 50s dance hall, and I didn’t mind. His theatrics and stage positioning changed scene with every song; writhing on the floor, perched on the stool, wobbling on the mic stand. His astoundingly level speaking voice in banter between songs provided a (probably intentional) confusing contrast between the hard-life bluesman he affects and the “outsider artist” he purports. In Beal’s own words, “I equate the live experience with watching my uncle sing songs drunk.” With the nephew, it’s impossible to tell whether he cracked the bottle or drained it.
Since he began garnering attention, questions of authenticity and presentation have swirled around Beal. Frankly, I don’t give a shit what percentage is facade and what percentage is pith. My dad’s been a blues-bar musician for nearly 40 years, and I grew up in rural Indiana with appreciation and reverence for the sneer and saunter music embodies. I know of way too many acts today who clad their name in neon prints and perform what amounts to an aerobics routine without ever touching an instrument. When Willis was done, he walked off stage-left and into a sweltering Chicago alley.
Zola Jesus with JG Thirlwell & Mivos Quartet
Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral; Brooklyn Heights, NY
This shit was a listed event, which I attended under pal Stephen’s name, yet they let me in without ID, so really anyone could have just snooped a name on the list and got in at the door. But it took place in a legit CHURCH, making me feel a mixture of knowing I’ll end up sore by the end of the “service” and potentially bored, but my accomplice and I found a solid pew up front and to the side, much to our excitement. My girlfriend (also attending) felt the church gave her a guilty vibe, which I wondered what others took from it too, considering most of Zola Jesus’ shows are, well… not in churches.
A suited dude (JG Thirlwell: crucial music legend) came out with feathered hair around headphones on both ears, followed by the Mivos Quartet. Then Zola Jesus came out in an unflattering dress (making it WAY more flattering), introduced herself, thanking everyone, and began with the first track “Avalanche (Slow)” off her 2013 album Versions. The Mivos Quartet strings were featured most in the accompaniment as JG Thirlwell’s was conducting, trying not make a full cross while standing in front of the altar. And Zola Jesus was fucking serious. Which was appreciated in the world she builds musically AND the world she placed us in that night.
Zole Jesus let it all out there too. Way unabashed and beautiful, completely free in the moment comprised so intimately, while welcomed guests nodded and moved their shoulders. And as she continued through her album, she strolled around the audience, who were stiffly trying to keep an eye on her. Not really, but really, there was a pew marked/reserved for the full cast of Grey’s Anatomy. Then she played a track for Sacred Bone’s owner Caleb; a track she has never played live before. During this track she jerked around less while singing. I’m actually listening to it now, but am unfamiliar with the name of it: I got everything/ I got it going on/ I’m not going home without a fight x2/ And I will only wait for so long. Ben Greenberg, who also attended, suggested I don’t share the live recording, which he’s right: it wouldn’t do her voice justice.
As she walked back to the accompaniment, Zola Jesus adorned the altar after stating she was performing her last song, and sang it on high. My girlfriend and me appreciated that because people had periodically tried to stand in front of us to take photos and such, but we I gave ‘em good New York taps and line-of-sight motions to move. But “Collapse” wasn’t sung last, though it’s her last track on Versions. However, before she sang “Collapse,” she mentioned the song was about the audience, which interestingly enough put the attendees at a fair, but awkward distance from Zola Jesus; her statement made “Collapse” a performance than a preach piece, and I really dug that.
“Fall Back,” the last song, ended with the strings as she left, but then came back as they all bowed down, and we bowed OUT to try and beat the crowd. Like an IDIOT, I tripped out the pew, just after watching my girlfriend do the same, only I lost my balance and got handy with one of the Sacred Bones people, which consisted mostly of hair; totally professional shit; PAY ME! On that note, we booked it outta there faster, found a cheap pizza joint around the corner from that Brooklyn Heights classicism shit, and feasted post-Yom Kippur style on a full meal at $7.14.
Soliton (Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf)
Monarch; Berlin, Germany
Soliton — a recent collaboration between Chris Corsano and Jenny Gräf — played the only set of this particular event to an audience sitting on red velvet stools beneath still-in-Saigon ceiling fans: a Sunday night’s light entertainment, short and, as they say, sweet. Well, sweet may not the most apt of descriptions for the sounds, but it might be apt enough for the warm feelings induced in my innards. And I say short, though I don’t really know; the sense of time passing was lost to me as the music quieted my inner monologue’s inane witterings. But when the pulses, thrums, and clattering were abruptly withdrawn with a quiet off-mic “thanks” from Gräf, I felt both calm and — like some other members of the audience — that more would certainly have been welcome.
Jenny Gräf (one part of Metalux, sound and film artist) synthesized sounds by turns murky, grainy, jagged, or shrilling; she sang too, all meaning lost along the signal chain; sometimes she looped little guitar figures, also quickly lost in the mass of sounds created with or processed through a particularly intriguing device, the tranoe. One, I’m told, of only four in the world, it’s a synth that can be patched in any which way, including skin contact: an interestingly tactile instrument, put to good use in the construction of diverse and gritty sounds. And while Gräf provided the texture and much of the shape of the performance, Corsano’s ever-frenetic drumming was responsible for driving up the tension, pushing and pulling on Gräf’s muddy loops and distorted vocals. As he has been known to do, Corsano manipulated the timbre and pitch of his drums with blocks of wood, bowls, and other miscellaneous objects without even so much as hinting at slowing down, circling around the beat and studiously avoiding the temptation to lock too rigidly to it — not so much accompaniment as provocation.
Afterward, Corsano told me he would rather push things toward falling apart than just watch it happen; maybe so, but from an external perspective, the way the two played off each other was pleasing. Soliton may be a newish collaboration (this was their fifth show), but the two are old hands at collaborating, and it’s easy enough to see in their give-and-take. Their combined tendency to avoid stagnation ensured it was a performance that never became settled, never too satisfied with finding itself or anyone else. Taken with the abrasiveness of many of the surfaces provided by Gräf, this might seem to preclude inducing any sense of bliss or tranquility; all the same, at the end of the evening I left with a peaceful feeling.
The Echo; Los Angeles, CA
While everyone in Los Angeles was anticipating the sold out Pixies shows at the El Rey and Mayan Theatre next week, Frank Black & Co. threw a curveball by announcing a secret show at the tiny yet historic Echo. Just four months ago, The Rolling Stones played a secret $20 show downstairs at the more spacious Echoplex, and not to be outdone, Pixies not only charged $10 less, but also capped the tickets at 100 so everyone could have a little space to enjoy the spectacle.
A mere eight hours after the gig was announced, the band took the stage, wasting no time with banter and immediately getting the crowd rocking with a duo from Surfer Rosa, “Brick Is Red” followed by “Break My Body.” For a band that hadn’t played live in almost two years and was introducing new bassist Kim Shattuck for the first time, their 28-song set was tight, aside from when Black’s heightened self-criticism caused him to stop “Here Comes Your Man” 90 seconds in, saying his vocals were an eighth of an octave off. After a bit of banter with the band and the crowd, Black chose to move onto the next song and never return. Aside from that hiccup, this was truly a band in top form.
Shattuck fit comfortably into the other Kim’s impossible-to-fill shoes, killing all those much-beloved bass lines while lightning the stage with her upbeat energy. It was clear she was having a blast just being on stage with the boys. Joey Santiago was unsurprisingly terrific, seamlessly transitioning for the early portion of the show’s more downtempo pace to the second half’s more aggressive and noisy approach, while drummer David Lovering’s dutiful pounding was confident and unerring. And Black’s vocals held their own without Deal’s assistance, even if they’ve lost their edge.
After recent tours centering on Doolittle, last night’s setlist had a little something for everyone: six tracks off Surfer Rosa, four from both Trompe le Monde and the new EP, three off Doolittle and Come On Pilgrim, one from Bossanova, a Neil Young cover, and even a few unreleased songs for good measure. While the band’s freshly pressed EP1 has taken a beating in the music press for the past several days, it’s reassuring that the Pixies can still destroy on stage.
Brick Is Red
Break My Body
I’ve Been Tired
Motorway to Roswell
Another Toe in the Ocean
What Goes Boom
Here Comes Your Man
Something Against You
Wave of Mutilation
Blue Eyed Hexe
Greens and Blues
Planet of Sound
Where Is My Mind
Sebadoh / Octagrape
Larimer Lounge; Denver, CO
Aug. 6 at the Larimer started off with a band called Octagrape, and the only note I could really think to scribble down during their set was “four dudes, eight grapes.” And it was true of them in a figurative-literal sense, I guess, but it also played a bit to their general doofiness, which helped to explain an awkward, if at times powerful and truly rocking, show from the opening act. The lead singer at some point in life decided he’s best while clenching the guitar in the armpit instead of using a strap to hold the thing up, while also keeping the microphone about a half-foot above the nose to make singing and playing at the same time as awkward a task for himself as humanly possible… And I can’t for the life of me get through this review without mentioning the time he stepped on his monitor, only to have the thing topple beneath him. And yes, he did indeed wind up flat on his ass! But I will say the whole spectacle added an odd and beneficial sense of suspense to the band’s Pixies riffs and epic squalls of chorus, a rock ‘n’ roll attack thrilling enough to inspire the lady in front of me to dance a very, very strange dance. As the crowd filed in throughout and the band tightened up over time, applause got heavier. Still, I caught myself peering at my phone’s clock on a regular basis. It’s a Tuesday night people; I have to work tomorrow, and by God, people are reading Tiny Mix Tapes live blog to read about Sebadoh! Let’s get to it shall we? We’re not getting any younger. We’re getting… older.
Which, by the way, will someone tell me whether or not I’m old? Nothing makes you feel more unsure about your age than being about 10 years younger than the average Sebadoh concertgoer, yet also being one of the only folks in your immediate surroundings who seems to know the lyrics to “Skull.” I’m not even exactly sure what feeling that phenomenon gave me, but it wasn’t “good.” However, my body fought my brain’s apprehensive disbelief and trembled before Sebadoh’s awesome sonics. It was the type of show that hurt the next day, mostly neck pain and a slight headache. Worth it. So worth it. And who cares about age anyway, right? I’m not quite at liberty to reveal the birth year of Lou Barlow, but dammit if he isn’t the best bass player I’ve seen in the last five years. One cool thing about seeing Sebadoh in the flesh is that it’s something of a great reveal as to who wrote which song, if you were like me and didn’t ever bother to research the liner notes of Bakesale. Loewenstein and Barlow’s voices are just so close to one another, but when you see Jason howling away for the climax of “Not Too Amused,” the world makes a little more sense somehow. And yeah, they played most of Bakesale, and yeah, that was a good thing. But the band also ripped through the entirety of their excellent new EP and even a couple of as-yet-unheard tracks from the forthcoming full-length, which promises to rule with a fairly hard and/or iron fist. In comparison to Octagrape, it was better, sure, but that’s not so much a diss to the former as it is just a fact of life; that Sebadoh got big in the age before the internet for a specific reason: They’re good. They write good songs. Bob’s a kick-ass drummer, etc. Best to not even worry about dealing with the why, and just recognize that you might have to put up with a sore neck the next day.
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY
The Julianna Barwick album release show at Judson Memorial Church felt like a music recital. The atmosphere was surprisingly adult considering most of the audience was 25 or younger. The church’s interior, which I was told is used for multi-denominational services, is beautiful, painted pale blue with stained-glass windows and a high ceiling. There even were white flower arrangements on the music stands (yes, music stands) in front of the empty chairs on stage. Barwick was the only performer, and it was hard to know what to expect. I’d seen her a few times before, always solo, and she always was fantastic at summoning the almost inhuman beauty of her music into a physical space, whether that was a dive bar or the Guggenheim.
I haven’t heard the new album yet, but from both what I heard at the show and recent interviews with her, it seems Nepenthe is a new direction for Barwick. Her last album, the stunning The Magic Place, had a consistent and winning formula: all of the songs started with a few lone ethereal sighs that built through looping into sonic jacuzzis full of flower petals or kittens or something else unbelievably calming. It was very nice, almost spiritually so (hence the appropriateness of her playing in a church). The new album seems like it takes a somewhat more experimental route. The songs she performed alongside a viola player and guitarist did not swell into climaxes and then sigh into silence, but had unpredictable structures and sometimes surprisingly stark moments of just her keyboard playing or squeaky viola sounds. Whereas on her first album each song was a gorgeous free-standing whole that was slowly illuminated into view and then dimmed out over the course of a few minutes, her new material feels more like a painting you never see in its entirety, different sections of which are lit up and then darkened again.
There is something otherworldly about watching Julianna Barwick perform; unlike many artists that employ vocal loops, there seems to be a distance between what she sings and what eventually is heard, and the melodies don’t add up as you think they will (the only other artist I’ve seen who does this in quite the same way is the under-appreciated Lichens). In the past, Julianna Barwick was always a solitary artist, and she’s spent most of her life making music totally alone, so the slight awkwardness and tentative feel of her collaborations was understandable. Later in the set, she had the girls from Prince Rama and two other women join her for backing vocals, which didn’t add as much as I’d hoped. She came back for an encore of one of her songs off The Magic Place, and her ease made it clear she is still much more comfortable as a solo artist. Then the concert was unceremoniously over, and we all drank the free champagne.
Great Scott; Boston, MA
I’m happy to report that some invisible psychological dishwasher tablet (perhaps it was being an un-photogenically miserable child) got my subconscious sparkling clean of any trace of romance for the 90s. I’ll take its music and culture any day, but when I heard a few of its recent musical converts I recognized its attitude as something I would rather scrape the back of my eyeballs with a needle (thanks Isaac Newton, for the crafty tip) than revisit. The 90s: that decade of rustic, abject boredom, when advertising became coyly subliminal, when there was literally nowhere to hide from the glare of the bullshit. I see the decade rolling back into town again, and I see a re-run of that pursuit, a world where viral marketing techniques hone in on their targets, not with choppers and loudspeakers, but with the drones.
Now dear reader, this avert-sign is not a negative comment on Speedy Ortiz; it’s a token of my genuine goodwill: I want Speedy Ortiz — I want all young people in bands — to be happy. And since to be happy is to avoid being misled by the fashions of Urban Outfitters, it is with concern about the attitude of the scene rather than its music that I approach my young charges’ burgeoning careers.
Speedy Ortiz’s affectionate curation of their roots in this East Coast scene, stretching back to the 90s and before, seems a good start — check out their “Drivin’ on Nine” compilation, which features Heatmiser and Come (and the hilarious outtakes Mission of Burma and Marky Mark). At Allston’s Great Scott I witness a crowd-surfing guitarist, frenetic drumming, a bunch of 22 year olds learning how to mosh, and an intense lock-down of a set during which the music — challenging the easy power-chord distortion combo with off-kilter tempo and the interweaving of Sadie Dupuis’ barbed, colorful lyrics — reveals itself as tightly constructed — nothing like the tame shoebox-sticker definition of ‘college rock’ that all those Pavement comparisons suggest.
With her own hands, Dupuis made the cover of their first album, Major Arcana, into a clever collage out of layers of blue-and-white tissue paper that she picked to resemble willow-pattern pottery. The band’s work ethic is beneath-the-fingernails too; tours revolve around Dupuis’ breaks from teaching and studying at Amherst. Matt Robidoux is a guitar teacher, and Dupuis herself has been playing guitar since she was 13.
That presumably explains their odd assortment of 90s influences, which seem pulled together until you realize the 90s music once was born out of very different scenes has now retired into the old soldier’s paradise of guitar-book selections. Dupuis even once played in an all-female Pavement cover band called Babement. And yet Dupuis, who also has suggested half-jokingly that she might set up an all female tribute band called “She-badoh,” sings the lyrics “You picked a virgin over me” in an accusatory line that sounds painful to utter. Dupuis does a good job of handling the dual responsibility of being a laid back frontwoman and a tortured lyricist carving out a heroic, battle-scarred personality for her band — but this still seems like a tough line to walk. I kept uneasily returning to the “limp” that she mentions in her lyrics, the summer spent on crutches as a kid. And I remembered that back in the day, these stoic heroics came with a price — a stiff (pierced) upper lip. That is the other side of the undoubted power and glory of Speedy Ortiz’s rock-reanimation project. There was an acceptable disconnection with the power of the individual voice when traveling in the dude-ranch of the rock-band (even if it was a female dude-ranch) that bordered on groupthink and seemed to emanate from some wrong-ass conviction that a ‘we’ could only give birth to a stunted version of ‘me’ — unless we all like the same things and nod our heads in unison.
Rightly or wrongly, the title of Speedy’s first full-length, Major Arcana speaks to me of this paradoxical self-expression-with-a-clamp. It might be deliberate, it might not be. But even without getting into a discussion of the tarot reference, the distinction between major secrets and minor secrets is reminiscent of 90s tribalism — a world in which local scenes and bands protected themselves in their purity, became ‘big secrets’ that gave local audiences a sense of purpose, resistance against the danger of selling out.
There’s nothing really wrong with this, unless it breeds insularity and stifles creativity. Minor secrets depend on major secrets, depend on the concept of “in-the-know.” And we have to allow the possibility that perhaps insularity breeds creativity. That petri-dish has to stink of armpit & Allston for fermentation to take place. Speedy Ortiz went a long way toward breeding this genuine excitement at their Great Scott Show, wherein the dragging limp of Dupuis’ thorny lyrics is channeled into the healthy business of outing the beast of songs like “Tiger Trap.” The band have said they strive never just to turn up and play, always to deliver a good show. But still — for me at least — the cryptic antecedents of the underground looms over proceedings; the archness of ‘saying it without saying it,’ a safely detonated protest that packages confession as an incomplete gesture: “Oh-well-whatever-nevermind.”
It’s a very tricky thing to put your finger on the source of your geriatric, knee-jerk unease. I’m sure it doesn’t spell the apocalypse of all culture to see musicians mining this part of our cultural history again. And if Speedy Ortiz are going to volunteer their reassuring presence during this second dark age, I couldn’t ask for a band with more focused concentration, a band who actually cares about stage presence and putting on a good show for their sweaty audiences. Forget about the 90s revival, forget about the ticker-tape search results of mainstream publications delighted to stumble on their coolness, just find out when they will be in town, and be there. “Being there” raw, live, and alive was what the guitar/bass/drum outfits really offered us during the 1990s — not precious secrets.
The Mid; Chicago, IL
I. Fucking. Love. Chromatics. Their recordings should be classified as a barbiturate. It’s always 1 in the morning on a Saturday night when their music slinks into my veins. Johnny Jewel’s synths translate into images of tungsten light on city streets, pretty girls alone in apartments, and a place where the sun doesn’t exist. Aside from maybe The Weeknd, no one else can create night out of sound like Chromatics. In a live setting, Ruth and Johnny spike their aural opiates full of club stimulants. Four-on-the-floor kick and snare, rib-rattle bass, a few extra BPMs sprinkled like coke on a molly line; all the accoutrements necessary for a writhing mass of club kids. The last time I saw Chromatics was an outdoor stage in Austin, and while it was still everything I wanted in a show, Chromatics clearly belong in dark confines wrapped in fog and neon. I won’t lie; I’ve never been much for The Mid since it opened, but this also was the first time seeing an artist there who plays actual instruments instead of dicking around with Ableton. It won me over that night.
Chromatics put in about an hour, covering ground from In the City all the way up to their last single “Cherry.” The brooding and isolation marking tracks like “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” (by the way, definitely heard that on a Nascar commercial while I was watching Sportscenter last week) washed away in the singing from the crowd and fist pumps from some group of dudes in tank tops standing by the front. The festival detritus washing out from Union Park was apparent. You could tell Johnny Jewel was stretching his legs for Glass Candy’s set at Pitchfork; I don’t remember them taking longer than 10 or 15 seconds between songs. When they closed on “Running Up that Hill,” the only thing I wanted, like anytime I listen to that song, was for it not to end. The only thing to do now is wonder when Chromatics feel like coming back to my city, but it’s fine. I’m patient. I can subsist on album sleeves and record grooves. I can live inside minor keys and black outfits for as long as it takes. The day always feels like it’s never going to leave, but when I hear that music, it’s like someone shut off the sun.
The 80-35 Music Festival
Downtown; Des Moines, IA
I got to get my head out of the internet. Anymore festival lineup announcements feel like a reminder to me that having heard of a band is by no means the same as actually hearing a band. I know I spend too much time reading about music or listening to it while working on other things. More and more, I think I’m a one-sound-at-a-time kind of guy. Give me one album to listen to obsessively, or occasionally an entire micro-genre to explore, and I will listen until it has completely dried up. And it’s all SoundCloud embeds and Bandcamp streams: bands like Yeasayer, Menomena, or that collaboration between David Byrne and St. Vincent pass by silently just over my head, and I’m sure they are good, but I’m too obsessed with the crackliest beat “tapes” I can find or the new Animal Collective album and nothing but the new Animal Collective album. I don’t know if I even listened to the new Deerhunter album, Monomania. And I loved all of their previous albums. Why do I do that? In fact, I have definitely spent more time reading about Monomania than I have listening to it. Stupid.
The 80-35 festival is a mass booking of a bunch of Iowa bands playing the free stages surrounding festival main-stagers like Yeasayer, Deerhunter, Wu-Tang Clan, David Byrne with St. Vincent, Wavves, and Umphrey’s McGee, among others. The people at the Des Moines Music Coalition do a marvelous job of booking bands from a variety of different genres and levels of obscurity or fame while maintaining the local feel of the festival. I imagine their demographic is a tough one to please, which is probably why the lineup tends to stray away from the heavy-on-the-indie-music tendency of other festivals. Des Moines is a diverse city in somewhat off-kilter ways that other cities either haven’t figured out or just moved past years ago. And for the 80-35 festival to be successful, it can’t just cater to 20-year-olds or adults with families and jobs at Wells Fargo. It has to draw interest from both ends of that spectrum, which is how a main stage schedule of Umphrey’s McGee followed by Deerhunter followed by Wu-Tang Clan works, as long as the familiar faces of the local bands can serve as alternatives.
Annalibera: Somebody told me that Des Moines band Annalibera was kind of a country band. I don’t think this definition works in the context of that genre so prevalent in the word “country.” When I strip away the years of skipping through the numerous country stations on Iowa radio while growing up and start thinking about the kind of creativity (or bored experimentation) that can only stem from big yards and big skies outside of town, the word country begins to make sense to describe this band. Like being caught in the clear-water current of the river baptism verse of an old church hymnal and nearly drowning because all of the shore-dwellers are too hot and bored to do anything but gaze at their own shoes.
Kitty (Pryde): When the local arts and entertainment publication previewed Kitty’s performance at 80-35 by mentioning the one-million views one of her songs has on YouTube… well, at least I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. Kitty and her press-play DJ dropped a few heavy ones between a couple of tall financial buildings surrounding the Kum & Go (a Midwest gas station chain) free stage. And in between songs, she repeatedly asked the photographers to stop shooting from their low angle or she would “seriously sue them.” Alternatively, she could have worn pants. She eventually wandered off the stage somewhere near what was probably the end of the set anyway, and her DJ just smiled and let the song ride for a while before spacebar-stopping it, closing the laptop, and walking off the stage herself. From the little bit I knew about Kitty going into this one, it seemed like a pretty ideal translation of an internet phenomenon to the live experience.
Yeasayer: “Yeah, I’ve heard one or two songs before. I remember them being OK.” Turns out it was only one song, and it was the one everyone else in Des Moines knew as well. Yeasayer seem the kind of band meant to be playing festivals around the time the sun is starting to set. Real professionals, ya know? I’ve grown too accustomed to the amateur, faceless quality that is the entire internet, so it was kind of nice to see a band flawlessly play their upbeat music to a receptive audience outdoors, where you can occasionally feel a breeze on your skin. I guess they call this “the festival experience.” Never heard of it.
Menomena: “No, I haven’t ever really listened to them before. I kind of just assumed they were like four dudes making some kind of unique rock music using two guitars, a synthesizer, and drums.”
“Nope, that’s Yeasayer, remember? You just saw them.”
I must have read about Menomena at least 30 times before, in various places, and I still don’t know a damn thing about them. I think I ran into about five different people I haven’t seen in six years at this stage, so I still didn’t really even hear any of their songs. I probably missed the boat on this one, and I don’t think it’s coming back for me.
David Byrne & St. Vincent: I just never loved The Talking Heads. I don’t know why. I figured if I didn’t like the hits they still play on the radio every now and then, I probably wouldn’t like their other music, which is a terrible assumption to make about a band. I guess there was just always another radio station, CD, YouTube video. St. Vincent is great, and I am never in the mood to listen to it, because I seem to not like things that are beautiful and good and well-made. Maybe someday when my quality of life isn’t so… poor… it will make more sense.
Their collaboration as a festival headliner was not something I had high hopes for, because I’ve always liked a real punch for a headliner. I was pleasantly surprised with this one, however, and I remember thinking how 80-35 really booked a perfect middle-ground band with this one, perhaps truly capturing that sought-after all-inclusive demographic.
Tires: The majority of the second day was spent on the side stages, watching the wide variety of Des Moines local bands. Tires started the day out for me, because I had to work too late to see Wavves. Tires has been a real curveball for the Des Moines scene, which otherwise boasts few electronic-based bands. They combine the “add-a-synthesizer” tendency of pop-acts-gone-dreamy with fierce psychedelic jams, and are concerned just as much with quality of their set as they are with their always-changing array of MIDI visuals. They are somewhat of a complete package in that regard. I only wish they could have played after the sun went down, rather than four in the afternoon. Maybe next year.
Trouble Lights: Trouble Lights are an anomaly, sporting a punch of straight-forward, Top 40 pop music from a little town called Fairfield, surrounded by Iowa corn on all sides. The entire Sweat Power collective there has been concerned with dance music and dance music alone for the past six or seven years, and Trouble Lights are its biggest breakthrough yet, finding their way onto NPR last year with Maximum Ames full-length Endless Prom. It is becoming common knowledge that if you are attending any Sweat Power show, you are in for an experience because they don’t just play their music, they perform it. The shoulder-shrug attitude of so many musicians has not yet permeated the Fairfield city limits, and I can’t imagine it ever will.
The River Monks: The River Monks might just be Iowa. The five-part vocal harmonies swirl outward like wind across the fields, while the band’s traditional folk instrumentation is given Iowa’s unexpectedly progressive touch, leaving you with something entirely recognizable, yet completely new. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to see this band.
Deerhunter: I was more excited for Deerhunter than any other band. It may be the fact that Bradford Cox, good or bad, is always an interesting figure. They started late because, of course, some cord chose that exact moment to stop working, and when you are dealing with festival electronics, you probably have close to 100 different connections to check when something isn’t working right. But they still floated through every part of their set with a loose flawlessness. And at numerous points between songs, the set was dedicated to a punk teenager in a Black Flag shirt named Timmy. It was an oddly perfect detail coming from Cox, wearing a Cramps shirt and probably giving two shits about this one-off show in Des Moines, IA. Which isn’t to say anything about the band’s attitude, but more about the general direction of their newest album, Monomania, which everyone declared as a throwback to headlong rock & roll figures like Gene Vincent and Bo Diddley. Like “Just 22 and I don’t mind dying” type of carelessness. But they channel it through that old Deerhunter style of huge guitar sounds swelling up over the last half of 10-minute songs and it just works. To perfection. I remember some girl in a car telling me that she thought they were called Dragonslayer, and I told her that they might as well have been.
Wu-Tang Clan: “Iowa, I mean… wait, yeah, Iowa! How we doing tonight?” Oh, Method Man. Wu-Tang Clan in Des Moines, Iowa. Alright. I’ve always liked the group member’s solo albums more, but damn(!), Des Moines was in the mood for the relentless assault of 36 Chambers. By the time they took the stage, my relax-in-a-hurry was wearing off, my 6 AM work day that morning was wearing on, and my brain was still broken from the crushing onslaught of Deerhunter’s set, so I just hung out in the back where I could actually have 2-3 feet of space to myself. I listened to their crushing bass boom outward and decay the way it only can at festivals: from the massive tower of speakers, back and forth between buildings and through thousands of Wu-Tang W’s raised high on all of those drunken Des Moines hands. Maybe I was just too exhausted, but it seemed like the GZA tracks hit harder than nearly everything else but the Cappadonna verses, which carried heavily every time he took center stage.
A friend told me he saw Ghostface Killah play at Des Moines’ metal venue, The House of Bricks, about two years ago, during which Killah allegedly claimed he wouldn’t play Des Moines again unless more people showed up. I guess it took a festival to bring him back.
I’m not sure how much 80-35 has grown since its first year and accompanying headliner The Flaming Lips. I seem to remember just as many people watching that band as Wu-Tang Clan on Saturday night this year. In comparison to the crowds one has to face at Pitchfork, South by Southwest, or any other renowned festival throughout the nation, I can’t help but think that Iowans prefer more intimacy. And maybe next year I’ll actually have familiarity with the lineup beyond a few of the names and a handful of singles. I don’t know. Until then, back to the internet!
Glasslands; Brooklyn, NY
Something unfortunate happened to Alex Zhang Hungtai last week. As he wrote on his blog, there were problems getting his band from Berlin to New York to play a pair of shows (one a late-night outing at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan, the other at Glasslands in Brooklyn) and he found himself unable to play his new double album “properly” in a live setting. Rather than cancelling, he decided to do something risky. With some local friends he performed the new albums in an improvised way that, as he put it, presented the work not in its recorded form, instead endeavoring to “strip it down to its essence and core.” Mercury Lounge was dedicated to exploring the bluesy, aggressive sound of Drifters and Glasslands explored the impressionistic heartbreak of Love Is The Devil. This all sounded too interesting to pass up so I checked out Glasslands last Friday night not knowing what to expect.
I suppose I should be upfront that, now midway through 2013, Drifters/Love Is The Devil is my favorite album of the year. Love in particular is a record I have been playing multiple times a week (or even a day), and still get completely lost in. Together the discs comprise a sprawling journey I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of after more than 100 listens. But what was going to be performed tonight had unpredictability that comes with improvisation, which made me all the more excited.
Hungtai came out shortly after 10 p.m. with Edwin White (Tonstartssbandht, EOLA) and Jakub Alexander (Heathered Pearls), all three opting to sit on the floor of the stage to get closer to their layout of pedals and sequencers. With his partners providing a foundation of gentle loops and drones, Hungtai spent the evening only playing guitar; any vocals (all wordless) were provided by one of his partners. It was strange… though only a few brief moments were recognizably from the record this felt like a genuine performance of Love Is The Devil. It’s a record that feels so much like a window into a specific time and place, and Hungtai’s playing brought me into the same headspace. Still, there was an amazing feeling that came when what I’m sure was guitar line from “Alone At The Danube River” pierced through the mist of sound. As the trio played under the glow of the strange stalactite-esque lights hanging throughout Glasslands, the delicacy and beauty of the performance became more noticeable. Small shifts in sound, or recurring motifs grew in strength, and the rare occasion Hungtai lifted his head brought gravity after lengthy periods of intense stillness.
All this makes me a little frustrated at how awful the audience was. I was in the front row, directly in front of Hungtai and next to a massive speaker, and could hear people talking loudly right behind me. I can only imagine how distracting and discouraging some people talking close to the stage were, and during a large uproar of people in the back near the bar the band abruptly stopped. Hungtai and his one-off band smiled at each other and looked happy with things regardless, thanked audience a little sheepishly, and took off. I could go on more (and did before I deleted the graph) about the disrespect from the audience, and how it’s a problem that I’ve found frequently at shows in Brooklyn for some reason, but it’s not worth the energy. This show was something really special and many people there would have agreed. I’m looking forward to seeing a more traditional Dirty Beaches set the next time he comes around, but I think this is how I’ll always remember the spirit of Love Is The Devil: Hungtai on the floor, head down, and bathed in red light, evoking such fragility and pain with just a guitar.