Ulster County Performing Arts Center; Kingston, NY
There's been a lot of talk about
how Lou Reed isn't far from paying his debt to debauchery, but quite frankly,
I've discovered it to be a crock. A cancelled show date in Poughkeepsie, New
York (from where I hail, approximately) inspired rumors of sickness, heroin
addiction relapses, yada yada. The truth? Dude was playing a surprise show in
the Czech Republic, where he's hailed as an anti-Commie cultural god of sorts.
Take that, Hudson Valley!
Anyway, he made good on that split and played a date in Kingston (best known
for absolutely nothing except the fact that the Pixies and Jeff Tweedy also
think it's kinda cool), New York, and I piled into a 1990 Crown Victoria
station wagon with some kids from my rock journalism class after some pulled
strings landed us on the guest list.
We shivered in the cracked leather seats of the Ulster County Performing Arts
Center, a venue more suited for the local symphony than the likes of Lou. The
crowd was pure Mid-Hudson Valley fare: drunk middle-aged men totally stoked to
be at a rock show without the old ball & chain, hipsters from local colleges,
and finally, some theatre club members who'd probably confused it with a
Martin Sexton show.
Cue electric green light and a couple of startled, spilled beers (contraband
in a joint like this). Some dude from Long Island ambled onstage in a cutoff
t-shirt and jeans, opened that mouth of a million cigarettes and god knows
what else, and I knew I was home. Let's cut to the facts: The Rolling Stones
look like shit because they haven't taken a second to say "Hey, we're getting
a little older ... it's time to relax and have some tea." Graceful agers, my
ass. Lou Reed had the sense to go on vacation for a bit, find God or whoever,
and take up tai chi.
Launching right into "What's Good" from Magic and Loss, he quelled
earlier reports of being a stationary showman, twisting his hips with a few
little half-turns and a snap of his fingers. Like a conductor, he pulled down
on an invisible thread and cinched the end of the song closed with his
fingers, his band following suit. I barely caught my breath as "The
Proposition" began to caress the crowd, and I was even able to ignore the
crazy guy who insisted on yelling "WOOHOO!" and running back and forth from
one end of the balcony to another (Lou Reed cut the junk and you can, too).
Later on, with a half-smile, Lou stretched the intro of "Waiting For the Man"
an extra twelve bars, fully aware of the agony he was causing. Bathed in red
light, he sang of New York City drug deals long gone, and our knees went weak.
In a leap of faith, he dove into the title track from The Raven, a
widely misunderstood spoken-word album of Edgar Allan Poe's work released in
2003. Sales were dismal, but tonight, he ripped into the last stanza,
finishing with a deliciously tortured "I love she who hates me more!" and a
roomful of people suddenly got it.
Line by staggering line, he painstaking released "Perfect Day" to us during a
hard-won encore. Images of Ewan McGregor sinking into a red carpet at a drug
dealer's flat long gone, we got the ultimate hit: the original gravelly voice
of an icon whose name leaves hipsters' lips every second.
A small wave of his hand, a swoop of the house lights, and I sat staring into
space, knowing I'd go home and slap my copy of Rock and Roll Animal on
the turntable and write to let you know that it is indeed possible survive the
white light/white heat.
Bumbershoot: Day Three
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
day three be any worse than day two? The bill was far from stacked. I was
growing weary from the large crowds, the long miles, and the exhausting heat.
My goal was to gut it out to catch festival closer A Tribe Called Quest, but
it was not to be. Sorry to spoil the ending so early. How often does a hip-hop
group reunite and immediately tour? Never mind — bad rhetorical question.
The first (and quite possibly only) positive of the day was the lack of crowd
compared to Sunday's free-for-all. Most of that can be attributed to the
winding line to score a pass to the main stage to catch the Steve Miller Band.
Any Midwesterner can tell you it's easy to catch Steve Miller and his band any
summer of any year. From 1992-2003 (when I left the Hoosier state) I can
safely say the Miller played at least once a year in Indiana. I don't know his
track record for Washington, but judging by the size of the line and the wide
discrepancy of age groups, he must rarely play the state. Sadly Steve Miller
fans, I didn't waste the time of checking out the greatest hits concert that
I've seen before. I knew that even with a depleted roster of artists and
comedians, I could find better ways of entertaining myself.
Just as quickly as I said those words, they would become my dooming moment.
But not for awhile. My first break of the day came with the relative ease of
getting into the Arj Barker/Morgan Murphy/Paul F. Tompkins show. Sunday's
press debacle aside, the staff had no problem throwing me in front of the
line. I was assured that I would be able to get in later to see the show
featuring Zach Galifianakis while chatting up the staff, so my hopes of
lasting until A Tribe Called Quest were burning eternal. As for the show
itself, Arj Barker was tearing shit up left and right. For fear of ruining his
material (and making myself sound like a fool), I won't divulge his
repertoire. I will just pressure you to catch his act should it roll into your
town. In an age when unfunny comedians (Carlos Mencia, Ray Romano, Kevin
James, et. al.) get millions of dollars and attract an audience with a
shortage of funny bones, it was great to get genuine laughs out of Barker.
Even the elderly set in attendance were copping an extra puff from their
oxygen tanks. Unfortunately, his momentum was stopped quickly by the unfunny
Morgan Murphy. Her Stephen Wright shtick was not working on the crowd at all —
not because no one enjoys Wright's deadpan delivery and observational humor,
but because Murphy just wasn't capable of pulling any of it off with her own
spin. Paul F. Tompkins came out to try to save the show, but the wind was out
of the sails by then. The crowd had lost interest thanks to Murphy, and
Tompkins had no shot of recovering.
No matter how boring and uninspired Morgan Murphy's set may have been, it
could never have trumped the destruction and ennui of Greil Marcus' reading.
Sitting in the same seat in the same auditorium that gifted me the dual attack
of Charles Burns and Chuck Palahniuk, Marcus read sections from his latest
novel — particularly talking about Alan Ginsburg. In a moment of sheer
hypocrisy, Marcus accused Ginsburg of loving the sound of his own voice. Pot
meet kettle. I barely stomached half an hour of Marcus' rhetoric. It was
thick, messy, and most of all, boring. It wasn't his monotone delivery or
pompous posture, but the material itself. The passages were cold and
unrelenting. There was no soul to his book, and what's worse was he clearly
wrote the novel for a group that no longer cares about what he has to say.
Clearly, Greil Marcus has lost touch with his readership. I was hoping his
fellatio on Bob Dylan in the music edition of The Believer was just due
to his obsession with Dylan — not born out of being out-of-touch. Nothing
could be further from the truth. Marcus is stuck in the 60s, both musically
and socially. I'll never claim to be half the critic or writer Marcus is, but
to see a man who should be admired for his work a generation ago fall into a
recycled pattern of telling the same stories with few changes is truly
saddening. I might have shed a tear had I not been fighting off sleep.
I followed the mass exodus (apparently I wasn't alone in my assessment
considering Marcus' generational peers couldn't leave the auditorium fast
enough) and decided to check out the Indie Market. While chatting up some
McSweeneys employees while I bought David Byrne's The New Sins, I
heard the faint sounds from the NW Court. Heading over to the stage, I caught
the middle of Jacqui Naylor's set. Her form of jazz is definitely aimed for
the Norah Jones/Lizz Wright/Madeline Peyroux set, not because she happens to
be a female jazz singer, but because of the nature of her slow, cautious
melodies. Her backing band was fantastic, nailing traditional jazz standards
with ease. Even each member's solo was to be applauded and admired. Too bad
Naylor just doesn't have the pizzazz of a Jones or Wright.
I decided it was time to make haste towards the Intiman Theatre to catch Zach
Galifianakis. Having been assured a seat, I still wanted to beat the crowd.
The line waiting to get in was large (as expected — it had been all weekend),
but as I made my way to the front, the same staffers who had guaranteed my
entry told me to go away. Once again, denied after being told it would be no
problem to get in to the show. The one comedian I wanted to see all weekend
and I was denied. I wasn't upset that I was going to miss him so much as I was
upset that I let myself get excited at the promise of entrance by staffers who
sent mixed messages to most of the press corp all damn weekend. I felt even
sorrier for those in line that would be told they'd get in but were turned
away as well. Hopefully Bumbershoot organizers will take notice of how in
demand certain acts were and accordingly fix the problem. When someone buys a
ticket to get into a festival to see certain acts and artists, there shouldn't
be a competition and a waiting game to maybe, hopefully, possibly see someone.
After hauling ass to try to get into the comedic interpretation/breakdown of
R. Kelly's hip-hopera "Trapped in the Closet" and being denied once more, I
gave up and called it a festival. I was too tired to fight anymore, and the
crowd was swelling in size.
One good day doesn't trump the mismanagement, confusion, and errors of two
days. Bumbershoot 2006 will go down as a massive failure. I'm sure plenty
festival goers will say they had a good time, and I'm sure they did. But as
for overall presentation, Bumbershoot is happy to skimp on the important
features. The staff that dealt directly with the press and paying customer at
the ticket booths, markets, and lounges were fantastic. However, the staff
that played hardball, bullied patrons, didn't know their heads from their
asses, and didn't get their facts straight ran wild all over Bumbershoot. What
should be an experience to catch bands you love and discover new loves (if any
members of PK and What Army comes across this — please e-mail me pronto)
turned out to be nothing more than another run-of-the-mill mistake of a
festival. Will I do it again next year? Probably — there's a bit of an
optimist in all my pessimism, but I'll be ready to endure a lot of hell to
enjoy just a little purgatory.
Bumbershoot: Day Two
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Day two was not kind to me or many
of the festival goers. It had nothing to do with the temperatures or a lack of
food and water, but with the size of the mob trolling the grounds. Compared to
Saturday, the amount of festival goers doubled, causing massive headaches and
massive lines. With Key Arena shut off, there were fewer bathrooms, fewer
concessions (not that it was noticeable), and fewer places to seek the indoor
cool of air conditioning.
It didn't help matters that two of indie music's hottest acts — The New
Pornographers and Spoon — were sharing the early bill at the main stage. Minus
a few scraps of shade emanating from the stage's massive rig, the sun beat
down on the beer- and cigarette-soaked turf. Those smart enough to seek the
shelter of the stands were doing themselves a favor. However, I am a fearless
(also known as a pale white boy willing to roast in the abnormally hot Seattle
sun) journeyman seeking any inkling of a story to share. I arrived just in
time to catch the last few licks of the New Pornographer's set. Perhaps it's
an indie sin to state that I just don't enjoy the New Pornographers as a
group. I'll pay money to see Carl Newman or Neko Case play solo shows (or in
the case of the later, with her “Boyfriends”), but other than a track or two
from each of the band's albums, I don't find myself fully enjoying their brand
of super group power pop. Of course, the sizeable audience negated any
negative aura I was giving off.
Deciding to kill some time between the sets of indie juggernauts, I exited to
the grounds to check out what smaller treasures the other stages hid. First
stop was Dengue Fever. A large cluster of dancers were fighting for territory
among the grass loungers, so getting an up close look at the band was near
impossible. Factor in that press access to smaller stages was nigh, and you
can pretty much see that the day was starting off terribly. Bumbershoot
mistake #2: Shitting on the press.
Before I go any further, I should clarify my views of being a "member" of the
press. I didn't expect to have better treatment than the paying festival
goers. I didn't strive to cut in lines, get in people's way, or shove cameras
in between the audience to capture a band in performance. I never trampled
over people to get to a show, and I sure didn't expect some giant spread of
food and drink at the press room. I was, however, under the impression that
press would have access to viewpoints and stages easier than we did. I'm sure
complaining about getting into a festival for free is something many of you
could care less about, but I noticed I wasn't alone in feeling alienated — a
large majority of paying customers felt that Bumbershoot was falling flat on
its face. Usually a festival is organized enough to get people to where they
want to be and into the shows they want to see; this year everything collapsed
under the weight of neglect. Everything was hurried, and everyone paid the
price for it. It was easy to ignore during the first day's activities because
the crowd was significantly smaller than that of day two, not to mention more
Back to the action, I was tired of trading elbows and shoulders with the crowd
at Dengue Fever, so I made my way to the Northwest Court to catch the Kelley
Johnson Quartet. Needless to say, the jazz was just what I needed to calm me
down from an early overload. I was beginning to dread Bumbershoot, but the
cool and collected Kelley Johnson soothed me back to health. Once she wrapped
up, I sucked it up and returned to the main stage to catch Spoon.
The crowd for Spoon was exceptionally large for this time of day and this type
of music. I guess more and more folks are getting turned on to Spoon via word
of mouth and car rides where friends thrust the CD into their player of choice
and will their passengers to like Spoon. Fortunately, Spoon is a great enough
band that the forced exposure isn't needed. Spoon came out to thunderous
approval and began tracing over their catalogue's sharpest numbers. The
highlight of the show came from a surprise appearance from David Cross, who
gave us an interpretive dance to "The Beast and Dragon Adored." Before I knew
it, flocks of teenagers began thrusting themselves closer and closer to the
stage to catch a glimpse of Cross. I guess I never knew how popular he was. I
couldn't take the swells of kids, and since I had seen Spoon just last year
and the set was quite familiar, I decided it was time to roam the grounds
I was pretty much killing time until Vashti Bunyan's set. I thought about
checking out some comedy acts, but it seems they weren't friendly to the
press. I'd beat the long lines and yet I was continually turned away. The time
I'd waste standing in line would not be worth all the missed music, so I
sucked it up and went on my merry way. In retrospect, killing time in line to
get a few laughs, wasting an hour or so, and soaking up some air conditioning
would have been the wiser move. No matter where I ran, no matter the artist or
band — Matt Costa, Jeremy Enigk (admittedly, I was a pretty big Sunny Day Real
Estate fan. Shut up!), the Crystal Skulls or even Floyd Standifer at my
favorite pavilion; the NW Court — no one was very entertaining. Each was more
boring, harder to stomach, and easier to ignore. Never the signs of good
performances. Sunday was turning into a wash. By the time Vashti Bunyan hit
the NW Court stage, I was ready to endure the bus ride and head home. I stayed
long enough to hear Bunyan serenade an older crowd for a few numbers, but I
just wasn't in the mood. I know someday I'll wake up and kick myself for not
staying, but sometimes a cold beer and a comfortable loveseat trump a unique
Bumbershoot: Day One
Seattle Center; Seattle, WA
Taking the bus can be a daunting
task even for the most fearless explorer. Whirling south from the Ballard
neighborhood, I expected every stop to be packed with teens and twenty-somethings
eager to make it to through the pearly gates of Bumbershoot only to wait in a
contrived line to maybe, hopefully, possibly grab mainstage passes to check
out the unholy trifecta that was Hawthorne Heights, Yellowcard, and AFI.
Bumbershoot mistake #1: Making your paying customers waste hours under the
blistering sun to get an additional pass to see the mainstage action.
Thankfully I was armed with a press pass as well as no desire to check out the
bland trinity. I had bigger fish to fry.
I arrived, checked in, and then headed for the nearest musical stage. I
stumbled upon P:ano's set, which was winding down to much anticipation. The
band was on fire, adding fuel to what was to be an abnormally hot September
day for Seattle. Classify the band as chamber pop if you must, but today they
blazed a trail into jazz country. Perhaps it was the surroundings of the
jazz-sponsored stage they inhabited. No matter, they were sharp in front of an
older and appreciative audience. Playing to a crowd of no more than 80 either
brings out your best or your worst and P:ano happened to entertain 80 people
Not wanting to miss the speaking engagement of Charles Burns and Chuck
Palahniuk, I made a quiet exit and backtracked to Boeing Performance Arts
stage — the true beginning of my day. Burns, best known for his graphic novel
Black Hole as well as his cover illustrations for The Believer,
opened up with a slide presentation. At least it wasn't of his most recent
vacation. Much of the crowd was enthralled as he juxtaposed his favorite
comics of his youth with his sketches and stories. The more Burns settled in
to his speech, the more involved the audience became. I was beginning to
regret this misstep until Burns began to explore his work beyond the central
themes. Finding inspiration from his high school yearbooks, parallels between
the fictitious characters and the very real peers of Burns' yesteryear
overtook the presentation. After fielding a few benign questions from the
audience, Burns yielded the stage to big applause and bigger anticipation —
anticipation Chuck Palahniuk quickly met and exceeded. Ever since the days of
Fight Club's big screen adaptation, Palahniuk has been an author in
demand. His stories are larger than life and his details only blur the lines
between fantasy and reality. After showering the crowd with airplane bottles
of Wild Turkey and Crown Royal ("If you caught on of those and you're under
21, you're now breaking the law."), and showing us a suitcase of plastic
severed arms (which were inspected by Homeland Security) he read from "Guts,"
his prized story of childhood exploration through masturbation. If you've
heard it, consider yourself a survivor. I've never seen a room of men who
thought themselves to be tough as nails succumb to the uneasiness and sheer
brutality of Palahniuk’s descriptive prose. Thankfully I had eaten long before
journeying to Bumbershoot, so my stomach chose not to revolt. However, I saw
plenty of people make hasty b-lines for the exits. "Guts," is not for the
squeamish. Space Mountain be damned.
I slipped out shortly after Palahniuk wrapped up to avoid the exiting mass and
made my way back to the NW Court Lounge to catch Jarboe. After Palahniuk,
Jarboe's hushed beginnings weren't making the impression on me I desired.
After sitting on my hands for a few songs, I decided it was time to just
wander the grounds and see what I could find. My first stop was eavesdropping
on the set of Jaime Lidell. The set was very uneven, stretching from gnarled
soul to broken hip-hop. Perhaps I needed a different surrounding, or just a
beer or two in my stomach. Either way, I backtracked towards Key Arena to
check out the roller derby tournament and grab a beer from the stadium
concessions. Both were the mid-afternoon pick-me-up I needed. Ladies — all
elbows and knees, lukewarm beer, and the roars of a crowd enthralled by the
hometown all-star team beating the living hell out of a lesser team from
Carolina (North or South, we never were told. Perhaps it's like the Carolina
Panthers except without Steve Smith or Jake Delhomme) — were the recharge I
was looking for.
I absorbed the last bit of air conditioning I could muster and headed south to
catch Laura Veirs. While her performance wasn't as rousing or rocking as I was
hoping, she had a captive audience and the help of Karl Blau to help her power
through "Fire Snakes" and "Galaxies" in front of the hometown crowd. As she
was picking up steam, I decided my goodwill was needed elsewhere. I grabbed my
pack and headed to the far south end of Seattle Center to catch Rogue Wave
entertaining the chill, pro-KEXP crowd gathered 'round the Backyard Stage. By
now the temperature was beginning to cool and shade was taking over most stage
areas, so many in the crowd grabbed a large piece of land and set up camp. I
watched the crowd as the band plowed through the best Out of the Shadow
and Descended Like Vultures have to offer. I liked this crowd — it was
quiet, receptive, and captivated without the rowdy teenage hipsters or the
obnoxious 40 year-olds drunk and stumblebum as if Bumbershoot was their first
day out in the world. Of course I hate them — because I'm destined to become
one of them.
Soaking up enough indie music to last me for awhile, I made my way towards the
roller derby tourney once more to empty my bladder. After a quick peek to see
the hometown Rat City Rollergirls blasting the visiting San Francisco team, I
exited the premises to hear the members of NOMO finishing up their soundcheck.
Hearing the blast of horns, I figured a change of pace was needed. I strolled
over to the Bumbrella stage and was rewarded with free-jazz blasts of
saxophone and trumpet accompanied by African-influenced beats. The herd of
wanderers was quickly summoned over to watch Nomo's set from the first note.
Not one band attracted as much diversity, appreciation, and devotion as NOMO.
The music melted away my sadness that pitcher Hideo Nomo was not part of the
band, but I'm sure Bumbershoot could have used a decent hurler in case of an
The moving bug bit me again, but I still had 30 minutes to kill until
Alejandro Escovedo took the More Music Stage, so I returned to the homebase of
the NW Court to catch the improv stylings of PK and What Army. NOMO may have
advertised 4 horns, but PK and What Army boasted as many as 13 (during one of
my counts) out of the 17 people I was able to catch onstage. It was a
psych-jazz free-for-all as the band wailed and conductor/composer/all-around
nice guy PK led the band like a true-to-life Bugs Bunny. The music was
mind-melting and I began to contemplate leaving the festival right then and
there, for who was able to usurp PK from day one's top perch? Surely not
My decision to stay and let it ride on Alejandro Escovedo was a wise one. Two
guitars, a bass, a synth, and a cello certainly bested PK and his army on this
day. After Escovedo's battles with Hepatitis C, it was good to see the man
back on stage and tearing everything to shreds. Escovedo and his backing band
didn't take one note off, quickly gathering the passers-by with each number.
It's no secret that my first musical love was alt-country and roots rock —
Escovedo being a poster boy for the genre after Wilco left for greener
pastures, but tonight Escovedo was about nothing more than turning every one
of his songs into one giant mass of molten rock. Song after song he made new
fans. I noticed a rush to the nearby Tower Records tent, presumably people
looking to nab a few Escovedo albums. Unfortunately I couldn't stay for the
entire set — Deerhoof was calling towards the north end and I answered.
I made it to Deerhoof's stage in time to grab a beer and pull up a seat in the
beer garden before the doors opened and the Pitchfork indier-than-thou kids
began their fashion show: vintage t-shirts, obscure band t-shirts, shaggy yet
well-groomed hair. This is the uniform of the indie kid generation. Some of
the kids seemed thrilled to be seeing Deerhoof — usually the band is relegated
to the over 21 crowd — but I noticed the majority of people were just here
because folks like us tell them to. Don't misconstrue my words, I don't think
we have that much power and hold on the indie blog readers, but I'm sure many
of these festival-goers who happen to read sites just like Tiny Mix Tapes were
just towing the indie kid line. Unfortunately, their lack of energy rubbed off
on Deerhoof and the band's set never took off. They were doomed from the start
when the snare head broke on the first smack of the stick. Halfway through the
torture, I downed another beer and ran to check out Of Montreal at the
Backyard Stage. Sadly, I made it just in time to catch their last gasps. Both
tracks were ridiculously over-electronic and the crowd seemed restless. I was
growing tired and restless as well and decided it was time to endure the
trauma hell ride back home.
Photo: Ben Clark
The Minus 5
Tractor Tavern; Seattle, WA
There's nothing like a good time
with pop. Pop, in this case, being a double entendre for a genre of music and
The Minus 5's head honcho Scott McCaughey. Spouting self-important wisdom
through the lip of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can, Scott wasted no time dazzling the
packed audience with casual conversation and 3-minute pop delights. Few can
pull off the tattered hair and sunglasses look, but Scott has the look down
pat. It's a happy time when a man twice the age of his peers can put them to
shame on a stage.
The true beauty of The Minus 5 isn't to see Peter Buck up close and
lackadaisical or to watch Scott McCaughey wax poetic about sexy food, but to
enjoy a good, old-fashioned rock and roll show strictly on the merit of
clever, hook-laden pop. There isn't a need for a 15 piece band, a horn
section, or more pedals and contraptions than instruments. Seeing The Minus 5
on stage with the bare bones of primitive rock is a thrill unto itself.
Whether the band stuck close to recent releases (At the Organ and The
Gun Album) or mixed in a cover (Warren Zevon's "Carmelita"), it didn't
matter. For a change all pretense was thrown out in favor of substance. I like
a thinking man's show just a much as the next fan. I enjoy the fervor and
manic pace of a noise performance. There is truly nothing as heartwarming as
some twang chased down with a few shots of whiskey. However, none of those
shows can ever replicate the sheer, uninhibited enjoyment of going to a bar,
having a couple of cheap beers, and watching four guys just tear into pop song
after pop song with no cares. In fact, McCaughey's stage banter is just as
entertaining and personal as his music. I caught myself hoping he'd ramble on
a little more about burritos, mashed potatoes, and Portland. Dry wit is a rare
commodity in the world of indie rock
The Minus 5 are the perfect change-up to your concert-going routine (unless,
of course, your routine is just seeing The Minus 5). It's nice to lose
yourself in a 40 minute set and not have to think about the lyrics or the
music or the innovation. The pleasure is in drinking your Stroh's, moving your
feet, and bobbing your head. We forget about the heart and soul of music — the
primal band and audience connection. The Minus 5 won't let your ignore those
basic instincts ever again.
Tractor Tavern; Seattle, WA
in no mood to listen to Robbie Fulks. Don't get me wrong: Fulks'
tongue-in-cheek take on traditional country aesthetics and values is something
I enjoy, but it's hard to get yourself pumped up for a Monday night concert
when the last thing you've been listening to is anything but country.
Thankfully Robbie Fulks didn't play a single country tune, or any alt-country
tunes; the man and his tight backing band played rock and roll with a healthy
side of twang to compliment the main course of wit.
If you're not from Seattle and/or you've never been to the Tractor Tavern, you
can probably imagine the place's décor just by name alone. This particular
Monday evening the atmosphere was just a little more electric and unlike its
barn roots. Perhaps it was the older crowd and their enthusiasm wafting over
the joint, or it could have been that Robbie Fulks is a man that no
preconceived image can contain. To look at the him, you wouldn't expect
country-inflected music from such a man or his backing ensemble. Fulks is a
man above image.
From the first words of show opener "She Took A Lot of Pill (And Died)," you'd
immediately recognize that biting sarcasm from the indie world. Not only is
the song a shining example of many of Robbie's tracks, it's also a raucous and
rowdy anthem that cowboys and hipsters alike can love. The marriage between
the world of country and indie would become the theme of the evening. Unafraid
to explore his catalogue, Fulks and company ripped through dozens of tracks
with vigor. Whether it was the boot-scoot of "Rock Bottom, Population 1," the
fool's tale of "I Told Her Lies," or the honesty of "Mad at a Girl," Fulks
delivered it all with zeal. He had the crowd eating out of his palm, and much
like me, fans showing signs of not quite being in the mood were quickly
brought into the fold. It was only a matter of time before foot tapping, head
bobbing and full-blown dancing was taking place. The Tractor Tavern was
quickly turning into a barn dance even if most of the participants were weary.
The highlight of the evening came during "I Want to Be Mama'd," which saw the
entire band take solos. Usually tedious to endure, the band was tight and
inventive. There was no slack-jawed bass line, no color-by-numbers country
guitar solo, or country death song drum fills. The track was bits and pieces
of rock, soul and jazz. As the song devolved into chaos, it even began to
resemble free-folk. Robbie was doing Akron/Family fans proud with spastic folk
plucking and impromptu lyrics about his son's former high school teacher (who
was in attendance).
The reality of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks. No wonder Robbie
Fulks will never get the big break he deserves. He's not country, he's not
rock, and he's uncompromising. That's why he draws music nerds and working men
and women into his shows. It's a spectacle without strobes and lasers. All
Fulks has — genuineness — is all he needs to entertain.
Jon-Rae and The River / Castle Music / The People Verses
The Stack Farm; Kelowna, BC
to the Jon-Rae Jamboree," reads the sign greeting patrons. It's 7:30pm, the
official “Doors Open" time, and hardly anyone is here. At least, it feels like
no one is here. In fact, it seems like nothing is here, as tonight's
festivities are to take place at an old farmhouse in central Kelowna, a small
city known for its fruit trees, beautiful golf courses, ski hills, and
ludicrous amounts of urban development. But tonight, the focus is around the
return of one of the city's best exports: Jon-Rae and The River.
The 'door,' as it is normally referred to as, was more of a long, dirt
driveway, with a beat-up, old pedestal and a chair beside it. To the right of
this whitewashed box lay a blanket with the first band's CDs neatly arranged
in a row along the left-hand side, as to make room for The River's swag. Most
of the people who have come to attend this gig are wandering between the house
and Ernie's Liquor Store across the street, waiting for the show to start.
Once Jon-Rae Fletcher and his new, Toronto-based River (after moving there,
members of Jon-Rae's former River went on to play in bands such as Ladyhawk
and P:ano) pull up to the driveway, things are underway. After some quick
setup in the carport and a few beer runs, husband-and-wife duo The People
Verses hit the (ahem) 'stage' (carport). My expectations for their set were
rather low, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Their stage presence was
warm, friendly, and very similar to fellow couple-band The Evens, but their
sound was more akin to a Detroit garage rock band, borrowing guitar sounds
from The Stooges, or perhaps The Black Keys. During their set, the band even
encouraged the audience to not buy their merch, as to help The River have
enough gas money to get back to hometown Toronto.
Second act Castle Music (featuring Jennifer Castle of Fox The Boombox and
Everybody Get Sick) was up next; they chose to start playing immediately
instead of saying "hi everyone," and waiting for our attention first.
Apparently we weren't the only ones who didn't realize that her set was
starting – the majority of the crowd continued talking throughout 75% of her
entire first song. Jennifer has an excellent, emotive voice, with similarities
to Leslie Feist or a much less annoying Joni Mitchell, and she isn't afraid to
use it to express. This was best evidenced in her final song in her incredibly
short set, a haunting a capella 'sea shanty' about sailors that finally
silenced the very social crowd.
But it was the entrance of The River that finally grabbed the audience's full
attention. Sporting a leaner, slimmer, touring band of a mere seven members,
leader Jon-Rae welcomed the crowd and started out the set with a set of two
new tracks, "Roll," and “Ghost." The new songs encapsulated the group's usual
'big city record store employee does country' sound, but have moved a little
closer towards a bastardized 'soul' music, such as with "Just One More."
Regardless of genre, Jon-Rae's knack for writing a melody is uncanny; it's not
often that you can go to a gig, hear a new song, and walk out of the show
actually humming the tune. That's how great pop songs should be, right?
Jon-Rae and The River are one of the best live acts I have seen. They are
enthusiastic and passionate about the music they perform, with all members
singing without microphones during some of the songs. One of the most
satisfying moments of the show was during "Holy Ghost" — a standout track from
their 2003 LP, The Road — where audience and band alike sang along with
Jon-Rae during the choruses, never missing a note or a word. There was a
slight chill in the air as those prolonged vocal tones resonated past the
single guitar's subdued, chiming notes, leaving this tiny fraction of
Between Paul Mortimer's weeping slide guitar, the outstanding, almost Doors-esque
keyboard collaborations of Jonathan Adjemian and Mike Stafford, the rolling
bass of Ian Russell, and the Animal-esque drum stylings of Dave Clark, The
River's blend of sounds complimented Jon-Rae and Anne Rust D'eye's tag-teamed
vocals perfectly. Never satisfied to adhere to one sound style, the group
would make these subtle yet ironically sharp left-turns, such as the Lynyrd
Skynyrd-style breakdown at the end of "Roll." These are the moments where it's
most apparent that JR&TR is a live band.
Though there were plenty of people in the crowd who didn't know each other,
what they did know is that you come to a River show to sing. This is a
band who did a show that Now! Toronto called "the best gig of 2005" — and for
good reason. They are musically tight, warm, and inviting, and they write
irresistibly catchy indie-rock/country tunes that aren't there to conquer the
world, be dramatic, or anything else other than just be great songs to sing
along to. You could say that they're the ultimate sing-along group. I mean,
all their albums to date have been recorded in living rooms while all of
Jon-Rae's friends sing along; is that not a big enough hint?
Expect the Toronto's newest LP, Knows What You Need to drop in October
on the Baudelaire label (also home to Tangiers and The Diableros). In speaking
with Jon-Rae, he told me he was most proud of this record of "soul songs about
fucking," which I'm sure has some sort of intentional Steve Albini reference
in it somewhere. If the recordings manage to capture a little bit of the magic
these live fucking songs convey, it will be an amazing record indeed. If
you're looking for a great act to see live, make sure you check these guys out
– you won't be disappointed. Perhaps you won't get to see them in a farmhouse,
but any venue with Jon-Rae and The River playing is a good venue indeed.
As I Die
When You Come Knocking
Come Back To Me
Nothing To Do
Just One More
Baby, Maybe (?)
It is Hard to Live in the City
Mission of Burma / Major Stars
Warsaw; Brooklyn, NY
guitars and rabid percussion punctuating intense, epic vocals, and a crowd
full of die-hard radicals shouting back the lyrics to every song. A
top-secret, sweat-soaked, God-forsaken hole in the wall where the kids get
psyched up for the revolution and then go out and fucking do it. Since
I was 16 years old, this is the mental image I've carried with me of what a
Mission of Burma performance must be like.
As a former New England prep school inmate who spent the majority of senior
year screaming along to "Academy Fight Song" (I still regret not choosing "I'm
not judging you/I'm judging me/My academy" as my senior quote), I've held
Mission of Burma sacred for years. When I heard about the band's 2002 reunion,
I was dubious, but the new material didn't disappoint. With such high
expectations and nothing to mitigate against them, I was completely unprepared
for the total "so what?" that was their concert.
Maybe part of the blame should be laid on the openers, Major Stars, who were
certainly capable of killing the mood. There was already some tension going on
between the band and the audience, who apparently weren't too excited about
mumbled vocals and anonymous hard rock guitar with some screeching and a few
interminable instrumental solos thrown in here and there. There was a
noticeable lack of polite applause between songs. Before the final song of
their set, the lead singer asked whether we were "super-psyched" for Mission
of Burma. Met with the first hearty applause of the night, she quipped, "It's
good that you're super-psyched for something." I'm super-psyched to point out
that the only thing worse than a band that can't keep the audience's attention
is a band that blames the audience for its inability to keep their attention.
Before Mission of Burma took the stage, I made the mistake of assuming that
the rest of the super-psyched audience and I were on the same page, namely,
the page that said, "I am saving all my energy for MOB." When they started to
play, I realized that there was just no energy in the room at all — none from
the audience and none from the band. While the band's instrumentation was
tight and the new songs blended well with the twenty-five-year-old classics,
the show felt like a failure because they couldn't generate any excitement
onstage or in the crowd. The decision to play two sets only highlighted the
problem, as the songs in the first half of the second set blurred together
into a twenty-minute stretch of monotony, and no one in Mission of Burma was
engaging the audience at all. A band with that kind of incendiary passion and
intensity just doesn't work when the passion and intensity are taken out of
the equation. There was no furiousness, no intensity, no epic moments, and no
die-hard radicals. There wasn't even any dancing. People weren't going to
leave this show and set government buildings on fire; they were going to go
home, smoke a joint, sleep for 12 hours, and maybe blog about the experience
in the morning.
The most depressing moment of the night came when Mission of Burma actually
did decide to interact with the audience, prefacing one song with the words,
"Fuck Bush," and following it up with the thought, "You have to write pissed
off songs. That's all you can do, right?" Those statements crystallized what
had been wrong with the performance all along. "Fuck Bush." So what? For an
intensely political band who, 25 years ago, gave us the lyrics, "my father's
dead/But I don't care about it/It happens anyway/On the edge of Burma," the
only real content of that statement was the subtext that Mission of Burma has
lost its relevance.
This all adds up to what I can't get over when punk, underground, and
otherwise independent or politically-minded bands from twenty to thirty years
ago reunite. With few exceptions, the reunion is cynical, commercial, and
supported by companies diametrically opposed to the bands' original aims
Clear Channel and
Ticketmaster, anyone?). It seems obvious that every time a band that's all
about revolution and anti-capitalism reunites two and a half decades later to
put on a half-assed show sponsored by exploitative corporations, that band is
co-opting their own subculture and selling out the very kids they once
radicalized. Mission of Burma, savior of my boarding school days, is
unfortunately no exception.
Photo: Mark Belinsky
The Futureheads / The French Kicks
Webster Hall; New York, NY
those of you who have never witnessed The Futureheads in action, you have my
pity. After a long absence during which they recorded their new album, News
and Tributes, The Futureheads have come back with a vengeance,
demonstrating why they are one of the best live bands currently in existence.
I was surprised by how much I liked the opening band, The French Kicks.
Admittedly, I expected to hate them, but some of their songs were really
catchy and demonstrated why this band has been a long-time local favorite. On
the other hand, there was a lack of chemistry among the members that was
puzzling. Their fans were enthusiastic regardless of this fact, but as someone
seeing them for the first time, I found the lack of spark to be disappointing.
It was as though they were going through the motions, which made it hard to
appreciate their otherwise accessible material. With that kind of attitude,
will they ever be more than the perennial opening band?
The Futureheads, by contrast, were remarkably charming and engaging. They wore
big smiles through their set and seemed genuinely excited about performing
their new material. The songs from News and Tributes fared much better
live than in recording. One such example is "Return of the Berserker." The
band delivered "Berserker" in an impressive display of speed and raw energy.
Its recorded version pales in comparison. On this song, even drummer Dave Hyde
lost his composure as he beat on his kit furiously; this was quite a shocking
display, as he spent most of the night playing calmly and steadily through the
It should be noted that the band seemed much more confident than the first
time I saw them, when they supported Franz Ferdinand almost two years ago.
Even though they've maintained an energetic, almost frantic way of performing,
they've also learned to work the crowd in a very charismatic manner.
There were plenty of exchanges between the crowd and the band. It was hard to
understand the Futureheads' speedy banter because of their Northeastern
English accents, but they were obviously very amused by the constant quips
from the cheery, drunken hecklers. "You've been brilliant," singer/guitarist
Barry Hyde told the audience as the band closed their set.
The same could be said about the band, who pounded through the set with gusto.
The crowd cheered the loudest for old favorites like "Meantime" and the band's
cover of "Hounds of Love." However, there was also a healthy enthusiasm for
newer songs such as "Area" and "Skip to the End." At that point, the new album
had been out for only a couple of weeks, but their fans shouted along to all
The show wasn't perfect, but it had nothing to do with the Futureheads'
performance. Rather, the sound mix was unfortunate, with muddled vocals that
didn't do justice to the band's four-party harmonies. In addition, much of the
set was accompanied by intensely bright white lights that flashed directly
into the crowd. One can only hope there were no epileptics in the audience!
6. Favours for Favours
7. Hounds of Love
8. Back to the Sea
9. Stupid and Shallow
10. Return of the Berserker
12. A to B
13. Worry About it Later
15. Skip to the End
16. He Knows
17. Man Ray
Decent Days and Nights
Desdemona Festival: The Fiery Furnaces
Sawyer Point; Cincinnati, Ohio
of them abbreviated from their recorded counterparts. The band climaxed after
about 45 minutes when it transformed the new tune "I'm in No Mood" from the
toy-piano opera found on this year's Bitter Tea to an enormous, urgent
maelstrom akin to an Assyrian war march. The band also victoriously navigated
the complex musical turns of last year's polarizing "The Garfield El."
Songs aside, two overwhelming things became apparent during the set. First was
the band's courage and ability to innovate and reinterpret their own music,
trading patented, electro-studio piano magic for guitars and with
rearrangements of Eleanor's Keroacian vocal rhythms. Second was Matthew's
striking guitar work. At times he seemed every bit a young Thurston Moore,
bending his strings into zany effects one minute and playing out roaring blues
progressions the next.
Returning, perhaps, to its roots, the Furnaces, with this set, paid homage to
their garage-rock debut, Gallowsbird Bark. This aspect, when merged
with the uncompromising creativity of their subsequent work, was truly a
spectacle. The results, not always beautiful, were each stirring. The audience
collected at the stage seemed alienated and inspired, all in the same moment.
As some rolled their eyes and left, others raised their arms and joined. While
after the festival's conclusion, I heard comments like, "We Are Scientists
slayed," or "Annie was a babe," it seemed that everyone pondered the Furnaces
silently. And I have an inkling that they wouldn't have wanted it any other
Police Sweater Blood Vow
My Dog Was Lost But Now He's Found
The Garfield El
Benton Harbor Blues
Teach Me Sweetheart
I'm Waiting to Know You
I'm in No Mood