Joanna Newsom / P.G. Six
Somerville Theatre; Somerville, MA
I'd never before seen a concert at the Somerville Theatre, so I was surprised to learn that it's the same Somerville Theatre I've caught a couple movies at, its big yellow marquee glowing in the dusk of the tree-lined, brick-and-leaf-paved Davis Square. It didn't occur to me until I entered that the choice of this venue was such an intentional one. Few of the burgundy seats had yet been occupied in the fully-lit theater when I was directed inside; I passed under the balcony and bent my neck to the high ceiling and the box seats that hung on either side of the tall, heavy, drawn open curtains. And between those curtains, surrounded at its feet by wires, microphones, guitars, and drums, stood Joanna's harp, large and inert. I thought of the beer-soaked places I'd seen Les Georges Leningrad, Art Brut, Portastatic, Ladytron in recent months, and saw that this venue was offering far more than max. occupancy.
As the rows filled up, members of the crowd staked out the most prized vantage points, their eyes often examining a digital camera's LCD. Before long, the lights dimmed and Pat Gubler of P.G. Six emerged from backstage. With black hair, black glasses, a black t-shirt, black jeans, and a young face, he picked up his acoustic guitar, stood with eyes half-closed and sang politely about a jealous murder and his subsequent trial, stepping back between lyrics to study his fingers as they ably picked at rapid arpeggios. Upon finishing, he introduced his small band of drummer, bassist, and guitarist, and the four of them comfortably strolled through a forgettable set of sometimes melancholic, sometimes explosive blues-folk-rock. Nobody was inconsolably displeased.
The lights came back up and the stage was re-set. The anticipation became even more palpable when the lights dimmed again and a spotlight shone down, illuminating the harp, as several wings of dust were borne slowly up the lone column of light. A recording of some pastoral woodwind teased us for what felt like half an hour until finally Joanna stepped briskly from the dark toward her instrument, to the release of our suspended applause. With a red smile and a "Thank you," she thoughtfully situated herself against the body of the harp and swung her hair from her cheek before plucking the familiar gallop of "Bridges and Balloons."
To watch her play is just mesmerizing. It's difficult to believe that such an unassuming presence really can be responsible for those piercing squeals and syrupy coos, the resonance of her lungs and her tongue and her sinuses more vivid than even the sight of her. Her head is cocked, her brow is knit, and her eyes are fixed on her fingers, with only an occasional and deliberate and precious glance into the crowd. Her wrists are buoyed by the tempo and her arms spring from the notes in wide arcs in the shape of a figure 8, or an ellipse. In more spirited passages, the alternating strokes of her arms rock her torso mechanically, like a marionette's. Few instruments afford this degree of expressiveness, and Joanna knows this instrument very, very well.
Next came "The Book of Right-On," after which she announced that, following a Scottish traditional, she would be joined by her band to perform the entirety of Ys, front to back, to the delight of the crowd, and coinciding with the day of its release. Four men and one woman completed the semi-circle of which Joanna was the center, supporting her with banjo, guitar, glockenspiel, drums, accordion, jaw harp, singing saw, and a Bulgarian stringed instrument resembling a mandolin. The bulk of Ys' string section was approximated by the accordion, to convincing effect, with the finer details tended to by the rest of the band, and almost every person singing at one point or another.
Given the length of each song, every break was met with extended applause while Joanna sipped water, flashed grins with a rehearsed sheepishness that we forgave, or explained "Sweaty hands" as she wiped her face and palms on her dress. Predictably the band rested during "Sawdust & Diamonds," the solo piece of the album, and though the rest of the time I found myself wishing on more than one occasion for them to keep it down (particularly the late appearance of the frequently off-key and unusually abrasive singing saw), the sound was well balanced and we couldn't have asked for a better translation of this record to a live setting.
The standing ovation persisted well after they had shuffled offstage, as we demanded Joanna unencumber herself and take the spotlight again. When she finally did, walking without pause back to her seat, the newly relaxed, almost celebratory mood of the room was marked by exaggerated yelps and whistles. Her belting out of the word "Sadie!" was met with wild cheers, the first time all night anyone dared interrupt her. She sang a song about her dog, then she sang another song about a peach and a plum and a pear, and we sat, spellbound.
Sean Lennon / 8mm
Richards On Richards; Vancouver, BC
The lineup outside of the walls of the place the locals so affectionately call "Dicks On Dicks" consists of about ten people. It's a few minutes past eight o'clock, the official 'doors open' time for this, Sean Lennon's first solo show in Vancouver since 1999. There is truly an odd mix of people in the lineup for the show; the middle-aged Beatles obsessives are the ones that really stick out like a duck's ass. After a few minutes of waiting and a generous frisking outside the club's inner sanctuary, we are ushered into the scummy little bar.
As the minuscule crowd gathers around the sticky bar tables and wobbly barstools, opening act 8mm takes the stage. The group (consisting of former NIN/Marilyn Manson engineer Sean, his wife Juliette, and drummer Jon Nicholson) plays trip-hop-oriented 'alternative' music reminiscent of early Portishead or Goldfrapp. Their sound is built largely from pre-recorded sequences via Sean's stack of sequencers and filters and the cooing vocals of R. Unfortunately, the group isn't getting much of a break here in their first Canadian appearance. There is a grand total of two people on the dance floor, and the rest of the half-assed crowd is distributed amongst the barstools lining that area, like a bunch of perverted girl-watching drinkers. Sounds harsh, but there is some truth here; there are quite a few whistles coming from male patrons in response to lead singer R's choice of attire.
Sadly, the beautiful girl with the tight red dress carries less presence than the enthusiastic backing by the drummer and guitarist, who seem to thoroughly enjoy playing the music that they do. Juliette is, quite simply, a rather uninteresting performer on this occasion. This is why the most memorable song of their set is "Forever and Ever Amen," a track where Sean takes over the lead vocal position. After nine songs of distilled, rigid performance, the band finally allows themselves to get a little unhinged for their final song, the aptly titled "Give It Up." The apathetic audience gives them some obligatory farewell applause, and the band exits the stage, leaving me to believe that this band would be much more interesting on record.
After at least half an hour’s worth of equipment shuffling and audience member repositioning, Sean Lennon and his band approach the stage. I feel a tinge of excitement to see Yuka Honda position herself behind the keyboards, as the group launches into the opening chords of the title track of Friendly Fire. Sean is an entertaining performer who peppers in comical little anecdotes between some otherwise straightforward performances of his songs. He is a charming man with a deadpan wit, which he uses to share his thoughts on such deep subjects as Pamela Anderson ("Pamela Anderson is Canadian? It's just that she's so American. But you know the one good thing about Pamela Anderson? She'll never drown. Okay, that was inappropriate.") and clouds ("They look like they're taking a nap on the mountaintops.").
This is a show of limited surprises when looking at the choice of songs (one B-side and only one track chosen from Into The Sun). But all things considered, Lennon and his band turned in an incredibly tight, thoroughly enjoyable performance. The sound was almost flawless, the bass tone was nice and phat (note the exceptional use of a fancy hip-hop adjective there), except for some slight buzz from Sean's acoustic guitar. One of the most enjoyable performances of the evening was the inclusion of Friendly Fire outtake "Piano Epic," which sounded far more interesting in the live format, versus the rather uninteresting MP3 available on his MySpace account.
The one misstep in the set was a recalculation of the boppy "Headlights," which Lennon and his band opted to take from a mid-tempo clap-along to a higher-tempo rock number. Unfortunately, the new pacing of the song leaves it feeling slightly empty and drives the chorus' hook beneath a surface of distraction. That said, if the group had continued to play each song in such a similar manner to the album, it could have left the gig feeling contrived. So "Headlights" became the suicide bomber in the set, designed to lift up the remainder of the songs.
What is most apparent during this evening is the fact that Lennon has mellowed, and his music has become slightly more melancholic than that of his Into The Sun days. After a ridiculously obvious encore cue after a vastly extended cover of Marc Bolan's "Would I Be The One," Lennon re-emerges to perform an intimate solo acoustic version of "Tomorrow." The song thrives without the hindrance of the additional musicianship in the background, leaving him with more room to extend notes, prolong rests between chorus and verse, and play with his captive audience. He is an engaging performer who doesn't seem to mind if anyone else is enjoying what he's doing.
"I have to play a song from my first record," quips Lennon, as the rest of his backup entourage joins him on the stage once more. There is more truth to this statement than I think he is aware; had he opted not to rewind his life for that moment, this gig wouldn't have had the same kind of impact. Sure, it's understandable if he doesn't want to have to play ten-year old songs that don't have a lot of relevance to him now, but this is not the case with the audience, who is waiting for such a moment with much anticipation. The crowd gives an enthusiastic cheer as the band begins to play "Mystery Juice," the first track on Into The Sun. One couldn't help but wonder if there would be a distortion-filled chorus a la 1998, and when the moment finally arrived, it didn't seem cheesy, but incredibly satisfying.
As the band meandered along the song's addendum, Sean concluded the evening with a warm thank you and a "see you next time," which is an incredibly encouraging thing to hear from a person who waits eight years between album releases. And while this set of 12 songs did seem relatively short, there is something to say for leaving one’s audience wanting more. Which is precisely what Lennon did: leave these Dicks on Dicks patrons yearning for more. Perhaps if Friendly Fire manages to create enough forward momentum, we, as music listeners, won't have to wait so long for the next solo release by Mr. Sean Lennon.
International Cervantino Festival; Guanajuato, GTO. MX
The Cervantino Festival invites a different country every year to honor its artists and culture. The honored country this year was the UK. Originally Belle & Sebastian were scheduled to play. For unknown reasons, they cancelled and decided to send in Aberfeldy to save the day! Sure enough, Aberfeldy came in a rocked this ancient city of Mexico along with all the hippies in it. No one really knew who they were, so they had no clue what to expect. They started off their set with "Friend Like You," and these older senior citizens were happy they weren't playing Satan rock. The crowd consisted of children, yuppies, students, government officials, and tons of hippies. The outdoor venue can hold about 7,000. For that night, since it was the closing event, it held 10,000. It could have been disastrous but thankfully wasn't.
The Scottish band was dressed in white to bring out those Arian skin tones, but the drummer was such a badass he wore his sunglasses throughout the set. That's what drummers do after all. They followed up with "Don't Know What It Means"; the xylophone used in this song was a lot of fun to dance to. The seated area stayed seated, but I couldn't resist dancing to such an indie-pop beat. I immediately got up and started dancing my pants off. This encouraged others to get up and do the "Hustle." Aberfeldy played "Surly Girl" and "Vegetarian Restaurant" off of their first album, and the songs brought back feelings of the very first time I heard Aberfeldy. This Aberfeldy love was spread like an STD through mix tapes my friend and I had made each other. This is what TMT is all about; our lives consist of mix tapes and bad jokes.
Back to Aberfeldy, they were talking about the video for their song "Hypnotized" and how they used Mexican wrestling masks. Little did they know that the masks they wore were those of some lame-ass wrestlers. The band's sound consisted of violins, banjos, keyboards, and love. Don't let the violin or banjo throw you off. The girls in this band are very talented and could play just about any instrument. I must mention their great smiles as well. They went on to play "Tom Weir." This is when the students started dancing and chanting "El que no baila es joto!" ("Whoever doesn't dance is a fag!") So immediately, that half of the crowd started dancing. The other half had already accepted their sexuality and stayed seated.
"Setting Your City On Fire" was a little more calm; this gave everyone a chance to sit down and take a breath. They finished off the 90 minute set with a cover of Devo's "It's a Beautiful World." At this point everyone got up; even the government officials were clapping along, and everyone danced. All in all, it was a great night for everyone in Guanajuato.
Beirut / A Hawk and a Hacksaw / Animal Hospital
Empty Bottle; Chicago, IL
It's been awhile since I've been presented with performances as unique and
bizarre as those I saw during this night of worldly tunes. Everything about
this show defied my expectations, mostly for the better (save for the weirdly
mainstream crowd that constantly yelled stupid things at the bands all night).
One-man band Animal Hospital kicked off with a self-described "economical" set
of three fairly long songs. Featuring endless drum and guitar loops with the
occasional vocal, Kevin Micka's music was certainly imaginative and
interesting, if not especially remarkable. Still, his style was a good fit
for, and a great introduction to, the eccentric stylings of the remaining two
A Hawk and a Hacksaw is the work of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy
Barnes and violinist Heather Trost. I found myself fascinated in watching the
thickly-mustachioed musician, who looked like something out of a sepia-colored
photo from the 1800s, set up his most unconventional drum kit around his
chair; each cymbal, tambourine and drum piece looked like something out of a
kindergarten band class. The kicker was when he strapped a drum stick and some
bells to his thigh positioned precisely to hit a cowbell when he tapped his
foot, and then put on a hat of bells with another drum stick attached,
positioned to hit a cymbal that stood to his left. And with that, Jeremy
pulled on his accordion and coordinated a striking display of dexterity as he
played the drums and tambourines with his feet, the cowbell with his thigh,
the accordion with his hands, and the cymbal and bells with his head. I
couldn't help but smile every time he flicked his head to the side and then
shook it- I don't think it ever got old. Meanwhile, with Heather on the
violin, the two filled the venue with some very pleasant and
traditional-sounding instrumentals. After taking a break from the bombast to
sing an intense and haunting cover of an old anti-war song, the band wrapped
up their performance with Heather jumping into the audience and Jeremy
standing at the edge of the stage looking down on her while they serenaded
each other back and forth with their respective instruments. Very cute.
Finally, it was time for the Eastern waltzes of Beirut. Even though I knew
Beirut was primarily the work of 20-year old, I guess I'd forgotten in my old
age what 20 actually looks like; I was a little taken aback by how young
singer Zach Condon looks, especially since he has such an "old" voice. Not
only that, but the nature of the music had me picturing a very shy,
introverted loner, not the boisterous kid who took the stage with his trumpet
held high over his head as he belted his songs out over the crowd and swiped
mouthfuls of Jack Daniels when he thought no one was looking. Adding to the
youthfulness on stage, Zach brought along six friends to participate in his
backing band, all looking to be barely out of their teens as well. Aside from
a few instances of sloppy, between-song banter, however, their youth proved to
be an asset to the live show as their exuberance breathed new and exciting
life into the more mature and sophisticated old-world sounds. Parading onto
the stage from the back of the room, playing a variety of brass instruments
and drums, the band took their places amongst a deluge of instruments and
proceeded to spend the next hour having the time of their lives. Peppering a
few (really good) new songs amongst the majority of Gulag Orkestar,
Zach alternated between blaring his trumpet and singing while his band mates
bounced around between ukuleles, violins, keyboards, clarinets, saxophones,
accordions, recorders, and pretty much every other instrument you can think
of. As the weeknight 2am bar time approached and the sound guy urged the band
to wrap up, the young'ns of Beirut defied orders and leaped into the audience
to squeeze out two more utterly triumphant fist-pumpers (if you can pump your
fist to an accordion), while the audience enthusiastically cheered and danced
Photo: Nicole Chavas
CMJ is rough on a working man. With most of the festival running Tuesday
through Friday of November's first week this year, the prospect of staying in
Manhattan 'til 1, 2, or later on weeknights was anything but appealing for
this Brooklynite. Train construction woes ensured that late-night returns
could seriously jeopardize my beauty rest. As it happened, reprehensible
organization by CMJ's planners took care of the problem for me, rendering it
impossible to see any of the big name acts: Girl Talk, The Rapture, or any of
the participants of the Sub Pop showcase (The Shins, among others).
For those not in-the-know, CMJ is a huge, NYC-wide festival featuring at least
a thousand bands, broken up into (mostly) label-specific showcases at venues
around the city. As many of the bigger indie labels, like Sub Pop, featured
all of the biggest names in one event, it was necessary for attendees to show
up around eight o'clock to get guaranteed admittance, which as any regular
concert-goer knows, is LAME. As such, I was only able to attend one evening of
music, despite my flashy press badges. For the record, just about everyone I
saw had either a performer or press badge.
Anyway, I chose to attend a label showcase on Thursday night at the tiny
performance art venue The Tank in Tribeca, close to my workplace. I figured
the relatively low profile of the bands would make it a good pick. I was
right, mostly – although the venue was crowded, $3 beer from a cooler and the
lack of a real stage made the Tank a friendly, intimate environment for the
math-rock stylings of the
Sir Records showcase.
The first band to play was the only one I'd actually heard before, Georgia's
We Versus the Shark. Their screamy, jittery post-hardcore was a refreshing
punch in the face for me, as I was able to stand right next to one of the
band's guitarists for their set. For whatever reason, however, the band's
keyboardist/vocalist's singing seemed muffled, and it was harder to discern
what the group was trying to do musically than with any of the acts to follow.
the We Versus the Shark set, I wandered back to the back of the venue to check
out merch and shot the shit with Ho-Ag's Matt Parish, who convinced me to buy
the band's latest record, The Word from Pluto, sound unheard. I also
bought their only remaining t-shirt, which happened to fit quite nicely. I
told Matt that Ho-Ag had better be good. They were; more on that later.
The second band of the evening was Tiger Bear Wolf. I paid relatively little
attention, though they were certainly better than most opening bands I've seen
lately. Less spazzy and more bluesy than the other Hello Sir bands, the long
haired dudes of TBS definitely hail from the jammier side of hard-indie...not
exactly my thing, and really fucking loud, but not bad, frankly.
Next were the heavy hitters: Cinemechanica, another Georgia band (I think
Hello Sir's band, with the exception of Ho-Ag, are all from the state;
Cinemechanica members run the label), took the stage with a stage-filling
lineup that included a pair of drummers, who helped produce both complex
polyrhythms and a colossal amount of noise for the firmly math-rock, mostly
instrumental Cinemechanica set. For a big Sweep The Leg Johnny (RIP) fan,
Cinemechanica was a pleasant surprise; the hardcore/math rock genre has
produced a lot of (some would say all) duds, and I found myself, along
with the rest of the crowd, rocking out pretty hard. Like a lot of bands from
their scene, Cinemechanica's songs were long, involved, and complex. They were
more or less awesome.
I got to evaluate my purchases as Ho-Ag took the stage. I stood directly in
front of Matt, no doubt obscuring the views of many (I'm one of those tall
dudes with big hair who always stand in front). No matter – it was worth it to
get steady-the-mic-stand duty and dodge flying guitars as Ho-Ag one-upped
Cinemechanica for stage presence and energetic mayhem. Like a coked-up hybrid
of The Dismemberment Plan and The Blood Brothers, Ho-Ag's set saw the
five-piece – two guitarists, bass, drums, and a singer/Moog player –
annihilate everything in the best, catchiest way possible. Parish shredded the
strings on at least one guitar and broke his first mic stand, along with
plenty of other damage that I probably didn't notice.
The crowd had noticeably thinned by the time Megaband took the state, despite
the early hour (around 11:30). Members of Cinemechanica make up this Nintendo
music project, who play the score from Megaman II while one member plays and
flawlessly conquers the game, projected behind the band on a screen.
Unfortunately, due to venue curfew restrictions, the band's eardrum-bursting
set (really, they were unnecessarily loud) was cut short, forcing Noah, the
resident gamer, to finish the game's final stage 'a cappella' – that is,
scored only by the TV's modest volume.
In summation, I would have been an unhappy camper to have paid the hundreds of
dollars required for a full pass to CMJ, which still wouldn't have gotten me
into any of the full-up venues to see the fest's brighter lights. As it
happens, however, the showcase I did attend nearly made up for it, since I
didn't much feel like staying out every weeknight anyway. Next time, I won't
bother trying with the bands I already dig – CMJ declares that they're about
acts at the tipping point, and my experience at the Hello Sir showcase proved
that point. Thanks are due Ho-Ag and Cinemechanica, acts that definitely merit
a look. So, uh, CMJ... cool?
TV on the Radio / Grizzly Bear
First Ave; Minneapolis, MN
this place is big... and Prince! I mean, Purple Rain!" That was what
the Grizz guitarist in the cardigan said after two songs. The best thing I
overheard in response was, "Everyone in Minnesota is so over that." It would
have been true of a twenty-one plus show, but there were plenty of eighteen
year-olds who are currently discovering the purple export of Minnesota
flipping out and requesting indie rock covers of that Sexy M.F. For some
reason this all stuck in my head, and when TV's singer gave his obligatory
shout, everything gelled as a weird theme in my head.
"We got here and looked at the stage, saw the lights, it's a little different,
but when we saw Prince's star. I'm sorry I'm sure you're sick of hearing it...
" That makes up for it, kind of, but what really cemented the reparations for
the damage of the one millionth Prince reference from a touring band I've
heard was the fact that this was an incredible show.
The greatest thing a five-piece band can do is to sound like a five piece
band, and the sonic wall bombarding the audience was incredible. Members
served a purpose, which was successfully capturing the dramatic and anthemic
nature of their recorded material while keeping it "live." The charisma of the
lead singer — with his dramatic arm movements punctuating lyrics delivered
with the conviction of a devoted believer in the power of music, coupled with
the impressive falsetto backing vocals of the rhythm guitarist — is an
experience that commands a viewer's attention. Between falsettos and freak-out
shouting, there is a comparison to be drawn between his royal Prince-ness,
begging the question of what it would sound like if contemporary indie rock
were substituted for the funk, soul and sex of Purple Rain-era Prince.
As for Grizzly Bear, their opportunity to be the supporting band for such a
strong act should prove very beneficial. To be honest, I was somewhat non-plussed
by the milque-toast delivery of this low-key four piece, but the intellectual
aspect of this hipster-pandering indie group was intriguing enough to make me
want to spend some time with their recorded material. The drums, in
particular, were well orchestrated; they were very laid back, but in each song
they would masterfully build to a decisive crescendo delivered with an
impressive amount of force. At one point during their set, they utilized an
Autoharp and a clarinet, intriguing choices that worked successfully, and
during the last song the drummer retired his sticks and played his kit
TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear: go, watch, listen, enjoy.
Encore: I am oftentimes in the camp that feels encores are kind of bullshit —
looking at my notes I saw that I had written, "My feet hurt, I have to pee,
and I want another beer." Sorry, but thirty minutes is the ideal amount of
time to watch most any live act; anything more than that, and my experience
can be distracted. But... BUT, every time I like the band and they do an
encore I find myself saying, "Ooh, I love this song!" TV was no exception;
they performed a three-song encore, coming to a dramatic finish when the four
fellows of Grizzly Bear joined them onstage with an array of rhythm and
percussion instruments. The energy of that final song was a masterful way to
end an evening of great music.
Serena Maneesh / Woven Hand
State Theatre; Falls Church, VA
completing a fancypants internship this past summer in Washington, D.C., I
just decided to stay in the nation's capitol. A new music scene is enough of a
bitch to immerse yourself in, especially when you've come from such a solid
environment as Athens, Georgia. However, having to learn how to get to venues
and figuring out when shit actually goes down can be equally as frustrating.
The District's quadrant layout is inspired in theory, but between multiple
roundabouts (why, why, why do these exist?), nearly identical street names,
and unclear signs, I've spent more than half my time making illegal U-turns
and desperately trying to find the interstate.
Such was the case driving into Falls Church, Virginia, what seems to be a
pleasant little suburb of D.C., and the reason why I missed half of Woven
Hand's set. However, when I walked into the rather impressive State Theatre,
all anxiety was quickly taken over for the deep, Gregorian drone track
underpinning "Chest of Drawers" from Consider the Birds: "Go into the
Lord's house / And go in a mile / The world will bow / The knees will be
broken for those who don't know how / He delights not in the strength of
horses / He takes no pleasure not in the legs of men." David Eugene Edwards,
completely focused on Woven Hand now that 16 Horsepower has officially
disbanded, sat solo on a short stool and slashed at his knees with an open
hand as he sung these words.
What struck me most about this performance was Edwards's connection with the
audience. Four years ago, I saw Woven Hand close out a festival on an Illinois
farmland – then accompanied by an organist and drummer – months before his
self-titled album was released stateside. Similarly, he sat on a stool
stomping violently with boots, but he played as if possessed. Almost paranoid
in demeanor, he'd whip his head around as if he heard voices and stare
dead-eyed into the stage lights. It was as alienating as it was intriguing.
Tonight he still stared into the ether but performed with an unfettered
inwardness that seemed to invite the audience. And despite his solo stature,
his unmistakable and resonant voice (and selected pre-recorded backing tracks)
filled the theatre with desperate urgency.
The much-warranted hype behind Norwegian band Serena Maneesh was met with a
small audience, but still, the sextet put on a show with a sound made to
reverberate the walls of a large auditorium. In fact, portions of the
performance reminded me of the stories I heard about My Bloody Valentine's
decibel-destroying volume heard streets away from the 40 Watt club in Athens.
(There you have it, folks, the requisite MBV reference. Happy?) Before
launching into the killer Stooges riff of "Sapphire Eyes," it was like
listening to a noise-rock band (Magik Markers strangely comes to mind) but
watching a fashion-forward frontman spitting up into the air before cooing
into the microphone. Okay, maybe the two aren't all that different.
The dynamic remained throughout the evening, even on the softer, more blissed-out
pop songs from the self-titled debut and escalated at two calculated "noise"
sections as indicated on a set list I grabbed. The first looped and reverbed
freakout came out of the two guitarists as the band patiently stood by, which
was a bit distracting to the visual, but their psychedelic Sonic Youth-like
explorations didn't disrupt the pace. The band was remarkably in tune with
each other. The sheer loudness of the set had the potential to obscure Emil
Nikolaisen's meticulous arrangements, but nearly every nuance came through
clearly. In fact, the closer, "Your Blood In Mine" – quite rhythmically
indebted to Confusion Is Sex now that I think about it – really warped
out the textured drone to great climax. The violinist sawed long notes while
the two guitarists once again explored every sonic corner of the theatre. One
by one, the band left the stage, leaving the second guitarist alone amidst
bubbles falling from the proscenium under lighted purple hues and the small
crowd roared appreciatively as he left the stage smiling a goofy Norskie
Selina's Melodie Fountain
Don't Come Down Here
Your Blood In Mine
The Mountain Goats / Christine Fellows
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
The Mountain Goats bring people
together. Maybe it's because there's nothing hip about them. The band's
unadorned music is unabashedly personal and narrative, with each new album
serving as a volume in the often depressing but always enthralling chronicles
of lovers, friends, and family — some drawn from John Darnielle's own life,
some fictional, and some blurring the line between the two. Real or imaginary,
the characters draw you in, and their loneliness, failed relationships, and
ugly feelings become mirrors of your own. Just by showing up to a Mountain
Goats show, you're laying your emotional cards on the table.
With that in mind and my heart on my sleeve, I guess, I walked into Bowery
Ballroom. Over an hour after the doors opened, I had expected that opener
Christine Fellows would already be onstage but was surprised to see the
venue's lights on and concertgoers seated in small groups on the floor.
Something about it reminded me of a junior high slumber party. As if to
confirm that impression, a few college guys sitting next to us introduced
themselves to me and my friend. Our chatter about the show soon led to a
spirited discussion of Terence Malick films and last year's Olivia Tremor
Control performance. Throughout the night, our new, admittedly tipsy friends
probably introduced themselves to 20 people, and our part of the audience
became a sort of small community.
When she finally appeared, Christine Fellows, a folky Canadian singer and
keyboard player, provided a good preface to the main event. She was joined
onstage by two other musicians, playing the cello, xylophone, and drums. Her
songs shared basic structural elements with The Mountain Goats': minimal
instrumentals — plus the percussion, minus the guitars — backing memoir-style
lyrics. Though sometimes a bit too quirky and hyperbolic for my taste, the
majority of her songs were funny and insightful. During his set, Darnielle
praised her at length, beseeching us to "Please buy her album [The Paper
Anniversary (Six Shooter)]. It's fucking astonishing." Though my
enthusiasm for her is no match for his, I have a feeling that Fellows hasn't
yet reached her peak. I wouldn't be surprised if her next album turns out to
be a revelation.
The scene when The Mountain Goats (really just John Darnielle and bassist
Peter Hughes, joined later by a keyboard player) took the stage was what I can
only call the indie rock version of that footage you see of Beatles audiences
in 1965. Darnielle returned the audience's enthusiasm in spades, in a way that
suggested he was fragile enough to need their support to power him through the
performance. The opening riffs of each song were met with widespread applause.
Everywhere, people were quietly singing along.
Much has been made of how different this year's Get Lonely is from
earlier Mountain Goats releases. While you'd be hard pressed to call it sadder
than, say, The Sunset Tree, it is palpably quieter than its
predecessors. Large stylistic shifts can make for difficult performances, but
here, the integration of often anthemic, old songs with ghostly, soft-spoken
new ones created a balance. Just as in life, there were loud moments and quiet
ones. In this context, the new material seemed more an elaboration on the
previous albums than a departure. The same audience that sang along with lines
from "You or Your Memory" ("St. Joseph's baby aspirin!") and "Jenny" ("A
pirate's life for me!") stood silent and rapt for whispery numbers like "Maybe
Sprout Wings," which opened the show, and "In Corolla," the song that finally
closed the set, after two encores.
Insistent, intractable "This Year" and "No Children" provided the most
exciting moments of the night. It was truly surreal, but also strangely
powerful, to hear an entire roomful of people shouting, "I am gonna make it
through this year if it kills me" and "I hope you die/I hope we both die."
Toward the beginning of "No Children," I looked over and realized that one of
our new friends had <i>picked up</i> the other one, who became all flailing
arms and utter exhilaration. At any other show, I almost certainly would have
found those antics annoying, but here, I kind of understood. They weren't
trying to be a pain in the ass — they were just that consumed by the
experience. Even the people screaming out requests didn't bother me. They
weren't yelling for hits at the exclusion of everything else — they were
begging for the songs that meant the most of them. So when I say that The
Mountain Goats bring people together, that's probably what I mean.
1. Maybe Sprout Wings
2. Jeff Davis County Blues
4. Color in Your Cheeks
5. Love Love Love
6. Game Shows Touch Our Lives
7. Shadow Song
8. In the Hidden Places
9. You or Your Memory
10. Dance Music
11. Moon Over Goldsboro
13. Your Belgian Things
14. This Year
15. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive (Johnny Mercer cover)
16. No Children
17. Houseguest (by Frank, the keyboard player)
18. In Corolla
Photo: Sean Ruch
Sufjan Stevens / My Brightest Diamond
Murat Egyptian Theater; Indianapolis, IN
It is always a pleasant surprise
when an artist visits Indianapolis without just skipping on over to the more
accessible Chicago. The very articulate Sufjan Stevens entertained a sold-out
crowd at the Murat Egyptian Room on Saturday night with a generous reaction
from the crowd. As soon as Stevens took the stage it was apparent that he
considers himself an entertainer, and he takes himself seriously as an artist.
The show began with opening act My Brightest Diamond, aka Shara Worden, who
has been a long-time collaborator and friend of Stevens. I didn't expect too
much from Worden, as I only got a taste for her solo project by listening to a
few tracks off of her debut album Bring Me the Workhorse. My first
impression was comparisons of Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but Worden's live
performance molded her into a special, must-hear new artist. With string
arrangements adding to Worden's captivating vocals, the only thing that took
away from her performance was the radio station that was somehow transmitted
through her amp. Worden made the best of the situation by jokingly dancing to
the radio music and by staying undisturbed and focused during her most intense
Worden's sensibility and playful, dry humor foreshadowed the audience to the
behemoth that is Sufjan Stevens. I really didn't know what to expect this time
around from Stevens. I anticipated a more orchestral performance, and I was
delighted to see a 14-piece band walk onto stage along with Stevens, all
dressed with butterfly wings. The group promptly proceeded into an uproarious
take on "Sister," which led to a crescendo opener. A giant projector screen
behind the band began to play random tranquil images and later, home movies
from Stevens himself. My first thought of this spectacle was a reminiscent
experience watching a middle-school band play with an arts and crafts theme
attached. Most of the violinists, trumpet players, and other members appeared
quite young. The thematic element that Stevens often carries along with his
live performances encompasses a visual of a family or cult-like stage presence
that breathes in vein of Danielson Famile.
After the opener, Stevens modestly greeted the crowd, "Hello, I am Sufjan
Stevens and I am here to entertain you tonight." This quickly dispelled any
arguments anyone had over the pronunciation of his name. Soof-"yawn," as I
like to say, then plucked away on his banjo as he began "The Transfiguration."
This made me excited, anticipating that the show would feature some different
versions of songs from Seven Swans, which was the first album that got
me into his music.
Each song had an exploding intensity that kept everyone locked to their seats.
It was difficult for me to imagine how brilliantly Stevens was able to write
all of the arrangements for each instrument in the performance. In between
each song Stevens would have a monologue with the audience, which varied in
dry humor to the background story of the NPR-inspired "The Lord God Bird"
about a rare woodpecker. Stevens also had beside him a stool with bells that
he would constantly ring during climatic portions of each song as well as a
plastic rooster that Stevens explained they stole from a Perkins restaurant
and named "Hendrico."
Another highlight from the show had to be the new song "Majesty Snowbird,"
where Stevens delivered a chorus with a grand falsetto, and the epic "Seven
Swans." Stevens ended with the obvious but glorious favorite "Chicago."
Stevens swore that was the end of the show after that, but I didn't believe
him for one minute. Yeah, he lied. Steven's returned with a few others to play
"To Be Alone With You" and "The Dress Looks Nice on You."
The whole performance was epic and warm. Although a deaf man may have seen the
show as a goofy, arts and crafts middle school band performance, a blind man
would be able to hear the talent of each every performer of Steven's
self-proclaimed "Butterfly Brigade." Unfortunately, if you are a deaf, blind,
mute midget you really missed out. I formally apologize to my brother. It was
irresponsible for me to bring you to that show for your birthday, Charlie. At
least I enjoyed it.
The Lord God Bird
Dear Mr. Supercomputer
(Short Reprise for Mary Todd...)
Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head
The Predatory Wasp...
John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
A Good Man is Hard to Find
Casimir Pulaski Day
To Be Alone With You
The Dress Looks Nice on You
Photo: Denny Renshaw
Chad VanGaalen / Band of Horses
Bottletree; Birmingham, AL
Hipsters have become a clean
bunch. Never before have I stood packed in a throng of people in a smallish
venue and been so... pleased with the scents wafting from those around me —
this time, soapy and deodorant-y. No patchouli, no pesky bad breath, and no
body odor. Now, where was I? This show was a would-be Sub Pop showcase, save
the fact that the night was opened by Simon Dawes, whose set I was unable to
In my world, late as I was, it was Chad VanGaalen who opened the show to a
crowd obviously present to hear his more rockish, buzzed-about labelmates Band
of Horses. As delightfully weird as he is on his records, VanGaalen was quite
talkative and agreeable to the crowd, initially dashing my expectations of him
as some quiet, hermitic mountain man who crafts his own instruments out of
wood he chops down from the wilderness.
That's not to say that his talkativeness meant he wasn't a bit strange. After
the first song he took out a pair of sunglasses and explained to the crowd
that he had gotten a little bored in the van and had bought a pair of
sunglasses. "You see," he said, opening them up to put them on his face, "I
melded a crystal to them to make them look cool." He put on the glasses for a
good part of the set and acted unaware of the flashing crystal that certainly
added to his quirkiness.
He sat center-stage in front of a kick drum; a guitar comfortably rested on
his knee, and a harmonica was strapped around his neck. One walking in mid-set
might imagine a full band on stage based on the full sound emanating through
the crowd, but it was only VanGaalen until he pulled a drummer onstage. Later,
he drew out the same drummer along with Band of Horses for a weird jam session
he'd warned us about after the first few songs.
"We're gonna play a few more songs, and then we're going to jam out a bit." As
some members of the crowd groaned, he explained that he was bored on tour and
tired of playing the same songs night after night. He promised not to "whack
off in [our] faces." When awarded with further groans he added, "I meant that
metaphorically. You see, I don't have a penis."
The majority of the songs VanGaalen played were from Infiniheart.
Naturally, the more intricately crafted songs were left off since VanGaalen
was playing alone, but he did a bang-up job on simpler tracks such as "Blood
Machine" and "I Miss You Like I Miss You." He threw in a cover of
Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and good-naturedly acknowledged a rude
fan's insistence on the Neil Young comparison by playing half of "Everybody
Knows this is Nowhere." He stopped halfway through, insisting that he didn't
know the whole song.
Then came the mini-jam session. Several unidentified men, later to be revealed
as part of Band of Horses, came out with knowing smiles on their faces; one
picked up a bass, one grabbed a guitar, and one settled down in front of a
laptop. VanGaalen picked up a toy piano and a recorder. An off-kilter bass
line coupled with the drums and midi sequences to provide a weird background
for VanGaalen's manic-sounding recorder and toy piano melodies. It was
ridiculous. And it was so weird and so quirky that I couldn't help but laugh
gleefully while of course noticing all the irritated/bewildered faces of those
in the crowd. I couldn't have asked for a more entertaining set by VanGaalen.
By the end of his set, he had nearly completed the transformation into what
I'd expected him to be in the first place — weird, talented, and quirky — just
much friendlier and accessible than the version I'd pictured.
Band of Horses came out later to an enthusiastic crowd. Their set was quite
uneven. Probably the most anticipated songs, "The Funeral" and "Monsters,"
were not close to perfect, both being performed a little too fast. I got the
idea that the band wasn't comfortable playing the songs at the slower speeds
that they were recorded at, almost like people who are so afraid of silence
that they feel the need to chatter incessantly, if only to prevent those quiet
and uncomfortable spaces. In the case of these songs, the space was much
needed. Their cover of David Allen Coe's "You Never Even Call Me by My Name"
smacked of insincerity, a song by a brawlish country fella imitated by
tattooed city boys trying to sound similarly brawlish and country. However,
Bridwell and co. nailed "The Great Salt Lake" and ELO's "Showdown" and won
over the crowd despite their inconsistencies. They are a band to see live
because I must admit, their highs much outweigh their lows — if due to the
sheer energy of the band, who just seemed friendly and happy to be out playing
Photo: Whitman Dewey-Smith