The Walkmen / Mazarin
The Showbox is perhaps the most
spacious venue Seattle has to offer. The layout is perfect for bar patrons and
young music fans alike to enjoy their favorite band without encumbrances or
blockades. Hell, even the bathrooms are nice for an indie venue.
It just so happens that I was able to take in just how spacious and nice The
Showbox is during Mazarin's set. When I walked in, I questioned whether I was
early, as the venue was not even a quarter full. Making my way to the bar to
grab a beer with my friend, I realized we were in the most populace area of
the venue. Further inspection noted that the other bar side was blacked-off. I
thought The Walkmen were far more popular than this, but it dawned on me that
it just so happened to be high school graduation weekend for most of the
Seattle area. I've encountered this phenomenon before, and while it may be a
downer to bands blowing through town, it makes the concert experience that
much more enjoyable for those of us not graduating from anything (unless you
count graduating from one beer to the next).
Philly's very own Mazarin were just taking the stage as we settled into the
bar area for our first drink. These guys have blown through town three times
in the past 7 months. The truly odd occurrence: I've been to every show
they've played but have missed out on them due to tardiness or show-hopping.
This time there was no avoiding Mazarin. Suffice it to say, after watching
them play to 100 people like they were 100,000 people, I'm sad that I've
missed them. Their set was a nice counterbalance to what the evening had in
store. Mazarin's greatest strength is taking catchy indie rock suitable for
the recording studio and making it as raw as possible in the live setting.
There's a crunch and a fervor many indie clichés can never deliver in a live
setting. It's one trick to make an album catchy; it's another to make a
concert even catchier.
A few beers and 20 minutes later, The Walkmen came out to a crowd that had
doubled (though that's not saying much). I fully expected a dud from the band,
considering the low turnout. What I got was one hell of a rock show. Nothing
was held back. Hamilton Leithauser belted out each and every song as if he was
a punch-drunk lounge singer expecting his big break. The new songs were
passionate and intense, something that does not translate throughout A
Hundred Miles Off. "Good for You's Good for Me" and "Emma, Get Me a Lemon"
transformed live, turning lifeless recordings into monumental anthems of piss
and vinegar. Old favorites such as "Wake Up" and "Little House of Savages" had
a crunchier, angrier tone that made them seem more sincere than ever. The real
surprise of the evening came when the band unveiled a new song and claimed it
was from an upcoming fall album (if it's from Pussycats I do not know)
The track itself had the same, south of the border blasé that makes
What did we learn from this? Don't miss Mazarin next time they come through
town, take note that The Walkmen are turning into an indie mariachi band (and
I like it), and consider that not fighting for your plot of floor during a
show makes for a more pleasurable concert.
Band of Horses / Mt. Egypt
Schubas; Chicago, IL
Considering the fact that this was
an all-ages show starting at 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the crowd there to
see Band of Horses for their first of two sold-out shows was a surprisingly
older, more mainstream crowd. I guess the idea of getting home at 10:00 p.m.
to get good night's sleep before getting up early the next morning for work
appealed to more than just me. I must be getting old.
With such an early start time, opener Mt. Egypt, a one-man band from
California that plays melancholy folk in the vein of Will Oldham (with the
beard to match), kicked off to a mostly empty room that gradually filled
throughout the set. Backed by the bassist and drummer for Band of Horses, Mt.
Egypt's music was generally engaging and at times very beautiful. Band of
Horses' frontman Ben Bridwell eventually made his way onto the stage for their
last song, a more rollicking number, to sing back-up vocals. He later
professed his love for Mt. Egypt's music by saying, "Mt. Egypt is amazing. His
music makes me want to cry. So you should all check it out. If you like
Meanwhile, Band of Horses is a brand-new band playing their first tour ever.
While it's true that Bridwell has been in the scene a long time (previously
with Carissa's Weird), it's still a new sound with a new group of players. As
a result, the band definitely played like it was their first time on a stage,
and it was clear they had many kinks to work out in terms of their live show.
The band spent countless minutes in between songs tuning and changing
instruments, from lap steel to guitar to bass to a different guitar.
Unfortunately, all that tuning didn't always pay off, like when Bridwell felt
forced to put his bass down altogether during "Our Swords." Their playing at
times seemed rough, and the band blew all the obvious encore material during
the set, leaving the audience with a slow solo ballad so brand new that
Bridwell needed to bring out a sheet of lyrics to help him through the finale.
That being said, I still really enjoyed the show, even though everything I've
described so far might normally have me heading for the door. This was
primarily due to one reason: the fantastic stage presence of Ben Bridwell. His
personality and energy were so engaging it was impossible not to like him and
everything he did, especially when he threw his fists up in the air after each
song, seemingly victorious that they'd made it through. He could spend too
much time tuning the guitar, but the effortless jokes he told while we waited
made it bearable. When he gave up on the bass during "Our Swords," I laughed
with him rather than sigh in frustration. Instead of seeing a band that had
trouble getting it together, I saw a band just getting started. And regardless
of the roughness of the show, everything still sounded good. Bridwell's voice
rang out clear and crisp across the small venue, stronger than the album might
imply; opening song "Monsters" especially showcased his voice as he sat behind
his lap steel, spastically tapping his foot while the band waited to join in.
About halfway through the set, the band asked each other, "Should we do the
cover? How about we do the cover? Let's do the cover!" and then broke into a
slowed down version of Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True," which
was hilarious and awesome at the same time. The majority of Everything All
the Time made its way onto the set list, including "The Great Salt Lake,"
"Wicked Gil," and set-closer "The Funeral," with Bridwell's enthusiasm shining
through them all the way. And even though the new songs seemed unfinished or
ill-placed, they still provided a glimpse into future material that most
likely won't disappoint.
Great, memorable shows need three things: good source material, good execution
of that source material live, and a good stage presence by the band. Band of
Horses put on a good show because they got two out of three; with so much time
ahead to refine their ability to bring those great songs to the stage, there's
potential for a great show yet.
The First Song
Great Salt Lake
You Make My Dreams Come True (Hall and Oates cover)
Hopewell / Saints & Lovers
Pianos; New York, NY
Believe the hype. I don't find
myself uttering those words too often, but when it comes to Hopewell, I speak
without reservation. Cheryl Waters, whose KEXP radio show is beloved to all of
us 9-to-5ers who spend our days in front of the computer with headphones on,
named their last album, Hopewell and the Birds of Appetite (Tee Pee),
her favorite of 2005. Listening to that record, you see what she's talking
about – songs that are catchy and powerful, with sprawling, orchestral
instrumentals and a subtle bird theme that's more Hitchcock than Audubon
Society. The live show highlights and improves upon all of these elements
through the band's immediately contagious energy.
In their second Pianos show in as many weeks, Hopewell was fresh from the
studio, testing out new material for an audience of friends and hometown fans.
Many of the songs they performed were still untitled – frontman Jason Russo, a
witty and genial host, even asked the audience to suggest titles for one –
and, according to the band, unfinished. While there may be some tweaking left
to do, I could see where they were going. The formula hasn't changed, but the
songwriting has become tighter and perhaps even more experimental. While
Birds of Appetite was full of swirling instrumentals and wispy vocals,
reminiscent of Russo's last band, the wonderful Mercury Rev, the new stuff
seemed to herald Hopewell coming into its own. There is something intense and
ecstatic about this band, that rare element that could make them wildly
popular while still pleasing their loyal fanbase – and they are really
starting to own it. One new piece, a vocals-heavy, space-rock love song that
the band had never played for an audience before, made me especially excited
for the new album. When, towards the end of the set, the band dove headfirst
into their anthemic single, "Calcutta," the audience just exploded. In
retrospect, I feel kind of bad for having so much fun with a song about living
in extreme poverty.
This performance convinced me, once and for all, that Hopewell exists purely
to save audiences from having a bad night. It was something of a miracle that
I came out of this show happy, as it was prefaced by a boring, '90s
rock-flavored set by Saints & Lovers and twenty minutes of commercial hip hop
provided by some sadist on the Pianos staff (quoth my similarly frustrated
friend, "If I hear the words 'pussy' or 'bush' one more time..."). And the
first time I saw Hopewell, they were opening for
self-destructive/brilliant/fill-in-the-tragic-genius-blank labelmates The
Brian Jonestown Massacre. After some frat boy threw a cup of ice on stage and
Anton Newcombe pitched a hissyfit that essentially ended the show, Hopewell's
performance justified paying the price of admission.
So imagine my surprise when, at the end of the set, Russo plunked himself down
on a barstool that had been dragged to the middle of the dance floor and said,
"That was awful." Well, if this is high school and he's that skinny, popular
girl who always talks about how fat she is, I'm going to be the brownnosing
sidekick who assures her that she's beautiful. Do you hear me, Hopewell? It
was great, okay? So don't go throwing up your lunch or anything, because you
look really hot in that "next big thing" dress.
Deadboy & The Elephantmen / Wolfmother
Richard's On Richards; Vancouver, BC
Hype is a funny thing. It's the
reason I'm here tonight. The first time I took notice of Wolfmother, it was
because of a full page ad on the back of Exclaim! It's pretty hard to
ignore an Amazon serpent woman commanding you to own their debut LP on vinyl.
Some time later, about a month before this gig, I became aware that not only
was Wolfmother coming to town, but, which is more, they were already sold out.
Dick's On Dicks never sells out. I guess the Australian stoners put that WWF
funding to effective use.
But before I get ahead of myself too much, the opening act was pretty much as
equally notable. Typically a duo of former Acid Bath taker Dax Riggs and New
Orleans drummer Tessie Brunet, a touring bassist wearing a "He Love The Cock
->" shirt was added to the line-up to align themselves with the power trio
they're opening for. This effectively rounded out their younger White Stripes
indie sound, markedly improving over the more minimal live bootlegs I'd
previously been exposed to. Their tight, high energy set certainly raised the
bar for the evening in the expectations of those who made it on time (what is
it with people missing the opening act?). They had issued their Fat Possum
debut a few months ago, though, so they'll probably have a few more warm-up
gigs to go before they're top billing. Just judging from the fervour they left
the crowd in, though, I'm sure they'll get there in a timely fashion.
After several random drunkards finished choruses of "Let's Go Oilers" and
Wolfmother chants trailed by barstar woops, the thoroughly trendy, borderline
rowdy capacity (!) crowd met the Aussy burn-outs with a noise only matched by
the cheers following Edmonton's semi-final series clinching win over the
not-so-mighty Mighty Ducks, being shown on one of the TVs behind a bar (it's
Canada, folks). The "this is the last time you'll see this band in a place
like this" intro from some too-hot-for-radio Fox FM girl probably helped, true
as it is. Wolfmother's sound and stage presence can't be contained in such an
intimate setting. It's gotta be hard trying to rock out on a 15 foot stage
with the drummer practically hanging from the rafters. They did it, though,
scissor kicks and all. Dicks has never been more alive.
I wasn't even born when Black Sabbath stopped being rad, but this has to be
what it felt like when they were. Fuzz-drenched guitars, keyboard distortion,
tribal drumming, mythological imagery, grandiose solos, chantable choruses,
and relatable lyrics: this is the spectacle rock lost when it drowned in coke
in the late seventies and its cock shrivelled. Wolfmother has finally brought
back rock with cantaloupe balls. There were synchronized cheers and clapping,
moshing (especially during "Apple Tree"), and even a little crowd surfing.
Just how mean these guys sound doesn't come across on any recording. If Chris
Ross' raunchy keyboard doesn't get you moving, nothing will. Stadium rock in a
500 max capacity building... socks were melting. Indeed, the differences
between The Darkness and Wolfmother may largely be influences, but the sheer
idiocy of Justin Hawkins' persona/lyricism is offset by WM's commitment to
simple but effective classic rock. While the kitschy Darkness performs
shenanigans, Wolfmother just rocks. This means razor bladed amps, putting
women on pedestals, and blowing the fuck out of people's minds. How many
people are in The Strokes? Five? Seventeen? And they can barely muster the
strength to do an encore. Come and discover what you've been missing for the
last 30 years. Remember rock.
The Sasquatch Festival: Day Three
The Gorge; George, WA
With Day II
now nothing more than a whitewashed memory, we headed into the third day of
music at The Sasquatch Festival with a clean slate. This was going to be the
big payoff, the setting for dozens of impassioned performances and a
coming-of-age-type epiphany for a couple of young concert crashers. This was
going to make our arduous journey worthwhile and alleviate our worst fears.
Ever the types to "see where the parking lot takes us," we settled in for a
nice drinking session with some Canadians. As normally happens when drinking
with dirty, north-of-the-border brutes, they took us to task, breaking out a
bottle of Tequila with a little flourish. They were expecting us to partake.
I refrained. My last shot of Tequila almost killed me. I took it in the middle
of a Mexican restaurant after being awkwardly serenaded by a group of staff
members who were probably conspiring to pee in my pico de gallo. I forced it
down and began coughing violently, drawing the attention of diners around me.
Tears welled up in my eyes, and snot slowly oozed from my phlegm holes. After
a few minutes I realized I had a bloody nose, my face blotchy and beat-red in
the bathroom mirror. Allow me to clarify: I didn't get in a fistfight or snort
cocaine beforehand, nor had I mainlined Jack Daniels with Nikki Sixx or
headbanged with Andrew WK as a prelude. This one, lone shot was enough to
cause my body to convulse and cough up. It was the very essence of evil, the
sort of toxin that left a guy like me waking up pantsless with a sore ass in
the bed of a bearded, surly looking female midget. Bad things often
Again, I declined to take a shot, instead indulging in a bottle of my favorite
beer on Moz' green earth, Blue Boar. Or, as I like to call it when I'm on a
Fiery Furnaces kick, Blueberry Boat.
My partner in all things Sasquilla decided multiple Tequila shots would be a
great idea, especially at noon. I couldn't argue. Great things always seem to
happen when this guy ties a couple of Chilean monkeys to his belt. His
outrageousness has often made it not only possible but comfortable to approach
strange women in bars. The key? Talk about my drunk friend and what an ass-ham
he is. Works every time. Not that there isn't a dark side; if one of "his"
songs happens to pump from the jukebox he'll lunge around and break shit, and
he once covered his apartment walls with soot when he threw chicken in the
oven and fell asleep. In short, he can strap on a boozebag that'd make Tucker
Max and his entourages seem like giggly junior highers sipping wine coolers.
And now for a sanitation update: By the third day of the festival the bathroom
situation had become dire. Long lines in every direction and soggy bogs of
questionable origin to wade through, punctuated by a smell that only
two-and-a-half days of jettisoned festival food – cinnamon sugar-pies,
gelatinous pizzas, wannabe Phili steak sandwiches, suds –can furnish.
People were slowly growing weary, and not just because of the restrooms. We'd
been put through the ringer many times over. We were the living dead – burnt,
blistered, weathered... we shuddered in fear every time a cloud approached
overhead, flashing back to memories of frozen ping-pong balls that had just
yesterday rendered us nature's punching bag, thumping us on the head every
time we glanced out from behind our umbrellas (if we were lucky enough to have
The first band we saw put an encouraging spin on the day. The Arctic Monkeys'
egos are polished by the press more than silver doorknobs in a lavish mansion
with bored maids, but they can back it up. They jingled and jangled their six
string machines and never let up, picking up the many yards of slack afforded
them by a generally disappointing showing by many of the artists. On an
afternoon when many of the mid-day acts blended together facelessly, the
Monkeys had bite, energy, panache, and flat-out moxie, the sort of high-rise
decadence that we demand from our lavishly buttered-up blokes from across the
pond. We weren't "allowed" to photograph the Arctic Monkeys due to a
Cartman-esque strategy (deny people the right to something and they'll
actually want it sooner or later), but even that couldn't dull the spark.
Nada Surf and The Decemberists followed and... blended in. That's as sanitized
an evaluation as possible. Nada Surf are a nice little outfit, and I've seen
them in the past and enjoyed their straight-laced take on indie-rock, but they
made no impression at all. Furthermore, though they inspired yours truly to
walk about yelling "WOOK AT ME, I'M A BARROW BOY" for a spell, Colin Meloy and
his confederate troops dulled me. I KNOW I KNOW, if you're smart and musically
astute and in-the-moment you're supposed to drool over everything The
Decemberists do without even considering that, aside from The Tain EP
and a pretty good full length (Picaresque), they can be boring as bran
flakes. Hey, I'm not in this for the buzzbin baby; it's all about the goods,
and this Portland band didn't make the grade. At this point I must once more
question the sanity of the committee in charge of plotting out Sasquilla's
lineup, because a little juggling would have cured so many ills. Next time,
look at the bands and play to their strengths! And don't plop Headphones down
on the third stage, for crikey. What the hell was going on during the
Sasquatch planning meeting? Who supplied the whipits? Sounds like fun; can I
come next time? Cripes!
At some point between the start of Nada Surf's performance and the end of The
Decemberists', things got out of hand for the two of us. My concert partner
and I would separate randomly and I'd find him standing over by the Honey
Buckets, smoking a cigarette and circling his head around as if to ward off
bugs that might perch on his ear. Then we began weaving through the crowd to
find a spot to sit. While I walked cautiously, trying to take short, choppy
steps like a young Keith Byars, my counterpart (and on this day my
counterpoint) took a different tact: He started running. Keep in mind that
this was a crowded festival. There was barely a yard to spare on either side
of us; breaking through that barrier meant kicking people in the face or
tripping over their feet.
After miraculously making it 50 yards without incident, he slipped on the wet
grass, stumbled, pivoted, and leaned, suddenly vaulting into the air sideways,
scissoring his lanky legs and kicking straight into a young couple lying
leisurely on a blanket. The poor lovebirds lay in abject shock as my partner
muzzled with them up close. He could have lessened the severity of the
situation by simply getting up, brushing himself off and uttering a quick
apology. Instead he just sat expressionless like he belonged there, the couple
looking at each other then glancing around, trying to make sense of this
strange man with Tequila on his breath – this man lying next to them, nay,
WITH them. And not only has he slammed into and sidled up to them, he looks as
if he doesn't plan on leaving anytime soon. I rolled on the grass laughing 10
feet above for a good five minutes, embracing the orgasmic, whooping, spastic
fit for as long as I could stand.
I helped him up and rattled a few conciliatory words to the couple, shuttling
my friend off before security was summoned. We settled down in a spot 20 yards
down next to a group of eight or nine young 'uns, 18 years old if they were a
day. Then the harassment started. My conspirator spit out a blubbery,
condescending, drunken laugh every time they joked with one another. Then he
heard his latest hot-button word, "Pasadena," come up in their conversation
and started yelling it over and over in a churlish Mickey Knox accent: "PASADEEEEENA,
PASADEEEEENA... OOOOOOOH" [tinkling fake piano keys with his fingers]. I don't
cotton to this sort of behavior, but in lieu of an inspiration drought I found
it a more than passable form of entertainment. Plus I dig Bukowski and Day III
at times reminded me of a few of his stories.
Following a heated discussion during which I informed my partner that I would
rip his liver out if he left the festival to crash out in his car, we moved
again and settled down to watch Matisyajew; I mean, Matisyahu. Hey, I'm not
the one writing the press releases and hype-heavy features – this group's
Hasidic frontman's ancestry has been discussed nearly as much as his band's
music. Is it really that strange to see a presumably un-circumcised male
perform Sublime-ish reggae-soul with a touch of hip-hop? Matisyahu's showcase,
short of explosive, was quite steady, and if this genre is your bag, you were
swooning like a knock-kneed schoolgirl until the last plunk-riff rippled
through the festival grounds. I came in weary and left impressed, if not
Upset that I was going to miss Queens Of The Stone Age, I nevertheless chose
to migrate to the second stage for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. DING: right
choice. Look, I'm not even going to dip into the back story of this band for
more than a sentence because it doesn't matter which website discovered whom
and whatever else. [Ah, what the hell: For the record, TMT found CYHSY
cryogenically frozen in David Byrne's meat locker with a tag attached that
read "Open in 2005; contents highly flammable." We then thawed them and
released them on an unsuspecting – and highly impressionable – public and the
rest is indie-rock-by-way-of-Encino Man history. SO THERE!]
The quintet were quite magical, and I was stuck in the way-back behind
hundreds of others. But intensity is tantamount to an affecting live
performance, and Clap Your Hands had it. "Is This Love," with its dippy keys
and frantic pace, along with the stomping chorus of "The Skin of My Yellow
Country Teeth," set the tone. From there we were all theirs, hanging onto Alec
Ounsworth's wiry wail as if it might disappear into the breeze forever. A few
duds aside, CYHSY came through on their end of the bargain. Remember how I
said that hype doesn't mean anything in Part I? The Arctic Monkeys and Clap
Your Hands, two post-Strokes cogs in the machine of death, nullified any
resistance we may have had in light of their waves of posi-press.
From there, the day began to cool into night. It must be written: Early
evenings at the Gorge = Kodak memories that will forever etch themselves in
your brain stem, and Day III upped the anty with the most striking sunset yet
and clear skies backdropping the cavernous Columbia River. I've been to Red
Rocks, and it can suck mine; that's how loyal I am to the Gorge as a venue,
weather-be-damned. With Death Cab For Cutie, the second-to-last band, about to
caress us with gentleness, it dawned on me how crucial they were to Sasquatch
2006 and the Northwest in general. As bad as Transatlanticism was,
Plans, their major label debut, was nowhere near as disappointing as I
expected at the time, complete with a supremely rewarding re-think of
"Stability" (a great EP track in its own right) as album closer.
Pulling the age-old trick, Death Cab kept the teeny boppers happy with "Soul
Meets Body" and the heavies at bay with the quiet-loud, double-guitar
pleasures of "Company Calls." I interviewed bassist Nick Harmer awhile back,
and he mentioned how impressed he's always been with Ben Gibbard's work ethic
where writing songs is concerned, and that quality shines through songs like
"Movie Script Ending," a hushed meditation that Chris Walla shouldn't have
quick-picked so haphazardly – he looked bored, likely longing to get back to
his mixing boards. As the astounding oranges, reds and purples of the sunset
tweaked our pupils, Death Cab For Cutie put in a workmanlike performance,
though I've seen the quartet close with "Prove My Hypothesis" at least four
times. Luckily they always thrash it out h-h-hard, jumping, kicking and
landing and generally acting like they aren't shy nerd-boys from a rich
Seattle suburb. As Jay might say, "Noise-noise-noise!" One couldn't help but
wonder why Iron & Wine and The Decemberists and others weren't afforded the
same sheer volume by the sound engineers, but that's another article.
Closing out the third day of a heavily populated festival event, my
expectations for Beck were high, perhaps too high. I wanted the enigmatic
style-setter to avoid playing tracks from Guero completely because it
sucks holy-hard ass, and I wanted multiple encores and at least a few cuts
from his record on K, not to mention a few from Mutations. It's
embarrassing how off I was, my instincts whittled down by burgeoning skin
cancer and chemicals. Beck entered the stage to much fanfare, accompanied by a
marionette band modeled after his backing band and him. As fun as the clip of
the marionettes poking fun at festival goers was, it didn't exactly lend
urgency to the proceedings. What we got mostly was his signature stabs at
whiteboy-gone-to-the-crossroads-and-now-he's-back-and-funky routine, but
without the spirited juke-stepping and flair I'd heard about years earlier.
This was a short, scant runt of a set. At Bonnaroo he reportedly pulled more
stops; what the shit? Does Beck hate Canadians? Does he hate the indefatigable
Gumshoe, a legend in his own mind? Does he hate Honey Buckets?
Whatever the reason, when Beck shimmied off the stage we all assumed he'd be
back with bells on, running through a different period in his discography or
bringing on a guest or two; something... anything! It didn't happen, as you
can probably ascertain, and we were banished back to our campgrounds, our RV
parks, our [shudder] lives. Lame.
And that's just about it. If this three-part tour diary from the other side of
the tracks seems a bit labored, perfunctory, occasionally funny, occasionally
scary, and often enthralling, then you've taken the first step to
understanding the levity of multi-day outdoor festivals. I've been to South By
Southwest, bitches, and came away unscathed, but I left Sasquatch a weary,
half-crazy man. Until next year... GO OILERS!
The Sasquatch Festival: Day Two
The Gorge; George, WA
As we approached the venue gates
for Sasquatch Day II: The Reckoning, we expected things to continue as
planned. We'd soak up a ton 'o' sun, check out boatloads of bands and, you
know, drink a ton of $8 cans of cheap beer, just like at home, save the
exorbitant price tag.
And that IS how things went, for about 45 minutes. After missing Rogue Wave we
tearfully trotted over to the second stage to catch ex-Pavement frontman
Stephen Malkmus' solo set. We sat on the side at first and were treated to a
magical herbal supplement that tasted vaguely like fake raspberries. YUM!
TASTE THE BERRIFIC GOODNESS! Malkmus was no slouch either, offering his best
impression of a guy that is just too laid back to give a fish-frying fuck
about being a big, shiny rock star god.
Of course, if you're a Malkmus guy you know this actually isn't an impression;
he really doesn't care. His solo CDs wouldn't even have his name plastered
across them if he had his choice. Alas, indie politics are a bitch, and
nowhere was this more apparent than at Malkmus' gig on the – mentioned again
for effect – SECOND stage. Malkmus playing runner-up to Iron & Wine, TV On The
Radio, Arctic Monkeys and – [choking/gurgling sound] Him? JESUS CORSETED
CHRIST, WHERE'S THE JUSTICE?
I watched years ago as Bad Religion opened for Blink 182, and though that
little rip in the fabric of punk-rock history will always be tantamount to
ultimate shittery in my mind, seeing Malkmus stuck on the second stage wasn't
too far removed. But remember what I said above? He doesn't give a fuck. He
and his beloved Jicks played a great little set, touching upon all our weak
spots: high, squealing guitars that make us cover our ears and take notice in
one fell swoop; verses that sound like a slightly tipsy slacker
Thirtysomething ordering a bath pillow over the phone; a sly wit those on the
outside will never fully understand; and lotsa rockin'.
Being a lukewarm supporter of Malkmus' until the sublime Face the Truth
(though I've been told I'm effectively an indie-rock invalid for not having
freaked on the self-titled debut) rocked and shocked my system, hearing "No
More Shoes" in all its squall-heavy glory was an inspirational thing, as was
watching with childlike glee as Malkmus yelled "Suck my kiss!" at the crowd,
remarking, "I've always wanted to say that … and mean it."
Now that he's a proud father – is there any other kind? – and reportedly
"settled down," it's nice to know the nearing-middle-age indie icon remains
capable of capturing his songs in a live setting, though his monotone delivery
is still good for a cringe or two after a full set.
Once Malkmus unplugged his Malkmus and exited Malkmus-left we had a choice:
stick around for Band Of Horses and a few others or head to the main stage for
Sam Beam, Neko Case, and The [gulp] Tragically [double-gulp] Hip [you get the
point; lots of gulping being had].
In retrospect our decision was a flawed one. Sitting in the nicely cropped
Gorge grass and watching as a flock of ominous clouds was herded our way, I
couldn't help but notice that Iron & Wine sounded AWFUL. Well, at least what I
could hear sounded awful; Beam and his traveling band were so quiet you could
barely hear a thing from 50 yards and beyond. And what I did hear I didn't
like. Country- and folk-crimped blues is a mighty fine persuasion if delivered
in the proper fashion, but Beam just couldn't hang, and how could I expect him
too? He's a naked, introspective songwriter trying to play to thousands, so
maybe he isn't to blame. And who's the wunderkind that slated this concert?
Does it take a genius to understand that the more intimate second stage would
have been Beam's playground? Ahhh … But, to tell it like I heard it, Iron &
Wine still sucked big, shiny, decorative balls, no matter which party was
responsible. Fleshing out his one-man songs with a band was a good move, but
his voice struggled to attain the volume necessary for a huge crowd and the
whole full band thing looks a lot better on proof paper than upon publication.
Sorry Sam; please, don't play it again.
Next it was time for some faux kuntry by crooner queen Neko Case, and she was
amazing for the entirety of her set, which turned out to be … oh, 10 minutes
tops. Too bad, Case, baby; didn't you bring your knight's armor? No? Awww,
poor, sheltered rock stars; will you ever learn …
Ok, I should clarify that this is a total in-joke, as a barrage of
bite-sized-Snickers hail rained down on the Gorge like the hand of god before
Case could even finish "My Favorite." Oh, and did I say the hand of
god? I meant a million-thousand hands of god that feel more like
quarter-sized chunks of sleet and ice than one, unmistakable hand of our
ever-elusive creator. DAMN YOU GOD, IS IT SO HARD TO SEE A SEMI-SNARKY MUSIC
REPORTER HAPPY? This was unlike any day-concert scene I've ever witnessed.
Tens of thousands of show-goers cowered under plastic tarps, $10 ponchos, and
blankets. For the first time in my life I envied those lucky souls confined to
a plastic bubble for life. Hell, they were sittin' pretty!
colleague and I attempted to outlast the outrageous storm, but it was a futile
endeavor with none of the above-mentioned forms of shelter at our disposal, so
we ran for the hills, or, more specifically, an overhead shelter. Under this
shelter were hundreds of shivering souls with little room to breathe. Things
even got kinda scary when several belligerent drunks packed into an already
dense crowd, leaving one to wonder what would happen where there was simply no
more room. Cannibalism? A tribal system in which the lesser are stomped like
dogs? Unintentional group sex?
Well, none of these seemingly inevitable eventualities transpired, and with a
knowing wink god blessed us with pelts of rain, which at this point were damn
preferable in comparison to the stinging clots of hail. Our light, sunny-day
concert had turned to a dark, third-world hellhole in a matter of an hour. The
grass, previously packed with people, was now dotted by staunch survivors of
the storm, discarded ponchos (one of which we used for a seat as not to wet
our shapely bums), water bottles, wristbands and mini food trays. It was sad.
It was dreary. It was kinda cool to finally get a good seat.
And so we decided in kind to persevere. Too tired to amble over to the second
stage, we weathered our second shitstorm of the day: The Tragically Hip.
Tragically, they actually weren't really that bad. I mean, they were bad, but
not tragically bad circa Him. They were more They Might Be Giants bad:
You're suspicious of friends that swear upon their goodness, but you'll let it
slide because the keyboards sound kinda cool sometimes and because it's not
like you have to listen to it outside of the occasional ride in their car.
I'll just leave it at that, because frankly dear, I don't give a damn about
The Tragically Hip, and neither should you.
Before I drop several semi-sweet morsels about The Shins' set, I need to get a
few things off my chest. First off, though James Mercer and co. have gotten a
HUNDRED TIMES better at reenacting their Oh, Inverted World cuts in a
live setting over the years; the chorus of "Girl on the Wing" and a few others
are just-plain-cavalier; what's more, I've heard them get it right in the
past. Why not this time? Secondly, there's this GREAT Shins song they used to
play back in the early post-millennium days (at the end Mercer scat sings,
"oh-oh-oh-oh, OH-OH," if that helps), and they've simply abandoned it. Man,
that sucks ass. Thirdly, they played the EXACT SAME songs they cranked through
at Sasquilla 2004. Fourthly, the critics that hailed Chutes Too Narrow
as superior to Oh, Inverted World should be summarily shot in the teeth
repeatedly. Sixthly, Shins keyboardist Marty Crandall looks JUST like Chris
Parnell from Saturday Night Live and no one else seems to notice. What gives?
Sixthly, the above concerns mean precisely shinola because The Shins remain an
incredible band, Mercer a once-a-decade vocalist with a rare combination of
upper-register range and songwriting smarts cum whimsy. A few lukewarm
Chutes tracks notwithstanding, the amazing pitter-patter-plunk-plop rhythm
of "One By One All Day," the slinking synth-accompanied chorus of "Saint Simus,"
and of course the rousing chant of "Hold your glass up" from "Caring is
Creepy" proffered enough sugar-sweet goodness to render the preceding
hailstorm maelstrom a dirty, drippy memory, much like that time you caught the
clap from your elementary school janitor.
At this point, the crowd was informed that Ben Harper would grace the stage
before The Flaming Lips due to undisclosed difficulties. This ended up being a
HUGE deal, as Harper's set literally took 17 years, 321 days, 5 hours, and 37
minutes to end. It folded on itself like an apple turnover; it contracted and
expanded like a temperamental blowfish; it was Eternal like KLF's 3 a.m. and
The Bangles' Flame; it was unbearable.
And I like Ben Harper. Sort of. Well, I mean, I don't dislike his music
in any severe way. But he's just one of those artists to me -- I'll admit he's
talented as long as I don't have to listen to too much of his music or too
much bantering from his "biggest" fan that once shared a nose hair trimmer
with him (!). I bought the double album Live From Mars and shelved it,
save to listen to "Alone" occasionally. A friend once told me Harper is like a
combination of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan (Bob Marlan!), but to me he's more
Wyclef spliced with Dave Matthews: technically talented, and I loved The
Carnival, but c'mon!
His performance at Sasquatch did little to deter my "meh" sensibilities. As
our drenched clothes bonded with our white, bloated bodies a cutting wind
pierced our very souls and whittled away at our resolve. It became an
endurance test, one I'm sad to say we failed: After the 72nd Harper encore, we
uttered a "fuck this" and packed it in for the night.
I figured we didn't miss much. At Sasquatch 2004 The Flaming Lips' visual
extravaganza was blighted by Coyne's failure to hit his high notes. The next
day over Tequila shots a group of rowdy Canadian roughriders told us what we'd
missed: A boy in a plastic bubble, a cover of Sabbath's "War Pigs," and lots
of fake blood. Bollocks.
Would the Third Day of Sasquilla-my-'nilla compensate for the failures of the
second? Would I find the frozen banana of life, the treat that would save me
from damnation? Would I be able to keep my best palcoholic at bay? Would the
bubbling refuse in the outhouses remain enclosed or would it explode from all
the lame vegetarians and their heavily propelled poo? Would the Oilers win and
SHUT THESE GODDAMN CANADIANS UP ONCE AND FOR ALL?
Stay tuned for Sasquatch Day III: Return of the Drunken Gimp.
The Sasquatch Festival: Day One
The Gorge; George, WA
we were, roarin' down I-90 like a magnetic bowling ball catapulting toward
sheet-metal pins. Stoned. Ripped. Wasted. Er, St- ... St- .. on- ... erp,
[cough] ... -oned ... wasted.
Headin' to Sasquilla with our tires manically skirting the highway and our
heads in the drunk tank, it wasn't long before we found trouble burbling in
the underbelly of the small-town animal. Well, trouble is a relative word, but
at the very least the situation was uncomfortable. Specifically, the owner of
a small bodega [Beau - Day - Gah] wouldn't allow my colleague and I to use the
bathroom after a looooooong search turned up no gas stations. BALLS! We got
over that one quickly, as a Mexican restaurant manager nearby gladly
"SHOOOR, of COURSE you can use our bathroom! What do I look like, some sort of
heartless savage? Just purchase our most-expensive dish and you can use our
facilities all you want ... A-HA-HA-HA! I KID, I KID ... Do your worst, Alfred
R. Poodanger!" [quote edited for funniness]
We had more trouble checking in at our campsite. Approaching the Man in Charge
yielded an awkward conversation that would taint our enjoyment of the site's
Billy T. Burglebum, site manager: "HEY!!! YOU KIDS READY TO PARTY!!!"
BTB: "WELLLL... not here. We pride ourselves on a clean, sanitary site with
little-to-no distractions, mmmk? Haha, didn't mean to get your hopes up! And
hey, you can holler all you want until 10 p.m., but then it's LIGHTS OUT,
He might as well have given us the ol' ‘We don't take kindly …' line. What did
we expect? My dingleberry for a companion reserved us a spot at Stars 'n'
Stripes RV Park, otherwise known as a small-town republican stronghold
disguised as a campsite. No shit. We might as well have painted "Liberal
Jagoff" on our chests and walked around handing out PETA pamphlets for all the
sympathy we were going to get. An explosion could have been triggered at any
second. Little did we know that magenta-necked camp counselors and stringent
site policies would be the least of our hassles.
During our three-day excursion to the 2006 Sasquatch Festival, aka South by
Southwest for Hick Dummies Stuck in Washington and/or Canada, we
performed/witnessed the following acts:
— saw 17 bands
— scissor-kicked two helpless sunbathers
— ate 3-and-a-half pounds of M&M/peanut/raisin trail mix
— shit eight-and-a-half staplers
— were told that "only 20 people are allowed to photograph Arctic Monkeys"
— became discouraged by how good Arctic Monkeys were in lieu of the photo ban
— used the word ‘Malkmus' out of context enough to Malkmus a friggin' Malkmus
— endured 67 pelts to the skull, care of bite-sized hail
— watched helpless and pantsless as a Canadian dude asked for a jumpstart
while we were taking off our rain/hail-soaked clothes once ... DAMN CANADIANS!
GIMME ONE HOT MINUTE, EH?
— waited in vain for "Bela Lugosi's Dead" to kick in 14 times
— made terrible "In da ‘Haus" jokes, complete with inappropriate German
accents, for four full hours after Bauhaus' set
— ate, between us, 17 granola bars from the press tent … in one afternoon
— missed Rogue Wave and nearly removed my own spleen with a pair of garden
sheers in a jolting fit of despair once
— commented on how Death Cab are "a cutesy band even manly men can get into"
seven times while trying to look manly
— threatened to murder our camping neighbors while they sat and listened
— took an ice-cold coin-op shower due to no change twice
— considered guiltily masturbating in one of the Gorge's outhouses five times
— took cover with hundreds of others under a tiny overhanging roof once
— saw several out-of-control Canadians chanting "Go Oilers" in unison nine
— listened to the new Tool in the parking lot once [with my metal Super
Needless to say, this wasn't your typical concert experience. This wasn't a
casual roll in the hay; this was a soggy, bloated, three-day poundfest. At
times our "vacation" resembled a struggle for survival, and at no time did we
ever smoosh our bums into the grass and relax. How could we? Too many bands,
too many stages, too many changes in weather; too-too much.
When we arrived in the parking lot it was tempting to turn back while we still
had our dignity. With TV on the Radio belting some awfully sour vocals clear
into the parking lot, one could only imagine how bad it would get once we
stood face to face with the beast. A few rad-ish drum jams aside, TV on the
Radio blew big-time ass, proving once again that indie hype means less than
the fuckwits that create it.
After our first monstrosity, we figured things could only improve. Oh, what a
smelly sack of shit assumptions can become! Thinking HIM were either a) a
Canadian post-rock superband or b) a teeth-gnashing grind-metal group, it was
tough not to be curious. When their Johnny Depp-in-Pirates-of-the-Caribbean
frontman finished applying his Hot Topic eyeliner and made the stage his
strudel, it was apparent HIM are actually THE SHITTIEST BAND ON THE PLANET.
NO, SERIOUSLY, THESE GUYS BLOW HARDER THAN A HUMPBACK ON METH. THE WORST PART
IS THEY PLAYED SO LOUD WE COULD BARELY HEAR EACH OTHER MAKE DISPARAGING
COMMENTS, THUS THE SHOUTING TONE.
Talk about pocket-rocket-rawk; this glorified hair band sounded so unoriginal,
so alarmingly bereft of an identity I don't even know whom to compare them to.
Andrew WK? Naw, not commercial enough. Early Poison? Naw, not gay or shiftless
or unoriginal enough. That terrible Creed-esque band I saw a few years ago
that featured former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing? Bingo!
Let me lay it out for you: Freewheelin' rock/metal with catchy synth parts and
anthemic choruses. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it sure did to the kid
next to us. He was raising his goblet of rawk to the sky and heil-ing his
devil horns. It made me feel guilty for taking notes so deprecating you could
almost smell the lemon-acerbic "wit" wafting from the ink. I even pretended to
care so's not to put the poor dude out. But pretty soon I couldn't help
myself: I jumped up, grabbed my crotch and screamed out a classic Grim Reaper
soprano scrotum scruncher for no reason other than to imitate a band I respect
much, much more than HIM. Man, they were SO BAD. I really can't emphasize this
enough. Fuck, I wish you were THERE, dude, so you coulda seen it for yourself!
Despite the tragedy of the above-mentioned ballgaggers, the first day did more
to justify our attendance than any that followed for one reason, and one
reason alone: FUCKING BAUHAUS!
Sounding like a gloomier version of Echo And The Bunnymen's "Show of Strength"
with a gloomier version of Neil Diamond straddling a mic stand for
accompaniment, frontman Peter Murphy and Bauhaus parlayed their knack for
gloriously repetitive rock into a dynamic performance. They may have
"invented" goth after forming in 1978, but in a live setting their post-punk
side protrudes more than any other entity. Murphy's jockeying for stage
position was a pleasure to behold, all naive, childlike spin cycles (with arms
flailing) and gratuitous grandstanding that could only come from across the
pond. The bass and drums were stuffed so far in the pocket it's amazing you
could hear the blokes, and their songs used rather redundant rhythms and riffs
to lure all onlookers into a flame-ridden frenzy. A lot was expected of the
reunited quartet, and Bauhaus filled the crowd's early Eighties prescription
with purple pills to spare. Bonus: They didn't really have much new material,
so the set consisted mainly of older joints, keeping the ‘Rolling Stones after
Tattoo You came out' factor to a minimum.
Closing out Squatch's first night, Nine Inch Nails hauled a huge stage set-up
and did a workmanlike job of mauling the many plot points of their
ever-expanding cadre of electronic anthems. As desultory as much of their
material is, Trent Reznor and his hired goons — Twiggy Ramirez and drummer
Josh Freese among them — sacked the crowd repeatedly while occasionally
reverting to the elements we all wish Nine Inch Nails would trim. YOU know
what I'm talking about: Those in-between songs that sound like bad Ministry or
decent Killing Joke, with snappy choruses and digital gadgets the world caught
up with years ago.
However, with razor-edged tracks like "Burn" cutting through the clutter like
a hot knife through a cut of semi-nutty edam cheese, it was impossible to
remain embittered for very long. And the light show, my stars the light show!
Shifting from strawberry fields to leopard skin, the constantly fluctuating
patterns skittering around the stage were enough to grrrrant NIN the benefit
of the doubt. What's more, Reznor sounds exactly the same as he did
back in the day, his vehement vocals on "Closer" justifying the tired croaks
and gurgles of the backing tracks. Coming up short when weighed on the Bauhaus
barometer, Nine Inch Nails fared better than one would have guessed at a show
primarily focusing on indie-rock, though it was clear many attendees were
there largely to see Reznor do his thang and planned on packing it in after
And with that, the first painful entry in my Sasquatch Festival 2006 Diary
scrapes to a hault. Little did we know it would fast become the day we had it
Frog Eyes / Sunset Rubdown
Schubas; Chicago, IL
Wolf Parade's Apologies to the Queen Mary was my favorite album of last
year, a title that was cinched after seeing the band live at Chicago's best
small venue, Schubas. It was at this show that I realized who the heart of the
band was: Spencer Krug, the phenomenal voice of "I'll Believe in Anything,"
one of the best songs I've heard in a long time. For the entirety of that
show, I was unable to take my eyes off his passionate, intense singing and
keyboard playing. When I found out he had another project, Sunset Rubdown, I
couldn't wait to hear it, and the recently released Shut Up I Am Dreaming
has not disappointed in the least. I haven't been this excited about a
musician since I discovered the Dismemberment Plan in college. When I heard
Sunset Rubdown was touring with another band Spencer's been associated with,
the wonderfully bizarre Frog Eyes, I couldn't wait to see that intensity on
stage once again.
Even with those high expectations in tow, the show proved to be the best I've
seen all year. The venue was full, but surprisingly not sold out, for Sunset
Rubdown's set. After a prolonged sound check, the show kicked off when Spencer
got behind his keyboard and said, "This song is a Wolf Parade song, but before
that it was a Sunset Rubdown song" and proceeded to play a stripped-down
version of "I'll Believe in Anything," just him and the keyboards, while I
proceeded to drop my jaw in disbelief and amazement and possibly wet myself. I
still can't believe he started out the show with the original version of Wolf
Parade's best and biggest song, and I couldn't be happier that he did. The
song quickly bled into "Snakes Got a Leg" as the rest of the band joined in
(made up of Jordan Robson-Cramer and Michael Doerksen, who switched on and off
between guitar and drums, and Pony Up!'s Camilla Wynn Ingr, who added
additional sound effects, bells and backing vocals), and the next 45 minutes
of music were pretty unreal. Spencer put on much of the same humble,
passionate, super-intense performance behind his keyboards that I loved when I
saw Wolf Parade, eventually picking up this ratty looking mini-accordion held
together by duct tape for the stunning epic, "The Men Are Called Horsemen
There," which made for a great visual spectacle. They also played a brand new
song (something about "chaos") that was possibly, dare I say it, better
than anything I've heard of theirs yet. There's just something about Krug's
unique and powerful voice that makes it hard for me to concentrate on anything
else — it's like nothing I've ever heard before. He could put the phone book
to song and I'd pay to hear him sing it.
After Sunset Rubdown's set, the ongoing trend of recent buzz bands
overshadowing the headliners they tour with (see: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and
the National) continued as the crowd shrank substantially, which is really too
bad for those people who left, especially since the two bands' sounds
complement each other so well. With Spencer joining his former band on the
keyboards, Frog Eyes put on an at-times hilarious and equally intense
performance somewhat fueled by the self-deprecating angst that singer Casey
Mercer spilled forth between each song. The first thing you notice about
Mercer when he steps on stage is how little he looks like a frontman. He sort
of looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman — more specifically, the creepy, Lara
Flynn Boyle-stalking Hoffman of Todd Solondz's Happiness, because
Mercer is creepy, let me tell you. When he's yelping and howling during his
bizarre and exciting songs, his bright red face scrunches up and his whole
body seems to tremble and shudder as he's pounding away at his guitar and
waving his finger in the air like a madman. In between songs he'd either
regale us with some ridiculous tale that made no sense or endlessly mock
himself ("You're old and no one wants to see you play!"), Spencer ("Why don't
we do things like Wolf Parade!"), or an audience member ("I just drank tequila
for the first time!" after she yelled out "Wolf Parade!"), and he'd do it in
this really high-pitched, evil-sounding whisper. Meanwhile, his band seemed to
sort of look around nervously in the background as if they weren't used to
seeing this odd behavior on a daily basis. Beyond all the theatrics, however,
Frog Eyes sounded really great, and the lengthy, brand new song they ended
with was weird and ambitious and fantastic, giving me high expectations for
their next album. To my delight they eschewed the encore, instead opting to
join hands and take a dramatic bow before leaving the stage.
Sigur RÃ³s / Amiina
The Lyric Opera House; Chicago, IL
After taking an elevator up to the
balcony accompanied by a tuxedoed usher while polite applause rippled across
the theater for openers Amiina, I knew this wouldn't be a typical rock show.
In a venue that regularly hosts performances of Die Fledermaus and Cosi fan
Tutte, Sigur Rós' epic compositions and enormous sound still seemed fit to
share the stage, even if the fans in attendance were not typical of the Lyric
Opera House's usual black tie audiences.
The four Icelandic women of Amiina wowed the crowd with their skills on the
strings, incorporating bells, electronics, and even the saw into their short
opening set. The strings were the focus of every song, with the quartet
sitting in a small square atop a tall platform, seemingly unaware an audience
existed. As each song progressed, various members left the platform to
smoothly wander the stage from instrument to instrument, building the sound
gradually in the typical post-rock style Sigur Rós made popular. Amiina's
sound was also very reminiscent of another Icelandic band, Müm, especially as
the precious tinkling of the bells were looped and layered through the Apple
computer that rested incongruously on stage. After thanking the audience with
some very adorable broken English, the band wrapped things up with an
uncharacteristically danceable song with a serious beat.
After taking in the beauty of the Lyric's interior and hitting up the nicest
bathroom I've ever used at a concert, the lights dimmed and the curtains drew
back to reveal Sigur Rós positioned behind a sheer white screen. Easing into "Glósóli"
from their latest album Takk..., the shadows of the band and their
instruments moved across the screen as they played from behind, while faint
gray video of leaves blowing and feet stomping projected onto the stage. The
sound grew gradually, eventually filling the entire room with the final
minute's heart-pounding drums and singer Jon Thor Birgisson's piercing voice,
every note of every instrument crystal clear. As the song finished and the
crowd cheered, the screen rose to reveal the band, the women of Amiina perched
on their platform in the familiar square position, Jon standing awkwardly in
front of the microphone at the center of the stage with his guitar and bow in
After that stellar beginning, the band's set focused primarily on songs from
their most recent albums, the rockin' Takk ("Hoppipola" and "SÃ¦glópur"
were definite standouts) and the far more mellow and sedative () (Yu-si-yo!),
which often left me wanting to close my eyes and just take in the sounds in
peace. The lighting very much complemented the show as video continued to
stream on a screen behind the band; the greens, blues, and reds flashed across
the stage in perfect timing with the music, while the shadows of the various
band members could often be seen along the theater's side walls. Meanwhile,
the band stood rather rigidly on stage, with most of the movement coming from
the sways of the members of Amiina as their arms flowed with the bows of their
strings. Only once did Birgisson speak, and whether it was broken English or
unintelligible Icelandic (or maybe Hopelandish?), no one in the audience was
quite sure what he said.
After briefly leaving the stage to more of that polite applause, the screen
lowered in front of the band again as they returned to the stage to close out
the show with "Untitled #8" from (). Building their sound very
gradually while the lighting strategically revealed the silhouette of a
different band member each second, the band eventually made its way to a
booming ending as strobe lights flashed across the audience and forced me to
turn away my eyes and plug my ears while Birgisson's ear-splitting siren voice
soared above the massive wall of sound. Blind and deaf, but pleased, I watched
as Sigur Rós dropped their instruments and left abruptly, returning to the
stage seconds later for a final bow to their thrilled audience.
Rodrigo Sigal / Steve YÃ©pez / Various Contemporary Composers
DePaul University; Chicago, IL
by DePaul Music School professor Juan Campoverde, is now in its second year
and has expanded to two full nights featuring contemporary music by Latino
composers. The first night focused on multimedia works interspersed with
electro-acoustic pieces. Rodrigo Sigal was the only composer present at the
event and took on the responsibility of running the show, segueing between
pieces and controlling the levels of the eight speakers that surrounded the
audience. The live diffusion was not as impressive as it seemed at first,
though; there were only two channels of audio being output from the computer,
each going to four of the speakers, and Sigal could only control the
spatialization of those two channels, not introduce new sounds to the audience
live. The technological side of the evening felt further compromised by
Sigal's use of the free version of QuickTime. As the pieces were played off of
his computer, the top bar as well as the icon bar was visible.
The first piece of the night, which ran independently of the supplied program,
was "Snout" by Ricardo Giraldo. The multimedia piece used quick, almost
stop-motion edits of close-up shots of a dog as well as video of the ocean as
its primary visual sources while the primary sound source appeared to be
strictly canine. The fast edits of the video were matched by the audio
portion, which featured a pointillistic collage of dog growls, snuffs, and
other sounds. Of the two most traveled categories for this kind of work,
ominous and ambient, "Snout" fell into the more ominous camp, particularly in
the climatic portion of the piece, which was denoted by sharper sounds and
strobe-like images of the dog's teeth. The images were treated with a filter
that increased the contrast and made the white fangs stand out against the
darker background. The focus moved back to the treated shots of waves
crashing, and the piece ended.
At this point Sigal segued into a tape piece by Alejandro ViÃ±o called "The
World We Know." This piece seemed much more in the pop realm than most of the
audience seemed to expect. As I listened to the metallic clanks, drill sounds,
a baby crying, and, I am 90% certain of this, an "Unh!," I was reminded of the
cheesy, proto-techno type tracks a friend of mine used to do in high school.
ViÃ±o's work was decidedly more professional, but the feeling of dressed-up pop
music shone through the composer's stated purpose of exploring the clichés and
traditions associated with rap and hip hop. That's not to say it was not
enjoyable or lacking in complexity, either. The drum and bass breakbeats would
at times begin to play over each other, creating polyrhythms and the thought
in my head that this is what John Cage's aleatoric "Imaginary Landscape No. 4"
would sound like if it were performed in Chicago on a Saturday night. The
eight speakers worked quite well for this piece, though more for the depth and
life they added as their outputs phased and added a slight delay effect to the
listeners' ears, not for the diffusion. The piece ended as it had begun; the
layers began to fall away, and the steady, beating pulse that had sustained
throughout disappeared, leaving what once again sounded like a sparse
collection of unrelated clanks and bangs.
The second video piece of the night was Dennis Miller's "Vis a Vis." A change
from "Snout," "Vis a Vis" was ambient with its primary video source
unintelligible, though I'd venture to guess it may have been either video test
patterns of simply abstract images run through video filters. Similarly, the
audio portion of the piece seemed either electronically created through FM
synthesis or possibly a combination of that and some vocal sounds. Possibly
the result of antiquated equipment (the program notes mentioned that Latin
American countries rarely have up-to-date technology for this kind of work) or
a lack of creativity on the composer's part, the piece seemed little more than
a reworking of John Chowning's revolutionary "Stria" set to abstract video
that was obviously processed using recognizable video filters. Compared to
Giraldo's "Snout" and even ViÃ±o's pop-sounding tape piece, "Vis a Vis" came
across as amateur-ish. The only sense of form was given by the introduction of
a gray area to the sea of floating, spinning, undulating colors that sustained
through the piece.
The next piece that left a mark on me was one of Sigal's tape pieces, "Mambo a
la Braque." This piece was entirely based on samples of others, centered on a
mambo by Damaso Perez Prado. Every two bars the mambo would pause for a break
and a quick burst from a symphony, and then it would return to the mambo. The
samples built in layers with piano sounds, baritone saxophone, and percussion
all playing over, around, and in between each other, their layers
differentiated by their individual fidelities, ambience, and equalization. I
spoke to Sigal the next night about this piece to gain a greater understanding
of his intent. Taking the idea of quotation within a piece to an extreme,
Sigal wanted to use clips of different musical styles as a way to expand the
meaning of his work. Quoting, or in this case, using samples of different
styles, drew certain ideas from the audience about what they knew of that
style. By layering these samples/styles/ideas in a surrealist juxtaposition,
Sigal hopes to challenge their conceptions of what would be considered
well-understood forms in other circumstances.
After almost an hour of multimedia and tape pieces, the audience was ready for
a step in the live direction and was awarded with a piece for flute and tape
by Sigal called "Sonic Farfalla," performed by DePaul student Steve Yépez. The
piece made use of several extended techniques, most notably flutter tongue as
well as key clicks and whisper tones. The piece once again included a drum and
bass portions that faded in, unrelated to the flute part and layered over each
other, creating a three-part polyrhythm. The tape also had a very present
flute part on it. Some of the parts were reversed and used percussively, but
other parts were of an unprocessed flute, and toward the end the sound of a
muted trumpet could be heard coming out of the speakers. I generally have a
prejudice against pieces for mixed media since my feeling is that tape is
static and therefore can't truly interact with a performer, but I do
understand that certain sounds can only be achieved in a studio setting and
cannot be created live. Following that logic, unprocessed instruments have no
place on tape in a mixed media piece. Listening to the piece, I also began to
question the compositional process that Sigal had spoken of earlier, beginning
with the acoustic portion first and then writing the electro-acoustic part as
accompaniment, as this piece's tape part was far more interesting and Sigal
amplified it over the live flute.
The final piece of the night was "Blink," another multimedia piece with the
video done by Ricardo Giraldo and music done by Rodrigo Sigal. Once again
falling into the ominous realm of multimedia works, this piece began with
reversed sounds and FM synthesizer tones playing, accompanied by black and
white video of the inside of an abandoned building. The immediate feel was
that of a low budget horror film along the lines of The Blair Witch Project
or Saw. The piece developed into more than that, though, as the video
switched to color and the exterior of the building was shown followed by
several other buildings in similar disrepair. Samples of a classical aria and
trumpet piece drifted through like the memory of better times as the less
obviously assembled sounds continued. The video eventually went to black as
the trumpet piece came to the forefront and cadenced with ambient sounds
floating around and eventually fading away. I later found out that this piece
is somewhat political, reflecting Giraldo's disillusion with the civil
conflict in his native Columbia, focusing on the long-term destruction it has
Overall, the night was an interesting experience of work that far outshined
the student multimedia performance held at DePaul a few weeks earlier. Still,
an amateurish feel lingered through the performance, mainly due to the
conspicuous presence of the computer's tool bar and the overbearing hip hop
and drum and bass influences in several of the pieces. Multimedia works are in
the process of fighting an uphill battle to claim legitimacy in the many parts
of the classical music world, and when a performance put on at a
university-level music school that is run by composers with PhD's still comes
across like this, legitimacy is not gained. Performances, practices and other
precedents need to be established for the presentation of works like this, as
the works themselves are relatively free of classical structures. The first
night of Encuentros was presented in a way that felt like a slipshod
classical performance, and it did not work. People did not know whether or not
to applaud between works, especially in the sometimes long pauses. In most
cases there were not performers and the composers were not present, so who
would the applause be directed towards? If works are going to break with
classical styles as much as these video and tapes pieces did, then their
presentations need to break with classical practices as well. Otherwise, isn't
it only half new? Still, there was a second night to resolve these questions,
and I eagerly looked forward to it.