Sleep
The Regency Ballroom; San Francisco, CA

[09-12-2010]

“Oh shit” were the cries heard throughout the metal world when the 2010 Sleep reunion tour plans were announced after the band’s appearance at the 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties. The band was together for a short amount of time in the 1990s, but conflict with London Records over Dopesmoker, their long-form album comprised of one hour-plus track of trippy doom sludge, caused the band to break up (and eventually birthed Jerusalem). Holy Mountain, their first official release, became part of the canon of stoner metal and Sleep’s position as one of the primary progenitors of the genre has been confirmed and cemented.

Elvis deMorrow and I, who will be swapping the dialogue below, were privileged enough to attend the first Sleep show of a two night run at San Francisco’s fancy-pants Regency Ballroom during the recent reunion tour. Their epic set would feature Holy Mountain in its entirety, plus most of Dopesmoker. A thick haze of marijuana smoke enveloped our heads as we entered the beaux-arts room with 35-foot ceilings and 22 turn-of-the-century teardrop chandeliers.

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E: The triumphant, glorious Iommi photographic backdrop prior to the Sleep set was inspiring, but there was a deep incongruity in the seemingly random, 90-second snippets of fucking awesome Sabbath tracks that ran through the house PA for the entire setup process.

C: Yeah, the whole on/off Sabbath intro session was annoying, but it all served as an effective reminder that, although they might be the most essential purveyors of stoner metal ever, Sleep are also in many respects a tribute to Sabbath and Iommi in particular.

E: There was no logic to the track sequencing, and deeply familiar riffs would drop without proper preamble, and end almost before they were established. I am strongly inclined to blame the venue for this inauspicious introduction, but I was compelled to protest in extreme yogic ‘prone’ regardless.

C: You fell right on your butt, twice! Apparently the tiny amount of weed smoke we directly inhaled was significantly amplified by the enormous quantity we inhaled second-hand. It hit you like a ton of bricks, eh?

E: Fortunately I was rapidly revived by the astronaut as he tuned the gain knobs on the five amps laid before Iommi’s gaze — projected by fools, but suffering none.

C: Yeah, the astronaut would prove to be a key figure in the whole affair.

E: In retrospect, perhaps the entire soundman botch job on the preliminary Sabbath riffs was some sort of extreme binary exercise to prepare the audience for what was to follow.

C: Come again?

E: Anyone who suspects Sleep ride an inappropriately lengthy & monochromatic canon across their recorded catalog is strongly recommended to attend a live performance. It is quite remarkable to be pummeled with the same essential aesthetic for close to two hours and not find much at all lacking in nuance, texture, timbre, or propulsion along the way. It is not out of line to compare these San Jose gents to Shankar, rather than to their droning brethren & the bands they sired.

C: I guess you’re hitting on something important there, but I will say that a raga and stoner metal sludge begat remarkably different mental states. Being spaced out at a Sleep show is not that close to meditation. I think it’s more akin to being aurally hypnotized into repetitive head-nodding and bull-horn brandishing.

E: The initial guitar chord from Pike’s dual-stringed ax was of the most earth-shattering variety I could imagine hearing. Either they dialed in the absolute most efficient equation of wattage to room size, or they certainly stumbled upon it that night.

C: Sounded bout as good as The Melvins — same room, equal auditory squashing.

E: Good fucking lord. Sudden & rational questions arise regarding why a guitar band would need to be that horrifically loud to accomplish their objectives, but that is like asking why Jarred Allen sports the number “69” on his Vikings jersey; the answer is immediate, inarguable, and extremely disconcerting. In this case, there was no choice but to plug the ears and go along for the ride.

C: I made a quick trip to the bar to find some napkins. I learned my lesson the first time I saw Lightning Bolt. Tinnitus is no fun.

E: I am generally prepared for the sonic level and approach at any given live show I attend, but this set took a solid 15 minutes before I could begin to penetrate beyond the sheer loudness. Once I had my wits about me I began to dig deep into the subtle ritard they would bring again and again, at both predictable and rare moments, within otherwise stable propulsion, and of course their ability to transform simple tempos and time signatures into eerily transcendent polyrhythms by nature of their repetition and heavy magickxs — in this way they do in fact bring new riffs.

C: Sleep has this amazing ability to create space within the violence of their riffing for feedback and drone. Two moments stick out — number one was a section with what felt like five minutes of Matt Pike feedback, and the second was a moment with Cisneros facing the drums and playing an ULTRA-slow bass line that felt like it lasted for days.

E: Bearing witness to new riffs in a live setting is a rare & special treat, and it can arise from many different bases of intent. Most are stoopid, though some are founded in extensive composition. After watching this trio pummel such a limited pentatonic system with minor tonal variance for well over an hour, you are either fundamentally awed at what they have accomplished, or verging on bored tears. These are both valid responses, and I found the performance to be significantly stronger by virtue of their avoidance of numerous small choices that would have put me out of the mesmer they were willfully creating in us. The worship of marijuana may be disturbing to some, and is confounding to me, but the worship of time is fundamentally sound, massive, and difficult to grasp — I can dig it.

C: After staring at the projections, watching the repeated passage of the astronaut back and forth across the stage, and having my brain melted by metal, what it all came down to for me was this simple message: smoke weed and blast off into outer space.

Vijay Iyer
Eastern State Penitentiary; Philadelphia, PA

[09-11-2010]

On May 17, 1929, Al Capone got snagged in Philadelphia for packing heat and ended up spending 9 months in the city’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). As one of the country’s first gangster-celebrities, his release date was a raging media spectacle. On the scheduled morning, mobs of people lined up around the massive compound to catch a glimpse of the murderous anti-hero. Their anticipation, however, was never satiated. To the crowd’s dismay, Capone had already been released. The event concluded with only Sartrean nothingness where living, breathing spectacle was expected.

Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, most well known for his film Decasia, accidently stumbled upon this never-before-seen archival footage in 2008 and transformed it into a mirrored, kaleidoscopic, 12-minute piece that shows the empty streets evolving, slowly blooming to life as gawkers swarm the anticipatory doors through which Capone was expected to pass. Pianist Vijay Iyer, whose Historicity sat at the top of almost every year-end list for 2009’s best jazz album, was asked to provide a score for the film. This collaborative audio/visual project, Release, has been on display since March 2010 at ESP — which stopped being a prison in 1974 and became a museum in 1994 — where the installation is housed in a cell adjacent to the one where Capone spent his sentence.

On September 11, as part of this ongoing installation and Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival, Iyer wheeled in a Steinway and gave a solo performance in ESP’s circular chamber. Located at the center of the prison – the optimal surveillance position — this main chamber contains eight long rows of cells radiating from it like sunbeams. Navigating the dark tunnels to reach the quasi-panopticon-turned-performance-space was an eerie experience, as guests were given the freedom to explore the guts of the cells in order to intimately feel the horror that will always haunt the space.

Despite Iyer’s charm and warmth — he stood and bowed for claps and spoke in detail on the significance of the pieces — the lingering terror was unshakeable. When operational, the chamber had held a piano used for musical purposes, namely for choir rehearsal and, on one occasion, when the prison band was conducted by North American composer Conrad Susa. Iyer’s playing summoned these ghosts, and while many arguably expect a solo piano concert to be soothing and tranquil, his delivery was oftentimes panic-inducing due to its precision and density. However, those familiar with Iyer’s research and publications on the relationship between cognition and music — he holds a PhD from Berkley in Technology and the Arts, a degree created especially for him — have come to expect and enjoy the cerebral experience that he aims to produce.

Many of the nine pieces he performed were from his recent solo album, Solo. On “Autoscopy,” a piece motivated by a prison escape as metaphor for the soul’s out of body experience, he created heavy but playful patterns with repetitive phrases and slight variations. The quick shifts in mood and tempo evoked the frantic mind in the planning stages of an escape or the mad dash away from confinement and toward freedom. In what was sadly an instance of missed contextualization, Iyer subtly dedicated “Remembrace,” a piece from a recent collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa, to victims of September 11. Asking the audience to overlook their present location, namely one where the screams of torture and the sadness of solitude were pervasive and embedded, was somewhat of a demanding stretch.

His interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” was particularly impressive, as he chose to meditate on the dark transition out of the chorus, and then improvised on the two droning bass chords. For the penultimate tune, Iyer chose Solo’s “One for Blount,” which takes its inspiration from Sun Ra’s earth-name, Herman Blount. This composition, equally capable of dancehall excitement or avant-garde genre-stretching, exemplifies Iyer’s technical and compositional capacities. For the finale he performed a thoughtful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By intensifying the pace and shifting to a minor chord arrangement, he emphasized the shadowy traces that are normally brightened by Lennon’s lyrical optimism. The reversal was especially suitable and effective, momentarily allowing the audience to connect with the gloom of those who were so recently chained where they voluntarily sat.

[Photo: Jennie Shanker]

Panda Bear / Nite Jewel
Fox Theater; Oakland, CA

[09-06-2010]

Even after the universal acclaim of 2007’s revelatory Person Pitch, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the overwhelming popularity of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). I don’t, of course, mean to suggest his success is in any way undeserved — in fact, there are few, if any, artists who’ve demonstrated greater creativity, equally wild experimentation, and sheer originality in recent years. So, as I witnessed frat-bros, raccoon-eyed teenagers, girls in stuffed panda hats (?), and even a fucking t-shirt that read Sigma Fi’s Panda-monium 2008, I wondered: why did Monday night’s show at Oakland’s swanky Fox Theater draw a crowd so foreign to my expectations? As it turns out, there’s a lesson to be learned — one, thankfully, that goes beyond simply bitching about bros and hipsters.

But before any such realizations, I quickly became aware of the ill-fitting opener Nite Jewel. I’m not sure how this LA band — essentially a keyboard pop group with an uninspired, lazy front-woman — ended up opening for a musician who is light years beyond in terms of musical artistry. In all fairness, perhaps their white-boy funk grooves would be better experienced in a smaller setting than the augmented acoustics of the golden, behemoth venue. Still, when a band has some of the worst-rehearsed endings in recent memory, it only makes Lennox — who effortlessly navigates, fades, weaves one song to the next — sound even better. But hey, they covered Sparks, managed a decent drum and bass hookup, and even featured a nifty, David Gilmore-esque guitar solo. That’s cool, right?

It wasn’t until a handful of stoned, drunk frat-boys began singing the worst rendition of “Comfy in Nautica” as they impatiently awaited the headliner did I reach the pinnacle of irritation — or was it the teenage pot-head who spilled beer all over me? Either way, I was certain that when Panda Bear’s set began, its unconventional, challenging nature would not only knock everyone on their ass, but secretly, selfishly, I hoped no one else would dig it.

I knew there’d been a recent wave of music critics who, having witnessed Panda Bear’s current live show, offered negative sentiments concerning the length of new songs, ill-suited outdoor venues, etc. But as soon as Lennox lays down his finger, triggering the opening, squelching whole-note of “Drone” (off soon-to-be released Tomboy) and the psych-freak projected visuals of a skeleton face pulsating between wavelength flashes on screen, there’s no doubt the Fox is more than a fitting theater for the experience. “Just a signal in my head,” Lennox sings out, revealing an unexpected transition into his stutter-stop rendition of “Daily Routine” — a personal favorite off AC’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Teasing out each individual syllable on Person Pitch favorites like “Ponytail” and “Comfy In Nautica,” Lennox demonstrates an even more refined vocal performance than I had expected. Not only vocally innovative, it’s wonderful to see him playing guitar again on several new songs. Amid hip-hop grooves, “Surfer Hymn’s” four-on-the-floor pounding, and “Last Night at the Jetty’s” clapped march, Lennox strums a propulsive, murky rhythm on the outstanding “Tomboy” title track. All the while, projected visions of little children dancing, sharks, explosions, and 70s porn — yes, even sex on a roller coaster — supplement any moments that lacked momentum.

After the swaying, sentimental closer “You Can Count on Me,” I half-expect the surrounding audience to be baffled by what I consider an incredibly brilliant yet assuredly challenging performance. Instead, the crowd appears to have enjoyed everything as much, if not more, than myself. When Lennox is finally coaxed into performing an encore — probably the chillest and least-showy encore I’ve ever witnessed, complete with the reoccurring skeleton visual — I realize: just who the hell do I think I am? Sure, many of these fans aren’t the folk I’d want to be around for more than an hour — well, the panda-hatters, beer-spillers, and Sigma Fi’s might be squeezing that down to about five minutes — but, if the music makes them happy, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, we’re all just learning to stretch our ears anyhow. And, to steal an expression concerning bros, give me the space I need, and you may find that we’re alright.

Grizzly Bear / The Walkmen / Gang Gang Dance
The Beach at Governor's Island; New York, N.Y.

[08-12-2010]

A bus, two subways, and a ferry ride brought me to Governor’s Island on Thursday night to see what Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste called a “dreambill.” I agreed with him in theory, but the rain tried its hardest to stifle the night. Largely because of waterproofing, set changes took forever, meaning rain-soaked waiting time.

This didn’t prevent the memorable moments on stage, though. Openers Gang Gang Dance were arguably the most enjoyable of the night. Their percussive bang was powerful and cohesive, their elevator music-on-acid instrumentals were convincingly contoured, and singer LizBougatsos looked thrilled to be on stage.

Next were The Walkmen. Either they missed their soundcheck or didn’t get one, because it took about four songs before you could even hear singer Hamilton Leithauser. Leithauser lamented his band always played in rain, as the downpour intensified. Maybe I just felt sorry for him, but I was impressed with how well the band bounced back from the atmosphere, perhaps betraying their old school indie-rock blood. Their satisfying guitar rock was a sobering contrast between their effects-drenched stage mates.

After another 45-minute set change, Grizzly Bear apologetically took the stage. Chris Taylor looked peeved by equipment complications. Once again, the sound was mediocre until a few songs in, and it was hard to stay compelled by the light show, on-point as it was. Although the momentum of the evening was in shambles, “Lullaby,” “Two Weeks,” and “Knife” rocked as hard as ever, a testament to one of the most creative bands of our era. A bit of synergy was found on the moody “Foreground,” an apt song for the evening.

It was hard not to smile as Droste commented every few songs that everyone there was a trooper. Before the encore, “Fix It,” Taylor half-seriously suggested we stick around, catch a later boat, and talk to our friends or maybe even meet new ones. The line for the ferry back to Manhattan seemed to politely decline his suggestion.

Kid Koala / The Slew
Prospect Park Bandshell; Brooklyn, NY

[06-25-2010]

“We’re gonna play some old-fashioned vinyl records… incorrectly,” came the mischievous voice of fun’s favorite turntablist, Kid Koala, whose slight smugness is always undercut by his chuckling self-deprecation and visible appreciation of his supporters. The lone performer in front of a self-declared “unnecessary” amount of equipment, he explained, “It’s gonna be like a reverse babushka: we’re just gonna keep getting bigger and bigger.”

Koala (aka Eric San) began the night with a beautiful ode to Louis Armstrong, a song from his first album, Drunk Trumpet, perhaps to immediately dispel any doubts from the free-concert audience as to the turntable’s ability to produce soft, warm melodies. Next, he brought on The Slew’s touring DJ, P-Love, and the two attempted a track from San’s LP Some Of My Best Friends Are DJs. The Holy-Grail-sampling duet ended in impressed applause, but San shook his head, mumbling, “I don’t know…” The duo then launched into a warbling, crystalline rendition of “Moon River.”

Before the rocking began in earnest, San paused for a brief bingo interlude. Audience members, handed a bingo card featuring San’s simple cartooning upon entry, were asked to play along as he projected slides of various drawings and explained how easy they were to draw. “Birdseed… anyone can draw it. You don’t need to go to art school.”

The still-engrossed crowd began to cheer as ex-Wolfmotherers Chris Ross and Miles Heskett took the stage and hard rocking began posthaste. After executing their debut album’s titular track, “100%,” with frightening precision, The Slew allowed no chance to catch one’s breath, thrashing their way through the rest of their catalogue with increasing sweat and attitude. Had the audience had their eyes closed, they would have been hard-pressed to determine the group possessed no guitarists or singers. But then, they would also have missed Ross soaring through the air to slam down on his pedal-laden keyboard, or San loudly mouthing the words to every sample.

As the band left the stage for the second time, the dancing mob in front of the stage refused to yield in spite of the efforts of several burly security guards. Aware the situation was not going to resolve itself, San returned to his tables. “We only have those songs,” he explained, promising The Slew would be returning to the studio this fall, this time with their drummer and bassist. “I know this is kind of a punk thing to do.” He laid a record on the platter before returning to the wings, calling the cut, “My favorite song in the universe.” As the crowd accepted its fate and slowly filed out of the venue, the now-lamplit park gradually emptying, the sweet, scratchy voice of Louis Armstrong sang to them, “What a wonderful world…”

The Slew setlist:

1. Drunk Trumpet *
2. Skanky Panky **
3. Moon River **

BINGO

4. 100% ***
5. It’s All Over ***
6. Problem Child ***
7. You Turn Me Cold ***
8. Grinder ***
9. Robbin’ Banks (Doin’ Time) ***
10. Shackled Soul ***
11. Blues in 12 ***
12. Battle of Heaven and Hell ***

*Kid Koala
**Kid Koala and P-Love
***The Slew (full band)

Chromeo
New Capital City Music Hall; Ottawa, Canada

[08-02-2010]

I fought through a freak rain storm and horrifying drivers to arrive at the Chromeo show, just as Holy Ghost from Brooklyn were taking the stage. The four-man opening act was low on energy, yet high on dance-ability, slowly winning over the crowd that was patiently waiting for the headliners. Holy Ghost sounds like Holy Fuck if you stripped away the funk, the groove, and just left the electro. Sprinkle in some spacey lyrics and you’ve got Holy Ghost.

After a lengthy equipment change-up, Chromeo hopped on stage, with the crowd chanting in rhythm with the opening track of their breakthrough album, Fancy Footwork. Both David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel were all smiles, as the former set up behind a guitar and mic while the latter behind synths, a vox box, and a stand-up drum kit. Chromeo have dubbed themselves the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership in the history of mankind, and it’d be tough to argue otherwise, as the duo ripped through bits and pieces off their debut album (“Needy Girl”) and a majority of their follow-up records (“Tenderoni,” “Fancy Footwork,” “Bonafied Lovin’”). The order of the setlist was impeccably chosen too, as it’s no secret people love what they know. Playing true to the album order is a surefire way to ignite a crowd of fans, especially if your last album came out three years ago and the new isn’t released until September.

Sure, Chromeo don’t add much to their sound in a live setting, but they were clearly having a boatload of fun. The enthusiastic audience, of course, ate it right up.

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 3
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 15-18, 2010]

The last trimester is the toughest but most rewarding, or so we have heard. After nine days of seeing bands, even the absent uteruses of TMT’s two intrepid reporters are tired. We know, we know. No one wants to hear about the labor pains; they just want to read capsule reviews about the babies playing live shows. Or something like that. Anyway, here is our third and final roundup of Ottawa Cisco Bluesfest 2010. If you want even more coverage of the acts we saw and many that we didn’t, the organizers have loads of interviews and backstage coverage of many of the festival’s artists at this handy link.

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Hollywood Minute…Spoiler Alert!

The battle of the Kevins — Bacon vs. Costner — concluded during the home stretch of Bluesfest, with Costner taking home the golden nothing for his show with his Modern West band. Costner might have won the battle but not the war, as K.C. and the Modern West delivered competent heartland roots music, but nothing that turned LeBreton Flats into a field of dreams.

Although not Tinseltown royalty, Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle has spent recent time away from his band to cavort around Sherwood Forest with pal Russell Crowe for the upcoming Robin Hood flick. Doyle’s main gig resides with GBS, however, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of popularity of the band is staggering considering their conservative take on trad-pop. Still, Great Big Sea know how to whip a crowd into a frothy mess, which is more than we can say about 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.

Time will tell if Drake returns to the acting stage. For he is no longer Degrassi’s Jimmy; he is Drizzy and surely enjoying all the star trappings that the role demands. This festival night, it means facing a shitload of mostly teenage, screaming females. Drake gave the girls what they wanted: a flirting, overtly sexed-up come on, leading to a feature performance of his monster hit “Best I Ever Had.”

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Noodle Scratchers

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to tell you that there are dozens of outfits up and down the Ottawa Valley playing the same down-home stew as Old Crow Medicine Show. Still, it is hard to fault a band laid bare at the front of the stage giving it their acoustic all. Elvis Perkins in Dearland is a mystery still not solved. Categorizing Perkins is tricky, but the band’s genuineness to each genre shone through, and showbiz family ties aside, there’s no novelty act at play here.

Islands are a novelty, but a decent one. It is hard to say if the band has lived up to its promise on record, but live the white-attired crew seems to put on a distinct and different show every time we’ve seen them, possibly due to Nick Thorburn’s penchant for mixing up lineups and the consequences that has on Islands’ tracks. On the other hand, could familiarity be breeding contempt as far as Stars are concerned? There is really nothing to dislike about Montreal’s charmers, but they rubbed against the grain with their Bluesfest show. It might have been our lack of enthusiasm for the many songs played from latest disc The Five Ghosts. It may be that Torquil Campbell’s showman schtick grows tiresome at times (we still looove Amy Millan though). It might have been the stinky, shirtless superfan standing nearby belting out every lyric at the top of his lungs…

Has Craig Finn always been such a diva? Wethinks The Hold Steady’s frontman used to actually play the guitar than simply have it hanging off his body while he acts out his whip-smart words, but that may have been the heat thinking. Regardless, Hold Steady’s set soothed all the right spots, as the band played through a long and lively set of favorites (“Hurricane J,” “Chips Ahoy!”, “Sequestered in Memphis,” Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” etc.).

Darting in between stages and shows, we caught glimpses of a well-attended gig by Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi, The Joe Krown Trio representing the more traditional end of the Bluesfest spectrum (and who ended with a fantastic Hammond-led rave up of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billy Joe”), suburban power poppers Hollerado, a pleasant but ultimately unobtrusive headlining concert by longtime faves Crowded House, great acoustic noodlery courtesy of Matt Andersen, high school heartache reminiscences from Matthew Good, and Marcia Ball & The Voise of the Wetland Allstars, who, as a multiple Grammy nominee with a stacked band of Louisiana veterans in tow, should have commanded a bigger audience and stage.

Speaking of veterans, Jimmy Cliff, rocked like a man half his age, playing a set of perrenial favorites like “Sitting in Limbo,” I Can See Clearly Now,” and “Rivers of Babylon.” But were we in the john during “The Harder They Come” or did Cliff not play his signature song? Devastating!

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We’ll Meet Again We Know Where We Know When

Devastating is the only way to describe the sparsely-attended but spectacular tent show by Konono Nº1. Small crowd be damned! The extra space just gave those in attendance the nice opportunity to shake some of the rust off their undercarriages. Congolese thumb piano wizardry and fearsome unison singing and dancing collided at high speeds, and in 20-minute trance doses, sweeping everyone in sight up in a rhythmic wall of sound. We left elated but silently cursing ourselves for missing even a little bit of the beginning. Simply intoxicating.

Even early in the day, the big stage gives bands a leg up to play to bigger crowds; there is just much more space to gather, watch performers, and relax. Those wanting a breather while The Budos Band played would have no rest, for they were too busy giving themselves over to the irresistible sound of Latin jazz, 70s soundtracking, Fania, and funk grooves. It was blazing hot, but no one seemed to notice or care because Staten Island’s finest was at the top of its game.

Equally enthralling and entertaining were Blonde Redhead and The Gories. Sitting at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, both gave memorable performances. The Gories played under strange circumstances. Using a stand-in drummer when regular stickswoman Peggy O’Neill’s flight was delayed, Mick Collins and Dan Kroha relayed beat instructions between each song before joking that all their songs had the same beat anyway. No such makeshift decisions were required for Blonde Redhead, who lulled their dedicated drove into a near dream-like state with its blissful roar.

A lot has happened to both Weezer and us since we last met face to face. When The Blue Album was released, Weezer were a scrappy upstart. Now they are America’s Good Time Band. There’s not much of a debate to be had when discussing if Weezer’s albums have digressed since their first record, but one can’t argue the fact that the group is one of the more consistently great singles band around. So, along Blue Album chestnuts like “Say It Ain’t So,” “My Name Is Jonas,” and “Undone,” the large throng was treated to every other significant hit: “Hash Pipe,” “Dope Nose,” “Island in the Sun,” “El Scorcho,” “Pork and Beans,” and gonzo cock-rock set-closer “Beverly Hills.” When Weezer weren’t playing their own tunes, they took stabs at Metallica, MGMT, and Lady Gaga (with Rivers Cuomo in blonde wig). Commanding the stage, crowd, and any place he could fit (including, at one point, a garbage can on stage), Cuomo was in rare form, as was the whole band, amping up the fans mercilessly until the Bluesfest-closing finale of “Buddy Holly” was over.

It was a super-strong finish to a festival that seems, as unbelievable as this might read, to grow each year. On some nights, we witnessed more impressive mullets and cougars in the crowd than impressive bands on the stage, but each and every day was entertaining as all get out. Same time next year? You bet. Until then, we need home for a rest.

by David Nadelle and munroe

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 2
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 10-14, 2010]

We’ve no need for wordy intros for recap # 2. With over 17,000 artists on 72 stages over the span of two and a half months there is no way to see everything. Very slight exaggerations aside, here is what we saw, heard, smelt, and felt on days 5 through 9.

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“I’ll Take Potent Potables for $600, Alex.”

Just keep your ears open and eventfully someone, onstage or off, will fill them with nonsense or a laugh …

“Two years ago we were almost wasted in a car crash … but like herpes we keep coming back!”

– Your similes are not wasted on us, Loudlove.

“I dare you! I dare you to punch me in the stomach. I DARE you!!!”

– Some roid case yelling at the guy in the Subway costume. You can bet the German Subway mascot “Sub-Wayne” would have been up for the challenge!

“Oh c’mon … that’s got chords. Like, more than two!”

The Gories' Dan Kroha self-deprecatingly responds to a fan request.

"People, people! Only 10 bucks, fer crissakes!"

-- A hard working under-aged kid trying to raise enough cash to get his under-aged ass drunk warms our hearts. A manic, zit-faced loner holding a copy of E.T. on BluRay over his head kinda creeps us out.

"Hey, you at the back! Drop that hot dog and put your fuckin' hands together!"

-- Command obeyed, singer from Dream Theater!

"That Flaming Mouth band was a novelty act. They need to write better lyrics, and stop being so lovey-dovey."

-- A friend's lawnchair/tilly-hat-toting father

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Great Expectations

If we said that The Flaming Lips show at Bluesfest was a life-affirming overdose of magic and compassionate entertainment would you believe it? If you have seen them live before, then, um, I guess you would, right? Wayne Coyne and co. moved from show-opening mind-fucks into a visceral “Silver Trembling Hands,” from the recognizable bombast of “She Don’t Use Jelly” into delicately done versions of “I Can Be a Frog” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” with enrapturing grace. The Lips are ridiculously fun live but also achingly tender at times, with Coyne’s earnest anti-war appeal willing the crowd to pitch emphatic peace signs above its collective head before the beautiful coda of “Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips delivered one of the most inventive, charming, and downright wonderful shows this town has witnessed.

A mix of the strange, beautiful, and powerful was what Arcade Fire sought to replicate a few days later, with a great deal of success. Although not quite bettering Alanis or Avril in the stadium stakes, Arcade Fire are a fully-fledged festival band now. A festival band, but still “our” band to many Canadians, important but not self-important (yet). New tunes collided with old and everything was more than hunky dory to the clamoring congregation; but still, nothing ever hit the potent heights of, say, The Flaming Lips show described above (we hate to pull that cheap comparison out of the bag, but it’s true). Never ones for balking at an impromptu vocal jam, their greatest moment of the night might have been when they took to the streets after their show to join this Hanson-esque band of pre-teen rockers that played fund-raising shows outside the park every night.

Last year we happened by a stage where a man was standing by his lonesome next to a massive apparatus seemingly bolted together from spare junk-yard parts. The show ended up being a festival highlight as, That 1 Guy’s only member, Mike Silverman, is a virtuoso talent on an instrument of his own design. For the unitiated, Silverman’s “Magic Pipe” is a combination drum-kit, bass guitar, and midi-keyboard. The keyboard isn’t really a keyboard, but instead a series of contact points placed strategically on the instrument that, when touched, trigger samples on a laptop hidden out of sight. The bass guitar comes in the form of two fret-less strings on different parts of the instrument, with filterable sound provided by a twistable second pipe/string. Finally the drum-kit is another midi-triggering device on the lower part of the instrument that Silverman plays with his feet. To state That 1 Guy is unique doesn’t even scratch the surface of the talent on display here. One part Frank Zappa and two parts Les Claypool, That 1 Guy is not content writing songs about girls and good times; they’re about butts and a gross moon made of dirty cheese. Although clearly not for everyone, That 1 Guy delivered again this year with a high-energy set that was weird for even a seasoned festival goer. While the crowd dwindled throughout the performance, those who stayed witnessed something entirely unique and a firm affirmation that live music is, in fact, awesome.

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Homebrewed Heroes

A Canadian festival without Blue Rodeo? For shame! Unexpected, for sure, but their place was amply filled by fellow compatriots Sarah Harmer and Basia Bulat, two singer-songwriters with an abundance of talent and impressive fan bases to boot. Both shows were light on raucous entertainment, heavy on delicate introspection and lyrical nous. Harmer had her nimble band a-buzzin’, but we’ll give a slight nod to Bulat’s cozier tent show this time.

Metric continue to rise through the hierarchical pecking order of venues each and every year, landing on the main stage in 2010. Will headlining be far off? It’s doubtful. While they get older each year, their following seems to stay the same age, perpetually hooked on the catchy-but-less-than-thrilling energy pop of “Monster Hospital” and “Dead Disco.”

Timber Timbre played a raucus set for the small yet boistrous crowd in the opening hours of Day 6. Lead singer, guitar player, and principle member/songwriter Taylor Kirk donned a sexy mosquito-net hat, either for fashion points or to actually benefit from its purpose to keep pests away from his face while he ripped through some material from his big debut on Arts & Crafts. Violin player Mika Posen was unbelievably stoic throughout the performance, which was odd considering the man seated beside her was giving it 110 percent.

Moneen from Brampton, Ontario, exploded onto stage with a blistering set of indie-rock heavily influenced by both punk and thrash as they bounded about, whipping the young, mostly male crowd into a frenzy. More than a few bodies went over the front fence and were manhandled out of the pit by the guerilla security guards. Chris ‘The Hippy’ Hughes, in particular, was a sight, with dreadlocks – almost reaching down to his ass – being spun around in perfectly executed arcs (I’m sure there was some practice involved) that had all the concert virgins buzzing.

Alexisonfire took the stage quickly after Moneen, trying to capitalize on the crowd energy before it peetered out. The band delivered their brand of radio-friendly hardcore with an intensity lacking from most heavy acts. Unfortunately their sound is a muddled mess on record that doesn’t come across much better during a live show. The lyrics were buried deep in the mix, just like the face of lead screamer George Pettit, but these nitpicky comments were lost on a crowd that wanted nothing more than to mosh the night away. On that note, the band delivered.

Down With Webster have been quickly climbing the charts here in Canada; evidence of that was the mainly teen audience, and the music itself. A combination of early ’00s boy-bands, passable rapping ala Kanye West, and a guitar presence that looks remarkably like John Mayer, the band were young audience candy. With the exception of the drummer and the guitarist (tied down by pesky cables), none of the band members stopped moving for even a second, busting out numerous call and responses and even pulling the tired (yet novel for some) move of “filming” the audience for later viewing (most likely discarded before the check clears). Drenched in sweat by the third song, DWW will be a big name in coming years, just not amongst those who ignore the Top-40.

Plants & Animals were a surprise, bucking the sonic trend that has overrun the city as of late. A combination of both classic- and post-rock mentality, the Secret City Records band were an absolute delight in a live setting, whereas their recorded output has occasionally left this reviewer a little bored. Their energy was projected onto the crowd with little or no fanfare, and after telling myself that I would only listen to a song or two before checking out Santana on the main stage, I ended up staying for the entire set and loving every second of it. Plants & Animals are one of Canada’s best kept secrets, and everyone who witnessed them put on one of the strongest shows at the festival this year headed straight to the merch tent to revisit 2008’s Parc Avenue and check out this year’s La La Land.

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And the rest…

Certainly one of the bigger surprises we witnessed arrived care of Caravan Palace, an electro-beat-driven, swing-era spectacle from Paris. It might not be something you would ever put on the hi-fi to impress the neighbors, but in this context, it was a sure fire hit that attracted a curious storm of people that grew exponentially as the set whisked by.

In an age of worshipping past idols for no more a reason than, “It’s kitchy and ironic, tee hee!” the lack of love for Supertramp, even of the novelty variety, is depressing. You’re not likely to see Roger Hodgson popping up in our Chocolate Grinder section anytime soon, but you can’t deny the man’s gigantically popular oeuvre. In Ottawa, where vintage bands go for one more kick at the can, Hodgson was enthusiastically received by a large throng of nostalgia tramps as he played a sick amount of spot-on, recognizable songs from his past (“Take the Long Way Home,” “Breakfast in America,” “Dreamer,” “Give a Little Bit,” “The Logical Song,” “It’s Raining Again,” etc., etc.)

A band you catch often on the blahgoszfere is Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven, who played a tense set culled primarily from their impressive Beast Rest Forth Mouth album. Meanwhile Steve Dawson brought his Mississippi Sheiks tribute project to live fruition. Joined together by the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jim Byrnes, Dawson’s collective played old-time tracks by the Sheiks, which brought out lovers of country, blues, and Southern gospel the likes of which get scarcer at Bluesfest every year, despite its brand name.

Steve Winwood took the stage early in the evening to a polite crowd of festival goers looking to be entertained by the seasoned industry veteran of Traffic, Blind Faith, and the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood was stoic behind his piano at the age of 62, but still managed to deliver a set consisting of exactly what the audience was hoping to see, which was not a difficult feat for a man with more than 40 years of performance experience.

The Swell Season emerged from the other side of the road from both Rush and The Levon Helm band. Normally a quiet, reserved set like this would play out perfectly at the Black Sheep Inn stage, naturally sequestered by a hill on one side and the War Museum on the other. Unfortunately, that stage has migrated to a tent this year, and a lot of acts were pushed out to the Hard Rock Cafe stage as a result, which offers no sort of auditory protection from other stages. All of this is relevant because lead singer and principle song writer for the Swell Season, Glen Hansard, spent most of his set brooding like a child who’s had his milk taken away because of the bleeding sound from other stages. Hansard’s anger was primarily directed at Rush, since they were the headliner, but in reality a lot of the noise was coming from the Levon Helm band (which played a wonderful set we didn’t catch much of). Despite his bickering and mocking, The Swell Season played a lot of the material that has made them relatively famous, including “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and “Lies,” both of which engaged the crowd on a much higher level than ripping on Neil Peart for having too many drums.

More than halfway through our festival experience, youthful exuberance and dexterity have made way for bloodied feet, stomachs, kidneys, and livers. Stay tuned for Part 3 to see if we fall further to our failings or redeem ourselves with triumph as we near the end of this live behemoth for another year.

by David Nadelle and munroe

Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest 2010: Part 1
LeBreton Flats Park; Ottawa, Canada

[July 06-09, 2010]

A festival this prolonged has something for everyone, but with less (quote-unquote) independent bands playing there seems to be an increased reliance on acts from days long passed. Shows by these veteran acts tend to be hit-or-miss, depending on the toll that hard living has had on band members’ bodies over the decades. However, if you have been playing the same songs for 40 years, there is no real reason to not have it spot on. In an effort to cover both the “veterans” and the other groups, we’ve broken down our first part of coverage into two major categories: “Respect the Vets” and “Brief Look At The Rest.” In addition to those categories, we’ve included the “Dem B’ys is Full-a Humour” and “Look at Me! I’m Famous!” categories about stuff we found amusing with a distinct Canadian spelling, and the acts that clearly inspired this year’s bizarre theme of “Bluesfest Goes Hollywood.”

On with the shows!

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Look At Me! I’m Famous!

The Bacon Brothers, featuring the “footloose” Kevin Bacon on guitar, harmonica, and tight black t-shirt, was the first Hollywood-linked act to take to the stage. Unfortunately, they played a limp set of sub-Mellancamp, countrified pop. Kudos to Bacon for trying his darndest and taking a stab outside his comfort zone, as he has for years with The Bacon Band, but this act was booked because of its name, not its content.

Rotten behavior is what people expect from Courtney Love, but the train-wreck rubber-neckers would have been disappointed by Hole’s show. Trying valiantly to resurrect her musical career instead of her tabloid-fodder career, the confident and jovial (seriously!) birthday girl ran the latest version of Hole through songs off new album, Nobody’s Daughter, faithful versions from her back catalog (“Miss World,” “Celebrity Skin,” Violet”), and a covers of Leonard’s Cohen’s “Take This Longing” (chosen instead of Canuck anthems like “Summer of ‘69” or “Black Velvet,” joked Love) and the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Musically, Hole was as unimpressive as always, proving that Love’s strongest suit is her ability to draw a crowd, not her ability keep them entertained.

The big-screen biopic of The Runaways hasn’t hurt to rekindle Joan Jett’s popularity, but Day 4’s headliner proved the real deal is always better than Twilight’s “it-girl” facsimile. Beginning with her classic “Bad Reputation,” the still-cool-as-fuck Jett and The Blackhearts rifled off crowd pleasers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “Do You Want to Touch Me There,” “Crimson and Clover,” and “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Throw in a few Runaways hits like “Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild” and the show was great enough to make me want to see Light of Day again.

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Brief Look At The Rest

The Gipsy Kings opened the second night on the Claridge Homes stage to a staggering number of people for an early show. The band responded kindly with an energetic set perfect for an open-air festival. Grupo Fantasma and SEPTENTRIONAL d’Haiti are excellent World bands, who played to small crowds of enthusiastic fans in the blacksheep tent. We also caught up with MonkeyJunk for a moment while they worked over the crowd with their brand of quality local blues.

The hillside setting at the Hard Rock Cafe stage is conducive to more intimate sets, and this year is no different. On Day 3 alone, mellow yellers were treated to a captivating show by Ottawa-born, Montreal-based Laurent Bourque, the standard, rustic fayre from Great Lake Swimmers, and quiet magic from Andrew Bird. Bird just can’t lose at festivals. Every time we’ve seen him he plays haunting sets that show off his sickening versatility and musicianship (yes, we’re a little jealous). Needless to say, his appearance was much appreciated by the dedicated contingent of indie fans and lovers of heartfelt songwriting alike.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band were suggested by a friend, and we’re happy we agreed after witnessing one of the best blues acts on the first leg of the festival. Randolph himself looks stuck between a hip-hop MC and somebody on their way to a wedding, neither of which would indicate he was a phenomenal slide-guitar player with a knack for improvising within a lock-tight groove, in this case provided by Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph. Similiarly gifted were the John Butler Trio, a chart-topping Australian group with a revolving set of musicians except for the guy in the band name. The trio play exceedingly well off each other, ending its set with a wall-of-noise drum finale that could be heard two stages over.

Caravan Palace are the type of festival band that do exceedingly well with a live audience but flounder a bit in the studio. The Parisian band consists of several members playing a variety of instruments, including an electric stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, clarinet, bass-heavy synth, and a female singer rocking a ’20s jazz style. In lesser hands you could deride an act like this for trying too hard, but the earnest delivery and high-energy set sold the gimmicky aspects. Another high-energy act that hasn’t lost an ounce of their grip on the 16-18 local demographic in the last 10 years are The Planet Smashers. They tore through a set of aging material, but the youthful crowd ate it up, circle moshing with a ferocity only found at the best ska shows.

We skipped much of the Kelp Records Revue (with the exception of the ever-reliable Andrew Vincent) and sidestepped most of the saccharine electronic sounds of Lights, the guitar goddess freakout of Ana Popovic, and the tedious heavy rock stylings of Dream Theater for the opportunity to see Iron Maiden’s long-awaited return to town.

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The Vets

Iron Maiden were their usual selves. Whirling dervishes Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris commandeering the large stage with the gusto of men 30 years younger, three guitarists trading solos, a massive drum set (and Nicko McBrain somewhere behind it), and a fleeting appearance by Eddie (who now looks like a cyborg linebacker, in case you were wondering). All “newer” songs sounded great and wouldn’t be completely out of place on the band’s early albums but, with the exception of five tracks from the first three albums, the entire setlist consisted of tracks post-Somewhere in Time. The band were fantastic as always but there was an anticipatory feel in the air that didn’t subside until “Iron Maiden,” “The Number of the Beast,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and “Running Free” were done.

Snippets of sets by The Moody Blues, Steve Hackett, and the rain-delayed Renaissance came next. All flashed some golden-years form. Babe Ruth, in particular, stole pieces of hearts with a wonderfully arranged spectacle led by the overpowering presence of frontwoman Janita Haan, who is THE template for women rock singers. Her swaggering confidence and chops brought fans like flies to sherbet as the sun was setting on the Ottawa River.

The crowd at Further with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir was dense but peaceful, as most were in an altered state or were waiting for the perfect moment to enter an altered state without being noticed by the red-shirted security slinking about. Lesh and Weir sounded laid-back and comfortable, which only furthered the distinct vibe coming from within the crowd. This TMT-er is not familiar enough with past work to comment on their dedication to classic material, but they sounded great.

The B-52’s were radio dynamite in their day, but have been reduced to the following statement overheard from a young audience member: “I think is the band that did that Family Guy song about lobsters.” With their legacy on the line, the B-52’s put on their best “show faces” and rehashed their hits in front of a diverse group of just about every age, from 5 to 65. To their credit, the main trio of Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson, and Kate Pierson have plenty of enthusiasm for both the performance and music that has been paying their bills for the last 30 years.

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Dem B’ys is Full a Humour

Metal bands attract a certain type of crowd, but metal bands of a certain vintage attract an even more certain type of crowd. Where else but at a Maiden show would a hoary rock chick (sorry, she could only be described as such) deafen those in the vicinity with, “I don’t need a bike, this is MY BITCH!” as she straddled her startled husband’s back like he was a well-worn Harley seat? Alright, that could happen anywhere – and should happen more often – but it seemed more at home on this night.

The Subway stage, which has a glorious backdrop in the Ottawa river, and offers up some more eclectic musical choices for the city, is also unfortunately home for some of the more “aggressive” blues, including Jonas & The Massive Attraction, a band that really “wants it.” The stage theatrics of lead singer Jonas Tomalty were incredible in how uniformly awful they were, and even better when noticing the smirks on the faces of his band members. Jonas’ wife-beater tank-top, greasy curls, and rippling body mass might of attracted a very specific demographic (the type that enjoys chillin’ on the Jersey shore), but his Blueshammer level of terrible should of earned him a spot in the comedy tent instead of on a stage.

The laughs provided by Mr. Jonas inspired a visit to the Black Sheep music and comedy tent, a new addition to Bluesfest this year, and after getting past the crack security team of volunteer children (well, teenagers) we were presented with some relationship advice from Finesse Mitchell, a former SNL cast member. His routine was amusing and he delivered the material well, but the topic of relationships is a well-worn path in the comedy world and Mitchell didn’t offer any new insights. Louis C.K., on the other hand, was brutal, vicious, and absolutely hilarious. Even though some of his material can border on mean, his delivery and cushy personality sell jokes that would drown a lesser comedian.

The first slab of days at Bluesfest was a struggle of attrition for our already overworked sweat glands, but the heat wave is over. Whatever nonsense Mother Nature throws at us for the rest of the Bluesfest, it couldn’t be worse than what we endured (though we would probably endure razorblade-and-dirty-diaper tornadoes if it meant standing in a field drinking beer and watching an overwhelming amount of music). Bring on days five to nine!

by David Nadelle and munroe

Lou Barlow
The Hobby Shop; Los Angeles

[07-01-2010]

When I walked through the front door of The Hobby Shop, I was expecting to find a small crowd milling around inside a record store. Instead, I was met instead by an incredibly cozy, wood-paneled recording studio. There was just enough room for two rows of people to stand and still leave a reasonable walking path between the audience and the band, whom were lit warmly by tiny lights hanging off their mic stands. Beyond them was the booth, and beyond that was a beautiful backyard.

The space shouldn’t be the star of this review, but if The Hobby Shop does bring this weekly concert series back in August, you’re going to want to check it out. Besides the fact that it feels like watching a show in a really hip humidor, the perk of going to a show in a recording studio is that each attendee receives a digital copy of the show, delivered via e-mail.

The whole thing felt very homey, with the proprietor, Andrew “Mudrock” Murdock, revealing he’d heard every band in the series play, with the exception of the night’s opener, Woolen, whom he’d booked off the strength of their sort-of-sister-band, Random Patterns. That was okay, though, since I had. Woolen is one of my favorite local bands and they’re incredibly flexible live. Their sets can emphasize the proggy, 90s-influenced side or take you into wavering, twang-tinged bliss. They leaned toward the latter and were accompanied by a steel guitar. The set was more fluid and serendipitous as a result of breaking from the standard line-up, which probably led to the inclusion of a song frontman Paris Patt claimed he hadn’t decided on the lyrics for yet. Come to think of it, they did the same thing when I saw them a number of months ago, so this might just be a long running joke. Truth or fiction, the steel guitar player adapted admirably and it sounded just as polished as the rest of their material.

The aesthetic choice was logical given the stripped-down quality of a lot of Barlow’s solo material and the smaller space, but didn’t pan out completely in terms of matching the headliner. Barlow came out with more force than I had anticipated, backed by Mike Watt’s Missingmen, Tom Watson and Raul Morales. Strummy acoustic numbers like Emoh’s “Round-n-Round” became full bodied rockers in the trio’s hands and there were brief moments where they veered off and flirted with the stoner-rock elements of Dinosaur Jr. that always made me slightly uncomfortable. (Read: bored.)

In a neat twist, Imaad Wasif, who played with Barlow on Emoh and in The New Folk Implosion, was also in attendance. There was a great moment where Watson mentioned how weird it was to be playing Wasif’s own parts back to him, which led to musings on a word that could function as, “Thank you,” and, “Sorry,” simultaneously. Verdict: “Sorry,” with a lisp, or, “Thorry.” My verdict: no apologies necessary; fans and musicians should enjoy hearing old songs in a new way.