Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Cure / 65daysofstatic - Live 2008.05.19 Starlight Theatre, Kansas City, Missouri

Two concerts by two of my favorite bands in the space of a week? Has the moon collided into the earth? Just wait until September... things will get ever more incredible then. Just wait. Trust me. Anyway...

Band: The Cure
Venue: Starlight Theatre
City: Kansas City, Missouri
Date: 19 May 2008
Opening Act: 65daysofstatic

Setlist (thanks to j at curefans.com):
01. Underneath the Stars
02. Pictures of You
03. A Night Like This
04. The Walk
05. The End of the World
06. Lovesong
07. To Wish Impossible Things
08. Lullaby
09. Hot Hot Hot
10. The Only One
11. From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea
12. A Strange Day
13. Push
14. Friday I'm in Love
15. In Between Days
16. Just Like Heaven
17. Primary
18. Shake Dog Shake
19. Never Enough
20. The Perfect Boy
21. Wrong Number
22. One Hundred Years
22. Baby Rag Dog Book [Edit 2008.12.27: Later renamed "It's Over"]

Encore 1:
23. If Only Tonight We Could Sleep
24. The Kiss

Encore 2:
25. Boys Don't Cry
26. Jumping Someone Else's Train
27. Grinding Halt
28. 10:15 Saturday Night
29. Killing an Arab

Well, this was an interesting show. First, the openers. 65daysofstatic is an appropriate name. The band is a loud, heavy-sounding instrumental rock quartet. They played six or seven songs in half an hour. They relied on an onstage keyboard for backing tracks comprised of some keyboard effects and extra percussion, but half the time I couldn't find it in the mix in light of two thick guitars, a bass, and a complex drummer. If they could have taken down a notch, I might have liked it, but as it was it all came as something of a loud, distorted crash more often than not. There was one song that started with a some guitar notes that would have sounded completely at home on the Cure's Pornography, which made me wonder if that was why the Cure brought them along, other than also being English. Anyway, they weren't bad.

Another forty minutes after the 65daysofstatic left the stage, the Cure finally walked on. Now, I already had my doubts. I was really excited anyway, but this is a 30-year-old band who has had continual line-up changes, and their latest left them without a keyboardist. The Cure today is a four-piece, the first time since a brief period in 1990. Robert Smith is the only original member, still playing guitar and singing. (You might not think of Robbie as much of a guitarist, but honestly, he does half the solos and can pull off some great sounds.) Simon Gallup is the longest-surviving member next to Robert; he's been playing bass since 1979 with only a three year absence in the 80s. (Unfortunately, Simon has cut his wild hair - his used to rival Robert's.) Porl Thompson is technically a founding member but was dropped before the first album was cut. He came back in the 80s and left in the 90s, only to return in 2005. He just stuck to his guitar at the show, but historically he has done some sax and keyboards, too. Lastly is Jason Cooper, drummer since 1995. I know little beyond that. He does the job well, though.

So anyway, you may notice that the Cure, best known as an 80s new wave band, does not tour with a keyboardist. 80s new wave practically requires keyboards, but whatever. The band actually did a decent job of filling the holes, but sometimes you really could feel the absence. On some songs, Porl would just play a high guitar line to mimic the melodies normally done on keyboard (such as with "Lullaby" and "The Walk"), and on others, Porl or Robert would just strum along to where the keyboard chords would be (such as "Lovesong"). I noticed that "The Walk" and "Pictures of You" both had backing tracks to add some extra percussion and some keyboard effects. Things got a bit more obvious when there were not enough musicians to go around: the consistent piano in "A Night Like This" was conspicuously unaccounted for, and the high keyboard line in the bridges of "Just Like Heaven" was only played the first time, since after that Porl was busy playing the normal descending guitar riff and Robert handled the rhythm. To be fair, they managed pretty well without. I look for the minor change-ups and thus noticed every alteration, but I would guess most people hardly noticed. I should state, though, that the rockin' four-piece setup worked really well for the encore material. More on that later.

My second complaint was that the audio mix to me sounded pretty poor. For what must be the first time I have ever witnessed at a concert, the bass guitar was actually too high in the mix. It dominated the frequencies. Although the opener was mixed well, "Pictures of You" was basically a drum-and-bass song to my ears. Although things improved a bit as the show went on, I still had a hard time hearing the guitars – Porl's usually just sounded like white noise and if Robert played acoustic, he was lost in the mix. I think it may have been my seat – you would think straight in the middle, all the way back would be pretty good, but since other reviews and comments I have seen did not echo my concerns about the mix (and in fact complimented it), I suspect my seat is to blame. Either way, it lessened my personal experience.

My third complaint is the only real one. Unfortunately, Robert Smith was quite sick and was barely able to sing. Sometimes he could pull it off, but most of the time, he couldn't hit high notes or sustain. Quite a pity, really. He apologized profusely, and even said at one point, "Believe me, I'm suffering more than you are... which is how it should be!" He later said it was either what we got or nothing, and he figured it was better to at least play the songs and let us sing along. I agree. Robert's voice problems did make "One Hundred Years" and "Killing an Arab" a bit more interesting, as during the final choruses of those two, he started coarsely screaming the lyrics. It really made the latter especially a bit more intense. I'm glad that the show did go on and that Robert gave his best anyway – I could tell he was struggling but still trying. His bandmates were totally still into it, though – Simon was jumping all over his side of the stage.

The setlist they played was quite fantastic. The choice of songs was great – the only things I wished I could have heard were "The Lovecats" or "Kyoto Song" or maybe "How Beautiful You Are". I know the latter two are only occasionally performed, but the former one quite often is in encores. In fact, they may have intended to play it, but if you compare the list of what was actually played to other nights from the tour, you will notice that this is the only one so far to only have two encores. I can not blame Robert for skipping one, but it did mean we missed out on some classic material.

They opened with a new song – Wikipedia claims this song to be titled "Underneath the Stars", but this is quite unconfirmed as of yet. I did rather like it. They also did their new single, "The Only One", and the future album track "The Perfect Boy", both of which were okay enough. They closed the main set with another new song, quite distorted and a bit choppy, if I remember right. I have no information about that one. [Edit 2008.12.27: "Underneath the Stars" is the correct title, and the recorded version is one of the best songs on the new album (4:13 Dream). The other new song that I didn't know the name of at the title was known as "Baby Rag Dog Book" but was recorded as "It's Over". That song and the other two new ones are also on the new album.]

Some songs had pictures displayed on the backdrop ("Lovesong" had the single cover, "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" had a cloud scene), others had animations ("Lullaby" had a spider moving about, "Just Like Heaven" had some hearts like those on the single cover flitting about). "Shake Dog Shake" had what I think was live video, not unlike Radiohead's rig, but it was the only song with such a treat. The lighting was typical concert fare, nothing too unusual.

"To Wish Impossible Things" and "Push" were both surprises that I appreciated – they were two of the best-sounding, too. "Primary" rocked, but I think instead of the recording's dual-bass setup, Robert played his part on guitar... I could not tell from my distance; he may have been using six-string bass.

The first encore was pretty good – it was just two songs off "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me", but both were pulled off well. The highlight to me was the second encore – five songs from Boys Don't Cry / Three Imaginary Boys. I would've loved "Fire in Cairo" or "Three Imaginary Boys" itself, but what they did was plenty good as it is. "Jumping Someone Else's Train" rocked (and it featured the video that Tim Pope made for it back in 1986!), and then as it ended they segued right into "Grinding Halt", and even though that may not have been quite as cool as when they used to charge into "Another Journey by Train", it worked well. And then "10.15 Saturday Night"! That was great, and it was followed by "Killing an Arab", which was one of the best of the night.

So, even if the mix was off, there weren't any keyboards, and Robert was not in top form, they still tried their best, and it was a lot of fun. I retain a positive attitude about it even if my review focuses more on the negative. It was good, but since it wasn't as perfect as I think it could be, it does make me want to catch them the next time they come through to hope for something a little better. I guess I had high expectations and I was a little bit let down, but they did the best they could given the circumstances.

[Retrospective Scores:
The Cure: D+
65daysofstatic: C-]

[Note (2014.06.04): This review was originally published with a general score of B-. I have no idea why I was so generous at the time, because there's no way I could deny, then or now, that the show was disappointing and thus deserved a D. The plus is because they did their best to make the most of it.]

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Radiohead / Liars - Live 2008.05.14 Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, St. Louis, Missouri

Band: Radiohead
Venue: Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (formerly the UMB Bank Pavilion and before that the Riverport Amphitheatre)
City: St. Louis, Missouri (actually Maryland Heights)
Date: 14 May 2008
Opening Act: Liars

Setlist (thanks to ateaseweb.com for covering the holes in my memory [Edit 2019.11.13: archived link]):
01. All I Need
02. Jigsaw Falling into Place
03. Airbag
04. 15 Step
05. Nude
06. Kid A
07. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
08. The Gloaming
09. You and Whose Army?
10. Idioteque
11. Faust Arp
12. Videotape
13. Everything in Its Right Place
14. Reckoner
15. Optimistic
16. Bangers and Mash
17. Bodysnatchers

Encore 1:
18. Exit Music (for a Film)
19. Myxomatosis
20. My Iron Lung
21. There There
22. Fake Plastic Trees

Encore 2:
23. Pyramid Song
24. House of Cards
25. Paranoid Android

For once, I got a lucky break. Radiohead decided to play eight shows in North America and one happened to be St. Louis. A band that big rarely deigns to approach the Midwest beyond perhaps Chicago, if our uncultured souls are even that lucky. Actually, I think in August they are coming back to the continent for some more shows, but still.

I purchased a lawn ticket, since that came to about $50, compared to an $80 seat and who knows how much the orchestra pit was. The place got packed, and it is a huge venue. There must have been thousands of people there, and I know they were not all St. Louis area residents. I had friends from Kansas, friends from Nebraska, and friends of friends from Illinois there, besides the countless Webster University students I recognized. In the spirit of Radiohead's environmental conscientiousness, I carpooled there with three other friends and came about an hour before the opening band even came on. If I could have, I would have liked to have come even earlier to catch their soundcheck, which apparently included "No Surprises" and a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me".

Liars came on stage right about 7:00 and played a 40-minute set. Some of my peers were not appreciative, but some were, myself included. While I might know little about their music, I enjoyed their noisy, danceable indie rock thing. A shame that no one was dancing... not the right venue for that, though. I was sitting, like most people, but many people were still walking around, finding seats, and generally milling about. I was getting irritated every time someone in my line of sight stood up and blocked my view, but it ended up being for naught, since as soon as Radiohead hit the stage after a 40-minute break, everyone stood up instantly.

So, I'm not going to elaborate over every last detail, but I'll mention what I thought was interesting. They played for over two hours and did two encores. They played every song off Disc 1 of In Rainbows, one song off Disc 2, and about two or three from each other album except Pablo Honey. They opened with "All I Need", which I thought was an interesting choice, but as one of my favorites of In Rainbows, I welcomed it.

Then came "Jigsaw Falling into Place", for which a video began playing behind the band. I couldn't tell if it was live or pre-recorded, but they had video for most of the rest of the show, and I'm pretty sure the rest was all live. The video was basically five screens mostly focusing on each of the five band members. And the lighting – it was awesome. Seriously the best lighting I've ever seen at a concert – there were all these shafts around the stage, LED lights in back, and bigger spread lights to swamp the whole stage. Each light rig created distinct colors and combined created a strong feeling of movement. For example, during "The Gloaming", the shafts suddenly shifted to illuminated patterns that made it look like it was raining. It started right when Thom began repeating "They should be ringing", which sounded a lot like "...raining" given the context.

After "Jigsaw", I heard a stray guitar note and knew what they were about to play: "Airbag". It rocked, with Thom Yorke playing sleigh bells and all. "Kid A" was a nice surprise – I expected a couple songs off the album of the same name, but not that one. They ended up playing four from Kid A, including another personal favorite, "Optimistic".

I didn't expect "The Gloaming" or "You and Whose Army?" either, but the latter was great. Then was "Idioteque", a highlight of the evening. Johnny Greenwood moved away from his keyboards and guitars and over to an effects patch board thing, just like could be seen in the old promotional video and SNL performance of the song back in 2000. Fascinating. I still don't know what he's doing – I assume he's adding and removing effects and sounds, but who knows. He could be doing nothing and no one would know the difference and we'd all think it was cool anyway.

After that song, the band members kind of shifted about and some disappeared. Just Thom and Ed O'Brien (I think... might have been Johnny... I was standing pretty far away) remained with acoustic guitars. In their perhaps most ironic moment, the two of them did an acoustic version of a song named after the type of synthesizer featured in the recorded version. (I'm talking about "Faust Arp" here.)

For "Bangers and Mash", the stage hands brought out a kick drum and snare for Thom to beat on to complement Phil Selway's drumming. Later, for "There There", both Johnny and Ed had some extra toms that they beat upon in addition to Phil's full set. Radiohead do like their extra percussion – in addition to some drum loops in some of the latter-day songs, the Kid A-era material often had one of the guitarists rocking a shaker.

"Exit Music (for a Film)" started with just Thom acoustic, barely audible above the chatterings of people waiting for the band to hit the stage for their encore, but once the band came in, it rocked. Colin Greenwood's fuzz bass was great, and he kept it up for the follow-up, "Myxomatosis" (although I think Ed doubled his riff on guitar for the live version). And then they went into "My Iron Lung", which was another song I hadn't expected, but it rocked quite well. I know Ed was using an e-bow for that one, and I suspect he'd been using it on several other songs. (It was quite hard to see the details of what was what, but I'm guessing by what I could see directly and via video.)

"House of Cards" worked great near the end of the set, but "Paranoid Android" made an awesome closer. The band rocked that one, too. I know it is vague and probably not helpful for me to say they rocked every other song, but the band manages to balance softer, dancier, electronic, and really rocking songs, and somehow those moods or whatever come across really well when they do them live. It must be the total atmosphere, with everyone in the audience totally into it all, and the awesome lighting and video display. It really all came together nicely.

This was simply a great concert experience, even if I was sitting so far away that I could barely make out who was who on stage. The band performs solid and makes unique setlists each night. I might not have been treated to the absolute best (no "Lucky" or "National Anthem" or "Down Is the New Up", etc.), but there were several surprises that really made it interesting. And the lights really sealed the deal.

Score: A
[Retrospective Score for Liars: B-]

Monday, May 12, 2008

Guest Review: Ours - Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy) (2008)

Dear readers: my friend Keagan asked if he might be able to write a review for me, to which I naturally responded positively. Here is his first review, of Mercy (2008), by Ours.

I’ve noticed the neglect that this music blog has been taking lately, and rightfully so, considering what all the primary author has on her plate. Opportunist that I am, and with Patti in her vulnerable state, I figured it would be easy to pressure her into taking submissions. I’m more of a music enthusiast than a writer, so I think this “review” is going to be lacking in most respects. However, I’m going to give it a try, moving at a rock-em’, sock-em’ pace, pretty much wandering wherever the hell I please. Here goes:

I think I first caught wind of the band Ours somewhat close to the release of their second album, Precious, in 2002. Admittedly, I’m not an OG or anything, but with the band’s inception occurring in the North East, and having a receptive brother out in Boston, I was able to pick up on a couple tracks here and there over his shoulder as early as my high school career. Upon indulging on their debut album, Distorted Lullabies, I was pretty taken by these dudes. 

Packed with the dynamics of most post-rock bands, you can’t confine them within any traditional rock-band genres. Not as calculating as prog rock, far too epic for alternative, and refreshingly sincere enough to disqualify them from anything else available on the airwaves, the tapestry we’re dealing with here is too damn atmospheric to generalize. If you’re looking for absolute intensity within a “rock-band” format, Ours deals strickly in it. Jimmy Gnecco, the songwriter and creator of Ours, wears his heart on his sleeve, and delivers some seriously moody goods. You have to understand, a big draw comes from the vocal range Gnecco puts out. This guy sings high enough to be inhuman. It’s captured well enough in the studio, but after seeing him go off live, I’m pretty sure he has no real weaknesses.

This certainly wasn’t the way everyone else seemed to interpret it a month or so ago when Ours opened up for Marilyn Manson. A strange combination for sure, but prevent yourself from making too many comparisons between the two bands. Ours retains a lot more sophistication in my book. I’m going to try not to alienate anyone here but I’ll just say that like most people, I made a conscious decision to stop giving Mr. Manson my money after he became non-threatening, Jeordie White fell out of the picture, and I got my driver’s license. Anyhoo, I went ahead and decided to grab a ticket when I heard Ours was the first act, and also that Manson had reunited with Jeordie to rehash most of Anti-Christ Superstar. w00t!

So there I was, in line amongst all sorts of self-scarring, eye-lined riff-raff, awaiting entry, when out of nowhere, Scientology protesters came marching up. For those of you keeping score, this was on the February 10th when an organization under the title of Anonymous decided to conduct a nation-wide demonstration against Scientologists, I guess by wearing their V for Vendetta masks. You know the ones. Quite a few Mansonites ahead of me in line mistook them for being religious zealots, and began yelling half-thought out things, like, “GAWD DIDN’T MAKE UP MAN! Uh… MAN MADE UP GAWD!” The Marilyn Manson crowd continued to blast them for some time, despite the protesters on the other side of the street proclaiming that no one was in disagreement here. I was slapping my forehead.

But I digress. When Ours finally came on stage the band was met with hecklers and boos and quite a few people threw quarters. The general consensus from what I heard was that their sound was a bit too “gay” for everyone’s taste and that it was preventing Manson from starting sooner. All the same, the performance from Gnecco & company was pretty flawless, and I haven’t seen a band nearly as relentless and undeterred. Their set included mostly stuff from their newly released album, Mercy (Dancing for the Death of an Imaginary Enemy), the one that I’m going to briefly review here.

Mercy is Ours’ darkest album yet, and seems like a return to form after trying to change things up a bit sonically during Precious. Produced by Rick Rubin, (like every other record on the planet,) this one feels pretty honed and particularly slick without minimizing any of the depth of sound. I don’t want to say that it’s minimal, but rather, nothing feels extraneous. You pretty much get 12 winners here that range from a few notes slipping out your speakers to gigantic walls of force ushered in by insane vocals.  The opening track, “Mercy”, bursts forward with a racing tom and bass foundation, shortly followed by high pitched howling and what seems to be a blazing e-bow line. I’m a sure sucker for those. Right out of the gate you can tell Gnecco isn’t messing around. He moves on with systematic efficiency, wielding his laments at some crazy high frequencies. Complimented with masterful string arrangements on tracks like “Ran Away to Tell the World” and a savory trumpet line on “Murder”, the album comes across as relentless. The pace really doesn’t slow down until “God Only Wants You,” which moves into easily the fiercest track on the album, “Live Again”. I might be biased when I say this could be my favorite track, but after seeing it performed at full intensity, (there’s that word again,) pummeling everyone with a thrash-tastic riff, I was pretty won-over. Lots of showboating from the whole crew.

“Live Again” is the general climax of the album, where most of the energy is released, having built up from previous tracks like the tension-rising, acoustic drone of “Murder”. In interviews I think that Gnecco stated his inspiration for that song came from The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”, where the song is basically built around two chords until everything goes off. Not a surprising reference, given Ours’ cover of “Femme Fatale” on Precious. It’s probably just an effort to prove their credibility to red-headed post-punk fans, but I’m sold. Anyways, as I was saying, the last cuts off the album go in a different direction. The pace slows down a bit and the tune “Willing” reminds me an awful lot like the guitar work from a U2 song. I don’t think I need to add it, but just in case, this is a bad thing. “Saint” stands out as being particularly upbeat and has a fantastic chorus, for sure. The album finishes with another one of my favorites, “Get Up”. With a synth “BOOP!” every so often, a swelling string arrangements that builds, a disco-esque high-hat beat, and (whom I suspect to be) Gnecco’s daughter ending the album with an echo filled message of love, it showcases Ours’ more experimental nature. A definite direction that wasn’t present on all other tracks. It’s pretty rad.

Overall, this record lives up to the wait. Nothing has been recycled. New sounds are executed, new subject matter is covered, and it most certainly comes across as vital and relevant. I suspect that seeing these turkeys “hash-out-the-jams,” as they say in the business, live, heightens the appreciation you can have for the album, simply due to the exceptional experience that Ours offers. No exaggeration.

Grade: A-

Recommended tracks from the album: “Black”, “Live Again”, and “Mercy”.

Recommended tracks from the band: “Fallen Souls”, “Meet Me in the Tower”, and “Chapter 2 (Money)”