Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Spencer Davis Group - Live 2009.10.31 Blues Garage, Isernhagen, Germany

Artist: The Spencer Davis Group
Venue: Blues Garage
Location: Isernhagen, Germany
Date: 31 October 2009

I must admit that I know very little about the Spencer Davis Group. I know their singles, especially "Gimme Some Lovin'", but as far as members and albums and backstory I know practically nothing. Regardless, when I was invited to see the group in a well-regarded blues joint outside of Hannover, I couldn't say no (especially when nothing else was going on on Halloween in this town).

The venue is pretty cool. It's an old automotive workshop that was converted into a concert venue, and keeping with the theme, part of the stage and the mixing desk are made out of the front sections of old cars. The place fits maybe 500 people, and there were probably 400 there once the show started. Before coming to Germany, I would never have guessed that blues acts would draw such crowds here. Apparently, there's quite an audience for the genre. (I'm told blues is even bigger in Poland.) However, as seems to be the case with every concert I go to, I was one of the youngest people there. Whatever.

My limited knowledge and research tells me that the Spencer Davis Group of today bears little resemblance to the group of the same name from 40 years ago, when they made their hits in the UK. The organist, Eddie Hardin, was the only member other than Spencer himself that remained from the original days, but the other members were actually probably even better than Hardin.

Davis, despite being the bandleader, did not monopolize songwriting, introductions, lead singing, or solo parts, and I appreciate that. The second guitarist had a great voice, and even the bassist played a few songs solo that featured some fantastic fingerwork. An acoustic interlude featuring "Norwegian Wood" was also a lot of fun to see. There's no doubt that these musicians are phenomenally talented. Whatever they wanted to do, they could. Their jams were incredibly proficient, and they could make 40-year-old songs like "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "House of the Rising Sun" rock hard enough to still sound fresh.

However, despite being enthralled by the musicianship, only a few songs were actually structurally interesting. I know, we're talking about a blues-based band, but still, many of the structures and patterns were pretty tried-and-true. Worse, though, was the lyrical content. I'm not sure how many of the Germans have a clue what the band was singing about in English (although Davis himself can speak perfect German, as a result of studying linguistics in Berlin), but I could understand, and there was nothing there. Again, it's blues music, I know, but still. When given the opportunity to make something original and creative or at least slightly interesting and dynamic, why not take it? I mean, for example, the verses to "I'm a Man" are pretty good, but many of the songs were just standard male gaze formulas.

In any case, seeing live music is always fun when the band can rock, and the musicianship was top-notch. Some mixing, feedback, and amp problems put on a bit of a damper, but it didn't slow the band down. Standing up close to the band, I could see that most of the solos were done spontaneously, that is, Spencer would just give a bandmember a signal and they would kick off a solo, and then another signal and another member would start up. It was quite fluid but from afar you wouldn't even notice.

Score: B

P.S. Davis clearly is a fan of Germany, and especially this venue: in 2006, he released a live album recorded at the same place.

P.P.S. During a break, I went up and introduced myself to Davis in English by saying I'd come all the way from Kansas to see him. His linguistic skills have not weakened with time, as he called me out on a grammatical mistake I made that is typical for Germans to make, noting that I must already be thinking like the Germans.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Peter Murphy / Lettie - Live 2009.10.18 Capitol, Hannover, Germany

Two great concerts within four days of each other in Hannover? Seems impossible, but it just happened.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: Capitol
Location: Hannover, Germany
Date: 18 October 2009
Opening Act: Lettie

01. Burning from the Inside (originally performed by Bauhaus)
02. Velocity Bird
03. Peace to Each
04. Disappearing
05. Memory Go
06. Instant Karma (John Lennon cover)
07. In Every Dream Home a Heartache (Roxy Music cover)
08. Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem
09. Time Has Got Nothing to Do with It
10. Too Much 21st Century (originally performed by Bauhaus)
11. The Prince & Old Lady Shade
12. Deep Ocean Vast Sea
13. Uneven & Brittle

14. A Strange Kind of Love → Bela Lugosi's Dead (originally performed by Bauhaus)
15. She's in Parties (originally performed by Bauhaus)
16. Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover)
17. Transmission (Joy Division cover)
18. Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)

After how long the line was when the doors opened when I saw Porcupine Tree with Robert Fripp just three nights before, I was surprised to be about the fifth person to enter the venue just after doors opened for Peter Murphy. Sad but true: Murphy isn't exactly as famous as he could be. By the time he actually hit the stage, there was a respectable audience, probably in the area of 200 people.

First, however, came Lettie. She came out by herself, grabbed her Fender Stratocaster, and started playing tunes with something of an ethereal new-wave vibe. She had a second microphone loaded with extremely heavy reverb and delay that she would sometimes switch to. She slowly integrated a loop pedal, a keyboard, samples, and a friend who came out and played some sort of electronic keyboard instrument. (It must have been some sort of synthesizer, but he used it to create fairly noisy, ambient melodies, if you can imagine that.) On one hand, Lettie isn't a great singer, the songs are fairly simple, her dancing was kind of awkward, and the whole act just felt a bit loose. But on the other hand, the music was interesting and she has a definite charm. The whole deal felt a bit retro, in a good way. Honestly, she kind of reminded me of my own performances, or maybe those of The Cure from their earlier days.

Peter Murphy came out accompanied by a standard rock trio: guitarist, bassist, and drummer. Considering Murphy's history with Turkish-influenced music, acoustic ballads, and more ambient textures, I wondered what sort of array of sounds he'd pull off through the night. I had no worries about hearing his gothic or alt-rock personas, and indeed, the opening song was a classic Bauhaus rocker. Even though "Burning from the Inside" isn't one of Bauhaus's more instrumentally impressive tracks, I couldn't help feel that the band wasn't entirely capable of filling the shoes of Murphy's first band. Daniel Ash's complicated picking patterns and David J's tricky basslines were not to be found here.

Nonetheless, Murphy was able to rock out rather well, introducing several new songs along the way. I'm not sure about all the titles; he's debuted about five or six new songs over the past tour. Although Murphy supposedly has an album in the works, this tour is labeled the Secret Cover Tour, inspired by a series of covers that he is releasing as singles in the meantime. His website makes it clear that there will be four, but only the first three have been thus far released: "Instant Karma", "Space Oddity", and "Transmission". The first is something of a surprise to me, but Murphy pulls it off fairly well. Murphy has long been a Bowie fan; Bauhaus released their fantastic cover of "Ziggy Stardust" in 1982, and he's been playing "Space Oddity" live since 2002. "Transmission" is also no surprise: Murphy played it live with Bauhaus in 2006, and later in the same year he performed four other Joy Division covers in a radio broadcast with Nine Inch Nails.

Murphy graced us with all three covers, along with his long-time favorite "Ziggy Stardust" and the surprise "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" (likely to be the fourth single). Considering his known idols of Bowie, Ian Curtis, Brian Eno, and Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry isn't hard to picture as well, but John Lennon is still a surprise to me. A good surprise, but I wouldn't have guessed it. The Roxy Music cover was also performed very well, with Peter playing the eerie keyboard part. [Edit 2014.08.01: By now it should be well-known that the fourth single was actually a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt", recorded with Trent Reznor in a radio session in Atlanta in 2006.]

I have to admit, though, I felt a bit let down when Peter left the stage the first time. Where were all his hits? I was disappointed by his choice of two inferior Bauhaus songs, and I don't think Murphy was in top condition – "Time Has Got Nothing to Do with It" and "Deep Ocean Vast Sea" both felt weak and tame. The new songs were fairly good, the covers were good, and "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem", complete with Peter on his 12-string guitar, was great, but I knew he'd have to do a solid encore to make up for the lesser parts.

Indeed, returning for the encore with the 12-string, Murphy started off again strongly with a great version of "A Strange Kind of Love", with the lyrics to "Bela Lugosi's Dead" appended to the end. It was a bit weird, just a bit dissonant, but it mostly worked, although the two sets of lyrics have nothing in common. "She's in Parties" was awesome and finally got the crowd moving. "Ziggy Stardust" was similarly well-performed (although, again, the guitarist was no Ash, let alone Mick Ronson!), and "Transmission" was the clear peak of the night – the crowd was way into it.

Covers can be a tricky business. Murphy has generally done a surprisingly good job of taking songs from his idols and tweaking them just a little bit to suit his fancies. Most of his covers don't sound that different from the originals, but his distinctive voice lends his versions their own unique flavor. That was certainly the case with "Transmission" – he sang it incredibly well, as opposed to the version he released as one of his singles, in which he tries a bit too much to sound like Ian Curtis and in the process ends up a bit off-key.

However, his take on "Space Oddity" confuses me. Instead of the psychedelic, transcendental pop of the original, he does a string-synth-laden ambient version that kills the folky funk of the bridge break and thus looses the driving momentum of the original. Apart from that, his version is good – it drops the whole folk feel and focuses on the spaced-out, thoughtful mood of the song. Live, though, he sang the words to his recording after he and his band sank to the floor. Weird. All four of them just lay there with the lights dimmed. I didn't see Murphy move at all – he might not have even been singing. And afterwards, they got up, said thanks, waved, and left. Confusing.

I remain surprised by the lack of his hit material – where was "Cuts You Up" or "Gliding Like a Whale" or "Indigo Eyes"? I suppose those songs might have been a bit complicated to perform with his setup, but I'm confident that he could have done it. And where were the funkier songs, like "Kick in the Eye" or "Final Solution"? Assuming his musicians were up to it, they could have really rocked those. In any case, I think Murphy was a bit off on this night, and the song choices were interesting but still left something to be desired. The covers are a decent idea, but I'll be curious to see how his new album turns out.

Lettie: B+
Peter Murphy: C+

Friday, October 16, 2009

Porcupine Tree / Robert Fripp - Live 2009.10.15 Capitol, Hannover, Germany

As I explained before, I'm living in Germany for the time being. I recently moved to Hannover and was surprised to learn about the great bands coming here. Unfortunately, Depeche Mode is already sold out, marking my third missed opportunity to see them, but I'm certainly going to take advantage of everything else that I can manage. Last night was my first experience of live music in Hannover.

Artist: Porcupine Tree
Venue: Capitol
Location: Hannover, Germany
Date: 15 October 2009
Opening Act: Robert Fripp

When I heard about this concert I figured that despite my relative ignorance of the headliners it would be worth a shot. See, I've known about Robert Fripp for years; I've heard some of his experiments with Frippertonics, his collaborations with Brian Eno, his work with King Crimson, and of course his guitarwork on David Bowie's "Heroes". Although I don't know his whole catalog and I've never been a rabid follower, he's a well-respected pioneer. I mean, he's a big name. On the other hand, the only things I knew about Porcupine Tree are that they are a contemporary band and that my father is a fan. Usually I can trust my father's opinions on contemporary music quite well, since, I mean, he doesn't have time to listen to bad music, and why would he bother when he's been collecting good music for so long? In any case, I came to hear Fripp probably a little more than I came to hear Porcupine Tree.

Robert Fripp came out first, just him, his guitar, and his electronics. No longer using his signature Frippertonics technique, today he favors a style or technique he calls "Soundscapes", which is more or less an updated, digital version of Frippertonics. As I witnessed it, he sits down and starts playing on his Gibson Les Paul, using a digital processor to make ambient synth tones. He used some sort of digital delay units to create a somewhat ambient soundbed loop, to which he would add and subtract elements as he went along. Over the loop he played more normal-sounding guitar solo bits.

He played one single piece for about twenty minutes, and although it was kind of cool, I was a bit disappointed. His soundbed was nothing revolutionary, and I kept waiting for him to drop a really intense guitar solo, but nothing came. He played great, it all sounded good, but he just didn't pull any surprises. (It didn't help the certain sectors of the audience didn't appreciate the mellow tone, either; a number of punters were clearly impatient for the old bozo to leave the stage so that the hipper, younger Porcupine Tree could hit the stage. I am reminded of the barroom gig scene in Ghost World.) I hate to say it, but Fripp isn't on the cutting edge anymore. The scene that he pioneered over thirty years ago has since outgrown him – I mean, seriously, after seeing someone like Andrew Bird, I'm not as impressed. This is a good example of a situation in which the original creative force has ceased to grow, while new innovators have come to the field and taken things to another level. But don't get me wrong – it was still cool to see Fripp, and his piece was fairly good, but not mind-blowing.

I had no idea what to expect from Porcupine Tree. When they came out and played a loud, riff-laden metal jam, I was a bit taken aback. I mean, they pulled off a mean 5/4 rhythm, but I was hoping they wouldn't just be a Tool rip-off. The song wasn't bad at all, though, and when further songs showed a much more diverse array of sounds and tones, I was much more receptive. Unfortunately, I can't offer much in the ways of a setlist since I am totally unfamiliar with the band's catalog. They said that would play the entirety of their new album, The Incident, and I do believe that kept to that promise. From what I've read, most of that album was conceived as one extended suite, and I did get a feel for that in the live performance. It was often hard to tell when songs actually started or ended, and many parts seemed to go on for a while without pause. This was not to their detriment – I found the music quite enthralling. I quite appreciated the dynamics of the band: acoustic-based pieces were right next to more ambient parts, which could be followed by heavier jams and riff- or guitar-solo-based segments. It all flowed together quite well.

After finishing the album song-cycle, the band left the stage for a ten-minute break. Upon return, they played a full second set of material, about 45 minutes, presumably from their back-catalog. (The one song name I caught was "Lazarus".) The general sound of the music remained similar, although the variety of tones was perhaps even further widened. Lower-key and/or acoustic segments seemed a bit more prominent. After their second set, they left the stage, but as expected, they came back again for a brief encore. The first song featured a fantastic acoustic guitar part, and second song was announced as "Trains". (The singer asked what "train" is in German, but he had some difficulty hearing the answer.)

Porcupine Tree ended up putting on a pretty good show, especially for playing over two hours of music. I know they are labeled, for better or worse, as a modern progressive band, and I think the classification fits – they like long, expansive songs; they like to experiment with styles and sonic directions, even within one song; and they like to push the boundaries of rock music. They don't like to stand in one place too long. They are clearly rock musicians, but they don't want to be contained by just one corner of what rock means. And I really like that. Some of the intense metal bits could be a bit much for me, but with the energy of a live show, I could still get into it in the context of the whole performance.

Robert Fripp: C
Porcupine Tree: A-

P.S. What would have made this show really cool is if Fripp had joined the band for an encore. They would have fit together well, I think, and that would have really blown my mind.

[Edit 2015.07.14:] I just noticed that the setlist was posted online:

Set 1:
01. Occam's Razor
02. The Blind House
03. Great Expectations
04. Kneel and Disconnect
05. Drawing the Line
06. The Incident
07. Your Unpleasant Family
08. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
09. Time Flies
10. Degree Zero of Liberty
11. Octane Twisted
12. The Séance
13. Circle of Manias
14. I Drive the Hearse

Set 2:
15. The Start of Something Beautiful
16. Russia on Ice (first half)
17. Anesthetize (Part 2: "The Pills I'm Taking")
18. Lazarus
19. Normal
20. Strip the Soul →
21. .3 (second half)
22. Bonnie the Cat

23. The Sound of Muzak
24. Trains

Also, it's worth noting that Porcupine Tree's keyboardist is Richard Barbieri, also known for performing the same role in Japan!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nouvelle Vague / Gerald Toto - Live 2009.09.09 Zakk, Düsseldorf, Germany

I know, I just wrote about how I wasn't going to write much, and here I am writing. Well, don't get your hopes up too much, but I figured I should write up a little review of the show I just saw.

Artist: Nouvelle Vague
Venue: Zakk
Location: Düsseldorf, Germany
Date: 9 September 2009
Opening Act: Gerald Toto

01. One Hundred Years [The Cure cover]
02. Master and Servant [Depeche Mode cover]
03. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've) [Buzzcocks cover]
04. Metal [Gary Numan cover]
05. Road to Nowhere [Talking Heads cover]
06. Human Fly [The Cramps cover]
07. Guns of Brixton [The Clash cover]
08. Too Drunk to Fuck [Dead Kennedys cover]
09. God Save the Queen [Sex Pistols cover]
10. Sex Beat [The Gun Club cover]
11. Just Can't Get Enough [Depeche Mode cover]
12. Don't Go [Yazoo cover] [with Gerald Toto]
13. Heart of Glass [Blondie cover] [with Gerald Toto]
14. Israel [Siouxsie & the Banshees cover] [with Gerald Toto]
15. Blister in the Sun [Violent Femmes cover]
16. Oublions L'Amérique [Wunderbach cover]
17. All My Colours [Echo & the Bunnymen cover]
18. Friday Night, Saturday Morning [The Specials cover]
19. Bela Lugosi's Dead [Bauhaus cover]
20. Love Will Tear Us Apart [Joy Division cover]

21. Eisbär [Grauzone cover]
22. Relax [Frankie Goes to Hollywood cover] [Gerald Toto solo]
23. [Unknown]

After starting a half hour late for unknown reasons, Gerald Toto came out and played five songs, accompanied only by his own classical and acoustic guitars. He tried to talk to the crowd in German but quickly gave up and used English, which is the language of his songs anyway. He's a talented guitarist and singer, but I found his songs a bit lacking. They were far from bad, but he relied too heavily on repeating his choruses into oblivion. He tried to get some audience participation in these extended codas, but sadly he failed to get much. After half an hour, he left the stage and the audience impatiently awaited the main act.

Nouvelle Vague on tour consists of the two masterminds of the band, Marc Collin and Oliver Libaux (playing acoustic guitar and keyboard, respectively, I think), along with a drummer/percussionist, an acoustic bassist, and two singers, Melanie Pain and Nedeah Miranda. In the studio, Marc and Oliver play most of the instruments, while the songs are sung by a variety of singers, most of whom are female except for the notable exception of the aforementioned Gerald. Live, Melanie and Nedeah traded vocal parts, although Gerald came back out a few times to sing (and play guitar) as well.

I was immediately surprised by the intensity of the band and the behavior of the singers. Based on the songs I'd heard from their albums (of which I've admittedly not heard that many), I'd expected them to be fairly quiet, tame, and restrained. The band is typically characterized as playing bossa nova music, which is partially true and also provides the play on words of their name. See, "nouvelle vague" in French means the same as "bossa nova" in Portuguese, namely "new wave", which happens to be the style of music that the songs they cover were originally recorded in. However, in this show, they did not shy away from heavier grooves, dark and droning ballads, acoustic rock, and plenty of other sounds.

They half-jokingly, half-earnestly referred to their take on "Road to Nowhere" as a country version, but they were telling the truth. Their version of Bauhaus' was (predictably) a somewhat darker groove, as was also the case with "All My Colours". However, songs like "Just Can't Get Enough" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (both covered on their first album of three) sounded more like traditional bossa nova. I get the impression that the band quickly tired of sticking to pure bossa nova, and have instead decided to radically rework these punk, new wave, and post-punk classics into all sorts of acoustic arrangements with emphasis on impressive vocal talent and style.

I was quite surprised by the energy and vivacity of the singers: both were fairly active in their style and movements, and they had no problem shouting at the audience or screaming as appropriate during the songs. The energy was mostly a welcome surprise, although it sometimes went a bit too far. I never really liked "Too Drunk to Fuck" in the first place, but their take got increasingly rowdy as they endlessly repeated the chorus, and after the song they asked the audience to shout the word "fuck" in unison for no apparent reason. The immaturity reminded me of a story a friend once told me about Green Day pulling the same trick with their preteen audience.

In any case, the performances were all solid, and the song selection was superb. (I didn't recognize every last song, as I've always preferred post-punk just a touch over new wave and punk, so I don't have complete background knowledge about some of their songs that lean in that direction, but many of their choices are quite dear to me.) Their opening was fantastic; the first songs were all great, especially "Master and Servant" and "Metal". Gerald's take on "Israel" was a pleasant surprise for me; it wasn't particularly inventive, but the song stands as one of my absolute favorite Siouxsie & the Banshees songs. "Blister in the Sun" was another nice little surprise.

"Oublions L'Amérique" (aka "Forget America") was introduced by explaining the name and that it was written by a French punk band during the Bush era, so the singers apologized, since they clearly like Obama much better. I appreciated the gesture, and I wish I could have understood the French lyrics of the song. "Eisbär" was a wonderful delight; it was performed by only Melanie and Marc, and they pulled it off fantastically. Both singers spoke no German (both preferring French or English); but Melanie faked the lyrics well enough. I think the German audience really dug it, and I did too.

Since the show started late and I had to catch a train back to my current home in Cologne, I had to leave the show early. I'm fairly confident that I left during the last song, but I didn't recognize the song and I couldn't stay to figure it out. In any case, I still got to hear about an hour and a half of fantastic reinterpretations of some of my favorite songs. Again, musically speaking, the band is spot-on – these are very skilled musicians and singers, and even if they aren't writing their own material, their songcraft is evident in their arrangements. They make for a more engaging show than I was expecting.

Gerald Toto: C+
Nouvelle Vague: B+

P.S. I think it is physically impossible for me to write a short review.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why I've Been Absent

Dear readers, I apologize for my continued absence. I know that I always apologize for not writing much, but I have been fairly busy, you know, living my life and earning degrees and things. Anyway, these days I’m living in Germany and I’ve had enough going on here that I haven’t been able to make writing music reviews a high priorty. I’m still willing to do it, though. For example, I might see Nouvelle Vague or Pere Ubu in the next month, and writing live reviews isn’t too hard to do. Of course, I did see the Junior Boys in New York City at Webster Hall in late July, but I was way to busy with my transatlantic move to write a review. So, we’ll see what happens. Don’t expect regularity, but if inspiration strikes, I’ll write something up.

I have been finding some good music while here. I got my hands on a few works of classic Neue Deutsche Welle (German New Wave) and that’s been great, or I could review the Boys Next Door’s album (their only one before they changed their name to The Birthday Party).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sonic Youth / Awesome Color - Live 2009.07.18 Uptown Theater, Kansas City, Missouri

I know, it's been forever since I've written, and considering my upcoming plans to spend a year living in Germany, I have to admit I can't guarantee consistent posting in the near future. Time will tell. In the meantime, I managed to catch one last show in the US.

Artist: Sonic Youth
Venue: Uptown Theater
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
Date: 18 July 2009
Opening Act: Awesome Color

01. Tom Violence
02. No Way
03. Sacred Trickster
04. Calming the Snake
05. Silver Rocket
06. Walkin Blue
07. Anti-Orgasm
08. Malibu Gas Station
09. Leaky Lifeboat
10. Antenna
11. Poison Arrow
12. Massage the History
13. White Cross

First Encore:
14. The Wonder →
15. Hyperstation

Second Encore:
16. What We Know
17. Pacific Coast Highway

Since I don't have a lot of background information about Sonic Youth and I don't know their entire discography, I can only provide a brief review. I will proceed nonetheless. I should note that the setlist is borrowed from the Kansas City Star, whose review I generally agreed with.

Openers Awesome Color failed to impress. They played a half-hour of fast, punky grooves. Their singer/guitarist was clearly the dominant member; he was the only dynamic musician. In every single song, the drummer and bassist had merely one riff to play and that's all they did. For all their energy and headbanging, all they did was the same thing for four minutes at a time. The guitarist was creative and had a variety of riffs, but it was entirely up to him to make things interesting. The weight was a bit much for one musician to handle and even with some good tricks and riffs, the songs got old fast. His vocals were undecipherable and lost in the mix.

Sonic Youth, however, were in fine form. They mostly focused on their newest album, The Eternal, but they threw in just a few older songs, which of course garnered strong appreciation from the crowd. The band frequently just shoegazed, but they had energy and they did engage in at least some dialog with the audience (unlike infamous shoegazers My Bloody Valentine). Thurston Moore was the main man, talking the most, singing the most, and playing the lead guitar parts highest in the mix, but the other two original members, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon, each had a few turns at the mic.

Most songs did not have clearly separable instrumentation; the combination of four musicians' guitars and basses created a wide sonic landscape held by drummer Steve Shelley's rhythm and overlaid by the relatively sparse vocals. Thurston's guitars usually were the dominant part, either the main riff of a song or part of a noisemaking machine. Lee's parts were almost pure noise, but they were important to the total sound of the songs. Kim alternated between rhythm guitar, second bass, and dancing, and Mark Ibold held down the main bass parts. The bass was especially hard to pick out in the mix, but I could tell that Mark's parts were usually lower in pitch, and when Kim also was on bass, she'd played higher parts, more similar to rhythm guitar parts (kind of like Peter Hook used to do in Joy Division/New Order).

Many songs featured extensive noise jams, but they usually were dynamic and interesting enough to keep my attention. Somehow the band found a perfect match of convoluted noise with an underbelly of melody and rhythm. The pieces found a way to fit together – the most abstract jams had little foundation, but most were grounded in some sort of riff that was low in the mix yet present enough to tie things up and keep the movement and flow of the songs.

The mix wasn't entirely perfect, especially as the vocals were hard to distinguish, but the sound was generally good, and the band kept things rolling for over two hours. They didn't offer much familiar territory, and their sonic assault can be intense, but it's well worth it if you've got earplugs.

Awesome Color: D+
Sonic Youth: A-

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Morrissey / The Courteeners - Live 2009.04.08 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

When I heard Morrissey was coming to town again, I knew I couldn't say no. This time I actually went with a friend and happened to meet up with a couple more at the show. Coincidentally, the last time I saw Moz perform, I wrote my first review for this blog.

Artist: Morrissey
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 8 April 2009
Opening Act: The Courteeners

01. This Charming Man
02. Billy Budd
03. Black Cloud
04. How Soon Is Now?
05. Irish Blood, English Heart
06. When I Last Spoke to Carol
07. How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel?
08. I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
09. Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others
10. Something Is Squeezing My Skull
11. Seasick, Yet Still Docked
12. The Loop
13. The World Is Full of Crashing Bores
14. Death of a Disco Dancer
15. Best Friend on the Payroll
16. I Keep Mine Hidden
17. Sorry Doesn't Help
18. Ask
19. Let Me Kiss You
20. I'm OK by Myself

21. First of the Gang to Die

The night opened up with the Courteeners, a five-piece alternative band from Manchester. They played ten songs in about 35 minutes. They sounded somewhat Britpoppy, but with more of a post-80s feel. These guys were obviously fans of the Smiths, and they said as much on stage. I wasn't blown away, but they were friendly and made decent music. The fit the bill as an opener for Morrissey, and I liked that they seemed like a young band that might otherwise belong in smaller venues.

After they left the stage, just like Morrissey's last tour, music videos and other clips were projected onto a big screen covering the stage. This time the video featured plenty of Shocking Blue songs and a live television performance of the New York Dolls, a documented love of Morrissey's. The stage fell a few minute before 9:00pm to reveal a background filled with a massive, buff sailor. After the intro music ran for a minute or two, the band hit the stage and burst into the classic Smiths single "This Charming Man".

Morrissey split his set fairly evenly between tracks from his new album, Years of Refusal, songs from his solid 2004 comeback album, You Are the Quarry, and old Smiths songs, with a few older songs from his solo career thrown in. The choice of his songs is quite interesting in terms of what was and wasn't represented. Among the Smiths songs he played, three were charting singles, two are slightly obscure but great album tracks, and "I Keep Mine Hidden" is notable as the last recorded Smiths song, found only on the b-side of "Girlfriend in a Coma" (and the extremely belatedly-released "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" single). The solo tracks were rather curiously focused; Morrissey nearly completely overlooked his entire early career (no "Suedehead" or "Everyday Is Like Sunday"!?) in favor of five or six songs each from two of his latest albums. Nothing from his first three albums was included, only one song from the next three was present, and nothing from his relatively recent 2006 album, Ringleader of the Tormentors was to be heard. Did he suddenly turn his back on that album? It may not be as good as the new album or You Are the Quarry, but it certainly wasn't bad.

Regardless, I can't complain with what he did deliver. The band rocked out in top form, except for a few guitar problems (e.g., lead guitarist Jesse Tobias had one of his strings break during "Ask", so he couldn't do the lovely lead parts at the end of the song). Morrissey sung perfectly, but he just didn't seem quite as spirited as he could be. He was in a good mood; he still talked some in his normal coy manner and received plenty of gifts from the audience (including what appeared to be vinyl copies of the first two Smiths albums), but he said at one point, "We had a great time in Kansas City, you may be jealous," and said that even though he liked St. Louis, he liked KC better. He certainly wasn't having as good of a time as last time he was here, although, to be fair, that was his birthday.

Standouts included "How Soon Is Now?", done as a shortened version but with an extended guitar and kettle drum outro, "Death of a Disco Dancer", also featuring a great outro with rhythm guitarist Boz Boorer on clarinet and ending on something of an instrumental freakout, and "First of the Gang to Die", which concluded in a big collective bow by the band. "Seasick, Yet Still Docked" was new to me but sounded fantastic. It was just about the only slower, less rocking song of the night, and it featured acoustic double bass and guitar. The instrumental was particularly beautiful. The only real low point was "I Keep Mine Hidden". It's cool for Morrissey to pull out such an obscurity, but it just isn't a good song, and considering how many amazing Smiths songs there are to choose from, why pick one of the weakest ones?

I was surprised that the encore only consisted of one song – I wondered if Morrissey was snubbing us after a good night in Kansas City, but apparently that's the norm for this tour. Really, the whole band performed quite well, and the songs rocked. It was a lot of fun, but I do wish Moz had put just a bit more energy into it all.

The Courteeners: B-
Morrissey: B+

P.S. This time he only took his shirt off and threw it to the audience once. (Last time it was twice.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

SLSO Follow-Up

The story of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra's Carnegie Hall performances just keeps getting more interesting. I already reviewed one of their warm-up nights in St. Louis, but I wanted to share how things ended up at the real deal. If you've been reading the SLSO blog, you've probably already caught most of this, but apparently, at the actual Carnegie Hall performance, the flights were delayed and the musicians didn't arrive until under two hours before showtime. For the first night (the night I didn't get to see), the composer of one of the pieces who was also set to perform a solo vocal part failed to arrive at all. David Robertson, the SLSO conductor, had to do the job himself and let someone else handle the conducting. Apparently, it turned out well anyway. The New York Times has a positive review of both nights with more details.

Speaking of the SLSO blog, I never linked back to the other reviews from that night. The first set can be found here, another here, and the last set (including a link back to my own review) here.

I'd like to thank Eddie Silva at the SLSO once more for a great night. I can't reiterate enough how much fun I've had at the SLSO recently. I'm still surprised I never went before six months ago.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Cup Collector / Brad Schumacher - Live 2009.04.02 Sci-Fi Lounge, St. Louis, Missouri

Disclaimer: both of the musicians that I am about to write about are my friends. I still believe that I am capable of evaluating and commenting upon their work in a reasonably fair manner, but be aware, bias may creep in.

Both of these guys rock, by the way.

Artists: Cup Collector / Brad Schumacher
Venue: Sci-Fi Lounge
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 2 April 2009

The Sci-Fi Lounge is a unique venue. In fact, I don't even think it was a venue a few weeks ago. It's more of a space, a place you can go to to just hang out. It is owned by a man named Coyote, and it is his collection of art, video and arcade games, music, toys, and books that are spread across the place. The cover charge is $2 (at least when there is live music), but that also nets you a free (non-alcoholic) drink or snack. The atmosphere is great, the people are nice, and the whole thing is rather user-friendly. The only downside is that the place has very limited hours – think I heard it's just open Tuesday and Thursday nights from 8pm-midnight. Coyote has a day job, after all.

Anyway, Cup Collector hit the stage precisely at 9:18 and the crowd went WILD. It was madness. Chairs were thrown about the building, drinks were knocked over recklessly, someone charged at the band and stole all the amplifiers, and then the power went out. We all went home and cried. End of review.

Just kidding. Cup Collector turned on his equipment and asked Coyote if he was too loud. He turned down some, turned to the meager audience and gave a big smile. His setup was his electric guitar, a looping pedal, some effects pedals, and two amplifiers. He turned towards his amplifiers and began playing a very droning riff, mostly consisting of different variations and voicings of the same base chord. Through looping some of these, he created a thick layer of a single massive chord. After a few minutes, he began using his guitar to create feedback hums over the looped chords. The total effect was beautiful, almost relaxing. After six minutes, he suddenly stopped the loops and his playing.

After a quick retune and capo overlay, Cup Collector started a second piece, this time based off of a series of fingerpicked riffs (or at least, that's my guess considering that his back was to us). Several of these were looped over each other to create a swarm of picking. The piece began to build up, and then some distorted undertones appeared in the mix. The sound got louder and more intense until he was adding layers of feedback on top of it all. He removed the layers slowly and faded into a return to quiescence. After completing the ten-minute piece, he cleared his equipment from the stage to make some room for Brad.

Brad Schumacher prepared his equipment for a while and apparently somehow destroyed his orange-painted amplifier in the process. Nonetheless, he still had a PA mixer, two orange-painted speakers, a television wired to display audio waves, his laptop, his guitar, and several pedals. He also had some sort of large sheet which some sort of rough outline of his set sketched out upon it. When he was ready, he played some distorted harmonics and thanked everyone present. He then preceded to play something he "dreamed up a few days ago".

Brad opened with his programmed digital synthesizer on his laptop. After letting his guitar feed back, he scraped his strings a few times and went back to playing with his laptop again. The rawness of the noise came down a notch for a minute, but then he started pounding on his guitar to get some sounds out, and then he started using a whammy pedal to really freak out his guitar. This was matched by a rise in the digital synth upwards to very high pitches. The guitar sound turned very strange and mechanical as the whole soundscape turned dirtier and more tense. Eventually the noise level came down and turned into distant-sounded rumbles. Brad switched to a more electronic-sounding guitar effect, but then began using heavier distortion, some sort of gate, and his whammy pedal. The sum sound was a very thick, dark tonal freakout. Brad bent his guitar neck and used harmonics for more weird sounds, and faded out on synth washes and heavy chords. The whole piece lasted about twenty-two minutes.

This line-up of performers made for an interesting combination – they sounded different, yet they fit together well. Cup Collector is more of a drone sort of thing, but his fancy fingerwork means that there is more going on than a single protracted note – he kept my attention well by his fairly constant subtle changes to the soundscape. Brad's piece felt like an honest composition: there were distinct sections with different sounds, and he balanced his work well between his guitar and the digital synth. I have no idea how he created some of the sounds he made, and that fascinates me.

Both loosely fall into the ambient scene, and both were solo musicians focusing on their guitars, pedals, layering, and feedback, instead of vocals, melody, or rock stylings, but their approaches are somewhat different, and I was left in a different mood after each. Even when Cup Collector approached more intense ground, the atmosphere was more relaxing than abusive. Much of Brad's piece was darker, but the whole sum of his performance was more varied than just that; there was a process, a development, some sort of logical progression from start to finish.

It's rather a pity, though, that the audience was mostly just a few friends of each of performer. The musicians of the night fit the environment well, but I can't help but think that there are plenty of people that should have been there and would have loved it if they had been. The Sci-Fi Lounge is a cool venue that deserves some more attention. I hope a few more people start heading there – it may be tucked away a little bit, but it isn't hard to find and it's just off the Loop.

Score: A-

Monday, March 30, 2009

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra - Live 2009.03.27 Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri

So it happened again: the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra offered me a ticket to a concert of great import under the guise of "Blogger's Night 2". Who am I to say no? Last time was so much fun, and it was an engaging new challenge for me to write about classical music. This time, after I checked out an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum curated by a classmate of mine, I took along my film-reviewer brother along for the ride to the symphony.

Event: Transformations, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson
Venue: Powell Hall
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 27 March 2009

1. Good Friday Music from Parsifal, composed by Richard Wagner (1882)
2. Canto di speranza, for cello and orchestra, composed by Bernd Alois Zimmerman (1952-53, revised 1957), featuring cellist Anssi Karttunen
3. Luonnotar, op. 70, composed by Jean Sibelius (1910-13), featuring soprano Karita Mattila
4. Mirage, composed by Kaija Saariaho (2007), featuring soprano Karita Mattila and cellist Anssi Karttunen
5. Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, op. 82, composed by Jean Sibelius (1915-19)

As conductor David Robertson took his place on stage, he started by responding to a resounding walkie-talkie message that echoed through the silent building with, "We're the only orchestra with Richard Wagner on the walkie-talkie." It was humorous, but it reminded me of what sort of acoustics we're dealing with at Powell Hall: the microphones dangling from the ceiling are only for recording purposes; there is no sound reinforcement whatsoever (unless I'm totally missing something, that is). Robertson spoke his line with his back halfway turned to the audience and yet he was loud and clear (as was the original walkie-talkie sentence). I'm amazed by the clarity of the unamplified sound in the hall.

The performance opened with Good Friday Music from Parsifal, which began with a standard arrangement of sweet-sounding strings, but the piece built up into a grand crescendo before slow flutes and the string section dominated a mellower section. A sudden change to a minor key heralded a softer section led by the woodwinds. As the piece went on, it continued to vacillate between longer, brighter, fuller segments and short, dark parts, usually accented by some strong but minimalist bass and timpani parts. It finished with a bevy of descending lines slowing down quietly into a final resounding note. My favorite part might have been that the timeline in the concert program that noted that the most important event of 1882 (other than this piece's composition) was Friedrich Nietzsche's proposition that God is dead. I find the relationship between the piece and Nietzsche to be tenuous at best.

Canto di speranza, composed by a German but carrying an Italian title, translates to Song of Hope. Where the hope comes in is beyond me, but this was probably my favorite piece of the evening. The performers rearranged themselves significantly; there were no violins and fewer other strings and brass. The piece began with an abstract, discombobulated arrangement of percussion splashes: a bass drum, bongos, and quad tom-toms laid out a wildly syncopated pseudo-rhythm with piano strikes thrown in at odd moments. Plucked violas and strange brass and harp parts filled in the sound spectrum while solo cellist Karttunen grew more active in his part. A sudden breakout into a briefly recognizable beat with strong horn blasts withdrew into a more disconnected but still dramatic section that only loosely felt in key. (As it turns out, the piece was composed in twelve-tone serialism, meaning that there truly is no key.) The pianist turned and reached over to a conveniently-placed celesta to add in a few small parts of relatively low volume. A mad dash of trills and notes in the highest registers dropped down back into the "normal" weirdness of the opening of the piece before ending in cello slides, squeaks, and a low dragging close.

Luonnater was composed by a famed Finn for a solo soprano, performed here by well-regarded Marita Mattila. The lyrics were in Finnish, so a large projector displayed the translation. The tale is a creation myth sourced from the Finnish epic Kalevala. A faint string bed opened, and Mattila began almost immediately thereafter. As she sung of a lonely woman of the heavens complaining of her empty life and descending into the ethereal sea, the tense but pretty string and harp parts entered a darker segment. The woman remained unhappy until a duck came, heralding a build-up of strings and brass. A loud and dramatic section began as the duck couldn't find a place to nest, until the woman, described now as the mother of waters, granted it a place on her knee. The music quieted and then grew again darker as the woman was bothered by the warmth of the growing eggs. The nest eventually rolled off and broke apart, and although beauty emerged, the music remained dark and uncertain. The piece ended on a slightly upward happier note as the eggs became the sky, moon, stars, and earth.

Mirage is a contemporary Finnish piece with English lyrics, just two years old. Featuring solo cellist Karttunen and soprano Mattila now together, I had high hopes. Weird squeaks, squalls, and glissandos made for a really cool dark opening. A percussionist did a weird thing on the cymbals at several points in the work: he had a long (wooden?) shaft that he drew across the edge of the cymbal while using his other hand to perhaps steady the cymbal. It generated an unusual high pitch. Mittali, now clad in a wide yellow gown, began singing about flying, calling herself a "sacred eagle woman", and later, a shooting star and a "sacred clown". The piece is based on the effects of a hallucinogenic mushroom, and the psychedelia thereof was clearly borne out through Mittali's strange vocal stylisms and the strange noises and crashes of the accompanying music. The solo cello played a less important role; Karttunen almost seemed overlooked by the intense vocals until about two-thirds through during the craziest parts before Mittali sang, "I am! I am the shooting star! Because... I can fly!" The music became louder and more dramatic until the end of her pronouncement, where the strings began to make descending wails. Slow glides downward, much like a siren, brought the resolution, perhaps revealing that her drug-induced vision must eventually end; she must come down and return to normalcy.

The final piece, Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, was a more traditional work, again by the Finnish Sibelius. After the stranger middle three pieces, this brought us back to the more familiar ground established in Good Friday Music from Parsifal. This work was a much longer piece than the others, lasting over half an hour. Timpani and brass opened, with woodwinds and strings following, eventually crescendoing into a big swing. The brass and woodwinds began a bold interchange of lines, which led into an intense and dramatic rising string part that resolved into a bigger and lusher segment. This fell into a softer part that quickly became tenser before a bassoon took a pretty lead segment. As the music swelled louder and bolder again, the tempo rose along with the tension. This fell into nicer territory before the strings began to prance all over the place, with different parts appearing to rise out of a different part of the stage at each second. A large build-up into a loud section was dominated by clear brass parts and big chords. The timpani grew stronger before everything halted for just a beat. Light woodwinds, brass, and pizzicato strings picked up again. Eventually, after another brief pause, the strings picked up to an incredible pace, wavering and flying about until settling into what sounded like a section borrowed from a classical movie score. It sounded celebratory or especially epic, but then collapsed into a much quieter part. Speedy violins led into a darker, sadder section. More familiar bold brass lines brought a dark drone from the strings, concluding in big timpani rolls and a final series of quick string jabs.

I found that Good Friday Music from Parsifal was fairly tame and calm. It isn't a bad work, nor was it poorly performed; but it just seemed rather plain, especially in comparison to the other works of the night. Canto di speranza ended up as my favorite – Karttunen is a fantastic cellist and he really held down the piece. The obtuse percussion was cool, but could have been aimless and distracting had it not been for the superb cello work acting as a sort of counterpoint. Luonnator was certainly interesting, but the context of the epic tale was a bit difficult.  Mattila is clearly a talented vocalist; she has complete control over her voice, and she wrought that power well in the work. In Mirage, however, I felt like she was perhaps too intense and overdramatic. It may be that in a classical context that shouldn't even be a concern, but I felt distracted and removed from the piece. The intention of the piece was solid, and the music worked, but Mattila's stylisms were a detraction for me, and Karttunen seemed occasionally underutilized. Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major was fairly good; the work neared the point of being too traditional to be interesting, but it branched out well and had several really cool parts, especially with the brass sections. I liked that it was big and varied, but it was a bit too long and overdrawn, almost too big in scope.

Since this concert was a preview for a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City (on April 4th), I'm sure a lot of work was put into this production. It was a long and varied program, and the best parts were truly excellent. However, there were parts that I felt dragged a bit, or where my interest faded some. Mattila is intensely skilled, but I found her actual performance to be hit-and-miss; Karttunen was similarly excellent but occasionally lost in the forest of sounds. The symphony as a whole performed quite well and I was pleased with the endeavor as a whole.

Score: B+

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Andrew Bird / Heartless Bastards - Live 2009.03.15 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

I must admit that I am something of a neophyte when it comes to Andrew Bird, but when I heard he was coming I figured that it would be a show worth checking out. (It is strange, though, that I am more willing to spend $20+ on a concert instead of $12+ on a CD as my introductory experience… although I suppose the concert is more unique.) Anyway, I convinced one of my friends who has been a longtime fan to come along with me, and it made for a good night.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 15 March 2009
Opening Act: Heartless Bastards

01. Improvisation (Solo)
02. The Water Jet Cilice (Solo)
03. Masterswarm
04. Natural Disaster
05. Effigy
06. Oh No
07. A Nervous Tic Motion of the Hand to the Left
08. Fitz and the Dizzyspells
09. Not a Robot, but a Ghost
10. Lull
11. Anonanimal
12. Imitosis
13. Souverian
14. Doctor Strings
15. Fake Palindromes

16. Improvisation (Solo)
17. Why? (Solo)
18. Tables and Chairs

Right on time at 8pm the Heartless Bastards took the stage. The band is a singer/guitarist (who also did some keyboard), a lead guitarist (who occasionally did bass), a bassist (who also did some pedal steel and acoustic guitar), and a drummer. They played nine songs in just about 45 minutes, most of which were bluesy rock numbers. Their songs were pretty heavy, but the song structures and arrangements were excessively basic. There were no alarms and no surprises whatsoever. Even the one acoustic number was just three chords accompanied by a simple picking pattern on a second guitar. The one song with pedal steel was a welcome change, but they left the instrument otherwise unused. The singer did a few loops, but they were really basic and she only made them so she could solo over them. However, this was rather unnecessary considering that the other musicians kept the music held down fine as it was. Her keyboard, too, was just used for the verses of one song. Why cart around so much stuff if you are barely even going to use it? I was pretty disappointed, especially in the last number, which was an extended jam where the musicians just played the same simple riff for several minutes. I was expecting a solo or something, but no, they just kept playing the same chord over and over. Boring.

At 9:15pm, Andrew Bird came out and immediately started plucking his violin and creating loops. This was apparently an improvisation, and even if that hadn’t been the case, he created quite a soundscape just by himself. At his disposal was his trusty plucked and bowed violin, a hollow-bodied electric guitar, a glockenspiel, a modest set of effects and looping pedals, his amazing capacity to whistle, and his regular voice.

After another loop-laden solo piece, he brought out his band, which is currently Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar, and Mike Lewis on bass. Dosh usually played slightly intricate but restrained rhythms; only on a few songs did he let himself go to rock out more (but obviously, this isn't your normal rock band). He had a whole bunch of extra equipment in the form of some sort of combination of effects processors, samplers, loop pedals, and auxiliary percussion (and maybe some sort of keyboard instrument?). I was never too sure what all he was doing, but I know it sounded great. Ylvisaker mostly did modestly complex fingerpicking riffs that really helped fill in some of the parts of the sound base that Bird wasn't doing himself. He sometimes also played with loops and other effects, and once or twice he picked up Lewis's bass when he switched to saxophone or bassoon. Lewis kept up solid basslines through the entire set and he was able to occasionally pick up other instruments and do pristine lead parts.

I won't be able to describe things in too great of detail or talk too specifically about which songs were the coolest, but I do remember some particularly interesting things. The stage had four massive gramophone-style speakers, and the two largest ones were usually lit in some stark color. Sometimes this was the same as the rest of the stage but sometimes they were strikingly different. The other two speakers were connected and hooked up to one of Bird's pedals so that he could control how fast they would spin around. His amplifier must have output to those speakers, because a microphone stood right beyond them so that when they spun fast, it created a rotary effect.

I was very impressed by the total sound output of the musicians. My first thought of the complete band (during "Masterswarm") was a very chamber pop thing, but songs like "Fitz and the Dizzyspells" got pretty rocking. "Not a Robot, but a Ghost" was introduced as a collaboration with Dosh (who originally wrote the music under the title "First Impossible"), and the song did sound a bit different than the rest. It was a pretty good jam with a cool outro; Dosh threw down some weird percussion samples, Lewis was looping his bassoon, and Ylvisaker had a little box with a long antenna that he held over his strings to create weird sounds.

"Lull" was preceded by two false starts, apparently because Dosh was controlling some of Bird's loops and he wasn't satisfied with the timing or something. As Bird said, "This is tricky stuff, you know." Ylvisaker had some sort of pen-thing or a weird slide, and between that and Bird's glockenspiel, they created a beautiful soundscape once they got going. After a false start of "Imitosis", Bird said their errors were just inexperience: this was the first show of their tour. Again, once things got going, the song had a great groove. Ylvisaker did a little guitar solo, which led into a violin solo by Bird, and later he did a solo in which he alternated between whistling, glockenspiel, and guitar. Way cool.

Many songs opened with solo instrumentals by Bird that suddenly transitioned into the "actual" songs after a minute or two; the one before "Effigy" was particularly notable due to the sudden but cool change in atmosphere. The "Doctor Strings" bit seemed to confuse some people (or at least me), but it appears to be a short humorous piece about fixing stringed instruments. It sort of segued into "Fake Palindromes", which the audience totally loved. They cheered and moved more to that song than any other by far. As it is a rocking song, I supposed this was deserved.

At 10:45, the Bird and the band left the stage, but within a minute, Bird came back out by himself for an encore. He started into a piece with a really weird syncopated rhythm, and he screwed it up twice and had to restart, but it was cool once he got it. The audience didn't seem to mind, but he said, "You're awfully patient," and apologized. That moved into "Why?", which was a quite abstract and unusual song. The band returned for one last song, and they left their loops going as they left the stage, just a minute or two after 11:00pm.

I have to admit, I was really impressed. I'd heard some of Andrew Bird's recorded material before, and even though I liked it, I never thought too much about it. Seeing him live was an experience. He is an incredibly talented and creative musician, and he truly has figured out how to capitalize on looping. He can switch instruments and alternate whistling and singing so quickly that you are left amazed that just one man can produce so much sound.

Andrew Bird: A
The Heartless Bastards: D

P.S. Thanks to Josh Potter for the setlist!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Charlie King - Live 2009.03.03 Webster University, Webster Groves, Missouri

I've been too busy to write about a couple of the shows I've attended over the past couple months, but I saw one in particular that I'd like to at least briefly document. Charlie King came to Webster University, and I happened to be quite involved in one of the groups that sponsored his appearance. King is a folksinger activist who has been active since the late 70s, and although folk's popular peak may have been years before he started performing, King has been working hard to keep it alive.

Artist: Charlie King
Venue: Winifred-Moore Auditorium, Webster University
Location: Webster Groves, Missouri
Date: 3 March 2009

I'm not familiar enough with Charlie's back catalog or the modern folk tradition to be able to provide a setlist, but I will at least try to discuss some of the themes that Charlie addressed during the evening. The most important part of folk songs are the words, since these are the actual media through which messages are shared, so I'm going to focus on the lyrical content instead of the actual tunes. Most of them weren't extremely complicated anyway, but that's fine. The words are more important. Just about every song King played covered a topical political theme; he went from the privilege of the rich to anti-war protests to environmentalism and beyond.

These themes aren't particularly surprising, but it is nonetheless a delight to hear someone sing their heart out quick candidly about their opinions on these subjects. Many were quite creative; for example, one of the songs early in the set focused on a baboon colony in which all the adult males had somehow died. As the next generation grew up, instead of using typical aggression and giving into standard hierarchical power structures, the baboons worked together and minimized their in-fighting to great success. King asked us why we can't do the same.

Charlie seemed mostly pleased with our newly elected president, but strongly encouraged us to keep him accountable for his campaign promises. King remembered when he had initially supported Bill Clinton, only to be disappointed by the "great compromise" of his "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which led into a storytelling song about the issue. King also lamented the urban renewal and class warfare occurring on Laramie Street in Denver, where the former businesses friendly to the homeless and lower-class were bulldozed in favor of an expensive shopping district.

King discussed his attempts to improve his fuel efficiency by refusing to drive over 60 miles per hour; he claimed that each 5 miles per hour that one drives is matched by a 10% increase in fuel efficiency, but his slow driving also earned him countless evil glares. He had a great line to the effect of, "Don't you know, we all have Prius envy," that sent the auditorium laughing. This led into a song about wanting a gentler car, but realizing that it's better to take the train, or better yet, a bike, or still better, to walk.

I felt a bit more mixed about the latter half of King's concert. I appreciated the songs about supporting unions and showing actual support for American troops through peaceful means. However, I do not agree with King's rant against video games. I prefer moderation over censorship, although I did find King's abstraction to his concerns about preparing children for the military to be valid. Worse, though, was a deeply anti-progressive song against technology and mechanization. I understand King's concern that this can lead to a loss of certain jobs (such as his father's), but I feel like King left out a large part of the story of modernization.

The last songs were a return to form; his closer was "Our Life Is More Than Our Work", a classic of his own that opened his first (commercially available) album, and for an encore he covered an antiwar song by Bobby Darin, much to the surprise of the audience.

King is in many ways a typical folkster, which is mostly a good thing even if he is imperfect. It is regrettable that there are not many other people with any degree of popularity carrying on the folk tradition. There is a younger generation of singer-songwriters with a strong folk bent that are a bit more modern and progressive, but King is one of the last old-style folksingers. He is legitimately concerned about the everyman and about peace and the environment. I'm glad that there are still people out there singing about these things. Even if I think King could take a few steps towards the future in some of his opinions, he mostly does a solid job bringing together the past and present.

In addition to performing about eighteen songs, King told plenty of stories and provided introductions for many of his pieces (and he always gave credit for the songs he didn't write). He kept the audience interested and involved, especially by inviting us to sing along with many of his songs. His choruses are usually well-suited for audience participation, and he successfully got us to take part. Regrettably, however, the audience was frightfully thin. There were only about thirty or forty people in attendance. For a fairly open-minded liberal arts college with a significant enough musical community in a city of a few million, where was everyone?

Score: B+

P.S. The only other review of this show that I'm aware of was written by a friend of mine for the school paper, and it can be found here. Coincidentally, I'm quoted in it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Smashing Pumpkins - If All Goes Wrong (2008)

I don't want to focus so much on the Smashing Pumpkins, but I've been thinking about writing a review of their latest single ("G.L.O.W.") or their latest music videos or something, and after watching their new DVD, I decided I had to say a few words on the topic. Here goes:

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
DVD: If All Goes Wrong
Release Date: 11 November 2008
Label: Coming Home Media
Producer/Director: Jack Gulick and Daniel E. Catullo III

Disc One:
01. "If All Goes Wrong" documentary
02. "Voices of the Ghost Children" featurette
03. Interview with Pete Townshend

Disc Two (Live at the Fillmore, San Francisco):
01. The Rose March
02. Peace + Love
03. 99 Floors
04. Blue Skies Bring Tears
05. Superchrist
06. Lucky 13
07. Starla
08. Death from Above
09. The Crying Tree of Mercury
10. Winterlong
11. Heavy Metal Machine White Rabbit [Jefferson Airplane cover]
12. Untitled
13. No Surrender
14. Gossamer
15. Zeitgeist
16. 99 Floors (Rehearsal)
17. Peace + Love (Rehearsal)
18. Mama (Rehearsal)
19. No Surrender (Rehearsal)
20. Promise Me (Rehearsal)

I didn't quite know what to expect when I bought this DVD. I figured the second disc would be predictable, but I wasn't sure what the documentary would focus on. It essentially covers the Smashing Pumpkins' residencies in Asheville, NC and San Francisco, CA in the summer of 2007, right as Zeitgeist was released and right after their first reunion shows in Europe. The band played nine nearly-consecutive shows at the Orange Peel in Asheville and twelve at the Fillmore in San Francisco. The idea was that the band would tighten up, have an opportunity to write new songs, and perhaps have a certain degree of dialog about the material with the audience.

The documentary semi-chronologically follows mainly the band throughout the nights and but also frontman Billy Corgan during the days while he tries to write songs. Several songs are singled out and described; we are told when each of these songs was written and first performed (often just a day apart) and Corgan often explains how the songs fit into what is going on around him. Most relate directly to his experiences with the audience and his environment across the six weeks of the residencies.

Considerable time is given for Corgan to explain that he feels held back by his audience, that they are living in the past and don't want the Smashing Pumpkins to grow and change. He continually talks about trying to move on have a new start beyond his band's former identity. This strikes me as interesting for several reasons. First, when Corgan first put an ad in local Chicago papers saying that he wanted to reform the Pumpkins, he explicitly said he wanted his old songs back (after adamantly refusing to play them during Zwan and solo tours). Second, his setlists from the first reunion shows in Europe, the residencies covered here, the extended world tour thereafter, and the 25th anniversary tour that he just completed all are filled with old material. Granted, he has written many new songs while on tour that he frequently performs, but the tracks from Zeitgeist are infrequently performed live, especially on the latest tour, where they rarely appeared on setlists. Why would he overlook the obvious new material and favor old material if he's trying to get away from it?

A large conundrum here, though, is that in many ways, Corgan is moving on. He has written at least forty songs since reforming the band, in addition to adopting plenty of new cover songs, revamping old songs, and bringing back some forgotten songs (like the previously unperformed "Translucent" and "I Am One, Part 2"). As far as performing concerts goes, Corgan is doing exactly what he should be: mixing old favorites and overlooked songs with newly written material. He hasn't forgotten the songs that made the band great, but he's adding a new chapter to the story. He keeps talking about trying to move on, and he is. I wish he'd stop talking about it and ripping on his audience members and just do it. He doesn't need to proselytize – there are plenty of people out there picking up what he's putting down.

This doesn't mean that everything the Pumpkins are doing is great. I really like the American Gothic EP and many of the songs seen only in concert (especially "A Song for a Son", "Owata", and "99 Floors"), but Zeitgeist and the "G.L.O.W."/"Superchrist" single both sound so static and trite. I can't recommend them or any of the recent music videos, all of which are just flashy excuses to dance around without actually having any content. And at the same time, I recommend the EP and a concert ticket, even if the latter is expensive and I still don't really like how the band has been ending many of their concerts (such as the one I attended). This is partially addressed in the documentary when the band performs 30+ minute versions of "Gossamer" as their closer. One of these performances is included on the second disc, and it's really obnoxious. In the film, the band complains of people losing interest and the camera shows people yawning and leaving the concert early. Honestly: what do you expect? The still-long but significantly more tolerable 15- or 20-minute versions of the song have some really cool parts, but the 30-minute versions just drag on and have extended periods of senseless jamming. These things are fun to do in your basement (and I can attest to this), but they don't translate to the stage well.

The two bonus features on the first disc are of limited interest (just as the main feature, I suppose). The "Voices of the Ghost Children" segment is just fans saying typical and predictable things about the band and the reunion shows. They are obviously one-sided, just as most of the fans shown in the film itself. The interview with Pete Townshend is far more interesting, as he talks about the relationship between musicians and fans and his own experience with residencies.

The second disc is decent. It compiles fifteen songs from the Fillmore residency and makes a good setlist out of them. Some songs are done acoustic or with sparse instrumentation, and some are full-band. The performances and sound quality are top-notch, and the song selection is appreciable outside of a few songs that are just metal-riff jam-fests. The eight-minute rendition of "Blue Skies Bring Tears", though, manages to be a heavy song that totally rocks and sounds great. The main set is augmented by five songs from a rehearsal done on July 27, 2007 on the floor of the Fillmore. There are a few repeats with minimal differences from the stage versions, but the two extra songs both sound good. My main problem with all of the live performances on the disc is that the mix really favors the guitar and drums (which are conveniently the instruments played by the only two original members). Ginger Reyes' bass and Lisa Harriton's keyboards (and all the backing vocals) are frequently nearly inaudible.

When it comes down to it, I'm happy to have the Smashing Pumpkins back. Honestly. Corgan talks a lot about how his fans won't trust him, but I do. I think he often treats the people around him and his audiences fairly poorly, but he's still a good songwriter and musician. He's not always spot-on these days, and that's fine. I'm confident that he will continue to make music that will occasionally shine brightly. I'm willing to accept that the band must evolve and that the personnel involved must also change. The new members fit their roles well enough, and although I think nearly everyone would like James Iha or D'arcy back, it is understood that they are not interested in participating, and that's fine. They've moved on in their own ways. I do, however, find it a bit inappropriate for the documentary to use several interviews to minimize the role those members played in the band – especially in having one of the band's soundmen, Kerry Brown, reiterate this with a title under him mentioning his status as D'arcy's ex-husband.

Corgan must understand that not everyone will follow him everywhere he goes, but he cannot deny that many people will. (Zeitgeist has gone gold in the US, so there's at least half a million people on board.) He doesn't need to rant about moving on, he should just do it. Instead of berating his audience and lamenting the disinterested people, he should simply let his audience know that he wants to explore new directions and then go for it. People will listen.

"If All Goes Wrong" documentary: D
"Voices of the Ghost Children" featurette: C-
Pete Townshend interview: B
Live at the Fillmore: B
Entire package: C

Bonus scores (just for fun and reference's sake):
American Gothic EP: A-
"G.L.O.W."/"Superchrist" single: D+
The four music videos made since the reunion ("Tarantula", "That's the Way", "Superchrist", "G.L.O.W."): F