Thursday, September 29, 2011

They Might Be Giants / Jonathan Coulton - Live 2011.09.24 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

The third in a series of awesome concerts at the Pageant over a four-day period.

Artist: They Might Be Giants
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 24 September 2011
Opening Act: Jonathan Coulton

01. Dead
02. Can't Keep Johnny Down
03. Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) [Tom Glazer cover]
04. Particle Man
05. Meet James Ensor
06. St. Louis (aka Mississippi Nights) (tease)
07. Hollywood (aka Los Angeles or West Hollywood House of Blues)
08. Turn Around
09. Celebration
10. Don't Let's Start
11. Your Racist Friend
12. Cloisonné
13. Crazy Train (tease) [Ozzy Osbourne cover]
14. "Epic Fail Baloney Sandwich" (performed by the Avatars of They)
15. Spoiler Alert (performed by the Avatars of They)
16. Crazy Train (second tease) [Ozzy Osbourne cover]
17. Older
18. Alphabet of Nations
19. Old Pine Box
20. Ana Ng
21. Judy Is Your Viet Nam
22. We Live in a Dump
23. Birdhouse in Your Soul
24. Withered Hope
25. Clap Your Hands
26. Battle for the Planet of the Apes
27. The Mesopotamians

First Encore:
28. Careful What You Pack
29. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) [The Four Lads cover]

Second Encore:
30. Lie Still, Little Bottle
31. Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes

When I heard that Jonathan Coulton would be opening for They Might Be Giants, I thought that sounded pretty good. After all, this was a musician who'd written the hilarious outro music to the video game Portal and who is known for having an internet-aware sense of humor theoretically comparable to They themselves. Coulton came out alone wearing a strange contraption strapped around him as if it were a guitar. It was in fact a Zendrum, a type of MIDI controller which he uses to sample the parts of his oddball song "Mr. Fancy Pants". The song was mildly humorous and the performance was great, but I probably didn't appreciate it the way some others may have (the individuals near me flew into an ecstatic fit of shouting and hollering, perhaps inspired by a large dose of alcohol).

However, after the one rather unique performance, Coulton put down the Zendrum and picked up a guitar, at which point he was joined by drummer Marty Beller (who also plays with TMBG) and bassist Chris Anderson. The band proceeded to then play five or six songs, mostly of a rather bland punk-pop style. I know Coulton is famed for his wit, but I could hardly understand his lyrics (probably the fault of the mixing and not himself) and the music really didn't do anything for me. He did perform "Still Alive" from the aforementioned Portal game, which was perhaps the only standout song. The live rendition didn't have the same complexity and depth as the recorded version, but it had a bit more energy and spirit, which carried it along fairly well.

They Might Be Giants (nominally just John Linnell and John Flansburgh) were joined by drummer Marty Beller and bassist Danny Weinkauf. Oddly, the usual fifth member (guitarist Dan Miller) was not present. The band hardly seemed to miss him, as they were able to rock quite well on their own. They ripped through several new songs and a few from their last non-children's album, The Else, and somehow managed to play songs from all sorts of corners of their discography. They played an extended version of the strangely funny and impressive "Alphabet of Nations" from their second children's album and "Hollywood" (aka "Los Angeles", or as it was introduced at the show, "The House of Blues") from the Venue Songs album. They even did a tease of their "St. Louis" venue song in honor of the now defunct Mississippi Nights!

Much of their set leaned on the band's classic material from their early years, roughly equating to their first three albums. Signature rockers like "Ana Ng" and "Don't Let's Start" as well as the quirky hits "Particle Man" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul" went over extremely well. The band might get tired of playing their old standby songs at every show, but the audience adores it, and it does seem like the band tries to play around with the material to keep it interesting. They frequently alter lyrics or play the parts differently than expected (Flansburgh sang the spoken parts of "Why Does the Sun Shine" and "Ana Ng"), which may come from boredom or may come from an obsession with experimentation.

In the middle of the set, the stage went dark and the Johns hid behind a raised bass drum on the side of the stage. They turned on a camera hooked up to a projection screen and held up sock puppets known as the Avatars of They. The segment was actually fairly funny. It was introduced by Marty and Danny playing the infamous riff from "Crazy Train". The sock puppets explained that they now had a corporate sponsor, Epic Fail Baloney Sandwiches. They sang the theme song of the establishment ("Putting baloney in your face since 1972 – it's Epic Fail!") and then did "Spoiler Alert" from the new They album. After another tease of "Crazy Train" the band resumed their "normal" state of affairs.

Flansburgh must have had a bit of a sore throat or something, because he kept drinking and talking about "showbiz tea". Even his avatar was drinking it. It was to the point that he would leave stage in the middle of songs and reappear with another cup of "tea". He did seem to disappear only when he wasn't playing parts, but it seemed extreme. He must have had at least five or six cups. Furthermore, it seemed like Linnell sang the vast majority of the songs. Flans certainly sang lead on several songs, but back in the day it used to be an almost 50-50 split in singing, and that was not the case at this show. Perhaps this is simply the state of the band's newer music. Flansburgh also had a ridiculous mustache that I'm hoping was fake. He was in high spirits but seemed in an odd mood or something. (Maybe there was a special ingredient in his showbiz tea – the Johns joked plenty about hazelnut LSD.)

They Might Be Giants are known for their humorous banter and they certainly did not disappoint. They played nearly thirty songs and somehow still had plenty of time to joke around. They played well and had a full sound even with just the four-person line-up. However, I was disappointed by the minimal use of Linnell's accordion and the relatively limited set of instrumentation in general. Linnell's keyboard can certainly emulate a wide variety of tones, but the only other instrument he brought out was a bass clarinet. Flansburgh kept to his guitar almost exclusively. They didn't even bring out the Stick for "Lie Still, Little Bottle". As such, their newer material was a little hard to distinguish and appreciate as it began to fade into regularity.

I certainly appreciated their encores, which included their classic rendition of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" (although without Dan Miller's typical extended acoustic guitar solo) and the delightfully strange "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes". Their setlists are always fairly unpredictable and thus fairly fun. I just wish They had been a bit more willing to experiment around on stage and honestly, I think I'd say the same thing about Coulton.

Jonathan Coulton: C-
They Might Be Giants: B+

Thanks to This Might Be a Wiki for setlist help and other references.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Psychedelic Furs / Tom Tom Club - Live 2011.09.23 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Two classic 80s bands in one night? Unbelievable!

Artists: Psychedelic Furs and Tom Tom Club
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 23 September 2011

Tom Tom Club's setlist:
01. Who's Feelin' It
02. Punk Lolita [The Heads song]
03. Man with the Four-Way Hips
04. She's Dangerous
05. L'Éléphant
06. On, On, On, On...
07. Don't Say No
08. Genius of Love
09. You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) [Hot Chocolate cover]
10. Wordy Rappinghood
11. Take Me to the River [Al Green cover]
12. Psycho Killer [Talking Heads song]

Psychedelic Furs' setlist:
01. Like a Stranger
02. Love My Way
03. Danger
04. Alice's House
05. Heaven
06. Highwire Days
07. Only You and I
08. Believe [Love Spit Love song]
09. Pretty in Pink
10. Wrong Train
11. Heartbreak Beat
12. Sleep Comes Down

13. Mr. Jones
14. India

Tom Tom Club are known to most people simply as the side-project of the rhythm section of Talking Heads that wrote a couple frequently-sampled dance hits in the 80s. That may be an accurate description, but it lacks much of the depth of what makes the band interesting. Tom Tom Club, along with David Byrne and Talking Heads, had a long phase of pursuing funky dance music to the core. Few other white bands were interested in those directions or even knew where to start. Byrne and Talking Heads went down all sorts of other paths, but the Club stayed the course down the line of dance music.

It is also no small coincidence that the shared members of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz, are married, and that their son also plays turntable and handles samples for the band. Tina's sisters once sang with their early records, but Tina look-alike and sound-alike Victoria Clamp is now handling the additional vocal duties. A solid funk-rock guitarist (Pablo Martine) and a keyboardist/percussionist (Bruce Martin) round out the group. It's exquisitely clear that these musicians get along well together and just have a lot of fun. They dance across the stage, they trade parts, they can jam, and they keep the energy level up.

I can't say I'm intimately familiar with most of the band's material, but they kept the groove going. Pablo had a great tight rhythmic style and Bruce would pull out flashy percussion bits in the breaks. Tina laid down solid riffs while trading the singing with Victoria, and Chris added the occasional vocal part from behind his kit. When the so-often-sampled keyboard part of "Genius of Love" came up, the crowd ate it up. The following Hot Chocolate cover was perhaps even more fantastic; the female vocal lead was seamless and surprisingly smoothly executed.

Tom Tom Club closed their set with two songs from the days of Talking Heads: the Al Green song "Take Me to the River", fully executed with an extended jam, and a faithful take of "Psycho Killer" with Tina singing lead. The performance was perfect, complete with a great guitar jam at the end. After all, Tina and Chris did co-write the song, so it didn't come as too great a surprise to hear Tina sing a third verse that I didn't recognize, possibly from an early incarnation of the song.

Although billed simply as the opening act, Tom Tom Club played for over an hour, which was probably just about as long as the Psychedelic Furs ended up playing. The Furs are another band that had a big name in the 80s but has been infrequent and largely ignored ever since. The two founding brothers (vocalist Richard Butler and bassist Tim Butler) ended up being the only constant members of the band, and after they put the band to rest, they also co-founded another alt-rock band in the 90s, Love Spit Love. The current incarnation of the Furs is sort of an amalgamation of members from throughout the history of the brothers' two bands: Paul Garisto on drums, Amanda Kramer on keyboards, Mars Williams on saxophone, and Rich Good on guitar and backing vocals.

The Psychedelic Furs can still pack a punch. Mars' sax was a true delight; his lines were the strongest of any of the instrumental breaks. The other musicians were able to reproduce the classic material effortlessly, although this also meant that the band hardly strayed from familiar territory. Nearly the entire set was comprised of hits from the band's first four albums. The only surprises were "Believe", originally a Love Spit Love song, and "Wrong Train", a relatively new and unreleased song. For both of those songs, and in fact most of the second half of the show, lead guitarist Richard Fortus (a local St. Louisian who co-founded Love Spit Love and also plays with Guns N' Roses) joined the band. I can't say this his parts added very much to the sound, and the point at which a rock band reaches seven members means that someone is going to get lost in the mix. Fortus can play a decent guitar, but he certainly jumped around the stage enough to seem like he was trying a little too hard.

Richard Butler's vocals have hardly changed from his glory days. He still has his trademark, slightly gravely, somehow melodic, and impressively constant voice at his disposal. He sings without playing an instrument but remains active enough on stage that it doesn't seem odd. Despite these motions and his mid-song fan interactivity, at every song's end he let out a half-chuckled, rather nervous-sounding "Thanks!" while waiting for the band to play the next tune. His lyrics remain strong and valid, but one couldn't help wish for some of his even more explicitly political lyrics, like "President Gas", which still applies just as well today as it did in Reagan's era.

Unlike Tom Tom Club, the Furs were granted the grace of an encore, for which they played two of my favorites: the sardonic "Mr. Jones" (with one of the band's best lines: "Movie stars and ads / And radio define romance / Don't turn it on") and the grandiose "India", the opener from their debut album. "India" was one of their strongest performances; they matched the studio version's beautiful instrumental crescendo and broke out into the thumping beat of the core of the song.

Both bands managed to pack a lot into about 70 minutes. Initially, I had thought the combination may be a bit of a mismatch, but they actually complemented each other rather well. I suspect that Psychedelic Furs might be the better band ultimately (in terms of bequeathing a greater artistic oeuvre), but the Talking Heads would trump that, if such a thing existed anymore. Tom Tom Club certainly have the dance groove down, and in some ways, one would expect that their resulting higher level of energy would be more likely to land them the slot as headliner, but alas, the Furs probably have the bigger name. It's hard to say which put on the better show, but since it's my job to pick, I'd say the Club. They surprised me – they were having a lot of fun and their set was solid and never uninteresting. Even if I've been a fan of the Furs for much, much longer, and I find their music ultimately more meaningful, their set was a bit too static and predictable. And since I'm reviewing the show and not the sum total of these bands' outputs, that's what determines my grades.

Tom Tom Club: A-
Psychedelic Furs: B

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Erasure / Frankmusik - Live 2011.09.21 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Why do good concerts often come in pairs... or trios? I'm seeing three concerts in four days this week. Here's the first!

Artist: Erasure
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 21 September 2011
Opening Act: Frankmusik

01. Sono Luminus
02. Always
03. When I Start To (Break It All Down)
04. Blue Savannah
05. Fill Us with Fire
06. Drama!
07. You've Got to Save Me Right Now
08. Ship of Fools
09. Chorus
10. Breathe
11. Victim of Love
12. Alien
13. Hideaway
14. Love to Hate You
15. I Lose Myself
16. A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot
17. Breath of Life
18. Chains of Love
19. Sometimes
20. A Little Respect

21. Oh L'amour
22. Stop!

Whenever I hear about an electronic or dance-pop band going on tour, I always wonder how they'll reproduce their music live. It seems that bands more grounded in rock will try to perform as much live on "actual" instruments as possible. (See, for example, The Faint, although they also obviously "cheat" and use samples to augment their sound.) But it would seem that most bands in these genres just through caution to the wind and let samples dominate the show. Although I much prefer seeing the music reproduced on "real" instruments before my eyes, I can't truly blame electronic artists for eschewing that ideal. It's just not really practical to do it all live sometimes.

The opening act, Frankmusik, is really just one person, but he appeared on stage with a drummer and a keyboardist. This led one to the believe that they would try to reproduce their full sound live, but it quickly became apparent that this was not the case: the vocals were clearly processed, multi-tracked, and heavily autotuned. The keyboardist sang as well, but her vocal and instruments parts were minimal and could not account for the full sound, and she left her instrument to sing a duet, exposing the band's heavy reliance on samples. However, the live drummer surprised me. He was probably the best performer in the band, and his set was miked and mixed incredibly well for the style.

More important than arbitrary snobbery about performance style is of course the quality of the music. Frankly, it wasn't good. It was very generic pop without a hint of innovation. I am saddened that the core member of the band is producing Erasure's new album. Frankmusik has no sense of subtlety or depth and I can only hope he keeps his hands out of Erasure's craft as much as possible. I was glad their set was short.

Erasure, normally just a two-piece in the studio, hit the stage with two backup singers, which is apparently fairly standard for their live act. Instrumentalist (and former Depeche Mode and Yazoo co-founder) Vince Clarke and vocalist Andy Bell both appeared in bright, sequined, red jackets. Vince had a matching top hat while Andy donned a large sort of mask. The stage was surrounded by cylindrical cages and large gargoyle statues, which created a somewhat dark mood in contrast with the band's rather uptempo sound. Vince stood behind one of these gargoyles and presumably handled the programming and sampling. One could see a Mac laptop behind the gargoyle, and it appeared during most songs that he was playing keyboard parts live, although it was impossible to see an actual instrument. But while Vince hardly moved, Andy danced around the stage and handled all the talking.

Andy removed his mask after the first song, and after the second, he removed his jacket to reveal a tight shirt laced across the back. Halfway through the set, Andy called Vince over, and he proceeded to cut the laces. Upon completion, Andy put on a Michael Jackson t-shirt. Let it be said that Andy Bell does not hold back. During instrumental breaks, no matter how short, he usually passed the time dancing little routines across the stage. And of course, his voice was in top form. I would not be surprised if he also used an autotuner, but at least he didn't sound like a machine, and he let his backup singers hit the harmonies instead of using samples.

Vince remained thoroughly isolated from the action until he pulled out an acoustic guitar and strummed through a few songs. He repeated this at the end when the band played their extremely popular early singles in series. Most of the concert consisted of the band's biggest singles across their long career, although there were five songs from their upcoming album interspersed. Nothing else on the setlist could be called a surprise, but the chosen material was clearly what the audience wanted. The whole venue was in a jovial mood and by the end nearly everyone was out of their seats and dancing wherever they could. There was an effervescent energy in the air.

The music sounded great. The instrumental work, whether sequenced or live, retained the signature two-part, electronic, uptempo, pop feel, and the vocals were simply superb. The classics sounded great, and they certainly played every one of their songs that I wanted to hear, but I couldn't help wonder where the ABBA covers were – it was once a trademark move of the band. The band's own songs are generally very gender-neutral (for fairly obvious reasons), but the band has covered multiple ABBA songs without changing the pronouns (as if the message wasn't already clear). I was really hoping for "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" in the encore, but I can hardly complain about "Oh L'amour". When Vince used a little soundbox to give Andy the notes of the melody, the crowd went wild. Even if they don't make all their music live, at least their melodies and harmonies stand the test of time. These guys know the craft of pop songwriting well.

Frankmusik: D
Erasure: B