Sunday, October 23, 2011

Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue / Rubblebucket - Live 2011.10.18 Old Rock House, St. Louis, Missouri

Another recommendation from a bandmate.

Artist: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
Venue: Old Rock House
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 18 October 2011
Opening Act: Rubblebucket

Going into the performance knowing next to nothing about the opening act or the headliner, I figured it was best to be open-minded. When Rubblebucket climbed on stage, the eight members looked half-stoned, very young, mildly hipster, and surprisingly confident. With two percussionists, three brass players, a bassist, a guitarist, and a keyboardist, they did their best to fill up the venue with sound. They played a sort of dub/funk fusion, more in the line of jazz than rock or pop. Some of the spacier songs, particularly due to the vocals, reminded me of Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine.

The single female member split her time between a saxophone and ethereal singing. Unfortunately, in both cases, her output was drowned in the mix of tones, especially by the other brass players. I believe she was singing lyrics, but it sounded nearly wordless. Only when other musicians offered harmonies could I hear and appreciate her contributions. Most of the other instruments fit together fine, but I couldn't help feeling like the whole thing was overkill. The music was actually fairly good, but it was unfocused. Despite fairly good performances, the songs were scattered and there was no guiding light to offer direction for their motives. The set seemed to drag on endlessly, even though it was just an hour long.

Due to the venue's relatively small size, there is no real backstage, so the stage had to be entirely reconfigured for Trombone Shorty. Furthermore, the band had to wait in their tour bus until show time, at which point they poured through the doors, climbed on stage, and jumped right into a song. Shorty was backed by Orleans Avenue, who consisted of two percussionists, two saxophonists, a bassist, and a guitarist. (Sound familiar?)

Thankfully, Shorty got right to the point. He started strong on his trombone and led the band through a non-stop deluge of songs. Hardly pausing for breath between his intense solos, he also picked up a trumpet and took the mic to sing on a few songs. His own musicianship was matched by his band, particularly the guitarist and bassist. The guitarist had several incredible solos during the show, and while the bassist only took one, he also had the most consistently vibrant riffs of anyone in the band.

After about an hour of intense, high-quality jazz, the mood began to change. The jams and solos kept getting longer, Shorty spent more and more time at the mic than on his instruments, and the music loosened up a bit. The energy didn't fade, but the originality of the first hour began to recede, and the banality of most of Shorty's lyrics started to grate on me. Ultimately, it would seem that the more time he spends with his trombone, the better the quality of the material. Despite his reasonably good voice, his energy is much better spent as an instrumentalist.

Beyond that, the environment of the show just kept amping up. The main floor was packed with unselfconscious dancing, the music was violently loud (my ear plugs saved me from extensive auditory damage), and it became increasingly difficult to focus on the music with the encroaching claustrophobia. After over two hours, the band still did an encore, but I had to take a step back. By that point, the music had taken a turn for the decidedly funky. Not only did the beats get dancier, but the band even did a James Brown cover. At the very end, the musicians traded instruments for a final jam.

Unquestionably, all seven musicians are top tier performers, but at two and a half hours, it was hard to keep my attention in line. The music started out fantastically, but as Trombone began singing more and more, the quality went down and the drive began to waver. Although Shorty and his band were clearly a level above Rubblebucket, both needed to learn their strengths and focus their energy a bit. Nonetheless, I wish I hadn't been so distracted by the invasive environment, because Trombone Shorty's music was high quality, especially in his strong opening stretch.

Rubblebucket: B-
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue: B+

Friday, October 14, 2011

Beirut / Lætitia Sadier - Live 2011.10.09 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

For what it's worth, this is a fairly new band to me. I barely knew anything about them, but my bandmates recommended the show to me and I figured I should go. I'm glad I did.

Artist: Beirut
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 9 October 2011
Opening Act: Lætitia Sadier

Setlist (adapted from
01. Scenic World
02. The Shrew
03. Elephant Gun
04. Vagabond
05. Postcards from Italy
06. The Concubine
07. Santa Fe
08. A Sunday Smile
09. East Harlem
10. Forks and Knives (La Fête)
11. Nantes
12. Port of Call
13. Cherbourg
14. Goshen
15. After the Curtain
16. Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)
17. The Penalty
First Encore:
18. My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille
19. Gulag Orkestar
Second Encore:
20. Serbian Cocek [A Hawk and a Handsaw cover]

I had heard that the opener, Lætitia Sadier, is/was a member of the currently-inactive band Stereolab. I think I'm supposed to like them, so I was curious what she would do. Despite the alternative/post-/experimental rock background of her band, her solo act is really just her and a guitar. I was pleased to see her go Billy Bragg-style and stick to an electric, but after a couple songs I realized that she was never going to alter the tone of her guitar nor her style, and I was left disappointed.

In fact, truth be told, I thought her entire performance was disappointing. Lætitia is a good singer, and she can certainly play guitar, but unfortunately her melodies, rhythms, and structures were decidedly minimalist and predictable. I wanted to like her; she seemed cool, and she seemed like she could be a good person to have in a band, but her solo music just wasn't very good. On two songs, she borrowed some of Beirut's musicians to back her up, and even if they didn't add much, the added complexity made those songs stand out far above the others. But the rest of her set faded into repetition.

Beirut currently functions as a six-piece, grounded in lead singer and ukulele/flügenhorn-player Zach Condon. The band entirely eschewed guitars in lieu of more interesting instruments. Perhaps most important was the presence of an accordionist, who provided the primary framework of the sonic continuum. A bassist (who preferred an electric stand-up over his bass guitar), a drummer, and two additional horn players/vocalists filled out the sound. A piano and a glockenspiel were also occasionally employed. I was impressed by how easily the band made music that one could call "indie rock" without relying on any of the instrumental clichés of the movement.

The music was great. It's been called folk or world music, and there are clear influences from these genres, but the band is really going in a different direction. It sounds like the band wants to make distinctly modern music but with a very keen awareness of the past – a past that goes far beyond just the English-speaking world of the 60s. The choice of instruments makes a genre hard to define, because the combination almost seems to come from every direction at once. However, Some sort of folk tendency does seem to shine through, but the music is too dynamic and complex to truly justify such a plain label.

The point is, Beirut can see what musicians around them are doing, and what musicians have done before, and they take the precise elements they like from each and reconstitute them in a beautiful fashion. They aren't breaking barriers or reinventing sound, but they know how to paint an aural picture that sounds delightfully fresh. For example, their rhythms were consistently unpredictable and quite varied. Despite the presence of a typical rock drumset, I never heard a cliché drumbeat – the percussive rhythms were always something delicately innovative. And to top it off, the whole production was incredibly well mixed. I don't know if it was the band's personnel or the venue's, but the show just sounded great. It fit together fantastically, and no instrument dominated the mix or was buried too deeply. The horn players knew exactly how far from the mics to stand and exactly how to keep a constant pitch. What an incredible performance!

The show was actually just a bit short, clocking in around 75 minutes. Nonetheless, they blasted through their setlist and played some twenty songs, all the while hardly pausing to talk. At the end of the set, everyone but Zach left, and he performed a song alone with his ukulele. After he left, the whole band returned quickly for a standard encore. After that, the audience began to head for the doors, but the house lights did not come on, and sure enough, the band came back for one more song.

For not knowing much about the band, I was thoroughly impressed and quite pleased. Even if the opener disappointed me, the main act was great. I highly recommend seeing this band live.

Lætitia Sadier: D
Beirut: A

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Music Game

I'd like to introduce a new feature of Patti's Music Reviews: the appropriately-titled Music Game. Inspired by the Film Walrus' Movie Game, this is simply an exercise of one's creative ability to think of songs that fit a set of conditions. If you look on the right side of this blog, just below the description, you should see a subsection containing the game's basic interface. [Edit 2014.06.05: It is now located on its own page and linked from the top of the website.]

The rules are simple. Press the button that reads "Draw Cards". You will see three short words, phrases, or statements appear. Each of these items or cards represents a theme, topic, or other element distinguishable in modern music. The idea is simply to name a song that meet the criteria of at least two of the cards.

For example, I just drew "Subject of a documentary", "Reinvention or genre shift", and "City". How about David Bowie's "A New Career in a New Town" from 1977's Low? I don't know if it was ever the subject of a documentary (although Bowie certainly has been), but the instrumental song stands as part of Bowie's shift from glam, funk, and soul into experimental and electronic realms. And if the word "town" in the title isn't close enough to city, then what about the fact that the album is part of the classic Berlin Trilogy?

Anyway, the subject matter runs a wide spectrum, including lyrics, genres, statistics, history, personnel, and technical information. We've tried to keep any one card from being too obscure or difficult, but in knowing that challenging cards can sometimes be the most fun, we struck the balance of including some of these ideas but encouraging the pick-two-of-three concept.

Playing in a group is recommended, either by taking turns or by each throwing out suggestions. As such, there is no "winning" or even really any scorekeeping, although if you really are the competitive type (can you tell that I am not?), you could certainly devise such mechanisms. The key is to be creative and have fun. Liberal interpretation of the cards is welcomed, if not encouraged.

If a particular set of cards seems totally impossible, then try to name an artist or band whose material fits the descriptors. Alternately, if you want an extra challenge, try to name a song that fits every combination of two cards, or try to name a song that fits all three cards. As another example, I just drew "Dissonance", "10+ album band", and "Guitar solo". Almost too easy – how about anything by Sonic Youth? Take "Candle" off of Daydream Nation, as long as you can call that instrumental guitar noise break a "guitar solo", which I will.

Have fun! Feel free to leave comments or suggestions for improvements or alternate gameplay styles.

P.S. I know that the game is somewhat rockist, or at least biased towards certain genres and styles, but that's what the authors know the most about. You can certainly try to apply classical or jazz works to the cards, but it may not be easy. There's no reason not to try if you'd like, though.

P.P.S. I should explain the "we" I've spoken of: most of the credit for the game goes to the Film Walrus and Jim Sabo. Thanks guys!