Friday, October 31, 2014

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - CSNY 1974 (2014)

As a bootleg collector and a fan of CSNY, I've been well acquainted with their fabled 1974 tour. I've heard complete audience recordings of three or four of the performances and parts of at least a dozen more. Underneath the hiss and audience chatter that pervade every bootleg recording of a stadium concert from that era, it was clear to me that the band was in better form than most rock historians would tell you. While every concert was far from flawless, they were still probably about on par with their shows from the original days of the band in 1969 and 1970. Even 4 Way Street, their official live album from 1971, supposedly showcasing their best concerts in 1970, suffers from missed notes, off-key harmonies, and flubbed lyrics. In the 1974 bootleg recordings, as with the 1971 album, the flaws aren't enough to truly dampen the magic. The ability of four clashing rock monsters to yield any amount of impressive results is something to marvel at, and the fact that more often than not they are right on the mark is amazing. Plus, in concerts from both 1970 and 1974, alternate arrangements and rare or otherwise unreleased songs are offered all over the place.

I was happy enough with my bootlegs, and knowing how slow and reluctant certain members of the band are to retrace their history, I never expected to hear an official release of recordings from the tour. Even when I heard that the project was in the works, I just assumed it would never actually come out. So, after numerous delays, when it finally did, I couldn't resist purchasing it. I had to hear it. And now that I've heard it, I want to share some insight from the perspective of someone that has heard the raw, untampered bootlegs. A word of warning, though: this review is long and detailed, which may be tedious for the casual reader, but hopefully will be of particular interest to the dedicated fan. Because of the length, I have used section headers and boldface to make the article easier to scan and search.

[CSNY 1974.]

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Album: CSNY 1974
Release Date: 8 July 2014
Label: Rhino Records
Producer: Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Lists and Numbers

Below, I provide the complete tracklist annotated with first album appearance, authorship, and additional contributing members to the original version. I have not listed cowriters outside of the four core CSNY members. Tracks in bold had not been released at the time of the tour. Note that Young's On the Beach was released during the tour (July 16, 1974). For the DVD, I have listed only the songwriter, since all of the tracks already appeared in the CD tracklists with full details.

Disc 1:
01. Love the One You're With (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)
02. Wooden Ships (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby and Stills, with Nash)
03. Immigration Man (Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972, by Nash, with Crosby)
04. Helpless (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
05. Carry Me (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Crosby, with Nash)
06. Johnny's Garden (Manassas, 1972, by Stills)
07. Traces (unreleased, by Young)
08. Grave Concern (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash)
09. On the Beach (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Nash)
10. Black Queen (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills)
11. Almost Cut My Hair (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills, Nash, and Young)

Disc 2:
01. Change Partners (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills, with Crosby)
02. The Lee Shore (4 Way Street, 1971, by Crosby, with Nash)
03. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (After the Gold Rush, 1970, by Young)
04. Our House (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
05. Fieldworker (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Nash, with Crosby)
06. Guinevere (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Nash)
07. Time After Time (Whistling Down the Wire, 1976, by Crosby, with Nash)
08. Prison Song (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash, with Crosby)
09. Long May You Run (Long May You Run, 1976, by Young, with Stills; alternate version from Decade (1977) also features Crosby and Nash)
10. Goodbye Dick (unreleased, by Young)
11. Mellow My Mind (Tonight's the Night, 1975, by Young)
12. Old Man (Harvest, 1972, by Young)
13. Word Game (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills)
14. Myth of Sisyphus (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
15. Blackbird (Allies, 1983, written by Lennon/McCartney, performed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash live since first concerts in 1969)
16. Love/Art Blues (unreleased, by Young)
17. Hawaiian Sunrise (unreleased, by Young)
18. Teach Your Children (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
19. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)

Disc 3:
01. Déjà Vu (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
02. My Angel (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
03. Pre-Road Downs (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
04. Don't Be Denied (Time Fades Away, 1973, by Young)
05. Revolution Blues (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Crosby)
06. Military Madness (Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
07. Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Heritage box set, 1981, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
09. Chicago (4 Way Street, 1971 / Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
10. Ohio (Single, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)

01. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Young)
02. Almost Cut My Hair (Crosby)
03. Grave Concern (Nash)
04. Old Man (Young)
05. Johnny's Garden (Stills)
06. Our House (Nash)
07. Déjà Vu (Crosby)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Young)

There are many reasons for me to provide the tracklist with these annotations. It's worth noting how the songs get divided up. For example, I have tabulated of some of the above information below. The first number is the number of songs written by the member; the second number is how many songs they performed on; third is how many of the original released versions they performed on; and last is how many of the songs on the DVD were written by that member.

Crosby: 8.5 / 34 / 14* / 2
Stills: 8.5 / 35 / 11 / 1
Nash: 9 / 35 / 15* / 2
Young: 14 / 34 / 1 / 3

Notice any trends? I should make a couple notes. First, the asterisk represents the fact that "Long May You Run" originally featured Crosby and Nash, but the first official release did not, so if you want to count that, just add one. Second, the fractions represent "Wooden Ships", the only true collaboration that appears here. Third, many of these songs had been performed by the group live in 1969 and 1970, so even if the first released version didn't include other members' contributions, they may have already performed the songs live together before this tour. This discrepancy is not accounted for in my tabulation. Fourth, "Pushed It Over the End" was previously only released on an obscure Italian box set, and in fact was a recording from one of the Chicago dates of this very tour. It is a different recording than the one that appears here, and the sound quality is significantly inferior. Many ignore that release and considered the song essentially unreleased until now.

At any rate, the incongruity is obvious: Neil contributed the most songs (and especially the most then-unreleased songs), yet he appeared the least on other member's released recordings. However, the total live performance appearances (the second column) are almost even. As might be expected, the members were more collaborative when they shared a stage than they were when recording in the studio.

Songs and Songwriters

At first glance, the setlist/tracklist is undeniably impressive. It balances the original two CSN(Y) studio albums, various solo (and band) efforts, and a slew of newly written material. Neil offers a bunch of otherwise unavailable (or exceptionally rare) songs, which is an obvious treat, but also of special interest are the many rearrangements of previously-available material. One might complain that the box set doesn't include every single then-unreleased or rare song that was performed on the tour, but what is there is notable nonetheless. To discuss the specifics of what songs and performances are noteworthy (or forgettable), as well as what's missing, I will break the setlist down by bandmember.

I'll start with Graham Nash. As always, Nash tends to be the most consistent and stable. His voice is in good form, and while his songs never falter, they also rarely grow and change. Similarly, his musicianship is never showy but also never exceptional. Nash appears on many songs just on vocals, but he can be found on rhythm guitar or keyboards on plenty others.

Nash's highlights are "Fieldworker", a moving, newly-written song played just once on the tour in a simple arrangement; "Grave Concern", whose strong live performance greatly improves upon his solo studio recording; and "Teach Your Children", which risks being a cliché today, but is presented here with a louder, clearer mix of the counterpoint vocals in the second verse, which might be the best part of the song. "Pre-Road Downs" is given a thoroughly rocking take, but the vocals suffer a bit and lose clarity. "Military Madness" is a little weak, but "Immigration Man" is great, and "Chicago" features some great lead guitar from Nash's bandmates. Nash's songs have the least low points and the least high points, and the only real complaint is that his song "It's All Right" (unreleased until Earth & Sky in 1980) didn't make the cut.

Both of David Crosby's new songs for the tour appear on the album: "Carry Me", which turned out surprisingly good; and "Time After Time", which didn't. Crosby consistently played rhythm guitar throughout the album, often on an electric 12-string, and his vocals grace almost as many songs as Nash's. However, Crosby was the only principal member not to offer any keyboard parts. While his vocals are generally very strong, they do sound just a notch less consistent than Nash's.

Crosby's "Déjà Vu" is one of the highlights of the entire collection, rearranged in an extended, powerful, electric style. It may drag on just barely too long, but it's a cool enough take that I can't complain. Conversely, "Long Time Gone" loses some of its strength compared to the superb studio version. Somewhere in between is the lethargic take on "Almost Cut My Hair", which certainly loses some energy, but gains some depth and moodiness. In general, Crosby fared well, although his rampant hard drug use and general poor decision-making contribute to the feeling that these performances perhaps marked the end of his prime.

Stephen Stills is the least-favorably represented of the group. His guitarwork is in great form, and he even plays some decent keyboard parts, but his vocals suffer substantially compared to performances even a couple years prior. His voice might not have been as bad as it was when I saw CSN this year in Austin, but it is probably comparable to or worse than when I saw CSN two years ago in Kentucky. This has clearly been a long-standing problem. His poor showing mars "Love the One You're With" and brings down the otherwise excellent "Johnny's Garden". The vocals on "Black Queen" are abhorrent, but thankfully the electric guitar arrangement makes for a cool jam, even if it is a little ostentatious and drawn out.

Somehow "Blackbird" was left unscarred, and it remains a showcase for the band's vocal prowess and harmonic arrangement skills. The bridge is particularly transcendent and the performance is clearly superior to the version on the mediocre Allies (1983). However, two centerpiece performances for the band, "Wooden Ships" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", suffer just a touch from Stills' vocal inability. Otherwise, those two songs sound superb and stand as strong as ever. For better or worse, the band hadn't started the trend of letting Nash sing most of Stills' parts in "Judy". That song has long served as a guidepost to the quality of a live performance by any group featuring Stills, and the ability of the members to harmonize correctly on it varied widely throughout the band's early years and just as much through the 1974 tour. (During the brief Stills-Young Band tour of 1976, the two principals consistently utterly failed to nail it. No wonder Young jumped off that sinking ship.) The performance on this album may have been edited or "tuned", but I'll address that notion in greater detail below.

The one pleasant surprise for Stills is "Word Game", which borrows a rambling, affected, somewhat annoying style borrowed from "Black Queen" but takes it in a better direction. It's on the line of showiness, but since the lyrics are actually meaningful (almost preachy, in fact), it works. A point of confusion for me is that many bootlegs and setlists denote that the song was played as a medley with Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me". Neither this album nor any bootleg from this tour that I've heard appear to include that additional material, although the Stephen Stills Live album (recorded in 1974 before the CSNY tour, released in 1975) includes a medley of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" with "You Can't Catch Me" as a separate track from "Word Game".

Less pleasant are Stills' new songs, "Myth of Sisyphus" and "My Angel", both later released on Stills (1975). Both are bad, but the latter is despondently terrible. I appreciate the attempt at offering new material, but when it's that worthless, it's hard to enjoy. Stills played three further songs on the tour that would later also appear on Stills: "My Favorite Changes", another bland song played just once on the opening night of the tour (and thus not recorded); "First Things First", which is just barely better than mediocre; and "As I Come of Age", which is actually pretty good, but which had been played live with CSNY since 1970. A big deal was made in the press about the lack of "Carry On", a traditional Stills showcase in the form of a hyperextended jam. I don't think the absence is much of a loss, but its inclusion may have helped bring up the average quality of Stills' material on the album.

The best showing was clearly given by Neil Young. I may be biased, but even the most precursory examination of this collection would bring most listeners to the conclusion that Young was the only member concerned with exceeding expectations. He brought the most songs, the biggest share of great songs, and the most proficient instrumental contributions.

His vocals are mostly in good form, and although they do stretch across a spectrum reaching from excellent to totally off (i.e. "Helpless"), his backing vocals are a welcome and distinctive addition to many of the other members' songs ("Love the One You're With", "Immigration Man", "Change Partners", "Prison Song", "Teach Your Children", et cetera). On bootlegs, his backing vocals were extremely hard to hear, if they were even in the mix at all. The presence of these additional vocals is one the best hidden treasures on this album.

Neil's guitarwork matches Stills', or perhaps even exceeds, in that Neil tends to be less flashy and more subtle and expressive. "On the Beach", "Don't Be Denied", "Revolution Blues", and "Chicago" all feature great improvisational work from the two guitarists, but sadly the number of truly shared or dueling guitar solos is fairly limited. The two clearly play off of each other and bring out interesting parts of each other, but even when left to their individual devices, Neil still never disappoints here. Young's keyboard work also graces many songs to good effect.

Some of Neil's most notable performances are the fuller, harmony-drenched renditions of songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Old Man", and "Mellow My Mind". The former two might be predictable, but the a capella chorus of "Only Love" is transcendent nonetheless, and this early live take on "Mellow My Mind" is better than the version on Tonight's the Night.

A couple of Neil's hitherto-unreleased songs are a bit lightweight, but they're still likable. "Goodbye Dick" is a brief, throwaway joke, and "Hawaiian Sunrise" is only saved by the great harmonies, but "Traces" (which appears on some bootlegged early acetate versions of Tonight's the Night) is good, and "Love/Art Blues", a song about finding balance in life, is even better. (It features the hilarious couplet, "my songs are so long / my words are all so sad".) "Pushed It Over the End" is the true lost treasure, an epic with both great guitar breaks and solid harmonies.

"Long May You Run" appears here performed as a duo with Stills, which is how the song would first see release two years later on the otherwise terrible Stills-Young Band album named after the song. Stills manages some great guitar runs, but he also misses the "Oh, Caroline, no" cue, and Neil even hits a wrong note on the harmonica. One longs for the full CSNY harmonies that grace the alternate mix heard on Decade.

Similarly, "On the Beach" and "Revolution Blues" do not feature any harmonies, but the brief dueling guitar solos from Stills and Young are a pleasure to hear. It's hard not to feel that an opportunity was missed, but the manic, paranoid intensity of both songs comes alive well here anyway. At least "Don't Be Denied" takes advantage of the full band: the harmonies in the third and fourth verses and the great guitar duels elevate the song to match or best the live version from Time Fades Away.

If all of Neil's unreleased material, early versions, and rearrangements weren't enough, it is worth noting that there was even more done on the tour that doesn't appear on the album. Most importantly, several songs intended for the scrapped Homegrown album first appeared publicly on this tour. "Homefires" has never seen release in any form (although it has been sporadically played live since then); "Love Is a Rose" debuted here; one of two performances ever of "Pardon My Heart" was on this tour; and "Star of Bethlehem" and "The Old Homestead" were both performed three times on this tour and never again. "Human Highway" was performed in an excellent sparse arrangement with great harmonies, far superior to the overdone version that would later turn up on Comes a Time. "Roll Another Number" was a drunken tune from Tonight's the Night that was already recorded and done live but still hadn't seen release. Also notable were "Walk On" and "For the Turnstiles", both from the contemporaneously released On the Beach. The latter was treated well by the full CSNY arrangement, but I can't speak to the latter, as it was only performed once (and not played again until 1987!), and that show was neither officially recorded nor bootlegged.

[An acoustic number in Houston.]

History vs. Post-Production

Moving on from the specific songs and songwriters, there are a few bigger-picture issues to consider. My first question is how well this album represents what actually happened on the tour. I've covered the song choices in great detail, and I think it's fair to say the producers did a good job constructing a fairly accurate representation of the setlists. An equally important issue is how much the recordings were altered to create a more perfect version of the past. All four members and archivist/producer Joel Bernstein have frequently derided the quality of the performances in the past, so it is not without irony that this album sounds as good as it does. There are minor flaws, such as static (during "Love the One You're With" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), occasional bum notes, missed cues, and off-key vocals, but they aren't common enough to detract from the performance. In fact, they may even contribute to an air of authenticity. However, Nash mentions "tuning" the songs in interviews, and he also discusses editing together multiple takes, sometimes even flying in individual lines from other shows.

While this sort of post-production is certainly no crime, and I don't believe any overdubbing was involved, one does have to wonder how far they went. Nash has also stated that "Guinevere" is actually from a Crosby & Nash concert later that same year (judging by the liner notes, December 14 at a United Farmworkers Union and Project Jonah benefit in San Francisco), because Crosby demanded that it be included despite that none of the CSNY shows recorded featured it. Since neither Stills nor Young ever performed on the song, this may not be a big deal, but it does damage the reputation a little bit. If you listen for it, you can actually hear the audience and ambient sound conspicuously change at the end of the song during the transition to the next. And if they were willing to take recordings that weren't even done on the tour in question, what else might they have done that they aren't willing to publicly admit? Do we have any reason to trust their word?

Supposedly the final show of the tour at Wembley Stadium in London was a catastrophe, and the next day, the band couldn't even sit through a complete playback of the recorded performance. I've heard a bootleg, and while the awful sound quality doesn't help, the performance itself is indeed middling at best. However, Wembley is credited as one of the recording locations and the DVD includes four songs shot there. So did they manage to salvage a couple golden tracks from the mess, or was the whole thing better than everyone remembered?

Based on the bootlegs, most nights of the tour were a mixed bag, with some songs turning out great, some falling apart, and most ending up somewhere in the middle. I suspect if one were to make a compilation of the best performances from the bootlegs, you could probably find good enough versions of all the songs to make a convincing case that the tour was an unqualified success. Maybe that's what actually happened: everyone remembers all the lows, but when you put together all the highs, you get a pretty good package. It's hard to know for sure just how much additional tinkering was done in the studio, but at least the final results are believable.

It is a real joy to hear these recordings in soundboard quality, even if they do represent an idealized concert. The bootlegs all show their age. They were mostly recorded in the bleachers, far away from the stage and speakers, and the huge outdoor spaces translated sloppily on to the primitive bootlegging equipment of the day. The acoustic songs in particular suffered; they were usually mostly inaudible to start with, and the audience noise only compounded the problem. Even when the band was in top form, the low recording quality made it hard to enjoy the show or accurately evaluate the performance.

We know from 4 Way Street that even when CSNY was at their peak, they still made mistakes. Their first live album is surprisingly earnest in revealing the flaws of the performers. This time around, they couldn't help themselves from revisionism, but it does make for a more consistently enjoyable listening experience. The lack of most of the stage banter is also somewhat welcome, as the quartet had a well-established history of rambling and ranting, or just mumbling and grumbling. One of the only sections that did make the cut (at the end of "Traces", leading into "Grave Concern") was the hilarious Nixon spoof in which the band tries to convince each other that "I just don't recall", "I wasn't there", and so on. That was well worth keeping, especially considering the band's fascination with the Nixon proceedings at the time.


Another big question that I've alluded to is the matter of where the individual songs were recorded. Apparently, nine concerts at the end of the tour were recorded (in addition to the aforementioned benefit appearance by Crosby and Nash from which "Guinevere" was taken): two in Uniondale, New York; three in Landover, Maryland; three in Chicago; and the finale in London. However, to name a specific location to a specific song, there aren't many clues available. All I can find are a couple shouts from Graham Nash to the audience, mentioning Wembley in "Almost Cut My Hair" and Maryland in "Military Madness"; the stage announcements after "Ohio", which address Chicago; and the fact that a few songs were only performed a single time during the recorded part of the tour ("Goodbye Dick" and "Mellow My Mind" on August 14 in Uniondale and "Fieldworker" on August 20 in Landover). The rest is anyone's guess, and if the recordings really are composite edits, even comparing with the bootleg versions won't help. In the worst case, if the edits were extreme enough, it might not even be possible to name a single night as the source of a performance.

While we don't know the specific locations of the audio tracks, nor just how much editing really was done, we do know the locations and dates of the video: the first four are from Landover on August 20 and the last four are from London on September 14. One can speculate about how much audio editing was performed on the DVD tracks, and even wonder if the audio (or parts of it) originate from other shows. However, other than a brief moment in "Grave Concern", I failed to observe any conspicuous incongruities between sight and sound, so I believe that any such post-production was minimal. But the real question with the DVD is why there are only eight songs. Is it too much to ask for more? Were those really the only eight songs worth providing video for? The liner notes make a big deal of the fact the these kinds of video recordings were very new and not of very high quality, but certainly most fans interested in this album would understand and just want to see what's there.

The Mix

One last concern is the quality of the mix. This is an easy matter to address: the album sounds great. The instrument separation is about as good as one could get with four guitars, bass, and two percussionists. Crosby and Nash's guitars are sometimes hard to distinguish and low in the mix, but it is well recognized by everyone involved that most of the time they were just strumming along. Neil and Stephen's guitars are usually prominent, and can be distinguished in that Neil is usually in the right channel and Stephen in the left. The various keyboards are usually distinctive; the drums are present but not too loud; the bass is maybe a bit soft, but thankfully not buried, either. The vocals are always clear and usually everyone credited with singing can be heard distinctively.

The only odd thing about mix is that just a few songs have little oddities that can be heard most easily when listening on headphones. "Pre-Road Downs" has several points where there is a weird imbalance in the right channel, which might be bad edits or just an odd drum pattern. "Black Queen" has some similar effects halfway through, as well as some volume swelling in the first half, and "Don't Be Denied" also suffers from some of the same imbalance issues.


It's clear that a project like this had a huge scope and took a massive amount of effort. The results might actually manage to live up to the recent hype, and they absolutely paint a better picture than what history would have led you to believe. The bootlegs have always told a part of the hidden truth, i.e. that the performances were better than the band remembered, but the official release seals the deal. One will always wonder how much doctoring was done, but since little about it feels artificial or overdone, it's an easy album to enjoy. The songs are good, the performances are strong, and it sounds superb.

Score: A-

References and Further Reading:

P.S. Note that the page erroneously lists Stills as performing vocals on "On the Beach". There may be other inaccuracies that I haven't noticed.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mutual Benefit / Suno Deko / Taft - Live 2014.10.21 Red 7, Austin, Texas

I wasn't excited about another super-late-night show on a work night, but for Mutual Benefit, a rising band that has captured my attention like few others, I couldn't resist.

Artist: Mutual Benefit
Venue: Red 7 (inside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2014
Opening Acts: Suno Deko, Taft

01. Strong River
02. Golden Wake
03. Auburn Epitaphs
04. Statue of a Man
05. Desert Island Feeling
06. Advanced Falconry
07. Stargazer
08. That Light That's Blinding
09. Statue of a Man
10. Backwards Fireworks
11. Animal Death Mask
12. C.L. Rosarian
13. Strong Swimmer
14. Moonville Tunnel

The evening started off with Taft, a solo singer/guitarist. Apparently, he normally operates in a five-piece rock band framework, but was trying out something different. At face value, he reminded me just a bit of Billy Bragg, with his solid solo electric guitar technique and his tuneful, earnest lyrics. His songs always had good groove and just enough of a hint of a hook to keep my attention. I'll admit, when he was walking up to the stage, my expectations were pretty low, but he immediately impressed me with his voice and style. His songwriting was excellent and his voice was always jumping into places I didn't think it could go. He could slip into a falsetto without pause and then fall right back into his normal range. He was far more vulnerable and expressive than I would have otherwise imagined. He ended with a solid cover of the Kinks' "Strangers", but his own material is what really impressed me.

Next up was Suno Deko, a solo looping act. Considering that that's the style in which Mutual Benefit started, too, it seemed like an appropriate match. However, whereas early MB focused on unusual soundscapes and experimentation, Suno Deko takes a more direct pop approach. Every song of his followed the same pattern of overdubbing a simple snare drumbeat, a simple pitch-shifter-assisted bassline, a couple guitar parts, and maybe a keyboard part, and then singing and/or playing additional guitar parts on top. Only one song featured his extra stage props, a violin and a shaker, both used to minimal effect. I think there's promise in his approach, but as it is now, it ends up sounding like every guitarist with a looping pedal. It didn't help that the mix was overdriving and muddying his high-end, so there was nothing to grab on to in the higher ranges. His lyrics were almost totally indecipherable, so anything they may have added was lost. I was hoping for some surprises, but he just stayed in his one idiom and wouldn't break out.

When Mutual Benefit finally hit the stage, it was as a quartet, as opposed to the seven-piece outfit I was expecting after I'd seen one of their performances at SXSW. I was a little disappointed that the bassist and violinists had departed, but I suppose a full national tour as a small, rising band on a small label probably makes it infeasible to tour with a large cast of characters. The current lineup features frontman Jordan Lee on guitars, banjo, keyboard, loops, and lead vocals; his sister Whitney on keyboards, accordion, and backing vocals; Mike Clifford on lead guitar; and Dillon Zahner on drums and backing vocals.

Lee has spoken before in interviews of the challenge of adapting his recorded compositions to the live stage. His songs usually feature a large number of parts, many contributed by a wide variety of friends, and it's easy to understand that rearranging the songs for a limited number of performers on stage would take some work. I think the material benefited greatly from the seven-person lineup, where it sounded rich and full, and while the four-piece edition did a good job with what they had, some songs felt like pieces were missing. Jordan's loops helped build up the songs, but the lack of sounds afforded by the missing violinists and bassist meant there was simply a smaller spectrum to work with.

The mix was better than with Suno Deko, but the high end was still getting abused. The loops and keyboards often ran into each other or were simply too low in the mix to be heard, so one really had to strain to pick apart some of the individual parts. Whitney's left hand frequently contributed bass parts, which certainly added to the frequency range, but it was still no substitute for a real bass, whose absence I felt a little too keenly.

The setlist started with the opening songs of Mutual Benefits debut album, Love's Crushing Diamond, and the band proceeded to play the entire album in order, interspersed with a variety of cuts from their assorted EPs. The album is short, as are the EPs, mostly because all their songs are short, so the entire 14-song set only lasted about an hour. "Strong Swimmer", the final track of the album, was the only extended piece, and it came off beautifully. Other highlights were "Desert Island Feeling" and set closer "Moonville Tunnel", which are the type of songs that open up your heart in an unexpected way, somehow coming off sweet and tuneful despite the strange tales they tell.

The steady beat of a drummer brought a little more power to the songs, and the song selection leaned towards the more melodic side of the band, so I found myself moving and singing along with songs I thought I barely knew. The musicianship was excellent and somewhat unconventional, especially since Jordan plays guitar in a deliberately unostentatious manner. Whitney's accordion and Jordan's banjo were also welcome additions that added to the depth of the sound. I'm a big fan of Jordan's lyrics as it is, so it was easy for me to get lost in the show.

Despite that Mutual Benefit began as an inauspicious solo affair, I think the music calls for a larger, grander representation. The performance was good, but it felt a little restrained, like there was more hidden underneath a veil, waiting to come to light. The small venue and mediocre sound hurt their presentation greatly, but their spirit was strong and the music never faltered. I enjoyed it thoroughly yet felt like I wanted more.

Taft: A-
Suno Deko: C
Mutual Benefit: A-

Bonus scores:
Love's Crushing Diamond: A+
The Cowboy's Prayer EP: A-
I Saw the Sea EP: C+
Mutual Spirits split 12" with Holy Spirits: B-
Spider Heaven EP: B
Drifting EP: C+

[The Cowboy's Prayer EP original artwork.]

P.S. Love's Crushing Diamond might be a short album, but every minute is just about perfect. The Cowboy's Prayer, recently reissued on vinyl, is the obvious next in line, and while it is very, very short, it too is nearly perfect the whole way through. The other EPs are a mixed affair, with great tracks next to sonic experiments that sometimes stretch a little too far. Spider Heaven is probably the best of these, as it contains the standout tracks "Desert Island Feeling" and "Moonville Tunnel". Most of these releases can be downloaded from bandcamp, several as "name your price".

[Spider Heaven EP.]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Smashing Pumpkins - Adore Reissue DVD (1998/2014)

As should probably be no surprise, considering how many times I've written about The Smashing Pumpkins before, I've been buying their ridiculous reissues and eating them up. Each time, I get high hopes for the live DVDs that accompany them, only to get frustrated each time by certain glaring flaws.

[The Adore reissue, using the original vinyl artwork.]

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
DVD: Adore reissue bonus disc: Fox Theater, Atlanta, Georgia: August 4, 1998
Release Date: 23 September 2014
Label: Virgin

01. To Shiela
02. Behold! The Night Mare
03. Pug
04. Crestfallen
05. Ava Adore
06. Tear
07. Annie-Dog
08. Perfect
09. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
10. Tonight, Tonight
11. Once Upon a Time
12. The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete
13. Drum Solo → Where Boys Fear to Tread [tease] → Zero [tease] → Bullet with Butterfly Wings
14. Shame
15. For Martha
16. Summertime [Gershwin cover tease] → Blank Page
17. Transmission [Joy Division cover] → Let's Dance [David Bowie cover tease]

[The DVD insert. For a moment I thought these might be the same buildings on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.]

The Adore era tours have always been special because no other part of The Smashing Pumpkins' career has ever tried to do something remotely similar. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was temporarily out of the band, in his place were three live percussionists, Mike Garson joined on keyboards, the band mostly played Adore material and skipped anything before Mellon Collie, almost every song was performed in an extended and dramatic fashion, and all the proceeds of the US tour were donated to local charities. In contemporaneous interviews, Billy Corgan admitted that the album was largely written and performed just by himself, but stated that the live show was a more inclusive, democratic band effort. It's hard to know if that really is true, but the concerts certainly sound different than the album.

The setlist contains every track from Adore except the primarily electronic songs "Daphne Descends" and "Appels + Oranjes" and the forgettable, brief "17". The first two were played at other dates, and while "17" was never played live, it is widely considered to be derived from the rarity "Blissed and Gone", which was played live on a few dates of the tour, but sadly not this one. Otherwise, the setlist contains three songs from Mellon Collie and a hyperextended closing jam in the form of a cover of "Transmission" (instead of the band's traditional closer, "Silverfuck"). Also sadly, "Let Me Give the World to You", an excellent unreleased outtake played many times on the tour, was not played on this date, and nor was the full-band rearrangement of "Stumbleine". Saddest of all is that "1979", despite being played live at this show (see here for details and here for the bootleg recording of the radio broadcast), is not included for unspecified reasons.

In general, the performances are excellent, with only two exceptions. One is the dismembered version of "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", which is mostly a heavy jam that doesn't go anywhere and offers no surprises. If the anger of the original version was already on the line of being over the top, this arrangement just feels futile. Maybe that's the point, but for a ten minute song (if you include the drum solo), it really drags. Second is the aforementioned "Transmission", which features a few great elements and many, many vapid sections. Some nights of the tour, the jam would turn out great. Other nights, such as this one, start out well enough and then end up falling apart. Corgan starts to tell a story but loses the thread, he hoists audience members on stage to take the band's instruments when he gets bored, and the music just doesn't hold together. If only the whole twenty-five minutes of the song were as good as the first five or ten.

But otherwise, the best part about this tour and this particular recording is that the band manages to take a carefully crafted, electro-acoustic, dour, heavy album with themes of loss and death and turn it into something more direct, electric, large-scale, and powerful. Adore might be my favorite Pumpkins record, the one where the band's maturity, style, and melody reached a clear apex, but the live shows have entranced me even more ever since my sister gave me a bootleg of their Houston gig. These performances are part of the reason why "Thru the Eyes of Ruby" might still be my favorite song of all time. It was the moment the band realized they could be more than a rock band, but still rock. The track lengths might carry on close to ten minutes a little too often, but the music manages to be simultaneously graceful, heavy, unusual, and elegant all at once.

So what's my real complaint? My setlist squabbles mentioned above are but a trifle, and a few duds in the setlist is no crime. The more serious problem is the mix. This isn't my first time complaining about a Smashing Pumpkins DVD mix, and if I were to review each of the reissue bonus DVDs, I'd be making the same complaints every time. It's like the band was just Billy and drums, and in this case, some keyboards, too. But where you might think that three drummers means a really dense percussion mix, you'd be wrong. Only the primary drummer, Kenny Aronoff, can be heard in the mix. Additional percussionists Stephen Hodges and Dan Morris only occasionally contribute to the sound output despite performing just as often. They rarely appear in the camera shot, but most of the times they do, you simply cannot hear what you can see they are playing.

Even worse is the case with James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky. Iha's guitar is mixed so low in most songs that his parts are rendered useless. In several songs ("Behold! The Night Mare", for example), the camera will show Iha playing a guitar solo, but you wouldn't even know it otherwise, because it is mixed so low that Corgan's absurdly loud rhythm guitar drowns it out. His parts do turn up in a few songs, such as "Thru the Eyes of Ruby", but more often than not, you wouldn't even know he was there.

Similarly, D'arcy might as well have not been on stage that night. It is far from uncommon in rock music that the bass is mixed annoyingly low, but D'arcy's bass is so low as to be simply not present. Rarely are her parts even audible. Even in songs like "Ava Adore" and "Pug", which are ostensibly centered around the bass parts, her bass is practically mute. D'arcy frequently sang backing vocals live, but the only time you would know it from this DVD is on a brief segment of "For Martha", where her vocals are suddenly mixed almost as loud as Corgan's. Iha, too, is given the silent treatment; he sang backing vocals less frequently, but he is nearly inaudible the entire time.

Whoever made this decision had to realize how bizarre and artificial this is. Musicians can be seen playing instruments and singing into microphones, yet Corgan's blazingly loud guitar render them inaudible. Bootlegs from the same era do not suffer these mixing problems and are correspondingly superior. Was Bjorn Thorsrud, the credited audio mixer, at fault, or was this done at Billy's instigation? Presumably, this rather expensive "super deluxe" reissue is only aimed at the hardcore fan, but is it not reasonable to expect that a large number of these same fans would recognize these mix alterations? I'll admit the visual presentation is welcome, but if I'm going to listen to a live concert recording from the band, I'll still be sticking to my bootlegs.

Original album: A+
Entire reissue package: A-
Fox Theater, Atlanta, Georgia: August 4, 1998: C+

P.S. Make no mistake, all of the DVDs in the current deluxe reissue series suffer the same flaws. This one may have been the most egregious and obvious, but they are all mixed in a frustratingly revisionist manner.

[The back of the DVD insert.]

Monday, October 6, 2014

Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2014, Weekend 1, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 October 2014

Introduction: After having such a good time at ACL last year, even with the rainout, I really wanted to go again this year. However, when I saw the lineup, I was really turned off. I was sickened to see Eminem given top billing, I am less than excited about Skrillex or Calvin Harris, and even Pearl Jam isn't really a draw for me. But I was curious about Beck and there were several second- and third-tier acts that I was interested in. Thankfully, the schedule worked out such that the Friday lineup was by far the most appealing to me. Since ACL decided to sell single-day passes again this year, it was an easy decision to just go on Friday.

Learning from past experience, I showed up quite early to make the most of the day. My back hurt by the end of it from all the standing, but it was well worth it. I took pictures when I could, but I didn't always get good opportunities.

So, arriving about 12:30pm, I walked in and decided to see James Bay, a British singer-songwriter who was sometimes accompanied by a keyboardist/percussionist. I caught about half of his set. Although he had some decent skills and charm, he didn't offer much to keep my attention. All of his lyrics were simply about relationships with women and there was nothing notable or clever to be had. If he'd sing about something else he might get more interesting.

As Bay was wrapping up, I moved over to see Moats, a British band with some post-punk vibes and some spacey psych undertones. I originally was planning on seeing Temples, but since I'd seen them once before, I decided at the last minute to give a band I'd never heard of a chance instead. Their lead guitarist continually let out spidery, twisting lines with loads of reverb and other effects. It was a cool sound, but borrowed straight from the post-punk canon. The singer was mediocre and probably the weakest element. He barely played his guitar and did not sing well. The real star was the bassist, who managed to play really funky riffs under everything else. He might be able to keep the band above water on his own.


I got bored with Moats fairly fast, so halfway through I decided to check out Temples again after all. I saw them earlier this year at Austin Psych Fest, but I think they may have put on a better show here. That's something of a feat considering the last time they had a presumably more sympathetic audience and played at dusk (when a lightshow is actually visible), whereas this time they played early and faced into the sun. Their love of 60s music was amply evident; there was more of a psychedelic feel on this occasion, but there were still hints of the heavy side. The melodies and harmonies shone even more, and the guitars were very spacey. The whole package sounded just a little better and grooved more.


The next choice was obvious: Jimmy Cliff, one of the original kings of reggae. I knew parts of his setlist, but the almost whole thing is already online:

01. Bongo Man → Rivers of Babylon
02. King of Kings
03. Miss Jamaica
04. Wild World (Cat Stevens cover)
05. Under the Sun, Moon and Stars
06. Rebel Rebel
07. Vietnam (Afghanistan)
08. Treat the Youths
09. [Unknown]
10. Many Rivers to Cross
11. Wonderful World, Beautiful People
12. The Harder They Come
13. I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash cover)
14. You Can Get It If You Really Want

[Jimmy Cliff and co. performing the "Bongo Man" / "Rivers of Babylon" medley.]

I immediately knew I was in for a good time when Cliff came out dressed in a gold suit and a red headband. His backing band (except for a woman singer) all wore orange shirts with a screenprinted image of King Tut. Cliff was immediately dancing around the stage, still quite active despite his age. The first song was performed with just vocals and percussion, but most of the songs involved lots of extra vocal and percussion parts, along with the standard string, brass, and keyboard parts. The energy was always high, Cliff kept moving, and the band was always groovy. Cliff's stage presence was hard not to like, and his tunes were solid. I appreciated his classics (which are perhaps most popular from their appearance in The Harder They Come and Cool Runnings) and especially that he transformed his old protest song "Vietnam" into a song about Afghanistan.

[Jimmy Cliff and the band in regular raggae format.]

I took a break to get something to eat and listened to most of a set by Lake Street Dive in the process. They were a jazzy, soulful quartet with a hint of rock. Most of their set was vocals, guitar, double bass, and drums, but for the crowd-pleasing cover of "I Want You Back", the guitarist switched to a trumpet, which made for a creative minimalist take. I didn't find the music particularly engaging or compelling, but the vocals were strong and the obvious center of attention.

[Lake Street Dive.]

When I had left the so-called Honda stage area after Jimmy Cliff, I noticed that hoards of young women were heading the opposite way. It wasn't until I headed back that way myself that I realized they were rushing there early to get a good spot for Chvrches, and my decision to do something else between the sets meant I forfeited any chance of a good viewing location. There was no other band that I saw this day with as big of a crowd; I simply could not get anywhere close to the stage.

The band had a very simple stage setup: two synth racks and some space in the middle for singer Lauren Mayberry. Iain Cook picked up a bass and a guitar for a couple parts, but he and Martin Doherty mostly stayed put. Mayberry is extremely charming, and her bandmates moderately so as well, but there was a certain lack of stage presence nonetheless. It didn't help that their sound didn't come across well. It may have been my poor position in the crowd, but their music sounded somewhat simple and monotonic. I am a longtime fan of old-school synthpop, but I couldn't help feeling like something was missing. I might like some of the sounds, and the singing is good, but the dynamics and the energy weren't very engaging.

Next up for me was St. Vincent, who my regular source JDP turned me on to a few months back. I'm really glad I bought her latest album and sought out her performance, because it was delightful and weird. Delightfully weird, one could say. Annie Clark came out in a black dress adorned with sequin eyes and mouths, her hair dyed in her characteristic white with dark roots. Everything about her performance seemed carefully choreographed, including the movements and look directions of her keyboard players. At one point, Clark broke the guise for just a moment to address the crowd and stated that she was there for some reason we were: because we wanted something different, the world didn't seem right to us, and we hadn't given up faith that there was another way. I appreciated her confidence that we shared her worldview, but her mad smile made it hard to disagree.

[St. Vincent on top of her stage mount.]

The strange part about St. Vincent's music is that it sounds completely synthesized, yet Clark wields a guitar. When she plays, it takes a moment to realize that the sound you hear is related to the movements she makes with her instrument. I have no idea what combination of distortion, noise gates, and other effects she uses, but it is strange and wonderful. She's a modern virtuoso on the instrument, yet she obscures the face value of her talent by using an otherworldly set of tones. Her guitar skills are matched by her lyrics, which reveal deep imagination and subtle anger at the rigidity of the modern world.

Near the end of her set, she jumped down to the edge of the stage barrier and hovered with the help of some of the crowd. She passed her guitar to an audience member and implored them to play the guitar while she interacted with other members. At one point, she took someone's phone, took a picture with it, and politely handed it back.

I took another break to eat more food but decided to try to see some of a set by Foster the People. I happened to come up while the singer was repeating the same line: "It feels like a coming of age". Combined with the terrible pseudo-indie pop sound, it was a mess of cliché. I tried to sit through it, but I couldn't take the co-opting of indie aesthetics by a derivative mainstream pop act for long. I realized that my time was better spent trying to get a good spot for the next band. (For what it's worth, their setlist can be found here, but I'm not going to bother reprinting it myself.)

I was glad I got to Belle & Sebastian early, because I got a good spot and it started to get crowded. I got the whole setlist on my own, except for Stuart's new song. The internet suggests it may be named "Allie".

01. The Fox in the Snow (string quintet tease)
02. Expectations
03. Another Sunny Day
04. The Stars of Track and Field
05. Funny Little Frog
06. Sukie in the Graveyard
07. Piazza, New York Catcher
08. Allie
09. Perfect Couples
10. I Didn't See It Coming
11. The Boy with the Arab Strap
12. Legal Man

Amazingly, the overlap in the setlist the last time I saw them (last year in Austin) is only three songs. Although festival appearances usually mean reduced set lengths, they still played an amazing set of career highlights and hidden treasures and also fit in two new songs. As far as I can tell, these songs have only been played a couple times before. Stuart Murdoch sang lead on one that went unnamed [Edit 2014.10.20: "Allie"], but Stevie Jackson's lead vocal piece was announced as "Perfect Couples". Other notable songs were a brief tease of "The Fox in the Snow" by the touring strings players while the band walked on stage; a full-band, low-key arrangement of "Piazza, New York Catcher" (previously only done solo acoustic); and Stuart jumping in the audience to bring a bunch of audience members up to the stage to dance for the last two numbers. Also: apparently, trumpeter Mick Cooke has officially (amicably) left the band, but I'm still just a bit confused about the extra touring guitarist/bassist.

[Belle & Sebastian, although Sarah Martin is obstructed from view.]

Last on the bill for me was Beck. I knew most of the setlist, but I owe it to the internet for filling in the blanks for me.

01. Devil's Haircut
02. Loser
03. Black Tambourine
04. Hell Yes
05. Think I'm in Love → I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover tease)
06. Soul of a Man
07. Gamma Ray
08. Blue Moon
09. Lost Cause
10. Wave
11. Waking Light
12. Girl
13. Timebomb
14. E-Pro

15. Sexx Laws
16. Debra
17. Strawberry Fields Forever (The Beatles cover tease) → Where It's At

Beck's latest album was the acoustic, orchestrated, folky
Morning Phase, which led me to expect that his set was going to focus on his sparser, folkier, more melodic and "serious" side. I was wrong. He blasted out with the heavy "Devil's Haircut" and then ran through the stoner anthem "Loser" like it was still the early 90s. He jumped all around his career, but actually played more songs from Geuro (2005) than the new album. The weirdest part was that he went from all these technically proficient, dancey, showy, groovy hipster tunes into a brief foray of acoustic folk ballads with barely a pause. I appreciate Beck's wide variety of interests and outputs, but the transition was jarring. Equally incongruous was the shift right back into the hip postmodern jams à la Geuro.

Especially strange was the encore, which started with two tracks from
the weirdo funk-rock pastiche Midnite Vultures (1999). "Sexx Laws" might have been a single, and it might have a clever hook ("I want to defy the logic of all sex laws"), but "Debra" is a straight-up bizarre song. Parading as a trashy, sleazy, clichéd slow jam, the lyrics poke fun of typical male machismo songwriting: "I wanna get with you, only you, girl / And your sister / I think her name was Debra". Live, Beck took it even further, extemporizing lyrics and dropping references to Austin. His band has become a top-notch set of players, running with whatever changes take over Beck's mood. Maybe it's all pre-rehearsed, but they make it feel natural, in the moment, and totally slick. It's parody and mockery of the highest order. Much like my feelings about Devo, I just hope the audience is on the same page.

The closer was an extremely extended take on the Odelay classic "Where It's At". At some point in the performance, I think Beck uttered all the words heard in the studio version, but he also ad-libbed entire extra verses and stopped the performance several times to introduce the band and allow them to inject portions of other music. Each time, though, instead of sounding like an excuse for the musician to show off a dumb macho riff, the player in question would start into a riff, and the rest of the band would jump in like they all knew right where to be. And then at just the right moment, they'd switch right back into "Where It's At". It was either extremely well-rehearsed or the band is just that tight. It was absurd, yet oddly impressive.

Beck was supposed to be done at 9:30, but his protracted take on "Where It's At" ran an extra fifteen minutes. I'm sure there weren't many complaints. Outkast was scheduled until 10pm, but I opted to find my bike and get home.

James Bay: C-
Moats: C+
Temples: B+
Jimmy Cliff: A-
Chvrches: B-
St. Vincent: A
Foster the People: D
Belle & Sebastian: A
Beck: B+

[Edit 2014.10.06:] P.S. Chvrches' setlist has been uploaded:
01. We Sink
02. Lies
03. Lungs
04. Gun
05. Night Sky
06. Strong Hand
07. By the Throat
08. Science/Visions
09. Recover
10. Tether
11. Under the Tide
12. The Mother We Share

[Edit 2014.10.16:] P.P.S. St. Vincent's setlist has been uploaded:
01. Rattlesnake
02. Digital Witness
03. Cruel
04. Marrow
05. Surgeon
06. Cheerleader
07. Birth in Reverse
08. Huey Newton
09. Bring Me Your Loves
10. Krokodil
11. Your Lips Are Red