Saturday, October 24, 2015

Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins - Live 2015.10.21 Mohawk, Austin, Texas

Artist: Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins
Venue: Mohawk (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2015

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Take Me to the Plaza
02. You Can Have a Cell Phone That's OK But Not Me
03. No One Was Like Vermeer
04. That Summer Feeling
05. [Spanish song about making mistakes]
06. Old World [originally performed with the Modern Lovers]
07. I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
08. My Baby Love Love Loves Me
09. Wait Wait
10. Let Her Go Into the Darkness →
11. Sex Drive →
12. You Must Ask the Heart
13. These Bodies That Came to Cavort
14. Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow
15. Let Me Do This Right
16. Volare [Domenico Modugno cover]

17. O Sun

Jonathan Richman is an idiosyncratic person, so it should be no surprise that he doesn't play with a band anymore. Nonetheless, he is lucky to have found a drummer willing to follow his unusual track through music for twenty years. It would seem that his unusual style of performance and songwriting contributed to dissolution of several different varieties of his original group, The Modern Lovers, as well as their difficulties in recording and releasing their work. But ever since he let go of that moniker, he's managed to release occasional albums according to his own spirit. Those expecting the driving rock 'n' roll rhythm of "Roadrunner" might be let down, but those willing to give this guy a chance are in for something special.

It's not like Richman has given up on rock music. He seems to just find most of it too loud and distracting for his ability to express himself. I suspect he thinks it is limiting or full of expectations he doesn't see the point of. He welcomes Latin rhythms and hasn't forgotten the sound of music before the 60s, even if his lyrics bear little resemblance to early rock 'n' roll. His performance is like hearing him tell stories, but he plays guitar for most of it, dances for part of it, and manages to sing on key throughout. It's hard to tell how well rehearsed his songs are, as he frequently sets down his guitar to talk about the themes of his songs, dance, pick up a percussion instrument, or translate the lyrics of Spanish-language songs. Usually, Larkins wouldn't miss a beat and would follow Richman like he knew exactly where he was going, but there were a few times that I could tell the former mispredicted the latter's direction – but only for a single beat.

Richman also has no use for the artificial distinction between performer and audience, nor the pretension of hawking himself as a celebrity. As if the free-flowing nature of the songs and narratives wasn't enough, he frequently would just dance to Larkin's beat as if everyone should be doing it. It was completely unselfconscious. He was just having a good time and trying to make sure we were, too. If someone started clapping in time, he would joyfully call out to them to give him a beat. He ran around the stage at will, as if he had simply forgotten that his guitar wasn't plugged in and he had to sing into a mic to be amplified.

Jonathan's casual and semi-continuous narrative style meant that it was difficult to determine when one song had ended and another had begun. If the themes were related and the rhythms weren't too dissimilar, the songs would just blend together, often only explicitly discernible by a change in key. Some songs seemed at least partially improvised, and most of the songs seemed to feature lyrical variations from recorded versions. In particular, the one song he played from the Modern Lovers album, "Old World", bore very little resemblance to the original version. He recorded a new interpretation for Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild in 2008, but this rendition was different from even that. While acknowledging that the old world may have a certain elegance, and it is easy to think of it as a better time, he reminded us of the brutality of earlier times as well as the fact that women couldn't vote in the 19th century.

Richman's humor and earnest attitude to the world around him made the show highly entertaining. I found myself unexpectedly laughing while admiring his simple wisdom. His charm is immediate: when explaining that he doesn't like using "typewriters with screens" and prefers just going "to the plaza" to find out what's going on in town, he made sure to specify that he doesn't mind at all if we do. It's just not what he's interested in; he just wants to talk with people. Apparently, this is no exaggeration. He supposedly does not own a computer, nor use the internet, but he admitted he will sometimes humor people by letting them show him things on their pocket-sized screens.

This simple and straightforward technological approach also meant that this was the first show I'd been to in a very long time for which I did not require the use of my earplugs. This was a welcome change for me, even if perhaps to be expected from an acoustic guitarist accompanied by a drummer that only used three mics. Unfortunately, when another band started playing loud rock music on the inside stage of the venue, they were audible from the outside and sometimes even overpowered Richman and Larkins.

After an hour or so, Richman indicated that he was at the end of the set, but he didn't want to leave. He started up a brief song in which he would sing a line and have the audience repeat the phrase "let me do this right" to a particular melody. After that, he still seemed hesitant, and started singing parts of the Italian song "Nel blu dipinto di blu", popularized by Dean Martin under the name "Volare". He explained that the bland English lyrics were totally different than the original, superior Italian lyrics. After giving that a whirl, he finally walked off stage. Eventually, he returned for one more, but he seemed surprised to be playing an encore, like he didn't take it for granted that he should come back out.

Despite no opener and a relatively short performance, I felt like Richman did a great job filling up the time he shared with us. Near the end, some songs started to drag and feel a bit samey (even with his legitimately skilled acoustic guitar soloing, there's only so much two instrumentalists can do), but he was so effortlessly endearing that it's hard for me to want to focus on the duller moments. There were so many hilarious and personable parts that the cheap price of admission was well worth it.

Score: A

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 October 2015

Introduction: Yet again, I couldn't resist going to ACL even though I was entirely unexcited by all the headliners. In fact, this time, there weren't even many second- or third-tier acts that I was interested in. Still, after the good time I had last year, I figured it would be worth picking one day and making the most if it. Of course, the day I decided upon was Friday, which is annoying in that I had to take off work to go. Nonetheless, I went for it.

I am unashamed to admit that the main draw for me was Tame Impala, even though I just saw them earlier this year at Levitation. I was also excited to see Songhoy Blues again, whom I had caught earlier this year at SXSW. However, a few weeks before the event, I noticed that they were no longer on the schedule. I can't find any information about their disappearance except for this similarly disappointed Reddit thread.

I started my day off with The London Souls. On record, this guitar-and-drums duo sounded like straight classic rock throwbacks with a giant debt owed to Led Zeppelin and maybe The Beatles. On stage, they came off much rawer and even tighter. They were unexpectedly almost punky, but they held their act together far better than most could. Both musicians are incredibly expressive with their instruments. They just kept throwing in little surprises and clever riffs, so the music was always groovy yet captivating in its detail. All the extra touches really held my attention, but one could also opt to just lean back and enjoy the instruments in lock step. The downside is that their lyrics are completely devoid of originality. These are great players, and they both have good voices, but the main draw is the rock, not the words.

[The London Souls.]

Next up was Wolf Alice, an exclusive to Weekend 2. I was attracted by a slight psychedelic edge to their music, which manifested live as fitting in somewhere between dream pop and The Sisters of Mercy, but seemingly without the deliberate campiness. The heavy reverb and delayed space guitars worked in their favor, but a tendency for bland songwriting and awkward vocals did not. They occasionally attained great moments but mostly settled for a standard issue poppy metal/heavy rock vibe. There were some good riffs and sounds, but something was missing to take it to the next level. It didn't help that Cherub's crappy electronic beats wafted over from the Miller Light stage to distract from the experience. The setlist is available here.

[Wolf Alice.]

I was then caught at a crossroads between two bands I was interested in, so I split the difference and saw some of both. First I saw most of Billy Idol's set. The full setlist has been posted online:

01. Postcards from the Past
02. Dancing with Myself [originally performed with Generation X]
03. Can't Break Me Down
04. Flesh for Fantasy
05. Eyes Without a Face
06. Ready Steady Go [originally performed with Generation X]
07. Blue Highway
08. Rebel Yell
09. White Wedding
10. Mony Mony [Tommy James & the Shondells cover]

I've never been a great Idol fan; I find his music catchy and likable but not especially meaningful or especially attractive. I do, however, appreciate that his music has a touch of deliberately over-the-top excess. His performance is absurd and yet the audience is complicit. He's something of a punk, but he makes few excuses about his music really being just good time rock 'n' roll, only slightly heavier, dirtier, and weirder. (This of course is discounting his awful but visionary
Cyberpunk album from 1993.) On stage he just played to expectations. Guitarist Steve Stevens was less of a showboat than some, but the band did everything else they could to live up to a rock 'n' roll fantasy. I almost started cracking up when Idol took his shirt off.

I trekked across the entire park grounds to get to the other side to see the last few songs from Leon Bridges. Hailing from Fort Worth, this guy seemed to come out of nowhere and instantly start rising. He is very rooted in old school traditions of soul, R&B, and gospel. His strong voice is well suited to his retro style. The band's performance was tight, consistent, groovy, and solid, but his lyrics were fairly basic. It was easy to forgive, but it would help if he played a bit less by the numbers.

While enjoying some amazing Korean BBQ Tofu Tacos from Chi'lantro, I caught a few songs from Moon Taxi on the nearby Austin Ventures stage, but it was so generic that I can't remember anything of note from what I saw and heard. It was some type of indie or emo thing, but it didn't do anything for me.

I then camped out for Tame Impala, holding my spot despite unceasing surges and rushes of the crowd. I've never seen so many people try to squeeze in where there was obviously no room for them. This was also the only time during the day that I saw people smoking despite the ban. Anyway, here's the setlist:

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
05. The Moment
06. Elephant
07. The Less I Know the Better
08. 'Cause I'm a Man
09. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
10. Unknown Jam
11. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
12. Apocalypse Dreams

I thought Tame Impala's 80-minute headlining, show-closing set at Levitation earlier this year was incredible. I gave it a rare A+. It was everything I could have wanted and more: it rocked, it was psychedelic, they jammed all over the place, they threw in curveballs and surprises, the visuals were good, and they debuted a fairly good new song. I wished it had gone on longer, but that's just the nature of festival appearances.

This time around, they didn't even play a full hour, and there were no surprises at all. The only curious part was a brief jam near the end. In fact, excluding the songs from the new album, Currents, every other song was also played at Levitation in the same order! Sure, these are great songs that I've come to love over the past couple years, but it just seemed like they weren't really trying. The new songs were a mixed bag; "Let It Happen" is fairly good, and the bassline to "The Less I Know the Better" is enough to sell me on the song right there, but "The Moment" didn't quite work, and "'Cause I'm a Man" fared even worse. The only reason I can tolerate that song at all is the subtle lyrical shift near the end to "I'm a human", but a subtlety like that was entirely lost in the shuffle of the live performance.

The keyboards and bass were right on the mark, but the guitars, apart from being more subdued in general considering the material, were not up to par, and nor were Kevin's vocals. The psychedelia was mostly absent in favor of a more lightweight electronic dance vibe. It was still good, but not magical. It felt short, like I was waiting for the big moment, but it never came. It didn't help that the crowd was pushy and rowdy and that someone was drunkenly singing along off-key whenever they could half-remember the words.

[Tame Impala.]

After that slight disappointment, I went to see George Ezra, a singer-songwriter somewhere between soul, folk, and light blues. He has an incredible voice with a theatrical level of expression. His music was pleasant but unsophisticated. It was clean cut and smoothed of any uneven edges. It came off just a bit fragile and lifeless, which was only exacerbated by the awful electronic beats coming from Flosstradmus' set at the nearby Miller Light stage. I knew it was my cue to leave when he started into "Girl from the North Country". He sounded quite a bit more straight pop than I had been expecting.

I bailed and headed over to catch most of Gary Clark Jr.'s set. His setlist has been posted online:

01. When My Train Pulls In
02. Bright Lights
03. Stay
04. Hold On
05. Cold Blooded
06. Our Love
07. Grinder
08. Ain't Messin' 'Round
09. Travis County
10. Church
11. The Healing

Clark plays a bluesy rock with a bit of groove and funk. His lyrics were unimaginative,
but the vocals were clearly secondary to his guitar, anyway. I know he's from Austin and I'm supposed to like him, but I just didn't find his performance very special. Most of his set featured Hard Proof, or at least their horns players (including my former landlord!), which was definitely a highlight. During "Travis County", Clark handed his guitar to a friend to finish out the closing guitar solo, and he brought out his sisters to sing along for "Church", although they unfortunately didn't add much. Clark was a good performer and played decent tunes, but the set just didn't take off like I might have hoped.

[Gary Clark Jr. with members of Hard Proof.]

The closing headliners of the night were Foo Fighters and Disclosure, neither of which held any appeal for me. I sat around for a few songs by Foo Fighters – enough to see Dave Grohl in his bizarre throne – but I just couldn't get interested. The setlist is available here. On my way out, I caught a few minutes of Disclosure's uninspired electronic beats. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to like in their performance and so I left early.

The London Souls: B+
Wolf Alice: B-
Billy Idol: C
Leon Bridges: B
Moon Taxi: D
Tame Impala: B-
George Ezra: C-
Gary Clark Jr.: C+

Final Thoughts: This was probably the most middling festival experience I've had yet. The band I was most excited about didn't deliver like I was hoping, the band I was second-most excited about was canceled, and no other band was truly exceptional. I saw several acts that put on a good performance, but left little under the surface. The one actual blast from the past, Billy Idol, was fine, but not really up my alley. I had a good enough time, but now I'm wondering if I had picked the wrong day solely because I was drawn so strongly by Tame Impala.

Another issue was sound bleeding over from one stage to another. Twice when I saw bands at the Austin Ventures stage (Wolf Alice and Goerge Ezra), it seemed like the volume was lower than whatever electronic garbage was coming from the nearby Miller Light stage. In both cases, their lower-key moments and nuances were lost to the incessant synthetic bass drum. It overpowered their sound and their spirit. I know that volume levels at major events on public grounds in Austin have recently come under new ordinances, but it seemed like there was still some work to do about managing and balancing the levels between stages.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wilco / William Tyler - Live 2015.09.29 Stubb's, Austin, Texas

Wilco came back at Stubb's, almost exactly two years since they played here last. (They also played at the Austin City Limits Festival, which was the first time I saw them.) This was the first of two sold-out nights at the venue on this tour, and they also played an afternoon set at Waterloo Records (announced only the day before!).

Artist: Wilco
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 September 2015
Opening Act: William Tyler

01. More...
02. Random Name Generator
03. The Joke Explained
04. You Satellite
05. Taste the Ceiling
06. Pickled Ginger
07. Where Do I Begin
08. Cold Slope →
09. King of You
10. Magnetized
11. At Least That's What You Said
12. Camera (Heavy Version)
13. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
14. Art of Almost
15. You Are My Face
16. Hummingbird
17. Box Full of Letters
18. Heavy Metal Drummer
19. I'm the Man Who Loves You
20. Dawned on Me
21. Impossible Germany
22. Red-Eyed and Blue
23. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
24. Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Encore 1:
25. Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 2 (acoustic):
26. Misunderstood
27. I'm Always in Love
28. It's Just That Simple
29. Casino Queen
30. California Stars
31. A Shot in the Arm

William Tyler opened the evening on his own; he played solo electric guitar in a mesmerizing, mostly fingerpicked style. All of his songs were instrumental, and he only used a few modest effects and loops to augment them. He really just focused on his technique and his skill at writing great chiming guitar passages. He had a unique sound that came across very pretty and very serene. He made half an hour go by before I'd realized any time had passed at all. His only mistake was a misguided attempt to play with feedback at the end of his set; it just came across as textureless, harsh noise.

Wilco came on stage to a tape of "EKG", a brief noisy instrumental that opens their new album, Star Wars. (If you missed the news, it was surprise-released as a free digital download, but it was a limited offer that has since expired. It is now commercially available on CD and soon on vinyl.) They proceeded to play the entire album straight through, so I'm going to end up reviewing the album as well whether I want to or not. (For the record, the last time I saw a band do this was The Smashing Pumpkins in 2012, and I wasn't particularly impressed.)

I rather like "EKG", even if it is a throwaway, and I was originally harboring hope that they'd play it live. Nonetheless, Star Wars starts off in earnest quite strong: "More..." and "Random Name Generator" are both great songs, instant singalongs, and just generally solid jams. Nels Cline was already tearing wildly into the latter. "The Joke Explained" is almost as good, and "You Satellite" takes things in a different direction, trading the rock 'n' roll swagger for a wide, slow build. The instruments give each other more space to breathe and grow, and by the end Cline was again soloing in his joyful, chaotic fashion. "Taste the Ceiling" is another song of the classic mold with a steady beat with a slight country touch.

But this is where things begin to break down on the album, and by extension, on stage. The back half of the album features a bunch of songs that seem like a bit of an afterthought. They're all fairly short, they all sound like Wilco-by-the-numbers, most of the titles don't make sense, and the lyrics are a mixed bag. Two of them even feature the exact same beat and tempo, making the transition from one to the next difficult to discern. Even on stage, it was easy to miss. Since neither has many particularly distinctive qualities, this seems like a deliberately poor concept. At least the album closer, "Magnetized", is a bit better. It's still far from revolutionary or bold, but it's got good hooks and a decent sound. I like it.

Played live, I realized partway through that I couldn't hear any keyboards in most of the songs ("Magnetized" being the main exception). This struck me as odd for a band so noted for their elaborate keyboard arrangements ever since Jay Bennett joined the band. Mikael Jorgensen was playing on every song, but he simply wasn't audible. Later in the show, he was much more present in the mix, but it seemed he was deliberately obscured for the album set. Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone stuck solely to his guitar for these songs, although those parts were also oddly hard to discern. I was struck that the new album has a simplicity uncommon for the band, although there are of course exceptions, such as "You Satellite". This approach seems decidedly detrimental in some songs, although it perhaps works well for others.

At any rate, after finishing the run-through of the album, Jeff Tweedy finally addressed the audience and thanked us for listening. There was only a brief pause before they began the brooding "At Least That's What You Said", where Tweedy finally brought out his lead guitar skills. When Cline joined in as well, it made for quite a sight. Sansone finally took the keyboard for this one, and Mikael was at last audible as well. This was followed by "Camera", played in a heavy style as found on the More Like the Moon EP. This was an unexpected highlight for me, as I think it's a great song in any version, and the heavier take is much rarer. By the time they got to the always-awesome "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", I was ready to forgive them for playing the entire weaker half of Star Wars.

Wilco kept up the energy and kept the great songs coming one after another. There was hardly a dull moment for the rest of the night, and the band played in top form. Cline's guitar and noise work was always particularly thrilling, but his solos on "Art of Almost" and "Dawned on Me" were especially remarkable. I was pleased to see Tweedy throwing in some solid solos, too, as in "I'm the Man Who Loves You". "Impossible Germany" was another highlight if for no other reason than that Cline, Tweedy, and Sansone all got to play lead guitar simultaneously. The instrumental passages may have gone on quite long, but when they are written and performed as well as this was, one simply cannot complain.

I don't want to overlook John Stiratt or Glenn Kotche, either. Stiratt's bass has always been one of my favorite parts of the Wilco sound, and his basslines are particularly strong on the better half of Star Wars. His backing vocals are perhaps under-appreciated, but on stage it is obvious that his harmonies are an essential element of the band as well. While his voice has a countrified inflection that might otherwise annoy me, in tandem with Tweedy they balance and strengthen each other. Kotche's moments to shine were of course "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Heavy Metal Drummer", but there were plenty of songs where his drums drove the song.

The band hardly paused between songs, often barely even letting one finish before the guitarists were exchanging instruments and preparing to dive right into the next one. This careful strategizing allows them to pack as many songs in their setlist as they can. They played 24 songs in 100 minutes before finally walking offstage. Of course, they came right back, but only for one song: the long, droning "Spiders (Kidsmoke)". I was worried this could be the end, but in the dark I could see the stagehands rearranging the stage.

When the band returned for the second time, they settled down at the front of the stage with acoustic guitars and a minimalist drumset for Kotche. The entire final set was done solely with acoustic instruments, similar to their recent performance on KEXP. I liked the change of pace; it was a nice way to do something different but still have space to shine. Some of the songs worked better than others in this setting; "Casino Queen" has never been their strongest song, but "I'm Always in Love" and "A Shot in the Arm" both worked quite well. Jorgensen switched to melodica and Sansone to banjo or xylophone for most of the songs, and while they were sometimes hard to hear in the mix, the arrangements were great. Cline's slide guitar was still the primary instrument, but the dirtier, earthier tones actually reminded me somehow of Blixa Bargeld's trademark guitar sound from his days with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

"It's Just That Simple", the only Wilco song written by Stiratt and featuring his lead vocals, bears a certain charm that fit right in with the set. I find it endearing enough that I rather wish Stiratt would write and sing more often. "California Stars", however, is an undisputed three-chord masterpiece, and the band made the most of it by trading solos between the verses. I only wish they had played more songs from the Mermaid Avenue albums.

31 songs in less than two and a half hours is fairly impressive, especially when many of the songs are not at all brief affairs. Wilco have a tendency to play and replay about half of their back catalog while consistently ignoring the other half, which makes their setlists always slightly different but never wildly unusual. This is a blessing and a curse: they know what their best songs are, and you'll usually hear most of them at any given concert, but you also rarely get surprises. However, while it could be pure coincidence, it does seem like they tailor their setlists for each city to maximize the variation over time for a given audience. At any rate, their high level of energy and musicianship combined with a very good setlist made for an excellent evening. The full album performance of Star Wars might be imperfect, but the night only got better after the weaker half of the album was over.

William Tyler: B+
Wilco: A-
Star Wars: B-

P.S. The setlist for the second night can be found here. It actually is quite different than the first night, perhaps leaning a little more towards the obscure. I wish I'd seen "A Magazine Called Sunset", though!