Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Cure / The Twilight Sad - Live 2016.05.13 Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

Artist: The Cure
Venue: Frank Erwin Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 13 Friday 2016
Opening Act: The Twilight Sad

The Twlight Sad's setlist (thanks to here):
1. There's a Girl in the Corner
2. Last January
3. I Became a Prostitute
4. I Could Give You All That You Don't Want
5. Cold Days From the Birdhouse
6. It Never Was the Same
7. And She Would Darken the Memory

The Cure's setlist:
01. Out of This World
02. Pictures of You
03. Closedown
04. A Night Like This
05. All I Want
06. Push
07. Last Dance
08. Lovesong
09. Just Like Heaven
10. This Twilight Garden
11. Lullaby
12. Fascination Street
13. Screw
14. The End of the World
15. Want
16. Us or Them
17. The Hungry Ghost
18. Prayers for Rain
19. Bloodflowers

Encore 1:
20. Step Into the Light
21. Shake Dog Shake
22. Never Enough
23. Wrong Number

Encore 2:
24. Hot Hot Hot!!!
25. Close to Me
26. The Exploding Boy
27. In Between Days
28. Doing the Unstuck
29. Friday I'm in Love

Encore 3:
30. Burn
31. It Can Never Be the Same

Encore 4:
32. A Forest
33. Boys Don't Cry

The Twilight Sad are a Scottish band merging post-punk roots inspired by the likes of The Cure with a more contemporary indie rock sound and effects-laden guitar straight from the shoegazing canon. Despite the scheduled set time of 7:30pm (already fairly early), they actually went on ten minutes early. That was a first for me. I liked the keyboards and vocals, and the guitar was great, but the drums were loud and overpowered the other instruments, especially the bass. This could have just been a product of where I was sitting, but it worked against them. On the slower and more open sections where the drums were less intense, the rest of the instruments became much clearer and distinct, which made me wish they all sounded like that. I had trouble understanding the vocalist, but I still liked the general direction of the songs. Robert Smith has made his fondness of the band well-known, and it's easy to understand why.

[The Cure.]

I've seen The Cure twice before: a disappointing show during 2008 in Kansas City when Robert Smith was sick, and a better, albeit abbreviated, headlining set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2013. This time, my expectations were tempered by my previous experiences, but I was still hoping for a solid, full set to make up for those shortcomings.

As usual, the setlist was a mix of material from throughout their long history, but most biased towards their most popular and critically acclaimed era, spanning roughly 1985 through 1989 (i.e., The Head on the Door; Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me; and Disintegration). They don't play much from their last two albums or their somewhat maligned Wild Mood Swings from 1996, but the songs they do pick from those tend to be the same choices every time, and it speaks plenty about the mediocrity of the production of those albums that the songs in question sound much better when performed live. "The End of the World" was never a very good song, but "Want" and "The Hungry Ghost" actually fit right in with the rest of the material. Even "Us or Them" turned out decently.

Otherwise, they consistently do a great job of appeasing both casual and diehard fans. They played just about all of their big hits, but they also played a wealth of deep album cuts ("Closedown", "All I Want", and "Screw" were somewhat unexpected delights), a few really old songs ("Shake Dog Shake", "A Forest", "Boys Don't Cry"), two new songs, and even two b-sides. Other special treats were "Burn", a grand, looming song from the soundtrack of The Crow, and two superior cuts from Bloodflowers, their last great album. I could always ask for more of the really old material, but they played so many great songs, including a lot of surprising choices, that it wouldn't be fair to complain about the setlist. It is kind of ridiculous that they played over half the songs from Disintegration, but I doubt anyone is going to argue about that.

Both of the b-sides were excellent songs that sometimes make one wonder how songs that good could end up left as flipsides. "This Twilight Garden", a b-side of "High" from 1992, is a dreamy, darkly pretty song that was better than half of the songs that actually were on Wish, and "The Exploding Boy", a b-side of "In Between Days" from 1985, is an uptempo number that is almost as good as the a-side. These are the type of songs that make Join the Dots (the b-sides and rarities collection from 2004) worth owning.

Both new songs were reasonably good, if not outstanding. "Step Into the Light" was somewhat by the numbers, but "It Can Never Be the Same" was more sprawling and had more depth to it. I'm curious if these are from the large set of unfinished songs from the 4:13 Dream sessions or if they are more recent compositions. More importantly, does this imply that The Cure are finally readying a new album for release? (It's only been eight years!)

I'm glad that The Cure tour as a five-piece again. The Cure without a keyboardist isn't really The Cure (unless they are playing Three Imaginary Boys), and Roger O'Donnell has proven himself an integral member of the band, so I'm glad he is back in the fold. However, Reeves Gabrels still strikes me as an unsuitable replacement for Porl/Pearl Thompson. Reeves' guitarwork is too flashy and aggressive for The Cure; these songs demand melody, grace, subtlety, and careful tonality, not blazing, roaring solos. When Reeves played the songs by the numbers, they worked fine, but when he stepped out into his own ground, such as in "Wrong Number" or the solo in "A Night Like This", the songs suffered from his showmanship. "Shake Dog Shake" and "Never Enough" fared somewhat better; his wild abandon mostly worked with the unrestrained energy of both songs.

Drummer Jason Cooper tends to be overlooked, but he plays the parts of his predecessor drummers with effortless ease. All of the little drum flourishes of "Prayers for Rain" were right where they should be, and the toms-heavy parts of songs like "Closedown" were right on the mark. Similarly, it can also be easy to forget that Simon Gallup's bass contributions are fundamental to the sound of the band, but on stage, he was visibly driving every single song. His bass was pleasantly prominent without being overwhelming, and he was also the only member that really moved around on stage much.

Robert Smith's instrumental work is as solid as ever, and he still took a few solos, such as in "Lovesong", "Prayers for Rain", and "A Forest". He even brought out a flute for the intro to "Burn". His vocals aren't quite what they once were, but he mostly avoided the squealing, yelping style that has characterized the last two albums, the re-recorded vocals on some of the demos on the older album reissues, and the last Cure concert I saw. Actually, this was probably the best vocal performance I've heard from him in a long time. The only noticeably weak moment was at the end of "In Between Days", when it became obvious that Robert couldn't hit the final notes of the "without you" line in the higher octave. He didn't even try and instead sung them in the lower range used for the rest of the song.

[What a great way to waste electricity during the encore break.]

It's amazing that the Cure can still sell out stadiums despite not having released an album in eight years, and it's not like their last two albums were particularly good, either. I suppose the fact that they have enough strong back-catalog material to play incredibly long sets that vary significantly from night to night is probably a big part of their draw. It certainly worked for me. Even with a few weak songs and the occasionally indulgent guitarwork from Gabrels, this was the Cure concert I wish I'd seen back in 2008.

The Twilight Sad: B-
The Cure: A-

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Levitation 2016 Day 1

Levitation has a bit of a mixed track record, although I still think it's the best festival in town in terms of the quality of the music, which is of course the most important criterion anyway. Last year, I was so frustrated by the failure of the shuttle system that I wasn't sure I wanted to come back this year. (The rainstorms and mud didn't help, either.) However, they once again put together an incredible lineup and I decided to give it another go. In fact, I bought tickets for both Friday and Saturday.

As I'm sure everyone has heard by now, the festival was canceled as of 5pm on Thursday. Heavy thunderstorms were looming once again, and the festival site was already worse for wear from storms throughout the last week. The organizers rushed to put together as many shows at local venues as they could manage, but unfortunately most of them sold out as soon as they went on sale, as the demand was understandably out of control. I failed to procure any tickets, but decided to try to see what I could see anyway.

Event: Levitation 2016 Day 1
Venues: KUTX Studio 1A and Scoot Inn
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 April 2016

Details about the make-up shows were a bit scarce and initially available only through Facebook and Twitter. The Austin Chronicle began keeping track of them, and I saw that one of the bands I was interested in, Dungen, would be making an appearance at KUTX. I mentioned this to a friend, and he immediately was on board, so we rushed to the University of Texas campus, found a parking spot, and made it to the radio station studio just in time to be let in.

All I knew about Dungen was that they were Swedish and occupied a space somewhere between psych, folk, and prog. The started playing something that sounded like standard-issue indie rock, but driven by a grand piano and a prominent bass. However, as the song progressed, it gradually turned into a serious prog rock jam. It slowly wound down, but without really pausing, the band started into the next song, which led into another tremendous jam. At the end of the third iteration of this pattern, someone whispered in the singer's ear and they brought the show to an end. They only played for fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was a fantastic journey. The instrumental work was top-notch, the harmonies were transcendent, and the jams were captivating without being excessive. It was just a shame they didn't get more time.

[Dungen at KUTX.]

It was before, during, and immediately after this set that the fiasco of the make-up show tickets occurred. Around 2:30, Levitation announced a series of make-up gigs, with a claim that ticket holders would have advance access. This took the form of an email sent at about 2:50 that contained the same links to Transmission Events ticketing pages that were available on the Levitation website. The tickets were supposed to go on sale at either 3 or 3:30 (reports varied), but it fact they appeared to go on sale at variable times throughout the hour. I tried my best, but I did not get tickets for anything. They all sold out with incredible speed. There was really only one that I was really, really interested in, though: Slowdive with Brian Jonestown Massacre and Twin Peaks at the Scoot Inn. In desperation, I scoured the internet for scalpers, but I could only find others looking for the same tickets.

At this point, it was clear that it wasn't actually going to rain that day. This matters, because Scoot Inn is an outdoor venue. Admittedly, it was odd that an event that was canceled due to weather would be moved in part to an outdoor venue, but I guess it worked out. I decided to head to the venue and try my chances at getting a ticket on the spot. I biked on down and quickly realized I was one of many looking for a ticket. I gave up as soon as I realized that there was a grassy parking lot adjacent to the venue's stage that was full of people hoping to catch some of the scattered sound waves. I found a decent spot where I could see the speaker racks on stage, sat down, and waited to see what happened. This was my view when Twin Peaks went on:

[Twin Peaks at Scoot Inn.]

It wasn't a perfect experience, but I was excited for the show and figured it was worth making the most of it. Realistically, I couldn't see anything, and the audio wasn't as good as I'm sure it was inside, but I could still hear enough to enjoy it. (It also helped to have a friend join me and bring beer.) I'm going to do my best to review what I heard, although my scores will be admittedly somewhat tentative. I doubt my experience truly represents what the bands offered to the people inside.

Twin Peaks played a sort of catchy but rather generic garage rock. They seemed to play rock 'n' roll fairly straight and by-the-numbers, but I appreciated that they did have some finesse about it. They were skilled at dropping in little rhythmic flourishes and shifts that kept their set from getting too boring. They didn't seem particularly sophisticated, but they sounded better than their studio work had led me to expect.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre were up next. I actually saw them at Levitation two years ago, back when it was still Austin Psych Fest, and they were the topmost headliner after Primal Scream dropped out. That time around, they played good music, but they went on late, only played for 45 minutes, and were plagued by sound issues. This year there were no major sound problems, but they still only played for about an hour since they weren't the headliner. They again featured an abundance of guitarists that all mostly played the same thing, and while it did make for a fairly big, warm sound, it also was a somewhat monolithic or monotonous sound. They played consistently good grooves, but rarely played something really thrilling. The vocals had a characteristic sort of lazy, stoned quality to them, which contributed to a fairly mellow mood despite their classic rock obsessions. The side of their music more akin to shoegazing, as represented by their early album Methodrone (from which they played "She's Gone"), came to the fore. I suppose it was only appropriate considering the headliner, although I may have just been reading into it because of the pairing, and my removed location may have influenced my perception as well. An incomplete setlist can be found here.

[Brian Jonestown Massacre at Scoot Inn.]

Finally, Slowdive came on stage. Here's the setlist (with some help from here):

01. Slowdive
02. Avalyn
03. Catch the Breeze
04. Crazy for You
05. Machine Gun
06. Souvlaki Space Station
07. When the Sun Hits
08. Morningrise
09. She Calls
10. Alison
11. Golden Hair (James Joyce/Syd Barrett cover)

Ever since they reunited in 2014, Slowdive have relied on a fairly regular setlist for their shows. It's hard to complain, though, since it's a solid collection of songs. It is quite biased towards Souvlaki, and includes more EP tracks than anything from either other album, but that's probably a fair representation of their best work. Naturally, they started with the eponymous "Slowdive" from their debut self-titled EP.

Slowdive also have a tendency to let their three guitarists meld their sound together into one big sound, but they make it work more successfully. While The Brian Jonestown Massacre aim for a thick chorus effect, Slowdive develop a gigantic wall of sound. They rely on a variety of guitar effects, driving bass, and airy vocals to build up their desired atmosphere. It makes for a beautiful and hazy sound that just washes over you in waves. While the music flowed past, the vocals were mostly indecipherable, although that's fairly par for the course with shoegazing acts. At any rate, the music was somewhat heavier and more intense than on record, which may reveal the insufficiencies of the production available to them at the time. At the point in "When the Sun Hits" where the song really picks up, it felt huge. It's already a great song on record, but this performance felt transcendent. Some other songs admittedly seemed a bit vague and meandering, but most of them were a wonderful experience to bask in.

Final Thoughts: This was a strange day by any metric. It was very disappointing to have the festival canceled, especially with such short notice, but it would seem that Travis County made the call and that was that. (Apparently the flooding concerns were bad enough that the Lower Colorado River Authority decreed that camping by the river would not be permissible.) Although Friday was ultimately a clear day, overnight it stormed heavily. Levitation and Carson Creek Ranch posted pictures the following morning showing the devastating results: thoroughly flooded grounds, knocked-down fences and portapotties, and destroyed tents. It turns out they made the right call. (Amazingly, there were claims floating around the internet that Levitation conspired to cancel the event since it didn't sell out and they could recoup the insurance benefits. This makes no sense when you consider that the festival has never sold out.)

Despite my frustration and disappointment, I can't really say I'm upset, since it was clear that Levitation wasn't happy with the situation and was trying to make the most of it. I was far angrier after the shuttle situation of last year. However, while I sympathize with Levitation and trust that they are a committed, local organization dedicated more to the music than to the money, that's not to say they handled everything as well as they could have.

Levitation did a great job of putting together last minute shows all weekend, but disseminating the details was occasionally difficult. On the positive side, the shows were all $5 (or free) and all proceeds went to the Austin Relief Alliance. Much less positive was the fact that ticket holders were not actually given any sort of advance opportunity to purchase these tickets, despite the initial claim. This was particularly unfortunate for people that had traveled from out of town; all of their planning and early orders did nothing for them. In fact, the line of people that formed outside Scoot Inn for the Slowdive show got entirely screwed over. Supposedly, despite initial promises that they'd get the first chance at tickets, they were told at the last minute that they'd too have to use the overburdened website to try to buy tickets like everyone else. Since the tickets were cheap and could be bought in sets of up to four, there was a lot of complaining about scalpers, although I'm not actually sure how much of that really occurred. I've heard one report of a $75 resale, but not much else.

In the end, I still got to listen to two of the bands I wanted to see, and I caught a brief set of another, and that was all for free. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was better than nothing. I was far from alone; they were multiple hundreds of people in the fields and on the street around Scoot Inn, and I'd bet many of the other make-up venues had external crowds. I'm very disappointed that I lost my chance to see David J and the Gentlemen Thieves, and I missed out on Brian Wilson, Animal Collective, Woods, Lee Ranaldo, and plenty of others. On the other hand, I did see some interesting sights at the Scoot Inn parking lot, like this:

[Firedancer outside Scoot Inn.]

Dungen: A-
Twin Peaks: C+
Brian Jonestown Massacre: B
Slowdive: A-

P.S. Many thanks to Mustafa!

P.P.S. What does it say about my luck (or the effect of climate change on Texas) that I have held tickets for the only Levitation to ever be canceled as well as the only day of Austin City Limits Fest to be canceled thus far?

[Edit 2016.05.03:] P.P.P.S. Phone video footage of the entire Slowdive set can be found here, and an mp3 of the entire Dungen set can be downloaded from KUTX here.

[Edit 2016.05.12:] P.P.P.P.S. The setlist of the Dungen radio appearance is here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Peter Murphy / Casual Strangers - Live 2016.04.28 The North Door, Austin, Texas

I've seen Peter Murphy twice before (in 2009 and 2014), and neither time did he particularly impress me. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist seeing him again, especially since this tour was advertised as being a stripped-down, primarily acoustic affair. I also initially held out some hope that I might see a partial Bauhaus reunion since David J was scheduled to play two days later at Levitation. (More on that in my next post.) That didn't happen, but I didn't really expect it to since David J later announced a show in California on the same night as this show.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: The North Door
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 April 2016
Opening Act: Casual Strangers

01. Cascade
02. Secret
03. Indigo Eyes
04. All Night Long
05. Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem
06. The Bewlay Brothers (David Bowie cover)
07. A Strange Kind of Love
08. The Rose
09. King Volcano (originally performed by Bauhaus)
10. Kingdom's Coming (originally performed by Bauhaus)
11. Silent Hedges (originally performed by Bauhaus)
12. Never Fall Out
13. Gaslit

14. Lion
15. The Three Shadows, Part I (originally performed by Bauhaus)
16. Hollow Hills (originally performed by Bauhaus)
17. Your Face

When Casual Strangers came out, I thought two of the members looked awfully familiar. I quickly realized they were Paul Waclawsky and Jaylinn Davidson of The Boxing Lesson, whom I had seen open for Murphy in 2014! However, instead of a rock-oriented approach with prominent lead guitar, this band aimed for a chilled-out, contemporary take on Kosmische Musik. Waclawsky still played some guitar, but in a more effect-laden, spaced-out manner, and he also played keyboards. Davidson again used a variety of keyboards, and they were joined by Katey Gunn (who looks like she could be a sister to Davidson) on electric slide guitar and keyboards and Jake Mitchell on drum pads, drum machines, and keyboards. It was a very synthetic experience, but one that worked. While very much a cosmic affair, there was just enough beat and noise to keep things interesting. It was relaxing and put me in a good mood.

[Casual Strangers.]

Peter Murphy was joined on this tour by longtime bassist/violinist Emilio DiZefalo-China and guitarist John Andrews. When they started out with "Cascade", they relied on some rather heavy-handed samples, and both of the accompanying musicians seemed to have little to do. It wasn't a great start, but thankfully the backing tracks did not reappear too often in the setlist. In fact, although a few other songs did use pre-recorded material ("All Night Long", "The Rose", "Gaslit", and "Your Face"), it was rarely ever again so obtrusive, and usually served to make the songs work well.

On the majority of the songs, the instrumental work was remarkable. DiZefalo-China was the star in that regard. For example, he played the great bass part and all the lead parts in "Indigo Eyes" on his fretless bass, and he adeptly applied effects and clever techniques on his violin to simulate the lead part of "The Bewlay Brothers" and the chromatic piano in "King Volcano". And even when he wasn't doing something unexpected, his bass work and lead violin parts were consistently great. Andrews was no simpleton, either: he mostly played acoustic guitar and filled out a wide variety of complex picking patterns. He occasionally switched to electric guitar, where he would make the songs come alive without overpowering them. He even brought out a bow for "Hollow Hills", which suited the song perfectly!

Peter Murphy himself was in good form as well. It was a bit odd to see him sit for just about the entire performance, but he also played more guitar than I've ever seen before ("Indigo Eyes", "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem", "A Strange Kind of Love", and "The Three Shadows, Part 1"). He might not be the most technically proficient guitarist, but he handles his 12-string guitar with a comfortable ease that makes me wish he'd use it even more. "The Three Shadows" was a real treat, even if Murphy's wordless vocal near the end was off-key. It was a somewhat unexpected choice, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that Murphy would play the main rhythm guitar part.

[Peter Murphy playing 12-string guitar.]

Other than that one bit of vocal faltering, Murphy's voice was soaring. He can still belt out huge songs seemingly effortlessly. His choice of songs was excellent, too: we got two great songs from the underappreciated Secret Bees of Ninth EP, one of the better tracks from Ninth itself, several classics from Murphy's heyday, and a total of five Bauhaus songs. The only weaker moments were "Cascade" (I wish he'd chosen anything else from that album!) and "Lion". Even "Lion" was a touch better than it is on record, and the other song from Lion, "The Rose", was certainly an improvement over the studio version. "The Bewlay Brothers" was a somewhat odd choice, but Murphy isn't new to covering Bowie, and he did it justice. The Bauhaus songs were all quite successful, and "Hollow Hills" was perhaps the best of the bunch: Murphy even played melodica in a few parts.

[Murphy on melodica for "Hollow Hills".]

It wasn't clear if Murphy would give us an encore. Several nights of this tour have not gotten one, or just a short one, and the last time I saw Murphy he didn't play his planned full encore. We were graced with a full four additional songs, and when Murphy reappeared, his only words were "I'm a black star, I'm not a gangster", quoting from the title track of David Bowie's last album, Blackstar. He also was adorned with a red rose attached on an armband, which he plucked apart and tossed on his backing musicians before "Your Face". Murphy didn't say much at all through the night, but he did walk to the very front of the stage at the end of that last song to shake hands with audience members. He finally broke a smile and acknowledged the adoration of the crowd.

Casual Strangers: B
Peter Murphy: A-