Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Andrew Bird - Live 2016.09.30 Stubb's, Austin, Texas (ACL Late Night Show)

I didn't particularly want to buy a ticket to the festival on Saturday just to see Andrew Bird, whom I've seen three times before, but when he announced a late night show after the festival on Friday, I jumped on that train. However, because I stayed to the end of the festival on Friday to see Radiohead, by the time I made it to Stubb's, the openers had long since finished and Andrew Bird was at least a half-hour into his set.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 30 September 2016
Opening Acts: Sinkane, Lucy Dacus
Event: Austin City Limits 2016 Late Night Show

Setlist (incomplete):
Left Handed Kisses
Roma Fade
Three White Horses
The Naming of Things
Valleys of the Young
Pulaski at Night

Give It Away [one mic]
My Sister's Tiny Hands [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
Fake Palindromes

Unfortunately I can't speak to the openers, and I haven't been able to find Bird's complete setlist elsewhere, so I can only provide what I witnessed. I was immediately surprised that the band was neither Bird's longtime accompanists (drummer Martin Dosh, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, bassist Mike Lewis) nor the crew from the last tour (bassist Alan Hampton, guitarist Tift Merritt, drummer Kevin O'Donnell, pedal steel player Eric Heywood). This time it was Ted Poor on drums, Steve Elliott on guitar, and a Luke whose last name I didn't catch on bass. (Apparently Hampton played on earlier dates of the tour.) While the band wasn't exceptional or experimental, they were really good and probably just a bit better than the last bunch.

I can make a decent guess as to what Bird played before I arrived based on the webcast of his festival appearance the next day and some his other recent setlists. It was probably several songs from the new album, Are You Serious, as well as a few classics like "Effigy" and "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left". There may have been a surprise cover or two. But from what I did see, he played several of the best songs from the new album, a few couple of his best songs from recent releases ("Three White Horses", "Pulaski at Night"), and a couple of his best older songs ("The Naming of Things", "Plasticities", and even "Fake Palindromes"). It came off as a very well-curated set balancing his various strengths.

"Left Handed Kisses" is a great single from the new album, albeit with a few phrases that always seemed oddly unbalanced for a singer that loves to fill space with clever wordplay. Playing it live without Fiona Apple's excellent parts proved a challenge, and although I kind of wished Bird had managed to cajole one of his bandmates into singing her parts, he did a modest job of doing it all himself. "Puma", meanwhile, is an impressively catchy song about his wife's chemotherapy. "Valleys of the Young" is slightly ridiculous and maybe a little more directly personal than Bird is used to, but I can appreciate the depth with which he weighs the decision of having children.

"Three White Horses" was the highlight of Hands of Glory (2012), and the version they played on stage also incorporated elements of the more atmospheric "Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses". It started slow and violin-driven, but then Elliott played a slide guitar solo before they suddenly picked up the pace and carried into a great rendition of the rest of the song. Bird has never one to be shy of having multiple versions of his best songs, which is also demonstrated by "Pulaski at Night". Originally the standout track from the otherwise instrumental I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP (2013), he released another (slightly inferior) version as just "Pulaski" on the deluxe edition of Are You Serious. The version they played live was a bit closer to the latter version, but yet it equaled the strength of the original.

Bird claims to have rarely played "The Naming of Things", which appears to be true, although it did appear on the Fake Conversations live EP given out for free to ticket buyers on the 2012 tour, and he played it when I saw him on that tour. It's one of his best songs, but he has a tendency to change the phrasing of it when performing it live, much like Lou Reed would. Bird is a much more talented singer than Reed, but it's still annoying to have the opportunity for singing along rendered practically impossible. On one hand, I like it when musicians can rearrange and reconfigure their songs live, but on the other, it can be alienating, especially when it is done to an artist's most well-known song, in this case "Fake Palindromes".

For the encore, Bird again reprised his one mic gimmick, although with the addition of the full drum kit. "Give It Away" is great song from Break It Yourself (2012), and "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is a typical example of the all-Handsome Family covers album, Things Are Great Here, Sort Of… (2014). While the album goes perhaps a bit too far, Bird has always done a good job of interpreting Handsome Family songs, and this song is no exception when presented in its own light. Both were well suited to the format.

I thoroughly enjoyed the part of the set I saw, so I wish I'd seen the full thing. The performance at the festival the following day was fairly similar, albeit condensed. For the shorter festival set, Bird dropped the one-mic section and focused mostly on uptempo, catchy numbers. However, he still managed to play a couple songs with lower-key, subtler sections ("Three White Horses" and "Pulaski at Night"). In both shows, he seemed to play to his proven strengths in the indie rock vein with limited crossover into the country/folk side of things. However, I'm still left with the impression that Bird is searching out new directions. His latest album is decidedly a return to indie rock after some brief diversions, but the directness of the lyrics is certainly a change. The album took a while to grow on me, but the live performance secured my impression that the new material stands up almost as well as his best work. I might still be waiting for a dramatic turn of events, but Bird is delivering satisfying music in the meantime.

Late night show: A-
Festival webcast: A-
Are You Serious: B+

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Austin City Limits Festival 2016, Weekend 1, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2016, Weekend 1, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 30 September 2016

My fourth year! Much like last year, the lineup seemed a bit weak to me, but it still wasn't hard to find a day I wanted to see. Actually, there were a few of acts scattered across the weekend that interested me, but they were thinly spread out and I was unconvinced to go for more than a single day. Since I had to work most of the day and I got inside the festival grounds a bit later than I was hoping, I missed Chairlift and Bombino, but I've seen the latter twice before, and I caught the former on the webcast the next morning.

I wasn't particularly excited about any of the bands playing for a couple hours, so I just picked things that seemed like they had at least a slight chance of being good. I started with Foals, a British band that kept switching contexts between indie rock and hard rock. The indie rock parts were tolerable, particularly when they leaned in an 80s new wave direction, but the harder stuff was just bland heavy riffing and some jarring screaming. I wasn't very impressed by the instrumental performances at any point. They kept threatening to break into big solos, but instead they just kept riffing more. They were missing something in the ways of nuance.

From there I wandered over to St. Lucia on the Miller stage while eating a burrito. I was totally unimpressed by their generic electronica, and the sound from the Cirrus Logic stage was fiercely interfering. I gave up and ended up going to that stage for Cold War Kids, who weren't much better and were also suffering from the cross-park noise. (Seriously, there were three stages all facing into the same section of crowd.) Cold War Kids at least had a decent piano rock vibe, but they came off as fairly generic pop rock. A few hints of Erasure slipped through, but filtered through acoustic piano and electric guitar. It struck me that when they stuck to keyboards, they had something going for them, but every time they'd switch to more guitars and it'd go downhill.

I was supposed to be meeting a friend around this time, but cell phone reception was so spotty near the entrance that we managed to miss each other and I gave up trying to find him after an initial search. I took the opportunity to see Flying Lotus after I missed my chance earlier this year due to the cancellation of Levitation. He was definitely as weird as I was expecting (seemingly just for the sake of weirdness), and he lived up to the reputation of being difficult to classify and categorize. However, this very confusion makes him rather fascinating to behold. He draws you in by forcibly keeping your attention purely with his creative instrumentals. His raps were fine, but the real draw is his skill with blending a psychedelic collage of samples.

Eventually I realized I'd better find my friend, so aided by better reception I went in search of him in the Tito's tent, where Corinne Bailey Rae was playing. She was nominally playing a pleasant take on soul, but she frequently diverted into dancier electronic pop territory. I was less excited by that, but she had a solid band and a great voice at any rate. The bassist was superb but unfortunately kept switching to keyboards to synthesize the instrument in a far inferior fashion.

[Corinne Bailey Rae.]

After a detour to the food stalls and the merch booth, we headed towards the Samsung stage to get a decent spot for Radiohead. Despite that we missed out on some other options in the meantime, it was probably worth it. Here's the setlist:

01. Burn the Witch
02. Daydreaming
03. Ful Stop
04. Airbag
05. How Soon Is Now? [The Smiths cover tease]
06. 2 + 2 = 5
06. The National Anthem
07. Bloom
08. Lotus Flower
09. The Gloaming
10. Exit Music (for a Film)
11. The Numbers
12. Identikit
13. Reckoner
14. Everything in Its Right Place →
15. Idioteque
16. Bodysnatchers
17. Street Spirit (Fade Out)

18. Give Up the Ghost
19. Paranoid Android
20. Nude
21. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
22. There There
23. Karma Police


Radiohead, again augmented by second drummer Clive Deamer, began the show predictably and rather inauspiciously. "Burn the Witch", nominally a song driven by rapidly bowed strings, was simulated by a chugging bassline and what seemed to be synth strings, but the energy suffered from the substitution and Thom's voice wandered a little too far off-key. "Daydreaming" works fine as the follow-up track on A Moon Shaped Pool, but on stage its loose, drifting atmosphere didn't help ground things any more than the opener did. Thankfully, the band opted to skip a few more low-key album tracks and dove straight into the higher-powered "Ful Stop", finally kicking things off in earnest. "Airbag" solidified the deal and was greeted by huge applause.

Pausing briefly for a breather, Thom Yorke started singing lines from The Smiths' classic "How Soon Is Now?". The audience sang along, but before they got too far, the band launched into "2 + 2 = 5". From that point onward, they basically played a conventional greatest-hits set, interrupted only briefly for two more songs from the new album: "The Numbers" and "Identikit". While those may be two of the best songs on the album, I was surprised that they only ended up playing five songs from A Moon Shaped Pool. (At least they skipped the redundant version of "True Love Waits" that is a downgrade from the I Might Be Wrong live version, which itself was a downgrade from the original 1995 live version.) They similarly only played three songs from the previous album, The King of Limbs, and they didn't play any of the non-album singles they released around that time.

In fact, they didn't play anything at all that could be considered unexpected or surprising. Even "Exit Music" is one of their regular numbers, and this performance was marred by a brief loss of sound amplification and by an unruly group near me that decided to shout at each other during the quiet start of the song. I was hoping for "Let Down" (which they've been playing surprisingly often on this tour), "Climbing Up the Walls", or anything they hadn't played in a long time, but to no avail. The last time I saw them, they played an obscure b-side ("The Amazing Sounds of Orgy") and a song that wouldn't be released for four years ("Identikit"), so my hopes weren't entirely unfounded.

That said, what they did play was superb after the first couple duds. I'll take "Reckoner" and "Nude" any day, and the audience was exceptionally excited for "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". I still think "Everything in Its Right Place" works best in its right place as a set- or show-closer, and while it seemed a little too brief this time around, I liked they way they ran it straight into "Idioteque", which they in turn brought to an uncommonly frenzied pitch. "Karma Police" would be hard to complain about, and Thom graced us with a singalong coda of the chorus before leaving the stage for good.

Considering the limits of the festival stage and the fact they haven't toured in four years, Radiohead still maintained a high standard of performance, and they covered a wide breadth of material from the large catalog they have available to draw from. The show was a good time, but it seemed like they were playing a bit by the numbers. There really weren't any surprises and little to make the show stand out in a positive way. Their stature is such that they could afford to experiment and play around, so it was disappointing that they didn't take the opportunity.

[Radiohead again.]

After leaving the festival grounds, I went to Stubb's to catch a late night show of Andrew Bird, which I will cover in the next post.

Foals: C-
St. Lucia: C-
Cold War Kids: C+
Flying Lotus: B
Corinne Bailey Rae: B-
Radiohead: B+

P.S. Foals' setlist is here, St. Lucia's is here, Cold War Kids' is here, Flying Lotus' is here, and Corinne Bailey Rae's is here.

P.P.S. Thanks to Jacob!