Archive for the ‘Shows’ Category

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Pitchfork Festival 2010

August 5, 2010

I went to the Pitchfork festival in Chicago in July. I saw many shows, most of which were great. On Friday, El-P rocked the mic hard and kicked off my festival experience with a bang. The surprise success of the day was Robyn, who’s energy onstage is contagious. She had the whole audience moving, and she proved that pop music can have a place in an indie festival. This is where the story gets sad; I decided to skip Broken Social Scene because I wanted to get close for Modest Mouse. I figured I had already seen them live and presently have a ticket to see them in DC in the Fall. Expect coverage of that show when the time comes. Modest Mouse played a fairly short set, drawing material mostly from their recent career. Their stage presence is undeniably electric; they kicked off the set with the epic Moon & Antarctica highlight “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” and from the beginning had everyone in their pockets.

Saturday was the weakest day of the festival, but it still had some great shows to offer. Real Estate and Delorean were early beach-pop highlights, and Kurt Vile rocked hard with his energetic backing band The Violators at stage B. Despite some technical difficulties and a wack DJ, Raekwon put on a great performance. He mostly played older material from Enter the Wu-Tang and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which he delivered with great enthusiasm. Also, he had breakdancing children, and you can’t say no to that. I really liked The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion even though I don’t know them that well. I give major props to artists I don’t know who really impress me. They had unprecedented energy and put on one of the festival’s better rock shows of the weekend. Wolf Parade were also great; they played “This Heart’s On Fire,” which pretty much made my day. Panda Bear, as expected, put on one of the weirder shows of the weekend, complete with electronic noise, sampling collages, yelping and crazy visuals. Amy liked it a lot, but I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it. I really like his more melody-based songs, but at it’s heart his set is about as strange and hyper-modern as it gets. I did like it, but I wasn’t quite sure why. Maybe that counts as a victory for Noah Lennox.

Sunday was without a doubt the strongest day. We started off seeing two Chicago bands, Alla and Cave. My old co-worker Jorge is the lead guitarist of Alla, and it was awesome seeing him and his band up on stage making a wonderful racket, with long, exciting progressive passages and a soulful latino flavor. We also really enjoyed seeing Cave at stage B, who’s long psychedelic jams sounded awesome in the shade of the trees. Next we lined up for Best Coast, one of the bigger buzz bands of this year. Their set was enjoyable. They played most of their more popular songs, clinching with “Something in the Way.” We stayed around and watched a bit of Washed Out‘s set, and then headed over to stage C for Beach House. They played beautifully as usual, and even drew on their back catalog quite a bit for numbers like “Master of None” and “Heart of Chambers.” And of course their newer songs all sounded great, especially “Used to Be.” Next up was Lightning Bolt, easily one of the crazier shows of the festival, as well as one of my favorites. The two Brians played fiercely to a moshy crowd. It was both technically impressive and energizing to hear the noise kings doing what they do best. After that, we got some dinner then headed back to stage A to wait for Major Lazer, which was arguably even crazier than Lightning Bolt. It was probably the most extreme set of the entire weekend: there was excessive alcohol consumption, dry-humping (the kids call it “daggering” these days), Chinese dragon costumes, ballerinas, lots of booty and of course Diplo’s awesome dance music. I didn’t see anything this weekend that was more involved; it was a blast. Finally, Pavement took the stage, and everyone couldn’t have been happier to see and hear them. They looked like they were having a blast, and their energy translated to their music very well. I could start firing off all the songs they played, but there’s no way that would do justice to the setlist. For me, “Gold Soundz” was the magical moment. It felt like the whole festival was leading up to this, and they couldn’t have done better.

I took a bunch of photos of the fest, and these are some of the better ones.

El-P

Robyn

Robyn

Modest Mouse (sorry about the heads and poor lighting- it's tough to take pictures late at night)

Delorean

Raekwon

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Wolf Parade

Panda Bear

Alla

Cave

Best Coast

Washed Out

Beach House

Lightning Bolt

Major Lazer

Pavement (again, sorry for the poor quality)

I’m heading off to Lollapalooza tomorrow, so expect some kind of coverage of that, too. I’ll also update soon on some of my favorite new music. Till then, au revoir!

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Three DC Concerts: Beach House, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, Gang Gang Dance

April 2, 2010

DC just had its arguably busiest week in concerts of the season. The city had shows from the likes of Beach House, Dum Dum Girls, Real Estate, Deerhunter, Spoon, Gang Gang Dance, The xx, A Sunny Day in Glasgow and jj. I personally hit up three shows in a five day period: Beach House, A Sunny Day in Glasgow and Gang Gang Dance.

Beach House at the Black Cat on Friday might have been the most hyped concert of the week for one of the most hyped bands of the year. They quite easily sold out the Black Cat and packed the Main Stage room full of eager fans. The precious Bachelorette opened, who got a fair bit of audience response, probably due in part to her quiet, cutesy New Zealandic accent. Her set mostly consisted of cleverly looped vocals, guitar strums, and drum machines that made for a well received whole. When Beach House stormed the stage, the crowd couldn’t have been happier, frequently letting loose “we love you Victoria!”s and other such words of praise. The band’s set was decent sized and was delivered as well as received with great enthusiasm. Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scalley actually move around on stage and have more energy than their slow, syrupy music might suggest. They played all but one song from their new album Teen Dream (sadly giving arguably the album’s best song, “Real Love,” the shaft) as well as a couple older numbers, even stretching back to their 2006 self-titled debut for “Master of None.” The encore was just perfect. They first played a crowd favorite from 2008’s sophomore album Devotion, “Astronaut,” and clinched the show with a spirited rendition of “10 Mile Stereo.” Although seeing Beach House live doesn’t differ much from  hearing them on an album, it stands that doing both is a breathtaking emotional experience, and I would say that just about everyone at the Black Cat on Friday had a great time.

Beach House

A Sunny Day in Glasgow played on Sunday at DC9, which might take the cake as DC’s smallest regular concert venue, but it is also one of its most rewarding. Its acoustics are nice and its setup puts the audience just feet away from the performers. We walked in a little late to just catch Phil and the Osophers play an enjoyable, playful pop set that felt similar to the likes of Vampire Weekend. Although it was a fairly innocuous set, I admit to wanting to hear more from the band, and I hope they had a good time at SXSW where they played just last week. When A Sunny Day in Glasgow got started, their set was unstoppable. Their live presence is something to be reckoned with, six band members on stage all doing different things for every song (a favorite moment was when Ben Daniels broke out an electric mandolin). The group focuses their powers around vocalists Annie Fredrickson and Jen Goma, who harmonize the songs’ airy vocals to lovely effect. Most of the songs they played sounded better than the studio versions, which were already superb (recall my naming Ashes Grammar one of the best albums of this past decade). They played through new favorites like “White Witch,” “Failure” and “Passionate Introverts” with lovely vitality. The biggest disappointment of the show was the lack of an encore; they played through a rather short set and could have easily extended it to better please the crowd, but that was about their only shortcoming. They will surely have my ticket sale the next time they come to town.

A Sunny Day in Glasgow

The wait for Gang Gang Dance at the Rock ‘n Roll Hotel on Tuesday was long, and opening act High Life only made it feel longer. His high pitched squeals over noisy effects loops were maybe an appropriate way to ease the audience into Gang Gang Dance’s set, but it was still hardly appreciated except by a select few near the stage. He later made up for the set by acting as Gang Gang Dance’s much needed bass player, who gave the main band’s music the strong under-melody it needed. This was particularly important because Gang Gang Dance played so loud that it was sometimes difficult to hear what one was hearing, and a strong sense of melody as well as rhythm was needed to make sense of the raucous din. This situation could have been disastrous if the acoustics were different and the sound was too noisy, but Gang Gang narrowly hit a bullseye mark that got most of the audience nodding and bobbing in a narcotic haze. All of the songs they played were new, some melodic and most all featuring beats and melodies that sound like they come straight from Saudi Arabia or India. The only tune I recognized was the shimmering “Crystals,” which featured steel drum sound effects and twinkling synthesizers. We can hope that this song, as well as the others we heard that night, will make it onto Gang Gang’s next proper studio LP. Overall I’d say the venue housed a great amount of satisfied customers, considering the band surprisingly almost packed the house. But we need to remember that Gang Gang are a noise band, and though their noise is beautiful, it is still willfully cacophonous, and should be judged appropriately.

Gang Gang Dance

Overall, I had a really awesome time at all of these shows. Conclusion: DC has a lot of great shows, some of which are highly attended and some that aren’t, and if you pick and choose well enough, you can get more than your money’s worth for a night, or week, of fun.

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Pitchfork Festival 2009

August 4, 2009

This year was my first year attending all three days of the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and it was a great success, not just for me as a music fan and concert goer but also for the vast majority of the bands there and for Pitchfork as an organizer. I had a blast all weekend, and I saw a ton of bands play great shows. I typically find myself reluctant to stay in one place for a long time at festivals like this, and the Pitchfork Festival is in a smaller park that is easily navigable, so it wasn’t hard for me to zip around and see many acts for maybe as long as half of their total sets, and that’s just fine. I like that wider exposure to live music, and the more the merrier. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures at the festival this year, and I’m not about to steal anyone else’s for my own use, but I do think a visual accompaniment to descriptions of this festival are important, so I’d like to direct you to Pitchfork’s coverage of the festival, which is just getting started but has some pretty great pictures and interviews up for your enjoyment.

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7687-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-friday-and-saturday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7688-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-sunday/

http://pitchfork.com/features/photos/galleries/726-pitchfork-music-festival-2009-portraits/

There are also some great videos up on pitchfork.com with more to come, and I would recommend you check those out too. Also, youtube and google are always your friends. A simple “[band name]” + “Pitchfork Festival” search on either will yield positive results for both videos, reviews and pictures, so go for it.

I don’t think there is a better way for me to really start talking about the weekend then to just dive in, so I’ll start with the first day and just plow through.

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On Friday, just four bands were slated to play uncontested, elongated sets in the beautiful Union Park. Chicago band Tortoise was the first band to play, as well as the first band to adhere to the “You Write the Night” lineup, which involves bands playing songs that ticket buyers have voted for via online polls. With Tortoise, this didn’t matter so much to me, because I don’t know Tortoise well enough yet to mention songs I really like by them, at least beyond stuff on Millions Now Living Shall Never Die, which I have always liked. The show was slow moving and highly textured. This was very much a hushed and atmospheric show, which while interesting enough to listen to wasn’t particularly interesting to watch. We left early to get good spots for Yo La Tengo, because although we liked Tortoise well enough, we were getting kind of bored. The fact that we left the Tortoise show so early meant something, and I would learn soon enough exactly how it influenced the rest of the weekend.

Yo La Tengo completely embodied the contrasts of types of live shows that I would end up seeing during the weekend and in turn became even more of a foreshadowing of the weekend to come. The band’s meticulous show involves both hushed, quieter pop arrangements (“Stockholm Syndrome,” “Mr. Tough,” “Autumn Sweater”) and loud, winding noise pieces (“Pass the Hatchet I’m Feeling Goodkind,” probably the longest song performed at Pitchfork this year). Some friends I know who have already seen Yo La Tengo in smaller club environments said the band suffered a bit from the festival setup, but I think they were a great deal of fun and are a band that excel in any environment. Once again, their songs contrast with one another, some being soft pop pieces, and others loud noise jams, when Ira Kaplan does things with a guitar I never thought possible.

The show that weekend I was easily the most excited about was The Jesus Lizard. I’d psyched myself up for that show for weeks, really gotten pumped about it, got there early in order to get pretty close, and could barely contain myself by the time the band went on. I would be disrespecting both myself and the band if I called it anything other than the best show I’ve ever seen. David Yow couldn’t have affirmed everyone’s hopes any better than by screaming “AW, SHADDAP!” into the mic before they tore into “Puss” with Yow launching himself into the audience and crowd surfing. Getting back on the stage and having the entire crowd yell along with him “get ‘er outta the truck!” was easily one of the greatest moments of the entire festival.

Yow is the spirit of the band, his vocals menacing and apparently not diminished in the slightest despite the band’s ten year absence. What also struck me is how fearless he was to crowd surf. The band members are almost fifty, and they’re still putting on shows as dangerous and incredible as they did in their heyday. The entire band had a ton of energy, and they got the audience really involved, and not just by means of having people support (and sometimes shove whisky bottles in the face of) Yow. Duane Denison and David Sims have written some of the dirtiest, catchiest riffs in noise rock history, and their live delivery is fast, energetic and compelling. Also, I’ve seen some pretty good drum performances, but I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say Mac McNeilley gets the gold medal for this one. He just beat the living shit out of that kit, and rhythmically propelled everyone both on stage and in the audience. To top it all off, the band played every song I really wanted them to play. This is the show that made me realize what I wanted to make of the rest of the weekend; this weekend I wanted to rock.

How anyone could even begin to try to follow up that show is beyond me, but Built to Spill seemed like a good closer, because not everyone at Pitchfork is into hard rock, and Built to Spill is a little more fun for the whole family. We stayed closer to the back for this one and we didn’t regret it much; not only were we tired but it also seemed like the band’s delivery didn’t differ much from their albums. Granted, Built to Spill are always a treat to listen to, and even listening to them from far away when we were really tired was nice, though not much more exciting than Tortoise. They did end up playing “Else,” possibly my favorite Built to Spill tune, and I was really happy about that.

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On Saturday morning we took the train downtown, got food at Jamba Juice and Potbelly, and got to Union Park in time to catch Plants and Animals, who played a pretty good show. I don’t know them that well and really don’t have much of anything to say about them except that I do remember their drumming was interesting (although not quite as interesting as that of Caribou, who we saw playing on the same stage exactly a year earlier).

I left early to get a good spot for Fucked Up, who played one of the best sets of Saturday. I didn’t have any problem choosing between Fucked Up and The Antlers; the previous day helped me know what I wanted, and I wanted energy. And the energy and coordination which the band exercised during the show was incredible. The entire band seemed excited to be there and played well, but vocalist Damian Abraham took the spotlight. After crushing a half full beer can on his head right before the band started at a sprint with (I believe) “Son the Father,” “Pink Eyes” Abraham quickly de-shirted himself, caught beach balls which he began to bite chunks out of and deflate instantaneously (he wore one of the things as a hat) and jumped down into the press pit to get right next to the audience, where he stayed for most of the show.

These guys really played a loud, fun hardcore punk show, and they dished out a lot of fun antics. Abraham seemed to be a really nice, straightforward guy when he talked to the audience, but when he locked in during a song, he got vicious. I remember him tearing apart a baby doll, and the poor thing’s head whizzed right by my face and landed on the ground. Epic. He also gave the crowd a more than respectable score of 9.9, which as he mentioned was higher than “that Animal Collective album which I thought sounded exactly like Phish.”

After Fucked Up I moved to the Connector Stage to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. I have grown to like their debut album a lot. Typical shoegaze, yes, but pretty good shoegaze, and I hoped they could be great in concert. But unfortunately the show was just about the only bad show I saw all weekend. The biggest problem was that everyone just wasn’t loud enough. We could blame this on the festival sound system, which I have heard other complaints about, but The Jesus Lizard had no problem being loud as fuck on the previous day. The guitars, especially, needed to get turned way up. But that wouldn’t really have saved Kip Berman from a glassy-eyed, mediocre vocal performance. It was a lousy show. It happens. I left quite early.

The Balance stage is the smallest stage at the festival, off in the opposite corner of the park as the Aluminum and Connector stages. It is usually the stage that has either the loudest or quietest bands of the festival, and I spent a good half of my time at the festival on Saturday and Sunday at the Balance stage. By the time I got there, Bowerbirds were nearly done with their set and the area was packed, so I couldn’t get close enough to observe anything beyond the fact that they were very quiet and enjoyable enough. But they were followed up by a definite powerhouse, Ponytail, who took full command of the stage. The band’s albums almost beg for a live experience. Instrumentally, Ponytail are only one of the best noise rock bands you’ve ever heard, but when you factor in the vocals, you’ve got a band that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there. Molly Siegel and Dustin Wong make one of the oddest vocal duos in indie rock, less screaming so much as emoting with animal noises, tongue rolls and martial arts war cries.

Siegel, who donned an awesome lime green Michael Jackson t-shirt on this day (it looked like Jackson was jumping up and down as she did) is the main offender, switching back and forth between distinctive demeanors. The first is when she is screaming at the top of her lungs, and the second is when she is smiling widely, which really brings out the fact that she’s extremely pretty. Then there’s the backward head tilt accompanying an expression which suggests she’s either having some kind of fit or is about to sneeze. The energy and volume at this show was very important and rewarding for fans of Ponytail, because as good as they are on record, they only get better when they play live. When Ponytail lock in, they lock the fuck in, and the show was excellent.

I was excited to see Yeasayer at the Connector stage, just as I was excited to see them six months earlier. I’ve seen Yeasayer a grand total of three times now and each one has been unforgettable. The first-listen home run at Lollapalooza last year left my jaw at my feet, and their show at the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington D.C. was a show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Their set at Pitchfork was much like those other two shows and yet somewhat different. Yeasayer still have the chops to put on an engaging and energetic show, but here they played a more relaxed set with a slightly altered lineup (two new members on percussion) and had a couple new songs in store. One of those new songs was a dancey piece that they played just as the weekend’s only, brief rain shower began. Luckily it only lasted long enough to cool everyone off and added to the spiritual effect of the rhythmic piece. The band also played some crowd favorites from their first album All Hour Cymbals, such as “Sunrise” (which accompanied the sun breaking out of the clouds), “2080,” and “Wait for the Summer,” as well as “Tightrope,” which was featured on the Red Hot Organization compilation Dark Was the Night earlier this year.

I went over to the side of the Aluminum Stage with some friends to catch DOOM‘s set, which by the way is a great strategy for seeing acts up close at a festival. That is, just get to the close side of the stage where the audience is thin and you can typically see just as well as if you were front and center, especially for a hip hop act like DOOM who is bound to be towards the front of the stage anyway. So we got pretty close, and actually got to see the masked villain backstage from where we were standing, albeit fifteen minutes later than we should have. When he finally showed up on stage in a guille suit, the large DOOM and his even larger and more involved hype-man got the audience moderately pumped for a show that would befuddle me more than anything.

DOOM’s lyrics and flow are top notch (I still found myself laughing outloud at “Don’t talk about my moms, yo” during “All Caps”) and his backing beats are always sick, but it become obvious after just a few minutes onstage that the tubby menace wasn’t going to do a hell of a lot more than keep his mic close to his face and walk around a little. I enjoyed this enough, because DOOM is a great rapper, but I was hoping for more. And as I would later learn, rumors quickly began to circulate that this was yet another imposter / lip-syncing show. My lack of experience with DOOM’s catalogue and live shows prevents me from being able to lend any credibility to this claim, but if it turned out to be true I would be both disappointed and unsurprised. Regardless of this, DOOM’s show was much like a piano performance at a cocktail shindig, both technically sufficient and unexciting, and did little to add to the context of DOOM as either a recording artist or live performer.

After DOOM, we had a bit of an easygoing half hour or so, taking time to use the restroom (long lines!), get some good food, and listen to Beirut from far away. My remorse for not being up close to Beirut was pretty minimal, not by any means suggesting that they played poorly. Quite the contrary, Beirut sound just as good live as they do on record. But at that point in time, I felt that what these guys were doing on stage was all well and good but just not what I wanted. I wanted loud. It was about then that I made a pretty one-sided decision between the day’s headliners, The National (who I skipped at Lollapalooza last year for Love and Rockets) and The Black Lips (who, also at Lollapalooza last year, put one of the weekend’s best shows). We decided to run over to the Balance Stage so that we could try to get a good spot for the Atlanta hooligans.

To our surprise, Matt & Kim hadn’t yet gotten on stage by the time we got there. They were almost a half hour late, dwarfing DOOM’s delay. We got pretty close to the stage and I’m glad we did, because when the NYC duo got on stage, they put on one of the absolute best shows of the weekend. I can’t imagine a two-piece band doing more damage than these guys. They looked like they wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else in the world then on the stage at that time, they were funny, they were nice, they talked to the audience, and they gave their everything for the entire set. Matt screamed and played the keyboard as energetically as anyone I have ever seen, and Kim smiled a wide smile and just beat the living shit out of her kit. Seriously, she played those drums hard. You see some people really pull back their arms to hit the drums, and so often it’s all show, and you can tell just by looking at them. But Kim was pulling back far because she was killing those things.

There was also a shocking sincerity at the show: Matt did a handstand only to remind us afterward that he’s still wearing a back brace that his mother makes fun of him for, and Kim told us that the Beyonce show they attended was incredible and proceeded to get low onstage. There was so much energy in this show and so many great songs: “Yea Yeah,” “Daylight,” “Lightspeed,” “Cutdown,” “Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare”… Watching Matt & Kim as the sun was setting was an absolute pleasure and one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had. And the main reason for this is because they got it across to me that they were having just as much fun as I was.

Once again, it’s not easy to follow a truly awesome band like that, but The Black Lips don’t give a shit about anyone’s expectations of them. Their show at Pitchfork was much more of a balls-out punk show than when I saw them last at Lollapalooza. That show, as excellent as it was, was more of a traditional festival show, because Lollapalooza is a high brow festival that really keeps their bands in line. But when you put a punk band on a small stage like the Balance Stage, shenanigans become possible, and the Black Lips are known for their antics. Some of those antics included a smashed guitar after the first song, the typical man-on-man making out between guitarists, inviting the crowd onstage against the Pitchfork staff’s wishes, and spraying a fire extinguisher into the press pit. One of my good friends and Black Lips enthusiast claimed that these acts seemed planned out, and they very well may have been, but only by the band themselves; that guy getting screamed at backstage by security was definitely not planned.

And to be fair, the antics at a show like this are as much part of the experience as the music itself, which was loud and rowdy as well. There is definitely something to be said for a show that feels this edgy and dangerous. These guys have found their identity, and unlike Matt & Kim, they might actually benefit from going out there on stage and being grumpy and mean and violent. But they weren’t, and we remember that the Black Lips are as much entertainers as they are punks. “I like my audience a little closer to me than this,” said guitarist Jared Swilley before inviting the crowd on stage. Some of them made it up there, and some of them got leveled by security, but I’ll be damned if all of us didn’t wish we could have at least tried. The band were a very good choice for a headliner and put on a really fun show.

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On the morning of Day 3 of the festival, we arrived downtown pretty damn tired, which isn’t unreasonable for Day 3 of any festival. We decided to have lunch at Wishbone, and on the way there we met up with Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton. Of course we didn’t have much to say to him except “you played a great show!” and he probably didn’t want to waste his time with us, but he was really nice and shook our hands.

After coffee, eggs, pancakes and potatoes, we were off to Union Park again and got there in time to catch Blitzen Trapper. I thought they played pretty well, but I’m going to be honest, I really don’t remember much of anything about them, and I did remember a lot of other first-listen buzz bands that weekend. Nice folk melodies. That doesn’t really help you much, does it? By this time in the weekend, my appetite for loud music was still in full force and I was just kind of bored with folk music.

Organized Konfusion member Pharoahe Monch was my next show at the Connector Stage, and he was definitely the better of the two hip hop shows this weekend. It helped that his DJ was a lot of fun and very skillful, unlike a lot of the other live DJs I have seen, but Monch really took the show. To me, it’s important for a hip hop artist to hype up the show, but doing it too much is just annoying. The other two hip hop shows I’ve seen this year were very polarized and both less than what I was expecting. Mos Def was far too much hype and DOOM was far too much substance, but Monch struck the balance between these elements with ease, spitting rhymes and moving around as well as getting the audience to raise their hands and sing along when they didn’t already know the words. We also see the rare case of other on-stage singers really contributing a lot to the show. I don’t know who the backup singers were, but they were funny and sang great. This was what a hip hop show should be like: fun. For all I knew, DOOM didn’t care about the show he was playing. But Monch seemed really happy to rock Chicago, and we were happy to have him.

Up next were Sub Pop punks The Thermals. To my surprise, I heard more complaints about The Thermals than any other band at Pitchfork this year. What happened to a little respect? I thought these guys were great, and you know what, I love a little pop-punk and was happy to hear their set. Samesy? Alright, I can see that. It started to get a little bit like that for me, but I’m not really familiar with their output. But for another band I’d never heard before, I definitely got a lot of fun out of their show. I’m guessing they took into consideration that not everybody in the audience had heard them before, so they played a lot of awesome covers which tickled my ’90s alt-rock fancy, specifically songs by Sonic Youth (“100%”), Nirvana (holy shit, “Sappy”!), Green Day (“Basket Case”) and The Breeders (“Saints”). So yes, maybe they weren’t the most exciting band on Sunday, but they were good enough for me to want to look into them further.

The Walkmen may have been the classiest band of the entire weekend. And I’m not sure exactly why I think this. Maybe it is because they are by this time indie rock veterans, or maybe it was how well dressed they were, or it could be their seasoned, classic style, or perhaps their calm demeanor that contrasted with their spirited playing. Whatever the reason, this band just got up there and sounded like a million bucks. First and foremost, frontman Hamilton Leithauser has charisma, and he makes his excellent vocals seem cool and composed, but definitely not effortless. While belting out the harder lyrics on songs like “The Rat,” you can really tell that he’s working hard. The band mostly played songs from their latest album, the tropical You & Me, which as far as I’m concerned is all for the better, because I think it’s their best album yet. For a few songs, they even brought out a horn section, and some songs like “In The New Year” got really strong crowd response. What was great about The Walkmen, among other things, was that they could be emotional, loud and fun as well as professional.

I spent the next two hours or so at the Balance stage, and I showed pretty late in garage-rock band Japandroids‘ set, which was a damn shame because what I saw of them I liked an awful lot. Another two piece band (I seem to take a big liking to two-piece rock bands), the couple minutes I saw of them really rocked hard and provided some really memorable tunes. Seeing the guitarist up above the drummer, practically as one unit, really got me excited. So kudos to them for only needing three minutes to get me going; they have my attention and interest.

After this set my back and legs were pretty tired, so I allocated myself in front of a tree. So I would both have something to lean on and my height wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. I watched the Vivian Girls from afar, for the second time actually. The first time I saw them they opened for M. Ward at the Sixth and I Synagogue and I don’t think I gave them nearly as much credit as they deserved. The Vivian Girl’s music and live shows are covertly excellent. I thought their show in D.C. was fun but for whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling it that night and I made the assumption that the Vivian Girls were another sub-par garage rock band.

But I soon found that their debut album from last year is just incredible, but very humbly so, and their music didn’t really click with me until I sat down and gave it my full attention. So I jumped at the chance to give their live show another chance and I’m glad I did. Granted, the Vivian Girls are a band that doesn’t particularly benefit from the festival setting. They are a fast and loud punk band and the sound translates better in small indoor venues, and their stage presence is pretty simple. They rock hard and they’re fun to watch, but they don’t offer anything particularly exciting. So this show was pretty relaxed and less about what they could provide for me, and more about what I owed them. When I think about it, that’s not what a show should be like, but I try not to think too hard about shows like this. They make it easy for me to sit back and enjoy myself.

After Vivian Girls on the Balance Stage were Danish rockers Mew, which to me seemed like a bit of a weird pick for the festival. Maybe I only say that because because their genres are very far away from one another despite the fact that they work well together. Dream pop isn’t out of P4Ks interests but progressive rock typically is. In any case, Mew were about as polished looking as The Walkmen, and their set was similarly orchestrated. The songs aren’t much different live than on record, but they’re still a treat to see be performed. There was an air of confidence at this show during songs like “Special” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” that definitely strengthened my love for them, when at points in my history with Mew there would be moments where I would say to myself “Am I supposed to be loving this?”

Yes, they have pretty faces, and yes, they are shamelessly as much of a pop band as they are a rock band, but their live sound really affirmed Duke Ellington’s famous ultimatum: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Mew sound great live, and though they may not be doing backflips on stage, they look like they are enjoying themselves and their communication with one another is interesting. Their new songs are also fascinating. “Introducing Palace Players” is a damaged, experimental rock tune, and if it is any indication of their new album’s quality or ambition, then we have a lot to look forward to. Also worthy of note is that these guys put on one of the loudest shows of the weekend. How they got that bass tone is beyond me. It rocketed out of the speakers without being rumbling or intrusive on the treble, and it permeated the air around the Connector and Aluminum stages, all the way across Union Park.

And that’s where I was after about half of Mew’s set, so I could listen to Grizzly Bear as well as get a decent spot for the Flaming Lips. Unfortunately, I really can’t say much of anything about Grizzly Bear. I like them well enough, but they were an afterthought to me compared to the band’s that flanked them in my schedule. I’m not big enough of a fan to say that much about their show, especially as viewed from far away, except they had several foot tappers and I liked them just fine.

But everyone knew what the highlight of the festival was going to be. It was apparent from the minute they were announced in the lineup and visualized that morning when The Flaming Lips‘ giant orange stage was already towering on the Aluminum Stage. And by the time the Lips got on stage, their setup was, as expected, like nothing any of us had seen before, unless we had already seen a Flaming Lips show. But with that said, what was on the Aluminum stage was almost light years ahead of their setup at the Earth Day Festival on the National Mall. The Flaming Lips had an entire day to set this up and had just about no limits as to what they could or could not do. There is really no way to communicate the band’s unique elements unless I forthrightly list them:

The giant light screen was dazzling and mostly showcased dancing naked women. One of these women went into birthing position and The Flaming Lip’s descended from her incandescent vagina. They were joined on stage by people dressed up in frog and cat suits, and later, a giant gorilla which lead singer Wayne Coyne rode on the back of. And how can we forget the giant bubble which Coyne crowd surfs in? Confetti. Shitloads of confetti blasting from cannons. And balloons. Lots of balloons.

The visual aspect of a Flaming Lips show is enough to make it a spectacle, but like last time I saw them, the real deciding factor was the music itself. The Flaming Lips were the fifth and final band to adhere to the “Write the Night” and ultimately the one that decided it’s overall outcome. The Flaming Lip’s have notoriously played just about the same set with few switchups for years. Getting them on the Write the Night roster would have ideally forced them to dig out some obscurities from their back catalogue, but as probably everyone expected and as Coyne explained, voting list in hand, everyone knows what the most popular Flaming Lips songs are, and they almost always play them anyway.

But the band seemed to get the general gist of how everyone could benefit from this system, and they did pull out some obscure numbers, specifically “Bad Days” off of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, “Enthusiasm for Life Defeats Internal Existential Fear” (yeah, you heard me) from the Fearless Freaks compilation, and even “Mountain Side” from In a Priest-Driven Ambulance. In addition to these rarities, the band also performed two new songs from their forthcoming double album Embryonic, the tribal “Silver Trembling Hands” and the jam “Convinced of the Hex.” Reception of the new songs seems to be very mixed, but my personal opinion is that they are a good sign for a return to the Lips’ earlier styles. These songs made this show pretty unique for the Flaming Lips, but there were still some familiar sights and sounds.

The band also played their more popular songs and live staples: “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test,” “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” “She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Do You Realize??” all made appearances, and many were delivered in the same way that caused me to complain about the last Flaming Lips show I attended. Three and a half of those aforementioned songs were drawn out singalongs. Which brings me to my biggest problem with the Flaming Lips’ live show. They waste too much time. Wayne Coyne, despite the fact that we would all go nuts over him blowing his nose, talks too much on stage, and the singalongs just get annoying and see the rest of the band sitting around not doing anything, waiting for the next song. When they do go full on instrumental, the band sounds incredible, and I can only imagine how awesome live, full electric versions of songs like “Fight Test” and “She Don’t Use Jelly” would sound. I can only imagine, because I’ll probably never see them. The band’s setlist seemed over before it started with eleven songs total, a teaser for all the setup that it no doubt took.

But when all is said and done, there is still no live act even remotely like The Flaming Lips, for better or worse. They look, sound, and feel completely unique. They aren’t perfect, but they would never pretend they are. They want their audience to be involved and have a fun time, and no one gets their audience involved and having fun quite like The Flaming Lips. Despite my complaints, it’s a show you’re going to want to see at least once, if not as many times as possible.

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Overall, Pitchfork Music Festival 2009 was an overwhelming success and really pushed the festival to the upper echelons of Summer music festivals to get excited about. There is more than just a little for everyone, and this year’s festival was particularly awesome. It may not get as many big names as festivals like, say, Lollapalooza, but this works to it’s advantage, and it ends up a more focused, energetic, manageable festival experience. Even though 2009 was only the festival’s forth year, it feels like it has been around much longer. The quality of the festival already rivals or even surpasses other Summer Chicago music festivals, and if Pitchfork can manage to keep it a comparably low-key, controlled explosion of great music, we’re still at the beginning of the event’s golden years.

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Earth Day Festival

April 20, 2009

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything in a long time. I’ve kind of been having a rough couple of weeks. Beyond it being the final paper rush and the start of the time in which I really need to crack down on studying for finals, I also have a kidney stone which has pretty much been the bane of my existence for the past week in a half. I have been in ER three times and otherwise been in a great deal of pain or distraction due to medication, so things just haven’t been conducive to writing. With that said, I’m feeling a little better now and thought I would check in briefly.

Today (yesterday I guess considering it is after midnight now) was a good break. It will be the fortieth annual Earth Day on Wednesday, and in celebration of the event, the Earth Day Foundation held the Green Apple Festival in major cities throughout the country this weekend, with different musical artists performing to crowds of the “Green Generation.” Not surprisingly, Washington DC got the most sizable and significant lineup: DJ Spooky, Los Lobos, moe., and The Flaming Lips were the musical artists that the crowds got to see on the National Mall in front of the Capitol Building.

The format of the festival was frustrating, to say the least- about half of it consisted of environmentalists and famous people (no less a still completely unfunny Chevy Chase) speaking/screaming about the importance of the “Green Generation” to an unresponsive audience. It is hard to say how much the audience actually cared about the environment, but it is doubtful that any of the speakers really made an impact. For the most part, they spent too much time talking about how importang “going green” and having green jobs are, but they said almost nothing about how people can do their part on the individual level. The exception was a guy who mentioned how much riding bikes can help the environment- fair enough. But in general, the speakers were only tasks to go through on the way to the musical acts.

I arrived a little before Los Lobos came on stage, who played very well. I don’t know much about their legacy, but for a thirty-five year old band, they sure put on a fun, energetic show, and were one of the highlights of the day. DJ Spooky’s thankfully brief set consisted mostly of Radiohead and Jimi Hendrix samples, poor scratching, and footage of Antarctica. I’m not really much for jam bands, so moe. didn’t impress me much, but they had some pretty cool guitar solos. Keep in mind, for all of this, the price doesn’t get better- completely free.

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But all of us knew who we were there for. The Flaming Lips took a long time setting up, but this is pretty understandable; the band is known for their elaborate sets, and ultimately the wait was well worth it. Wayne Coyne came up on stage and talked to the audience during the long setup, which he also apologized for, but I’m pretty sure no one would have held it against him if he didn’t apologize. The truth of it is, I’ll bet the festival setup for the FLips is difficult. There is an awful lot to set up in a short amount of time, the audience has to watch them doing it, and they don’t have the benefits of their typical shows, which include projectors and UFOs which are hard to pull off at a festival.

Even considering their repertoire was probably curtailed, the wait was more than well rewarded: the stage theatrics included the notorious crowd-surfing hamster ball, a lights-flashing gong, dancers in costume, smoke machines, strobe lights, the giant hands and confetti blasters. The confetti was of particular concern, which Coyne addressed right after the band’s first song, “Race for the Prize,” in which they were utilized. According to him, they were told not to use them at the show in spirit of Earth Day and not polluting, but they did it anyway. He made it very clear that he trusted us to pick up the confetti after the show, and if Wayne Coyne tells me to jump, I ask how high, and just about everyone around me did their part afterwards in helping to pick up the confetti.

It might seem like these antics are all frosting on the cake, but I’m a strong believer that audience involvement is a wonderful thing for a live show, and it is hard to pull off. The bottom line is that no one gets anywhere close to audience involvement like The Flaming Lips, and that is a wonderful, important thing. The visual fun of their shows go hand in hand with the music, which was just as impressive as I was expecting. What really struck me in particular was the drumming of Kliph Scurlock, who hammered away at that kit when the opportunity provided and added an important element of energy to the music.

The band played a very rounded set, playing some older tunes as well as some newer ones. Granted, it’s not like I was expecting any really obscure songs, but they played “Lightning Strikes the Postman” off of Clouds Taste Metallic and a cover of Madonna’s “Borderline,” quite nice surprises. And of course they played the hits, such as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize??” These are singalong classics, which makes Coyne’s decision to make them singalongs at their concerts justified, but they did this a grand total of five times, sometimes for entire songs, and by the last one I was getting a little sick of it. I would have much rather that the band went all out on Fight Test and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, but seeing these songs performed live was a gift, and it’s up to them how they want to do it.

In any case, the Flaming Lips are an incredible live band, and I thoroughly enjoyed this show and look forward to enjoying them yet again at the Pitchfork Festival over the Summer. Expect to have a full critique of the lineup once all of it becomes available…I’m thinking we are missing a headliner for Saturday, so I’d like to wait until that is known. Also, I’ll be seeing Spoon next weekend, and that will probably be worth writing about. I wrote down the setlist to today’s Lips show, which is as follows:

Race For the Prize
Lightning Strikes the Postman
Fight Test
Borderline (Madonna Cover)
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1
Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung
The W.A.N.D.
She Don’t Use Jelly
Do You Realize??

EDIT: Also, I apologize for the lack of Radio Cure last week. I had to cancel the show because of my illness. This Wednesday will be the last Radio Cure of the semester, so make sure not to miss it- the playlist is going to be lots of fun.

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Asobi Seksu Live at the Rock N Roll Hotel, 3/28/09

March 30, 2009

As I write this, my legs feel like Jell-O. Actually, my brain feels like Jell-O too, mostly because I am extremely tired. I have been a tour guide for three days. I never thought being a tour guide could be so fun or rewarding. I saw Asobi Seksu play at the Rock N Roll Hotel two nights ago. There are big Xs on my hands, still. Faded but still present.

The Rock N Roll hotel is, apparently, way far off from any Metro stations. The closest was the Union Station stop. From there I had to walk East about fifteen blocks on H St., into a seedy neighborhood. Both on the way there and back, the landscape of the damp, foggy streets were almost devoid of any other people, making the walk that much more eerie, and also that much easier for me to be able to stop and take some nice photos.

As it turns out, the Rock N Roll Hotel is a hole in the wall. Granted, it is a pretty cozy hole in the wall, and not an unenjoyable place to see a concert. It is just about the tiniest of clubs. I’m used to there being a division between the audience and the performers at the concerts I go to, but at the Hotel, there was none. It goes from floor to stage immediately. You could probably lean on the amps and no one would stop you. I didn’t have to show up early to end up being ten feet from lead singer Yuki Chikudate, and that was really nice. You get the feeling that you are connected to the artist the closer you are to them. Of course, I never really feel the need to be way up close for concerts, but for some reason, it felt important to me last night that I was able to be close.

The opening acts were good. The first act was local band Detox Retox, and while disco emo just isn’t my thing, they played well, did a pretty faithful version of Transmission by Joy Division (nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeves), and came out into the audience afterward to say hi to everybody and really they were just the nicest guys.

Aw, shucks.

Three-piece Detroit punk band Tyvek are the opening act that is touring with Asobi Seksu. They are Wire sound-alikes, but they are actually pretty great sound-alikes. Their stage presence is odd. The lead singer is frenetic and fast moving, the drummer plays standing up and seems to run through drumsticks every song, and the bass player almost catatonically calm. “Can you drive a Honda like I can drive a Honda?”

Then Asobi Seksu got up on stage to set up their gear, and after some sound issues got resolved, they started to play.

I hesitate to say that it was the loudest show I’ve ever been to, but now, two days later, my ears are still ringing. My ears haven’t rang for this long in a year, the last comparable time being when I attended the Hives’ show in Chicago, during which I and my group of friends allocated ourselves directly in front of the amps in the front row. That is a show we still refer to as “stupid loud.” Our ears rang for about a week after that.

Asobi Seksu may have been louder. It’s hard to tell, because I am pretty sure I got permanent ear damage from the aforementioned show, and therefore my hearing is now different. In any case, Asobi Seksu were really loud, but not “stupid loud.” The impression that I got from the Hives was that an extremely loud concert had to be “stupid loud.” But what really captured me about Asobi Seksu’s volume was how little it got in the way of the sonic detail which Asobi Seksu incorporate into their albums. At one time I thought incredible volume and that detail were mutually exclusive.

But Asobi Seksu are really all about detail. James Hannah and Yuki Chikudate, the core members of the band, make up the majority of the wall of sound that one hears at their show, with guitars and keyboards. It is just as astounding live as on record, specifically their second record, Citrus. When I reviewed the band’s new album, Hush, a couple weeks ago, my biggest complaint was that the presentation of the songs wasn’t quite as strong as on Citrus. The live show brought out the best of the new songs, which are melodically quite strong but didn’t really benefit from the production change on Hush. This might be because a lot of the new songs are slower and more gentle, so the toned down production might make them seem meandering.

The band’s live sound, however, features the bold, sweeping sound quality of Citrus, the true gem of their discography. The band played some of the gentler new songs, such as “In the Sky,” “Transparence,” and “Sing Tomorrow’s Praise” with the vivacity of that shoegaze sound quality, which was surprising because I wouldn’t have expected the fidelity to be that good in such a small, confined venue. They also tore through many of their Citrus-era classics, such as “Strawberries,” “New Years,” and of course “Thursday,” which got a big response from the audience.

Their stage presence was very lively. The amps and mics were adorned with Christmas lights, and in conjunction with the lights in the back, the stage took on a colorful glow (although you can’t really tell that from my pictures). The band weren’t all smiles, but really it would be wrong of me to demand for them to be. However, I found that many times, specifically when the strobelights on the stage started flashing, everyone on the stage was moving around and doing a lot of headbanging. To me, that was important to the show. It is important to see that the band are excited to be making music in order for the audience to be excited about hearing it. Chikudate brought up the front with her breathy vocals, keyboard and xylophone, while James Hannah had some really cool guitar heroics going on on stage right. After the resounding coda of “Strawberries,” Chikudate took her leather jacket off and every straight male in the audience needed to change their shorts.

But the really exciting part, as I expected, came with possibly the band’s greatest sound achievement, the blistering “Red Sea,” off of Citrus. By the time the epic, beautiful noise freakout started, everyone on stage was going crazy. What-seemed-like-eight-foot-tall bassist Billy Pavone was headbanging off the the right as drummer Larry Gorman crawled off of the kit and went somewhere, maybe off to where James Hannah was. But from where I was standing, Hannah was simply gone, perhaps on the ground furiously adding to the cacophony on his guitar. Yuki Chikudate proceeded to take to the drum kit herself, and produced a percussive onslaught that just about tore the place apart. Pretty much one of the most metal things I’ve ever seen. The band left the stage with the sound still resounding at a ludicrous volume which continued on with the strobe lights. The encore was equally as impressive as well as nuanced, with one of my personal favorite Asobi Seksu songs, “Strings,” a perfect song to round off the set.

The set ended up being twelves songs and clocking in at just over an hour, which would be my biggest complaint with the show, that is, that it was too short. The audience was probably about ready to take at least an hour more of the awesome din, and the band definitely have the catalogue of songs to fulfill that wish. I was shocked that they did not play their popular new single, “Me & Mary.” They also didn’t play any obscurities, let alone anything at all from their charming self-titled debut album, which has a lot of great but simple songs that I would imagine would also benefit from their live production. So in the end, the set was all too short, but quite sweet, split half and half between Citrus and Hush, a sensible move, despite the fact that I would have loved to have heard even more from Citrus; they played nothing from the album’s latter half, which is just as strong as the first.

For $15, a full night of entertainment like I got was a steal, and I would definitely pay to see Asobi Seksu any other time they are in my area. I have wanted to see Asobi Seksu for years, and they were just as good as I was hoping they would be. I walked away happy to have ringing ears; as focal to the band’s identity as their nectarous melodies is the vitality of their sound, and it comes out best when you really crank their albums. Their live show sees them at the height of that power, in their own musical nirvana, and is a show not to miss.

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