Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Morning Jacket at the Chicago Theater 12/28/08

Having seen My Morning Jacket’s four-hour show at Bonnaroo, one ranked as Stereogum’s third best concert of the year and one of Entertainment Weekly’s best entertainment events of the year, one would predict a run of the mill tour stop to be slightly less impressive. And were the two Chicago shows played on the fall tour as scheduled, perhaps that would have been the case. However, when frontman Jim James injured himself, the October dates were pushed back to a December two-pack to warm the Jacket up for their New Year’s Eve extravaganza at Madison Square Garden.

After a few months off the road, MMJ had to bring their A-game to these theater shows. Seeing the precision with which they perform their country-metal though, I doubt they have any other type of game. At their second of the Chicago Theater dates (James noting that the venue looked like the inside of a brain), they zoomed from the Byrds to Black Sabbath and back, hitting their most steel-guitar croon-ey on cuts like “Thank You Too!” and their most balls-out rock with “Remnants” and “Run Thru.” There exists no tighter band, equally at home swaying to acoustic rhythms as head-banging to electric thrashing. Along the way they even touched on some funk, on the epic “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2” and the grunge-funk “Highly Suspicious,” coming complete with a throbbing strobe light show to match the distorted yelling.

Though they stayed away from the covers marathon of Bonnaroo, Sunday’s show spanned their five-album discography, giving early Americana albums like At Dawn as much play as their later electronic Z. The centerpiece, though, was Evil Urges, which the local DJ who introduced them aptly noted was one of the best discs of the year. They hit eight out of the thirteen tracks tonight, from the distortion falsetto of the title track to a solo acoustic “Look At You” to open the encore. Mixing the songs in with older fan favorites and back-catalogue rarity, they proved the new material could match their best, no matter how bizarre it got (see “Highly Suspicious”).

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour show the band’s energy never flagged, whether it was James doing other-worldly falsetto cries on “Wordless Chorus” or Patrick Hallahan giving the drums an unrelenting pummeling on the set-closer “Run Thru,” where lights, volume and passion propelled a ten minute riff marathon while the band flailed and jumped around. Everything came together one last time for their best-known song “One Big Holiday,” so known because of its blaring live performances, the band headbanging as hard as the crowd. Their “Born to Run,” it left the crowd gasping for breath as the band left the stage. They’re ready for New Year’s.

SHOW RECORDING COMING SOON

SETLIST
1. At Dawn
2. It Beats 4 U
3. Evil Urges
4. I'm Amazed
5. Gideon
6. What A Wonderful Man
7. Golden
8. I Will Sing You Songs
9. Lowdown
10. Sooner
11. Thank You Too!
12. Anytime
13. Remnants
14. Lay Low
15. Highly Suspicious
16. Off The Record
17. I Think I'm Going To Hell
18. Smokin’ From Shootin’
19. Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt.2
20. Run Thru
-encore-
21. Look At You (Jim James solo)
22. Nashville To Kentucky
23. Steam Engine
24. Cobra
25. Wordless Chorus
26. One Big Holiday

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Concerts of 2008

As I prepare my inevitable album-of-the-year list to add to the growing stack, here's a teaser of my ten favorite concerts of the year. Out of the dozens of shows I saw, these stand high above the rest. For the sake of not giving me a nervous breakdown, I've excluded the two major festivals I saw, Bonnaroo and Farm Aid, though several of those sets certainly would have made the list (Levon Helm, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, Neil Young...). Those aside, here are the top ten.

#10
Alejandro Escovedo
Paradise Rock Club - Boston
, MA
July 10th
Review

#9
Radiohead
Comcast Center - Mansfield, MA
August 13th

Review

#8
Sigur Rós

Bank of America Pavilion - Boston, MA
September 19th
Review

#7
Unlimited Enthusiasm Expo
Middle East - Cambridge, MA
June 25th
Review

#6
Bruce Springsteen
XL Center - Milwaukee, WI

March 17th
Review

#5
The Hold Steady
Paradise Rock Club - Boston, MA
June 26th
Review

#4

The Raveonettes
Double Door - Chicago, IL
March 18th

Review

#3

The Roots
Higher Ground - Burlington, VT
May 7th
Review

#2
Tom Waits
Orpheum Theater - Phoenix, AZ
June 17th
Review

#1
Wilco
Tanglewood - Lenox, MA
August 12th
Review

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Brian Wilson in Boston 11/19/08

As legends go, it doesn’t get much bigger than Brian Wilson. For years the man wrote for, arranged, and fronted the Beach Boys, transforming them from an early boy band singing about surfing, cars and girls to the group that created Pet Sounds…while still singing about surfing, cars and girls. After decades of mental illness and drug abuse during which he barely left his room (check out the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”) his star is currently the highest its been since the 60’s. Having finally released the long-delayed SMiLE in 2005, and an even-better follow up this year in That Lucky Old Sun, Wilson is riding – or surfing – high.

Having toured behind That Lucky Old Sun for a couple years now, Wilson’s first
remark upon entering the stage (at 7:30 exactly – the guy’s got a bedtime) was about how tired the group was. Though undoubtedly true, no sign of exhaustion came across in the performance. Though late November in Boston is hardly the ideal setting for Beach Boys songs, the Orpheum Theater was up dancing from the opening chords of “California Girls” through the “Good Vibrations” theremin that closed the first half. Called “the best touring band in the world” by Paul McCartney, the 10-piece backing group cluttered the stage with keyboards, guitars, mics, and more keyboards. Though Brian’s voice has aged over the years, preventing him from hitting those dog-ears high notes he once did, the gorgeous voices of the group more than made up, each member adding to harmonies that sounded even more complex than on the original recordings.

Most of the hits out of the way, in the second half Wilson charged into a full performance of the new album. Though I’m sure some people were hoping for more sing-alongs, the crowd seemed respectful and appreciative throughout the performance of his latter-day masterpiece. Wilson proved any doubters that he could still make you want to take your best girl to the dance floor with “Good Kind of Love,” then make you tear up with “Midnight's Another Day.” At the same time, Wilson expanded his repertoire beyond crooning harmonies and bouncing keyboards to tackle mariachi on “Mexican Girl” and unaccompanied quasi-rap in “Live Let Live.” Even the spoken-word pieces received the full band treatment, accompanied by cute animated videos projected behind the band. Wilson’s ode to L.A., That Lucky Old Sun proved that years of absence did not destroy the man who wrote Pet Sounds and sales of the album at the merch table afterwards appeared the be brisk.

After the elaborate presentation and thematic song landscapes of the second half, jumping back to such lightweight material as “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ USA” for the encore seemed a little abrupt, but seeing Wilson snap on his trademark bass for the first time of the night (he'd been behind a keyboard up until then, only touching it rarely) made a few more oldies worth it. After five songs and a bow, the bad reemerged a second time for “Love and Mercy,” the first non-Beach Boys song of the night (minus the new album of course) to close things out on a more serious note. Wilson proved himself more than the nostalgia act many expected, having assembled an ace group of musicians to bring his elaborate musical wonderlands to life.

SET LIST
California Girls
Girl Don't Tell Me
Dance, Dance, Dance
Surfer Girl
In My Room
Salt Lake City
All Summer Long
Please Let Me Wonder
Add Some Music To Your Day
The Little Girl I Once Knew
Do You Wanna Dance?
Do It Again
Sail On Sailor
Marcella
I Get Around
Wouldn't It Be Nice?
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
-intermission-
That Lucky Old Sun
-first encore-
Johnny B. Goode
Help Me, Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin' USA
Fun, Fun, Fun
-second encore-
Love and Mercy

Dar Williams at Dartmouth 11/18/08

Not too far from her Amherst roots, Dar Williams must have felt right at home among this elite New England crowd. Too bad the size of said crowd was so pathetic. 150 people sat scattered around an auditorium built for 1000, and were quiet enough that you’d hardly notice they were there.

Opener Stephen Fiore gave it the old college try though (pun intended), and mildly entertained the audience with his awkward-guy-at-the-dance persona. He sang about - what else - lost love, backed only by his guitar as his pleasantly lazy voice wafted through the auditoriu
m. Introducing the songs with self-deprecating banter, he scored crowd points by talking about the inspirations behind songs about sharing milkshakes and seeing himself from an ex-girlfriend’s eyes.

To the surprise of anyone who had seen the cluttered stage in the campus’ newspaper advertisement, Dar Williams came out alone. From western Massachusetts, and she looks the part. The spitting image of hippiedom, her flowing hair matched her flowing skirt and, in case you didn’t get the point, she spent her first five minutes talking about hippies. And talking to the moon. As she drawled about everything from to corporatization of water to the Milgrim experiments (wikipedia it) the audience politely laughed along but seemed impatient for the next song.

For those unfamiliar with Williams, her voice can be a little jarring. Lilting but bold, it takes a while to figure out if she’s even in tune. As she sang about witch hunts and rain, each song got a cheer as the rapt audience recognized another favorite. Her dynamic guitar playing gave some structure to the wandering narratives, whether she was performing a crowd favorite (“Christians and Pagans”) or a Hedwig and the Angry Inch cover (“Midnight Radio”). One of the new faces of folk, Williams keeps her cult following riveted to each hippie tale and may just hit the mainstream someday.