Friday, July 24, 2009

Paul McCartney at Citi Field 7/21/09

Paul McCartney knows how to please a crowd. That talent more than anything was on display during his two-and-a-half hour set at Citi Field (the new Mets Stadium). He walked the line between nostalgia act and “artist” (said pejoratively) beautifully, keeping familiar songs fresh and making unknown songs feel classic. Massive video screens on either side of the stage projected his every twitch to the back row while a main screen behind the band showed video clips to support the tunes.

The first proof of his performance ability, t
hough, came in the song choices. For an artist of Paul’s stature, there are really two ways to go. He could make like Dylan and play loads of new stuff – and make the old stuff sound like new stuff – or he could make like just about everyone else of his generation and not play anything written in the last thirty years. With the Beatles catalogue being what it is, he would be more justified than most in going that route.

McCartney’s more clever than that though, or more restless. Don’t get me wrong; he played plenty of Beatles songs (twenty to be precise). When you look at the setlist, printed below, each one seems like a no-brainer. “Of course he played ‘Day Tripper,’ you say. “How could he not?” Well, smart guy, he hadn’t played “Day Tripper” in decades. Look at a setlist from a previous tour (like this one) and realize just how many “must-play” Beatles songs he has that didn’t get played tonight. “Magical Mystery Tour?” “Can’t Buy Me Love?” “Penny Lane?”

The point being, Beatles hits could fill five stadium shows. So cherry-picking them as he did proved a brave choice (though to be fair, it’s not like he has a dearth of well-known solo songs). The tunes he did pick were classic (“Let It Be,” “Hey Jude”), historic (“I’m Down,” played at the Beatles Shea show 44 years prior) and sentimental (“Something,” played on a ukulele George Harrison gave him). He even dusted off “A Day in the Life,” a song he had very little to do with writing, as a tribute to “my friend John.” You can imagine the cheers that met those three words. He upped the sentimentality even more by segueing into Lennon’s solo “Give Peace a Chance,” using the song as it was meant: mass sing-along.

Perhaps most amazingly of all, Paul performed even the most staid classics as if he actually still liked these songs. The Beatles broke up forty years ago; the fact that Paul seemed to still enjoy singing “Yesterday” was either a minor miracle or an Oscar-worthy performance. An astute crowd can tell when an artist goes through the motions with his mind on the next payday, so even though everyone would have cheered “The Long and Winding Road” no matter how he played it, the fact that he seemed invested in these chestnuts enlivened even the most nostalgic bits of the show.

The lesser-known songs provided some of the musical high points of the show though. Seeing Paul McCartney sing “Eleanor Rigby” is a moving experience for all sorts of historical/sentimental/personal reasons, but the unfamiliar material had to stand up on its own merits, free of nostalgic associations. It did, beautifully. The two tunes from his most recent album, Electric Arguments released under the Fireman moniker, bounced along like rough-around-the-edges Hard Day’s Night outtakes, the harmonica-driven “Highway” in particular throwing just a bit of grunge into the pop. McCartney seemed proud enough of the new stuff that he saw nothing indulgent about throwing in half a dozen new tunes. When the artist isn’t making self-depreciating jokes like “This is a new song, so go take a beer break” the crowd is more likely to take him on his word that they do deserve to stand alongside the better-known tunes.

Throughout the show Paul seemed as chipper as the audience. You wouldn’t know he’d played the same set in the same place two times already that week. Always the m
ost angst-free Beatle not named Ringo, Paul’s enthusiasm cut through all the fancy technology around him. He seemed so genuinely happy to be there singing these songs, it was almost cute to watch. The man may be sixty-seven, but he’s a long way yet from senility.

His band, however, seemed a bit more jaded. They kept the energy up throughout, but it seemed more self-conscious, an act to disguise the fact the fact that they were sick of “Let It Be.” To be fair, they did seem kept on a pretty tight leash. Paul wasted the two guitarists’ talent by having them perform note-for-note copies of every song's original solo like a karaoke Guitar Hero. Drumming legend Abe Laboriel Jr. took a few more liberties, pounding out crashing beats and fills to songs that benefited from the extra jolt of energy he provided. He seemed almost too good. When tightness comes at the expense of spontaneity, maybe it’s time to stretch out.

The unfortunate idolization of the "Original Recording" led to the band synthesizing every sound that wasn’t a guitar, piano, or drums. I can understand the desire not to take a full string section on tour, but piping in the horn blasts for “Got to Get You Into My Life” comes off as cheap. Surely Sir Paul can afford a trumpet player or two.

Perhaps that’s why his few solo performances felt so refreshing. “Here Today” was a gorgeous finger-picked tribute to Lennon that brought tears to those of us who couldn’t even see the photos scrolling on the screen behind him. Even “Blackbird,” the bane of budding guitarists everywhere, emoted a refreshing purity without extra accoutrements.

Now McCartney may not be up to a stripped-down solo tour like Bruce Springsteen. Being the crowd-pleaser that he is, I don’t think he could bear to force an audience to suffer through a (gasp) string-free version of “The Long and Winding Road.” Still, the line between nostalgia and creativity runs thin and, though he hit the mark at Citi Field, his position was precarious. So keep playing your new songs, Paul, and maybe even consider revamping the old. The audience loves this music as much as you do. They’ve stuck with you for forty-five years; you’re not going to lose ‘em now. Trust us.


Drive My Car 


Only Mama Knows

Flaming Pie

Got To Get You Into My Life 

Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady


The Long and Winding Road 

My Love 


Here Today 

Dance Tonight 

Calico Skies 

Mrs. Vandebilt 

Eleanor Rigby 

Sing the Changes 

Band on the Run

Back in the U.S.S.R.

I'm Down


I've Got a Feeling 

Paperback Writer

A Day in the Life/Give Peace a Chance 

Let It Be 

Live and Let Die 

Hey Jude

First encore

Day Tripper 

Lady Madonna

I Saw Her Standing There

Second encore

Helter Skelter 

Get Back 

Sgt Pepper's (Reprise)/ The End

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Siren Festival 7/18/09

In the gypsy carnival chaos that is Coney Island, locating the stages where the live music was coming from proved a challenge. Those that steered clear of the Island’s typical distractions like the Two-Headed Man and "Shoot the Freak" enjoyed a full day of free indie rock, courtesy of the Village Voice. Siren Festival started in 2001 - yes, that makes it older than Bonnaroo - and has become a summer staple for hipsters and families alike.

First up for me: Frightened Rabbit. This Scottish quartet kept their heritage clear with lots of checkered flannel and thick beards on three of the four (I'm guessing being clean-shaven is some sort of hazing rite). The display wasn't necessary; their country of origin from the moment they opened their mouths. Their set focused heavily on last year's much-acclaimed The Midnight Organ Flight, covering topics from religion ("Head Rolls Off") to diseased love ("The Modern Leper"), all amped up in volume to energize the crowd. Grant Hutchinson's pounding drums and brother Scott's brogue-ey yelps offset these charming little tunes, making this band sound significantly less than their namesake than they do on record.

Grand Duchy came on the main stage next. If you don't recognize that name, try this one on: Frank Black. Yes, the Pixies mastermind has a new band, and this one's about as "vanity project" as they come, being fronted by his wife and all. Her voice dug in with more edge than most indie groups, but the songs sounded like 4/4 plods that couldn't decide whether to be pop or rock and settled for some generic middle ground. Frank seemed a bit bored. When he could be playing "Gouge Away" or "Debaser," can you really blame him?

Luckily A Place to Bury Strangers soon arrived on the second stage and were well worth ditching a legend early to see. I already wrote about this set for Spin here so suffice to say I didn't know beauty could be so loud. Their rolling waves of noise cemented their nickname "the loudest band in New York” – they even threatened to top My Bloody Valentine as loudest in the world.

Back to the main stage for a band not quite as loud, but just as good: The Raveonettes. Their ’08 Chicago show was one of the best I’ve ever seen, so I had high expectations. Were they met? Ehhh… Their fifties fuzz was as tight as ever with the addition of a bass player, but the cute melodies Sune and Sharin produced seemed a bit lost in the afternoon heat. A small bar, like where I saw them last, proves an ideal spot for these Danes to get their Buddy Holly (Rave-on-) meets Motown (-ettes) tunes. A huge outdoor festival? Not as much.

That said, what was happening on the side stage was even more pointless. Every paper and blog had already decided that Monotonix was the breakout performance of the fest before Saturday even began, so expectations were high and the stage was packed.

Needless to say I was surprised when I got there and saw no band. I heard the band alright, blasting forth their Israeli “cock rock,” but the stage was filled with photographers.

I followed their lenses to the middle of the pit where the band had set up camp.

Again, in a tiny club this would be a great strategy. Down on the floor with your audience, rocking while mingling. At Siren I’m sure the two dozen people within ten feet of the band witnessed a show they’ll talk about for years. For the other thousand plus though, it wasn’t a bad show, it was a non-show. Not only couldn’t anyone see the band in the pit, no one could even see where the band was. A truly stupid move on their part. They compensated a bit by excessively crowd-surfing, but too little too late. Guys, the stage was there for a reason.

Spank Rock too bucked festival convention, but at least was more fan-friendly about it. A large VIP-only gulf separated the fans from the stage and Spank made it clear he was not a fan. It didn’t take him long to encourage fans to jump the barrier which they were more than happy to do. Security was less than thrilled, but allowed it. Their patience would soon wear thin.

Hipster kids went nuts for Spank Rock’s indie-friendly hip-hop, the tongue-in-cheek filth spitting from his mouth like an inside joke they were all a part of. Two DJs back him up as well as a percussionist and thing were going along well until the rest of the Spank Rock crew came in.

For Spank Rock isn’t just a person, it’s a collective. The Wikipedia entry gets so confused it switches back and forth between “him” and “they.” Technically the guy I’ve been referring to as Spank goes by Xxxchange. He just seemed so in charge everyone seemed content to consider him Spank Rock. When the others started rhyming though, he seemed to check out. He wandered around grinning while they rhymed and desperately tried to hype up a flagging crowd, but barely made a sound until he lay down on the floor and started trying to kick the amplifiers onto the audience.

This is when it became clear something was wrong. Security manhandled him away from the speakers, but he then proceeded to leap over the turntables and lie down behind them. Lie down or pass out, we couldn’t see. Regardless, he stayed there for twenty minutes while everyone onstage kept one eye on him to see if he was just wasted (I assume) or actually in trouble. The other eye drifted towards pixie rapper Amanda Blank, and up-and-coming Lady Sovereign type who, while undoubtedly as talented as Spank himself, faced the unenviable task of killing time until he got (or woke) up. The crowd grew bored, the performers grew bored, and boos began to ring out. I left at this point. Apparently Spank did eventually rally, only to be carried off stage by security after more misbehavior.

A bizarre end indeed to Siren 2009.

Photos by Chris La Putt (via BrooklynVegan)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Dead Weather in New York 7/17/09

I’m going to say the unthinkable: I wish Jack White wasn’t in the Dead Weather. I know that’s blasphemous, not to mention illogical; if the band was White-free, no one, myself included, would have heard of them. Live though, his presence is simply distracting.

Let me explain.

I’m as big a Jack White fan as they come. I’
ve seen the White Stripes live four times (reviews here, here, and here) and the Raconteurs the same (reviews here, here, here, and here). In both groups he is the undisputed star of the show. Sure, he technically shares frontman duties with Brendan Benson in the Racs, but no one’s watching Benson. White’s stage presence is so commanding that even when he’s merely playing guitar in the background for a song or two, you can’t look away. All you want to do is watch Jack.

The same is true in the Dead Weather, and therein lies the problem. 90% of the crowd was there to see Jack White, Rock God. As a drummer though, there isn’t much to see. He’s perfectly talented at the instrument, clearly taking his cues from the fill-heavy style of Raconteurs drummer Patrick Keeler, but any band’s drummer is never all that much fun to watch. Yet through no fault of his own (in fact, to his credit), all eyes were on him as he…sat there drumming. It took a force of will to tell yourself, “hey, look at the other performers.” Jack White (dare I say it) is boring.

The moment one remembered to pay attention to the rest of the group – Alison Mosshart of the Kills, Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and Jack Lawrence of the Racs – the show exploded. As rock groups go, they don’t get much better, which is why it’s a shame Jack White overshadows the others by his mere existence. At Terminal 5 Mosshart prowled the stage like a feral cat, her shaggy hair covering her face as she twisted and jerked behind the mic stand. Her every movement emoted leather-clad punk like a young Patti Smith. She climbed on an amp to illustrate set opener “60 Feet Tall” and leant into the audience to lead – no, demand – participation for “So Far From Your Weapon.” She lit the only-pretty-good songs (of which these guys have many) on fire, drawing the eye even when the sonic pummeling sounded like an enthusiastic-but-uninspired high school punk band.

The guitarists thumped along gamely behind her. Lawrence lay down rumbling bass lines that threw a pinch of funk flavor in the garage-blues roar. Fertita, meanwhile, proved no slouch on guitar himself, riffing loudly and forcefully with more control than White could show to save his life. In fact, as a drummer Jack p
roved as frantic as he is a guitarist. The concept of “tight” is not in this drummer’s arsenal, but his raw pounding provided the distinctive backbeat for this sloppy blues. He slammed out on-again off-again rhythms in “Hang You Up From the Heavens” and proved able to handle the tricky singing-while-drumming combo in knock-out encore combo “Treat Me Like Your Mother” and “New Pony.”

His desire to sing makes me wonder about the future of this outfit though. For much of the show Jack seemed itchy, getting up from the kit between song and wandering around idly. Jack has “frontman” in his DNA and seemed a bit frustrated remaining in the backgr
ound. He had two opportunities to sing up front and they seemed to prove the high points for him as much as they did for the audience. A brief solo turn at the stage-center mic for Them cover “You Can Never Win” gave the audience a little taste of what they wanted to see and when he finally picked up a guitar for “Will There Be Enough Water” the crowd seemed in danger of collective cardiac arrest.

He didn’t disappoint in this latter role, staccato-soloing all over the stage for the breaks between verses of this White-Mosshart duet. It was a glimpse of the Jack White the crowd loved, and it seems no stretch to surmise that his jerking and thrashing around behind his axe proved the climactic moment of the set for everyone there. At the same time, it just exacerbated the problem the foursome struggled with the whole evening. When Jack went back behind the drums for the encore the crowd breathed a silent sight of disappointment. He had whet their appetite, only to retreat. Talented though the other three unquestionably are, it’s hard to see the glass as half full when you know what Jack could be doing.

Like any so-called supergroup where one member is way more “super” than the others, the Dead Weather suffer from dynamic confusion. In everyone’s mind but theirs this group has two frontmen. The problem is that one doesn’t do much. Mosshart commands as much attention as anyone could under the circumstances, but when you’ve got the savior of modern music sitting on stage with you, there’s only so much a gal can do. When said savior seems just as frustrated with remaining in the background as the audience, you wind up with a musical Jenga tower. You have to wonder how many shows they have in them before the whole thing tumbles down.

Take away the trailing “s” in Screaming Females, and these openers would have one of the most accurate monikers in music. There’s only one female in this power trio, but she does do a lot of screaming. A tiny thing with a my-mom-did-it second grade haircut, Marrissa Paternoster played up here innocent pixie image in a dress that looked straight out of your local Amish market. No one in the crowd expected that goth-vibrato howl to come out of someone so petite, much less such windmill-tastic guitar-shredding. A lot of groups consciously try to ape Jimi Hendrix and his Experience, but the Females do so without even trying. The boys in the band providing a jerky, rolling backdrop that kept pace just enough to tell Paternoster, “Go wild.” She happily obliged.

60 Feet Tall
Bone House
Hang You Up From The Heavens
You Just Can't Win (Them cover)
So Far From Your Weapon
I Cut Like A Buffalo
Child of a Few Hours Is Burning To Death (West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band cover)
Rocking Horse
No Hassle Night
Will There Be Enough Water?
Forever My Queen (Pentagram cover)
Treat Me Like Your Mother
New Pony (Bob Dylan cover)