Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Boston 8/22/09

“Let’s keep the hits coming!” Bruce Springsteen yelled three songs into Saturday night’s concert. A good portion of the crowd cheered accordingly, but a not insignificant number of eye-rolls could be seen as well from the folks who realized that many of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. era hits have aged about as well as a fish in the sun.

Springsteen is supposed to be the rare past-his-prime (sales-wise that is) hitmaker who has always remained fresh and vital in concert, bringing something new to the table with each tour. The Working on a Dream tour is testing that legacy. Usually a third of a Springsteen set is made up of new tunes; within weeks of beginning this outing in March we were down to two new songs: “Outlaw Pete” and the title track. Half the album’s songs have yet to be performed. Did Springsteen’s optimistic “Yay Obama!” attitude crash with the stock markets?

Set list criticism inevitably becomes an exercise in frustration, but this notable choice is indicative of Springsteen’s play
-to-the-crowd attitude this time around. If he’s verging on a nostalgia show though – and with his recent announcement to play all of Born to Run during several upcoming shows it is becoming just that – it’s a better nostalgia show than anyone else is doing.

“Jackson Cage” got the show off to a mediocre start, with cheese-fests “Working on the Highway” and “Hungry Heart” keeping the sighs from veteran fans coming. Springsteen and the band seemed to be phoning it in, playing with passion-less precision. Though these songs were actually an unusual way to start a show, it felt like he’d been playing them night after night. The E Street Band is never boring, but they didn’t seem exactly vital yet either.

Even the new tunes seemed a bit tossed-off, like Springsteen had resigned himself to the fact (largely untrue) that the audience didn’t care about the new material. He pushed through the two songs like a chore, robbing the crowd of the narrative story-telling of “Outlaw Pete” we saw last time around.

The lame attempt at background visuals made things seem even more half-assed. The giant screen behind the band, a million-dollar piece of technology, seemed to have been programmed by a Windows screen saver. A sun image for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day?” Not very creative. The psychedelic red pattern behind the band fo
r a few tunes? Inappropriate. Images of threatening clouds…for just about every other song?? I don’t even know what to say. By the end it was almost a joke.

It took a pair of reworked songs from yesteryear to finally ignite the band’s spark plug, “Seeds” and “Johnny 99” thundering along like the freight train Bruce conjured in the latter. Max Weinberg – no Today Show duties tonight – pounded his toms like a man possessed, his emotionless face betraying the intense concentration of pushing these tunes to their powerful conclusions.

The sound at the Comcast Center, unfortunately, meant that despite his hard work Weinberg sounded high-pitched and tinny, like you were hearing the music through your friend’s cell phone. Charlie G
iordano’s organ playing was shoved far forward in the mix – appropriate for “Dancing in the Dark,” not so much for the guitar-driven “Born to Run.” Guitars went M.I.A. in the sound system though, rendering Bruce’s “Seeds” solo and Nils Lofgren’s “Trapped” behind-the-back spasm inaudible. Roy Bitten’s piano? Suzie Tyrell’s violin? Forget about it.

Sound quality frustration helped the slower, subtler songs become the night’s highlights. The ten percent of the crowd not loudly yammering about weekend plans were treated to a haunting “Point Blank,” Bruce repeating “It was all there, and now it's all gone” like a man who understood the pain of lay-offs and foreclosures. Later, a special request from Tom, here at his 224th show, led to a wondrous “If I Should Fall Behind,” Springsteen largely on solo acoustic while couples in the audience swayed…and most everyone else headed to get more beer. Their loss.

Most audience requests though – and there were quite a few – led to cover tunes. As has become a nightly tradition, Bruce waded out into the crowd during “Raise Your Hand” (a cover itself) to choose among a sea of cleverly-crafted signs. First up, the Elvis Presley 1972 classic “Burning Love,” played only once before by the band and joyfully performed by the band after some discussion of what key it was in. Two songs later, a cover that needed no rehearsal: Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped.”

For one of the only few times that night, band passion and audience fervor connected in a wave of shout-along emotion that went from soft to loud faster than a Nirvana tune. “Trapped” never got an official release until 2003’s Essential bonus disc, but the frustrated energy released during the build-up to the chorus showed a crowd far more familiar with it than “outtake” implies.

Two more cover tunes in the encore, both unplanned. The first came from an unlikely source: a blow-up sex doll, decked out with a red wig, devil horns, and a dress. I incorrectly thought this a request for the bland-as-mayonnaise “Red-Headed Woman,” but then again I didn’t see the dress’s color. “What’s she wearing?” Springsteen asked the crowd. “A blue dress!” “And the horns mean she’s a…?” “Devil!” “Devil with a Blue Dress On” couldn’t mean anything but the E Street Band’s “Detroit Medley,” a cover of a series of 50s hits originally strung together by Mitch Ryder. “Good golly, miss Molly!” Springsteen shouted along with more joy than he had showed for his own songs, and the band grinned along, mugging for the cameras and jostling each other around the stage.

Appropriately, Springsteen bookended the show with more hits (“Dancing in the Dark” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” though he left the setlisted “Bobby Jean” unplayed), but not before the gospel-vocal workout of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” There would seem to be no surer way to lose an audience than by unleashing a nineteenth century ballad, but the power of Bruce’s voice showed the willpower of his message, a prayer loud enough to shake the seats. Backup singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle, largely unused through the rest of the show, built the song to a blast-you-away a cappella climax before Jay Weinberg (Max’s son, sitting in for the encore) slammed it into the 21st century.

Springsteen has referred to his “Twist and Shout” as his “stadium-wrecker” and, while the Comcast Center’s foundations remained quite firm, fans enjoyed the unplanned dance-along bonus. In a set aimed largely at pleasing the casual fans, a song that everyone in the building knows the words to (“Ahhhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh!”) seemed an appropriate closer.

DOWNLOAD
http://www.megaupload.com/?d=GC8GFLXR

SET LIST
Jackson Cage

She's the One

Working on the Highway

Hungry Heart

Outlaw Pete

Badlands

Working on a Dream

Seeds

Johnny 99

Point Blank

Raise Your Hand

Burning Love

For You

Trapped

Waitin' on a Sunny Day

The Promised Land

If I Should Fall Behind

Backstreets

Lonesome Day

The Rising

Born to Run

Rosalita

Encore

Detroit Medley

Hard Times

American Land

Dancing in the Dark

Born in the U.S.A.

Twist and Shout

Friday, August 21, 2009

Islands live at the Bell House 8/19/09

Photo by Kathryn Yu for SPIN
Vapours doesn't hit stores for another month, but for all practical purposes last night was the album's coming-out party. "This is our first time playing all these songs," frontman Nick Thorburn said early on. "Apologies if I've got the jitters." But, clad in a rhinestone cape worthy of the King himself, he pulled it off, with the strong new material keeping request shouters at bay.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brendan Benson on the Roof 8/18/09

One day we will be able to talk about rooftop concerts without mentioning the Beatles legendary Let It Be show. That day isn’t today. The comparison turns out to be more appropriate than normal though, because last night’s rooftop artiste Brendan Benson clearly figures the Fab Four as a primary influence. He would sound like them too…if they hadn’t been very good.

To be fair, every one of the SPIN magazine employees and friends on that Manhattan roof had a great night (read the official take here). The elements – good weather, free beer - collaborated with Benson enough that had he performed a set of Barry Manilow covers, the experience would remain positive. They would have just not paid him too much attention.

Except, wait, they didn’t anyway. Audience chatter grew so loud at one point Brendan chastised the crowd. Fair enough, but the Wonder Bread-bland performance inspired little reverence. “Don't wanna talk now / Don't wanna know why / You say you're lonely / But baby so am I,” he sang in “Don’t Wanna Talk.” Lonely…or bored?

Anyone wondering whether songwriting prowess in The Raconteurs was divided evenly between Benson and Jack White, the answer stuck out like Brendan’s green thumb. The just-as-daft-as-it-sounds “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” threatened to lull us into hypnosis and another song featured lyrics that may have been pilfered from Barney the Dinosaur’s “I love you, you love me” classic.

“Good To Me” proved the low set’s only high point and even that could have been more me than him; I was imagining the White Stripes cover the whole time. The three-piece band cruised along on autopilot, content to earn their paycheck without any unnecessary labor. The slightest energy would have upstaged Benson, so perhaps their immobility was a sign of respect.

Regardless, listening to a Brendan Benson CD as background music for the enjoyable rooftop gathering would have sufficed. Trying to force ourselves to pay attention to him proved an exercise in futility. Long, boring futility.

SET LIST
A Whole Lot Better

Eyes On the Horizon

Good to Me

Don't Wanna Talk

Cold Hands (Warm Heart) 

Tiny Spark

What I'm Looking For

Feel Like Taking You Home

Friday, August 14, 2009

TV on the Radio in Brooklyn 8/11/09

My second show of the week at Prospect Park (after Grace Potter and the Nocturnals) started off negatively: it wasn’t free. Now it’s hard to bitch about that since charity stood to benefit from our ticket purchases, but someone should have said what charity we had all shelled out $30 for. A worthy cause I’m sure, but which? I pondered that during the first group I saw (long lines prevented many attendees including myself from catching Chin Chin’s set), thinking the cause better be pretty damn good to make me put up with Gang Gang Dance

Things immediately got off to a shaky start.
Gang Gang Dance slowly trudged into an Animal Collective-esq ambient intro, wavering synths and irregular drum pounding getting the crowd ready for the beat to drop. But it never did. This bunch of seemingly random noise turned out to be the actual song. The band seemed bored.

Bad sign.

As they continued to sound like an Air record played backwards, they totally belied their name – I’ve seen crowds more inclined to dance at a Phillip Glass show. Could this be a joke? Was the band doing a last-minute soundcheck during their set, cleverly pretending it was a too-smart-for-you song? If this sonic seizure was an attempt to win over Brooklyn’s indie hipsters (who, too be fair, are often into that sort of thing) the band overdid it.

Rhythm surfaced during moments of the one-hour-that-felt-like-ten set, and occasionally even a tune. Though the latter could have just been hallucinations caused by brain cell suicide. The lead singer’s dolphin chips were no dream though; she seemed to be playing for those of the opinion that Björk is just too conventional. The guy behind me mocking her random vocalizations actually sounded better than she did.

By set’s end a few in the crowd had actually tried dancing, perhaps believing that that was the key to enjoyment. From the pained grimaces on their faces though, their efforts proved in vain. The only person enjoying the show seemed to be the guy who ran onstage waving a garbage-bag flag erratically. At a Gang Gang Dance show, that seemed downright normal.

It’s a testament to TV on the Radio’s drawing power that the aural insult of Gang Gang Dance only briefly dulled crowd enthusiasm. The five-piece came out swinging with “Shout Out Loud,” frontman Tunde Adebimpo pogoing around the stage liked a hopped-up Jack in the Box while he crooned over the band’s jerky electro-soul. A four-piece horn shadow added the all-important melodic element to balance out the synth blips.

Well, I assume they did – due to TV on the Radio’s notoriously bad concert mixing, they were inaudible until five or six songs in. The band took a lot of heat for a horrendous-sounding
Saturday Night Live performance some months back, but it seems the man behind the boards has learned nothing from the experience.

Bad sound only encouraged the crowd to sing along even louder. Were TV on the Radio playing an audience unfamiliar with them, the sound problems could have been catastrophic, but with this crowd they only proved a minor annoyance for those of us who wanted to hear the songs we love, not just imagine them.

With the energy these guys bring, aural imaginings supplemented visual reality. The dour-looking Kyp Malone – possessor of the best beard in rock – confounded expectations by periodically leaping into the air while producer-cum-guitarist Dave Sitek looked over the proceedings like a proud parent, singing along to every word though he wasn’t within ten feet of a microphone.

This band may have five members, but in the end it really is the Tunde-Dave-Kyp show. The latter even took over vocal duties on songs like “Crying,” his balladeer croon melting your heart with every drawn-out sigh. But whenever things threatened to get too beautiful, Adebimpo roared in with some “ba ba ba”s, defying the band’s complicated attempted at sonic landscaping by just turning “Halfway Home” and “Wolf Like Me” into sing-along rockers. For a band that could so easily verge into the pretentious, the man is essential to remind everyone that rock and roll is fun.

Not surprisingly, the set list leaned heavily on last year’s
Dear Science, the record that topped every best-of-the-year list except mine (though it did make the top twenty). Singles “Golden Age” and “Dancing Choose” brought the soul groove in a way older tunes often did not, standing up stronger live as a result. “Red Dress” and “DMZ” slowly built to Malone’s climactic vocal turns, passion seeping through even the thickest of beards.

One can only hope Gang Gang Dance stuck around to watch this set. For by the time the band brought family and friends onstage to percussion-jam along with "A Method," TV on the Radio had shown how to walk the fine line between electronic noise and funk bounce. It seems you can please hipsters without totally abandoning the idea of making music people might actually
enjoy.

Photos by Bao Nguyen (via BrooklynVegan)

SET LIST
Shout Me Out

The Wrong Way

Halfway Home

Golden Age

Crying

Wolf Like Me

Red Dress

Young Liars

Blues From Down Here

Staring At the Sun

Dancing Choose

DLZ

Encore

Family Tree

A Method

Satellite

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in Brooklyn 8/7/09

Prospect Park’s Celebrate Brooklyn! series has no right to get artists as cool as it does. David Byrne? MGMT? TV on the Radio (look for a review of that one next week)? All (or almost all) for free. If this was the only musical event Brooklyn had, the borough would still earn its rep as the hip fan’s place-to-be.

Add Grace Potter and the Nocturnals to that list of inspired bookings. Grace often gets unfairly gets lumped in as a“jam band," but that unfortunate labeling didn't deter Brooklyn's hipsters who knew better. Potter may frequent jam fests, but she substitutes soul passion for mindless guitar noodling.  When she begins playing a song, she knows where it's going, and directs it there with enthusiasm.

First on the bill were local boys Jones Street Station. Like The Band at their most rocking (think “Chest Fever”) this five piece blasted through alt-country folk-rock tunes like Grateful Dead album cuts. One of the two main singers sported a harmonica tool belt, whipping out a different keyed harp for each song, either jamming in the background or wailing in the fore depending on the song. His soulful croon pushed the mid-tempo songs along while the band thumped along buoyantly behind him. The emotional highpoint waited until the end though, when all the members put their arms around each other up front to join only a guitar in the “Tall Buildings” finale. Like a better-written “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” even an audience who had never heard of these boys couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the show just passed.

A local band with a national following, Deer Tick followed Jones St. with some their own so-called “alt-country.” Dennis Ryan walked on the dark stage first, laying into a furious drum solo that managed to keep a strong rhythm underneath the flailing fills. Bassist and brother Christopher Dale Ryan soon quietly joined in, laying the bed on which the two entering guitarists could lie comfortably. They began a slow chordal riff, ringing into “Easy” like Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three as a bar band. Leading man John McCauley puts a Bob Dylan whine over his My Name Is Earl appearance, even lending “Mr. Tambourine Man”-style harmonica intro to “Song About a Man.”

Early in the set he mentioned many special treats, and he started the guest appearances early with Liz Eidenberg coming out to duet on their ghostly “Friday the 13th.” The goth-country tune galloped like a horseman of the apocalypse, providing a joyful darkness over the otherwise light proceedings. Chris Denny soon foll
owed for a “Dead Flowers” Rolling Stones cover, his yodeling warble betraying his Arkansas roots as his mid-verse guitar riffs showed he’d studied his Dire Straits well.

The real special treat came with Nikki of Those Darlins. She duetted with McCauley on the unremarkable “Cake and Eggs” because, as the woman behind me said, “they’re good friends.” More than good friends, apparently; following the tune McCauley asked her to take off her boot and fished around in his pocket to produce a ring. A toe ring, to be precise. Regardless, a proposal is a proposal wherever the ring goes and the audience went crazy. Happily, Nikki said yes, and much hugging and kissing followed. The band played a few more tunes, closing with a rollicking “La Bamba” that got even the most bored people-watcher up and dancing.

After an unexplained appearance by Senator Chuck Schumer, hot off his success getting Sonia Sotomayer appointed, the Nocturnals walked on the rose-covered stage. They started laying down a rock groove when Grace herself walked on, shaking a tambourine and dancing around the stage as she went into “Some Kind of Ride.”

The woman is a phenomenon of nature, a tiny thing possessing a huge soul voice. She belts each tune effortlessly, never seeming like she needs to breathe or slow down. Whether channeling a spiritual-with-sin sound on “Big White Gate” or a sassy you-know-you-want-it swagger on “I’ve Got the Medicine,” her gospel-blues confidence proved irresistible. Each song seemed bolder than the last, each verse brasher. Even when she played the B3 organ she seemed a fountain of channeled energy, rising to her feet to pound the keys all the harder whenever she wasn’t singing.

The band behind Potter kept up remarkably. If they ever lose her, a “The Nocturnals” show would be well worth seeing by itself. Both tight and loose at the same time, the four people behind her were having a blast but playing like true professionals. Scott Tournet’s frequent guitar solos on songs like “Stop the Bus” always had a purpose, raging up and down the notes without ever seeming self-congratulatory or meandering. The drummer’s rough-and-ready rhythms recalled a more disciplined Keith Moon and all backed Grace up with ragged background harmonies that never got too pretty to lose the edge. Their interaction with Potter showed their five years together, stopping and starting as she sang to emphasize her pipes instead of trying to compete with them. No one could overshadow Grace, so this band propels their own brand of funky roots-rock that Grace can wail over.

No crowd could resist this energy. Young and old alike danced into aisles, clapping and waving along like they just got saved at an old-time revival. Anyone who would call this a jam band has never heard the music. Call it soul, call it blues, call it rock and roll, just don’t call it “jam.” Jam bands get teenage hippies twirling ribbons, the Nocturnals get all ages jumping and hollering.

This was nothing compared to the reaction to “Sweet Hands.” Potter started the tune on organ, forgoing the a cappella intro that often precedes the song. Her bluesy riffing was matched by the churning band as the gospel-soul number built and built to a frenzy of noise. Just at the volume climax the dam finally burst as every member abandoned their instruments to gather around the drum kit and just start pounding away on a shockingly coordinated five-part rhythm. After an hour leading up to this moment the crowd exploded while Potter returned to her organ and finished the song so loudly she probably didn’t need the mic to fill the amphitheater.

Nothing could match that, so for their encore the band went for a more low-key approach with a soulful cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” If no one had thought to compare Potter to Grace Slick, it now became obvious, Potter’s voice being a perfect fit for the psyched
elic “Go ask Alice” builds. This was only the icing on the cake though, the cigarette after the sex, a familiar way to wind the crowd back down from the dangerous levels of ecstasy they had reached before sending us back out onto the Brooklyn streets.

SET LIST
Some Kind of Ride
Joey
Mastermind
2:22
Big White Gate
I've Got the Medicine That Everybody Wants
Ah Mary
Stop the Bus
Apologies
If I Was From Paris
Sweet Hands
encore
White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

All Points West Day 3: 8/2/09

Day three we were back to All Points Wet, with lightning warnings so bad they didn’t let people in until four. That meant Steel Train, Kitty Daisy and Lewis and my personal faves the Gaslight Anthem were all cut. Disappointing for many, but the remaining sets made up for it.

I should note that I’ve already written a review in a best/worst format of day three that you can read over at SPIN.com.

The first act to get going once the gates were opened was PT Walkley. Unfortunately he went on right as the gates were opened, meaning no one had
made it to the stage yet. The few of us press folks who had been let in early watched him glumly play his set in front of a nonexistent audience. The tunes were chirpy with “la la la”s aplenty which only made the depressed delivery even sadder. The fest’s organizers gave him the boot after two songs anyway.

By the time Akron/Family got onstage the fans had
arrived. They began an inane “We like fun” chant that the audience thankfully had the class to ignore before going into a forty-five minute set that made me think they actually had a strong distaste for fun. Or at least a bizarre understanding of the term. Endless drum-circle jamming rivaled some deaf-pan-flute squalls from the four-piece horn section. Half the set sounded like the band was tuning different notes simultaneously, until they would spontaneously drop their instruments and being some faux-Native American chanting or attempted rhythmic clapping. Only the most stoned enjoyed the tom-tom solos and ambient-tuning blares. Maybe this set would have destroyed at Bonnaroo, but here it just hurt.

Hopefully Akron/Family stuck around to catch We Are Scientists, a band that shows you what fun really is without feeling the need to chant about it. The skinny jeans and hair flourishes would be hipster if the band wasn’t having such a blast, twirling and jerking around onstage as they ran through one hook-laden rock tune after another. “Let’s See It” into “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” into “The Scene Is Dead,” and that’s just the first ten minutes. Unfortunately their renowned stage banter was at a minimum due to the new time constraints, but their energy never flagged. The same couldn’t quite be said for the audience, who put forward a decent attempt at jumping around, but was ultimately succumbed to the heat. The best they could do was throw dirt at each other. I guess that’s what has to pass for enthusiasm in this weather.

Over on the main stage, Echo and the Bunnymen seemed to think themselves far more popular than they are. A lazy, energy-less performance can come across masterful if the audience has enough nostalgia, but in this crowd few seemed to know or care who these sullen middle-aged men were. “Lips Like Sugar” opened the set and from then on the only energy shown onstage was Ian McCullogh berating the stage crew for god knows what. The man may have lips like sugar, but he has a mouth like molasses. Even a “Walk on the Wild Side” cover fell flat. Most people seemed only there to secure a good spot for Coldplay, and Echo and co. didn’t try very hard to win them over.

The Black Keys, however, are crowd-pleasers. Whether that appreciation was expressed in jumping, clapping, or mud-wrestling, the fans were into the show. Guitar wild man Dan Auerbach showed himself to a more controlled Jack White, busting out loud bluesy riffs while Patrick Carney pounded the drums so hard he broke through his snare at one point (and splintered countless sticks). Blues rock like a louder ZZ Top has rarely been more satisfying.

Coldplay came on the main stage with sparklers, candles, and a rapturous crowd. Given that far more hipster-cool band MGMT was playing on the other stage, those who stuck around for Chris Martin and co. were dedicated. The foursome’s military jackets seemed an attempt to compete with their lights and lasers for the crowd’s attention, but they needn’t have worried. Playing like the seasoned pros they are, these four are master showman, cherry-picking the fastest songs from their often mellow catalogue to get fans moving. Martin joked that the half the audience was just guys dragged by their girlfriends and, while he may have been right, these sing-along rockers proved sure to win over the most uncomfortable boyfriend.

They kicked things into high gear straight off with a pair from their latest album, “Life in Technicolor” and “Violet Hill.” From there one hit followed the next, each performed with a passion that made even the most nauseating tracks like “Yellow” (“Look at the stars, look how they shine for you”) come alive (the latter aided by giant yellow balloons that bounced through the audience). The newer songs got sing alongs just as loud as the old – I guess selling eight million copies of your latest will do that.

Hits may have abounded, but that didn’t mean the band didn’t have a few surprises up their cuffed-and-tassled sleeves. Coming out onto a small platform in the middle of the crowd, the band performed “God Put a Smile On Your Face” and “Talk” before leaving Chris Martin alone with the piano. He sat down and began a slow, somber minor-key intro. “Here comes the sentimentality,” I whispered to my friend. Then Martin slowly began to sing: “You wake up late for school, man you don't wanna go /
You ask your mom please but she still says no.” It took the audience a minute to realize what was happening, but slowly gasps and cheers swept the stage. Martin didn’t crack a smile though, slowly one-upping Jay-Z with his somber “Fight For Your Right to Party” cover in honor of the injured Beastie Boys (video here). Some younger fans may not have known what was happening, but for the rest of us it was an inspired moment that proved both that Coldplay is not too big to pay special attention to an individual audience and that they have a real sense of humor.

Later they cemented both impressions with another unexpected cover, a full band acoustic “Billie Jean” on a second platform, this one halfway out in the field (video here). “We have infinitely more respect for you guys now that we’ve had to walk through that shit,” Martin quipped of their mud-filled trek to get there. Busting out a harmonica for some shockingly competent blues riffing he let drummer Will Champion croon just-released track “Death Will Never Conquer.”

In all honesty though, the entire show was really just leading up to one moment and everyone knew it: “Viva La Vida.” The biggest song of Coldplay’s career, the biggest song of 2008, it doesn’t get much bigger. And to everyone who says it’s played out, the thousands of people in the Liberty State Park fields Sunday night apparently hadn’t gotten the memo (video here). Crowd excitement seemed matched only by band enthusiasm, Champion pounding away on his front-stage floor toms while Martin leapt, walked, and crawled around the stage trying to let his voice above the crowds sing-along roar. Coldplay could have truly half-assed this one and gotten a great response, and after playing it to death for over a year you wouldn’t blame them if they did. The passion they put into a song they know damn well they’ll be playing the rest of their life was, in the end, the final testament to their unexpectedly inspired stage show. I was one of those guys Chris joked about, only there because a girl dragged me along. Well, Chris, count me a convert.

Photos by Tim Griffin and Chris La Putt (via BrooklynVegan)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

All Points West Day 2: 8/1/09

Day two of All Points West brought one welcome addition: sun. Not enough to dry up the mountains of mud of course, but enough so that the experience could be pleasant from the knees up. Against all odds, the good weather lasted the entire day, allowing for the kind of roaming musical exploration for which festivals were made.

First up was alt-indie rockers …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. From their aggressively melodic instrumental opening through the finale where singer/guitarist/drummer Jason Reece leapt off the stage and roamed singing through the masses the crowd was enraptured with every noise crescendo and short blast of feedback. The band got so into their emo-hardcore that everything onstage that couldn’t get out of the way took a beating. As a solo piano number picked up speed Conrad Keely hit the keys so hard the keyboard collapsed. A drum kit later suffered the same fate, as did a large stack of amps that almost landed on a stage tech.

With the passion the band played with though, they may not have noticed. The duel drum setup propelled the thrashing suites through their rhythmic changes. Songs like “Isis Unveiled” featured lengthy instrumental breaks characterized by Keely’s serpentine guitar lines and Jay Phillip’s crushing bass bombardments. After fifty minutes the audience still seemed genera
lly alive, but the band certainly did leave a trail of stunned in their wake.

The auxiliary stage energy continued with Electric Touch, a group of four rock’n’roll revivalists with strut of the Hives and the sneer of Mick Jagger. Singer Shane Lawlor prowled the stage like a feral cat, daring the audience to call him derivative. Closing the set with a pair of Ramones covers – “Do You Want to Dance” (a cover of a cover) and “Blitzkrieg Bop” – didn’t get the crowd jumping like they should have, but showed that these boys know where they came from and are proud to wear their influences on their ripped-leather sleeves.

Over on the main stage the Cool Kids were generating far less excitement. They ran through all their hipster hip-hop hits, but even chant-along jams like “I Rock” an
d “Basement Party” failed to elicit much of a response. The crowd would cheer every tune’s intro as they recognized the song, and then quickly fall silent as the Kids delivered another half-hearted rendition. The stage looked pathetically empty with only the two of them and a DJ and they walked around it like an obligation. Even their frequent encouragements of participation seemed limp. The only excitement of the set came with the addition of a guest MC, who ran around stage yelling incoherently like a homeless guy on the subway. When a crazy hobo upstages you, bad sign.

Kool Keith put on a far more successful rap show for one reason: Ice-T. No one could quite explain the washed-up rapper’s presence onstage, nor did they try. Billing himself as “the most expensive hype man alive” (a claim Flava Flav might dispute), Ice mostly bopped along on the side, occasionally throwing in a line or two. He threw down song “real gangster” verses, but no one paid much attention to his actual performance. The novelty of seeing Ice-T was enough.

Keith and his two-man crew provided high entertainment value all their own, roaming the stage in capes and head scarves dropping rhymes that sounded more like the injured-list Beastie Boys than any of the acts paying tribute to them. “We don’t stop!” they frequently informed the crowd (stopping to do so). And whether people were truly into the music or merely the novelty, no one wanted them to.

The energy continued to be relegated to stage two though, as the Arctic Monkeys packed show on the main stage featured a lot of blank stares as the much-hyped quartet did…not much. The press-adored British brats seemed generally too impressed with themselves to pay he audience much heed, running through by-the-numbers renditions of their hits that somehow rendered even their brand of hyper-catchy dance rock boring. Even the new songs off their upcoming Humbug (including one, “The Cornerstone,” never played live before) came off jaded, like the Cars busting out “Just What I Needed” one more time. Perhaps the new manes of hair they sported made movement impossible or perhaps jetlag was taking its toll, but on this side of the pond we’re not quite as enamored with this group as the Brits and such tired performances won’t fix that.

All this may have been Gogol Bordello’s fault. Maybe they suck the energy from everyone around them death-eater style. Otherwise I cannot explain the excitement of each and every performance these gypsy punks put on. My fourth time seeing them was just about like my previous three. The setlist hadn’t changed much, but neither had the energy, making the umpteenth “Start Wearing Purple” and “Wonderlust King” destroy the crowd as expected. In only fifty minutes Eugene Hütz commanded his army of misfits in a medley of Eastern Europe yell-alongs while he poured red wine on himself, beat the hell out of a metal bucket or broke his guitar in turns. They’re the perfect festival band, and if they never change a thing the show still won’t get old.

The sweat-soaked crowd left Gogol panting, longing for the cool respite of Neko Case’s alt-country. Her crystalline singing pumped energy into the slow folk tunes as the sun set behind her. One can only imagine how nice lying on the grass taking in the scene would have been if, oh yeah, we weren’t still in a festering mud pool.

My Bloody Valentine really should have been paired more closely with Trail of Dead as they’re the only two bands remotely complementary to each other. Where Trail of Dead lays their fury in the hardcore riffage though, My Bloody Valentine expresses it in passive-aggressive waves of noise. Kevin Shields sullenly led the famed shoegaze quartet onstage, launching into swirls of sound that made bones rattle as the band played humbly onstage. As low-key a group of live performers as exists, the incredible stillness of the members onstage provides the perfect contrast to the pure volume. If they look like they’re about to fall asleep (as they always do), where is all that racket coming from? To give the crowd some visual stimulation psychedelic background videos accompanied each song, blurry colors floating on the giant screen as the reverb continued its onslaught.

Vocals have never been a major part of the Bloody Valentin
e sound, being just another instrument in the mix on their albums. However at least there they are in the mix; live they were completely inaudible. Playing absurdly loud is fine, guys, but make everything loud. The perfect balance of their classic Loveless is lost when the whammied guitars take over.

At all Valentine concerts earplugs are handed to the crowd and the brave few who made it thus far plug-less relented under the onslaught of “You Made Me Realize.” This traditional set-closer has reached legendary status among concert-goers, a fifteen-minute barrage of noise that makes the preceding hour seem tame. Vocals? Gone. Melody? Gone. Chord changes? Gone. The real instrument now was volume, and these guys are virtuosos. As the distorted reverb grew to ever more ear-bleeding level it became a religious experience, heaven for some, hell for others. Half the crowd was throwing the band the devil horns, the other half giving them the finger. If that doesn’t mean they’re doing something right, I don’t know what does.

In a way that fuck-you attitude proved an apt introduction for Tool, who channel their angst in slightly more crowd-pleasing ways. The army of Tool heads was as strong as at Bonnaroo two years ago, taking no prisoners in their drive to attain prime viewing position. Not that it mattered; lead singer Maynard James Keenan stage in the rear of the stage the entire show, throwing up robotic silhouettes as he warbles his tripped-out lyrics over the band’s prog-metal blasts. Videos of fire and explosions continued from all corners, lights and lasers flashing around creating a show visually fascinating if aurally a little painful. Tool is clearly an acquired taste though, and once a music fan get the itch nothing satisfies like Tool Time.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

All Points West Day 1: 7/31/09

Thus begin the first day of All Points West, hereafter known as Mudstock ’09. Much has been made of the curse of the New York music festival and this one, only in its second year, didn’t have a promising start. A steady rain fell all afternoon, quickly turning the grassy field into a mud pit from which there could be no recovery. The views of the skyline and Statue of Liberty from Liberty State Park are magnificent, but looking through them while ankle-deep in sewage dulls the appeal.

Nevertheless, the music soldiered on. First up was indie heroes The National, playing for a small but devoted crowd of raincoat-clad followers leaning on every word of Matt Berninger’s famed baritone to provide shelter from the storm. The five-piece focused largely on songs from their highly acclaimed albums Boxer and Alligator, eliciting elated cries upon the opening notes of “Fake Empire” and “Squalor Victoria.” Berninger swayed around the stage while the band gently recreated the songs’ layers behind him, exuding focus if not energy. The crowd was rarely acknowledged until the finale of “Mr. November” when Berninger joined us in drenched solidarity, climbing into the packed pit to deliver the closing verses. This isn’t a band that blows minds live, but distracting a cold and wet crowd from their misery for fifty minutes is no small feat.

The fest had two stages and one tent, but the tent was
set so far away from everything else few realized that an opportunity to watch live music out of the rain existed. Those who did drifted towards Carolina Liar’s southern rock jams, tight tunes packing boozy hooks like early Kings of Leon. Vocalist Chad Wolf (great Lynyrd Skynyrd-ey name there) tried his best to keep a bedraggled crowd focused, leading the audience in half-hearted fist-pumping. Keyboard player Johan Carlsson provided the best reason to pay attention though, looking wholly out of place rocking one hand per keyboard like a lost member of Duran Duran. His blond mane waved as he nodded his head, eyes closed in ‘80s solo style so much I was tempted to yell a request for “The Final Countdown.” The rest of the band paid him little attention though, and the music took just as little heed.

Up next was DJ and Adult Swim composer Flying Lotus. The first visually-inclined act of the day, he mixed video collages to match his beats, colors and shapes morphing like a way-advanced iTunes visualizer. Given that the wet afternoon atmosphere was no place for a dance party, the images gave the crowd something to focus on while listening to the music.

The rain began to abate as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs conjured a storm of their own. The three-piece melded garage-punk with new wave, guitarist Nick Zinner thrashing around behind his jagged riffs as Brian Chase snapped out drum machine-precision beats and Karen O swayed, swooned and stalked around the stage. All of this happened, incidentally, in front of a giant eyeball. Tracks from their most recent It’s Blitz dominated the set, but the crowd response to new songs like “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” confirmed they were already band classics. Karen’s forest-nymph ramblings did nothing to kill the momentum and her inexplicable cowering under a knit blanket for several songs only added an air of mystery. Like all great frontwomen, you’re never sure if she’s incredibly theatrical or moderately psychotic (probably both), but you can’t look away.

The big news before the weekend even began was the Beastie Boys’ surprise cancellation of this and all other dates due to MCA’s (thankfully treatable) cancer. Where Lollapalooza bunted with the Yeahs as their replacement headliner – a band that, while excellent, has not achieved a level of popularity to deserve the honor – All Points West knocked it out of the park by booking a last-minute Jay-Z. In current popular culture at least, Jay is arguably an even bigger name than the Beasties, so few missed the brat rappers.

Always the gentleman though, Jay did not let their absence go unmentioned. Just the opposite in fact; he hit the stage running with a cover of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” as images of the city flashed on the enormous screen behind him (video here). That naturally segued into his own “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” the thematic appropriateness of the transition compensating for the fact that we were in fact not in Brooklyn, nor New York state at all technically. The crowd went hard regardless.

The Jigga man slammed at breakneck pace through a wide range of tracks, from new single “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” (already featured on his merch) to old-school material like “Can I Live,” played in honor of Michael Jackson after a prelude of a bit of “I Want You Back.” A man with quite a few hits, he managed to play just about all of them at such rapid-fire pace he avoided the nostalgia feel, ripping from “99 Problems” to “Big Pimpin’” to “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” so professionally in the encore it never seemed obligatory.

All the credit cannot go to Jay however. His ace ten-piece backing band rendered the onstage DJ all but irrelevant, hitting every bump and grind in the beats to let Jay’s delivery flow naturally of its own accord. They dropped loud Linkin Park riffs for closing “Encore” and funky keyboard swirls for “Big Pimpin’,” but stepped back when necessary, such as when Jay premiered an impromptu a cappella verse off his upcoming Blueprint 3. Admittedly, most of the crowd probably didn’t care as much as he thought we did about that hard-to-hear teaser, but after two decades at the top of the game Jay-Z has earned the right to be cocky about his appeal. Confidence needn't lead to complacency though, and Jay played a man with something to prove. What? Perhaps he was proving simply that he has nothing left to prove.