Thursday, August 14, 2008

Radiohead in Mansfield, MA 8/13/08

Radiohead concerts are generally acknowledged to be one-of-a-kind concert experiences, visual, aural, and emotional. For many of the die-hards who drove from Boston to the Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter) last night though, the concert started on a bad note before Thom Yorke and co. even hit the stage. For those who even were lucky enough to see them hit the stage, that is. Traffic was backed up so far along I-93 that many waited hours to get in, missing opener Grizzly Bear completely and often some of Radiohead themselves.

My motley crew (an interesting story in and of itself; read another member’s account here) at least made it before Radiohead. From the first notes of “Reckoner,” the thing most immediately apparent were the lights. Sure, the music was good and all, but the visual show alone was worth the ticket price. Dozens of long florescent lights hung from the ceiling, many going all the way to the floor, creating elaborate patterns and effects choreographed to each song. Not your mama’s florescent lights though, each one could light up as a whole, in sections, in dots, or any other pattern, like a long thin video screen. A youtube search for “Radiohead Mansfield” should show you exactly what I mean.

Anyone who predicted that they would eventually run out of ideas for that set-up was proven wrong. During the “It should be raining” line of “The Gloaming,” simulated blue rain drizzled over the stage. As Yorke opened “Videotape” singing about the pearly gates, glowing pillars shimmered into shape behind him. The lyrics and chorus to “Everything in Its Right Place” jerked across the lights in warped
lettering (though, one critique: they spelled it “it’s” right place. For shame, Thom.)

Throughout all this two long horizontal screens flashed images behind the band, the lower one doing colors and effects while the upper showed split two-tone images of the band, too effects-heavy to be all that useful to those far away. No traditional stage lights could be seen, the band bringing their own environmentally friendly fixtures that looked like a fly’s eye, small beams dancing across the stage, interacting with the vertical rods. Taken as a whole, the visuals would have overwhelmed the music if the two weren’t so perfectly in synch.

I should preface the actual music analysis by saying, though I consider myself a fan, I was probably less so than 95% of the people there. The show was hit or miss for me musically, fascinating at times, headache-inducing at others. After the excellent “Reckoner,” the show got off to a slow start as less-than-memorable songs comprised the first half hour. Though inherently lively, “15 Step” seemed performed with minimal energy, as if the band was too tired to really get into the spastic rhythm and falsetto thrashings. “Kid A” into “Nude” was yawn-inducing, but “All I Need,” a song just as slow, finally picked things up as the band created a supple background that gave Thom nothing to hide behind. From there on, the energy and commitment to the playing never again faltered, as Yorke did his loose-limbed marionette jig across the stage, guitarist Jonny Greenword created his swirling dissonance without ever acknowledging the audience, and Phil Selway’s innovative drumming propelled along the quirky beats and jerky tempo.

An unlikely trilogy formed the set’s first high point. As the lights flashed red noise waves, the band thrashed out “The National Anthem” starting loud and building before crashing into dissonant meltdown, accompanied by a static break-down on the screens. Though all but impossible to stay on beat, the crowd tried, dancing and jumping around as the band did likewise. It collapsed into Yorke, on a piano snuck center stage doing the seizure light show, playing the irresistible “Videotape” chords, hypnotizing himself with the lullaby melody. The band finally averaged its spastic and melodic tendencies with “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” using the more conventional structure to bounce along as Thom built his faux-raps into a howl. After a run through the mediocre “The Bends,” an older song that sounded downright mainstream in the company of all the others, Greenwood took center stage to assist Yorke in a chiming acoustic guitar “Faust Arp,” Yorke cracking the night’s only smile when he flubbed a line.

The concert continued to cruise along on a pretty-high note from there. The lights were fun to watch, the band was focused, the sounds were strange but soothing. An encore came and went, but Thom came out for the second alone, sitting down at piano again for a song from his solo project The Eraser. Though many were not familiar with it, “Cymbal Rush” was an immediate highlight, the stripped-down sound a breath of fresh air after the intricate madness of the previous couple hours. If confused looks greeted that one though, a communal roar followed for the opening strains of “Karma Police.” Everyone quietly sang along to this rarely-played hit, swaying yet riveted to the stage. The mood abruptly ended as “Idioteque,” one of their best fast songs and a fan favorite, closed the night out in typical herky-jerky fashion. Though not my favorite band, Radiohead’s show combines music and the spectacle for a concert experience hard to rival.


There There
15 Step
Kid A
All I Need
The Gloaming
The National Anthem
Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The Bends
Faust Arp
Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Everything In Its Right Place
Exit Music (For A Film)

House Of Cards
I Might Be Wrong
Paranoid Android
A Wolf At The Door
How To Disappear Completely

Cymbal Rush
Karma Police

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wilco at Tanglewood 8/12/08

Though the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood is nowhere near the city. Nestled in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts, the small open-air amphitheater features a huge lawn where friends could play Frisbee, families could picnic, and couples could cuddle while the music washed over the field. A picturesque setting that fit the music perfectly.

First up: indie-violinist Andrew Bird. Combining orchestral swirls with noisy feedback, his poppy tunes went over well as he switched from violin to guitar and back, often all in one song. Though you might expect the violin to be the most unusual element of his performance style, Bird one-ups himself by soloing on…whistling. He bills himself as a “professional whistler” and his tone is so pure and expressive you believe it. Though violin and whistling could come off as novelty, he incorporates both so fully into his music that they become essential ingredients to his strange tales. Several oversized phonographs behind him broadcasted the tunes, spinning occasionally for a weird reverb effect and lending the stage the vintage-chic atmosphere his music demands.

Wilco came out dressed for the occasion, looking dapper in lounge-cowboy suits. Jeff Tweedy, Wilco frontman: “We were up all night sewing. As usual.” Though show started out quiet, the band was tight and focused, much higher energy than the laid-back show
I saw at Bonnaroo. “Either Way” kicked things off, Tweedy’s voice strong while the band jammed in the background, leading into a “Hummingbird” sing-along. Kicking of a show with four slow songs is not something many bands could pull off, but the pretty melodies and together-but-loose background instrumentation kept the crowd focused until halfway through “You Are My Face” when a Nels Cline guitar solo finally kicked things up a notch. The band’s secret weapon, Cline’s guitar alone would have made the show enjoyable. Whether playing chiming intros (“Summer Teeth”), blazing-hot solos (“Impossible Germany”), offbeat distortion freakouts (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), and beautiful steel guitar (“Remember the Mountain Bed”) in turns.

Though never known for their fast songs, Wilco brought out their hardest rocking side, keeping a crowd accustomed to sitting for the orchestra on its feet the whole two hours. Though they performed six songs from Sky Blue Sky, the band’s most recent, most country album, they pushed the energy level up on them all to avoid the snoozefest they generate on record. The night’s clear high point, “Poor Places” into “Spiders (Kids
moke)” was twenty minutes of building distortion-jam bliss, the band controlling the dynamics and mood like a seasoned conductor as Cline and Tweedy traded blistering atonal solos.

Helping with the overall energy were the Total Pros, a three-man horn section from Chicago that pumped up the funk on songs like “Hate It Here” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Though only around for several songs in the main set, they dominated the encores until Tweedy finally let it all out on “I’m a Wheel” with his best nasal scream. After a highly-regarded series of shows in Chicago last winter where the band went through their entire back catalogue over five nights, Tweedy retained his interest in revisiting his earlier work, every album being represented in the set list except A.M. Not just a grab bag though, the songs were chosen for pacing and style, hits mixed in with long-forgotten nuggets with seamless transitions.

Known for being someone of a recluse with a history of depression and painkiller addiction, Tweedy played the master of ceremonies with confidence and charisma. No matter how self-deprecating he may be about his status as frontman, he’s an excellent one, cracking jokes and delivering the line of the night in response to a heckler: “Do you guys shout requests at the BSO? [In drunk fan voice:] Mahler! Maaahler!”

Though their records are a mixed bag, the excellent (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) alternating with the boring (Sky Blue Sky), as a live band Wilco gives a gimmick-less performance, not needing to rely on fancy lights of visuals like Radiohead to keep the crowd engaged throughout. Seeing people get as much out of the songs they didn’t know as the ones they did is unusual, but even the most staid classical subscriber walked out a convert.


Either Way
Remember The Mountain Bed
Muzzle Of Bees
You Are My Face
Impossible Germany
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
A Shot In The Arm
What Light (w/Total Pros horns)
California Stars (w/Total Pros horns)
Pieholden Suite (w/Total Pros horns)
Handshake Drugs
Pot Kettle Black
Summer Teeth
Jesus, Etc.
Poor Places
Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 1:
Can't Stand It (w/Total Pros horns)
Hate It Here (w/Total Pros horns)
Walken (w/Total Pros horns)
I’m The Man Who Loves You (w/Total Pros horns)

Encore 2:
The Late Greats (w/Total Pros horns)
Heavy Metal Drummer
Monday (w/Total Pros horns)
Outtasite (Outta Mind) (w/Total Pros horns)
I'm A Wheel

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gogol Bordello in Hampton Beach 8/7/08

Few bands can match the high-voltage energy of Gogol Bordello. Though I’d seen them twice before (well, one-and-a-half times) at Bonnaroo 2007 and 2008, I had yet to see them at a concert proper. But for their first concert in New Hampshire they hit the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom – unusual in that there is no casino. The venue website says the word casino comes from the 19th century word for “gathering place,” and since it was founded in 1899, I guess the explanation holds. Regardless, there’s plenty of more legal gambling along the boardwalk in the form of arcade after arcade, giving the tourists something to do on rainy days.

The venue seemed far from full, but those who were there – many, like myself, having driven up from Boston – were diehards. They jumped, moshed, crowd-surfed and, most importantly, sang along to every word. Well, once Gogol Bordello came on they did. First they had to endure an hour of Pedro Erazo’s meandering DJing, where the Gogol Bordello hype man (more on him later) seemed even more bored than the audience. One vaguely ethnic song was played after another as roadies soundchecked over them, eliciting cries of “You suck” and “Go home” from an increasingly restless crowd.

When he mercifully ended fifty-five minutes later than he should have to let the band come on, the crowd immediately perked up. And by perked up, I mean, went absolutely insane. Gogol’s songs are tailor-made for participation, with ready-made shout-along parts like “TAAAAAAA…taran…taran…tata!” in “American Wedding” and the title line’s endless repeats in “Not a Crime” and the crowd used every line as an opportunity to yell, every beat as an opportunity to jump.

The energy on the floor was only matched by that on stage. Seeing my second show this summer, you realize much of the onstage fun is highly choreographed. When lead singer and wild man Eugene Hütz drums on a bucket, it’s at exactly the same time he did so at Bonnaroo, and likewise with any holding the mic stand out to the audience or jumping into the crowd. However, enough of him and various band members running around the stage, trying to get every corner of the place jumping, is spontaneous to keep it interesting for a second-timer. With band members from the Ukraine, Ethiopia, Russia, Israel, Ecuador and, oh yeah, America, the “gypsy punk” stayed off-beat enough to be interesting – violin and accordion on every song – but mainstream enough to keep a driving jump-along beat.

They were assisted in their efforts by the three people whose musical contributions were negligible, but on-stage antics contributions enormous. The Asian component of the international mix, Pamela Racine and Elizabeth Sun spent most of the show sprinting around the stage, only to stop for the occasional dance move, like forest nymphs with more elaborate costumes. Their enthusiasm was only rivaled by hype man Pedro Erazo, whose percussion duties were secondary to his attempts to keep the crowd excited – something he seemed to have no interest in his DJ guise.

The songs they chose could all have been expected, but were featured enough passion onstage that mostly faithful versions were nothing to complain about. Quasi-hit “Start Wearing Purple” loses appeal fast once the novelty wears off, but they mixed it up by beginning it with Pedro singing the chorus in Spanish, confusing audience members who tried to sing along in English. They went through many of the tracks off their 2007 release Super Taranta!, which I declared best album of the year here, kicking everything off with “Ultimate” and hitting such gypsy anthems as “Wanderlust King” and “Your Country” along the way. Many high points were their older material, however, particularly the 15-minute “Undestructable” that closed the show, following one false ending with another as the crowd practically frothed at the mouth. Though the band may do basically the same show from one town to the next, few this side of the Boss can match the take-no-prisoners energy of Eugene and his crew of international misfits.