Monday, April 18, 2011

The Concertgoer: Low & Halloween, Alaska

Going to concerts alone is one of my least favorite things to do, and yet here I was, solo, at Low’s First Avenue show. Strangely, many of my fellow concertgoers also seemed to be attending alone. I hadn’t considered it beforehand, but this makes sense. Low’s music—especially that of their earlier years—sounds best in the dark of the night, soundtracking those sleepless moments and confused soulsearching. You can listen to Low with other people, or watch them perform in a crowd of several hundred, but their music is not really a communal experience. It’s often hushed, as if whispered, and the words dwell on topics like dreamlife and mental illness—things that we can only experience alone.
The days when Low fans sat on the ground during performances are long gone, but their performances are still intimate, even in their louder moments. This night, Low were well-equipped for higher volumes, playing with an unexpected fourth member. The Duluth, MN band are a trio—Steve Garrington is the latest in a rotating cast of bassists—but they were joined by a sunglasses-clad Eric Pollard, who is a member of the side project Retribution Gospel Choir. He played keyboards and sang backup vocals, both barely audible.

Low’s core is Alan and Mimi Parker, married Mormons whose vocal harmonies fill the open spaces of the band’s music. Mimi’s approach to percussion is minimalist: she plays standing up with a small kit, holding a mallet in her left hand and a brush in her right. Alan has become something of a guitar hero lately, but he still explores slower tempos. He held back on his often-disturbing banter, but contorts his hand whenever he’s not playing guitar.

At First Avenue, Low favored cuts from their last three albums. No complaints here, they’re all great, although the just-released C’mon is the weakest among them. If we’re being simplistic*, the new album basically moves Low into Neil Young territory, exploring the sweetness and dread of acoustic Neil while making a detour into Crazy Horse antics. Not all of C’mon’s mid-tempo numbers connected, but most of the new material sounded great. Hearing Mimi’s voice flood the room on “Especially Me” was beautiful, and the slow rise into soulful feedback on “Nothing But Heart” is as great live as it is on record.

Low’s older material has been expertly honed. Individual songs are difficult to pick, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Breaker,” “Sunflower,” and “Canada.” That last song rode a runaway bassline to total immersion. It was the penultimate tune in an encore of older material, capped by “When I Go Deaf.”

“Deaf” is a song about hearing loss and the insularity that comes with it, with plaintive vocals from both Parkers that are followed by post-chorus bursts of frustrated distortion. It captures what Low do best. It’s beautiful but disquieting. And in the dark confines of First Avenue, it makes complete sense.

Halloween, Alaska opened the show. They're a local concern whose sound recalls the subdued clarity of the American Analog Set (Low's one-time peers). They work towards noisier finales, but keyboard-driven atmospherics color their songs. Halloween, Alaska sometimes utilize a electronic percussion--making them sound like Hot Chip--which was mostly distracting. They do quiet well, their low-key charm a fitting aperitif for the group that's made an art and a career out of hushed.

*And why not?—the previous two records got pegged as the loud one and the electronic one, which is fairly accurate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Concertgoer: Destroyer & The War On Drugs

There was an accidental logic in seeing The War On Drugs a week and a half after former WoD member Kurt Vile came to town. Granted, I didn't see much of The War On Drugs--what sort of rock concerts begins at 7:30?--just enough to tease out the similarities. Vile's old band also have an underwhelming frontman, and similarly draw on classic rock without being wholly derivative. In the case of War On Drugs, their music takes the shape of something Wilco might've made between A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky. There's even some cool, Nels Cline-style guitar. The group's liability is frontman Adam Granduciel, whose vocals ape the stretched-out vowels of Blonde On Blonde. It's less an homage than a grating imitative gesture, and the band sounds better when his mouth is closed.

Destroyer have frontman issues as well. It's not that Dan Bejar is or isn't a good frontman, it's that he neglects the role entirely. Live, the roguish Bejar wanders around, distractedly. Bejar kept his mic stand at about knee-length, and returned his mic there when he wasn't singing; he crouched for many of the show's opening numbers, sipping beer when his vocals weren't required; he entered in a jean jacket; and he referred to lyric sheets for two of his own compositions. While he didn't seem pleased to be performing, Bejar did deliver his enjambed lines and trilled coos as on record. Even when he's just standing there, his vocals still sound like a man wildly gesticulating. He did not play guitar at all.

Destroyer's success rested less on Bejar's performance than the seven musicians he's playing with. These included a saxophonist/flautist and trumpeter in addition to the guitars, keyboard, bass, and drums. With the horns and a female vocalist, the band was well equipped to play material form this year's Kaputt.* They were never introduced, but whoever they are, their mélange--sultry horns, keyboard washes, and low-end kick--is brilliant. I hope someone recorded the extended jam at the end of "Song For America"--the band reached a dense, commanding crescendo, and then set down their instruments and left.

The Kaputt Players dipped into a few back catalog numbers. These were only lightly reworked, but the band added horns to some Rubies favorites, and conjured a sublime "My Favorite Year." I can personally attest that this performance was much better than the one Destroyer gave in Minneapolis three years ago, when they played that same song. The difference comes down to the music--the airy density of the Kaputt material allows Bejar to inhabit a space from which his disinterested verbiage becomes another evocative element. The 2008 show had him fronting a rock band, and onstage this does not come naturally to him.

So it's been disappointing to read that Bejar may give up music. For years, Bejar alone kept singer-songerwriterdom fresh. It seems like strange timing, now that he's pivoted from vagabond to sophisticate, and assembled a pretty tight band. But eccentrics don't follow career paths--Kaputt seems to have accidentally captured some zeitgeist--and if this is actually it (which I doubt), than Bejar went out with a good live show. For once.

*The band did not include Sibel Thrasher, whose backing vocals make such a lovely counterpoint on many of the new songs

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Concertgoer: Wye Oak & Callers

St. Paul's Turf Club is a cool place, but not an establishment with great organizational skills. So a discrepancy between the official website and printed ticket led me to assume the show started later than it did, and for this and other reasons I missed first opener Zoo Animal. This was a let down--I've been meaning to see the group for months, having been assured that the band posses a ragged majesty. They are a rock band of practicing Christians, which is rarely a good sign. But as a Low superfan, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Alas, the Turf Club did not give me a resaonable idea of when doors opened. Another time.

I did catch Callers, who are touring with Baltimore compatriots Wye Oak. I was distracted during Callers' set, but paid enough attention to notice that 1) they are an irritating three-piece with 2) a female vocalist who sounds like Jeff Buckley. They are not worth your time.

Then came Wye Oak, underdogs now big enough to pack a small club. Wye Oak are a duo, but they work mightily to produce one of the highest volume to band member ratios in the business. Frontwoman Jenn Wasner plays guitar and sings, while her boyfriend Andy Stack drums with most of his body, using his right hand to play bass parts and occasional keyboard on a small synth. Wasner is the driving force in Wye Oak, but Stack is the workhorse, dexterously powering the group.

And Wye Oak are powerful. Their first album--totally unrepresented at the show--balanced folk with fuzz, but showed that the group could unleash moments of overwhelming intensity. Whenever Wasner's guitar begins one of its inexorable surges, time seems to stop. Their more recent work has tended towards these sudden blasts, a sort of americana via shoegaze, but this year's Civilian moves slightly in the direction of tense atmospherics.

Live, the band mostly replicate the sounds on their records, seeming a bit more laid back in person. The moments of paralyzing noise--which draw out the frustration and longing of Wasner's lyrics--are still the most exciting. Accordingly, "For Prayer" and "Holy, Holy" were highlights. The moment on the latter when the band pause, then hit their notes at exactly the same moment and kickstaring the song's melodic rush--that's perfection to me.

The whole show wasn't that great. Wasner's vocals don't have quite the same languor on a PA, and fans of the band's first two albums probably left disappointed. But the lulls were very short. Notably, after a rant about the internet and some guy in Iowa City with a camera, Wye Oak launched into a cover of Danzig's "Mother." That song is always and forever Glenn Danzig's, but the rising intensity of Wye Oak's version sounded awesome, and is probably a good sign for folks with tickets to see the band cover Dinosaur Jr at the OBCBYL show.

The evening ended with a short encore--one quiet song, one loud one. It was a relatively short set. While there are no happy Wye Oak songs--they played both "I Hope You Die" and "Two Small Deaths"--their music is lovely to get lost in, and the amount of closed eyes, swaying bodies and banging heads at the Turf Club indicated that, finally, people are catching on.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Concertgoer: J Mascis, Kurt Vile & Fauna

There's a moment during Dinosaur Jr shows, usually during the encore, when J Mascis rips into the opening chords of "Freak Scene." Five seconds later, when the drums and bass kick in, the roof has already been blown off. Two and a half minutes in, after Lou and Murph drop out, J returns to those opening chords and croaks
Sometimes I don't thrill you
Sometimes I think I'll kill you
Just don't let me fuck up will you
Cause when I need a friend it's still you
ceding that last line to the audience. It's cathartic, every time, and the lyric is a great metaphor for Dinosaur Jr's internal dynamic and live performances--brilliant but inconsistent, fractious, and almost accidently life-affirming. It's also the only moment during Dinosaur concerts that spotlights the laconic Mascis, and he basically surrenders it.

So a solo acoustic show by Mascis leaves a lot of questions, despite some obvious precedents. The tour follows an album, Several Shades Of Why, that's mostly solo and largely acoustic. But with no band to hide behind--or blast out noise with--Mascis actually seemed comfortable and engaged. He occupied the spotlight modestly, with a hint of charm. He even shared an anecdote--at Dinosaur shows, Lou Barlow handles all the banter--about how Murph's taste in cassettes resulted in his Eddie Brickell cover. It seems the Dinosaur drummer favored Zappa in the tour van, but introduced Mascis to the song "Circle Of Friends" on the road back in the 80's.

A seated Mascis began the show with newer material. It was fantastic live, Mascis sounding present in a way he isn't always on Shades. The album's best songs--"Is It Done," "Listen To Me," and the title track--cast Mascis as a forlorn troubadour. It's a new role, but there's always been a hint of John Fogerty and "Dead Flowers" Jagger in his voice. As on the record, the loose, Laurel Canyon vibe fits naturally within the Mascis landscape of confusion and self-doubt. On Dinosaur records, Mascis buries this emotion inside the maelstrom; on this new one, uncertainty takes the forefront. A few songs got away from Mascis, however, as they do on Shades. But Mascis was at ease and in control--it's always hard to tell, but it seemed like he was enjoying himself.

He made liberal use of a pedal that transformed his acoustic Martin into something electric-sounding. Mascis employed the pedal more often as the show went on, and brought out a number of Dinosaur songs. "The Wagon," "Little Fury Things," and "Thumb" sounded great, still resonant at lower volumes. A couple tunes could've used the full Dinosaur treatment, notably "Ocean In The Way." The filter's fuzz couldn't quite match the wild precision of a true Mascis solo, even with Mascis playing.

The highlight this evening was a whiplash "Not You Again." There was no "Freak Scene," but "Again" mimics the bouncy noise-pop and drawled self-doubt: "I got no advice bout anything/Just fuck it up yourself." And the way the crowd responded, it could've been "Freak Scene." J spat out the last lines fast and off-beat, a bit of self-sabotage during an unusually enlivened show.

Playing before Mascis was his touring partner, Kurt Vile, who made a brief appearance during J's set. I've encountered Vile's music sporadically, and mostly, it has failed to connect. I find it diffuse and underdeveloped, in the way that lesser Atlas Sound songs are. Live, this was not an issue. Vile and his equally long-haired band, the Violators, transform even the singer-songwritery moments into straight rock and roll. Vile's songs are rock as a bedridden autodidact might write it--Bradford Cox again being a good reference point. The Violators play loud, ending many songs with frenzied jams. But as long as Vile remains such an indistinct presence, I can't see this band getting much better. Not every group needs a Jagger, but until Kurt Vile's delivery becomes distinctly Vile, his music is doomed to be just good rock and roll.*

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy Vile and the Violators--they were a pleasant surprise. So were the openers, Fauna. A Minneapolis group from the 90's, which once included Linda Pitmon, Fauna reunited recently after seventeen years on hiatus. As I walked in, the group was playing with a flautist, cribbing from Loveless, and doing so pretty well. Sans flute, they sound quite a lot like Teenage Fanclub. All their songs are at least a minute too long, but they seemed thrilled to be on stage, namechecking Where You Been and playing like men excited to escape their dayjobs--as high school teachers or IT guys, if I had to guess. They also had an excellently packaged CD that, when propped open, becomes a theremin.

*Strange as that sounds...

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Month Of Attending Concerts

There’s an unusual preponderance of concerts in Minneapolis this month. This no doubt coincides with the end of winter, which makes the Twin Cities a marginally more inviting place. In any case, my work calendar--which is mainly used for noting concert dates--is getting full of these shows, so I thought, “Hey, why not make a project out of this?” And so I will, writing up the shows I attend on this blog.

There are four I’m set on going to: J Mascis, Wye Oak, Low, and Destroyer. Expect reviews of those. A handful of others, including OFF!, the Joy Formidable, Cut Copy, Mike Watt, the Vivian Girls, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, are in the maybe column. This list is pretty limited, genre-wise, but I’m open to additions (maybe Fela drummer Tony Allen? It’s kind of expensive).

Anyways, I’m planning on limiting the project to just April. There’s a reason I don’t typically review concerts or albums on Rockaliser, since so many other people do that. At the same time, I’ve written show reviews in the past, some of which are OK enough, and they can provide a different angle at which to explore an artist’s music.* On this blog, our focus is almost exclusively on recorded music. That’s typical of most criticism, and it’s not a bad thing, but neither is it an inherently better way of thinking about and experiencing music.

So look out for these Concertgoer posts (a name I borrow with all due deference to Geoff S., who does this same thing over at The Big Takeover). If there’s something you’d recommend I attend, chime in in the comments section.

*I believe that link is the first time I’ve publicly outed myself as James Yogurt, so there you go. While I’d love to rewrite that review with vastly shorter sentences, I think it’s got some valid points.