Friday, July 1, 2011

Our Concert Could Be Your Life: The Review

[Ed. Note: I apologize to readers who have been waiting on this for more than a month...for reasons that are not worth going into here, I thought this had been posted a long time ago, and I can no longer find a copy of the original article; what follows is a new draft, reconstructed somewhat from memory. Thanks to all the listeners and commenters who pointed this out and I hope you enjoy the review]

May 22nd's tribute concert for Michael Azerrad's famous book Our Band Could Be Your Life (now officially titled, I think, "Our Concert Could Be Your Life") was a slicker and shorter affair than I feared, although conversely that meant many of the sets had to be cut off after two or three songs. While the show was certainly worth way more than I paid for, one couldn't help leaving feeling whether perhaps five hours of this wasn't enough to do any of the bands justice. The large majority of sets were extremely solid and stuffed with crowd-pleasing numbers; there were also, yes, a few bands who couldn't live up to the transcendent expectations of their source material, but this wasn't really a type of event to nitpick such things. I'll try to recount some of what I witnessed, starting with a set I missed and ending with an all-star jam cover of...a major label radio hit?

Set #1: Dirty Projectors play Black Flag
I missed this first set, to my eternal consternation, because my weekly radio show was finishing up at around the same time the concert was about to start (you can hear audio of that particular show, which features telling moments of me and pal/"Save Live Music On Broadway" activist Andrew Hartwell clearly anxious to get out of there and me fumbling microphones settings as a result). After leaving a bit late and sprinting to the Bowery Ballroom, the Projectors had already ended their five-song set, and I had no idea they had played until I asked someone. I listened to the Projectors online after the fact (and you can too, at NPR!), and as expected, their set sounded restive, and faithful to the primordial rage of "Rise Above," "Thirsty and Miserable" and "Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie!," while fitfully making short work of "Police Story" and "Spray Paint." All these tracks are from Damaged, which disappointed this Slip It In fan, but since I wasn't there it wouldn't have mattered anyway.

Set #2: Delicate Steve plays The Minutemen
Andrew and I showed up with plenty of time to see the next band, Delicate Steve, and for a minute we were fooled into thinking we had wandered into an 80s indie rock version of The Last Waltz. Like Dirty Projectors, DS' set was heavy on the short songs, mostly instrumental at first, as is Steve's wont (and again, check out Wondervisions if you haven't). Also like the previous band, they focused on one album only, and guess which album that was? However, they concentrated on some of the weirder stuff: main player Steve Marion started out the set (I think it was him at least), with D. Boon's solo guitar instrumental "Cohesion," before moving on to amazing note-for-note versions of George Hurley's drum piece "You Need the Glory," and then Mike Watt's collage "Take 5, D." Playing those three songs straight through was a great way of paying tribute to the men behind the Minutemen, both as a cohesive, airtight unit and as individually creative musicians. To end their set, the band first brought out Les Savy Fav singer Tim Harrington to sing "This Ain't No Picnic," which (though no one noticed) he fucked up, singing each beat at half the tempo it was supposed to be at (audio for proof, at about 5 minutes in). The band adapted almost perfectly, though, to the different delivery style. After that, Lee Ranaldo came on and sang two songs: "History Lesson, Pt. II" (Replacing all the "me" pronouns with "D. Boon), and then "Jesus and Tequila," both of which first moved and then riled the crowd. Afterward, Janeane Garofalo was on stage and said that D. Boon would be proud of this concert, and one couldn't help but feel that the ghost of Boon was imbuing the room with friendly vibes.

Citay plays Mission Of Burma
Citay, a San Francisco garage act unfamiliar to me, began the trend of playing fewer, longer songs after the eleven-tune blitz of the last two acts. With a large cast of musicians that included what looked to be a hippie chick on tambourine, Citay seemed at first an odd choice to play the legendary Boston band. I can honestly report, though, that even at two songs, Citay's set was one of the highlights of the evening--even the hippie chick got in the act. Their first cover, of "Trem Two" from Vs., ably utilized multiple guitar arrangements of the famously oscillating tune, and while that song doesn't necessarily rock as hard as other Burma tunes, it was still conveyed energetically and with a great feel for the song's bewildering dynamics. This was followed by a cover of one of Burma's mightiest tunes (one of the mightiest tunes ever, really), "Peking Spring," which can be heard here and is definitely one of the two or three best performances of the night. "Peking Spring" never showed up on a Mission of Burma album proper, which is sort of a crime, but Citay may have provided a clue to why a song like this is best played live. Just an enormous, resonant sound, especially on that chorus and the "woos" at the ending. The main dude's stage banter was awful, though.

Set #4: Ted Leo plays Minor Threat
I previously wondered whether a Ted Leo solo set meant acoustic renditions of Ian MacKaye and co.'s early 80s repertoire; instead, the 40-year old Leo walked onstage alone, sans guitar, and sputtered his way through a five-song set while a prerecorded electric guitar track played behind him (according to NPR, it was a reel-to-reel tape recording by Leo, although at the time I was unsure if someone might be playing guitar live, offstage or elsewhere). Throughout the Our Concert Could Be Your Life show, I could tell that many singers needed cheat sheets to remember some of the lyrics, but this obviously wasn't a problem for Leo, who is demonstrably so steeped in hardcore that singing Minor Threat tunes is second nature. As for Leo's performance, he strutted around onstage expertly, he sang and screamed with expert timing, he made the audience part of the act, and he was appropriately forceful and respectful when winding his way through the final salute to hardcore that is "Salad Days." The song "Minor Threat," meanwhile, was treated as the anthem it is, and Leo took virtually no break between that and "Stand Up," "Filler" and "Look Back At Laugh." As expected, "Guilty Of Being White" was not played.

Set #5: Grooms play Hüsker Dü
Grooms didn't perform exactly faithful versions of Dü numbers (astonishingly, two Grant Hart tracks to one Bob Mould track!), and none of the band members seemed keen on exactly replicating the instrumental parts of Hart, Mould or Norton. Unfortunately, none of these rejiggered versions stood up to the originals. The hushed, whispered version of "Diane," for instance, was guilty of a type of dirge-y repetitiveness that was never present in the original, and while "Pink Turns To Blue" rocked somewhat, it lacked that delicious Bob Mould distorted arpeggio that provided that song's first and best hook. That was replaced with some lesser, more chimey guitar parts, but at least the soul of the song was still there. Their final cover, of "Something I Learned Today," from Zen Arcade, was even weirder, again adding some lesser, unnecessary hooks and basically breaking from that album opener's ringing intensity in favor of something stranger, maybe more Grooms-sounding. All in all, not bad, just not Hüsker Dü.

Set #6: Titus Andronicus plays the Replacements
I'm not a very big Hold Steady fan, but that didn't stop me from being amused to see Craig Finn in a police uniform, stepping on stage as Titus Andronicus finishing setting up, reciting the opening cop rant from "Kids Don't Follow" to the word, astonishingly (and the audience answering with all the right catcalls, even more astonishingly). So began Titus Andronicus' set, which leaned heavily on pre-Let It Be tunes, and no one could be more happier about that than I. Lead singer Patrick Stickles was, of course, a perfect belter of Paul Westerberg lines, and with his skinny frame and unkempt beard his look was perfectly in keeping with the 'Mats' old aesthetic. Even better was when a crowd-surfing Craig Finn climbed up onstage just in time to sing the last notes of "Kids Don't Follow" with Stickles, which led directly into Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash ender "Raised in the City." Stickles picked up an acoustic guitar and another guitarist brought out a violin for the last cover, of "Treatment Bound," and boy, I can't tell you how happy I was to see those first three Replacements releases honored in such a fashion. Titus Andronicus was wise to stick with some deeper cuts, and while it might have been great to see them do, say, "Bastards of Young," they proved themselves just fine without it.

Set #7: tUnE-yArDs plays Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth songs, with their odd guitar tunings and tricky melodies, are already hard to cover, and certainly doing the job without a guitar in hand makes the job even tougher. As predicted, Azzerad split the difference on Sonic Youth by hiring two bands to cover them, as it clearly took a lot out of Merrill Garbus to do even her one cover, of "Burning Spear" from Sonic Youth. That one performance seemed to be enough for the audience, and indeed it was a grin-inducing performance, even if it took a while for me to figure out what song was being played. Though the loops took a long time to build up intensity, when Garbus started singing proper she nearly brought the house down. Buoyed by the sound of a single floor tom, the song became a kind of chant, entirely appropriate for 1982-era Sonic Youth, and there was no better measure of that performance's success than witnessing Lee Ranaldo look upon her performance from backstage with approval. Of course, that wasn't the end for Da Youf accolades...

Set #8: Callers perform Sonic Youth
Callers were a late and somewhat confusing addition to this set; I had never heard them before, although my Rockaliser colleague saw them earlier open for Wye Oak, and described them as "not worth your time." That seemed to be my prevailing impression as well, even with the strong songs they covered. The most remarkable thing about Callers was their lead singer, who seemed less like Jeff Buckley to me and more like Tiny Tim, or a particularly chirpy bird. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the lead singer's vocal ululations during something meant to be as monotone as "Shadow of a Doubt" somehow made the song even more scary and exploitative, as if we had veered suddenly from Hitchcock into Final Destination or Saw. One of the coolest components of Sonic Youth's early sound was how Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore's guitar parts interlocked and alternated rhythm and lead parts, but with Callers it was all a mish-mash of woozy noodling and Norah Jones torch-singing. Unfortunately, the Callers set was probably the low point of the night, although at least the tempo picked up somewhat with "The World Looks Red."

Set #9: Dan Deacon plays the Butthole Surfers
Dan Deacon's set was when things started getting really crazy. Deacon is known for his energetic live shows, and the Buttholes are themselves no slouches in the crazy visuals department, and I knew things were going to get really good the moment someone brought out a fog machine. Deacon was flanked at all sides by a large collection of pedals, his band, and a background projection alternating pictures of Woody Harrelson, sandwiches, and other inexplicable images. Deacon's "all-star band" (a really, really strong group) started out with "Human Cannonball," and immediately the room started going nuts. Deacon handled all the Gibbytronics tricks like he had memorized them, and added a few new ideas to the proceedings as well, and the band played as if they didn't even need the vocals to back them up. This was followed, shortly, by "The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey's Grave," in which all the crazy lighting and fog effects were utilized in full force, as the band started flipping out and audience members started jumping on stage. After blasting through those first two songs, the band ended with the Black Sabbath-biting number "Sweet Loaf," which was seriously one of the heaviest live experiences of my life. The Surfers never get as much respect in the book for their songs as some of the other bands, but Dan Deacon's set, a true highlight, proves there's a lot more to Locust Abortion Technician and Rembrandt Pussyhorse than other people think. I would pay a lot to hear Dan Deacon yell "If you see see your mother, be sure and tell her...Satan!" again. This set was so good it was scary.

Set #10: St. Vincent plays Big Black
A lot of people seemed to be at the show specifically for St. Vincent's performance, which was evidenced by the large number of people who bailed after her performance. Annie Clark truly did Albini proud, though, even with time to only play two songs. Backed by members of Dirty Projectors and spitting through a microphone with a weird distortion effect that made her bark as menacing as Albini's, Clark immediately kicked into high-gear with "Bad Penny," holding her own on guitar against the Projectors, bending the strings with stomach-lurching precision, and somehow she sounded too perfect for her material. Of all the guitar players throughout the night, Clark was truly the one to watch, especially to someone like me who has always been curious about the opening notes of "Kerosene." That song, by the way, truly clinched her performance in that rare category of "inspirational." Props to Projectors drummer Brian McOmber, by the way, for nailing those drum machine parts live on "Kerosene."

Set #11: Wye Oak plays Dinosaur Jr.
NPR informs me that Wye Oak actually played two songs, though to me their set seemed unusually short. If there was any musician who could give Annie Clark a challenge for the title of guitar MVP, it was Wye Oak's Jenn Wazner, who shredded perfectly, note-for-note, through "Sludgefeast." Wazner so expertly replicated Mascis' parts, in fact, that I was inclined until now to forget about the extraordinary playing of drummer Andy Stack, who played with one hand while punching out bass parts on a keyboard--esentially, playing Murph and Lou Barlow simultaneously. I didn't even notice that they eventually segued into "Tarpit," albeit without a break, but before I knew it they were already gone. "Sludgefeast" and "Tarpit" are already songs that sound like each other, I guess. All in all, a predictably perfect blast of noise, if ablated.

Set #12: Buke and Gass play Fugazi
The crowd really started thinning by the time Buke and Gass (pronounced "Gase," as I found out at the show) went onstage, and while I have previously exalted this band and their album Riposte, I was somewhat disappointed by this set and the band's choice of covers. Aron Sanchez and Arone Dyer came onstage rocking all sorts of marvelous-looking homemade instruments (including their "buke" and "gass") and looked ready to tear into a mighty set before Dyer played the opening riff of "Long Division" (never Fugazi's most amazing song in my opinion) and the band settled into a groove that was somewhat propulsive, but never really picked up speed. The other cover, "Guilford Fall," had the exact same problem--this wasn't Fugazi at its most energetic, these were the later, more contemplative songs. I'll admit to nursing a crush on Arone Dyer now, and I like the band overall, but maybe they should have seen what they could have done with songs like "Public Witness Program" or "Bulldog Front." Something to shout along with, I guess.

Set #13: White Hills play Mudhoney
One of the weirder moments of the concert was witnessing the band White Hills, its singer a dead ringer for Alice Cooper and bedecked in spangled cock-rock tights, playing tunes from the resolutely anti-glamour grunge stalwarts Mudhoney. The band, to their credit, played their coverse faithfully, albeit filtered through a somewhat generic hard rock sheen. Time seemed to be running out by the time they played, and while their performance of "In 'N Out Of Grace" was certainly welcome, it did seem rushed, as if the band picked the easiest Mudhoney song they could find. The next song "When Tomorrow Hits" was less effective, but I found White Hills overall a strong trio (and one of the concert's few actual trios) with a healthy respect for the original Mudhoney material, and they hit many of the right notes.

Set #14: Yellow Ostrich plays Beat Happening
Poor Yellow Ostrich were asked to play last, per the chapter order of the book, meaning that no matter who played before, the gentle, simple melodies of Calvin Johnson would be absolutely steamrolled by Mudhoney. The band was also playing in front of a smaller audience that by this point was starting to feel concert fatigue, and unfortunately Beat Happening probably isn't the best way to bring audiences out of that stupor. The singer did "Left Behind" and "Indian Summer," each at an octave higher than the original, and the rest of the band provided mostly workmanlike instrumentation, so it's not like Yellow Ostrich ended things on a bad note. It just seemed that, after performances as explosive as "Sweet Loaf" or "Sludgefeast," everything else seems anti-climactic. Fortunately for those who stayed, this wasn't the end.

Set #15: All-Star Nirvana Jam
Remember how I said I thought I had wandered into an indie version of The Last Waltz? For the most part, there weren't that many special guests (and Mould was a no-show, despite what I predicted), but after Azerrad gave a short speech thanking the bands and the audience (during which he was commanded, by Dan Deacon, to crowd-surf), a supergroup comprised of the Dirty Projectors' rhythm section, Jenn Wazner, and Deacon tore into a cover of Nirvana's "Negative Creep," from Bleach. A more positive and supportive crowd reaction I cannot imagine; I even broke my long moratorium on moshing to get into the action, it was that exciting to witness. The most amazing song was saved for last, however: "Lithium," this time featuring Merrill Garbus on vocals. That Garbus forgot some of the lyrics towards the end mattered to no one; the Bowery Ballroom had transformed into a shrine for Kurt and all the other musicians who held this music close to their heart. It was as much a tribute to music fandom as it was to any individual musician. And so Our Concert Could Be Your Life finally ended five hours in, not with a deep Beat Happenign cut, but with a major radio hit from a multi-platinum selling major label album. It was as if the circle of influence had closed in on itself, twice. And then it was over, and that was all right, too.

Overall, Our Concert Could Be Your Life was a richly enjoyable tribute to the book and the bands profiled, and it was nice to hear people like Deacon talk about their own experiences with the book--though Azerrad would probably claim no credit, he created his own DIY community of voracious readers and fans. The show's hosts Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman didn't add much in the way of comedy (other than Garofalo's odd admission that she had a crush on Bob Mould, of all people), but the show was organized so well and the bands were so willing to cooperate that no one really minded the constant breaks between sets. I think more events like Our Concert Could Be Your Life can and should be attempted; maybe, with the right time and venue, even expanded. Only a crazy person would think this wasn't worth the money, if not for any of the bands, then for the opportunity to help Azerrad crowdsurf through an audience full of fans and supporters, people who like like me who were inspired by his writing and reportage. For a second, I felt an emotion that might have been akin to that sense of shared community experience that inspired Azerrad to write his book. Moments like this in life are too great and rare to even attempt to describe in total. It was a good show.

My personal favorite performances were:

1. Dan Deacon, "Sweet Loaf"
2. St. Vincent, "Kerosene"
3. Citay, "Peking Spring"
4. Dan Deacon, "Human Cannonball"
5. tUne-YaRDs, "Burning Spear"

Again, I think you can still listen to all the performances online at NPR. If you are interested in other articles we have written on the book, check out:

-A "where-are-they-now" summary of what the OBCBYL class has been up to since the publication of the book.
-An article profiling the bands playing at Our Concert Could Be Your Life, including predictions of what might be played. Also, an addendum to that article.

If you are interested in hearing my May radio shows, in which I discuss other aspects of the book in some detail, you can stream them all here:

-Week One (The Covers)
-Week Two (The Cover-ers)
-Week Three (The Labels)
-Week Four (13 Songs)

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