Monday, March 26, 2007

where roses bloomed out of thin air

Like millions of others, I can't live without my iPod, but I still place a great amount of faith in radio. After all, what are the chances that you've tuned in when that song goes out over the airwaves to catch your attention and arrest you in place, whether you're driving, doing laundry, or trying to work? It's even more amazing when you think about all the songs that wash over you on any given day without making any sort of impact. It's a feeling I've yet to experience from downloading any MP3 or reading a review or blog entry. "Ash Wednesday" is one such song that came to me thanks to (Internet) radio, and it led me to Elvis Perkins.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Cafe du Nord, March 25, 2007: I've frittered away a ridiculous number of opportunities to see Elvis Perkins live, even after I figured out that he was kinda based in Los Angeles, came up to San Francisco relatively often, and was responsible for perhaps my favorite song of 2006. On a number of occasions, I've absentmindedly checked his Web site to find that he had played, for example, 12 Galaxies a few days earlier. My typically hairbrained rock tourism plans are also to blame, as they've taken me away from this city quite a few times when he and his band swept through on--more often than not--a decent to amazing multiple-band bill (Cold War Kids and Pernice Brothers, to name just two).

Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Cafe du Nord, March 25, 2007I'm just grateful that the stars aligned last summer when they opened for World Party, though I gotta admit that I wasn't bowled over by the band that night--at least, not compared to the impact that the song "Ash Wednesday" had on me. Nonetheless, it was impossible to ignore their charm or Elvis's distinctive songwriting stance. And though this isn't meant to excuse my earlier slacking on this band, maybe all those missed dates were actually a blessing in disguise, prepping me for this show on their first-ever headlining tour. (Throw me a bone!)

It's not hard to draw comparisons between Elvis Perkins and his predecessors; I don't think it's a stretch to see the resemblances to Dylan, particularly, with his acoustic guitar, harmonica, and opaque lyrics, while the backing band's cargo of thrift-shop-find instruments brought to mind Tom Waits. For me, at least, as gorgeous and moving as his more unvarnished tunes are, the undeniably intriguing aspects of Elvis's sound and performance popped up when he detoured from the typical singer/songwriter script, such as on the songs that could've doubled as boisterous drinking anthems. Also, a large chunk of that credit goes to his spirited and solid backing band.

The bass player moved around so much in time with the tunes that I couldn't take a decent picture of him. The drummer came out from behind the kit on three different songs to play a big marching drum on du Nord's tiny stage, as well as add percussion (in the form of a corrugated metal thermos and a hair pick, based on my very nontechnical estiimation to Maudie). The remaining member of the band mostly manned the piano and harmonium, but he also threw in electric guitar on a few songs and, at the end, picked up a trombone too. They all contributed harmonies as needed.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Cafe du Nord, March 25, 2007One of the surprises of the set was a song called "The Weeping Pilgrim." Elvis said he didn't know who wrote it, and I take it to be a traditional folk song, though you wouldn't have guessed it from the band's arrangement. They started off the song gathered around the drum kit, as if ready for takeoff, in a formation more often associated with, say, Van Halen's "Jump" video than any folk-inspired act I can think of. And when the rollicking rock beat kicked in, they were truly off to the races: crossing the tiny stage to play next to each other, hopping around like jumping beans, and simply grinning in their enjoyment.

They played a bunch of songs not on the album. One of the new tunes without a title adopted a very slinky, reggae-ish beat and included some lyrics about "setting sun." I think it was a song called "Shampoo" that featured a white-noise-inflected intro, which saw the members of Dearland messing with their instruments in unusual ways (playing the guitar on the floor, rubbing the rim of the cymbal, blowing into what looked like a child's plastic toy horn, adorned with a tiny birdcage). I only wish I could remember what song came after Elvis's comment about losing a girl to Rivers Cuomo! [Edit: The song is "The Night and the Liquor," as determined by copious further listenings.] In all, it was completely refreshing and a very welcome antidote to your average singer/songwriter shtick. I can't wait to see this band again.

The openers, Let's Go Sailing, were also from Los Angeles, and they played a familiar blend of bright, catchy, but ultimately melancholy indie pop, as epitomized by their song about panic attacks. They got off to a somewhat slow start, but once the double guitars kicked in, the show picked up. However, they could probably use a little more practice in developing their stage banter and presence (admittedly, very trying and difficult skills to master).

See also:
» save me from tomorrow

Thursday, March 15, 2007

like a dream in the night

From my earliest visits to Chicago, the Hideout has been pegged as the spot for live music (after the demise of Lounge Ax, of course), where secret shows, rock star visits, and general good times are common occurrences--magic words to the rock tourist. To no one's surprise, it also turned out to be the ideal venue for Jon Brion.

Jon Brion, the Hideout, March 11, 2007: Jon's Steppenwolf performance was nothing less than exhilarating, but our expectations ran high for his show at the Hideout, the perfect analog to Largo. Steppenwolf may have the beautiful, comfortable room, but I'll take my live music up-close and personal any day of the week.

Jon Brion, the Hideout, March 11, 2007Jon got a bona fide Chicago-style welcome from Tim Tuten, who, in turn, introduced Thax Douglas, armed with one of his signature, free-form poems written especially for the show. Jon was so smitten with Chicago's indie rock poet laureate that he requested "more Thax." As the poet shuffled through his papers before locating the perfect composition, Jon furnished the soundtrack, playing around with the Hideout's upright piano (which looked like it could tell even more stories than its Largo equivalent), as well as his own celeste and keyboards. Thax didn't stay on for much longer, leaving Jon to himself. The tune sounded familiar, but Jon let the instrumental preamble linger before he picked up on the vocals on the Billie Holiday classic.

Jon asked for requests almost immediately, and the crowd wasn't shy with their responses. In this small room, it was a lot easier to hear them, too, so Jon strung together snippets of four different songs, all submitted by the audience. I can't tell you which one I liked best, but those opening notes of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" sure are hard to resist in any form.

Jon built "Girl I Knew" in the usual manner, starting with a visceral, emphatic turn on the drums. A broken guitar strap momentarily derailed the song, leading Jon to fill the time on the chamberlain and other keyboards while Sami patched up the instrument. When it was fully repaired, Jon picked it up again for a small tribute to Illinois's favorite sons in the form of a rocking segue into "Everything Works Out if You Let It."

Jon Brion, the Hideout, March 11, 2007For the next selection, Jon returned to the piano and slowly built up the required loops. He tweaked at the piano's guts and picked out a few ethereal layers before unveiling the finished product: "Strings That Tie to You" from the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack. (Sorry, friends, for the confusion with "Stop the World" on Friday!)

Sooz got her request for Bowie with the next song, "Life on Mars," a grand singalong that needed only a little encouragement from Jon himself. "Pipeline" (with a tiny injection of Les Paul, maybe?) also came from the audience, but "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" was Jon's own choice.

Back in July, "I Believe She's Lying" got Jon so riled up that he kicked over the electric piano. The song got the same sweeping treatment tonight, but I guess it worked out fine. The only antics we saw were the musical variety, as Jon built up the song to an orchestral, multilayered bridge, followed by a shredding guitar solo that not only sounded more aggressive than usual but also resulted in yet another broken guitar strap.

The piano hosted the next few songs, including the one tune I really wanted to hear: "More Than This." He prefaced it cryptically with a short comment about realizing not long ago that he wasn't as clever as he had thought, and for whatever reason, this was the song that came out of that epiphany.

Last month, I claimed that the song was "almost folksy" in Jon and Benmont's able hands. I take it back; as long as Jon emulates Bryan Ferry's yearning, searching vocals, folk won't be the focus. At the Hideout, Jon threw one more non-traditional element--the vocoder--into the inspired hybrid of exquisite piano and longing melodies. I've been struggling to come up with a succint summation of the overall effect, and the only description I can come up with is that it sounded a bit like solo Lennon, with a touch of Cher thrown in. Kinda.

Another thing I can't explain is why I totally lost it during this song, to a degree I couldn't have predicted. I mean, I love the song, but it's actually the third or fourth time I've heard Jon do it, and quite honestly, last month's version might've been my favorite. I suspect, however, that the song's impact had everything to do with the fact that I was sharing it with a great group of friends.

Jon Brion, the Hideout, March 11, 2007A couple of audience members joined Jon onstage for the epic "Not Ready Yet," though not before he told a nice story about his cowriter, E from the eels. He also happily pointed out how easy the song is to learn (not for the first time) and unleashed the fanboys on the low end. Meanwhile, he went to town on the guitar, roaring into its pickups and breaking multiple strings as the song progressed.

A Bee Gees request inspired Jon to inform us of the incongruous lyrics ("We can try to understand the New York Times' effect on man") in "Staying Alive" and to embark on a fairly straightforward medley of the band's hits. It wasn't the staggering prog tutorial we got back in December 2005, but then again, we didn't get to sing along to that one.

Eno requests had been flying willy-nilly at both shows this weekend, and Jon finally acknowledged them as he closed the night's main set. But instead of going with the "hits" ("Baby's on Fire," "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More," or "Needles in the Camel's Eye," for example), he embarked on a medley of the entire second side of Here Come the Warm Jets. Well, so I hear--I picked up most of the songs, but a few escaped me. If this strikes you as indulgent, I won't argue, but hey, where else are you going to hear this stuff?

We weren't going to let Jon go so soon, and he returned to the stage amid our applause. For the encore, Jon finally picked up on Kris's request for "Day Tripper" on acoustic guitar with our strong (to quote Maudie) vocals behind him. He also related a friend's half-joking suggestion to mess with the song's time signature, then proceeded to turn it into "country prog"--to hilarious effect--right in front of us.

Now that we were firmly ensconced in "Coversville," Jon took his pick of the ditties thrown his way. The Leonard Cohen song required Jon to disappear behind the chamberlain for a bit as he tweaked the piano and keyboard loops to his liking. The request for "Tusk" led to "Albatross," but it soon gave way to an early Fleetwood Mac song. "Need Your Love So Bad" was slow, slinky, bluesy, and heavy--that is, the last things you'd associate with the band in its most famous incarnation--and it came with the highest of recommendations from Jon.

"Here We Go" has been strangely absent from Jon's recent shows, so I was glad he played it tonight, especially for the newbies in attendance. I don't know how anyone can resist that song.

Three-plus hours after he had initially taken the stage, Jon decided it was time to close the show, and he did so by harnessing the crowd's energy for a singalong of "Boys Are Back in Town." He played ukulele and took lead vocals, while we threw in harmonies, which brought more than a passing grin to his face.

--Thax Douglas poem
--Thax & Jon
--Fooling Myself
--The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly/Tell Me Why/The Way It Went/Girl
--Girl I Knew/Everything Works Out if You Let It
--Strings That Tie to You
--Life on Mars
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--I Believe She's Lying
--Maple Leaf Rag
--The Way It Went
--More Than This
--Dayton, Ohio
--Love of My Life
--Jazz Odyssey Like We Did Last Summer
--Not Ready Yet
--To Love Somebody/New York Mining Disaster 1941/How Deep Is Your Love
--Dead Finks Don't Talk/Some of Them Are Old/Here Come the Warm Jets/Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me

--Day Tripper
--Famous Blue Raincoat
--Need Your Love So Bad
--Here We Go
--Boys Are Back in Town

See also:
» always counted us as lucky
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance
» nothing lasts forever
» her little heart it could explode
» let your heart be light

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

come see what we all talk about

If you were to ask for my opinion of Badly Drawn Boy, I wouldn't hesitate to tell you that I'm utterly enamored of the guy and his music. But at the same time, I'll admit that he may not be your cup of tea, which is exactly how I presented this show to the gang in Chicago. Bless their hearts for taking up the offer, despite the caveats.

Badly Drawn Boy, the Metro, March 10, 2007: By all measures, we shouldn't have made this gig. We didn't know when doors opened, we left the house late, we didn't buy tickets ahead of time, and--most important--we didn't know the show was sold out! Despite these odds, we managed to locate the exact number of tickets needed and buy them at face value or, in Kris's case, for free. The only sacrifice: we missed a couple of songs in Damon's set before we were comfortably situated.

Badly Drawn Boy, the Metro, March 10, 2007Still, I was nervous about this gig. When I last saw Damon in San Francisco back in October, he put on a less than satisfactory show, and recent reports indicate that he's not exactly turning that frown upside-down. As a longtime fan, I expect his antics, but it's not something I hope for when I'm making the case for Damon with BDB newbies.

My fears turned out to be unfounded--Damon and his band turned in a wonderful, lively show. He betrayed no signs of petulance or self-pitying, as he had in San Francisco. Instead, he seemed surprised by the crowd's genuine enthusiasm; hell, I was too! At one point, he confessed that it was the first time in the tour that he had enjoyed every minute of the performance.

As you might guess, Damon and co. favored the most recent album, Born in the UK, though he apologetically used lyric sheets for the new titles. I don't think anyone minded, especially since he was so earnest and open with a lot of the song explanations. Also, he didn't seem to need any help with the back catalog, even the b-sides.

Ordinarily, my favorite part of the night would be Damon's solo acoustic turn in the middle of the show, especially when it includes the eternally sublime "The Shining." But this evening, the crowd's energy demanded the participation of the whole band, and though I'd never call them tight, they add a solid presence to Damon's deceptively slamming tunes.

"Like a Virgin" was not a surprise for me, but I'll take anything that leads into "Silent Sigh." Instead, the twist came in Damon's response to the Metro's 10:15 curfew. Damon, who's been known to play for three hours, claimed that the band had another 10 songs they wanted to get to. As a consolation, he offered a tune that he said they had never done before: a completely unironic "Don't Stop Believing" that had fists pumping, voices raised, and heads bobbing all over the room. As the song played, Damon worked the front row, shaking hands and making friends with fans and staff alike--always a man of the people.

After the show, we went out for dinner down the street, and on our way back to the car, we peeked into the Gingerman (the bar next door to the Metro), where Kris had seen Damon and a band member before the gig. Lo and behold, the afterparty was starting to take off in the room. We squeezed in just long enough for me to ask Damon if he planned to drop in on Jon Brion's show the next day. Alas, their reunion will have to wait a little while longer, since Damon and the band were scheduled to play Minneapolis the next day, but like many other people in Chicago this particular weekend, he seemed truly regretful to have missed Jon.

See also:
» a strong heart will prevail

Monday, March 12, 2007

always counted us as lucky

Places I do not live: Los Angeles or Chicago, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Fortunately for me, though, both feel a lot like home, thanks to some of the kindest, warmest people I've had the pleasure to have met. Still, the Chicago (and Madison! and New York!) peeps went above and beyond when they humored me, Heidi, and our Jon Brion, errrrr, appreciation this weekend.

Jon Brion, Steppenwolf Theatre, March 9, 2007: I'm not sure if it says more about the show's star or its promoters, but it seems notable that two of the city's cultural institutions had to come together to bring Jon Brion back to Chicago: the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Intonation Festival. Based on the beautiful weather that welcomed us this weekend, I wonder if Mother Nature wasn't in collusion as well.

Heidi and I traded in lawn chairs at Union Park for front-left seats at Steppenwolf's very proper downstairs theater, while our friends gathered in a nice clump in the center rows. As for Jon, he temporarily upgraded from Largo's patch of a stage for the vast expanse of a professional performance space. We still had the clear blue sky, though, if only in the form of a painted backdrop this evening.

David Singer from the Intonation Festival introduced Jon, who emerged from the shadows in a trim seersucker suit, still sporting the beard I had first seen at Largo last month. He immediately started in on "Me, Myself, and I" on the acoustic guitar, and it almost felt like I had never left the Pacific time zone. The acoustic guitar remained in the spotlight for both "Meaningless" and "Same Mistakes," then it was over to the piano for the unmistakable improvised percussion of "Same Thing." Tonight, Jon took advantage of the gorgeous baby grand onstage, though he seemed to pluck at its shiny innards and bang on its pristine keys as indelicately as he does with Largo's weathered Starck. By the end of "Same Thing," he had punched away at and looped every keyboard-based implement around (a celeste, a chamberlain, and a little synthesizer) to create an orchestra of sorts. For me, this was nothing unusual, but I hope the first-timers were inching toward an epiphany at this point.

The theme to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind floated us back to earth, but the equilibrium was short-lived. After Jon had set down the drums, piano, and bass tracks for "Happy with You," the guitar amp decided to go mute. The ever resourceful Samy rushed to the rescue, but no amount of prodding and pumping could coax the sound out, so Jon did what he does best: he cheerfully, nonchalantly took it in stride. He sang anyway, while Samy worked his magic, and a verse or two later, all was good again. Perhaps to celebrate, Jon turned in a bluesy take, initially of the melody, then on some other musical element that I can't even begin to guess at.

The requests had started in early as the second song of the show, but now Jon asked for the next guinea pig to be subjected to the suspect amp. The lab rat turned out to be my request for "That's Just What You Are," and I can certainly say that it was the most garage-y version of the song I've heard. Still, it's gonna take a lot more than a fuzzy amp to mar its pop perfection.

During the opening notes of the next song, Heidi and I threw in our predictions. She said Dylan, I said Nirvana, and we were both right, as Jon did one of his signature mashups: "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" sung to the tune of "Lithium." It took Jon cursing at us before the audience really kicked in with the chorus, but after the giggles subsided, there was no doubt that the room had really come together.

"Waterloo Sunset" is almost a staple these days, but when you hear Jon's loving explanation of its appeal, you can guess why.

Jon returned to the piano, and as he sat down at the bench, he finally took notice of the indoor sky. He requested that the lighting person switch up the lights while he played some music in the background. He sampled his own nonsensical vocals and flitted about the keys, commenting that he was leading his "master class" on how soundtracks are made. When that diversion petered out, he segued into the always lovely "Ruin My Day," adorned with the tiniest of ad-libs that completely rejuvenated the song for me.

The next tune was requested by a group of fans from St. Louis that Jon had met on the street that day, but he warned them that it wouldn't sound like a standard. Rather, he planned to give it the White Album treatment. Armed with that information, I finally noticed that the song's slow, tortured build resembled "Sexy Sadie" from last month, but the vocals had to kick in before I realized it was "You Don't Know What Love Is."

What sounded like a request for Train was (thankfully!) a fan asking for "Trial and Error," one of Jon's most singer/songwriter-y tunes. The next selection took a completely different tack, however. Jon explicitly asked for an '80s rock song, but the musical school had been predetermined, thanks to Heidi's call--which is how we got "Back in Black" in the style of Fats Waller. Really. Then Jon finished out the main set with two of his own compositions: a song build of "I'm Further On," followed by "Knock Yourself Out" in its customary acoustic form.

Jon doesn't really do encores at Largo, so it was a bit odd to see him come back to the stage in response to the roar of the audience. All night, he had been cordial and animated, and it was perhaps the room's good cheer that helped him take on the late Elliott Smith's "Happiness." I haven't dared dream of hearing that song, but Jon himself tossed out an aside that enough time had elapsed. On the piano and the celeste, he served up a moving reminder of Elliott's formidable ear for melody and lyrics. It may be my favorite part of the entire show.

Somewhere in the center seats, Sooz's call for Prince rung out. There are certain artists that Jon can cover until the cows come home, without a single syllable of complaint from me. The Beatles and Prince may top that list, and for good reason, as tonight's Prince medley was a veritable tour de force. I've seen Jon do "Pop Life" before, and again, I was reminded of what he brings to the table for that song: lots of gorgeous, soulful piano in place of Prince's harsh, detached reading. I'll admit that both "Little Red Corvette" and "Sexy MF" were teases, but "Controversy" and "Kiss" got his full attention and our full approval.

The night concluded with one of Jon's own songs, "Stop the World," which I mistakenly told my friends was on the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack. It's actually unreleased, but it's not that hard to track down (nudgenudgewinkwink). Jon asked for two people--preferably anyone who's never played the piano before--from the audience to help out. He picked two young dudes to man the baby grand and the celeste, then advised them to hit the black keys. (He also joked that he was the weak link in the band because of his drinking and propensity for talking.) Jon himself took the acoustic guitar, and together, the three of them made some seriously beautiful music. However, Heidi later pointed out that the young man on piano clearly was not a novice, and even I noticed that the piano sounds were suspiciously polished. It's hard to complain, though, when his deception worked in our favor.

Jon offered one last token of appreciation. He explained that tickets had gone on sale before they could lower the price to his liking, so in return, copies of Meaningless were available for free in the lobby. Not a single disc remained by the time we made it out of the theater, so I'll take it as a good sign.

Another good sign: my buddies were buzzing about Jon as we left the theater, on our way to celebrate Kris's birthday with late-night Chinese food. The Chicago conquest was well underway!

--Me, Myself, and I
--Same Mistakes
--Same Thing
--Eternal Sunshine Theme
--Happy with You
--That's Just What You Are
--Don't Think Twice, It's Alright/Lithium
--Waterloo Sunset
--Ruin My Day
--You Don't Know What Love Is
--Trial and Error
--Back in Black
--I'm Further On
--Knock Yourself Out

--Pop Life/Controversy/Little Red Corvette/Sexy MF/Kiss
--Stop the World

See also:
» the power of suggestion, the element of chance
» nothing lasts forever

Monday, March 05, 2007

we like the newness, the newness of all

Noise Pop is an institution in San Francisco, and though I'm not its biggest booster these days, I try to make it to a show or two each year. This time round, Midlake lured me away from my usual musical obsessions and reminded me why I need to check out gigs by up-and-coming bands in the first place.

Midlake, Bottom of the Hill, March 4, 2007: Chief among the likely culprits for my estrangement with Noise Pop: the exhausting roster of opening bands. If I were a reasonable person, I'd show up much later and save myself the trouble of rickety knees, potentially bleeding eardrums, and a compromised attention span. But as anyone who's followed these concert dispatches can tell you, I simply can't do that. Besides, Noise Pop has exposed me to some terrific opening bands I may have otherwise missed, including Beulah (sharing a bill with Guided by Voices) and the band of the hour, Midlake, who dropped by last year with the Flaming Lips.

Midlake, Bottom of the Hill, March 4, 2007For me at least, Midlake came out of nowhere that night at Bimbo's. There were no preconceived notions to bat aside; there was no hipster buzz to consider. We concerned ourselves with only the music and the show, and in those regards, they delivered. Though the music bore major references to sounds that came before, it definitely wasn't trying to be the flavor of the day. Instead, they incorporated the timeless qualities that more often than not win me over: a wealth of both melody and harmony, strong musicianship, and artful arrangements, with a healthy dollop of earnestness and longing thrown in.

In turn, these tunes seemed well matched to the movies running in the background; perhaps the songs' lack of irony kept the films from coming across as pretentious or laughable. Regardless, I clearly felt that we were getting the whole package. It certainly didn't feel like Midlake intended to be a flash in the pan.

Midlake, Bottom of the Hill, March 4, 2007Cut to a year later, and Midlake has released its second album, earned glowing reviews all over the blogosphere as well as in the U.K. music press, and toured Europe at least twice, with another round of Continental dates scheduled for this spring. Lucky for us, they finally managed to swing by their native States as well. In San Francisco at least, they were rewarded with a sold-out show at Bottom of the Hill.

Unlike last year, I obviously had some expectations before the show began. For one, I've spent a good deal of time with The Trials of Van Occupanther, and I had some context for the songs now. And naturally, I was just curious to see how they handled their success.

The short answer: they seemed to take it on pretty well. Success in the indie rock world is such a relative term; no one in the band's buying Bentleys and grillz just yet. This being Bottom of the Hill, they still set up their own equipment--no biggie there.

They opened with a slow build of "We Gathered in Spring" and proceeded to hit nearly every song from The Trials of Van Occupanther, including the "hits"--well, the anthems: "Roscoe" and "Young Bride," the latter riding on a bass line that made for an especially sultry and hypnotic effect. We got a couple tracks from the first album ("Balloon Maker" and "Some of Them Are Superstitious") and a new tune ("Children of the Ground"), still in progress. The new song showed traces of the influences I cite far too often when it comes to Midlake, so I thank Julie for pointing out the tinge of the Allman Brothers in the sound too.

They played with a quiet confidence, betraying no sign of nerves, and as befits a band who's been touring so extensively for the last year, they sounded completely in sync with one another. I don't think they made any major missteps, despite the potential disaster awaiting them in their numerous instrument swaps. The only halfway noteworthy malfunction was the projector; alas, we were deprived of the video component of their performance. Overall, though, I was left thinking that I definitely want to watch this band's development in the years to come.

Opening this afternoon were (in chronological order) Minmae, Ester Drang, and Minipop. They were all actually pretty good, though they got progressively better as we proceeded up the bill. Minipop, especially, lived up to its name with the kind of jangly guitars and pure pop vocals I could really cozy up to.

Update: Hey, look, someone recorded the show!

See also:
» in fact, you're fanatical
» top 5 albums of 2006

Thursday, March 01, 2007

where the wild things are

Or, perhaps, the zealous ones, judging by the sheer number of gearheads who came out for the Nels Cline/Glenn Kotche double bill.

Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, Cafe du Nord, February 26, 2007: Shaky employment prospects kept me from catching Nels and Glenn on their tandem tour of the East Coast last year. Luckily, they brought their act out west, and lightning, hail, and whipping winds weren't enough to keep me away from a show featuring two of my favorite musicians. I certainly missed Trish and Maudie's presence (get better soon, ladies!), but despite the ugly conditions, a respectable crowd filled Cafe du Nord. Heck, I even spied LeRoy Bach (formerly of Five Style and Wilco, among others) in the audience.

mega mouthNels and Glenn each took up about half the tiny stage, the two of them loaded down with a different set of musical implements than I'm used to seeing. Glenn, especially, brought a ton of toys: cymbals affixed to more cymbals, several varieties of drumsticks, and what looked like a torchiere bearing a spiraling metal cascade. Nels, meanwhile, brandished a set of guitars that he doesn't usually play with Wilco, including a shiny brown Danelectro; he also brought what I discovered is called the Mega Mouth--the thing I've likened to a pink hockey puck in past reports.

First up was Nels, but there was some question as to which incarnation of the man would grace us with his presence: jazz Nels, freeform Nels, rootsy Nels, rocking Nels--maybe even Nels the vocalist? Well, a little of all of them, but he started out on a major noise-drenched bender. In the background, he set up a droning, persistent tone. To my naked eye, his gizmos looked like a couple of old, mic'd transistor radios, but I defer to the surrounding gearheads, who said something about how these items were used to mimic the sound of a sitar.

Nels Cline, Cafe du Nord, February 26, 2007At the front of the stage, Nels projected his voice through the Mega Mouth and over the guitar strings, creating another wordless, sweeping layer of ambience. Atop those sounds, he jammed in a series of short, forceful riffs. As this discordant exercise progressed and I wondered where Nels was headed, he turned on the sort of crystalline, inspirational notes that he's employed to lift many a musical composition.

Not long ago, the prospects of seeing Glenn solo out west seemed slim, but last year's tour with Jeff Tweedy took care of that precedent. However, in these intimate environs, Glenn's set took on a different dimension.

Although Glenn's set was very similar to what he played with Jeff, his actions seemed better defined and more visceral in this small space. Once again, I was struck by the strength of his arrangements; he has a way of bringing out the melodies in pieces that are ostensibly percussive in nature. At the same time, he just as convincingly brought the rawk, as anyone who's heard the crash of his cymbals can attest. Glenn also took more time to explain some of his inspirations, and he dedicated the João Gilbert cover to LeRoy Bach.

Glenn Kotche, Cafe du Nord, February 26, 2007Nels and Glenn came together to conclude the show with a collaborative medley: a cover of Sonic Youth's "Karen Coltrane" from A Thousand Leaves (which Nels called no less than "one of the greatest recordings in the history of Western music"), dovetailing into Nels's own "Caved In Heart Blues." Neither held back on this sprawling duet. Nels wasn't shy with the Mega Mouth, and at one point, Glenn played what looked like a small metal bowl filled with beans--and I couldn't help but think about the possibilities of adding a certain improv-minded multi-instrumentalist (perhaps on piano?) to the mix. Sigh.

Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, Echo Lounge, February 27, 2007: Overheard at the show: "That's the biggest zildo I've ever seen!"

It was night two for me, but it was the last evening of the tour for Nels and Glenn, and they both mentioned it several times during the set. But of course, with a new Wilco album looming, it's far from the end of the line for the pair.

Nels kicked it off once more, declaring from the outset that he had no idea what he was going to do. And as you might expect from someone as dedicated to improv as Nels, he really did unleash something new. The Mega Mouth re-emerged, but this time, it was accompanied by a lap steel and a couple of other unfamiliar guitars. To begin, Nels ventured out on a slightly more accessible note, but the spell didn't last for long. Before you knew it, we were encompassed in the combined beauty and chaos of a Nels Cline track.

Glenn Kotche, Echo Lounge, February 27, 2007Though he noted that the floor drum was feeding back, Glenn forged ahead with his customary set. Tonight, we were positioned right next to Glenn's kit, so we could see his full range of actions and their effects. I loved the two sets of handheld percussive devices he used on the last segment; one looked like a child's paddleball toy, only made of tin and without the ball! Glenn tossed it away during one of the song's transitions, only to have Nels throw it back at him later in the evening. We saw it fly around like a hot potato at least a couple more times before the show's conclusion.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that this was my second show in Los Angeles in five days and that I came home to San Francisco in between. This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who knows me, especially if you're aware of one of my many tenets of rock tourism: See the last show(s) of the tour if you can, even if it means you're in Los Angeles for less than 12 hours and back on a plane to get to work in the morning--hypothetically speaking. I firmly stand by that rule, especially when either Nels Cline or Glenn Kotche are involved.

See also:
» i don't want to leave this walking dream
» pumpkin
» and when you touch down
» i hear you sing a golden hymn
» just keep counting the stars