Monday, May 28, 2007

every song's a comeback

When Wilco's European dates were first announced, my preference was for the Paris-Gent-Amsterdam string of shows, but alas, the cost of traveling during high season deemed otherwise. After some juggling, though, I settled upon the series of gigs you may or may not have been following in this blog. Berlin, especially, loomed as the treat to end my run. For now.

Wiggles toddler wipesWilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007: A.k.a., "I Went to Berlin and All I Got Were Wiggles Toddler Wipes."

Rock tourism in Western Europe isn't necessarily harder than it is in the States. Thanks to the newfound rash of European discount airlines, zipping from country to country is somewhat akin to crossing state lines (passport control notwithstanding), and sheepishness aside, even the complete lack of language skills didn't significantly impede our progress:

Us [haltingly, embarrassingly]: Ein currywurst und ein Coke Light?
Them [in perfect English]: That will be three euros.

Currywurst from Konnopkes Imbiss, Berlin, Germany

I will say, though, that rock tourism in Europe, especially for this twitch-prone crew, is in other ways a lot more relaxing. We took badly needed naps and wandered around charming neighborhoods, yet we got to the venues at still ungodly though not horribly demanding times to start up the queue. And once inside, we took our spots at the front of modest stages--exactly the outcome you hope for.

Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007Not that the Kesselhaus was small, by most measures. The cavernous warehouse reminded me of the legendary Hacienda in Manchester, England, as depicted in the movie 24 Hour Party People (sadly, I never darkened the club's doors--and have yet to make my pilgrimage to Manchester, for that matter!). Despite all the claims of Berlin's amazing nightlife, I didn't spot anyone with glowsticks hanging off the top floor for this show.

Early in the gig, Jeff inquired into the makeup of the crowd. It was somewhat of a relief to find that the Americans weren't as prevalent here as they were in Cologne, as befits a city as diverse as Berlin. In the final, unofficial count, representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe all piped up, but Jeff's favorite audience member was a guy who claimed to have come from Antarctica.

Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007Regardless of their origin, they were audibly united in their love for Wilco, even if their voices dropped off after the first few lines of "Misunderstood," which went off without a hitch tonight. The singalong portion of "Jesus, etc." required a bit of prodding, as did the shouting in "Kingpin"--a natural fit for the city, as Jeff substituted "Berlin" for "Pekin" (I love pandering)--but overall, the crowd responded enthusiastically to both new and old material.

Favorite moments from the show include "Pot Kettle Black," the first time I've heard the song live in--well, forever, even if Jeff forgot the first couple of lines. "Spiders" also took another left turn; if the previous night's treatment played up the song's cock rock possibilities, Berlin seemed to inspire a nod to the nation's native sons, as Mike piled on the keyboards to build up the blips and bleeps that once elicited so much controversy. The only slight blemish on the song was Glenn breaking his kick drum and Jeff's too-much-information confabulation of how Glenn managed to limp through the rest of the number.

Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007

My admiration for Nels Cline is well documented, and I still can't shut the fuck up about him. As a guitarist, he's above reproach, but those expert licks don't prepare you for his physical presence. Sure, there's his work on the lap steel, reawakening tracks such as "Airline to Heaven" or "Sunken Treasure"; the laser-like chords he picks out for, say, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Poor Places," and "Hummingbird"; or the glorious clusterfuck he encourages in "Handshake Drugs" or "Shot in the Arm."

So while there's no discounting his musical contributions, his onstage energy deserves a mention. Whether Nels is setting his sights on Glenn to work his kit (or his teeth), egging Mike to play Nels's guitar while simultaneously manning the keys, shooting looks at John and Pat on the other side of the stage, or almost literally getting into Jeff's face, he's magnetic. I want him to be in the band forever.

Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007

When it comes down to it, I can't get over how much fun the band seems to be having with each other. Back in November, I thought I saw Wilco at their loosest and their best, but I was mistaken. Their command of the new songs was certainly on display at these shows, but not at the expense of good, old-fashioned goofiness, as evidenced by Glenn's nightly arms-aloft tribute to Shellac's drummer, Nels playing the guitar on his back, or Jeff's willingness to laugh at himself--or, more likely, Glenn.

Wilco, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007

All told, it's impossible for me to pick out a single favorite show from this run. Of course, Bill Fay's appearance in London deserves a special mention, but the second night in London was just as satisfying, and the energy of Berlin is hard to dismiss. Even Cologne held surprises. I guess I loved them all!

Carla Bozulich and Bobb Bruno opened the show again in Berlin, and Carla said for the second night in a row that it was her birthday, though this time, cake had been served. They played a similar set as the night before, though they changed up the song order. It was hard to tell the full crowd reaction, but I think she got at least one unqualified, approving hoot from the punters.

Carla Bozulich and Bobb Bruno, Kesselhaus, May 24, 2007

I usually love coming home and flying into the fog bank blanketing my town, but this was a trip I wish I could've extended indefinitely. Until I win the lottery and truly give it all up for rock tourism, I'll settle for the knowledge that I was privy to an addictive combination of great pals, new attractions, and deliriously inspiring shows by some of the kindest, most generous musicians I've ever seen.

Check back in June for the next run. Heh heh.

See also:
» hate it here
» wherever you go, wherever you land
» a party there that we ought to go to

Sunday, May 27, 2007

hate it here

Haha, just kidding! It's been a blast, and we managed to survive 24 hours in Cologne as functional illiterates before Dunja arrived to act as our official German speaker (and to see Wilco, of course). I hope Paul doesn't hate me for squelching our potential debut on BBC TV, but at least we got to visit the Chocolate Museum. Yum!

Wilco, Live Music Hall, May 23, 2007Wilco, Live Music Hall, May 22, 2007: Just in case you're wondering who sees Wilco in Europe, consider this: Of the first dozen or so people in line for the show in Cologne, I'd say three of them were German. Make of that what you will.

I can't speak for the other Americans, but I can tell you why I've made the trip to see the band (no stalker jokes, please). From my limited experience, seeing Wilco in Europe, especially outside of England, is like going back in time. The clubs in Europe are much smaller than the theaters that Wilco fills in the States these days. Less important but somewhat amusing is the male-female ratio at the shows; much as in the old days of Wilco, the crowds are predominantly male. In Cologne, Paul estimated an 80/20 split, and I won't argue with him on that count.

Set aside the demographics and other superficial concerns, and the concert experience is pretty much the same. The language barrier didn't really factor into the show once the music started, and it stopped neither the banter between Jeff and the audience nor the stream of audience requests. My favorite exchange:

Wilco, Live Music Hall, May 23, 2007Fan: "Misunderstood!"
Jeff Tweedy: Play something good?

Conceded: Rock tourism is not for everyone. As such, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who doesn't already have a heightened interest in the band or performer in question, but for those who do, the minutiae of differences in each performance can be endlessly fascinating; for me, they're the reason I almost always prefer the live show over the recorded output.

Sometimes, those variances are as esoteric as the slight tweaks that Nels puts into "Impossible Germany" or Jeff injects into "Spiders" every time they're performed; in fact, I could swear I heard a touch of "Dancing Days" in Jeff's guitar parts for the latter in the night's show. On the other hand, they can be as obvious as Jeff momentarily forgetting the lyrics or, in the case of this gig, Glenn missing the cue that ends the barrage of "nothing"s in "Misunderstood." I suspect that the musicians aren't always happy with those flubs, but as a concertgoer, I find them endearing and charming. I'd rather watch real humans in real time making beautiful music together--warts and all--than a clinical, pristine recording of the same any day.

Wilco, Live Music Hall, May 23, 2007

Other highlights: Paul got the "obvious references to Germany" setlist he had hoped for, encompassing "Impossible Germany," "I'm a Wheel," and "Spiders." "Handshake Drugs," most notably the Jeff-Nels guitar face-off that comprises the climax of the song, still leaves me gaping every time. Also, I may never tire of "Impossible Germany," and I don't think I'm alone in that camp. Watching Jeff as he looked to Nels during the song, I was reminded of my other favorite performer's comment about playing with musicians who happen to be friends: It's almost like seeing a concert for himself. And in case you were wondering how the natives of the country feel about the song, rest assured that they seem to love it, judging by the cheers that welcomed the tune.

Wilco, Live Music Hall, May 23, 2007

Carla Bozulich and Bobb Bruno joined the tour in Cologne, and Nels took his place with them on a handful of songs; Mikael Jorgensen and Glenn Kotche also pitched in for one song each. Carla is an undeniably arresting presence onstage, and her gorgeous voice and bracing lyrics may be her most powerful tools. She played a mix of originals and covers, old and new, rock and experimental, as you might expect from a performer who proudly brandishes her disparate influences and interests.

See also:
» a party there that we ought to go to

Saturday, May 26, 2007

a party there that we ought to go to

Regular readers may have noticed that the month of April was unusual around these parts. Granted, I saw a lot of great gigs, thanks to the Coachella overflow, but my twin obsessions were entirely absent from the calendar. Now that I've taken care of the Jon Brion quota, it's time to address Wilco's balance of the equation.

Wilco, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 20 and 21, 2007: I remember when I went to Britain to see British bands. Ha! Well, Wilco, unlike many bands (from the United Kingdom or otherwise), doesn't really operate on the album-tour-album model, so on any given tour, you're likely to hear new/unreleased material mixed in with the more customary tracks. The period prior to the release of Sky Blue Sky didn't stray from this formula, but these European shows, officially kicking off the tour to support the new album, required some changes to the setlist.

Before I file the concert report, I need to back up a little to talk about Sky Blue Sky itself. Technology is wonderful (and it's helped pay my bills for the last 10 years), but when it comes to music, I've come back to the old ways. I mean, I'm not giving up my iPod or my BitTorrent clients any time soon, but I'm much less likely to download albums before their release date. These premature leaks were sapping my attention span and expectations, and ultimately, the albums in question didn't get the attention or credit they deserved.

So despite my usually hyperbolic ways with Wilco, I listened to Sky Blue Sky only once before its release date, and even that opportunity came as a complete surprise. Waiting was right for me; I've really savored the music since the official CD arrived. I'm not going to pretend to be impartial, but I love this album, and I was excited to hear how it would sound live.

Wilco, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 21, 2007As Wilco die-hards know, Shepherd's Bush Empire is the site of a notorious show from back in 1997, when Jeff heaped all sorts of abuse on the audience. Standing at the front of the stage, I got an inkling of the awkwardness of that night. Shepherd's Bush, at least on the floor, does not feel like a big venue at all. The interactions between the band and the audience would be either intimate or intimidating, depending on the delivery. We, fortunately, got a much more appreciative crowd and band for these gigs.

In the course of these two shows in London, the band understandably highlighted the new material, though they didn't quite hit every song. On both evenings, "Side with the Seeds" was phenomenal, especially in that build-up to the introduction of Jeff's impassioned vocals, and as on the album, the harmonies on "You Are My Face" are so natural that you'd think they're your inner voice. I also loved the tiny wash of guitar Jeff kicks in at the end of the song. We got what's turning out to be my favorite track on Sky Blue Sky, "Hate It Here," on the second night, and it was worth the wait. On the first night, "Impossible Germany" was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes.

Wilco, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 21, 2007It struck me that these news songs were neither mellow nor soft in the live setting; instead, they were very close to the Wilco model of the last number of years, alternating between melodic, rolling passages and loud, emotional peaks, all tied together by Jeff's gorgeous voice, before coming back down to earth.

For "Sunken Treasure," the band offered their take on Jeff's stripped-down solo treatment, but with at least one difference from past shows: Nels took to the lap steel. In the process, he (along with Pat) took the song in a psychedelic, almost Eastern direction before Glenn's galloping beat swept them all up toward the resoundingly Western climax. Think Sergio Leone with a touch of Ravi Shankar (or not). I'm not sure I liked it as much as previous treatments, but it was a striking chapter in the development of the song.

"California Stars" gets mixed reactions from my group of friends. I'm in the pro camp, but I can understand why eyes start rolling and bladders start calling during that song. I didn't expect much from it in London, but it too emerged as a reinvention, as the three junior members of the band each took their own soloing turns: first Mike, then Pat, then finally Nels. I don't know how Nels gets such twangy sounds out of that beat-up Jazzmaster, but I suspect we have his innate talent--as opposed to his choice of gear--to thank.

Wilco, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 21, 2007

If God is in the details, so is the whole point of rock tourism. One band, one venue, two nights--what could possibly change? Not necessarily a lot, but any report from these London shows would have to mention the participation of Bill Fay.

Two years ago, Jeff announced from the stage that Bill Fay had come to see the show that night. This evening, Bill took a major step forward and took to the stage for the first time in 30 years to joined the band for the final song, Bill's own "Be Not So Fearful." Bill and the band looked incredibly happy to be up onstage; I think Jeff had the biggest grin of all. Bill, meanwhile, seemed modest and a little shy, not too far off from what you'd expect of a man who'd write such a delicate, understated song. Apparently, he couldn't make it the second night, as he had to see his brother in Dorset, or so Jeff claimed.

Wilco and Bill Fay, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 20 and 21, 2007

We got two different openers over the two nights. Ruarri Joseph, carrying only an acoustic guitar, played for us Sunday. He reminded me a lot of Ray LaMontagne and Alexei Murdoch, though slightly less serious than his more famous counterparts; then again, maybe it's because they all have thick beards. For one song, he went entirely a cappella, using his feet for percussion, while the crowd clapped along.

The second night, a (surprise) singer-songwriter named Catherine Feeny warmed up the crowd, but she had both another guitarist and a keyboard player in tow. At first, I thought she was British, which led me to ruminate on the appeal of Americana to the Brits. As it turned out, she was from Los Angeles, so my wonderment lost some steam.

See also:
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» i won't be denied

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

here's a working model

The first thought that occurred to me as I stepped into the McDonald Theatre: Dammit, I should've seen Jeff Tweedy here! Nonetheless, I realized I was in for a treat--at least I had a Jon Brion show to look forward to (but still!).

Nickel Creek/Jon Brion, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007: There are lessons you learn as a Jon Brion fan. One: Don't expect Jon to follow the same masterplan for albums, tours, or any aspect of the business as other musicians or artists. Two: See him live as many times as you possibly can. Three: Did I mention you should really see him live?

Jon Brion, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007For this, my third and last show of the tour, I finally made my way to the front of the stage to take in what started off as business as usual. That is, Sara Watkins provided the loving introduction, and Jon took to the stage for a Billie Holiday number. The next song, however, was somewhat unexpected.

Not that Jon hasn't covered Thelonius Monk before, but so far on this tour, Jon had been sticking to crowd pleasers that made quick work of winning over the mostly unfamiliar audiences. "'Round Midnight," however, did not aim for that warm, fuzzy feeling. Au contraire. Though it wasn't as *ahem* laborious as some of the versions I've heard at Largo, it didn't sacrifice much in terms of moodiness or introspection.

It also answered for me the biggest question of this tour: how Jon's contributions would depart from--or stay true to--his Largo shows. The answer came in the song; he wasn't changing a thing, no matter who was listening.

Jon Brion, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007

Monk turned out to be a bit of a hiccup, and Jon returned to a more jovial track. "Piano Man" came from a call for audience requests, but of course, Jon made it into both a group bonding exercise, then a Hungarian folk tune.

Sean and Sara Watkins jumped in next with a variation on the songs they favor for the Watkins Family Hour. Unlike the previous night, Sara served as sole vocalist. And who could blame them when her voice is so lovely?

After they left, Jon took a request for "Strings That Tie to You." For the first time, I noticed Jon had loopers after all, and he used them to build up layers of electric guitar. The overall effect was delicate and subtle, exactly as the song requires.

Jon Brion, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007Chris Thile's number came up, as he took his place alongside Jon for the last three songs of the opening set. I don't recall hearing mandolin accompaniment on "Happy with You" before, so that was a treat. Jon also did us the service of providing a title for the instrumental he and Chris have been playing (and with which they've been amusing themselves greatly in the process, it seems) on the tour. It's "Croatia," the song that always reminds me of Fleetwood Mac; it probably sounds disingenuous now, but the thought had hit me in Sacramento. But I'm used to hearing it as a song build, with huge, reverberating drums, so the acoustic treatment threw me off.

As this is now my third post on this tour, I figure it's about time I devoted a few more blog inches to the headliners. Confession: Several years ago, a friend asked me to come to a Nickel Creek/Glen Phillips show in San Francisco. As I recall, I looked at her gravely and warned her earnestly that Nickel Creek was--gasp!--bluegrass. [Insert feeble and overused alibi invoking former Anglophilia.] She went without me, and I'm sure she'd get a good laugh from this now.

There's a lot to like about Nickel Creek. They change up portions of their setlist and their banter from night to night; if you're so inclined, you could hear a lot of different tunes if you drop in at random shows. Also, I never got the feeling that they're anything less than engaged, driven artists. They enjoyed an easy, authentic rapport with the audience, driven by both their actions (repeatedly coming to the lip of the stage to play their parts) and their words. It also helps that my tastes have changed over time so that a twangy tone no longer sends me scurrying.

Nickel Creek, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007

Ultimately, though, I realized that I feel the same way about Nickel Creek as I do about a lot of the dance music I used to listen to. I genuinely like them, but they don't quite connect with me. It doesn't take away from my in-the-moment enjoyment, but deep down, I know it's not my passion.

The show, however, delivered more than a handful of highlights. Their powerhouse instrumentals, such as "Ferdinand the Bull," commanded attention and awe, while their range was lovely to behold. At one end of the spectrum, they could play a song such as "If You're Gonna Leave Me" by Chris, a sugary, playful ditty about being dumped; add a dash of celeste (who could possibly help out in that regard?), and it'd be the perfect pop song. At the other end, they also pulled off nearly a cappella numbers highlighting Sara's gorgeous vocals.

Last but not least, Jon returned to the stage to help them close out the show. All five players joined in on "Trouble," and even Jon looked pleased at the multipart harmonies they added. Jon turned in a sterling piano solo on "Jealous of the Moon," and in between the two songs, a bit of banter became the basis for a full-band minor-chord jam (and lots of bad jokes about musical notes). Before they left the stage, they brought out "Anthony," which Jon graced with the celeste.

Jon Brion and Nickel Creek, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007

For the encore, they started with a traditional number drawn from the Watkins repertoire before unleashing "Helter Skelter" on us. Bluegrass and the Beatles' most incendiary number might seem like an unlikely match, but they didn't hold back. My only concern: I had to wonder how many of the young fans around me knew the song.

Jon Brion and Nickel Creek, McDonald Theatre, May 8, 2007

It hit me that they would only get better and have more fun with each other as the tour progressed, and for a moment, I got a little sad about going home the next day. I consoled myself with the thought that, in the course of these three shows, I caught the equivalent of either one very long Jon Brion solo set or 1.5 of his typical gigs these days. That should hold me. For now.

Jon Brion's opening set
--Me, Myself, and I
--Round Midnight
--Ruin My Day
--Piano Man [crowd singalong]
--Piano Man [Hungarian folk tune]
--Why Can't He Be You *
--I Go to Sleep *
--Same Mistakes *
--Strings That Tie to You
--Happy with You **
--Croatia **
--Meaningless **

accompanying Nickel Creek [main set]
--minor-chord jam
--Jealous of the Moon
--This Side
--Reasons Why

accompanying Nickel Creek [encore]
--Hop High My Lulu Girl
--Helter Skelter

* = with Sara and Sean Watkins
** = with Chris Thile

See also:
» some people gonna get ideas
» there's so much here to see

Sunday, May 13, 2007

there's so much here to see

All but two Jon Brion shows I've seen have required an act of rock tourism, but those trips down south haven't particularly taxed my resolve. Spending a couple of days in Oregon isn't a hardship either, except that for the first time in a while, my favorite travel buddies weren't able to join me. Still, with Jon Brion's live appearances growing ever rarer, I didn't need much prodding to head north.

Nickel Creek/Jon Brion, Roseland Theater, May 7, 2007: I love a good general admission venue, and the Roseland in Portland (not to be confused with the hell hole in Manhattan that shares its name) qualifies as such a spot. Though I underestimated the demand for this sold-out show, I managed to take my place just a few layers of people behind the barrier.

Jon Brion, Roseland Theater, May 7, 2007The big question for me about this tour: How would Jon's show go over in these bigger clubs, in front of people who aren't necessarily there to see him or aren't even familiar with him or his music? Would he do anything different to win over the crowd? Would the crowd give him a fighting chance? Was it disaster waiting to happen?

Sacramento, though lovely, wasn't a true test, but Roseland was just the kind of place that could be a challenge. Early on, it was clear that Largo's chatter-free rule wouldn't apply here, but Jon didn't seem too bothered as he unveiled his self-penned standards. Also, as you might expect in a typical rock'n'roll club, the "Freebird" request came out early, but Jon took it up anyway and turned it on its head with one of his steamrolling piano medleys. I didn't take notes at this part, but you can rest assured that Jon's musical landmarks all crept into the tour de force performance. That is, we got the Peanuts theme, a smidgen of "Rhapsody in Blue," and a million other points I can't wrap my head around.

With that dreaded rock cliche thoroughly dispatched, it was time to reprise the little trick he showed off in Chicago (and way before that in Los Angeles), in which he asked two audience members to join him onstage for "Stop the World." Blythe and Rick couldn't quite match the level of their Midwestern predecessors, but on the other hand, I think we're all in agreement that at least one of Jon's pianists at Steppenwolf was less than honest about his knowledge of the ivories. Nonetheless, it's almost impossible to mess up that song, and it reinforced Jon's commitment to his idea of a show, regardless of locale.

The next collaborators, in contrast, needed no guidance, as Sara and Sean Watkins took the vocals for one song each. Jon seemed a little surprised that their cameo was so brief, though they didn't go far, watching from the side of the stage. That left Jon in the solo spotlight for a couple of tunes before, like clockwork, Chris Thile dropped in for the final two songs of Jon's opening set. By the way, "Croatia" and the nameless instrumental from Sacramento are one and the same, which I didn't find out until the Eugene show, but that report will come in due time.

Following the same model as the night before, Nickel Creek played most of their set without Jon, but he signed on for a couple of passages. His bravura work on "Just" inspired Chris to request a replay of the ragtime bridge for everyone to hear. Over Jon's solo, Chris sang in an Al Jolson-like tone; I'm not sure I watched it the same way the Nickel Creek fans did, but the final result was the same: satisfaction all around.

In a change from the Sacto show, Jon joined Nickel Creek around the old-fashioned microphone for "Anthony." Actually, I think he required some prodding from Chris, but there he was, not only playing the notes and contributing harmonies, but swooping in and out in time with the rest of the crew. It made an already charming song irresistible.

Jon Brion and Nickel Creek, Roseland Theater, May 7, 2007

Once more, they ended with "Run for Your Life," before taking a group bow to close the night.

Jon Brion's opening set
--Same Thing
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Freebird/piano medley
--Stop the World [with Rick and Blythe from the audience on piano and celeste]
--Same Mistakes *
--Write Myself a Letter *
--Knock Yourself Out
--Trial and Error
--Croatia **
--Meaningless **

accompanying Nickel Creek [main set]
--Jealous of the Moon
--This Side
--Just ragtime bridge reprise + Chris's old-timey singing

accompanying Nickel Creek [encore]
--Run for Your Life

* = with Sara and Sean Watkins
** = with Chris Thile

See also:
» some people gonna get ideas
» always counted us as lucky
» here's a working model

Monday, May 07, 2007

some people gonna get ideas

Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns: One of Donald Rumsfeld's worst obfuscations regrettably came to me when I was pondering, of all things, Jon Brion's concert appearances in Northern California. I've seen him exactly once in San Francisco, but I know I've missed his unannounced appearances with Critters Buggin' and Polyphonic Spree up here, as well as a Grays in-store from way back. That was then...

Nickel Creek/Jon Brion, Crest Theatre, May 6, 2007: By coincidence, my only other visit to the Crest was to see Travis in 2000. That story has a pretty good ending, but again, it was another time.

Besides, the arrangements for that show had little bearing on this gig. For one thing, the venue was now all reserved seating, and because Jon's participation on this bill was announced relatively late, we had nearly nose-bleed positions, or as nose-bleed as they can be in a 1,000-capacity grand old movie theater. (Truthfully, I think I've been further from the action at certain Asian weddings of first-born sons.)

Sara Watkins provided the introduction for Jon and let us in on what we already suspected: half the gear onstage was Jon's, including the carousel of guitars in the back and the piano-celeste-chamberlain setup occupying stage right. His multitasking would be slightly curtailed, however, as we noted no drums or, as we later discerned, looping gear. From our perch, we could also see well enough to notice that Jon had rid himself of the small woodland creature that had been occupying the bottom half of his face. Overall, he looked very nicely put together for the capitol crowd, sporting a tie, a black leather blazer, and very red shoes.

As Jon kicked off his opening set in the customary manner, I sort of held my breath to take in the crowd reaction. No need to resuscitate--they loved him, showing him the utmost respect and laughing at his description of "Why Do You Do This to Yourself" as his crack cocaine song. A few dedicated souls even piped in their adulation of him.

"I'm on a Roll with You" hasn't been a regular part of Jon's set lately, so it was wonderful to hear, and "Knock Yourself Out" got the divine celeste treatment that seems to turn it into a starry-eyed nursery rhyme. The other titles weren't too different, aside from tiny shifts in inflection (likely inaudible to most of the crowd but nonetheless pleasing to these ears).

We got a taste of the Watkins Family Hour when Sara and Sean took to the stage. "Trouble," I could've anticipated, though the harmonies from Jon and Sean were a sweet touch. On the other hand, I hadn't heard them tackle "Same Mistakes" before; Sara's voice was lovely on it, and though I never second-guessed their opinion of Jon's music, that song proved it beyond a doubt.

As Sara and Sean left, Chris Thile came up. I should know the name of the first song they played, but I can't pin it down. Blame the mandolin for its undue influence, but the only guess I can muster is the theme to Zorba the Greek (seriously). Chris and Jon sounded great playing with each other, but even better, they were a riot playing to one other. Respective instrument in hand, they stood toe to toe, perking up or stepping down in accordance with the notes and having a good ol' time while they were at it. I halfway expected to hear Marlin Perkins narration underscoring their actions: "Observe, two musicians of the highest caliber, away from their native habitat but making a place for themselves among the unfamiliar surroundings, foregoing dominance in a show of complementary equality..."

Jon disappeared for a while before joining Nickel Creek proper in the latter part of their show. He started stirring the pot with "Money," but he didn't seem to come into his own until the Radiohead cover, when he unleashed a ragtime piano bridge that you won't find on the original. He returned to the wings again for another stretch before resuming his place with the group for the last song of the night: a version of the Beatles' "Run for Your Life" on which he supplied the "Ring of Fire"-like guitar work.

Jon Brion's opening set
--Fooling Myself
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--I'm on a Roll with You
--The Way It Went
--Knock Yourself Out
--Trouble *
--I Go to Sleep [Pretenders] *
--Same Mistakes *
--guitar and mandolin instrumental **
--Fast as You Can [Fiona Apple] **

accompanying Nickel Creek [main set]
--Jealous of the Moon
--Money [Pink Floyd]
--This Side
--Reasons Why
--Just [Radiohead]

accompanying Nickel Creek [encore]
--Run for Your Life [Beatles]

* = with Sara and Sean Watkins
** = with Chris Thile

See also:
» there's so much here to see
» here's a working model

Friday, May 04, 2007

give in, into that good feeling

Here's a question I've been grappling with for a while now: If your ardor for a band has waned, when do you walk away? You can try to be logical, weighing such questions as ticket price, your opinion of their latest releases, your (OK, my) venue snobbery. Then there are those cases where emotion rules, which is where Travis stands with me. When their Fillmore date was announced, I didn't hesitate to pick up a ticket.

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007: Or, "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gig."

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007At the peak of Britpop, a week that brought both Jarvis Cocker and Travis to town would've been my equivalent of the high holidays. Even now that my attention has shifted, it remains a big deal. Not that Jarvis and the Travis crew share many characteristics, other than their ability to make me swoon--if Jarvis, in his references and mannerisms, inhabits one end of the spectrum as the quintessentially British performer, Travis occupies the other end, as unabashed populists who happen to be Scottish but whose music is meant to be heard worldwide.

Full disclosure: I loved Travis, though I always knew they would never change my life (a ridiculous measure, I know). They would, however, prove a fun distraction for a stretch. My history with them isn't worth repeating, aside from three salient points: (1) I was a rock tourist long before I was a blogger; (2) 2000 was a great year for shows; and (3) in 1997, I saw Ben Folds Five at the Fillmore, just because Travis opened the gig.

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007A lot has changed since 2000 (not to mention over the last decade), and I'd be lying if I said Travis's music held the same appeal to me--or that it even matters what I think. They aren't playing Bottom of the Hill anymore, that's for sure. This was apparent from the outset, when I overheard the people around me exchanging band gossip and info that I may have once known (or cared about), or as they sang along at the top of their lungs to nearly every song, even titles from the album officially coming out next week.

But almost as immediately, the much more rewarding emotion known as concert euphoria surfaced when the band unearthed "U16 Girls" from their repertoire. The setlist turned out to be the biggest surprise of the night; while Travis played up the new album, they chose some of my favorite songs from the past, including "As You Are," "Good Feeling," and "Pipe Dreams." Of course, we also got the hits, such as "All I Want to Do Is Rock," "Sing," and the crowd-pleasers from The Man Who, but that much was expected.

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007As with any Travis show, their music is an important facet of the night, but it's not the only one. The band also traffics in charm, an always elusive quality and one that hasn't diminished over the years. Fran Healy, ever effusive, wasn't as chatty as he used to be, but by any other measure, his warmth and engagement with the audience is second to none. And when he took his place right in front of me for two acoustic songs, I was pretty much in heaven (I love that PA-less shit).

Per usual, Fran and Dougie Payne worked the front of house, if you will, trading quips and other asides. From time to time, Andy Dunlop would charge in from stage left to join in the festivities, while Neil Primrose held steady on the drums. All the while, the band showed off their commitment to each other. Though it could be intense, such as when Fran set his steely attention on Neil, it was never heavy-handed, and it remained playful. Fran even talked Andy into climbing atop the speaker to touch the chandelier!

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007

In the end, their sheer force of personality won me over (again) and silenced the music snob in my head. I was reminded of something Maudie said after the Jarvis Cocker show, about how the man is pure charisma. Travis, too, lays claim to that X factor, a viable and considerable component to any band's success. I don't know if it'll bring them the commercial rewards in the United States that they've always wanted, but from the looks of it, they've captured--and will continue to attract--a faithful fanbase.

Travis, the Fillmore, May 2, 2007Before I end this post, I want to add that it's been a great week for me, not just because of the string of shows I've just seen. I also had a chance to catch up with old friends, as well as hang out with more recent pals. We may not be united in terms of musical tastes these days, but I was very pleased to find that we can still have tons of fun with each other.

Goldspot from Los Angeles opened the show, and I could hear the similarities between their sound and Travis's music. They penned catchy, upbeat tunes. Though they weren't my cup of tea, the audience responded kindly to them.

See also:
» let him read your palm and guess your sign

Thursday, May 03, 2007

we'll fight for your music halls

Don't ask me why I've never seen Andrew Bird in concert before. Clearly, I'm a fool for ignoring both my friends' raves and the opinions of other artistic arbiters I hold in high regard. But once I saw that he is a man of good taste (in cupcakes), there was no turning back. And the fact that Evonne made the trek up north with an extra ticket to the sold-out show helped too.

Andrew Bird, the Fillmore, May 1, 2007Andrew Bird, the Fillmore, May 1, 2007: Though I had a passing familiarity with Andrew Bird, thanks to various friends who've pushed the MP3s on me, I didn't connect with the music until recently, when of all things, I saw him on Letterman doing "Plasticities." The sound in the Ed Sullivan Studio is notoriously cruel to performers, but Andrew and his crew owned that room. They were simply marvelous, but as I discovered, it was only a hint of what they can do.

As a newbie, I reserve the right to be a total dork in the face of the band's setup, which is probably a mere matter of fact to the experienced fans. The three-man layout, the two oversize gramophone-looking contraptions, and Andrew's array of microphones all caught my attention and served as a peek into the night's performance. Forgive the understatement, but this was not going to be your average bass-drums-guitar show.

Actually, I feel like an idiot even reporting the details of the show because Andrew Bird's particular gifts are no secrets, even if they were on magnificent display at the Fillmore, to the surprise of no one who knows anything about him. Of course his violin skills (in looping and traditional playing) were above reproach, and he whistled like a, errrr, songbird (groan). You'd have to be living under a rock to not know that much.

Andrew Bird, the Fillmore, May 1, 2007But what surprised and ultimately dazzled me was the extra dimension that the songs take on at the Fillmore. On the albums I've heard (granted, only a couple of them), the tunes are undeniably original and engaging, but they always felt a little mannered. They never quite grabbed me. Live, though, these same songs didn't grab so much as caress, coax, and lift the senses. OK, more than a few kicked ass and took names too.

There were times when, as Andrew was singing, I could feel myself assuming an almost aspirational position, my head tipped up in search of whatever note he must've been hitting. On more than one song, I internally declared that I had never heard anyone sound so good at the Fillmore--high praise, considering the many amazing voices who've graced the venue. That night, you could've totall convinced me that the Fillmore had been designed specifically with Andrew in mind. Andrew, in turn, revealed that it was the show he had most looked forward to on this tour. He also mentioned that he was thankful for not getting electrocuted (apparently, he had been at the unhappy end of the electrical cord at both Coachella and Amoeba).

Andrew Bird, the Fillmore, May 1, 2007Another surprise: I had no idea Andrew was such a great guitar player! His backing band was very good too, especially Martin Dosh, but it was impossible to ignore Andrew's contributions on guitar. On a few songs I can't name, the guitar served as the perfect complement to his voice, cutting through the hush of the Fillmore like a surgical implement. As a concertgoer, you hope for those moments, where the performer has completely captured the attention of the audience, and the audience reciprocates, training their full attention and respect on the performer. We got 'em at this show.

Once again, I plead ignorance as to what songs were played, so I'll offer the one opinion I can get behind: "Fake Palindromes" was a tour de force. I don't think this will be the last time I see Andrew Bird in concert.

Opening the show was Apostle of Hustle, from Toronto, Canada. Their name led me to jump to all sorts of conclusions about how they might be a soul-funk band, or at least something with a nod to R&B. Boy, was I wrong. Their use of a dedicated percussionist in addition to a drummer reminded me of Calexico, though with far less of a Southwestern flair. Their sound turned out to be all over the map, though not in a good way.

See also:
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

circulate freely, surrender completely

Back in the late '90s, I saw Sloan open for Phantom Planet, when Jason Schwartzman was in Phantom Planet (after he starred in Rushmore) and the lead singer had been featured in a Gap ad--all of which added up to a roomful of excitable young girls hanging on their every gesture. I went to the gig expressly to see Sloan, but whatever impression the band made that night was overpowered by my disgust at Phantom Planet's vapid, preening performance. It's really no excuse for missing them all these years, but this time, attendance was mandatory and personal: Maudie, Trish, and I couldn't let Hannah's mom down (though we had to put away a couple slices of birthday cheesecake first).

Sloan, the Independent, April 30, 2007Sloan, the Independent, April 30, 2007: For once, we arrived almost exactly on time, just as the opening band (the 88) was finishing up their set, and we found a spot at the edge of stage left--quite a contrast to the marathon stakeouts required by other shows I attend. This perch would later reveal its shortcomings, but in terms of proximity and sight lines, we were set.

The band ambled onstage and kicked off with "Flying High Again," the opening track from the new record, Never Hear the End of It. For the *ahem* uninitiated, this song proved to be a great launching pad. Not only was its energy infectious, but the shared vocals served as an ideal intro, allowing each band member to take the spotlight, if only for a line or two. Overall, the night's setlist favored the new album, as you'd expect from a promotional tour, though Chris Murphy found it necessary to sort of apologize every time they didn't do an old song. Oddly, though, he also managed to turn every expression of regret into a reminder that merchandise was available for purchase.

Sloan, the Independent, April 30, 2007As for those old songs, I don't have the knowledge to tell you which ones they did, but I can report that the good-sized crowd did both Sloan and San Francisco proud. Though the show wasn't sold out, it was well attended, especially for a Monday night, and those who came out sang along boisterously and enthusiastically. Chris barely had to pull the de rigueur frontman moves to get the fans to chime in. In fact, the band grinned happily a number of times as they heard their lyrics serenaded back to them.

Even if I could remember what Sloan carried off when they opened for Phantom Planet, I'd know to regard that performance as an exception rather than the rule, and it was with fresh eyes that I took in this performance. What struck me the most about the band was the fact that four songwriters could co-exist and thrive together for so long. In this regard, they reminded me a little of Teenage Fanclub, though Sloan wins in the category of instrument swaps. I'm frequently guilty of crowning one player as the dominant force in a band, but I quickly realized it was futile to do so with Sloan. When you see them in concert, you soon realize not only that each band member has their own distinctive style but that they can integrate them with the others' as well.

Sloan, the Independent, April 30, 2007Dearest Judy had done her part in pumping up the band, especially that Chris Murphy character, and he didn't disappoint. He visibly played to a girl with a camera in the front row, holding rock star poses and practicing multiple jumps for her (albeit tongue planted firmly in cheek, it seemed). There was some delay onstage during one of Chris's turns behind the drums, so he bided the time by standing on the chair and taking in the scene. In truth, I didn't see too much of Chris on the skins, as Andrew blocked my view, but I noticed he was guilty of some of the same infractions as the Phantom Planet crew. With Chris, though, the effect was much more endearing.

In addition to these exploits, he made us laugh with his appreciation of the new Rush record, his love/hate relationship with his glasses, and his general regard for his fans. And I barely noticed his Canadian accent.

The only real drawback to the night was that we were far too close to the guitar, which we realized as early as soundcheck, though we chose not to budge from our positions. My ears were ringing for a couple of hours after the show, but worse, the guitar frequently drowned out the band's otherwise golden harmonies. When Jay was playing lead, it was somewhat frustrating; when Andrew took his turn, it was almost painful. On a few songs, where there was either no lead guitar or only acoustic backing, we got a chance to bask in their lovely voices, but for the majority of the songs, we had to fill in the blanks ourselves. I suspect it has more to do with the club than with the band, but it's something I'll keep in mind at future shows.