Thursday, June 28, 2007

you were right about the stars

When A Ghost Is Born came out, a group of friends and I embarked on what turned out to be an indelible trip that took us along the East Coast and back to the Midwest for a string of "intimate" Wilco shows. Though I've already clocked in four gigs on the European leg of the Sky Blue Sky tour, I was very much looking forward to these June dates, back on U.S. soil and with the usual crew.

Wilco, Pines Theater, June 24, 2007: When these shows were announced, the first venue that caught my eye was the Pines outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, for all the usual reasons: a general admission venue, a college town, a good reputation, as well as one more detail involving a certain rock tourist par excellence; a big, dumb rock song; and Wilco's equivalent of a public service announcement. Ultimately, the Pines became the linchpin for this whole excursion (at least until the Warsaw date was unveiled).

Wilco, The Pines, June 24, 2007The Pines, indeed, lived up to its reputation. After spending a beautiful summer day (the kind that San Francisco rarely enjoys) in the park, we stumbled into the amphitheater for the show. I saw Wilco play a few outdoor venues just a couple of summers ago, but the Pines most reminded me of a gig from five years back, when a different lineup of the band played the John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles. Unlike the Greek Theaters, for example, in both Los Angeles and Berkeley, the Pines and the John Anson Ford have stages set into the hillside. Thus, as an audience member, you see the band almost literally framed by nature: verdant trees around them and twinkling skies above them. I can't tell you how cool this effect is.

Early in the day, we noticed an unusual amount of activity, such as a woman filming outside the venue and people walking by with laminates we hadn't previously seen. We soon learned that the Pines had been pinned as the multimedia hub for this tour; both VH1 and XM Radio were set to immortalize the show.

To our relief, we discovered that the film crew wouldn't be too intrusive; they managed to not invade the floor with cameras, though of course, we still stood the risk of having our every dorky move caught on film. Oddly, this concern mostly floated away as soon as the music started.

The difference between the Count Basie Theater and the Pines was evident from the moment doors opened, and the band delivered on the promise of the venue from the get-go, when they started with "Either Way," one of the two songs from Sky Blue Sky I hadn't yet heard live. If you've caught me humming or singing to myself at any point during the last month and a half, chances are this is the song I've been massacring. The tune didn't immediately strike me as a world changer, but the directness of both the lyrics and the arrangement snuck up on me, and it's become part of my internal soundtrack.

Wilco, The Pines, June 24, 2007

One of the other big surprises of the night was the return of "Kamera," now complete with Nels's stamp, in the form of an incredibly melodic guitar solo that echoed the song's main lilt. Speaking of, I guess this is as good an opportunity as any for my requisite gushing over Nels: you haven't heard "Impossible Germany" until you've heard it ringing out under the open skies.

Wilco, The Pines, June 24, 2007

The band had built on the strengths and quirks I had first witnessed in Europe, most tellingly in the sheer enjoyment they seemed to be milking from the shows. Glenn had kicked up his Shellac tribute so that all the crowd could see that he was ready to rock. For "Hummingbird," Jeff serenaded an older man at the edge of the stage, and he jumped into the crowd for his ending run/dance. During the instrumental jam toward the end of "Walken," he planted himself on the speaker in front of Sooz and Heidi while playing guitar.

From my vantage, I could see the rest of the band engaging in various shenanigans, such as Mike's Vanna-like presentation of Glenn before "Heavy Metal Drummer," Nels prodding both Mike and Glenn into making silly faces, and Glenn himself singing along to a bunch of the songs. If they are anything less than a happy band right now, they have a funny way of showing it.

Wilco, The Pines, June 24, 2007

The capper to the heavenly evening was "Outtasite (Outta Mind)." I'm not one to obsess over which songs the band should or shouldn't play, but I remain a sucker for the older tunes that don't get aired as often, especially if they're from Being There. If the footage of us jumping up and down to this song ever shows up on VH1, I won't be happy, but I wouldn't change a thing either.

After missing Low in Red Bank, I saw them tonight. Low was one of those bands I halfway grasped at in the mid-'90s, but apart from a few songs here and there, I never fully investigated them. Tonight, their music was at times startlingly beautiful, but they didn't seem like the right match for this sunny, outdoor venue. As I would later discover, we got the band during one of their more playful evenings. Alan even cracked some jokes, and the crowd was quite polite. We couldn't have guessed that this would be one of the better receptions they received over the next few shows.

See also:
» town after town, toll after toll
» every song's a comeback

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

town after town, toll after toll

Sometimes, a seated show is just what you need when, say, your interest in a band is less than overwhelming or after you've slogged through a long, hard day at work, on the road, on the phone--whatever. Aside from one major exception, they more often than not do little for me, but Red Bank, New Jersey (the location of this Wilco gig) sort of served as a layover on our drive to points north, and more important, it gave us an excuse to barge in on some great friends in the area.

Wilco, Count Basie Theater, June 22, 2007: There are times when you have to take a step (or however many are required to get to Row X) back, sit in your assigned seat, block out the making-out couple glued to each other in front of you, peer past the 23 other rows separating you from the stage, and deal with it.

I will say, though, that things could've been a lot worse. For one, the Count Basie Theater is relatively small, and we were not, by any measure, in the nosebleeds. Also, the crowd in my area turned out to be fairly enthusiastic. Certainly, some were more knowledgeable than others, but they took to their feet from the outset and stayed there for the duration. I heard a lot of singing around me, and they even cheered some of the older songs (though nothing preceding Summerteeth made it to the setlist). Standing toward the back, I even noticed details in the band's playing that tend to be lost when you're in the front. I always love Glenn's drumming, but I actually heard nuances to his technique that had previously evaded me.

The most notable occurrence during this gig was probably about halfway through, when Jeff's mic popped, and they couldn't fix it too easily. After attempting a few moves, the band walked offstage, only to have Jeff return by himself. He went without the PA to perform "Acuff-Rose," which has become a mainstay on his recent solo tours. As you might expect from a crowd out to see a rock band, the hooters and hecklers couldn't let this rather lovely moment alone, but at least over at my outpost, they managed to show some respect. The band, in turned, plowed through the rest of their set until curfew to make up for the lost time.

Wilco at the Count Basie Theater, June 22, 2007

Alas, I missed my usual station, especially as I watched the goofy interaction between Nels and Jeff on "Walken." Also, "Impossible Germany"--though its transcendence can't be contained in a room of any size--made me long to rush to the front, just so that I wouldn't miss a single note of the divine guitar interplay. Overall, the show was fun, even if I couldn't partake of the visceral thrill that marks my customary concert experience.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

people tell me i'm lucky

Under other circumstances, I could've floated home on the memory of Friday's exhilarating gig. However, moderation was not in the cards this weekend as we reconvened at Largo for Jon Brion's second show in as many days.

Jon Brion, Largo, June 9, 2007: The night before, the crowd vying to get into Largo swamped the sidewalk, as would-be patrons planted themselves on the pavement and picnicked against the distinctly unpastoral backdrop of Fairfax Village. I called it a refugee camp; my cousin suggested a tailgate party. Saturday, however, offered a welcome contrast, and not just because I had a reservation.

Admittedly, my tolerance for Largo's cuisine and Jon's musical escapades exceeds that of most people, but I'm always surprised by how few repeat customers take advantage of a Jon Brion two-fer weekend. In addition to not working from a setlist, Jon makes an effort to not repeat himself; if he's on a Bowie kick one night, he's likely to go for anyone but the following show. Part of the fun, then, is tuning in to see who or what turns up.

Jon hit the stage, fresh faced and with a bounce. I missed his opening ramble, so I'm not sure how he landed on "Swanee River," but the transition to "Someone to Watch Over Me" drew us into more familiar territory. For the latter, Jon thanked us for humoring his "fake Bach section" but disclosed he was also working around a swizzle stick embedded between the piano keys. The Eternal Sunshine theme completed the introductory instrumental trifecta.

Jon asked for requests and chose my suggestion for "Nothing Between Us." It's been a while since I've heard him do the song, and a similar comment from Jon bore out this observation.

Switching gears, Jon took up a guitar and started looping. From there, he added drums and piano for a song I've finally figured out: "Croatia." (Little did I know I'd be busted at the end of the night for this breakthrough.) I guess I got used to Chris Thile's accompaniment pretty quickly because I missed his counterplay tonight. Then again, it was nice to hear it with drums again.

Remnants of Friday's festivities were still visible onstage: two empty cans of Red Bull underneath the piano bench, the extra mic stand that hadn't been removed. Jon encountered another one as he tried to slip on an acoustic guitar. It sat laughably high on his lanky frame, and as he moved to fix it, he dropped leading hints as to who might be responsible for its state, culminating in a sitcom-worthy "Watkins!"

This build-up brought us to "Further Along," one of two songs he repeated over the two nights, though of course in different styles. He followed up with more originals, including the second performance of "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad" I've heard.

"How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" got an upgrade from its usual station as between-song filler to a bona fide number on piano, preceding "Knock Yourself Out," once more on the piano and celeste but with slower phrasing. If Friday had been an outlet for beloved covers, we were finally getting some self-penned works in this second show.

The conclusion of "Excuse to Cry" elicited another call for requests, and Jon took his pick of two, mashing up, of all people, Ray Noble and Pete Shelley. I thought I heard "Strings That Tie to You" in Jon's next number, but it turned out to be "Ruin My Day."

Throughout the night, Jon had admitted he had no idea what he wanted to do, so when he returned to the piano, he repeated his need for requests. After the barrage of titles, he said something along the lines of "fuck it, I'm going to go there" and dove into "Strawberry Fields Forever." I can't say when the string of tunes coalesced into "Beatlesfest '07," but I'm the last person who'd complain about such a development, especially when the whole room is singing along. Benmont Tench's arrival didn't hurt either. The final bonus: Jon promised us a rare second set.

I always think Largo could get away with charging a lot more for the privilege of listening to Jon and Benmont cavort through the Beatles catalog; when they, in essence, serve as the backing band while we supply the vocals, that's worth another hike in admission.

On the whole, we did ourselves proud; you should've heard our coordinated intakes on "Girl," as well as the multiple-part harmonies on "You Won't See Me." We started off strong on "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" but dropped off precipitously for the second verse; fortunately, Jon pitched in (while tuning his guitar) with ad-libbed lyrics about getting to the chorus. In addition, we watched as Jon dashed to the bench between verses, fell down to his knees, and accompanied Benmont on celeste with "For No One." Also, his narrating and acting out the discovery of the power of the drum overdub in "No Reply" brimmed with a contagious sense of glee.

The second set began with a warning aimed at the Beatles naysayers and seemed to resume as planned with "I'm So Tired." But this scheme detoured immediately, as Jon and Benmont tried out alternate tracks. Benmont's musical reply to "Beast of Burden" so pleased Jon that he nearly doubled up in delight. Thus, the second set came to comprise some Beatles songs, but in Jon's own estimation, any song that had anything to do with the Beatles, in terms of influence or time frame or tone, was fair game.

The first set had primed our vocal chords, but in case we needed reminding, Jon lectured us on the merits of the singalong, likening it to church (I've heard that before). In any case, the advice couldn't--and didn't--hurt, as we took a tour of British Invasion-era favorites. Jon unapologetically churned out the "most obvious" Who song to get us going. Evonne came up with "Substitute." Jon delivered "Wild Thing" as nearly a spoken word piece, augmented by Benmont's flatteringly euphonious touch, as well as an audience member who chose to sing it in a falsetto that Jon compared to Michael MacDonald. And Benmont reaffirmed his mastery (again) on "I Keep It With Mine."

Beatlesfest '07 reemerged at the close of the set. We carried off most of "A Day in the Life" and hung in as Jon and Benmont perfected that song's famous final note. Jon gave us the entirety of "The End" this time, but the selection was misleading. They still had to get through the outro of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which saw Jon at times careening toward Benmont as the two of them played off each other, before the final, convulsive ending.

Set 1
--Swanee River [piano]
--Someone to Watch Over Me [piano]
--Eternal Sunshine Theme [piano]
--Nothing Between Us [piano]
--Croatia [song build]
--Further Along [acoustic guitar + harmonica]
--Happy with You [song build]
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad [song build]
--How Much Is That Doggie in the Window [piano]
--Knock Yourself Out [piano + celeste + harmonica]
--Excuse to Cry [electric guitar]
--The Very Thought of You/You Say You Don't Love Me [electric guitar]
--Ruin My Day [guitar and harmonica]
--Strawberry Fields Forever [vocoder + keyboard]
--I'm Only Sleeping
--Sexy Sadie [song build]

with Benmont Tench
--For No One
--No Reply
--You Won't See Me
--Ob La Di, Ob La Da
--Every Little Thing
--If I Needed Someone
--I Call Your Name

Set 2
--I'm So Tired
--Beast of Burden
--So Sad About Us
--I Can't Reach You
--My Generation
--You Really Got Me
--Tired of Waiting for You
--Wild Thing
--How Do You Do It
--Walk Away Renee
--I Go to Pieces
--My Back Pages
--I'll Keep It with Mine
--A Day in the Life
--The End
--I Want You (She's So Heavy) [outro]

See also:
» i remember standing by the wall
» here's a working model

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

i remember standing by the wall

In a perfect world, barring my exercising some form of self-control, my favorite musicians would put their heads together and work out a schedule where I'd see at least one performance by any of them in a single month. I'm prepared, however, to double up until this arrangement presents itself. For now, the baton passes back to Jon Brion.

Jon Brion, Largo, June 8, 2007: Though I saw three delightful Jon Brion appearances last month, I didn't consider any of them to be true Jon Brion shows. They helped fill the interim, however, until he returned to Largo. Fortunately, that day came sooner rather than later.

We didn't have a reservation tonight, but thanks to Job-like patience and pure, dumb luck, we snagged the hot seat bordering the stage. I've had the great fortune (?) to sit there a number of times, and it never ceases to unnerve me because it's so close to the action. Even more disturbing, Jon's setup tonight was relatively bare--that is, no keyboard or chamberlain to mark the divide, though the forest of electrical cords was intact. Though they were no help to us, a bunch of guitars awaited at the back of the stage, and both the celeste and a smaller keyboard straddled the piano.

Flanagan's intro was equally minimal, paving the way for Jon's arrival. He took to the piano in good spirits for an extended instrumental, ending with a nod to Jiminy Cricket.

The second song dawned on me more quickly than usual (probably because I've fixated on it so much recently), and though I managed to keep it together, it still made me feel like the happiest girl in the world. I've been throwing out all kinds of descriptions for Jon's take on "More Than This," but with tonight's performance, I think I've finally hit upon a summation I can live with. Take the windswept original, then layer Tony Visconti's production, à la "Ashes to Ashes," on top. At least, that's how I hear it.

Jon remained on piano for "Further Along," forgoing the song build for a bare, soulful treatment that also featured harmonica and percussion, courtesy of his fancy shoes. The first piano segment of the night concluded with a frantic "Heart and Soul" fueled by Red Bull.

"Love of My Life So Far" held the distinction of being the evening's introductory guitar song. I thought the extended outro sounded more stylized and less jammy than usual. Heidi later confirmed these suspicions when she informed me that Jon had stuck in bits of "Rhiannon" and "Secret Agent Man" before settling on "The Letter."

The Les Paul interpretation arrived without a murmur, just those crisp, layered licks that turned a classic rock anthem into a breezy, country-inflected ramble. I thought maybe we were staying on a '60s tip when Jon took his place behind the drums and kicked out that rollicking beat from "The End," but it turned out to be a warm-up for "Girl I Knew." For a change, we didn't hear the song's typically ornate outro; instead, we got a sparer treatment, which seeped into a Clash tune.

The sound of a cocktail shaker in the back of the room triggered "Girl from Ipanema," before Jon picked up on the tired and unfunny audience requests for his next number: a medley of cliched monster rock. Guitar would've been too easy; instead, he opted for the vocoder, the tiny keyboard, and his own voice singing the shredding solos.

Celeste and harmonica were the instruments of choice for "Knock Yourself Out" in the twinkly style that Jon's been favoring lately, while "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes" was dusted off for the first time in a while, on this occasion with a spare solo guitar. Jon's variation on "All You Need Is Love" came from an audience suggestion before it slid into purposeful apathy.

I can't recall if the Al Sherman requests came from the audience; regardless, they set Jon off on an extended tutorial on "the original Weird Al" and Jon's own admission that he had listened to Al's songs for many years before learning they were parodies of other tracks. In the process, we got a singalong of "Hello Mother Hello Father," as well as Jon's take on Patsy Cline's "Heartaches" and its Al Sherman analog, "Headaches."

More requests followed, including Jon's epoch-spanning version of "Dancing Queen." "Everything's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" was squarely traditional and rocking, as was the always magnificent "Heroes," Jon's repudiation of all the dubious titles tossed about.

At this point, the side door opened, David Rawlings issued forth, and I went to Largo heaven. Jon greeted the beaming David and his gorgeous salmon-colored suit (not necessarily in that order) warmly before inviting him to peruse the guitars. David's arrival also marked the start of the unofficial second set.

If you've read this blog before, you may know that I saw David and Gillian Welch back in October for what is likely my favorite Largo show ever. I was hooked on the energy between David and Jon, so I knew that David's presence had to be a very good thing.

It's no rarity to attend a Jon Brion show and watch the headliner mixing it up with a guest, a friend, or even a complete stranger onstage and having a grand ol' time doing so. With David Rawlings, however, the dynamic felt different. Certainly, the talent that passes across the Largo stage is nothing to sneeze at, and I've seen a number of Jon's peers join him--Ethan Johns and Mitchell Froom, to name two. Maybe there's a novelty to David's presence, as he doesn't live in Los Angeles; maybe because of his association with a certain genre, David doesn't seem like an obvious choice as a foil or a counterpart to Jon. (Or maybe I should stop rationalizing and just enjoy it.)

In any case, David strikes me as the closest thing to a honest-to-goodness equal I've seen play with Jon. His deep knowledge of music history, his wide range of abilities, the pure joy projecting from his face, and most important, his willingness to throw himself into the maelstrom were all a fitting match for Jon. Together, they are a delight, a treasure, an addiction.

This collaboration commenced in a low-key manner, as they picked out guitars, loving adjusted each other's straps, and finally settled on a Neil Young song. Part way into their second number, Benmont Tench strolled in unannounced, sat down at the piano as if he owned it (as well he should), and planted himself right in the swing of the song. Less sure on his feet though clearly just as involved, David lost his balance and ended up tumbling into the amps and guitars lining the back wall. Both he and the suit, I'm happy to report, escaped unscathed.

At Largo, lulls are often a harbinger of treats to come as the performers dream up some unlikely song to pull off next; it's also a prime opportunity for audience suggestions, which is why I yelled out for "Cortez the Killer." The artists seemed to approve, but perhaps they didn't have the chops tonight. Rather, they went into "For the Turnstiles," a song I know well, thanks to my years amassing Grant Lee Buffalo covers and b-sides.

Back in October, the covers flowed freely, whether traditional or off-beat in nature, so I figured this was a chance to hear one of my favorites from that evening. Once again, the song got off to an unassuming start, as Jon (this time) took to the microphone to sing nearly a capella, "The phone rings in the middle of the night," with a much straighter face than David managed last time. David soon took his cue, and the song became a sort of duet, culminating with the two of them swooping to and from the microphone as they cooed the final refrain.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, they handled a Dylan tune before what turned out to be the rest of the Various and Sundry tour arrived. We sang happy birthday to the beautiful Sara Watkins (with an adorable new haircut!), who in turn belted out the Beatles, and Benmont took to the microphone for the Ramones ditty. Jon and Sara bonded over their mutual confusion on "Why Can't He Be You" and "She's Got You," they brought up Glen Phillips for a few tunes, and Luke Bulla joined in as well. Somewhere in this hot mess, David took to the drums for a short stretch and revealed at least one slight shortcoming among his lengthy list of talents.

Jon had settled into a background role by this point, most notably on "Exit Music (For a Film)," when the whole group stood back to listen to Glen. For the Hank Williams number, he confessed to not knowing the song, but Sean offered simple instructions: During the instrumental jam, "bash on E." Voilà, instant hootenanny!

[Editor's note: Earlier in the evening, we had learned that E is "the friendly key," as opposed to G, "the people's key."]

The collective gradually dissipated, until the last clutch of songs comprised merely Jon, David, and Benmont. Jason Boesel from Rilo Kiley, at David's urging ("Get the fuck up here"), joined them for "Ballad of a Thin Man," and I gotta say it was great to hear a real drummer after that haphazard but exhilarating run with the big group.

Benmont's pipes came out again, when he amended David's confusion with some of Dylan's verses. The final song of the night was all Jon and Benmont. I've heard them do "Waterloo Sunset" several times now, and two things keep it fresh. One is Jon's unadulterated admiration for the tune; the other is Benmont's magical touch. Tonight, he sent aloft a minimal play on the melody that perfectly drove home the wistfulness of the number and capped the 3-plus hours of entertainment.

--piano noodling, ending with "When You Wish Upon a Star"
--More Than This
--Further Along
--Heart and Soul
--Love of My Life So Far/Rhiannon/Secret Agent Man/The Letter
--Baba O'Riley [Les Paul style]
--The End/Girl I Knew/Police on My Back
--Girl from Ipanema
--Freebird/???/Whole Lotta Love [instrumental]
--Knock Yourself Out
--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime
--All You Need Is Love (Pretty Much)
--Al Sherman tutorial
--Dancing Queen [through the ages]
--Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey

with David Rawlings
--Tired Eyes [David]

with David Rawlings and Benmont Tench
--Nadine [David]
--For the Turnstiles [David]
--Femme Fatale
--Girls Just Want to Have Fun [Jon and David]
--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
--Happy Birthday to Sara
--And Your Bird Can Sing [Sara]
--I Wanna Be Sedated [Benmont]
--Why Can't He Be You [Sara]

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Glen Phillips
--Exit Music (For a Film) [Glen]
--It's Over Now [Glen]

with Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, Glen Phillips, and Luke Bulla
--Man of Constant Sorrow [Glen]

with David Rawlings, Benmont Tench, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, Glen Phillips, and Luke Bulla
--I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome [Sara and Luke]
--Long Hot Summer Days [vocals = Sara]
--Short People [Sara and Sean]
--Political Science [Jon and Glen]

with David Rawlings and Benmont Tench
--Dayton, Ohio 1903
--Jolly Coppers on Parade [David]
--Ballad of a Thin Man [David and Benmont]
--Waterloo Sunset

brackets = lead singer

See also:
» Gillian, David, Sean, Sara, Jon, Greg
» here's a working model
» please share my umbrella
» wherever there is comfort, there is pain

Sunday, June 10, 2007

love is a doing word

I'm not a hard sell when it comes to concerts, but the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble went straight to the top of my list of gotta-go shows. Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists were the main draw, but throw an alleged animatronic gorilla into the mix, and you have the makings of a downright spectacle. Sign me up!

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Cafe du Nord, June 7, 2007: It's very rare that I actively stop liking a band; the downward spiral usually starts with venue snobbery, which leads to apathy, and with the exception of all but my most adored artists, eventual disengagement.

That never-ending stream of up-and-coming, swoon-inducing groups helps feed the need for new music, but side projects are another great resource when you're seeking that mixture of new yet simultaneously familiar. Sure, they're often indulgent and willfully obscure, but they can be a lot of fun, especially if they carry any of the spark that initially drew you to the original players.

The Decemberists are in that awkward spot with me, in that I like them and find them undeniably endearing, but odds are, my interest has peaked. Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble lets me extend that enjoyment a little longer, and the group that Chris Funk put together shared many of the traits that made the Decemberists so charming in the first place.

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Cafe du Nord, June 7, 2007

Of course, Chris's own talents contributed to the Decemberists' growth, and they were on full display with Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble. Over the course of the evening, he manned the hurdy-gurdy, the dobro, and the relatively banal guitar, in addition to singing and narrating the action. Elsewhere on the tiny stage, Jenny Conlee presided over the Moog, Carson Ellis kept the time on a minimal drum kit, and their friends filled out the rest of the sound with banjo, bass guitar, fiddle, and even a gas can. Presiding over the ensemble was Sebastian the Animatronic Gorilla, waving a composer's wand and fueled by Patron tequila.

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Cafe du Nord, June 7, 2007

Funny or fatuous? You'll have to decide for yourself, but I can say that the music didn't take a backseat to the humor. Chris didn't reveal himself to be a frustrated lyricist relegated to sideman duties, nor will you hear the likes of "Chris Walla: Duet for Moog and Hurdy-Gurdy in G-Majorish" on mainstream radio any time soon. However, the fairly traditional-sounding songs came across as lilting, melodious, though meandering treats.

Real estate agents, take note of Chris's triptych of songs to his neighbors: "Chained to the Pole," "Can't See the Moon? Cut Down the Tree," and "Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!" Julie recognized "Teardrop" before I did, and Chris himself described it as "psychedelic bluegrass"--an apt call. I don't think we got any of the other covers you'll find on the album, but then again, I wouldn't put it past the band, and I don't trust my ears enough to swear to that. The gorilla held up well, even taking to the drums for the encore after repeated breaks to rehydrate the creature.

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Cafe du Nord, June 7, 2007

The Decemberists are, for all intents and purposes, Colin Meloy's metaphorical baby (aside from his real baby), so it's cool to see the other band members branching out as well. If you're willing to give them a chance, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble might offer some clues as to how the band frames those distinctively detailed historical tales that marks the group's compositions. If, however, you're more interested in how to make use of a guy (?) in a gorilla suit, Flash Hawk can help you out there too.

See also:
» a writer, a writer of fictions
» hear all the bombs, they fade away

Sunday, June 03, 2007

heard about your band

This is how much I love Brakes, a.k.a, Brakesbrakesbrakes (in accordance with some agreement with a U.S. band of the same name who threatened to sue): I'm willing to head out to one of my most loathed venues just to see their first live appearance in San Francisco. The choice is, of course, entirely mine, but I reserve the right to grouse about it.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, 5-31-07Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, May 31, 2007: I can't mention Brakes (much less get my head around that U.S. appellation) without invoking the burning love I carry for Eamon's earlier band, British Sea Power. Back then, Eamon was the percussionist who sat at the back of the stage, often wearing a funny hat. He at first seemed reticent and maybe a little awkward, but he'd upturn your expectations later by bursting into the audience in a drum-banging fervor unmatched by even the Energizer Bunny. Who could guess he was waiting for the chance to unleash his inner singer-songwriter?

Listening to Brakes' two albums, you'd be hard-pressed to find a connection to British Sea Power, aside from the tongue-in-cheek lyrics (sample lines: "You know the girl from Sleater-Kinney/You said you couldn't understand/Why it was that she continues to play/When she was earning only 10 grand PA"). Whereas British Sea Power favors ambitious, arching epics, good luck finding a Brakes song that tops the two-minute mark.

To that end, they've certainly nailed the fast/punk angle, though they can also handle a wider range, turning in some pastoral tunes, a significant debt to classic American country and western, a Jesus and Mary Chain cover, and plain ol' indie pop, topped with a hearty dose of oblique but pointed political criticism. This slapdash mix was established on the first album, but it came to a finer point on their second release, which absolutely, wholeheartedly won me over.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, 5-31-07

Before the show began, an older gentleman (the tour manager?) ventured onstage with some items: the handwritten setlists and a pineapple. It wasn't the foliage that decorated a British Sea Power setup, but unlike those random fronds and branches, the fresh produce served a real purpose, as we'd later discover.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, 5-31-07The band launched into their nearly 20-song set with a bracing, speedy, and loud selection of tunes before easing into the more leisurely (relatively speaking) titles. "Cheney" was so popular--and short--that they did it twice, and the pineapple made an appearance before its namesake song, "Porcupine or Pineapple" (there was no sign of the other title character). After issuing a warning/invitation, Tom (the band's guitarist) threw the pineapple into the crowd, then apologized to the person it may have hit. All through the set, Eamon offered short and not very enlightening explanations for the songs; apparently, many of them were inspired by growing up in the country.

As a frontman, Eamon came through better than I expected; in terms of verbosity, he has his former bandmates beat, at least. His intensity was impossible to discount, and the veins on his neck, visibly raised, were especially jarring to view. The facial hair was more alarming, and it brought to mind Stephen Malkmus's recent repudiation of the razor. Oy.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, 5-31-07

The rest of the band comprised a incongruous cross-section of musical and stylistic camps: Tom, the guitarist, somewhat louche and dandified; Marc, the bass player in a slacker-style Western shirt; and Alex on drums, looking something like a skater, in his SpongeBob t-shirt. They were nowhere near as apoplectic as Eamon, but they kicked up the intensity as needed. Just as important, they seemed to be having a good time, and they even got in a dig against the U.S. band that happens to share their name.

Brakesbrakesbrakes, Popscene, 5-31-2007It's a rarity when I like an album better than the live performance, but as much as I love Brakes' CDs, the band's energy couldn't quite fill out the show. The brief bursts of songs never felt like a coherent set, though I can see why the band would assume those tunes would work best in front of unfamiliar club audiences. More surprisingly, they tackled far too few of the more melodic songs that might have bridged and complemented those two-chord wonders. I wanted very badly for them to wow me. They were certainly entertaining, but they fell short of hooking me forever. With any luck, though, I'll be able to give them another chance.

See also:
» from the books you don't read anyway
» top 5 albums of 2006