Tuesday, July 31, 2007

load it, check it, quick rewrite it

This has shaped up to be another "I Love the '90s" week, with back-to-back posts about Smashing Pumpkins and, now, Daft Punk. I'll always be an '80s girl at heart, but the '90s weren't too shabby.

Daft Punk, Greek Theatre, July 27, 2007: As a venue snob, I'm contractually obliged to bust out the "I first saw Daft Punk" story, so here goes--the exact date was March 29, 1997 (thanks to The List for the info), when I lived by the rule that I had to see all groups that came from England and charged less than $10 for a concert ticket. Daft Punk, though French, qualified, by virtue of the fact that the U.K. music magazines were practically offering to have their babies, based on the strength of their debut album Homework, which had come out earlier that year.

The locale was the tiny Mission Rock Resort, a low-key restaurant/club that made you feel like you were at someone's house party with DJs spinning on the back patio. I didn't realize it until much later, but I saw a fairly unique show that night. That is, neither Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo nor Thomas Bangalter donned their usual media-obfuscating masks, helmets, hoods, or any other manner of disguise. Instead, we got two fairly young, unassuming fellows devoting themselves to working the turntables, mixers, sequencers, and paraphernalia that comprise their craft. Though other factors were swirling through my bloodstream, I loved the show, and I saw them once more when they returned to the Fillmore several months down the line. A decade on, I still adore Homework too.

In the intervening years, my interest in dance music and culture has dipped considerably. Truth be told, I didn't even think I was going to this show; though Annie suggested we check it out (a friend piqued her interest by hyping up their Coachella appearance), she neglected to get tickets before the gig sold out. Fortunately, we were able to take her friend's extras.

We continued to come up lucky, finding a great parking space on a side street, missing the Rapture's opening slot, and settling in at a decent spot partway up the stone benches. The human parade was a little drab, especially compared to the club scene, much less the former rave scene, but there were bright spots--almost literally! From our spot, we spied a group of a dozen or so people in the pit, all dressed in white and sporting some sort of incandescent lights. Taken together, they were like a small, bright galaxy among the masses. You couldn't miss them, and they made for entertaining viewing.

Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 2007

Elsewhere, we noticed wigs and glowsticks, as well as plenty of dancing while Sebastian and Kavinksky spun their tunes, including their Rage Against the Machine remix that had the crowd banging their heads and pumping their fists in unison--just like you'd see at a rock show. In fact, I was glad to see that the dance-rock divide isn't as dramatic as it used to be, but then again, this show by definition spurned pigeonholing.

The human spectacle soon gave way to an architectural one, as the lights went down, the curtains swung back, and the glowing pyramid--the world's coolest DJ booth ever--caught our eye. Equal parts I.M. Pei, Pink Floyd, and Tutankhamun, the pyramid cradled Daft Punk (presumably), who, with shiny helmets affixed, climbed inside. Then the music began.

Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 2007

This is actually a good case when it's ridiculous to be a venue snob. Let's face it--unless you're one yourself, DJs are not known for providing incredible visual appeal. DJ acts often supplement their shows with all forms of ocular stimuli, but Daft Punk takes this gameplan to the extreme. Sure, I once saw their faces, and this setup raises the question of whether Guy and Thomas are really on the decks and whether the experience is a "live" show as most people know it. I don't really care, to tell you the truth--part of the gig's appeal is being swept up in the atmosphere and the groove. And the pyramid is really that cool. Even better, the vibe among the fans was just as welcoming, and I can say this with some conviction, given my clean bill of health for this outing.

Apparently, Daft Punk's performance was a carbon copy of their Coachella set, which is not unusual for a lot of big-name DJs, but it was new to me--and mind-blowing to witness. The pyramid, the light show, the digital readouts, the projected images--they all commanded attention, while the music moved our bodies, almost without our realizing it. I perked up every time they inserted so much as a hint of their Homework-era numbers into the set, but to my surprise, the biggest cheers of the night came for the newer stuff, most notably "One More Time," which was so popular that you could hear the crowd belting out its ridiculous (and repeatable) refrains, even before the beat dropped.

Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 2007

When they came back for the encore and finally pumped out "Da Funk," I was euphoric. It's been a long time since I've been dancing, and though I didn't realize it, my body needed the mental workout. Daft Punk facilitated that release with their deep grooves, hypnotic rhythms, and shamelessly populist hooks.

A lot has been said about the striking visual element of Daft Punk's show, and I can understand why they'd want to bring in all that hardware. After all, our attention spans aren't getting any longer. Even for a teetotaler like me, it was great fun to watch, and I was a little envious of how the chemically enhanced members of the audience might've viewed the gig. I just hope that the eye candy doesn't distract from the music, which was a force of its own. The joy and energy that infused me after the gig was no different from what I feel after any great show, regardless of genre.

Daft Punk, Greek Theater, July 27, 2007

I can sort of verbalize the alluring elements of a pop song, but I lose my bearings when it comes to instrumentals, regardless of the genre. I can't for the life of me tell you what in Daft Punk's music moves me, but in the end, all I can say is that at their best, Daft Punk's tunes require no drugs of any sort to carry you aloft; just let your booty lead the way.

Monday, July 30, 2007

all of those yesterdays coming around

My brothers and I would make a good case for obsessive tendencies as a hereditary trait. Our dad was a man of several hobbies, music chief among them, and I'm sure we inherited our predilection for preoccupation from him. Though my music fixation far outpaces my siblings', my youngest brother has indulged in his own adventures in rock tourism. It was my duty and pleasure, then, to join him for his fantasy shows: the Smashing Pumpkins' (his favorite band) residency at the Fillmore.

Smashing Pumpkins, the Fillmore, July 24, 2007: My brother has some really funny Smashing Pumpkins-related stories from the '90s, but my favorite anecdote involves Courtney Love grabbing him off the sidewalk by his shirt to come backstage. I'm not even kidding. There are more, but I'd do everyone a disservice to try to piece them together now.

For most of the '90s, I was consumed by British music and, in fact, spent the grunge years listening mainly to shoegazers. Regardless, I still tuned in to commercial radio and watched 120 Minutes, so I couldn't help hearing certain groups, the Smashing Pumpkins among them. Though their nods to hard rock and forays into guitar wankery didn't appeal to me, they also revealed dreamy, psychedelic touches that kept me interested. Of course, with my brother's endless repetition of all their CDs, my brain was bound to take to a few tunes, some of which I really liked. I even brought a couple of my younger cousins to a Pumpkins show at the abhorrent Cow Palace back in 1996, with Garbage opening.

Those hits, however, were in short supply tonight, though we got the sublime and atypically understated "Drown," as well as the smash "Tonight, Tonight." Annie had warned me about the extended instrumental jam, and I wondered at several points throughout the night if I was listening to that specific track. Toward the end of the evening, Billy himself asked if the show had been too weird for the audience, and a handful of people were willing to admit as much. After the show, the fraternal unit confirmed that the show was heavy on b-sides, a dream for him but a lot harder for the casual fan to abide.

Smashing Pumpkins, The Fillmore, July 24, 2007

Billy Corgan has been a favorite target for indie bands, but his notorious ego wasn't on ostentatious display tonight. Early in the gig, he laid down the "rules," including "no requests because we're not a bar band." Otherwise, he didn't engage in much chit-chat, though he seemed a lot more laidback than I recall. I think my favorite part of the show might've been the first song of the encore, where Billy went solo acoustic. He unfurled a long intro about the anger he perceived in San Francisco, then unveiled a brand-new song inspired by the city. His explanation could've been a lot more antagonistic, but he actually admitted it could've been a mental block on his part and not the locale itself.

Smashing Pumpkins, The Fillmore, July 24, 2007

As for the new band members--you can lament James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky's absence all you want, but I didn't think their presence was particularly indelible, and accordingly, their replacements are not Billy's equals. Jimmy Chamberlain, however, definitely enjoys a bond with Billy that wasn't evident elsewhere on stage.

The real treat of the show for me was supporting my brother and knowing that he was having a great time. We've gone to a few shows together over the years, but overall, we don't have the same tastes or concert temperaments. I'd love to do it again, though I have no idea when or if it'll happen next. Besides, the more obsessed he gets, the less crazy I look.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

i can come to my senses

So many choices in Los Angeles tonight: Besides Jon Brion's third consecutive night at Largo, there was a free show by Sonic Youth in Santa Monica, Daft Punk playing the Sports Arena at USC, and--sweet lord a-mighty--David Beckham's debut for the Galaxy. Any guesses as to where I hitched my wagon?

What would you do: Sonic Youth, Daft Punk, David Beckham, or Jon Brion?

Jon Brion, Largo, July 21, 2007: For all the to-do around Jon Brion's shows and their alleged exclusivity, the no-reservations line ebbs and flows a lot more than you'd think. By 9 tonight, for example, everyone without a reservation was in--a far cry from the waves of humanity that have to be admitted in shifts on a typical Friday night--and they enjoyed an unobstructed view of the show from the bar. Maybe it was due to the aforementioned bursting social calendar, but seriously, folks, don't let the hype scare you away.

Largo-ites know full well that bigger is not always better, which is why we come back again and again to Fairfax Village. But smaller isn't always super either; though you'd think that the relatively intimate crowd might be more discerning, the lame "Freebird" requests started immediately upon Jon's entrance. (Note to self: Ask Mike to add the "no Freebird" rule to his spiel at the door.) Jon took it up anyway as an abstract instrumental on the piano and with an off-hand swipe at the audience member.

Jon wasted no time in opening up the floor to other requests, which is how the next three songs came about. I asked for "Croatia," partly as an inside joke with my friends, but also to get us off the ballads. I gotta say, though, that it was probably the most languid take on the song I've heard, with a toned-down opening drum track. The song also betrayed the technical problems from the two previous nights, as you could hear some crackles from the amp. In the end, though, it rode out on some mighty impressive guitar licks.

The instrumental piano piece that followed leaned more toward modern jazz than the ragtime Jon's equally capable of, but both "This Will Be Our Year" and the built-up "Happy with You" were more traditional--if there is such a thing for the latter.

I thought I knew where he was going from there, though at first I wondered why he was doing the Eternal Sunshine theme again. Knock me over with a feather--it finally dawned on me that Jon was playing one of the songs I always want to hear and had, in fact, requested the night before. It was nowhere as agonizing as I've heard it--a good thing--and he took a wonderful turn in the final verse ("So I wasn't thinking clearly..."), when he switched from the upper register in which he had been singing to a lower, more deliberate tone as he delivered the denouement. Talk about a knockout punch.

I think tonight was also the first time I heard the charming "Into the Atlantic," even though Jon pooh-poohed its "outdated animosities." The next song took a little while to come together, as Jon picked at the little Korg and fiddled with the harmonica. We eventually got "Love of My Life So Far," featuring mostly piano.

The cheat sheets came out again as Jon tried out one of the new (?) songs once more. For the final song of the first set, Jon spurned the jillion requests ringing out and somewhat apologetically went with the song that had popped in to his head: "You Made the Girl," all 20-plus minutes of it. Oy.

The second set kicked off with a build of "I Believe She's Lying," along with a pinch of Cheap Trick, before Jon brought out Benmont Tench for the third night in a row. With Ben back on the organ, they hit what Evonne says was another Booker T number, though she couldn't quite decide if it was "Hip Hugger" or "More Green Onions." I defer to her, regardless. Along the way, Benmont snuck in snippets from a few other tunes, all of which are just on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn't name them to save my life.

I can, however, tell you most of the songs covered in the next adventure. I love "Tomorrow Never Knows," and I love Jon playing it, but I wasn't sure I wanted to hear this epic so early in the second set. Fortunately, he abbreviated it somewhat and sprinkled it with other Beatles selections. I would've liked to hear "Ticket to Ride" on its own, but obviously, it's not my call.

After fielding a bunch more requests, Jon asked for slapback and said something about wanting to be in Memphis in 1956, which could mean only one thing: Sun Studios, of course. I was slower on the uptake when it came to the song selection itself--my own request for "Raspberry Beret." I may have figured it out by the time both Evonne and Paul were jabbing me in recognition, but just barely. Had the pairing occurred to anyone else in a million years? Not bloody likely. Was it awesome? Hell yeah!

Benmont offered a candidate for the next song, but Jon replied that he'd forget the second verse and that he was a total "letdown" that night. I'm glad this deterrent proved less than daunting because they went into "All the Young Dudes" anyway. I also hope it made Jon feel a little better that apparently no one else in the room knew any of the words either, though we were happy to contribute to the chorus. I think that's officially the second-worst version of the song I've ever been witness to--and how lucky am I to be a part of both.

Jon did return to a couple of songs with lyrics he had no problem recalling, then brought up Gabe Wicher, who looked like he had just come from a wedding where he was best man. C'est chic!

I'm ecstatic that my friends and I aren't alone in our Benmont appreciation. Friday night, someone had yelled out "we love Benmont!" This led Jon to snap, "Back off!" and reveal that he was the No. 1 member of the fan club. Tonight, an audience member requested a "Benmont original." I couldn't hear Benmont's reply, but it moved Jon to call bullshit on him and demand his singing services. With Gabe on drums, they burrowed into "I Wanna Be Sedated," albeit in the wrong key. Like it matters. I mean, do you think the Ramones ever discussed--much less knew--what key they were in?

They brought Gabe back to the mic for a batch of tunes, including the standard but apt "Sin City," which saw Jon adding gorgeous harmonies to complement Gabe's strong, heartfelt voice. When the lyrics to "The Wind Cries Mary" seemed to elude both Jon and Gabe, the audience kicked in with some help, but Gabe needed no guidance whatsoever for the Hank Williams number.

By virtue of knowing the words, Benmont assumed vocal duties at the start of the summer-themed medley, with Jon taking over for the Kinks tune, then the two of them trading off the "authority" voice on "Summertime Blues" (and cracking up while doing so).

This interlude moved Jon to joke about Benmont's heretofore hidden knowledge of lyrics and to command Benmont to recite "Tommy, side 3," which is how we got the extended Tommy medley, with Jon and Benmont switching off lead vocals. This is by no means a definitive statement, but Benmont seemed to jump on more of the dramatic readings, especially if the song required a falsetto. As if we needed the emphasis, someone in the control booth shined the spotlight on Benmont every time he drew on his drama club chops. In the meantime, the audience jumped in for the really obvious songs ("Pinball Wizard," of course).

For this entire sequence, Gabe had stood fiddle in hand to the side of the stage but had not tried to insert himself at all. It was only after Jon and Benmont had worn out their Tommy knowledge and an audience member urged Gabe to return that he moved back into the spotlight. Jon sort of apologized, explaining how he had spent most of 8th grade listening to the album. Gabe was having none of it and claimed he had a great time just watching. I hope Gabe's enjoyment was not curtailed when he was asked to resume singing duties--ours sure wasn't. His rendition of "Look at Miss Ohio" felt like a compliment of the highest order to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

The requests took a turn for the worse as we neared closing time, forcing Jon to bestow the honors to Flanagan, who also had a hard time making the executive decision. Benmont backed off from Flanny's first choice of "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometimes," citing its abundance of chords. By the time Flanny hit upon on his next suggestion ("Nothing Between Us"), Jon had already moved to the audience cry for "Communication Breakdown." They tried to draft a drummer, but Aaron in the soundbooth flatly said no when asked if he knew the song. Not reluctantly, Jon manned the kit, almost gleefully proclaiming his willingness to "fuck up publicly." They gave it a go, and Jon pounded away with a ferocity I hadn't seen all night, but Benmont called off the train wreck in waiting. Instead, he took the reins and the mic for "Do You Know What I Mean?" (thanks to Evonne for that tidbit!) to cap off Jon's--and Benmont's--three-night stand.

--"'Freebird' a la Copland"
--Over Our Heads
--Hook Line and Sinker
--jazzy piano
--This Will Be Our Year
--Happy with You
--Into the Atlantic
--Love of My Life So Far
--? [lyrics: "Another trying day when you don't get your way..."]
--You Made the Girl

Set 2
--I Believe She's Lying/Everything Works Out if You Let It

--Booker T and the MG's number [Hip Hugger? More Green Onions?]
--Tomorrow Never Knows/I Want You (She's So Heavy)/Ticket to Ride/Dr. Robert
--Raspberry Beret [Sun Studios-style]
--All the Young Dudes
--I'm Not in Love
--I Don't Hurt Anymore

w/Benmont and Gabe
--I Wanna Be Sedated [vocals = Benmont]
--Sin City [vocals = Gabe]
--The Wind Cries Mary [vocals = Jon and Gabe]
--I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You) [vocals = Gabe]
--Summer in the City [vocals = Benmont]
--Sunny Afternoon
--Summertime Blues [vocals = Jon and Benmont]
--Tommy medley [vocals = Jon and Benmont]
--Look at Miss Ohio [vocals = Gabe]
--You Win Again [vocals = Gabe]

--Communication Breakdown
--Do You Know What I Mean [vocals = Benmont]

See also:
» Night 2: wouldn't have it any other way
» Night 1: maybe i'm learning

Friday, July 27, 2007

wouldn't have it any other way

It's impossible to say whether Jon Brion's Friday residencies at Largo will ever return, either sooner or later, so it's more crucial than ever to see them when you can. At least, that's what I've been telling myself for the last year-plus when booking flights down south.

Jon Brion, Largo, July 20, 2007: Following Flanagan's opening invitation, Jon greeted us with a more familiar take on the Largo proprietor's introduction ("get your knickers in a twist") and jumped into a song directly inspired by the man's words. I love the idea of Jon doing "Let's Get It On," and it's requested often, but I have yet to hear him offer a straight take on it. Tonight was no different, as Jon went with the vocoder--and got plenty of laughs in the process. He stayed on the piano for "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way," a relative rarity among his self-penned tracks, followed by a somber instrumental.

I guess Thursday night's technical problems had been resolved because upon asking for requests, Jon moved to the guitars, first rocking out on Gershwin, then an exquisite "Strings That Tie to You" (and making use of the loopers that had been absent Thursday). "Further Along" began on a Les Paul-like note before settling into heavier, more distorted territory, and I probably wouldn't have figured out the "short 'Rhapsody in Blue' with fuzz" if Jon hadn't cited it himself.

Back at the piano, Jon picked up on the twin requests for Kanye West and, depending on whom you ask, either Tom Waits or Randy Newman for a version of "Gold Digger," the likes of which I doubt we'll ever hear again. Following a straightforward "Itchycoo Park," Jon fanned out some so-called Cliff Notes for the next two songs, both midtempo numbers. The first he built up, and the second was solo piano. I can't find any info on either tune, which leads me to suspect they're originals. Though they didn't necessarily sound like unpopular pop, there was a wryness to the lyrics that could indicate Jon's touch. Rounding out this unindentifiable threesome was a great, rocking song that I've now heard at least three times, though its provenance continues to elude me.

"Here We Go" came through on the organ, which lent the song a grave and sobering air, in the process casting Jon's dulcet tones in greater relief. I definitely prefer the piano for this song; the organ doesn't do justice to the tune's trademark trill, but I won't say no to Jon's attempt at a reinterpretation.

Jon returned to the drums for a song build, and a verse or so in, his co-writer joined him. It was Grant-Lee Phillips, who actually needed lyrics printed off the Internet to help him remember the words. I think he even messed up a verse! In Grant's defense, it's probably been almost 10 years since he and Jon wrote this song. They shared vocals, guitar duties, and a mic on "Knock Yourself Out" (Grant again using lyrics procured from the Web), then switched to the piano (Grant) and organ (Jon) for two Grant Lee Buffalo numbers. The "cozy" fit, as noted by Grant, didn't seem to impede either artist, as both selections sounded great.

Jon next called on his top onstage collaborator of late, catching Benmont in the middle of a couple of libations. In addition to manning the keys, Benmont added backing vocals to "Pale Blue Eyes," though "Benny and the Jets" was all Grant--especially when he changed the chorus to "Benmont and the Jon." Speaking of, Jon took the mic for "Moonage Daydream," even appending a bar or so of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" to the outro.

With Grant still on lead vocals, they recruited Gabe Wicher for a couple of Neil Young songs, drawing to a close Grant's contributions for the evening. Taking his place was Fiona Apple for her standard set of covers. I dunno--she still reminds me of an Olsen twin, albeit one with a voice. Besides, my eyes and ears zeroed in on Benmont as he nearly turned "Everyday" into a duet and played as gorgeous a piano solo as you can imagine during "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Blue Skies." Gabe and Jon, however, were no slouches, particularly on their respective solos for "Walking After Midnight."

After Fiona left the stage, Gabe stuck around for a few more songs, if you count their rendition of "If I Only Had a Brain" (it's debatable). After much conferencing, they settled on a song that Gabe could sing: "Ruin My Day." Gabe claimed he didn't know all the lyrics, but he ended up asking for help from Jon only once, preceding the second verse. Through the rest of the song, it was all Gabe, gracing it with a touch of twang and a warm, homespun feel. Paul and I both found it weird to watch Jon play his own song while someone else sang it, but judging by the smile on Jon's face during Gabe's performance, the songwriter didn't seem to have a problem with the setup.

Gabe went back to the drums, and Jon and Benmont stuck to the keys for the final song, which turned out to be one of those classic tunes strongly associated with the Hammond: "Whiter Shade of Pale." David had requested half of it the night before, but I don't think he objected to hearing the full treatment tonight.

--Let's Get It On
--Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way
--piano noodling
--Nice Work if You Can Get It
--Strings That Tie to You
--Further Along
--"short 'Rhapsody in Blue' with fuzz"
--Baby's in Black
--Gold Digger [in the style of Randy Newman]
--Itchycoo Park
--? [chorus: "Get over yourself"]
--? [lyrics: "Another trying day when you don't get your way..."]
--? [lyrics: "Happiness is overdue"]
--Here We Go

w/ Grant
--Walking Through Walls [vocals = Jon and Grant]
--Knock Yourself Out [vocals = Jon and Grant]
--Fuzzy [vocals = Grant]
--Happiness [GLB version; vocals = Grant]

w/ Grant and Benmont
--Pale Blue Eyes [vocals = Grant]
--Benmont and the Jon, a.k.a. Benny and the Jets [vocals = Grant]
--Moonage Daydream

w/ Grant, Benmont, and Gabe
--Cinnamon Girl [vocals = Grant]
--Ohio [vocals = Grant]

w/ Benmont and Fiona
--Don't Get Around Much Anymore
--Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me
--Walking after Midnight
--Blue Skies

w/ Benmont and Gabe
--If I Only Had a Brain
--Ruin My Day [vocals = Gabe]
--Whiter Shade of Pale

See also:
» Night 1: maybe i'm learning
» Night 3: i can come to my senses

Thursday, July 26, 2007

maybe i'm learning

December 2005 was a month of milestones and, perhaps, the moment I lost the plot in all matters Largo and Jon Brion. I not only capped off my first Year of Largo with an incredible Christmas show, thus kicking off what I hope will become a new tradition, I also started off the month with another first for me: a triumvirate of Jon Brion (and friends) shows. More than a year and a half later, I grabbed the opportunity to do it again--the trio, that is, not the Christmas show (yet).

Jon Brion, Largo, July 19, 2007: Whenever we hit Largo, we like to check out what new instruments or accessories may be adorning the stage. We didn't have to try too hard tonight; both the Hammond B3 organ abutting the front edge of the stage and its accompanying Leslie cabinet wedged between the piano and the drum kit were impossible to miss. What we couldn't guess: how these enticing additions would be used.

This question would have to wait while Jon manned his usual station at the piano for the initial flurry of tunes: two separate instrumental piano exercises, followed by "Someone Else's Problem Now," then his own compositions. In fact, I think he said something about doing his own songs first so that he could bring out his friends later. "Girl I Knew" was the gem of this early portion; with nothing but piano accompaniment, some humming, and the beat of his feet, Jon injected a tone of pity into this song, a far cry from the defiance and bombast conveyed by the built-up version of this tune.

Switching to the other side of the stage at first proved less fruitful, and no amount of switching cables, slapping pedals, or wiggling cords could sustain the action, though Jon gave it the ol' college try, regardless. It didn't last long, however; after the "distorted Ellington" number, Jon went into "Same Thing," even though the amp went out and he had to hold the guitar up to the mics for it to be heard.

While his new assistant attempted to work out the kinks, Jon kicked out a drum solo, then perhaps earlier than planned, pulled out his trump card for the night: Benmont Tench, who immediately sat down at the Hammond. Together, the two launched into Booker T and the MG's and perhaps the most famous organ song in the rock 'n' roll era.

Jon moved back toward the guitars for the next song (while Benmont played a baseball-themed interlude) and picked up--well, I'm not sure what. It had eight strings and a round, flat body, but I don't think it was a lute or a bouzuki. Additionally, the sound it produced was less resonant than what you'd hear from a conventional guitar. Anyway, he kept it for a trio of songs, including Benmont's first turn for the night (and the weekend) on vocals ("96 Tears"), a song I hope is becoming a staple of his set ("More Than This"), and his own composition. The amp died again during "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," moving Jon to twist his body over to the organ to finish out the tune.

This would prove to be the last we'd hear from the guitar--any guitar--for the night. Instead, Jon and Benmont made room for each other on the organ bench and asked for requests. I immediately blurted out "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," inspired by one of my favorite Simpsons episodes. Jon replied that Benmont had just requested that himself, but alas, they weren't doing it. Rather, they went with a couple of beloved singalongs that drew us all in.

Jon asked for our cooperation, then inquired to see if a drummer was available. Up popped Chris, who many of us had seen play with the Neil Finn and co. back in December. After Chris took his place at the kit, Jon instructed him to play a specific beat, a mark Chris soon hit. Chris had already proved himself a worthy addition, and he showed no weaknesses tonight, whether ratcheting it up or paring back as needed. In fact, he stayed with them through the rest of the show.

I had been thinking very literally with my requests, suggesting songs where the organ played a significant role, but leave it to the artists to opt, instead, for less cliched selections they could reinterpret with the Hammond. For example, "Tainted Love" sounded less campy than usual, and the lack of guitar didn't hurt "Isn't It a Pity" or "Happiness" at all.

Benmont proved, as ever, a worthy foil. Though he didn't seem to really know "Lithium" (he certainly wasn't alone), he managed to append to it a lovely ragtime ending. On the other hand, he was in the driver's seat when they segued from "Time of the Season" to "She's Not There," as well as when he took up the vocals for the Band's "Chest Fever," which in turn led to Jon's attempt at "Tears of Rage." I believe the hushed conferences between the two brought us the Todd Rundgren rock block, before they concluded with an instrumental that, on the organ, resembled a dreamy merry-go-round tune.

--piano noodling
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Eternal Sunshine theme
--Girl I Knew
--The Way It Went
--Same Thing
--drum solo

w/Benmont Tench
--I Want You to Want Me
--Green Onions
--96 Tears [vocals = Benmont]
--More Than This
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--I'm a Believer
--You Won't See Me

w/Chris on drums
--Isn't It a Pity
--Tainted Love
--Time of the Season/She's Not There
--Positively 4th Street
--Chest Fever [vocals = Benmont]
--Tears of Rage
--Be Nice to Me
--Remember Me
--Bicycle Built for Two

See also:
» let your heart be light
» i'll be back again
» wherever there is comfort, there is pain
» Night 2: wouldn't have it any other way
» Night 3: i can come to my senses

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

old news wrapped up in old blues

I've missed several newish bands over the last year or so, because of--well, you can guess why. Dr. Dog is not actually one of these groups I intended to see, but they've shared the bill with some of the bands whose shows have escaped me. It's a good thing, then, that Amoeba intervened.

poochieDr. Dog, Amoeba Records, July 15, 2007: I don't spend a lot of time analyzing band names (Tom, I'm looking at you), but I gotta say that Dr. Dog is one of the worst choices I've heard in a long time. That name can go in so many directions, none of them good. Invariably, I think of Poochie, the ill-conceived "edgy" canine companion on The Simpsons voiced by Homer (and killed off by the network suits).

If I'd managed to set aside my prejudice earlier, I probably would've enjoyed Dr. Dog's gigs at Cafe du Nord with Elvis Perkins and the Cold War Kids, or even at the Fillmore with Son Volt. Surely, I would've dug the healthy heaps of harmony, the slew of sleighbells, and the plink-plonky piano that marks my favorites among their tunes, as well as the Bowie and Lennon sound-alike tracks. In all likelihood, I'd even appreciate the bluesier, raggedy numbers that come close to what you might expect from a band called Dr. Dog.

Dr. Dog, Amoeba Records, 7-15-2007

Live, they sounded rawer than on the record, but a couple of major factors remained intact: the harmonies and the vintage keyboard sound. One of my favorite aspects of We All Belong is the warm, old-fashioned production that hearkens back to the greats of the '70s (please disregard my ignorance of the era's music). I don't think the band had any intention of regurgitating that sound in their show, nor is that what came through, but the keyboard bridged the studio and live experiences. The multipart harmonies were lovely too--not cloying or overdone, just unabashedly inviting--while the lead vocals were alternately scorching and worldly.

By the end of the show, my misgivings about Dr. Dog's name and appearance, along with any suspicions I had that they were a thinly disguised jam band, had mostly dissipated. If Dr. Dog continues to share the bill with other noteworthy bands, I'd gladly see them again (which may happen sooner rather than later, as they're opening for Wilco in September). The band on its own, however, might not be enough to bring me back.

Monday, July 16, 2007

come on back 'cos it's all still here

My favorite artists do not, by most measures, subsist on the fringe, nor do they fly under the radar. Still, I'm often taken aback when they show up in the mass-market milieu, such as slick commercials, network TV shows, major-studio movies, and general interest magazines. Spoon has hit all these cultural landmarks, including one that recently tickled/alarmed me: a profile and review in the New Yorker. My unease was tempered, however, by the band's return to tiny clubs to promote Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.

Spoon, Cafe du Nord, July 14, 2007Spoon, Cafe du Nord, July 14, 2007: It's been several years since I've felt the need to proselytize Spoon, and I'm glad that their fortunes have changed so dramatically in that time. Through no fault of their own, however, they now inhabit the same territory as another group of recent visitors to San Francisco, the Decemberists. I like both bands immensely, but the venues necessary to accommodate their expanding fan base tend to keep me away. Fortunately, I chalked up plenty of Spoon shows during the pre-blog years, so I'm not lacking in that department. Nonetheless, a part of me feels a little twinge whenever I rule out catching one of their shows for no reason other than venue snobbery.

The only consolation to being a venue snob is that your pigheadedness is sometimes rewarded by bands who seem to enjoy playing to real crowds in minuscule spaces--bands such as Spoon. For me, there's no contest: I'd trade in front-row seats to just about any theater, amphitheater, or festival show for a perch in a glorified bar with a decent sound system, standing less than an arm's length away from a beloved band, even if I have to wait in line for the better part of a day to make the cut.

Spoon, Cafe du Nord, July 14, 2007

By now, it probably feels like you've been reading for as long as I was waiting! Of course, you can peek at the setlist below if you want the rundown of songs. Of the older tunes, "Anything You Want" had a slinky, subterranean undertone that felt new to me, while I welcome any opportunity to hear "Vittorio E" or "I Could See the Dude." Overall, I would've liked more Gimme Fiction and less Kill the Moonlight, but I can't complain about the Girls Can Tell love, especially "Everything Hits at Once." Later, it occurred to me that they didn't do "Me and the Bean"--a first for me.

Spoon, Cafe du Nord, July 14, 2007

I hadn't spent much time with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga before the show, but "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "The Underdog" hooked me right away, and their charms were just as irresistible in the club. I love how the band embraces its pure pop instincts on those two, and when you see them play it live, there's no doubt that the tambourine makes both tunes. In fact, I think that the two songs' detour from the typical Spoon blueprint is what makes them so interesting. The rest of the new songs sort of flew past me, and I'm still taking in Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, but I like how the band has managed to incorporate a wider range of influences while simultaneously honing its signature sound.

Spoon, Cafe du Nord, July 14, 2007 As a fan, I know how much of a treat these small shows can be, but almost as satisfying is hearing the sentiment echoed by the band or performer. Toward the end of the evening, Britt even said it was the best show the band had ever played in San Francisco. Otherwise, banter was in fairly short supply, though Britt was more generous with his grins. At the same time, though, he seemed to play to his amp as much as to any human (with the possible exception of the rock-solid Jim Eno).

The very first Spoon show I attended was a major revelation that drove me to urge their music on anyone who inquired into my listening habits. Truthfully, I'm not sure any of the gigs I've seen since then have quite approached that plateau (with the possible exception of the 2003 El Rey gig with the Natural History), not even this intimate show. I can't write off any band that once grabbed me so emphatically, but at the same time, I'd be lying if I claimed they were in the best form I've witnessed.

Rogue Wave, Cafe du Nord, 7-14-2007

Rogue Wave opened the show and previewed a bunch of songs from their new album, coming out in September. Their sweet, catchy tunes are intact, and they've apparently picked up a new bass player along the way: Abbey, formerly of Beulah! Graham from the band even joined Spoon for "Fitted Shirt" and "Lines in the Suit," a tradition first established when he jumped in at Britt's solo show at Hotel Utah in 2004.

See also:
» turn to crystal form
» you're never coming back here again
» i'll be out on the town

Monday, July 09, 2007

Obscurity Knocks: The Chameleons U.K., "Strange Times"

I don't read many music blogs or news sites, but I've been sucked in by Idolator, though not so much for the buying advice, the gossip, or the requisite snarkiness. Rather, the site's editors seem to have a broader view of the musical landscape, removed from crowning and/or tearing down the latest indie sensation.

One of my favorite semi-regular features on Idolator is the Coulda-Shoulda-Woulda Files, which celebrates releases that never gained traction with the general public, always a popular topic among dedicated music fans. Thus, I'm kicking off my version of every music lover's favorite game: If I Ruled the World. I'll probably cough up a few more iterations in this series whenever the concert schedule slows down.

The Chameleons U.K., Strange Times
The Chameleons U.K., Strange TimesTo everyone who's read this blog for the last two-plus years: thank you kindly. But I've been a little disingenuous, as my longstanding Anglophilia has been woefully underrepresented on easily fooled. I'm just not that excited about the current crop of bands from England, but who knows? It's not the first time I've sworn off the U.K. hype machine, only to be fully assimilated by some shambling outfit out of Manchester, England.

Which brings me right to the Chameleons (or the Chameleons U.K., as they were known in the United States), who were indeed a shambling outfit out of Manchester, England. You can read the bio on allmusic, but a short recap: Formed in the early '80s, the Chameleons were classic underdogs who faced their share of Behind the Music-style cliches--early critical acclaim, followed by record company fiascoes, then eventually unraveling under the weight of personal issues.

The Chameleons weren't unknown in the States; they had a couple of "modern rock" hits ("Tears" and "Swamp Thing") off Strange Times, and they toured here at least once--including a visit to One Step Beyond, a club in Santa Clara, California, I frequented as a teenager on its "youth nights" (bwahahahaha). Strange Times, backed by Geffen Records, was supposed to be their breakthrough in America, and they even got a write-up in the New York Times. Alas, it turned out to be their swan song, though numerous live albums and reissues came out later. I finally got to see them live in 2000 when they regrouped, but they broke up again the following year.

Though my cultural barometer is shot these days, I swear that neither the Smiths nor the Cure were popular in 1983 at Sylvandale Junior High--or in 1987 at Oak Grove High School, for that matter. But I can assure everyone that the Chameleons have never broken through to anything approaching the level of notoriety enjoyed by either former cult band. Case in point: A dear friend I've known 20+ years is also a major Chameleons fan, but for several years after meeting each other, we didn't realize we had this in common, though we talked about music all the time.

If you read this blog for my current musical preferences, this album is likely not for you. The production on Strange Times is straight up '80s--that is, the drums are huge, but oddly, they're slightly turned down from the Chameleons' earlier releases. And synth fills were used in the making of this album. But hey, if you can listen to U2's early releases, you should be able to give the Chameleons a chance.

If, then, you put the disc on for a spin, you'll hear the lead-off track "Mad Jack" and its opening thunderbolt of guitar. About 5 seconds into the second track "Caution," you might notice a tickle of fretwork, followed about 20 seconds later by shimmery, expansive chords that are so welcoming, they practically roll out the carpet for you. Dave Fielding was the man responsible for that sound, one of the two elements that sealed the Chameleons' standing in my book. At the time, all I knew was that he made it sound soooooo cool, simultaneously jagged and crystalline, nothing like the vapid, preening cock rock that has always ruled American radio. This was my idea of heaven; for many years afterward, nearly any band that came close to those acoustics went straight to the top of my list of new faves. But all in due time.

The Chameleons grabbed me on another front: Mark Burgess's impassioned lyrics and vocals. OK, that's two things, but they're kinda the same. Again, to unfamiliar ears, the lyrics, like the production, might seem over the top, but they were both a salve and a spark to my angst-ridden teenage soul. Certainly songs such as "Childhood," "I Remember," and "Time/The End of Time," fixated on the past, but the tunes that stayed with me addressed feelings of alienation and the struggle to remain an individual. For example, there's "Soul in Isolation," with its cry of "I'm alive in here" (and its ability, to this day, to make one of my best friends burst into tears); the sprawling, spiraling "Caution"; and a lyrical nod to Wordsworth in "Swamp Thing," which always struck me as an '80s-stamped bastard child of "Come Together."

If you ask any former New Waver about the Chameleons, odds are the only song they'll remember by the band is "Tears"--as well they should. This was the Chameleons' take on pop perfection: guileless but not cloying lyrics about loss; a sunny but forceful melody; a steady, emphatic beat; and lucid touches of guitar. "Tears," along with the unexpectedly tender "In Answer" ("you own my soul completely...you're all that matters to me"), showed a delicate side to this otherwise gruff Manchester crew.

» The Chameleons: "Mad Jack"
» The Chameleons: "Caution"
» The Chameleons: "Tears (Original Version)"

See also:
» Star Hits: a tribute

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

it spoke of secret fortune

How do you follow up three consecutive nights of shows on the East Coast? You eat a last late meal with friends, pull an all-nighter, catch an early flight home, put in five hours of freelance work, battle jetlag, and catch another unrelated but highly anticipated gig, of course!

The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007: Unlike many concert attendees, I not only often look forward to seeing the opening band, I sometimes hit a show expressly to catch their set. Unless the headliner makes me break out in hives, I normally stick around for the top of the bill too--hell, I paid full price for the ticket, right? This, then, was the model I was operating under for the night's gig.

One of the reasons easily fooled is a concert blog rather than an all-purpose music blog has to do with the fact that I see far more gigs than I buy--or even listen to--albums. Thus, my next statement won't mean much, but I have to say it: The Broken West's I Can't Go On, I'll Go On is currently one of my two favorite releases for 2007, and my enthusiasm has only grown since I saw the band at Cafe du Nord back in April. And as regular readers should know by now, I'm nothing if not a repeat customer!

The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007

There's always some trepidation when you go to a gig for the opener; it's impossible to know if the crowd will be at all respectful of the warm-up act or whether you'll be the lone supporter mouthing the lyrics and clapping along--not that it stops me, of course. The crowd at Bimbo's seemed lukewarm to the Broken West at first. The floor was relatively open when they made their low-key entrance at 8, and the initial bursts of applause were a bit sparse as well.

The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007As the band hit its groove, though, the crowd response grew accordingly, much to my relief. They sounded crisper tonight, perhaps thanks to Bimbo's sound system or maybe because of their continued days on the road. Their opening slot dictated a shorter set, as expected, so they couldn't get to all the songs on the album, but they turned out a bunch of the highlights, as well as one tune from The Dutchman's Gold EP, "My Love Is True." They favored by a slight margin the more upbeat songs, such as "On the Bubble," "Down in the Valley," and "Big City," to name three.

My favorite selection, "You Can Build an Island" was the loveliest surprise, though. The album version of the song sends me somewhere above the cumulus clouds, but for this show, the band presented a different take on the tune, highlighting its low end and ultimately transforming its frothy, chiming radiance into a sultry summons. I wouldn't mind hearing that again.

My knowledge of the National is limited to a handful of songs I've heard on Internet radio, endorsements from a number of friends, and a documentary I caught a couple of years ago about their life on the road. Oh, and I think I saw their bass player/guitarist Aaron Dessner at one of the Wilco shows in London last month. I'll refrain from trotting out my usual tired excuse for missing bands when they come to my town; let's just say that I was glad to finally have a ticket in hand.

The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007

When I was growing up, one of the reasons I preferred British bands over their American counterparts had everything to do with fashion, style, and elan. Fortunately, that attitude has changed drastically over the years, but my first reaction to the National was illogically shallow: They looked so damn normal! (Thanks for humoring me.)

The National/The Broken West, Bimbo's 365 Club, June 27, 2007The music, of course, made an impression of its own and took no time to draw me in. I don't want to play Spot the Influences too much, except to say how much I liked that the band seemed to combine the sophistication of certain U.K. acts with the urgency that I more commonly associate with homegrown music. Their passion and cohesiveness were unassailable, and I love almost any band with players who switch instruments between--or even during!--songs. The final haunting track, "About Today," not only provided the perfect emotional cue to end on, it also served as a gorgeous review of the band's strengths and gifts.

This show was also a nice break in another regard. In the age of the Internet, hype is more prevalent than ever before, and it's sometimes hard to discern the flash-in-the-pan acts from the real deal. With the National, it was a relief to see a group that's paid its dues and earned a well-deserved following. Of course, no rock band would be complete without fans declaring their love or making other attempts to connect with the performers, but the singing voices around me spoke louder than all the hecklers (no matter how adoring) in the room.

See also:
» you can fall in love with every other soul you meet

Monday, July 02, 2007

that's good enough for now

First of all, thanks to the New York Dream Team for snaring these tickets. Also, my deep gratitude goes to the crew for waiting out the heat and humidity for the second day in a row while I earned my keep at a cafe close by. Other than the weather, though, nearly everything about Warsaw was perfect: the size, the staff, the neighborhood, the dining options. Even better, it was a relief to know that some of the country's entertainment options remain out of reach of the Clear Channel.

Wilco, Warsaw, June 26, 2007: Along with the Pines, Warsaw was the other date on this tour that lit up the boards. Wilco certainly didn't need to add this small club show in Brooklyn to bring me out east, but I'm glad they did.

Wilco, Warsaw, June 26, 2007

When you go to as many Wilco shows as I have, it's easy to lose track of all the changes the band has gone through, but Warsaw's tiny stage served up a reminder of the evolution of the lineup. Namely, the shallow space was crammed tight with the group's gear, and even the crew had to squeeze between instruments to take care of their duties.

Wilco, Warsaw, June 26, 2007The crunch could only be a boon to us as concert-goers, ushering in the immediacy that was somewhat lacking at the Hammerstein. If that weren't enough, the gawkers next to me were aching to share the intel they'd gathered from peeking at the setlist. I didn't want to hear, but it was too late, and at least one of the show's would-be surprises was revealed to me; fortunately, early returns indicated we weren't in for the typical brace of tracks.

You could feel the room's momentous energy from the second the band carefully filed in, and it only shot up from there. The electricity wasn't isolated to our side of the barrier, though; Wilco seemed to channel it as well, leading Jeff to ask, "Can you tell we don't have a curfew tonight?" He also declared that "curfews are for saps," but I never for a moment suspected that anyone in the room was less than a hale, hardy soul.

Wilco, Warsaw, June 26, 2007

The setlist really was the star tonight, and I loved the songs that made the cut. Thanks to neighboring loose lips, I knew "Wishful Thinking" was in the cards, but it was lovely to hear it live for the first time in ages; "Why Would You Wanna Live" might've made me squeal (I'd almost forgotten the way it seems to swing between three different songs in the course of four minutes); "Hoodoo Voodoo" showed off the band's formidable three-guitar attack (with Jeff practically cuing the Nels-Pat face-off); and "Outtasite" continues its reign as Wilco's best good-time tune.

Wilco, Warsaw, June 26, 2007Of the more familiar songs, "Either Way" elicited a heartfelt, exuberant, and entirely uncoerced crowd singalong, which in turn brought a huge smile to Jeff's face; "Hate It Here" moved even the drummer to sing along; and we made the common mistake of speeding up our timing on "Spiders." In between these musical feats, we delivered birthday wishes in song to Matrix, worshipped the owl, and gave a shout-out to Pat's old neighborhood. It all added up to an atmosphere that was both easygoing but fervent, familiar but surprising. Despite my sweat-soaked clothes, sore vocal cords, and 7 a.m. flight time, I didn't want it to end.

I often cite the gig at Irving Plaza in 2004 as my favorite Wilco show of all time. We put up with a lot of drama that tropical day but were rewarded with a ton of goodies that broiling night, including the first "Hummingbird" hug, a frontman in sharp seersucker, and mounting evidence of Nels's mastery. But more than anything else, I remember peering out over a couple rows of pals and noting how happy we all looked to be there, enjoying not only the band but our still-developing friendships. It's not fair to compare the Warsaw show to that Irving Plaza memory, but the gig brought me pretty close to that same feeling.

See also:
» you were right about the stars
» deep chrome canyons of loudest manhattan

Sunday, July 01, 2007

deep chrome canyons of loudest manhattan

As a rock tourist, I usually favor tertiary markets, but for just about every other recreational activity, big cities are my preferred setting. So guess which territories are more likely to win out when I'm planning to hit the road? Thus, it's always a pleasant surprise when one of these trips takes me to a metropolis I love and haven't visited for far too long.

Wilco, Hammerstein Ballroom, June 26, 2007: I wasn't necessarily looking forward to this gig, though it's not as if you had to twist my arm to get me to go either. My only other trip to the Hammerstein Ballroom took place back in 1998, when I saw Underworld. For that show, we wandered in fairly late and found a spot somewhere in the back of the second floor. From that vantage, the Hammerstein looked absolutely cavernous and not at all welcoming. Almost nine years later and several dozen yards closer to the stage, the Hammerstein was still no bungalow, but at least it felt a lot less austere.

Wilco, Hammerstein Ballroom, June 26, 2007

There was a time that New York was my top rock tourist destination, and during all those trips, I can't say I've ever crossed paths with the stereotypical New York crowd, notoriously jaded and bored. Of course, that's one of the good things about staking out your territory at the front; typically, you're more likely to be surrounded by enthusiastic fans rather than industry types or other hangers-on.

Wilco, Hammerstein Ballroom, June 25, 2007Wilco's continuing ascendancy has brought fans of varying provenance, but I don't think it's a recent development. Every Wilco show I've ever attended has included some newbies and potential diehards in training (including, at one point, myself). Their lineage is not really my concern; their enthusiasm, however, is more critical. In that regard, the people around me couldn't be faulted. What does surprise me, however, is the persisting prominence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Though I have no scientific evidence behind this claim, I swear that the spontaneous crowd singalong on "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is frequently the loudest and the most sincere of the night. "Jesus, etc." is also up there, but that usually comes with some prodding.

Though the Hammerstein's sheer footprint was less of an issue than before, I have to admit that after the proximity of all parties at the Pines, this venue suffered in comparison. Though I enjoyed the show and the energy between the band members, it was hard to tap into the same fervor that marked the previous night's gig. Still, it was easy to appreciate the band's skills and engagement when, say, balancing the chaos and clarity of "Via Chicago" or taking it to the rafters with "Impossible Germany."

Wilco, Hammerstein Ballroom, June 26, 2007

See also:
» you were right about the stars