Sunday, March 30, 2008

the world will revolve

I did, in fact, make it to both Jon Brion shows over Easter weekend (though I'm sitting out this weekend's shows--someone else will have to holler back about them), but work got in the way of filing this report earlier. Also, I'm trying to stretch out these dispatches, as the next two weeks will be a ghost town around these parts. But never fear--the Coachella overflow is due to arrive at the end of April, preceded by the usual flights of rock tourism. In other words, stay tuned!

Jon Brion, Largo, March 22, 2008: Our Largo expedition tonight carried more than one goal. In addition to the usual agenda, there was also the matter of a shark to be loaned back to the office. In case any Cousteau Society members are reading, I'd like to report that Sharkie reached safe harbor.

fun times accomplished

These days, summoning the Largo reservation mojo hasn't been an issue, but filling those seats has, what with many of my normal concert companions less likely to travel and/or simply being predisposed. And maybe I'm just greedy. Though I'm usually game for picking people out of the no-reservations line, they can be oddly reluctant to accompany a couple of complete strangers into a dark club, even when it saves them the trouble of standing another four-plus hours (if they're lucky). Thus was the case this evening, but thanks to a little advance warning the night before, we slid into our seats next to a friendly, familiar face. I assume our four-top went to a good cause.

On Friday, our table directly bordered the stage, which always simultaneously thrills and unnerves me. It's amazing how much of the banter and discussions between the musicians you're privy to at this post, but there's a price for this proximity; in certain lighting, you feel like you're part of the show. Anyway, Largo and its PA being what it is, the conversation was not as audible this evening. All I know is that Flanny told us to put our knickers on, there were more murmurs by the stage, Jon issued one of his hearty laughs, and what I thought would be an amorphous piano piece suddenly sounded stately and familiar. I also picked out a bit of Dylan, but I wouldn't be surprised if a dozen other songs snuck in as well.

Jon kicked off with a bunch of originals and/or collaborations, as well as a couple of completely off-the-cuff improvs. He circulated around the stage, starting out on the keys, then paying two separate visits to the guitar for two completely different improvs (one at first feeling jaunty and Western before morphing into a heavy distorted stream; the other all fuzz pedal, all the time), with a stop at the drums for a song build in between. The semi-abridged version: "Someone Else's Song" needed no embellishment; "Over Our Heads" began and ended with the pitter-patter of the analog synth and relied less on the vocoder than typical; Jon pulled out all stops for "Further Along"; and he doubled back on "Excuse to Cry," revisiting the main melody in the song's bridge.

Jon invited the requests, and the audience obliged. Prince provided the launchpad, as "Controversy" oozed out, all whispery, minimal, and funky. Scott in the soundbooth added an enticing beat, and Jon went on a tear, plucking out Queen, the Jackson 5, Portishead, and Cream. The Portishead selection put a big grin on my face, as their impending Coachella appearance and new album have made them a topic of conversation among friends recently. Also, it won out for the "who'd have thunk Jon knew it" factor.

Jon's instincts took over for the rest of the set, first with a song build of "Girl I Knew" that flirted briefly with "Peter Gunn," then on to an all-instrumental rendition of what turned out to be "You Don't Know What Love Is." Someone with ears sharper than my own could probably pick it out earlier, but I never know whether he's going to play this or "Someone to Watch Over Me" until well into the song--often when the vocals start.

The breezy "Knock Yourself Out" gave way to "I Believe She's Lying," for which Jon called on the 12-string guitar, the analog synth, the piano, and of course the drums to build it in all its sprawling glory. With this, he bade the first set adieu.

The second set got off to a promising start when Jon picked up some vibe from the reverb feedback and mentioned that it sounded like Pink Floyd. That was pretty much all the direction he needed to fashion the prog atmospherics. Toward the end, he asked the stage lights be dimmed so that he could create his own light show. He did so by turning the little light attached to the piano on and off--not exactly a college planetarium on any given Saturday night, but you get the idea.

I think Jon asked for requests again, and bounding across the room came a hearty call for "Tom Waits doing Van Halen," which Jon dispatched jauntily, though his comments might've led you to believe it wreaked some karmic damage along the way. That same voice tried to get in another tune, yelling out for "Van Halen doing Tom Waits," but it was back in Jon's hands by then as Tom Waits, plain and simple, won out.

Jon struck a familiar pose, poised at the mic with the guitar hung over his frame, and asked for requests. But rather than steadfastly waiting for the exact song that lit his fire or taking note of the titles bandied about so that he could create a mega-medley of all of them, Jon took a new tack: He truly went into human jukebox mode and served up a snippet of just about every challenge presented to him.

I believe Evonne's appeal for "California Man" kicked off the proceedings, but soon we were careening through a laundry list of great tunes. I make no claims about logging them all, but I know we heard the Zombies, the Hollies, the Kinks, the Nazz, Bowie, and Adam and the Ants, among others. I finally managed to get out my request for "Our Lips Are Sealed," and I loved it when he did Aztec Camera too. Ahh, the '80s!

Apart from the awesome cavalcade of titles, what Jon chose to do with the songs was the real show. For some, he would do nothing more than play a familiar riff; for others, he might drop in a line. Evonne mentioned that she thought I might've broken through, as he sang a verse and the chorus of my request, but alas, that's where it ended. "Oblivious," too, sounded like it might have cracked the code, but he cut that one short as well.

Jon had started a glam-inflected guitar riff when he decided to bring Tom Biller to the stage to play some T. Rex-style drums. After some consultation, the two ripped into "The Slider."

After that, it was all Jon again, as he hunkered down for a lengthy keys-based improv that brought to mind Rube Goldberg but gave way, to all things, Chicago's "Saturday in the Park," followed by Pink Floyd and "Over the Rainbow."

Then for his final number, he promised something from a "moody fucker" and set the scene with Fleetwood Mac's sultry and languid "Albatross." Normally, I'd be at a loss with this instrumental tune, but fortunately, I recognized it from an earlier performance, and it beautifully capped off this night as well.

Set 1
--Le Marseillaise
--Positively 4th Street/piano improv
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Over Our Heads
--guitar improv
--Further Along
--Excuse to Cry
--fuzz guitar exercise
--Controversy/Another One Bites the Dust/I Want You Back/Nobody Loves Me/Strange Brew
--Girl I Knew
--You Don't Know What Love Is [instrumental]
--Knock Yourself Out
--I Believe She's Lying

Set 2
--Pink Floyd experience
--Running with the Devil [Tom Waits style]
--In the Neighborhood
--California Man/She's Not There/Our Lips Are Sealed/Oblivious/Bus Stop/Sorry Suzanne/Open My Eyes/Waterloo Sunset/Moonage Daydream/Fuck the Police + many others!
--The Slider *
--Saturday in the Park/Bike/Over the Rainbow

* = with Tom Biller

See also:
» the end is near
» like a dream in the night

Sunday, March 23, 2008

the end is near

My current consuming crush on all things English and nautical has pushed just about every other musical concern to the back of my mind. But my loyalties run deep, and it's always a pleasure to be reminded why.

Jon Brion, Largo, March 21, 2008: There was no question whether I'd make this weekend's Jon Brion shows. But at the same time, my brain has jumped ahead to May plans, so the points in between haven't carried their normal weight. Perhaps that's why for the first time in a while, I had no requests ready for the show.

Not that Jon called for them too quickly. He started out with a good chunk of his own songs, including the perennial favorite "Here We Go." I wish I could talk about the phrasings he used, but trust me--though subtle, they were hugely effective in changing the tenor of the song and making you question the narrator's acceptance and account. In between, we got a number of extended instrumental patches, both improvisational and more composed. For example, Jon played a drawn-out guitar preamble before making his way to "Not Long for This World," and once within the song, he inserted another lengthy, aggressive guitar attack. He even commented on it at the end of the tune, saying he had "enough '90s guitar noise."

This is when the requests started, first with "She Said, She Said" delivered over the vocoder (and with a snippet from the Beastie Boys thrown in for good measure), then over to Evonne's suggestion for "End of the Line." It was initially hard to tell whether Jon would take it up, as he remarked he'd do it when the rest of Roxy Music showed up. But he warmed up to the challenge, finding his way around the lyrics and the melody--and making Evonne a very happy woman in the process. He appended the song with a convincing argument to pick up Siren, urging us to look past the usual critical darlings in Roxy Music's discography. (I already have all the albums, so no worries there.)

The next song may have been my favorite treatment of the night. It started slowly, with Jon building up a minimal beat, then matching it with appropriately understated turns on piano and celeste. By then, I knew it was "Creep" by Radiohead, a song that Jon used to cover fairly regularly but that I hadn't heard in a while. And in fact, the last time I recall hearing it, Jon put a relatively traditional spin on it. That is, he used guitars, a much more identifiable Radiohead trademark.

Everything about this song elated me, including seeing Jon tipped back and balanced precariously on the piano bench as he sprinkled just the right helping of keys into the build. By the time he introduced the mellotron to the mix, I was delighted to hear it paired with anything Radiohead at all. I was hoping Jon would keep it all instrumental, but late in the game, he added vocals, though not so prominently that they overtook the musical bauble.

Once the requests started up again, an audience member's call for "Alone Again Or" turned into "Alone Again Naturally" by the time it hit the stage, but the room returned to that somewhat awkward situation when our requests just weren't taking hold with Jon. In fact, if there's anything I need to note about this show, it's that the music comprised a smaller portion of the set than records might indicate. When he wasn't drawing out the intros and codas, Jon talked quite a bit, reacting to our exchanges and simply wearing the lecturer's hat from time to time.

Anyway, I think it was during this section when he first mentioned Largo's impending move and how he had tackled so many of the suggestions before. This provided the springboard for the Paula Abdul request, which in turn opened the door to the cheese factor. Silliness isn't necessarily a bad thing at Largo, though I have to commend Jon for resisting most of the shitty songs bombarding the stage.

Jon at first jocularly demurred from the Paul Anka request, telling a story about seeing a show by Lester Bowie, who took such "insipid" songs as "My Way" and "The Greatest Love of All" and made them into amazing compositions. Maybe this recollection inspired him because Jon dug into "My Way," first turning out a jazzy abstraction, then adding drums for what I'd call his White Album-style treatment (see also: "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "Someone to Watch Over Me"). To cap it off, he informed us of David Bowie's role in writing the song, including co-opting the chord changes for "Life on Mars."

Jon liked the request for the Velvet Underground but wanted a style to go with it. Out popped my idea for Giorgio Moroder (thanks, American Gigolo!) and off we went. After hearing this musical bastard child, I'm not sure the two were meant to come together, though it was fun listening to Jon pull the big bag of beats out of the MicroKORG.

"The Final Countdown" was helped along by Michael's recollection of that keyboard melody, then it was back to square one as the requests again hit an impasse. Jon commented that he wanted to hear us sing, which prompted the snappy retort, "What do you want to hear?" from a girl near me. Finally, the tables were turned, as Jon struggled (he admitted as much) to figure out a song we could do for him!

To no one's surprise, he settled on the Beatles, but our initial attempt was abysmal. I have to admit that though I love "You Won't See Me," I didn't recognize it at first. After recovering from his disbelief at our ignorance, Jon charitably fed us the first line--but what else could he do in that gulf of silence? I love a sing-along, but I got the distinct impression I was one of maybe a dozen people in the room throwing any conviction into the vocals. We lasted two and a half verses, I think, before Jon tried a different tact. The Lennon tune proved much more fruitful, though I can't say it was one of the better audience showings at Largo.

I'm going to say the Michael McDonald request was done for shits and giggles before Jon decided to draw the "weird" set to a close with a couple of his own songs. "Knock Yourself Out" was all keys-based, complete with a shimmery layer of musical pixie dust, otherwise known as the celeste, while for "Please Stay Away from Me," Jon purposely sang off mic for about half the song. Finally, the single response to Jon's call for a cover song married Cat Stevens to Les Paul--figuratively, of course--for, he assured us, the first time ever.

The second set opened with Jon once again chatting and referring to the oddly paced first set. He promised to make it up to us, but I don't think anyone in the room particularly minded ducking or lunging through the song selections.

The musical start put us back on more familiar ground, as "But Beautiful" poured forth. More comforting, at the song's conclusion, Jon hollered for Sean Watkins and David Garza to join him. There was a lot of talk about this segment of the show being [insert best late-night radio DJ voice] "for the ladies," and Jon even made David parade his new short, fetching haircut and sort of forced Sean into showing off his new guitar.

With some prodding, Sean took the first number, which I've heard them do with Nickel Creek, though I'm pretty sure Chris Thile took the vocals last time. I think he stumbled upon the opening lyrics, but who hasn't done that? (See "You Won't See Me" above.)

Next up was David, who in typical manner took a highly unlikely tune, flipped it around, and brought in the audience. "Yakety Yak" certainly started out conventionally, or as conventionally as you can imagine with the three-man lineup, but after a series of solos by each player, they tempered the pace to make it a slow, "sensitive" number. And when it came our turn to pitch in with "Don't talk back," we picked up the cue and modulated our tone appropriately. Yay audience!

David's second outing during the musical round-robin was just as entertaining. The big, beautiful hollow-body Chet Atkins guitar may have provided the inspiration, but of course, it was David's to run with as he gave us "Stray Cat Strut." He tried to pass on soloing opportunities to his bandmates, but Jon insisted that David work it--and he obliged.

It was up to Jon to conclude the set, and after a few moments of brainstorming, he hit upon a favorite cover, once again reinterpreted, this time as a jazzy torch song. I have very distinct memories surrounding "Tainted Love," including Soft Cell's appearance on Solid Gold (!), but my favorite recollections are of my friends and I singing it at the top of lungs, most likely at a birthday party or some other teenage celebration. If only those old pals could see (and hear) me now.

Set 1
--piano improv
--Strings That Tie to You
--Here We Go
--Not Long for This World
--She Said, She Said/Intergalactic
--End of the Line
--Alone Again Naturally
--Straight Up
--My Way
--Pale Blue Eyes
--The Final Countdown
--You Won't See Me
--You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
--What a Fool Believes
--Knock Yourself Out
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Wild World [Les Paul]

Set 2
--But Beautiful

w/ David Garza and Sean Watkins
--Run for Your Life [Sean]
--Yakety Yak [David]
--Ain't Misbehavin'
--You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go [Sean]
--Stray Cat Strut [David]
--Tainted Love

See also:
» some people gonna get ideas
» Night 2: the world will revolve

Sunday, March 09, 2008

so much going on in my head

Rock tourism may be good for the soul, but this season, it's proving less than beneficial to my health, as I'm sick again after seeing Wilco in New Orleans. Granted, the recent string of local (and semi-local) shows probably didn't help either; it's just as well, then, that I'm sitting tight for the next couple of weeks.

Wilco, Tipitina's, 3-5-08Wilco, Tipitina's, March 5 and 6, 2008: Wilco's Chicago residency, understandably, sated many fans' appetites for the band, but it should come as no surprise that I'm not one of those people. In fact, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I realized I had to decide between the New Orleans two-night stand and the Tulsa-Des Moines closer.

New Orleans won out for a number of reasons: I've always wanted to visit; the convenience of flying in and out of one city; avoiding yet another potentially freezing Midwestern locale. And am I glad I did--less than 24 hours after hitting the town, drinking up a double helping of the cafe au lait, and taking a couple of leisurely walks through the Garden District, I was fantasizing about living here (easy to say during a relatively temperate spell).

Wilco, Tipitina's, 3-6-08

Tipitina's, too, did its part in casting the spell. As promised, it was practically a shack, an unassuming neighborhood bar on a nondescript corner of this otherwise colorful town. Inside, it revealed a balcony and begged to be compared to the other smaller spaces I've seen Wilco play. We thought of several analogous venues, but in the end, the comparison wasn't worth it. Tipitina's is both the bar you already know and a one-of-a-kind establishment.

Tipitina's intimacy turned out to have its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, the tight squeeze added a certain comic touch to the proceedings, as we watched the band duck in around the instruments to get to their spots and the various media crews find their places in the constrained pit area. And of course, it put the audience in closer proximity to the band than is customary these days.

This proximity proved distracting in more ways than one. For example, the level of chatter in the bar was louder than anything I've heard at a Wilco show in several years. Yes, I know it's a bar, and some mutterings are inevitable, and maybe Wilco gigs get a little self-serious at times. I'm also willing to admit that I probably take the matter way too seriously, but it was a nuisance nonetheless.

Wilco, Tipitina's, 3-5-08

The discord took a bigger toll the second night, though, when early on, Jeff confiscated a camcorder from a guy near the front rail. Unfortunately, this would not be the end of their interaction, as the same guy and a friend [members of the self-proclaimed John Stirot (sic) fan club] managed to insert themselves in a drunken, extended conversation (?) with Jeff. Add to that the cacophony of voices yelling out requests and the band's off-mic observation that the crowd was "out of control" and we were looking down the neck of a potential full-scale derailment.

Wilco, Tipitina's, 3-5-08

Thankfully, the band regained its momentum, and though I can't put my finger on exactly when the show became theirs again, I do recall that "Pick Up the Change" was lovely. That's not to say, however, that the start of the set was all interlopers and hecklers; the opening shot of "(Was I) In Your Dreams" and "Pieholden Suite" with the Total Pros on horns was a gorgeous distillation of what we heard during the residency.

Wilco, Tipitina's, 3-6-08On top of that, over the two nights, there was Nels's epic (even for Nels) turn on "Impossible Germany," Jeff forgetting the words to, appropriately, "Forget the Flowers," and the crowd-pleasing improv in "Kingpin," when Jeff changed the lyric to "living in New Orleans." The band's chemistry spoke volumes as well; as the gig progressed, they were back to their usual hijinks, including Glenn's grandstanding before "I'm the Man Who Loves You," Nels and Mike's ongoing amusements, and Pat's alarm improvs. We tried to help, too, even if it meant we might've been the only two people in the audience contributing backing vocals to "Someday Soon" and "Summerteeth" or hand claps to "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)."

New Orleans turned out to host another sideshow of sorts, though less distracting than the one in the front row. There were a couple of proud dads, Mr. Stirratt and Mr. Sansone, in the VIP section, and joining them were some celebrities, both notable (John C. Reilly) and not.

John Doe opened the shows, and Nels joined him for a couple of numbers, including the blistering "Gimme Shelter." I also recognized his backing singer, Cindy Wasserman, from her time with Grant-Lee Phillips. I've seen John Doe only once before, during a Largo residency when he played each week with a different musical guest (I wonder who he collaborated with the week I saw him!). In contrast to that show, John seriously rocked with this band. Jeff thanked John more than once during the show, and on songs such as "Too Far Apart," his influence came through loud and clear.

See also:
» i've run out of metaphors
» falling, yes i am falling

Friday, March 07, 2008

sentimental heart

Two Noise Pop shows in one day? No problem! I've done it before, and odds are I'll do it again (as long as my concert legs don't give out).

She & Him, Great American Music Hall, March 2, 2008She & Him, Great American Music Hall, March 2, 2008: The Tilly and the Wall show ended just in time for us to walk up Van Ness to the Great American Music Hall and squeeze into the debut She & Him show without having to watch even more questionable opening acts. We did sacrifice proximity to the stage, but hey, they're no awesome British dudes.

I never tire of talking about Largo in general, but some episodes, more than others, are worth repeating and harping on and lording over my less fortunate peers. One such show is Jon Brion's end-of-year gig in 2006 featuring, among others, Zooey Deschanel. I don't think I had much of an opinion of her one way or the other before the gig, but I was entirely smitten by last call. Zooey held her ground with the best of them crowded onto that tiny stage, even at their most chaotic. She passed the audition.

On the strength of that show alone, I was pretty much prepared to love her musical project She & Him, realized with the help of M. Ward, who's not really my cup of tea, but I can fully appreciate the significance of his contributions.

When she emerged onstage, Zooey didn't exactly look like your average Noise Pop indie recording artist; rather, in her floor-length black halter dress, her slightly up 'do, and well, her gorgeous looks, she wasn't slumming it. On the other hand, she complemented the Great American Music Hall's ornate decor beautifully. And as the band played on, it soon became apparent that she was the star attraction.

Just to recap, at Largo, she performed a number of Mary Ford/Les Paul classics, but She & Him covered a wider range of styles, from the more countrified numbers to unvarnished singer-songwriter fare to a little bit of girl group action. Through it all, there was something about Zooey's voice and delivery that burnished the songs with just a patina of antiquity, placing it just outside the banalities of the contemporary scene. I don't know the titles, but my favorite song of the night spotlighted just Zooey's voice, boosted with a dollop of reverb and accompanied by M. Ward's emotive, minimal notes. It almost made you forget what passes for country music these days.

The gig capped off another great Noise Pop year, one in which I wanted to see more shows than I managed to attend. Here's hoping for more musical goodness in 2009!

See also:
» i'm offering this simple phrase

Thursday, March 06, 2008

let us be free

Though the highlight of my Noise Pop schedule had come and gone, I still had some shows to see on the last day of the festival. Off to the Rickshaw Stop, then, for Tilly and the Wall.

Tilly and the Wall, Rickshaw Stop, March 2, 2008: I stay home a lot more than I used to, but given the right coaxing, venue, and timing, I can be easily convinced to check out a band I haven't seen. Such was the case with Tilly and the Wall, whom Paul counts among his favorite touring bands. Alas, I've repeatedly missed their shows in the Bay Area, so this gig was a long time coming.

For all of Paul's talk of them, I didn't know much about Tilly and the Wall except that they had a tap dancer in the band. But I was willing to keep an open mind--and was rewarded by a really fun, youthful show with the kind of wholehearted, carefree energy that often goes missing from the somber singer-songwriter affairs I favor or the self-consciously cool, aloof bands whose gigs sometimes litter my schedule as well.

Tilly and the Wall, Rickshaw Stop, March 2, 2008

It started before the show even began, as they set up the stage with a homemade neon backdrop and handed out balloons to the audience. The fans took their cue to inflate the balloons and bat them around the room while a hip-hop soundtrack supplied by the band's soundman played over the speakers.

Tilly and the Wall, Rickshaw Stop, March 2, 2008

From there, the band soon took the stage and simply blew the roof off the place. There were hands in the air, warnings/encouragement to shake our bodies, and calls for help with the shout-along choruses.

Tilly and the Wall, Rickshaw Stop, March 2, 2008

I wouldn't know where to begin in trying to describe their sound. Certainly, they have the two main vocalists sharing harmonies and backed by a couple of guitarists, a keyboardist, a drummer, and their extra percussionist (the tap dancer), but that in no way limits them to a specific genre. They'd be the perfect accompaniment for your Saturday night pre-going-out ritual, as well as for the actual going out itself. I can't imagine leaving the show without a smile on your face; they were that infectiously and effortlessly fun.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the openers. We missed Little Teeth, the first band on the bill, but heard their shrieks and noise movements from outside the club. Tally Hall, the second band, weren't bad, but they were gimmicky in a way that reminded me of OK GO, for example. Capgun Coup kept me interested for about half their set, with very lo-fi, unpretentious songs, but by the second half, the singer's voice started to grate on me. I'm going to have to call it another overall miss for the Noise Pop crew, though the headliners once again delighted.

Monday, March 03, 2008

your winter overture

If it's February in San Francisco, it must be Noise Pop, and this year offered a stellar crop of shows. Unfortunately, ticket confusion led me to scratch the first festival gig I'd planned to see, but no harm done. My true interest resided elsewhere: the return of British Sea Power to Bottom of the Hill!

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, Feb. 27, 2004British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008: I went searching for any remnant of my first British Sea Power gig ever, which happened to take place at Bottom of the Hill in the autumn of 2003, but all I found was a ticket stub from their second show at the club (this is why I now keep a blog). Not that the second appearance was too shabby--in fact, I recall that one pretty well, as I had already been blown away by the band and brought along a couple of friends in hopes of converting them (done and done). That same night, Noise Pop hosted a Neko Case gig that would've otherwise lured me in, but honestly, she didn't stand a chance against the boys from Brighton.

Four years later, and the odds had grown even more hopeless for any show in conflict with this gig. I even set the DVR to record Wilco's debut on Saturday Night Live! OK, that's not exactly a resounding endorsement, but let me assure you that I wasn't about to miss this show for the world.

On the heels of the Visalia gig, this date felt a lot more formal, and I'm not even talking about the real stage or the working PA or the apparently successful soundcheck or any of those ho-hum details. Rather, there was the matter of the photo bank parked in front of us and to our left. As an incessant concert photographer, I shouldn't talk, but these were professionals carrying huge, heavy lenses, and they were camped out for the prime photo ops. In addition, the first row of the crowd included a fair number of non-accredited camera enthusiasts. Two things were clear: (1) This would be a well-chronicled concert, and (2) The audience was not here simply to kill time on a Saturday night.

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008

As the hours passed and the fans closed in, I grew somewhat nostalgic for the supremely laid-back nature of the previous night's gig, but those feelings left me immediately upon the band's arrival onstage. Sure, the foliage and the furry friends didn't appear as they had in previous years, but you couldn't fake the band's wardrobe choices (Yan's all-white ensemble; Hamilton's seemingly hand-sewn trousers and the puppet attached to his waistband; Hamilton and Noble's complementary bird-print shirts). And perhaps to prove that they were bringing their A-game, they kicked off with the hypnotic "No Lucifer."

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008

The biggest surprise of the night was the beloved "Oh Larsen B." Granted, it wasn't exactly a wholesale return to Open Season, but if there was a single song I wanted to hear, they nailed it. I felt a little bad for the girl in Visalia who was denied her request, but maybe she helped jog the band's memory. Now if only they would bring back "It Ended on an Oily Stage" as well!

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the rockers fared better at the Cellar Door, but at Bottom of the Hill, we could actually soak up the more ambient tracks. "The Great Skua" was nothing short of breathtaking, and I absolutely ate up the evening's rendition of "True Adventures." That's not to say, however, it was an easy listening kind of night, a point that was apparent from early on and was emphasized immediately by "Remember Me" and "Beetroot Fields" at the top of the set and reinforced by the epic "Spirit of St. Louis/Scottish Wildlife" near-closer. In between, of course, we got much of Do You Like Rock Music?, which is great too, but you can't really fault me for wanting to hear the chestnuts.

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008

In the mischief department, Noble kept the tradition alive by climbing out on to the bar ledge to the right of the stage, ripping off the "No Stagediving" sign from the club wall, and mostly observing the festivities. I believe a couple of staff members tried to coax him down from the post, and he gestured as if he might take them up on their offer to crowd surf. But when it became apparent they had differing intentions, he instead grabbed on to one of the ceiling pipes and swung from it for a few moments before rejoining his bandmates.

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008

Overall, the band was looser and more engaging tonight than they had been in Visalia. In addition to Noble's forays into the audience, there was talk at the beginning of the show of their Welsh guitar tech and St. David's Day, commemorated by the wearing of a leek. And speaking of the guitars, they had their way with the equipment too. At one point, Noble did this cool thing where he yelled into his guitar's pickups for a white noise effect. Also, Hamilton lost a string on his bass, but didn't make too big a fuss over it. Instead, he opted to use only the two remaining strings, while wearing the other as a guitar strap of sorts.

British Sea Power, Bottom of the Hill, March 1, 2008I don't know if it's a sign the band has mellowed or grown older or if Eamon's departure has changed their approach or even if the crowd wasn't sufficiently encouraging, but even without the antics, the group put on a fantastic show full of intensity, energy, and amazing music. With any luck, I'll be able to catch them again before the end of this massive U.S. tour; three years is simply too long to wait for a band I dig so much.

As this was Noise Pop, three openers passed through before British Sea Power came up. Usually, I enjoy at least one of the up-and-coming bands chosen by Noise Pop, but the acts didn't gel for me this time. Off Campus played fun but not particularly notable retro-sounding rock; Colourmusic indulged in a jumble of styles that didn't really work, especially on the more overwrought numbers; and 20-Minute Loop had some interesting songs, but they too lacked a distinct style. Truth is none of them stood a chance against the headliners anyway.

See also:
» fans of alcohol
» from the books you don't read anyway
» heard about your band

Saturday, March 01, 2008

fans of alcohol

In my years as an Anglophile, rock tourism felt almost like a race against the clock, as I tried to milk as many gigs out of bands who came to the United States, at best, every three to four years, if they returned at all. Not that I maintained anywhere as aggressive a schedule as I do now, but I definitely clocked some miles tracking the Brits (and Scots). Given that track record, it seemed almost effortless to hop in a car, cruise down the Central Valley, and catch British Sea Power in as random a locale as I can remember.

British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, Feb. 29, 2008British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, February 29, 2008: If Paul hadn't agreed to come with me, I would've likely hit British Sea Power's three gigs on the Los Angeles-San Diego circuit. But that would've been easy and far more predictable than a $5 show in California's farm country.

At first, that unpredictability looked pretty promising, as we spied the setup: a 200-capacity bar with a raised middle dance floor. The stage comprised a foot-high section that hosted the drummer, the multi-instrumentalist, and lots of amps, while the singers, the lead guitarist, and the violinist would occupy the main floor--exactly where the audience would stand as well. In fact, the line of demarcation between the band and the audience appeared to be a flimsy monitor cord. You can't get much closer than that. The perimeter of the room, meanwhile, was peopled by patrons sipping at their wine, drinking their beers, and watching the big-screen TVs. Odds are they were not here for the show.

And as the hours unfolded and the supposed set time passed by, we started to worry. By 10:30, a full hour after the printed start time, they were still soundchecking and adjusting the monitors, and I mentally made plans to find a hotel/motel somewhere along CA-99, as I was sure we'd never get out in time to make the drive back to San Francisco in a coherent state. My prayers were answered, however, by one of the promoters, who thanked us for our patience and announced that British Sea Power would go on first.

British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, Feb. 29, 2008

So it was around 11:15 that the band took the stage. I've purposely kept myself out of the loop about British Sea Power's current touring setup, so I'm not sure how anarchic their live show remains, but I was struck by how mannered they appeared: no shrubbery, no taxidermy, not even those adorable cricket uniforms they used to wear, though I suspect it had to do with the not-quite-rock-club setting.

But whatever misgivings I had about the room mostly vanished as soon as the music started (following an 11th-hour mix-up when it appeared Yan's mic wasn't working) and they tore into a mix of tracks from the new album, Do You Like Rock Music?, and the first release, The Decline of British Sea Power. Oddly, Open Season merited only one track, despite an audience member's request for "Oh Larsen B" (one of my favorites as well). The new songs sounded great, the band poured their energy into the show, and the crowd ate it up.

British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, Feb. 29, 2008

Let me make this clear: I love British Sea Power. Very few bands, especially ones that I haven't seen for three years, incite the same mania in me. Ask me about their live shows, and you can expect to hear my voice go up a couple of octaves and my speech to speed up, as well as see my eyes take on that glazed, out-of-body expression usually associated with cultists. It would be an understatement to say that I keenly anticipated this show, odd room or no.

British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, Feb. 29, 2008

But as you might expect in room not entirely suited to live rock performances, the sound was not great. British Sea Power isn't exactly known for its subtleties live, but we lost a lot of details in the songs, such as the soaring harmonies of the choruses, not to mention major contributions by the viola. As we were standing at stage right, we could hear the trumpet nicely, but I don't know if it was as prominent in other parts of the room. On the other hand, the band's trademark piercing guitar chords cut through the din with typical laser-like precision, thus reminding us of what they do best. The band handled both the frenetic rockers and the atmospheric epics with ease, though I favored the barn burners in this case.

British Sea Power, The Cellar Door, Feb. 29, 2008I suspect the room's layout also prevented the band members from engaging in some of their usual shenanigans, though Noble, not to be discouraged, managed to climb up on the stage's back wall and play a whole song from that position.

The audience, it must be said, deserves a ton of credit for its enthusiasm. Even the promoters threw themselves into the show, rocking out from the first row. A peek around the main floor revealed hearty sing-alongs, fists raised aloft, and awkwardly convulsive dancing. It was great to see!

The band wrapped up around 12:30, which was fine by us, as we had quite a few miles to cover to get back to San Francisco. But with such a fun show under my belt, the drive turned out to be no problem at all, especially with the band's entire catalog on shuffle. Thank you, Visalia and British Sea Power, for the delightful excursion!

See also:
» from the books you don't read anyway
» your winter overture