Tuesday, May 26, 2009

that's how I came your humble narrator

After the Great Club Die-Off of the dot-com years, it's great to see new venues opening again in the Bay Area. The Fox Theater has to be the most glorious addition, and the Decemberists show marked my first visit to this rococo palace in the heart of downtown Oakland.

The Decemberists, Fox Theater, 5-20-09The Decemberists, Fox Theater, May 20, 2009: I've hemmed and hawed over the Decemberists in previous posts, but I wouldn't see them so often if I weren't a fan. Still, they outdid themselves this time, turning in a great show in support of an album I'm not sure I like--imagine the possibilities then with a work I love. In any case, if I weren't convinced before, I now know I'll see them live as much as I can and for as long as I can.

Before the gig, Trish apprised me of the premise. The first half of the show would be devoted to playing the entirety of The Hazards of Love, in exactly the order they appear on the record. The second half would comprise a more diverse sampling of the band's discography. Additionally, Becky Stark and Shara Worden, from Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond, respectively, had been recruited to lend their vocal skills and other talents.

I wouldn't call myself the most sophisticated music listener. I know nothing about music theory, and I can't name you a chord progression to save my life. I mostly want a catchy hook, a lovely melody, and maybe a beat I can dance to. Thus, I'm not the best audience for a concept album/rock opera, especially one as specific as this release, and I wasn't particularly invested in the record going into the show.

But it didn't take long for me to change my mind. Pure and simple, the band brought the songs to life. Both Becky (as Margaret) and Shara (playing the queen) suited their roles beautifully, and Colin sold the lyrics in a way that didn't come through on the record. I think it came down to simply seeing a band embrace a concept that would otherwise feel far removed. More specifically, it felt like a rock show, the album's origins aside. Of this first section, my favorite was probably "The Rake's Song" for its five-drummer attack and accompanying amplified roar.

The Decemberists, Fox Theater, 5-20-09

If I had to offer any complaints about the show, I hope they qualify as the kind that only a fan would mention. For one, there was the dearth of banter from this typically loquacious crew, but I fully understand why that had to be, given the goal of this show. Secondly, with the new record taking up most of the minutes, the rest of their set couldn't possibly encompass all the favorite tracks from their sizable discography.

They tackled both points as well as they could. After a brief break, the band returned (some with drinks in hand) and Colin greeted us at last. He mentioned dressing a wound during the intermission and engaged the audience in that way that seems so natural to him.

As for the song selection, I can't complain about any show that includes "Grace Cathedral Hill," even if it's somewhat less geographically appropriate for a gig taking place in the East Bay, or a nod to Morrissey's "Angel, Angel We Go Down Together." We saw a couple of nice curveballs too, such as their song from the Dark Was the Night compilation, a track featuring just Colin and drummer John Moen (the latter on vocals), and a couple more tunes joined by Becky and Shana. Finally, I love that the band has settled on "Sons and Daughters" as the closer; I can't tell you how many people I heard singing it on the way out (myself included).

The Decemberists, Fox Theater, 5-20-09

The Decemberists have never shied away from their more theatrical side, so tonight's thespian display was halfway expected. This time, they decided to take the show to the floor, as John, Chris Funk, Becky, and Shana ventured into the crowd and reenacted the sorry story of the Donner party (overwhelmingly familiar and popular among anyone who attended grade school in California) to the tune of "A Cautionary Tale." Chris Funk may have nabbed the best role as the chipmunk witness to this tragedy.

The Decemberists, Fox Theater, 5-20-09

I'm not sure how much of an underminer I would be for mentioning that this segment--and at least a couple of other episodes--reminded me of the Arcade Fire. Then again, you might as well argue that a band can have exclusive rights to, say, jumping off the drum stack or instigating a round of call-and-response.

At the end of the evening, we marveled that we had last seen the Decemberists a mere six months ago--and wouldn't mind catching them again just as soon.

The Other Lives opened the show, and their setup, incorporating a cellist and a keyboard, in addition to drums and guitar, seemed promising. Unfortunately, their music suffered in the venue. Some of the warmth came through, but the harmonies petered out in the expanse.

See also:
» hear all the bombs, they fade away
» among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants
» use it tonight

Sunday, May 24, 2009

doubles up and comes back Mondays

According to my concert diary (a.k.a. this blog), it's been more than a year since I've seen a show at the Fillmore. Wow, I really have been out of the loop--or, more appropriately, I've been tracing a pattern on a completely different Moebius strip. For Doves, though, I'd be willing to circle in a holding pattern for some time. (You could also argue I've, in essence, done exactly that.)

Doves, the Fillmore, May 18, 2009: At the end of the Doves' Wiltern show, my friend turned to me and said she wished she could see the band again. I know that feeling well, and I've uttered those very same words--and I hate being in that situation. If I could've helped her escape that fate, I would have done so. Selfishly, though, I was just happy for my temporary reprieve.

Doves, the Fillmore, 5-18-09On the surface, the variations between the Fillmore and Wiltern gigs are easy to report. For one, the Fillmore is smaller, so you have to recalibrate the audience response and the band interaction accordingly. However, we let the Doves know we love them (literally, in the case of one guy's proclamation to Jez), and they in turn thanked us for our early and ongoing support. Also, we got one song in San Francisco ("Compulsion") that wasn't played in Los Angeles.

Regarding the rest of their setlist, I appreciated Jimi's comment on "Kingdom of Rust," calling it a "Lancashire spaghetti western," in case we missed the other clues (the ranch footage, the Sergio Leone feel). Elsewhere, he threatened/promised some freestyling, but it didn't materialize.

For me, though, the biggest difference between the two gigs came down to proximity. In Los Angeles, my friend and I had consciously decided to forgo the pit, though we were in prime position for the Wiltern's coveted wristbands. It was the right decision at the time. At the Fillmore, however, there was only one place to be, and it offered a new perspective--in more than one sense--of the show.

Doves, the Fillmore, 5-18-09

The best bands tend to exceed the sum of their parts; it's not just a lyric, a melody, a guitar solo, or a drum fill. If you're lucky, it's all of the above, plus some other X factor tying them all together. This sums up the Wiltern experience, as we leaned back, relaxed, and reveled in the group's epic soundscapes.

Up close at the Fillmore, though we were still dancing and taking it all in, I got the chance to appreciate the separate ingredients. If I had to point to a single song that best brought together all these senses, it might be "Pounding," with its driving beat, percolating bass line, and glissando of guitar. (Note: I would probably say that about most Doves songs.)

Doves, the Fillmore, 5-18-09

Doves fascinate me because they strike me as one of the few true democracies as far as bands go. Though Jimi does much of the talking and the singing, I've yet to see him offering himself as a symbol and a focal point for the band--ingrained behavior among typical frontmen.

While it could be easy to overlook Jez and Andy's contributions, that would be a huge mistake. Jez brings those killer guitar licks, and Andy supplies the groove that anchors and distinguishes so much of the group's music. That's just the surface presentation too; few of us could know what goes on in the studio. No act bore out this equanimity better than their choice of a closer: "There Goes the Fear," which concluded with each band member on a percussion instrument. Besides, it just looked cool.

Doves, the Fillmore, 5-18-09

Long before I sat down to write this post, I had in mind several points I wanted to bring up: the different set of friends I had when I first started listening to the Doves nine years ago; how I tend to favor a "no production" style of production nowadays, far removed from the Doves' strengths; how most of the bands they're often compared to (U2, Coldplay) can't move me to anywhere near the extent Doves do. Basically, there's little reason I should be a Doves fan in 2009--yet I am, and all signs point to one explanation: There is no one else like them, and that is an achievement in itself.

Wild Light opened in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. They weren't afraid to deliver a full, confident sound, and it was clear that they had been playing together for a long time. It was impossible to not hear the antecedents to their sound, but oddly, the first reference that hit me wasn't the bands I grew up with, but their direct descendant: the Killers. They're not my thing, but their army of fans will likely disagree.

See also:
» seems that I've been waiting here forever

Thursday, May 21, 2009

seems that I've been waiting here forever

If I were less uptight, I would take advantage of this platform to fire off odes, diatribes, and general musings about whatever band whenever the spirit hit me. Alas, I'm as buttoned-up in blogging as I am with everything else, so I confine my posts to specific events. This limited scope also means that sometimes, I really, really look forward to writing about certain bands. Such is the case with Doves, returning to the States with their first album in five years.

Doves, Wiltern, 5-16-2009Doves, the Wiltern, May 16, 2009: It would be ridiculous for me to complain about a tour on which I saw a band in Cambridge, England, and Austin, Texas, but I have to lodge a small caveat to the Doves' last campaign through the United States. You see, they were touring at the same time as Wilco, and anyone who reads this blog knows how those conflicts typically turn out. Though I can't recall the exact details, I know I went to see Wilco at the Greek the same night Doves had a show--likely at the Wiltern. On the other hand, Wilco-related wanderlust fueled both of the aforementioned trips, so I guess you can also count those two Doves shows among the fringe benefits of my far-flung travels.

This same dilemma reared its head once more; on the very same night and in this very same city, Nels and Mike from Wilco were sharing a double bill. After much debate, I finally sided with Doves. Four years is an eternity in the rock timeline, and I didn't want to deprive myself any longer. Also, I'll see Nels and Mike plying their trade, though not in the same capacity, soon enough.

Make no mistake about it: I love Doves. I've been smitten ever since their first album, which brought me great comfort during some tough times. And though I hate to quantify artistry, they're probably my third-favorite band--not too shabby considering that the top two slots have been a lock for the past several years (just don't make me pick between them). By the same token, though, I've been fairly frank in saying that the band's live show isn't necessarily their strength.

Keeping in mind this mental asterisk, let me declare the Wiltern gig the best show I've ever seen by Doves. They sounded great, the visuals were stunning, I've never heard Jimi speak so much, and the crowd was right there with them. Who says concerts in L.A. suck? (Not me!)

To be expected, they concentrated on the new album, though they left off "Lifelines," which I had pegged as a sure anthemic closer. The big singles from Kingdom of Rust were well represented, with the excellent "Jetstream" opening the show, accompanied by footage of a jet plane's liftoff. The film supporting "Winter Hill" suggested snowfall, "Kingdom of Rust" was set among images evoking the American West, and oddly, "The Greatest Denier" played out against shots of the Chicago skyline. Further punctuating the cowboy connection in "Kingdom of Rust," Jimi dropped in a nod to the Beverly Hillbillies and attempted one of the worst Southern accents I've ever heard upon the conclusion of the song.

Doves, Wiltern, 5-16-2009

Jimi was as chatty as I've seen him. He singled out a couple "making out" in the balcony (I thought the Brits prefer the term "snogging"?) and took credit for bringing people together in marriage and parenthood via the band's message board. Mostly, though, I recall their gratitude for our continuing patronage, especially in a country that often shuts out even the most hyped U.K. artists.

Jimi may be pegged as the frontman, but Doves aren't complete with Jez and Andy. Jez kicked off the show, in fact, with "Jetstream" (have I mentioned how much I love that song? can I mention it again?) and "Words," while Andy switched spots with Jimi for his customary "Here It Comes," Wigan dance footage intact.

Doves, Wiltern, 5-16-2009

The band's singles don't really register in the United States, so as a fan in America, you become intimately familiar with their album tracks. Thus, now that Doves are on their fourth release, it's inevitable they'll leave someone's favorite song off the setlist. For example, I maintain that "Cedar Room" is one of the greatest songs ever, but I can't be bitter about its absence, especially when they're featuring unexpected titles such as "Ambition" and "Firesuite."

About "Firesuite": This version was grittier and less mannered--to awesome affect--than I recall. It also reminded me that I, for one, can't live on earnest singer-songwriters alone. Damn, that song is one slinky, silky tease of a tune, and few bands do it as well as Doves.

See also:
» i won't be denied
» here comes the action

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

you must remember this

In case you're wondering, I didn't give up Largo for Lent. In fact, I don't even really know what Lent is, but it makes for a more colorful culprit for the recent dearth of Jon Brion shows than the usual *yawn* constraints of time, economy, and distance.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 15, 2009: A little past the Blockbuster parking lot, I realized I was smiling to myself for no reason other than the fact that I was about to see my first Jon Brion show in more than two months (not including that cameo at the last Rawlings Machine gig). It felt good to be back.

In the grand scheme of things, I hadn't been gone that long, but in the interim, some serious new equipment joined the stage setup. Jon's collection of gear, already a formidable mass, now encompassed a small multimedia lab, including the following:
  • A roll-up movie screen planted toward the back of the stage, directly to the right of the piano

  • A small monitor mirroring the larger viewing surface hanging from the piano itself

  • A projector at the front foot of the stage

  • A video mixer atop the celeste

Granted, I didn't recognize much of this at first sight, and it took a little while before Jon worked them into his set. There was the matter of the opening "Werewolves of London," called off because it reminded him too much of Kid Rock, followed by a lengthy instrumental piano that returned us to more familiar ground. I picked out maybe three movements, if you want to call them that, and perhaps a touch of the Punch-Drunk Love theme. A string of originals ensued, including an exceptional "Why Do You Do This to Yourself," the typically straightforward, country-style treatment replaced by rich, sonorous waves.

Sometimes you watch Jon Brion in action and you think to yourself, "He can't do that, can he?" Then it becomes apparent that he can, and he can do it well. We probably shouldn't have been surprised that Jon would use the video equipment to draw out loops and samples to play against, but I don't think any of us could've predicted some of the more charming results.

For starters, he cued up an old-time clip of a Latin band, fashioned a rhythm, and added piano, celeste, and mellotron, culminating in an instrumental version of "Lithium." This same mini movie provided the raw material for a subtle segue into "More Than This." Jon's equanimous vocals, coupled with a swaying calypso-style beat, were hypnotic, even as the Video Toaster-type effects applied to the flick, such as color shifts and a psychedelic repetition of the image, took the opposite tack.

He repeated this feat later in the set using footage of an Iron Butterfly TV appearance grafted to a '40s-era film of two women singing what sounded like a traditional tune. I feel like I should know at least one of the songs, but I couldn't give you a title even if I wanted to. From the former, he spliced the percussion, sprinkled some MicroKORG, and surfaced with his own "Meaningless." Throw in some piano, celeste, one or two more keys-based instruments, and that eerie a cappella performance, and you get the Bacharach/David classic "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

Between these two superlooping exercises, Jon also produced a more traditional score, playing along to a black-and-white Felix the Cat cartoon. I remember talk of Jon providing live accompaniment for films and other performances when Largo at the Coronet first opened. I also know that he has, indeed, carried it off (for example, with the Paul Thomas Anderson plays last year). Perhaps this is the next step in that direction.

Of course, there was plenty of non-video-based music to fill out the night, much of it culled from audience suggestions. For once, I can say I enjoyed every request granted. I'm happy to say I got in the first request of the night--"Rockit"--though the vibes were Jon's choice. After extricating himself from an unexpected detour through "Axel F," Jon worked out the details admirably, going to town on just about every surface of the instrument, down to the pipes. I'm going to say it was a hit among the audience, but Jon may not have agreed, judging by the fact that he gave the instrument the finger before switching to guitar.

"As Time Goes By" sounded wonderfully natural, warm, and intimate on acoustic guitar, as did Jon's own "Further Along." The latter's initially spare treatment eventually gave way to a full build that peaked on electric guitar--but not before we enjoyed the spectacle of watching Jon simultaneously (albeit briefly) playing harmonica, acoustic guitar, and drums.

You could file several of the evening's selections under "Odd Juxtapositions Unless You've Seen a Show at Largo." To wit: The calls for David Bowie and the Monkees resulted in "Daydream Believer" sung to the tune of "Moonage Daydream" and Jon's quip that they're both by singers named Davy Jones. "Here We Go" closed out on a nod to "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and "Under Pressure" galloped out in Les Paul style, even if Jon admitted some trepidation at the outset.

I can't recall if I've documented my "When Doves Cry" request history on this blog, but I'll assume I've already driven that story into the ground. The point is that I don't request it anymore, but I never mind when someone else does. For the first time in a while, Jon took it up for the final song of the evening.

There's a recording of a show from 2005 in New York City when Jon carries off a legendary version of "When Doves Cry." I wasn't there, but the story goes that he soldiered through with a broken guitar, the audience's eager support, and little else. This was not the version we heard tonight.

In place of the song's spare, cool signature, Jon fashioned a woozy, frenetic take. Over a slightly off-kilter foundation of piano, he lavished a generous helping of percussion, manipulating the piano hammers as he often does with his own "Same Thing" and throwing in a smattering of well-timed tambourine. The guy behind me (I think he also requested the song) tried hard to sing along, but Jon's use of the vocoder put a damper on those plans.

On guitar, though, Jon could've given the Artist a run for the money. Those heavy chords and the fierce feedback pretty much told me that Jon meant to close the night for real--there'd be no way to top this baby, thanks in part to the White Stripes quotes (for the second time this evening; he snuck it into the Felix score as well), among others.

It had been too long, Largo. I won't let this happen again.

--Werewolves of London
--Someone Else's Problem Now
--Why Do You Do This to Yourself
--Over Our Heads
--Get Over Yourself
--Lithium/More Than This
--Same Mistakes
--Axel F/Rockit
--As Time Goes By
--Further Along
--"Felix and random"
--new song?
--Please Stay Away from Me
--Moonage Daydream/Daydream Believer
--I Want You to Want Me/Electric Avenue
--I'll Never Fall in Love Again

encore 1
--Here We Go
--Under Pressure

encore 2
--When Doves Cry

See also:
» wish you were here
» when you gonna live your life right

Thursday, May 14, 2009

get out of my cupboards

Buttercream is a bitch--and it kept me grounded the other night when I had provisionally planned on seeing a show. Who am I kidding, though? How often do I get to gigs anymore that don't owe some ties to that one band or that other place? Sara Watkins, of course, qualifies for the latter category, and that was enough to bring me out for her visit to the Swedish American Hall.

Sara Watkins, Swedish American Hall, May 12, 2009: I'm embarrassed to admit the internal debate that preceded my decision to attend this concert, so I'll pass the speaking banana to Liz Lemon: "I just want to go home and watch the show about midgets and eat a block of cheddar cheese." (Or, more specifically, Mad Men DVD commentaries and/or the Celtics game, coupled with that last strawberry cupcake.)

MILF Island speaking banana

Sara Watkins has become a familiar presence on my concert calendar, whether presenting the Watkins Family Hour with her brother, dropping in on friends' shows at Largo, or touring with Nickel Creek. Her former band enjoyed a good number of dedicated fans; I wouldn't count myself among them, but I find her voice just so pretty.

Those lovely vocals were somewhat muted tonight, however, by a cold that left her struggling for some higher notes. Regardless, she soldiered on, fulfilling at least one audience request. Also, though I wouldn't say her battered throat took away from the show, it didn't hurt that she was flanked by her brother Sean Watkins on guitar and Benmont Tench on the baby grand.

Sara Watkins, Swedish American Hall, 5-12-09

Her song selection closely echoed her album's track list, and she threw in a few more covers, as well as an old Nickel Creek track. My hours logged at Largo have familiarized me with her Morrissey cover ("The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get"), as well as the extra Jon Brion track, but hearing them outside of that wonderful little bubble gave me a thrill too.

Sara Watkins, Swedish American Hall, 5-12-09

For starters, I may have been too caught up in nudges and winks that other time I heard them take on Morrissey to fully appreciate what they brought to the song--namely, Sean's accomplished solo and Sara's soulful fiddle. And "Trouble" was worth the time, if only to hear Benmont admit the song gives him, er, trouble. Don't let his protests fool you, though; Benmont's playing was as masterful as ever. Sean, too, took the spotlight for one song, a new track titled "Reality Calls," appended by some parenthetical I can't recall. (This is clearly shaping up to be a parenthetical year.)

Sara Watkins, Swedish American Hall, 5-12-09Speaking of Jon Brion, the crew namechecked him several times, not least because they covered two of his tunes. I think a couple of other people in the audience reacted to his name, but in San Francisco, I'll take that--at least until Jon plays here in July. They extended some shout-outs to Largo, as well, and Sara shared a sweet story about playing "Anthony" right after she wrote it on Flanny's voicemail, which has now become a tradition for her.

Largo, for better or for worse, is not the real world. Of course, I love the monastic silence, but sometimes you gotta turn it up a notch. Even in the Swedish American Hall's ascetic space, crucial differences emerged. For one thing, there were no guest cameos, so we saw Sara, Sean, and Benmont pure and simple. Also, this cozier space allowed for more audience interaction. And finally, we came through loud and clear when Sara asked us to kick in for the chorus of "Long Hot Summer Day." Gillian Welch was right--we aren't a bad bunch of singers.

The trio closed out the show with an audience request for "Forever Young," despite Sara's acknowledgment of the toll it would take on her voice. She needn't worry, though; she belted out this perfect closer. Besides, even with a frog in her throat, she still sounds better than Dylan. ;)

See also:
» all this time
» cortez, cortez
» there's so much here to see

Sunday, May 03, 2009

milky pristine

It's not lost on me that I've traveled, in essence, two paths for concerts so far this year. It's only going to get worse, I warn you, but if that's not a problem, then tune in for the Mikael Jorgensen/Pronto review below--not to mention all those yet to come.

Pronto, Make Out Room, 4-30-09Mikael Jorgensen, Make-Out Room, April 30, 2009: Depending on your outlook, Wilco either makes it easy to be a fan or they give us hell. The constant touring, the numerous side projects, the endless collaborations, the solo turns--you can go crazy (and poor) chasing down every note of music that these off-shoots put out, or the hobby can keep you occupied for a long time. Or both.

There's little doubt I lean more toward the second option, but sometimes, being that overly eager fan is easy, especially when the most difficult part of an otherwise laid-back night with friends is enduring the opening act. Then again, that first act was probably more amusing than arduous. Seriously, how did his hat stay on?

Most people probably know Mike in only his role as Wilco's keyboardist and erstwhile "laptop guy," but it was more than a year ago--maybe even two?--on a trip to Chicago that Kris handed out CD-Rs of the Pronto record off a spool; I believe he called them "party favors." I've been looking forward to hearing the songs in a live setting ever since. It took a while, but Mike finally made it out to the West Coast to support those tunes himself.

Even if you know Pronto's music, it's worth it to hear Mike break it down further. Tonight, on his own, he took the album's warm, vintage-y vibe and translated it to solo acoustic guitar. I suppose it wouldn't be too surprising if I told you that the riffs came through loud and clear in this setting, showing off some unexpectedly rawk touches. Another nice touch was Mike's confident air; he held his own in the buzzing bar, even managing to warn us about the other band named Pronto on iTunes.

Pronto, Make Out Room, 4-30-09

It looks like it's going to be a busy year for Mike, what with Wilco getting ready to launch a new album in the next month or so. Who knows when Pronto will be around again? I'm willing to find out what the future holds for them, though.

See also:
» i see my light come shining
» spider wisdom
» with songs about things we all know