Wednesday, June 09, 2010

not your fault but mine

I admit it: Social factors influence my concert schedule. Of course, I go to gigs because I genuinely want to hear music, but it always helps when I can look forward to meeting up with old friends at the venue. These reunions are less common as our tastes diverge and domestic responsibilities take precedence--and truth be told, it's one reason I've cut back on seeing shows. However, I love getting together and sharing a concert with my best buddies, which is how I found myself at the Mumford & Sons gig at Slim's.

Esprit catalog 1980sMumford & Sons, Slim's, June 2, 2010: Believe it or not, I wasn't always one of the cool kids. Bwahahahaha. But in sixth and seventh grade, the awesome alternative girls -- before there was an "alternative" scene -- saw past my deeply bookish exterior, forgave my mousy haircut, and took me under their collective wing. (In my defense, I had a decent wardrobe that can be summed up in one word: Esprit.) It's no exaggeration to say they opened up a new world to me, one filled with people who wore all black and didn't listen to Top 40 music.

Among that gang, one friendship in particular has endured, and I don't mean in the superficial sense, where you view each other's status updates and occasionally "like" an action. In fact, I've made several veiled references to her in this blog. At this point, we're like family, and though we don't see one another as much as I'd like and our tastes have changed, the power of our friendship remains that I gladly attended the Mumford & Sons show at her urging (conveniently, she also offered her extra ticket).

At one point, I would've needed no prodding. A British band's first real foray into the United States was like catnip to me--but more often than not these days, I hit the snooze button for these engagements. I have some very prosaic reasons for doing so, but part of it simply has to do with the way I hear music now. British bands, to oversimplify, tend to sound a little too slick and produced to me. I'm not saying it's good or bad--it really comes down to personal preference. (However, I totally contradict myself on this point, which should be evident to anyone who follows this blog. I mean, have you noticed whose name shows up the most in my writings? Have you heard his music?!)

In this regard, Mumford & Sons followed this pattern. By all appearances, they aren't that different from the folksier, rootsier music I lean toward these days--they play banjos and pedal steel and everything! But there was a sophistication and polish to their tunes that I don't usually hear in comparable bands, especially not one so young. I was reminded of a line of (arguably xenophobic) reasoning I read in some music magazine somewhere; the idea is that the Brits take American influences, filter it through their own cultural touchstones, and sell it back to us--often making a huge splash in the process. It goes back at least to the Beatles, who covered the likes of Little Richard and Carl Perkins in their early years, and applies to, say, the Chemical Brothers, who sampled American underground MCs and filled clubs, theaters, and arenas over here with that hybrid sound.

On second thought, however, maybe I'm totally wrong--if Mumford & Sons are looking to the Appalachians for their influences, you might be able to trace that evolution even further to the European immigrants who first settled that land centuries ago. I'll leave that debate to more argumentative listeners.

Whatever my reservations about the delivery of their sounds, Mumford & Sons' more rustic tunes were the highlights. The handful of big rawk songs they played came across as future anthems, and quite honestly, we have enough bands beating their breasts and aiming for endorsements these days. It doesn't hurt to dial it down and let the public judge you on your inherent talents, especially when you genuinely possess it.

To Mumford & Sons' credit, they don't strike me as the divas in training I used to see when the latest British band rolled into town. Their humility and appreciation stood out--not to mention, they can actually play their instruments. It also helped that Mumford & Sons showed an honest appreciation for their opening band, the Middle East. I've come to rely upon headliners who put some thought into their choice of openers, but back in the Britpop days, handpicked double bills were hard to come by. Instead, UK bands often relied on local promoters to fill out their shows with random performers. I missed the Middle East's portion of the evening's entertainment, but Mumford & Sons brought them back out to close the first part of the set. I love those gestures between bands since they often indicate a deep commitment to not only their fellow musicians, but to the audience and to the industry.

Speaking of the audience, they were primed for this sold-out show. One girl near the front held up a sizable sign decorated with the lead singer's name. Mind you, this sign would've gotten anyone's attention at a football stadium; in a small club, it was overkill--but hey, the more power to her for it. From our portion of the floor, I could see and hear plenty of singing, dancing, and cheering, and no matter where you were, you had to notice the jokes and comments directed at the band itself. Despite the earnestness of their tunes, Mumford & Sons handled the banter with humor and ease. Granted, I'm a pushover for good cheer, but considering I had no skin in this game, it was heartening to see new non-asshole talent commanding the room.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

this is not a test

My gig inclinations run on the feast/famine mode these days. Either wild horses can't keep me away from a show, or those same steeds can't drag me to the concert either. Though I bought a ticket to see She & Him at the Fox Theater in Oakland as soon as they went on sale, I was on the fence until close to showtime. But I made it and was reminded that the trip can be worth the effort.

She and Him, Fox Theater, 05-29-10She & Him, Fox Theater, May 29, 2010: You don't have to tell me that acting and singing shouldn't mix. First off, I grew up in the era that gave us chart hits by Don Johnson, Bruce Willis, and Eddie Murphy, among others (though you gotta admit that, under the right circumstances, you can kick out some serious jams with "My Girl Has a Fat Neck" "Party All the Time"). It goes the other way too--I'm not particularly interested in seeing most of my favorite musicians try to hit their marks and chew up scenery on the big screen either (aside from the occasional well-placed cameo).

I'm slowly starting to rethink this stance. I'm sure any qualified drama student can tell you that their curriculum often includes dance and voice lessons, along with the disciplines we more typically associate with actors. Also, it helps when the likes of Zooey Deschanel knocks my socks off, not only with both She & Him records, but also before the group's inception.

One word stuck in my mind throughout the show and afterward: winsome. I'll admit it had a lot to do with Zooey's presence, but there's more to it than her glamor. Though she was undeniably the star attraction, judging by the screams and cheers issuing from the audience when she arrived onstage, she was by no means a diva. In fact, at certain spots, you could tell she was still trying to find her stage legs and was happy to have Matt step up for solos or duets.

I like to think that I don't see bands for looks alone (anymore) and that the music ultimately brings me out. As it happens, She and Him's melding of retro twang and bubblegum pop, mixed together in an analog stew and topped with a healthy dose of reverb, suits me perfectly. I especially love how all their young fans are getting a secret education on Motown and Memphis, Broadway and the Brill Building, as well as detours to Surf City and several spots in between. Those youthful ears may not realize it now, but one day, they'll be extremely grateful for the exposure, mark my words.

I've heard people complain that She & Him is more she than him, but I have no truck with the setup, and I'll gladly take my place alongside the Philistines in lauding the female half of the duo. To tell you the truth, I've never been much of an M. Ward fan, but I love what he and Zooey create together. I have no doubt that he's behind the arrangements and the production that elevate her words and melodies. She, in turn, gives him a chance to venture outside his more brooding solo pieces and maybe even let down his hair--or in this case, grow out a mustache. That sounds like an ideal partnership to me--when the sum is greater than the parts.

The only other time I've seen She & Him was at their debut live show a few years ago (which Zooey mentioned tonight), and I can't resist comparing the two gigs. Granted, I watched much of the Great American Music Hall date from the back of the room, stealing glances of Zooey whenever the guy in front of me moved his head, so my recollections are limited. I wouldn't say She & Him is a well-oiled machine just yet, even with the addition of a full band and two backup singers (the Chapin Sisters, also the opening act). They had their lulls and can probably work on their banter, but they were visibly more confident than before. I liked the new, slicker touches, such as their double team on the electric piano, as well as the uptick in duets. That self-assurance was also evident in their covers.

Matt and Zooey's interplay on the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong standard "Would You Like to Take a Walk" was simply adorable, as was the dedication to Zooey's parents. (According to reports, Zooey's husband was also in attendance.) Zooey's biggest grins of the night were reserved for Al Anderson, who joined them for "Ridin' in My Car" (coincidentally, a song I know only through cover versions, via several different artists).

Toward the end of the night, they threw in a couple more oldies. They brought back Al Anderson for "Roll Over Beethoven," which Matt totally dominated, nailing that unforgettable intro and taking over the vocals. And when much of the crowd thought the show had drawn to a close, the two of them, sans band, returned for one more track: "I Put a Spell on You." Zooey let it all out, Matt contributed just the right balance of guitar, and we ate it up.

See also:
» i'm offering this simple phrase
» green typewriters
» sentimental heart

Thursday, June 03, 2010

all on a handshake and a smile

My blogging habits are already way out of step with the current zeitgeist, but it never helps when such annoyances as work and other commitments eat into what should be free time. Anyway, the second Jon Brion report for the month of May is finally in. Check it out, if you're curious.

Toofer Spurlock
Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, May 22, 2010: Toofer--no, not the black guy from Harvard. I'm referring to the phenomenon that occurs when you get the opportunity to squeeze in two shows, maybe by the same artist or at the same venue. In essence, it's a small gig bonanza, and for the first time this year, I was able to catch Jon Brion's May toofer at Largo.

History shows that Jon's Saturday gigs tend to be more low-key than their Friday equivalents. If you want the lingering two-room double-header, show up on Friday. If you prefer a one-shot deal (and, say, plan to hit the Kogi truck for a late-night snack), Saturday is the better fit. Take your pick.

This pattern held in May, though Jon turned the tables at the top of the gig, introducing Sebastian Steinberg at the beginning of the set instead of the end. Jon mentioned Sebastian's limited schedule bringing about this switch, but we saw Sebastian at the end of the gig, so make of that what you will. Also, there was a rumor about another musical friend dropping by, but apparently, those plans didn't work out--maybe next time?

They hit a bunch of covers together, including Jon's charming chamber pop take on the Sex Pistols, which never gets old, as far as I'm concerned. The last song in their collaboration may have been "Paper Moon," but I'm useless when it comes to standards, so I can't commit to that claim.

In between, the gem of their set was their rendition of "Happy with You," performed solely on acoustic guitar and stand-up bass. You have to expect a lot of flexibility from Jon's originals, but it's always enlightening to hear those variations for yourself. Anyway, it's a great song in any form, and tonight's adaptation was no different.

Following Sebastian's departure, Jon resumed with a block of originals: "Trouble" on piano, a build of "Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad," and "It Looks Like You" on electric guitar. The first one I love in any form, the last one I consider a light snack, but the middle track made the night. For one thing, Jon doesn't perform it very often, so it tends to surprise me anytime he plays it. Of course, you're perpetually in a state of guessing at any Jon Brion show, but some surprises are more welcome than others.

Rounding out the relatively straightforward portion of the set, the Cheap Trick cover felt more like an experiment with the loopers and less of a tribute to the power pop masters, which has been the case at previous gigs. "Please Stay Away from Me," meanwhile, melded piano and a touch of bass notes from the MicroKorg.

At this point, the show switched into overdrive. First, Jon brought out the video mixers and introduced clips of Maria Callas and Sonny Rollins. I gotta say, though, these performers may have been a bit of misdirection, as I'm not sure either contributed directly to what turned out to be "Meaningless." Maria returned intermittently throughout the song, and Sonny played a bigger role in the tune's coda, which took a more impressionistic turn featuring an abstract jazz breakdown by Jon instead of the usual power chords.

For the final song of the main set, Jon brought out another infrequently heard original: "You Made the Girl." I've commented on this song before, so I won't rehash that discussion. I'll mention, though, that Paul clocked the song, and it came in at exactly 30 minutes. In the course of that half-hour, Jon returned to the Maria Callas and Sonny Rollins footage, and his use of the vibes perked up the proceedings somewhat--emphasis on "somewhat."

As an antidote, Jon, er, knocked out the polar opposite "Knock Yourself Out" for the encore, marking the end of the Largo portion of our evening, which was just as well. We had one more stop before calling it a night, and I'm glad to report it was mission accomplished. Saturday night is all right!

--I Thought About You*
--Anarchy in the UK*
--Corinna, Corinna*
--Happy with You*
--Didn't Think It Would Turn Out Bad
--It Looks Like You
--Everything Works if You Let It
--Please Stay Away from Me
--You Made the Girl

--Knock Yourself Out

* = with Sebastian Steinberg

See also:
» funny that way