Thursday, July 14, 2011

hold a private light on a michigan shore

The thumb--that's what I was told, though it turned out to be closer to the cuticle bed (see below). A fish boil, custard, primo seats, and a welcome confluence of friends were also promised, and that's how I ended up with a snug little sojourn to Wisconsin--specifically, Fish Creek--to see Jeff Tweedy at the Door County Auditorium.

Door County, WisconsinJeff Tweedy, Door County Auditorium, July 8, 2011: I'm the very picture of summer right now. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean sun-flecked tresses and a bikini body. Instead, I'm peeling on top, while my legs are dotted with mosquito bites, all for the love of music. I brought the former upon myself by forgoing sunblock at the Neko Case gig and contracted the latter at the Jeff Tweedy show in Fish Creek, Wisconsin (actually, in the run-up to the concert itself). If I can pick up a case of Lyme disease, say, at Outside Lands, my season will be complete. At least we didn't get electrocuted at Solid Sound?

Now that I'm home with a bottle of calamine lotion and have stopped swatting at myself, I can unequivocally say Fish Creek is irresistibly charming, in the style of remote resort destinations all over the country. For me, it brought to mind Cambria along California's central coast; you could also compare it to the Hamptons in New York, except with its own signature attractions, such as the fish boil mentioned previously.

Door County Auditorium

One of the small pleasures of rock tourism is hearing a song perfectly matched to the surroundings. The opening "Spiders," which I always love in its acoustic form, was an aha moment, but that may be more due to my ignorance of local geography. The natives and other nearby denizens were probably much more aware that we were minutes away from Lake Michigan, obliquely referenced in the tune.

It appears that most people want to know about the new songs, and according to our go-to setlist guy, four new titles were played. As reported by Jeff, "I Might" qualifies as an "international hit"; I suspect he's quoting a DJ from the Chicago airwaves. The thing about the new songs is that I'm sure the album versions sound completely different with the full band input. I noticed each tune had its own personality, though the critics will undoubtedly find a way to apply a blanket statement to the entire record. I'll spare you further analysis, except to say I'm totally in love with "Born Alone" already.

Another pleasure of a Jeff Tweedy solo show is seeing which of the rarer tracks he'll pull out or what song you thought you knew will be reinterpreted. I'll single out two tunes in the latter category, though for completely different reasons. "Pecan Pie" completely fell apart, as Jeff could barely remember the lyrics and repeatedly mixed up the sequence of lines. It didn't help that during the course of the day we had stumbled upon a mashup of "Ticket to Ride" and "Pecan Pie," so we were useless as well. (Seriously, try singing one song to the other melody--it kind of works.)

On a more serious note, "Bull Black Nova" was credited as a request from "Eddd," and it was a complete revelation. The song's insistent paranoia has been a highlight of full band shows, especially by the time they get to the ending howls. Pared down to one voice and one guitar, it took on a new dimension, especially in Jeff's choice to downplay and whisper the last line. Let me put it this way: If Wilco's version is the sweeping big-budget thriller about a psycho killer and his impulses, then Jeff's solo performance is the indie film that puts you right in the murderer's head. Think "Silence of the Lambs" versus "Dexter"? (Note: I've never watched "Dexter.") If I had a car, I'd still be checking my backseat every night to make sure it was empty.

We got tons of banter from Jeff too, which isn't always a given, but he held court at length on "American Idol," offering his impressions (in both senses of the word) of both Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. Trust me--he's no Rich Little, but the bigger surprise was probably Jeff's wholesale fandom of the show. There was also a moment with the young boy seated front and center, who, when asked by Jeff if this was his first show, shot down the singer's hopes and dreams. As a direct result, a familiar face bore the brunt of Jeff's disappointment, but we know it was in good fun.

See also:
» you can tell that i'm not lying
» the message

Monday, July 11, 2011

that echo chorus lied to me

I've clocked an atrocious concert attendance record this year, and it doesn't look to improve a whole lot. But Julie's generous offer (again) and expert finagling helped get me to Neko Case's show at Stern Grove.

Neko Case, Stern Grove, July 3, 2011: Talk about a rarity--for the first time in a long time, you could see the Fourth of July fireworks in San Francisco. But before that waste of gunpowder and sky (lyrics courtesy of Aimee Mann), a related and equally isolated incident transpired: Stern Grove was luxuriously warm and sunny for Neko Case's show. What a country!

When we last left off, Neko Case played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, but in the interim, she's shown up with the New Pornographers as well. You'd be hard-pressed to claim that she doesn't pop in enough, but it's still nice to chalk up another gig, especially under gorgeous, open skies.

One observation about Neko: She's not necessarily the most prolific artist. This is no complaint; I prefer artists to work at their own pace and put out their work when they're ready, not when they're expected. Thus, her concerts don't change a whole lot between albums, and we saw a similar performance to her Hardly Strictly set, minus the Shangri-Las' cover. Once more, she was backed by her faithful band, including Jon Rauhouse and Kelly Hogan, concentrating on tracks from the last two albums. She snuck in a couple of old standards from her back catalog as well, including "Favorite" and "Knock Loud." The latter came with an emphatic warning; they didn't do the song a whole lot. With this caveat in mind, the audience welcomed the song more as a treat than a dare--I completely agree!

Speaking of treats, they tried out two new songs on the crowd, but I can't characterize either title. However, I look forward to their official release, whenever that may be.

In between, Neko and Kelly shared their usual carefree banter, and I have to admit, in this open air setting, some of their words were lost to the winds and street sounds. In fact, I'm afraid the acoustics could've been a little better, but the show was, after all, free. Nonetheless, it was impossible to miss Neko and Kelly's repeated shout-outs to in support of their long-standing love of dogs. I'm not sure if it's a San Francisco thing, but that's hardly the first time I've heard them laud some of the city's more pup-friendly attitudes.

The Dodos opened, and as was the case on the last tour with the New Pornographers, Neko joined them for a track, though I don't know the name. Their sound also suffered in these unusual environs, but the drums and guitar came across well. If I seem less than hyped about them, don't mind me--they have great melodies and I like the singer's voice, but I've contracted a huge case to musical ennui and can't seem to latch onto newer talent right now. If anything, Neko's seal of approval should be a strong recommendation to interested listeners.

See also:
» amateur
» form a line to the throne

Sunday, July 03, 2011

you can tell that i'm not lying

By unfortunate coincidence, another double-header came up on my side of the country this very same weekend, but my tickets had long been booked and arrangements made. I was headed to North Adams and Mass MOCA for Wilco and friends at the second annual Solid Sound Festival--the right decision through and through.

Solid SoundSolid Sound Festival, June 24-26, 2011: I've scoffed and recoiled at many images of filthy festival goers wallowing in the mud and rain, so the irony wasn't lost on me that, after Solid Sound, I qualified as one of them. Well, not exactly--you'll never find me soaking my cares away in an E. coli bath, no matter the greatness of the gig or the drug intake, but I voluntarily spent way more time in the driving rain and gathering silt over the weekend than ever before. Obviously, I survived, and we even dodged the thunderstorms, ignoring the staff warnings to take cover. Truth is, I'd probably do it again if I had a good reason.

We can debate what constitutes "good reason" at some other juncture, but here's how I saw it: (1) Wilco; (2) Wilco on the cusp of a new album; (3) a good mix of acts to fill out the bill, most notably Liam Finn and Pajama Club, featuring Neil and Sharon Finn, not to mention a sterling comedy lineup; and (4) a full roster of Wilco's side projects.

This expanded roster translated into more acute scheduling conflicts this year than last, so I ended up missing certain acts altogether or catching only snippets of other performers. For example, Liam Finn's full-band set was a no-go, as were many of the band's extracurricular endeavors.

Comedy took a huge hit too; I missed Eugene Mirman and Wyatt Cenac and caught only a portion of Morgan Murphy's and John Hodgman's sets. Fortunately, my visit to the comedy hall coincided with two fantastic bits from Morgan, including a sexting scenario I first heard on the Comedy Death Ray podcast and that had me crying from laughter on the bus ride from work. John Hodgman's set veered from the traditional standup routine, but then again, he's hardly the traditional entertainer. I wish we had done a better job on the ukelele-led sing-along that closed out his set, but we really tried, despite the jumble of unfamiliar words.

However, it's much more fun to talk about the bands who made the weekend. On Friday, the big draw apart from the headliner was Pajama Club, Neil Finn's new project with wife Sharon and a couple more players, among them an awesome girl drummer. Neil remained the frontman, but as with his projects since the initial dissolution of Crowded House, you could detect his ongoing effort to shake up his signature pop sound--then Neil hit one of his patented soaring bridges shortly into the group's first song, and we knew we were in good hands. A bonus: Glenn Kotche joined the band for their last song, "Little by Little" from the 7 Worlds Collide project.

Saturday's encampment at the front of the stage translated into a primo view of Syl Johnson and the Sweet Divines. Even from his short set, you could easily tell he was insane in the best way possible, and he was a fantastic antidote to the thunder and rain that preceded his performance. On the same day, I also checked out the Handsome Family and Thurston Moore (separately). The former brought to mind other folksy couples I've seen in concert, only with a better sense of humor. Thurston turned in a surprising set, delicate and acoustic, at least the part I heard while rambling around the grounds.

Syl Johnson & the Sweet Divines

The rain subsided on Sunday, and we finally relaxed, letting ourselves sleep in and wander to a greater extent than before. Fortunately, Liam Finn turned up in one of the galleries for a solo electric set, backed with a trusty looper and two of the tiniest, cutest amps you've ever seen. He also brought the enthusiasm and commitment in every performance of his I've ever witnessed. Based on an informal poll of friends, Liam attracted a number of new fans among the throngs--a win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

Pronto's set was beset by technical difficulties, to the band's frustration, but they stuck with it as best as they could. I could be mistaken, but it sounded like they concentrated on new songs; odds are, their mistakes would've been forgiven anyway. The Pillow Wand set was pretty much what you'd expect from a collaboration between Nels Cline and Thurston Moore, though judging by the streams of people leaving the set, not everyone got the memo. Levon Helm and His Rambling Band headlined Sunday night, and at one point during his set, as we stood in the sunshine somewhere toward the back of the field, it felt exactly like my city's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival--not a bad comparison at all.

Levon Helm and His Rambling Band

And then there was Wilco, the headliners, proprietors, curators, and all-around majordomos. As mentioned above, the schedule simply didn't allow for you to attend every known configuration of the band and its members, and the fact that they showed up unannounced to accompany select acts didn't help either. Most of us had to be satisfied with their two headlining slots, but they gave us plenty to be thankful for. Per Wilco style, they played two almost entirely unique sets, save for a couple of new songs that they were clearly excited to debut. "I Might" is the new single, which some of us first heard at the S'n'S in April. "Born Alone" was marked by a great rolling rhythm and an exceedingly Tweedy-esque couplet rhyming "born to die alone" with "loneliness postponed."

Wilco, night 2

In all, the band debuted five new songs and "I Love My Label," the Nick Lowe cover featured on the B-side of "I Might," as well as a nod to the band's new distribution model. I won't bother characterizing the new tunes; I don't trust my judgement, and I have no perspective on this band anymore. You'll have to wait until the album leaks and decide for yourself.

Among setlist surprises, the band presented "Hotel Arizona," even if Jeff sort of disavowed it before they even began. They also broke out "Shouldn't Be Ashamed," which I'm spotlighting because I love it when they take one of their more country-ish classics and inject a measure of Nels's newfangled riffs.

I've been to (more than) enough Wilco shows to know what constitutes a regular portion of the proceedings and what can be chalked up as a real surprise. The crowd sing-along to "Jesus, etc." is almost a given, and I would've been shocked if John Stirratt hadn't stepped up for "It's Just That Simple." Heck, we even expect Jeff to forget the words to any number of songs these days, especially after such a long layoff for the group. But when the audience lustily and impressively picked up "Radio Cure" without hesitation after a power surge cut off the mics and a portion of the electrical current onstage--that was completely spontaneous and entirely stirring.

Guest appearances and cross-pollination are de rigueur for festivals, and Solid Sound was no exception. On Saturday night, Liam Finn dropped in for "You Never Know," while Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion piped up for "California Stars." Wilco took their turn in the support slot with Levon Helm for "I Shall Be Released" and "The Weight" for a gorgeous and uplifting close to the weekend.

But the absolute musical highlight of the entire trip--and possibly in my whole life--was Neil Finn joining in for his "I Got You," which followed Wilco's song by the same name. I'd like to point out that we initially suggested this sequence a couple of years ago and, at the time, were brushed off by one of the songwriters. Granted, I'm sure the double-header has graced a mix tape or two back in the day, but hearing and seeing Neil and Jeff trade off vocals is a dream made real. Those three-odd minutes of screaming along to the song claimed much of my voice for the weekend, but I would've suffered more from trying to keep it in.

Wilco, night 1

Before I wrap up this post, I want to mention my nonmusical highlight of the weekend, which also occurred on the first day of the festival. It was sometime while Pajama Club were still setting up, while dry skies held. The treasure: the simple sight of a great group of friends, decked out in rain gear, gathered on a cheap tarp, and chatting amiably. To borrow a cliche I sometimes like to trot out, music may be the vehicle, but our ties to one another are the payoff.

See also:
» trees held us in on all four sides
» above you and beyond me too
» wise man
» the message
» that year