Sunday, April 24, 2016

Faust - Ian Fisher - Live 2016.03.18 on dublab

During South by Southwest, I mentioned attending a set by Ian Fisher that was broadcast on dublab, and that Faust were present for a subsequent interview. Well, I checked the website again recently, and both appearances have now been made available for download in mp3 format. I already discussed Ian's set, as I was present for it, but Faust's interview is also fascinating.

The interview only features singer/bassist Jean-Hervé Péron, although a few comments in German from his daughter/tour manager are occasionally audible. Zappi Diermaier was present (I saw him enter the building!) but he apparently was only there for the falafel, not the interview. In any case, over the course of about 25 minutes, Péron discusses being motivated and surprised by the number of young people in their audiences and how the impact of the band has grown with time. He mentions trying to borrow cement mixers on tour, missing being able to use his own (as it is apparently perfectly tuned to an A), and being thrilled to have one available for their show in Iowa City. He also mentions trying to collaborate with local musicians while on tour, which partially explains why Éric Débris appeared with the band on stage the night prior: the French native now lives in Austin. Péron didn't seem particularly thrilled with SXSW, though. I think he shares my complaints about the quick set turnovers and limited soundchecking opportunities.

Anyway, hearing Péron talk was almost as good as seeing the band's SXSW set. (It was certainly more coherent!) It does make me wonder all the more what they sound like in their proper element, with a decent soundcheck and time for the music to stretch out and settle in (and a proper cement mixer). That's actually a common feeling I'm left with after SXSW showcases: they rarely feel like an accurate representation of a band's worth, and I often am left wishing I'd seen a more complete set. Since Austin is such a festival-oriented city, many bands only come here for them, which means I miss some opportunities I might otherwise get to see full sets. On the other hand, I also get to see a ton of bands I probably never would have otherwise gone out of my way to see, so I guess there's a tradeoff.

Anyway, enjoy the free downloads!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Smashing Pumpkins / Liz Phair - Live 2016.04.19

Last time that The Smashing Pumpkins came through Austin, they were touring with Marilyn Manson, tickets were surprisingly expensive, and after being less than impressed the last time I saw them live (in 2012 in St. Louis), I just couldn't bring myself to go. It looks like I missed what may have been a compelling acoustic rearrangement of "Thru the Eyes of Ruby", but probably not much else new or unusual. (The setlist is here.) That show was in July of last year, and I was surprised that they were touring again so soon, but this time the prices were slightly more reasonable and the touring mate was Liz Phair, who interested me somewhat more than Manson did. I decided to take a chance. After all, the prospect of a mostly-acoustic show seemed novel enough (I usually have enjoyed Corgan's past flirtations with acoustic arrangements), and I was encouraged by the return of original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to the band.

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: Bass Concert Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 April 2016
Opening Act: Liz Phair

Liz Phair's setlist (with some help from here):
01. Johnny Feelgood
02. Fuck and Run
03. Polyester Bride
04. Stratford-on-Guy
05. Never Said
06. Quiet [debut live performance]
07. Our Dog Days Behind Us
08. Extraordinary
09. Mesmerizing
10. Supernova
11. Why Can't I?
12. Divorce Song

The Smashing Pumpkins' setlist:
01. Cardinal Rule
02. Stumbleine
03. Tonight, Tonight
04. The World's Fair [originally performed by Billy Corgan]
05. Space Oddity [David Bowie cover]
06. Thirty-Three [backing vocals by Liz Phair]
07. Jesus, I [traditional rearrangement] → Mary Star of the Sea [originally performed by Zwan]
08. Mayonaise
09. Soma
10. Rocket
11. Spaceboy
12. Today
13. Whir
14. Disarm
15. Sorrows (in Blue) [originally performed by Billy Corgan]
16. Eye
17. Saturnine
18. Identify [originally performed by Natalie Imbruglia; co-written by Billy Corgan]
19. 1979
20. Stand Inside Your Love
21. Pinwheels
22. Lily (My One and Only) → Blister in the Sun [Violent Femmes cover tease]
23. Malibu [originally performed by Hole; co-written by Billy Corgan; lead vocals by Katie Cole]
24. The Spaniards
25. La Grange [ZZ Top cover; lead vocals by Sierra Swan]

Encore:
26. Angie [Rolling Stones cover]

For some reason, although I knew that Corgan and company were supposed to be performing an acoustic set, I didn't think that Liz Phair would do the same. I was wrong: she appeared solo with just an acoustic guitar, although she also played an electric for about half of her set. The stripped-down arrangements did her songs justice: the lyrics were much easier to parse than otherwise, sharply revealing just how blunt and direct her songs are. I appreciated the perspective of her songs, but realized that I didn't actually like them all that much. Nonetheless, her guitarwork was solid and her voice was quite strong. Absent of the characteristic 90s alt-rock production of her studio work, her songs came across much more pop-oriented, and I even heard a conspicuous country inflection in parts. She played twelve songs in rapid succession, but I was surprised that she left after only 40 minutes. When Manson co-headlined last year, he was allotted time for an almost complete set, and I was expecting something similar from Phair. My impression was that she was similarly co-headlining, but this seemed more like a traditional opening set.

Billy Corgan initially appeared as the sole representative of The Smashing Pumpkins. (I've joked for years that the reformed version of the band would be better titled The Billy Corgan Experience.) Corgan began with a new, unreleased song ("Cardinal Rule"), two Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness classics, and then the lengthy "The World's Fair", originally part of his abandoned Chicago Songs project circa 2004. The MCIS songs are clearly favorites of Billy's and came across well, and "The World's Fair" was a treat to finally hear; before this tour it had only been played twice.

Guitarist Jeff Schroeder joined in with an acoustic guitar for "Space Oddity". The Pumpkins played the song throughout 2012 and 2013 in a rock arrangement, but seem to have brought it back in the wake of Bowie's death. It's unquestionably a great song, but there's only so much any cover version can bring to it. I'm not really sure why Corgan is so drawn to it. At any rate, they arranged it well and concluded it with a little dual-lead bit that almost fell apart but came together just right. The two proceeded with another MCIS classic, "Thirty-Three", joined by Liz Phair on backing vocals. Corgan and Schroeder gradually worked their way into the sprawling "Jesus I → Mary Star of the Sea" medley, which comes as a bit of a surprise, as it was originally performed by Zwan. (Oddly, Chamberlin, who had also drummed with Zwan, remained absent.) Zwan frequently performed acoustic sets, so the idea of this medley in an acoustic setting is not new, but the arrangement for just two guitars was, and again, they pulled it off exceptionally well. Corgan let Schroeder take most of the leads, and he rose to the challenge. Even though I find the overtly evangelical nature of the lyrics tiresome, the two managed to play a fairly convincing rendition.

At that point, Corgan finally took a moment to address the audience. He explained that he wanted to showcase a particular part of the band's history, and as soon as he dropped the words "Siamese Dream", the audience erupted in a frenzy. (Billy also claimed it was "just for us" despite that they've been playing practically identical setlists for the entire tour.) The two guitarists first offered "Mayonaise", which is a great song but came with the realization that James Iha would not be appearing on stage as he had at recent dates in Las Vegas and Chicago. Nonetheless, I was delighted by the new take on "Soma", in which Billy played keyboards, Jeff handled lead electric guitar, and the rest of the band finally came on stage: Katie Cole on bass and backing vocals, Sierra Swan on keyboards and backing vocals, and of course, Jimmy on drums. The keyboard-heavy take still brimmed with enough energy to make it work, even if the mix in the room made the bass drum too boomy.

"Rocket" was also done with Billy at the keyboard, which made for a solid new interpretation (versions with acoustic guitar were done by the band since before Siamese Dream even came out) and still managed to rock. "Spaceboy" and "Today" were both done in fairly standard but solid arrangements, but they brought out a surprise with "Whir", nominally a pastoral outtake from Siamese Dream (released on Pisces Iscariot a year later), but transformed here into a more rocking version than appeared on record. The highlight was Jeff's perfectly appropriate lead electric parts. The last of the Siamese tracks was "Disarm", which Billy played solo on a keyboard. The starkness of the performance came as a sudden departure in tone and didn't quite work. While certainly not a bad song, it stuck out and felt tedious.

The band made another sudden departure when Jeff began layering guitar effects and gradually building up to "Sorrows (in Blue)", originally from Corgan's 2005 solo album, The Future Embrace. Corgan, in the first instance I've ever seen, didn't even play an instrument! Partway into the first verse, a electronic backing tracks began filling in the drum and synth programming. It sounded cool, but it was an odd choice to using pre-recorded tracks when the full band was available. This same trend continued for "Eye", which was especially odd, considering that the band have done excellent rock arrangements (including the first time I saw them in 2008). Nonetheless, Jeff kept up the lead guitar work and they made it work. For "Saturnine" (an Adore outtake that eventually appeared on Judas O), Chamberlin came back out, but Corgan remained instrumentless and they still relied on electronic backing. "Identify" followed suit, but I was surprised enough as it was that they were even performing the song! Originally written primarily by Billy Corgan, it appeared on the Stigmata soundtrack, but performed by Natalie Imbruglia. In 2014, a demo version featuring Corgan's vocals was leaked (perhaps through some party involved in trying to get the Machina reissue released), which made me wonder if this performance was connected to that recent spark in interest. The last song with a discernible backing track was "1979", which was played in the standard acoustic version with doubled drums parts.

The band took it down a notch for a serene version of "Stand Inside Your Love", which started out with Cole on lead vocals before Corgan joined in. Swan also contributed backing vocals. This lighter theme with both women singing backing parts continued for "Pinwheels" and "Lily". This led to an abrupt change when Corgan introduced "Malibu" (originally by Hole but co-written with Corgan) with Cole on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Swan on bass and Corgan on electric guitar. The latter two both sang backing parts as well. There was a redemptive feeling in Corgan finally wielding his classic electric guitar sound, but it was strange to see it applied to that particular song. It was followed by "The Spaniards", a new, unreleased song with Billy back on lead vocals. Jeff and him shared lead parts, which was a pleasure to behold, albeit again somewhat out of place in the set.

Most dates of the tour ended the main set there. We were granted one extra song, apparently due to our proximity to the subject matter of the song: a cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange", written about a brothel in the Texas town of the same name. Swan took lead vocals initially but then just wandered about the stage with her phone in hand while the guitarists wailed. Sure, the interplay was great, but the song is horrible. Matters weren't improved by the encore, which was just a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Angie". While not a bad song, the Pumpkins just didn't have much to add to it. What's with Corgan and seemingly not knowing how to end concerts? Finishing with a few middling covers just doesn't leave a strong impression. This wasn't as bad as when I saw them in 2008 and they concluded with three long, heavy, meandering covers, but it was also just a bit of a letdown.

[The only halfway decent shot I got all night.]

Other than the covers, I got the impression that Billy was in a mood to reclaim some of his history. He historically has generally shied away from mixing up the various projects of his life (i.e. Zwan never played Pumpkins songs, the reformed Pumpkins never played Zwan songs, and the same separation was also mostly true with Corgan's solo work), but this tour is a deliberate deviation from that pattern. He played plenty of hits and select album cuts, but he also chose a few fairly obscure songs, and the performance of several songs Corgan wrote outside of the Pumpkins is quite a novelty. For a fan well-versed in the Corgan discography, it was a delight. Still, one can only wonder at some of the choices. There was nothing from Gish or Adore, nor anything from the early reunification years (Zeitgeist, If All Goes Wrong, and the early Teargarden by Kaleidyscope era) or even the latest album, Monuments to an Elegy. There were two new songs, both decent, but those and "Pinwheels" from Oceania were the only post-reunification selections.

The acoustic arrangements were mostly quite successful, adding further proof that Corgan is a gifted arranger when he sets out for it. It also helped that I generally find Corgan's live sound to be superior to the weird, artificial sheen that graces the production of all of Corgan's studio work since the days of Zwan. The full electric portion at the end was a bit out of place, but only somewhat disappointing because it didn't feature any classic Pumpkins jams. The biggest surprise for me was the electronic portion in the middle: but again, I felt like Billy was trying to reclaim his mark on music history. Indeed, he was a bit ahead of the curve in embracing electronic music in alternative rock, and it's easy to forget how jarring that was at the time.

It was also nice to see Corgan play with a band that he felt comfortable and confident with. Schroeder, despite being silent and inscrutable, performed wonderfully and apparently serves as a reliable foil for Corgan. He seems to have grown into his role well. Chamberlin is always a welcome addition, and Corgan's work is consistently the better for it. His drumming was more restrained than normal, as appropriate for the material, but when he let loose, he was incredible. Cole and Swan both performed well, but there is something odd about Corgan's revolving door of women bassists. Maybe I'm being unfair.

The only other thing on my mind during the show was Corgan's appearance on Alex Jones' Infowars show before the concert. I already knew that Corgan was somewhat out of touch and bizarrely critical of millennials (is that related to why Mike Byrne left the band?), but his politics have veered towards the terrible as time has gone on. This time, things got even worse: he compared social justice warriors to the KKK. If that had happened before I bought the ticket, I probably wouldn't have gone. Pull your head out of your ass, dude.

Scores:
Liz Phair: C+
The Smashing Pumpkins: B+

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Savages / Angus Tarnawsky - Live 2016.04.12

Having just seen Beach House the night prior, I was on the fence about seeing two shows on two consecutive work nights. However, I'd heard great things, so I took a chance and went for it.

Artist: Savages
Venue: Emo's
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 12 April 2016
Opening Act: Angus Tarnawsky

First up was Angus Tarnawsky, an Australian musician that appeared solo with an electronic rig. I was initially a bit skeptical, as I wasn't particularly interested in seeing some techno or rave act. However, I was encouraged by the presence of some percussion instruments scattered about his setup. In fact, his music was a bit more detailed and nuanced than I would've imagined. It was certainly a form of electronica, and it was usually danceable, but the focus was less on maintaining a steady, basic dance beat and more on establishing a dark, twisting, exploratory atmosphere. It wasn't harsh, but it was a bit heavy. Tarnawsky's percussion breaks helped keep things interesting; after he got a good loop going, he'd often step over to a snare or cymbal and add rhythmic elements. The snare was unfortunately hardly audible, but the cymbal was better, and in one track he picked up some sort of heavy-looking, metallic bell and got a nice, ringing tone from that. Another piece was announced as an improvisation, and while it started slow and aimless, he eventually found a groove and managed to take it somewhere. It didn't seem like he played for long, and it was a bit easy to get distracted, but I ended up enjoying his efforts more than I thought I would.

[Angus Tarnawsky.]

When Savages came out, I could tell this wouldn't be your standard rock show. Much like with Beach House the night before, it was immediately apparent that the lighting was going to be something special. I was reminded of Bauhaus and their insistence that their lighting should be theatrical and stark, not glamorous and generic. Savages relied solely on fixed sources of bright white light and reveled in the shadows. Emo's is basically just a bare-bones warehouse with a sound system, but the band made it feel like it was theirs from the beginning.

The post-punk label and early 80s goth rock comparisons are probably fairly tired by now, but I still can't help the feeling that the style of the band is indebted to the early albums of bands like Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Cure, and Joy Division. The single, angular guitar, the toms-heavy drumming, and the steady, heavy, prominent basslines are all distinctive post-punk hallmarks. The difference is that Savages focus on the aggressive, propulsive, and decidedly more "punk" side of post-punk. While the aforementioned bands all started out very punky and settled into something sparser, grander, and more elaborate, Savages seem to work from the other way around. They want the complexity and expressive scope of post-punk trappings, but they don't want to sacrifice any of the raw energy of punk, either.

I'm afraid I don't know the songs well enough to provide a setlist, but I know that recent setlists in Dallas and St. Louis look similar to what I saw. The band started out with full force and didn't slow down for a solid hour. The intensity was impressive and enrapturing, but it was also slightly tiring. There was no reprieve for a long sprint. Nonetheless, the energy Savages produced felt like a positive force, even if there was a large degree of aggression and anger. Near the end of the set, they finally took it down a few notches and left some room to breathe. They placed a few sparser, gloomy, brooding songs, including the almost-title track of the new album, "Adore". The pace picked back up for one final heavy song, the non-album single from 2014, "Fuckers" (as in, "Don't let the fuckers get you down!").

Even if the pacing of songs was a bit imbalanced, the four members of the band managed to share the space of their sound quite well. They each had something interesting to offer throughout the set. Ayse Hassan's bass was huge and carried the weight of the songs. (I even saw her use an ebow on her bass for one of the later songs!) Fay Milton drove the songs forward with her solid drumming. The guitar of Gemma Thompson was constantly spiraling around the other instruments. And of course, Jehnny Beth's dynamic vocals were in their prime. She showed no hesitation to give all that she could; she dove into the stage and crowdsurfed several times, and at one point even stood up in the crowd, supported only by the audience members underneath her.

[Savages. I happened to catch Beth's hair in a rare moment of disarray.]

Savages' intensity might be a bit overwhelming, but it is powerful music with good lyrics. They draw on many great bands for inspiration (as most bands do!), but they take the raw elements and form them into something that feels legitimately new and exciting. They've also proven that they can grow and mature quickly, which makes me all the more curious to see where they will end up in the next few years. Even if they just kept playing shows like this, they'd still be impressive.

Scores:
Angus Tarnawsky: B
Savages: A-

[Edit 2016.04.16: I was able to find the setlist here. And one other thing I forgot: between several songs, Beth speak-sung some of her lyrics in a manner that reminded me a bit of Jonathan Richman. It helped cover time when the others were tuning or adjusting and also added an unusual, dramatic touch. I liked it. Anyway, here's the setlist:]

01. I Am Here
02. Sad Person
03. City’s Full
04. Slowing Down the World
05. Shut Up
06. She Will
07. Husbands
08. Surrender
09. Evil
10. When in Love
11. I Need Something New
12. The Answer
13. Hit Me
14. No Face
15. T.I.W.Y.G.
16. Mechanics
17. Adore
18. Fuckers

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Beach House / The Chamanas - Live 2016.04.11

I'm still a fairly new fan of Beach House, but I thoroughly enjoy all six of their albums and jumped at the chance to see them live. They played a special "installation" show the night prior at Brazos Hall as a duo, mostly performing songs off their first two albums and latest (Thank Your Lucky Stars), but tickets were fairly expensive and I wasn't convinced it would be worth it for me. This show was a more conventional affair (relatively speaking) and tickets were more reasonably priced, so I couldn't resist. It sold out, so I'm glad I moved fast.

Artist: Beach House
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 11 April 2016
Opening Act: The Chamanas

Setlist:
01. Levitation
02. Walk in the Park
03. Other People
04. PPP
05. Majorette
06. Silver Soul
07. Space Song
08. 10 Mile Stereo
09. Somewhere Tonight
10. Beyond Love
11. Wishes
12. Elegy to the Void
13. Myth
14. Sparks

Encore:
15. Saltwater
16. Irene

The Chamanas are a Latin-influenced indie rock band hailing from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. They appeared as a five-piece, and the first things that struck me were the massive rack of keyboards in the back and the electric classical guitar in the front. The keyboardist indeed had a prominent role in their sound, but the rhythmic, punctuated guitarwork was a highlight for me, even if the guitarist switched out for a regular electric guitar for most of the set. Neither musician was particularly showy; the guitarist only took one solo, and neither the drummer nor bassist were particularly dramatic, either. However, the frontwoman more than made up for it: she sang with a consistently strong force while grooving energetically to the music. She held the focus of the music and rarely paused for instrumental breaks. Her lyrics were entirely in Spanish, and so I unfortunately could not understand them, but when she addressed the audience, she switched to English. Her stage banter mostly consisted of clichés about the uniqueness of the moment and the special situation at hand, and I don't think she convinced much of the audience of her message. Nonetheless, I appreciated her vocal talent and the ability of the band to make fairly good music without stealing the show from the singer. The only other weak element was a harder song that just didn't quite gel right; it happened to be the one with the guitar solo.

[The Chamanas.]

Beach House currently tour with two additional members. Core members Victoria Legrand (vocals, keyboard, guitar) and Alex Scally (guitar, keyboard, vocals) were joined by bassist/keyboardist Skyler Skjelset and drummer Graham Hill. Instead of the normal rock band stage configuration with the vocalist front and center, other instrumentalists to the side, and drums in back, this quartet opted to appear in a row midway back on the stage, similar to the standard old-school synthpop arrangement (à la Kraftwerk or early Depeche Mode). However, the line was slightly concave, such that Alex and Graham (on the ends) were slightly closer to the front than Victoria and Skyler (in the middle).

Their deliberate disinterest in mimicking stale rock clichés was further reinforced by the lighting: instead of the usual spotlights on the singer and lead musician, they used projectors at the front of the stage to light up three large canvases behind the band. Sometimes these were used to display various dreamy visual effects, and sometimes it was just colored light. Various other combinations of light and smoke machines were employed to cast shadows in a dramatic but hazy manner. Partway into the set, the backdrop was suddenly lit up with a field of small lights, as if looking into the night sky in the country and seeing the vast array of stars. Even if it wasn't elaborate, I thoroughly enjoyed the visual element. It suited the mood perfectly.

[Beach House in the stars.]

The band was not one to make poses or engage in gross displays of showmanship; Alex in particular hardly moved unless it was necessary to start a drum loop or pick up his slide. He even committed the absolute most heinous crime of rock 'n' roll: sitting down to play an electric guitar. (I hope my sarcasm is obvious.) Victoria, on the hand, despite mostly being glued to her keyboard, managed to dance and sway as much as she could. She mostly stayed in place, but certainly made it clear that she was moved by the music.

And what music it was! They played a balanced mix of songs from their last four albums, every single one an excellent choice. As is perhaps to be expected, the live performance instilled a bit of additional energy into the songs. They retained their dreamy, warm, ethereal qualities, but there was just a bit more of an edge and a danceable notion. Perhaps the presence of a thick, fuzzy bass and a live drumset would inevitably produce such results, but in any case it worked.

A few songs were noticeably different than the studio versions. In most cases, it was just a bigger beat from the combination of the drums and drum machine or a slightly different arrangement of the guitar and keyboards. However, a few songs featured heavier, more energetic sections, often as a final crescendo. The most dramatic example was the ending of "Elegy to the Void", which was already notable as the only song performed with Victoria on guitar. The song is already long on record, and after they built it up to a noisy peak, they just kept at it for longer than I would have expected. Such heavy noise may not work for everyone, but for anyone who can comfortably draw a connection between Beach House and My Bloody Valentine, it's a form of bliss.

If Beach House have a fault, it might be that many of their songs tend to blur into each other; they are susceptible to confusion and indistinctness. Nonetheless, even if they only do one thing, they do it extremely well. I have so many favorite songs of theirs that they couldn't fit them all into one set if they tried, but they came fairly close. If I had to pick favorites, I would probably favor their brighter, bigger, more intricately produced albums (Teen Dream, Bloom, Depression Cherry) just a touch over the darker, softer, more minimalist ones (Beach House, Devotion, and Thank Your Lucky Stars). I think the band also views these two sounds as distinct sides of the band: the setlist favored the first category, while the installation shows have been very explicitly favoring the second.

The band pulled quite a trick by releasing Thank Your Lucky Stars mere weeks after Depression Cherry last year (and claiming that Stars wasn't a surprise despite being announced only nine days before release!). Again, though, they do stand separate to me. And while I happen to slightly prefer Depression Cherry, it occurred to me that they picked the three best songs from Stars to perform at this show, and not only that, they were even better than the studio counterparts. "Majorette" and "Somewhere Tonight" were beautiful and highlights of the set.

The one other song that stood out was "Saltwater", the first track from their first, self-titled album. Victoria and Alex performed it as a duo, both on keyboards. Despite being a bit of an outlier in the set, I like the song and they did it justice. In fact, seeing them pull that song and the three from Stars off so well made me wish I had gone to the installation show the night prior after all!

The only thing that wasn't perfect was the feeling that a couple songs were missing something. It would be a song where I was waiting for a big rise... and then nothing changed. I was expecting something like a deep bassline or a heavy guitar part or something, and it just wasn't there. I don't know whether something really was lacking (that is, the live arrangement was just different), whether my memory was just wrong in the moment, or whether there was some failure in the instrumentation or mix. At any rate, it was only a brief distraction, and those few moments were the only disappointments of an otherwise excellent show.

[A rare moment of nearly normal lighting.]

Scores:
The Chamanas: B-
Beach House: A
Beach House: B-
Devotion: B+
Teen Dream: A
Bloom: A
Depression Cherry: A-
Thank Your Lucky Stars: B+

Friday, April 1, 2016

Protomartyr and the Problem of Promotion

I know, I already posted my "final" SXSW post. But there's one further thing I wanted to discuss, and it's been on my mind since well before the festival. Specifically, it relates to Protomartyr, a rising band from Detroit typically labeled post-punk. (Post-punk in the 21st century is already a complicated matter, but I'll save that discussion for another time.) I was interested in seeing this band, but I didn't end up getting a chance. It wasn't a high priority for me and I didn't worry about it. Later, when I was looking through my notes that I'd prepared before the festival, I came across a link I'd saved to the artist page for Protomartyr on the SXSW website. Here's the link, and here's the full text of their promotional blurb:

Protomartyr – the illustrious, virtuosic supergroup formed by singing legend Joe Casey, guitar god Greg Ahee, and the renowned rhythm section of bassist Scott Davidson and drummer Alex Leonard – approached the initial stages of recording their new album, The Agent Intellect, with supreme confidence and a firm sense of intention.

They, of course, had good reasons to feel cocky: There were the high-octane, hook-o-rama singles, "Oh Yeah," "Sexy Little Thing" and "My Kinda Girl." Then there were the riveting live shows, starting with a sold-out-within-seconds "Road Test" run of clubs and ending a year later with a sold-out-within-seconds world tour of large halls. The not-so-little engine that could definitely did…time after time.

Beyond the obvious, however, something more important happened during Protomartyr's rise to the top of the rock: They became a band. A real band. "We went from being a weekend fun-time thing to making a record and touring the world," says Joe Casey. "Our learning curve was fast – even for us. But we went out every night to kick ass and prove that we weren't resting on our laurels. We earned everything we got, and along the way, we established a trust in one another that happens very rarely in bands. To me, it's magical."

It was that very trust factor that allowed Greg Ahee to approach Casey during the demoing stage of the new album and express this wish: "I want to hear you sing differently," he told the vocalist. "You have light and shades to your voice that have never been on record. I want to hear you do new things." Casey accepted Ahee's words as a challenge, and then he threw down the gauntlet: "Fine. But you've got to bring it too, Greg. I want to hear you play guitar like you never have. We shook hands on that."

When I first read that, I could hardly believe how obnoxious it was. It gave me a strong distaste for the band, but I'd already listened to some of their music, and since listening to music is always more important than reading about it, I trusted my gut and completely ignored the horrible promo. But something also told me that this didn't seem quite right. First of all, I never would have described Joe Casey as a "singing legend". In fact, his vocals are distinctly unremarkable and monotonous. They aren't bad, but certainly Casey's lyrics are more notable than the quality of his voice. Secondly, the song titles mentioned were unfamiliar to me and seemed out of place with the image I had of the band: rock music, to be sure, but dark, pessimistic, brooding, and angular. (Post-punk, in a word.)

It did occur to me that the promo might be a complete fiction, or just blatant sarcasm. After all, I still get a laugh every time I think about Delicate Steve and the fake bio that Chuck Klosterman wrote for the band without hearing his music. Although writing false material about a real subject is dangerous, everybody knows that band promos and bios are usually absurd, unreliable, and exaggerated. The people who write them are desperate for attention for the band, and the people who read them can't afford to take them seriously. I have no idea if there are actual reference points or descriptions that effectively sell music to anyone, although I'm sure millions of dollars have been spent researching this topic. But since most of these texts have little to do with any band's actual music, and (as has been often said before) writing about music is like dancing about architecture, accuracy is rarely an important attribute of written music promotion. So who could get hurt by writing incorrect information?

At any rate, I didn't know enough about Protomartyr to be sure their write-up was fictional or intentionally humorous, and I didn't care enough (or was too busy) to look into the matter. Once I did take the time, the truth was readily apparent. In fact, the promo now seems so obviously ridiculous that I'm surprised I took it seriously for any length of time. A quick search of the internet for any of the quoted text will lead you to an immediate conclusion: Protomartyr took the first four paragraphs of the web bio of Chickenfoot (yes, that's Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani's current band) and replaced all the names with their own.

The amount of work it took me to realize this was a joke was mere minutes, and yet I'd bet the majority of those who read it either accepted it as legitimate or had doubts but didn't bother to check it out. Now that I know the whole story, I think it's hilarious. The point has been made firmly: Protomartyr has a keen sense of humor, cultural awareness, and musical taste, and Chickenfoot is a band I should avoid at all costs. I suppose in the tiresome game of trying to win dedicated fans versus convincing the uncaring masses to buy any amount of product, this is one way to distinguish both yourself and your fans. It does seem like they risk quite a bit of alienation, but on the other hand, their promo blurb is the only one I remember of the hundreds that I read.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016 Final Thoughts

Once more, I'd like to summarize my experience at South by Southwest this year and provide some additional thoughts about the festival. First, the more-or-less complete list of bands I saw:

Day 1: Boraj / Natisú / Spiral Vortex
Day 2: Moonlandingz / Noveller / Iggy Pop
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Your Friend / Julia Jacklin / Daniel Romano / Thao & the Get Down Stay Down / Frankie Cosmos / SIR / Ian Fisher / Great American Canyon Band / Vaadat Charigim / Yonatan Gat / Elephant Stone / Noura Mint Seymali / Bombino / Faust / Electric Eye
Day 4: Ian Fisher / Eleanor Friedberger / Your Friend / Morly / Mitski / Growls / Small Houses / Great American Canyon Band / DJ Dodger Stadium / Crystal Castles
Day 5: Stiff Middle Fingers / Bummer / Kasey Rausch's Country Duo / Bruiser Queen / Assuming We Survive / Ian Fisher / Hinds (did not actually perform!) / Lusts / The Ripe / Judah & the Lion / Ian Fisher (again)

Now for a few miscellaneous thoughts about the big picture.

The Hype: Much like last year, but unlike the year prior (2014), there didn't seem to be quite the same level of buzz and excitement. I heard this from several regulars. There were certainly plenty of big name performers, but not actually all that many, and many of those that did appear only played one or two sets (including unofficial ones) and then disappeared. There were several such bands that I missed one opportunity to see and then realized I wouldn't have another, such as the Dandy Warhols, who only played at 1am Wednesday night, Erykah Badu, who only played at 12:40am on the same night, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, who only played two sets. Plenty of other mid-level acts did the same, such as Kreidler, Barry Adamson, and Ghostland Observatory. I guess I got lucky that I did manage to catch Iggy Pop's only public show (although he did an ACL taping at the same venue the night prior).

Venues at Capacity: I can't tell you how many times I heard the word "fire marshal" this year. I really wonder if there was some sort of crackdown by the city on enforcing the fire code venue capacity limits. In the previous two years, I can't remember a single time that I couldn't get into a venue for any reason. There were a few times I bailed from extremely long lines for unofficial day parties, but that was different. This time, I missed out on George Clinton and Mumiy Troll because of capacity limits, and I had friends that failed to see The Roots, Sun Kil Moon, and others. (Apparently the Sun Kil Moon show was booked up because one of the bands on the bill had an incredibly long guest list.)

Scheduling Challenges: I didn't do a very thorough job planning out my schedule this year, in part because I had more friends in town that in years past, and in part because I'd told myself before that there were benefits to just going with the flow. To some extent, I still think that's true, and I did benefit from seeing some shows based on my friends' preferences, but I may have gone too easy. I missed out on a lot of bands I wanted to see (many of the aforementioned, in addition to Bloc Party, Neon Indian, Lower Dens, La Luz, Protomartyr, Shannon and The Clams, Mercury Rev, Thee Oh Sees, Waxahatchee, etc.) and yet had plenty of periods where I struggled to figure out what to see at the last minute. Some of that may just be the nature of the festival (certain periods may be fairly "dry" for my tastes), and I certainly don't regret getting to spend time with friends – that was a major highlight.

Set Length: Most scheduled sets are somewhere in the area of 40-45 minutes, usually with about 20 minutes between bands for the changeover. While this seems to work for many venues and bands, it seemed like there were many cases where things were running late or there were major delays and problems with soundchecking. This was particularly noticeable at the Portals showcase and the Levitation showcase at the Hotel Vegas Patio – and oddly enough, in my prior experiences with both of those events, those problems were present before (see here and here), but even worse this time around. Hotel Vegas tries to circumvent this problem by having a massive stage with room for two bands, such that one can set up while another performs, but in practice it only halfway works. Across the board, though, it seemed like most of the set lengths were more like 20-30 minutes instead of around 40. (Naturally, the major headliners like Iggy Pop get longer sets. In his case, it was actually like a normal concert, which was quite nice.)

Sound Quality: Probably for many of the reasons I just listed, many of the showcases featured rather poor sound quality. The mixes were often uneven, performers frequently complained about monitor levels, feedback was common, and vocals were rarely clear, crisp, or understandable. This is almost certainly somewhat inevitable, and probably a common problem at festivals like these, but this year it stood out to me. Perhaps my ears have become more discerning, or maybe I was influenced by my friends, many of whom were musicians or audio professionals, or maybe it really was worse this year. Apparently, because of the huge number of venues all hosting live music simultaneously, the industry becomes overtaxed and has to hire almost every sound engineer in Texas, regardless of experience or quality. Sometimes you get lucky – and certainly the bigger-name bands had great sound – but many shows suffered. This is particularly conspicuous because the audio quality of most shows in Austin is phenomenal (at least compared to what I was used to in the Midwest).

Cancellations: Again, many bands announced for the festival never appeared: Garland Jeffreys, Soda Fabric, Holy Fuck, Joan of Arc, Suzanne Vega, and plenty of others. It's nearly impossible to figure out why, but it is disappointing.

Diversity: South by Southwest seems to do a better job than many festivals in sponsoring bands with a variety of backgrounds and identities, but the music industry remains conspicuously male-centric. I haven't particularly gone out of my way to see bands with women members at SXSW, but I think I usually end up seeing a decent mix each year. This year it seemed like I saw an even higher percentage of bands with women (4 all-women, 13 with men and women, 19 all-men) but I still saw more bands without women than with. That's weird, right? I do think SXSW does a decent job including Black and Latin@ bands, but I only managed to see a handful of non-white and non-Western bands.

The Last Word: Even with all the above complaints, the inevitable exhaustion, the occasional bad weather, the impossible challenge of trying to sort through 2000 bands to see across five days, the disgusting amount of trash littered about Sixth Street, and the gunshot that was fired at the end of the last night, it's still a blast. I don't know how many years I'll have the energy to keep doing it, but it sure is a lot of fun and a quick way to wrap your head around the current state of the music industry. To anyone who says there's no good music anymore... you're just not looking.

Friday, March 25, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 March 2016

Much like last year, I started my day at the I Heart Local Music day party connected with the Midcoast Takeover at Shangri-La. This time, it was sunny and pleasantly cool, so the event was set up outside. I arrived in time to see some of the Stiff Middle Fingers, an aggressive hardcore band whose singer featured an anti-Sam Brownback shirt. I appreciated the politics and the energy (the singer jumped off stage and approached every single audience member to sing at each of them individually), but I was turned off cold by their song "Psycho Bitch". It wasn't made better by the claim that it was written "for everyone's significant other".

The next band, Bummer, was a heavier, thrashier affair that wasn't really up my alley either. I went inside for a break (and a free Boulevard beer!) and it turned out that another band had set up on the inside stage: Kasey Rausch's Country Duo featuring pedal steel and lead guitar by Marco Pascolini. Even though it was fairly standard country-flavored fare, I enjoyed the easygoing vibe and the respite from sonic assault.

I eventually wandered back outside for a set from Bruiser Queen, who I had seen at the same showcase last year. They outdid themselves this time around, with a great combination of punchy energy, enthusiastic presence, and positive vibes. They were just a bit punky, but not harsh, and just catchy enough to keep me focused. They manage to make a big impact with just guitar, drums, and two voices. Their high spirits were infectious with lines like, "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time".

[Bruiser Queen.]

I trekked the length of Sixth Street back to the Firehouse. I caught part of the set from Assuming We Survive, a pop-punk group that did absolutely nothing for me but plenty for the modest crowd they'd assembled. My real purpose was to see a set from Ian Fisher with a full band featuring a few old friends of his (although not the same group of musicians that have been following him around Europe).

Here's the setlist:
1. Nero
2. Constant Vacation
3. Again & Again
4. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin
5. Candles for Elvis
6. If You Wanna Stay
7. Almost Darlin'
8. Faceless

[Ian Fisher at the Firehouse Lounge.]

Ian again started things off slow and easy with album opener "Nero", with the subtlest lead guitar and bass imaginable from Curtis Brewer and Kit Hamon, respectively. Drummer Ben Majchrzak didn't even play; he just added some backing vocals near the end of the long song. The band joined in full for "Constant Vacation" and turned the song into quite a lively number. Beginning with "Again & Again", Ian switched to electric guitar for most of the rest of the set, which only further increased the energy level. "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin" was transformed by the band into a solid rocker, quite a bit stronger than the solo take. "Candles for Elvis" and "Faceless" are both older songs; while the former has always be a favorite of mine, the former has only improved with age. Ian and company did it in a clipped, abrupt style culminating in both guitarists jamming out wild solos.

After Ian's performance, I spent some time walking around and hanging out with various friends, enjoying the nice weather and taking a break from the music. Before long, though, I was ready for more, and being simultaneously in need of nourishment, I sought out the Southbites Trailer Park, where I'd heard the Spanish band Hinds would be performing in the midst of the food trucks. Being on foot for the day, I made it there just in time for what I'd thought was their start time, but I saw no sign of a band nor even a stage. Eventually I heard a woman on a PA in a tent announcing that the band on their way. I was ordering my food when they finally showed up, but it turns out that they only appeared to share their guacamole recipe and talk about food. I guess I didn't read the fine print of the announcement, because that was a sore disappointment compared to what I'd been expecting!

Frustrated at my lost opportunity, I wandered back to Sixth Street and caught Lusts at Latitude 30 just as they were starting. They sound like some sort of 80s throwback in deep debt to Echo & the Bunnymen or even New Order (in the vocals, at least). The band only consisted of two members: a drummer and a guitarist/vocalist. Someone must have been operating some serious backing tracks, though, because I also could hear plenty of bass and synth. Furthermore, there were occasional backing vocal parts that I wasn't quite convinced were coming from the drummer. At any rate, I found them pleasurable but a bit derivative.

[Lusts.]

At a loss where to go next, I ended up at the Velveeta Room seeing The Ripe. They were playing a rather generic pop-rock that was reasonably catchy but not quite compelling enough to convince me to stay. I tried to get in Maggie Mae's Gibson Room to see the Russian bizarro rock group Mumiy Troll, but the venue was at capacity and the line wasn't moving. I eventually gave up waiting and just chatted with a friend while he was in line to see The Roots at Brazos Hall. (He ultimately didn't actually end up getting in).

[The Ripe.]

Eventually, I made my way to Lamberts. Judah & the Lion were on stage when I arrived. They seemed like your average alt/country/pop band, but they were clearly aiming for commercial approval, which seemed to work for some of the audience. There were several people on stage handling a variety of folk and country instruments, ranging from banjo to accordion to mandolin, in additional to the normal rock instruments. The surprise element was a keyboardist that also added some samples and even dropped a hip-hop breakdown at one point. The musicians were skilled, but they'd honed their sound so perfectly for radio consumption that I was left feeling like I couldn't be sure these were real people.

Next up was Ian Fisher again, this time finally appearing for his official SXSW showcase. With his band in tow, they played the same setlist as earlier but added the existential singalong "Nothing" to the end. Whereas the afternoon crowd at the Firehouse needed some convincing, this bunch was on board as soon as Ian's vocal intensity picked up in the second half of "Nero". The more intensity Ian and the band put in, the more the crowd responded. It was a strong set, and they performed even better than they had in the afternoon. Ian's guitar was out-of-control loud for the concluding solo of "Faceless", but the audience didn't mind; indeed, someone in the audience shouted "louder!" in response.

At that point, it was about midnight, but I was ready to be done. I can't imagine a better way to have closed out the festival, anyway.

[Ian Fisher at Lamberts.]

Scores:
Bruiser Queen: B+
Lusts: B
The Ripe: C
Judah & the Lion: D+

P.S. Again, there were several bands I didn't really see enough of to grade, and I've chosen not to grade Ian due to my overwhelming bias.

P.P.S. I Heart Local Music's write-up of the show at Shangri-La can be found here.

P.P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Fally, Susan, Luann, Ian, Ben, Nina, and Jacob for meeting up throughout the day!