Tuesday, November 10, 2015

FFF Fest 2015, Day 2: Late Night Show at the Sidewinder

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2, Late Night Show
Venue: The Sidewinder
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 7 November 2015

Introduction: I still marvel at FFFFest for putting together all the late night shows in addition to the main festival at Auditorium Shores. It's hard to believe that they manage to get fairly big acts (relatively speaking) to play such small local venues, but it makes for an experience that is hard to match. The much-touted "intimacy" of smaller venues is a real thing, although I would argue it's only worth it if the sound system is up to par. Anyway, I left the main festival a bit early to make sure I could get in to my venue of choice. I did the same thing two years ago only to realize I was way too early, but I had the suspicion this time would be different, especially since my venue of choice was lined up to host three or four big names in indie rock. I did make it in, but I must have been one of the last ones to make it back to the outside stage before the venue had to restrict entry and enforce a one-out, out-in policy.

My reason for being outside was to see Moving Panoramas, a self-described "all-gal dream gaze trio from Austin". They certainly fit their own bill, and while there were no standout moments, they were consistently solid. The frontwoman stole the show, as her guitar and vocals were the dominant elements that made the music compelling. The drummer seemed to be struggling, but the bassist was decent if not exceptional. Their music had a tendency to fade into a hazy background, but it occupied a space that I find particularly enjoyable. They have some promise in them yet.

[Moving Panoramas.]

Unfortunately, I was a bit distracted during the set by the constant flow of people pushing hard against me in search of alcohol and toilets. I was already planning on moving inside at that point, but it was an easy choice to make in terms of personal space. Since I'd recently seen Alvvays and I only had a modest interest in Future Islands, hopefully someone who was more interested than me in those bands managed to get in.

I got inside in time to see the very end of Carl Sagan's Skate Shoes' set. It was hardcore thrasher stuff and it did nothing for me. The second band inside was Future Death. For some reason I had reasonably high hopes for them, but they delivered the same kind of hardcore punky stuff that had been failing me all day. I'd heard them described as "noise pop", but I sure didn't see any pop under all the noise. The drumming was great and the rhythms were wild, but I just couldn't get into the energy of it.

[Future Death.]

The last band inside was the band formerly known as Viet Cong. (They recently made the laudable decision to find a better name for themselves, and while they haven't announced a new name, they tellingly introduced themselves only with the band members' given names.) I missed my chance to see them at SXSW earlier this year, and I was looking forward to seeing them in such a small venue. During their soundcheck, I caught bits of Can's "Vitamin C" and Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Arabian Knights", so they had gotten me quite excited. However, when they finally started playing in earnest, I was a bit disappointed by their cacophonous sonic surge. Instead of a post-punk sense of space and exploration, it seemed like they were struggling with punk's raw energy. There were parts I could grab on to, like the solid drumming and the occasionally astral guitar work, but a lot of it was just a noisy mess. I think they and the preceding bands on the inside stage suffered from mediocre mixing, and thus while I was not particularly impressed by their set, I get the impression that they are capable of more.

[The band formerly known as Viet Cong.]

Moving Panoramas: B
Future Death: C-
The band formerly known as Viet Cong: C+

Final Thoughts: I can't help but wonder what the rest of the evening sounded like on the outside stage – and the other late night venues around town. It would seem that Sidewinder's outside stage has superior sound to the inside, at least judging by this night, and I'm curious if Future Islands would have impressed me in the right environment. I may have gotten the intimate experience I wanted, but maybe it was a little too intimate. It seems like the late night shows are a bit of a crapshoot, and I might not have gotten the best experience, but I don't regret giving it a try.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015, Day 2

Event: Fun Fun Fun Fest, Day 2
Venue: Auditorium Shores
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 7 November 2015

Introduction: I wasn't motivated to make it to Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, but I got excited again this year and picked the day that looked most promising to me. (I had previously attended one day and one night in 2013.) The weather the was cold and windy, and due to storming, the festival was actually about an hour late in opening its doors. It would seem that the first scheduled acts were simply dropped, and the next round were about 15 minutes late.

I arrived just in time for the doors to open (so I had to walk to the end of the line and then walk all the way back to the entrance) and I got in just as Joanna Gruesome were starting. Although the band's name might be a gimmick (not that I particularly care for Joanna Newsom) and their original frontwoman recently left the band, they performed better than I would've expected. I liked the mix of punk energy and post-punk, My Bloody Valentine-style guitar work and melody. I'm led to believe that their words are worth hearing, but sadly, despite many audience requests to boost the vocal levels, I couldn't understand a word.

[Joanna Gruesome.]

Out of curiosity, I then went to the yellow tent stage to hear Dr. Scott Bolton, a NASA scientist often involved in education and outreach. Unsurprisingly, he was a bit out of place at the festival, but he maintained a consistent crowd (even if most were there to escape the drizzle or hear whoever came next) and he did manage to get a few laughs. His presentation was somewhat disorganized, as if he had a lot of ideas to share but hadn't apportioned his allotted time appropriately. His main focus was the necessity of interaction between the arts and sciences, in that such cross-field engagement is the root of innovation. (I certainly wouldn't disagree.) He encouraged us to make and maintain friendships with a variety of people with different interests and careers. He also talked some about the mission he primarily works on (the Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter) and the physics of skateboarding.

I caught just the last couple songs of both Shamir and Speedy Ortiz but not really enough of either to get a good impression. Shamir seemed interesting, and I liked his keyboardist, even if the programmed parts were a little annoying. Speedy Ortiz struck me as decent indie guitar rock but that's about all I can say.

With some reservation, I trekked over to the black stage to see the Toronto hardcore band Fucked Up. I must be missing something, because for all the acclaim I hear about this band, I couldn't figure them out. There were three guitarists for apparently no reason. Supposedly their lyrics are good and politically progressive, but I wouldn't know, since every single word was screamed and indecipherable. This was accompanied by a lot of stage diving and the singer running through the crowd for most of the set. On the other hand, this was the first hardcore band I've seen live with a woman member. I eventually got bored and bailed to go catch the latter half of the Charlatans' set. Their rather generic Britpop sound wasn't much of an improvement, but at least it wasn't as abrasive and I was able to find a dry place to sit. I appreciated an occasional hint of funk and the final song's progressive edge.

I stuck around the orange stage for a while at this point. I had a passing interest in Fuzz, and they lived up to expectation as a riff-heavy rock band. They played wildly, a little unhinged, with non-stop energy. They clearly have a lot of fun while maintaining good vibes, even if there isn't much depth to it and the lyrics are throwaway. As expected, the guitar and bass were very fuzzy, but contrary to expectation, the vast majority of the crowd surfing was by women. I don't know if I can take Ty Segall and his gang seriously, but at least they did their best to be entertaining.


Immediately after Fuzz's set, I witnessed something that perhaps has to be seen to be believed. I'd heard of the taco cannon, but did not realize it was a real thing. Sure enough, the festival organizers have some sort of propulsive mechanism for rapid-firing (sealed) tacos into the audience. They didn't shoot any into the area I was standing in, but I'm betting they weren't vegan, anyway.

[The taco cannon in action.]

Next up was American Football, one of those 90s Midwestern indie guitar rock bands that disappeared before anyone hardly knew they existed, yet managed to capture a far bit of adoration in the meantime. They played several songs from their lone, self-titled album from 1999 (setlist borrowed from here):

1. Stay Home
2. Honestly?
3. For Sure
4. I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional
5. The Summer Ends
6. Never Meant
7. The 7's

Their music was very chill and low-key, but yet consistently fascinating. The guitar parts were great; they were constantly weaving around each other and finding new spaces to grow. The parts were extremely well written and carefully performed, such that you wouldn't even notice the morass of unusual time signatures if you weren't looking for them. The drummer was on point, too, and in several songs he picked up a trumpet for an instrumental section. The only weak part of the performance was the vocals: I guess I just find Mike Kinsella's style to be a bit off-key or in need of some tunefulness. Excepting that, I thought they did an excellent job, and I was fondly reminded of Hum and Falsetto Boy.

[American Football.]

The following act was the real reason I was there: Ride. While I haven't been a fan for long, their first two albums and early EPs have become some of my recent favorites, and I was thrilled at the notion of seeing their reformed live show. Perhaps fully aware of the relative mediocrity of their latter two albums, their set focused almost entirely on the beloved earlier material:

01. Leave Them All Behind
02. Like a Daydream
03. Polar Bear
04. Seagull
05. Kaleidoscope
06. Cool Your Boots
07. Dreams Burn Down
08. Black Nite Crash
09. Taste
10. Vapour Trail
11. Drive Blind

I was thoroughly impressed with their ability to bring the songs alive on stage. The signature two-part vocals harmonies were spot-on throughout the set, and the amazing guitar parts were there in full. I also noticed far more of Steve Queralt's bass and Laurence Colbert's drumming than I ever had from their recordings. Put all together, it was an intense performance and I was easily lost in the beautiful noise they created. I could fault them for predictability or for not introducing many variations in the material they recorded over twenty years ago, but it was of such high quality that even those criticisms seem unwarranted. The one dramatic departure was a long, noisy, experimental jam between the second and third verses of "Drive Blind". I was reminded of the extended "holocaust" section found in My Bloody Valentine's live performances of "You Made Me Realise". As far as I can tell, they've been doing this since their early days, but I was unaware until now.


As Ride walked off stage, I rushed to the blue stage to see as much of Grimes' set as possible. However, the crowd was dense and mostly engaging in spaced-out dancing, talking, or lighting up various substances, so I was unable to get anywhere near the stage and my ability to pay close attention was substantially impeded. From what I could see, she just danced around stage while occasionally pausing to interact with various electronics. All I could hear were diffuse drum beats, scattered synth parts, and Grimes' passable vocals. My impressions of Grimes has always been very good in the past, but this live performance made me feel like I was missing something. I could hardly tell what the audience was holding on to. It was a strange experience; it was as if everyone else was hearing or seeing something I couldn't.

When it came time to pick a headliner to see, I wasn't feeling particularly enthused about any of my choices, but I ended up sticking around the orange stage for Jane's Addiction. They commenced playing their Ritual de lo habitual album in full, and during the first song, three scantily-clad women came out and began suggestively dancing. I was surprised at such a tasteless affair, and I left in search of tofu tacos. When I returned, the dancers were gone. In fact, I was lucky to return when I did, as I came back just in time for them to start playing a very distinctive riff that I immediately recognized as "Burning from the Inside" by Bauhaus. Instead of the normal lyrics, it appeared that Perry Farrell was singing parts of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". Truly, this was something bizarre and fascinating. It still hardly makes sense to me, since it certainly never appeared on Ritual de lo habitual, which they were still in the middle of, but apparently they used to play this weird medley back in the day. It was even given a special name: "Bobhaus".

[Jane's Addiction.]

That odd diversion was probably the highlight for me, as soon afterwards the dancers returned to remind us that the five men musicians on stage apparently only have use of women as visual props. At least the band didn't solely rely on their sexist display to entertain their audience; musically, I thought they had some great performances. Certainly some songs were standard macho rock, but many others had a great sense of atmosphere and texture. At the least, Dave Navarro proved himself as an extremely proficient guitarist. The setlist can be found here.

I left early in order to get to the late night show at The Sidewinder, which I will review in my next post.

Joanna Gruesome: B+
Fucked Up: D
The Charlatans (UK): C
Fuzz: B
American Football: A-
Ride: A+
Grimes: C
Jane's Addiction: B-

Final Thoughts: I didn't catch enough attention of Shamir or Speedy Oritz to be able to score them effectively. Similarly, Dr. Scott Bolton was far enough outside the usual spectrum that I don't think it would be fair for me to try to score him. Of the acts I did score, it seemed like there was a sharp divide between the acts that I simply couldn't make sense of and those that fell into some sort of rock spectrum that I could appreciate. I fear that my biases are showing through here, but I did my best to try to branch out a bit, and it is entirely plausible that I chose the wrongs moments for doing so.

I had also originally intended to see Desaparecidos, but they unfortunately recently canceled their tour under vague health concerns. I was also very curious about Gogol Bordello, but their time slot competed with Ride and I knew what I had to do. I do wonder if I should have given the blue and black stages more attention, though.

One last sidenote: I think I will perhaps always have an unfair resentment of The Charlatans for forever getting my hopes up when searching for Chameleons records. Their bins were always next to each other, both are usually marketed in the USA with an appended "UK" tag, and both have lead singers with the surname Burgess. Naturally, The Chameleons are far superior, but most record stores seemed to have more used Charlatans albums in their stock.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins - Live 2015.10.21

Artist: Jonathan Richman with Tommy Larkins
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 October 2015

01. Take Me to the Plaza
02. You Can Have a Cell Phone That's OK But Not Me
03. No One Was Like Vermeer
04. That Summer Feeling
05. [Spanish song about making mistakes]
06. Old World [originally performed with the Modern Lovers]
07. I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
08. My Baby Love Love Loves Me
09. [Spanish song about never having seen enough, like a kid being dragged away by their parents]
10. Let Her Go Into the Darkness →
11. Sex Drive →
12. You Must Ask the Heart
13. These Bodies That Came to Cavort
14. Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow
15. [Brief song with lyrics like "This love / Let me do this right"]
16. Volare [Domenico Modugno cover]

17. O Sun

Jonathan Richman is an idiosyncratic person, so it should be no surprise that he doesn't play with a band anymore. Nonetheless, he is lucky to have found a drummer willing to follow his unusual track through music for twenty years. It would seem that his unusual style of performance and songwriting contributed to dissolution of several different varieties of his original group, The Modern Lovers, as well as their difficulties in recording and releasing their work. But ever since he let go of that moniker, he's managed to release occasional albums according to his own spirit. Those expecting the driving rock 'n' roll rhythm of "Roadrunner" might be let down, but those willing to give this guy a chance are in for something special.

It's not like Richman has given up on rock music. He seems to just find most of it too loud and distracting for his ability to express himself. I suspect he thinks it is limiting or full of expectations he doesn't see the point of. He welcomes Latin rhythms and hasn't forgotten the sound of music before the 60s, even if his lyrics bear little resemblance to early rock 'n' roll. His performance is like hearing him tell stories, but he plays guitar for most of it, dances for part of it, and manages to sing on key throughout. It's hard to tell how well rehearsed his songs are, as he frequently sets down his guitar to talk about the themes of his songs, dance, pick up a percussion instrument, or translate the lyrics of Spanish-language songs. Usually, Larkins wouldn't miss a beat and would follow Richman like he knew exactly where he was going, but there were a few times that I could tell the former mispredicted the latter's direction – but only for a single beat.

Richman also has no use for the artificial distinction between performer and audience, nor the pretension of hawking himself as a celebrity. As if the free-flowing nature of the songs and narratives wasn't enough, he frequently would just dance to Larkin's beat as if everyone should be doing it. It was completely unselfconscious. He was just having a good time and trying to make sure we were, too. If someone started clapping in time, he would joyfully call out to them to give him a beat. He ran around the stage at will, as if he had simply forgotten that his guitar wasn't plugged in and he had to sing into a mic to be amplified.

Jonathan's casual and semi-continuous narrative style meant that it was difficult to determine when one song had ended and another had begun. If the themes were related and the rhythms weren't too dissimilar, the songs would just blend together, often only explicitly discernible by a change in key. Some songs seemed at least partially improvised, and most of the songs seemed to feature lyrical variations from recorded versions. In particular, the one song he played from the Modern Lovers album, "Old World", bore very little resemblance to the original version. He recorded a new interpretation for Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild in 2008, but this rendition was different from even that. While acknowledging that the old world may have a certain elegance, and it is easy to think of it as a better time, he reminded us of the brutality of earlier times as well as the fact that women couldn't vote in the 19th century.

Richman's humor and earnest attitude to the world around him made the show highly entertaining. I found myself unexpectedly laughing while admiring his simple wisdom. His charm is immediate: when explaining that he doesn't like using "typewriters with screens" and prefers just going "to the plaza" to find out what's going on in town, he made sure to specify that he doesn't mind at all if we do. It's just not what he's interested in; he just wants to talk with people. Apparently, this is no exaggeration. He supposedly does not own a computer, nor use the internet, but he admitted he will sometimes humor people by letting them show him things on their pocket-sized screens.

This simple and straightforward technological approach also meant that this was the first show I'd been to in a very long time for which I did not require the use of my earplugs. This was a welcome change for me, even if perhaps to be expected from an acoustic guitarist accompanied by a drummer that only used three mics. Unfortunately, when another band started playing loud rock music on the inside stage of the venue, they were audible from the outside and sometimes even overpowered Richman and Larkins.

After an hour or so, Richman indicated that he was at the end of the set, but he didn't want to leave. He started up a brief song in which he would sing a line and have the audience repeat the phrase "let me do this right" to a particular melody. After that, he still seemed hesitant, and started singing parts of the Italian song "Nel blu dipinto di blu", popularized by Dean Martin under the name "Volare". He explained that the bland English lyrics were totally different than the original, superior Italian lyrics. After giving that a whirl, he finally walked off stage. Eventually, he returned for one more, but he seemed surprised to be playing an encore, like he didn't take it for granted that he should come back out.

Despite no opener and a relatively short performance, I felt like Richman did a great job filling up the time he shared with us. Near the end, some songs started to drag and feel a bit samey (even with his legitimately skilled acoustic guitar soloing, there's only so much two instrumentalists can do), but he was so effortlessly endearing that it's hard for me to want to focus on the duller moments. There were so many hilarious and personable parts that the cheap price of admission was well worth it.

Score: A

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2015, Weekend 2, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 9 October 2015

Introduction: Yet again, I couldn't resist going to ACL even though I was entirely unexcited by all the headliners. In fact, this time, there weren't even many second- or third-tier acts that I was interested in. Still, after the good time I had last year, I figured it would be worth picking one day and making the most if it. Of course, the day I decided upon was Friday, which is annoying in that I had to take off work to go. Nonetheless, I went for it.

I am unashamed to admit that the main draw for me was Tame Impala, even though I just saw them earlier this year at Levitation. I was also excited to see Songhoy Blues again, whom I had caught earlier this year at SXSW. However, a few weeks before the event, I noticed that they were no longer on the schedule. I can't find any information about their disappearance except for this similarly disappointed Reddit thread.

I started my day off with The London Souls. On record, this guitar-and-drums duo sounded like straight classic rock throwbacks with a giant debt owed to Led Zeppelin and maybe the Beatles. On stage, they came off much rawer and even tighter. They were unexpectedly almost punky, but they held their act together far better than most could. Both musicians are incredibly expressive with their instruments. They just kept throwing in little surprises and clever riffs, so the music was always groovy yet captivating in its detail. All the extra touches really held my attention, but one could also opt to just lean back and enjoy the instruments in lock step. The downside is that their lyrics are completely devoid of originality. These are great players, and they both have good voices, but the main draw is the rock, not the words.

[The London Souls.]

Next up was Wolf Alice, an exclusive to Weekend 2. I was attracted by a slight psychedelic edge to their music, which manifested live as fitting in somewhere between dream pop and The Sisters of Mercy, but seemingly without the deliberate campiness. The heavy reverb and delayed space guitars worked in their favor, but a tendency for bland songwriting and awkward vocals did not. They occasionally attained great moments but mostly settled for a standard issue poppy metal/heavy rock vibe. There were some good riffs and sounds, but something was missing to take it to the next level. It didn't help that Cherub's crappy electronic beats wafted over from the Miller Light stage to distract from the experience. The setlist is available here.

[Wolf Alice.]

I was then caught at a crossroads between two bands I was interested in, so I split the difference and saw some of both. First I saw most of Billy Idol's set. The full setlist has been posted online:

01. Postcards from the Past
02. Dancing with Myself [originally performed with Generation X]
03. Can't Break Me Down
04. Flesh for Fantasy
05. Eyes Without a Face
06. Ready Steady Go [originally performed with Generation X]
07. Blue Highway
08. Rebel Yell
09. White Wedding
10. Mony Mony [Tommy James & the Shondells cover]

I've never been a great Idol fan; I find his music catchy and likable but not especially meaningful or especially attractive. I do, however, appreciate that his music has a touch of deliberately over-the-top excess. His performance is absurd and yet the audience is complicit. He's something of a punk, but he makes few excuses about his music really being just good time rock 'n' roll, only slightly heavier, dirtier, and weirder. (This of course is discounting his awful but visionary
Cyberpunk album from 1993.) On stage he just played to expectations. Guitarist Steve Stevens was less of a showboat than some, but the band did everything else they could to live up to a rock 'n' roll fantasy. I almost started cracking up when Idol took his shirt off.

I trekked across the entire park grounds to get to the other side to see the last few songs from Leon Bridges. Hailing from Fort Worth, this guy seemed to come out of nowhere and instantly start rising. He is very rooted in old school traditions of soul, R&B, and gospel. His strong voice is well suited to his retro style. The band's performance was tight, consistent, groovy, and solid, but his lyrics were fairly basic. It was easy to forgive, but it would help if he played a bit less by the numbers.

While enjoying some amazing Korean BBQ Tofu Tacos from Chi'lantro, I caught a few songs from Moon Taxi on the nearby Austin Ventures stage, but it was so generic that I can't remember anything of note from what I saw and heard. It was some type of indie or emo thing, but it didn't do anything for me.

I then camped out for Tame Impala, holding my spot despite unceasing surges and rushes of the crowd. I've never seen so many people try to squeeze in where there was obviously no room for them. This was also the only time during the day that I saw people smoking despite the ban. Anyway, here's the setlist:

01. Intro Jam
02. Let It Happen
03. Mind Mischief
04. Why Won't They Talk to Me?
05. The Moment
06. Elephant
07. The Less I Know the Better
08. 'Cause I'm a Man
09. Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind?
10. Unknown Jam
11. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
12. Apocalypse Dreams

I thought Tame Impala's 80-minute headlining, show-closing set at Levitation earlier this year was incredible. I gave it a rare A+. It was everything I could have wanted and more: it rocked, it was psychedelic, they jammed all over the place, they threw in curveballs and surprises, the visuals were good, and they debuted a fairly good new song. I wished it had gone on longer, but that's just the nature of festival appearances.

This time around, they didn't even play a full hour, and there were no surprises at all. The only curious part was a brief jam near the end. In fact, excluding the songs from the new album, Currents, every other song was also played at Levitation in the same order! Sure, these are great songs that I've come to love over the past couple years, but it just seemed like they weren't really trying. The new songs were a mixed bag; "Let It Happen" is fairly good, and the bassline to "The Less I Know the Better" is enough to sell me on the song right there, but "The Moment" didn't quite work, and "'Cause I'm a Man" fared even worse. The only reason I can tolerate that song at all is the subtle lyrical shift near the end to "I'm a human", but a subtlety like that was entirely lost in the shuffle of the live performance.

The keyboards and bass were right on the mark, but the guitars, apart from being more subdued in general considering the material, were not up to par, and nor were Kevin's vocals. The psychedelia was mostly absent in favor of a more lightweight electronic dance vibe. It was still good, but not magical. It felt short, like I was waiting for the big moment, but it never came. It didn't help that the crowd was pushy and rowdy and that someone was drunkenly singing along off-key whenever they could half-remember the words.

[Tame Impala.]

After that slight disappointment, I went to see George Ezra, a singer-songwriter somewhere between soul, folk, and light blues. He has an incredible voice with a theatrical level of expression. His music was pleasant but unsophisticated. It was clean cut and smoothed of any uneven edges. It came off just a bit fragile and lifeless, which was only exacerbated by the awful electronic beats coming from Flosstradmus' set at the nearby Miller Light stage. I knew it was my cue to leave when he started into "Girl from the North Country". He sounded quite a bit more straight pop than I had been expecting.

I bailed and headed over to catch most of Gary Clark Jr.'s set. His setlist has been posted online:

01. When My Train Pulls In
02. Bright Lights
03. Stay
04. Hold On
05. Cold Blooded
06. Our Love
07. Grinder
08. Ain't Messin' 'Round
09. Travis County
10. Church
11. The Healing

Clark plays a bluesy rock with a bit of groove and funk. His lyrics were unimaginative,
but the vocals were clearly secondary to his guitar, anyway. I know he's from Austin and I'm supposed to like him, but I just didn't find his performance very special. Most of his set featured Hard Proof, or at least their horns players (including my former landlord!), which was definitely a highlight. During "Travis County", Clark handed his guitar to a friend to finish out the closing guitar solo, and he brought out his sisters to sing along for "Church", although they unfortunately didn't add much. Clark was a good performer and played decent tunes, but the set just didn't take off like I might have hoped.

[Gary Clark Jr. with members of Hard Proof.]

The closing headliners of the night were Foo Fighters and Disclosure, neither of which held any appeal for me. I sat around for a few songs by Foo Fighters – enough to see Dave Grohl in his bizarre throne – but I just couldn't get interested. The setlist is available here. On my way out, I caught a few minutes of Disclosure's uninspired electronic beats. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to like in their performance and so I left early.

The London Souls: B+
Wolf Alice: B-
Billy Idol: C
Leon Bridges: B
Moon Taxi: D
Tame Impala: B-
George Ezra: C-
Gary Clark Jr.: C+

Final Thoughts: This was probably the most middling festival experience I've had yet. The band I was most excited about didn't deliver like I was hoping, the band I was second-most excited about was canceled, and no other band was truly exceptional. I saw several acts that put on a good performance, but left little under the surface. The one actual blast from the past, Billy Idol, was fine, but not really up my alley. I had a good enough time, but now I'm wondering if I had picked the wrong day solely because I was drawn so strongly by Tame Impala.

Another issue was sound bleeding over from one stage to another. Twice when I saw bands at the Austin Ventures stage (Wolf Alice and Goerge Ezra), it seemed like the volume was lower than whatever electronic garbage was coming from the nearby Miller Light stage. In both cases, their lower-key moments and nuances were lost to the incessant synthetic bass drum. It overpowered their sound and their spirit. I know that volume levels at major events on public grounds in Austin have recently come under new ordinances, but it seemed like there was still some work to do about managing and balancing the levels between stages.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wilco / William Tyler - Live 2015.09.29

Wilco came back at Stubb's, almost exactly two years since they played here last. (They also played at the Austin City Limits Festival, which was the first time I saw them.) This was the first of two sold-out nights at the venue on this tour, and they also played an afternoon set at Waterloo Records (announced only the day before!).

Artist: Wilco
Venue: Stubb's
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 September 2015
Opening Act: William Tyler

01. More...
02. Random Name Generator
03. The Joke Explained
04. You Satellite
05. Taste the Ceiling
06. Pickled Ginger
07. Where Do I Begin
08. Cold Slope →
09. King of You
10. Magnetized
11. At Least That's What You Said
12. Camera (Heavy Version)
13. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
14. Art of Almost
15. You Are My Face
16. Hummingbird
17. Box Full of Letters
18. Heavy Metal Drummer
19. I'm the Man Who Loves You
20. Dawned on Me
21. Impossible Germany
22. Red-Eyed and Blue
23. I Got You (At the End of the Century)
24. Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Encore 1:
25. Spiders (Kidsmoke)

Encore 2 (acoustic):
26. Misunderstood
27. I'm Always in Love
28. It's Just That Simple
29. Casino Queen
30. California Stars
31. A Shot in the Arm

William Tyler opened the evening on his own; he played solo electric guitar in a mesmerizing, mostly fingerpicked style. All of his songs were instrumental, and he only used a few modest effects and loops to augment them. He really just focused on his technique and his skill at writing great chiming guitar passages. He made a great sound that came across very pretty and very serene. He made half an hour go by before I'd realized any time had passed at all. His only mistake was a misguided attempt to play with feedback at the end of his set; it just came across as textureless, harsh noise.

Wilco came on stage to a tape of "EKG", a brief noisy instrumental that opens their new album, Star Wars. (If you missed the news, it was surprise-released as a free digital download, but it was a limited offer that has since expired. It is now commercially available on CD and soon on vinyl.) They proceeded to play the entire album straight through, so I'm going to end up reviewing the album as well whether I want to or not. (For the record, the last time I saw a band do this was The Smashing Pumpkins in 2012, and I wasn't particularly impressed.)

I rather like "EKG", even if it is a throwaway, and I was originally harboring hope that they'd play it live. Nonetheless, Star Wars starts off in earnest quite strong: "More..." and "Random Name Generator" are both great songs, instant singalongs, and just generally solid jams. Nels Cline was already tearing wildly into the latter. "The Joke Explained" is almost as good, and "You Satellite" takes things in a different direction, trading the rock 'n' roll swagger for a wide, slow build. The instruments give each other more space to breathe and grow, and by the end Cline was again soloing in his joyful, chaotic fashion. "Taste the Ceiling" is another song of the classic mold with a steady beat with a slight country touch.

But this is where things begin to break down on the album, and by extension, on stage. The back half of the album features a bunch of songs that seem like a bit of an afterthought. They're all fairly short, they all sound like Wilco-by-the-numbers, most of the titles don't make sense, and the lyrics are a mixed bag. Two of them even feature the exact same beat and tempo, making the transition from one to the next difficult to discern. Even on stage, it was easy to miss. Since neither has many particularly distinctive qualities, this seems like a deliberately poor concept. At least the album closer, "Magnetized", is a bit better. It's still far from revolutionary or bold, but its got good hooks and a decent sound. I like it.

Played live, I realized partway through that I couldn't hear any keyboards in most of the songs ("Magnetized" being the main exception). This struck me as odd for a band so noted for their elaborate keyboard arrangements ever since Jay Bennett joined the band. Mikael Jorgensen was playing on every song, but he simply wasn't audible. Later in the show, he was much more present in the mix, but it seemed he was deliberately obscured for the album set. Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone stuck solely to his guitar for these songs, although those parts were also oddly hard to discern. I was struck that the new album has a simplicity uncommon for the band, although there are of course exceptions, such as "You Satellite". This approach seems decidedly detrimental in some songs, although it perhaps works well for others.

At any rate, after finishing the run-through of the album, Jeff Tweedy finally addressed the audience and thanked us for listening. There was only a brief pause before they began the brooding "At Least That's What You Said", where Tweedy finally brought out his lead guitar skills. When Cline joined in as well, it made for quite a sight. Sansone finally took the keyboard for this one, and Mikael was at last audible as well. This was followed by "Camera", played in a heavy style as found on the More Like the Moon EP. This was an unexpected highlight for me, as I think it's a great song in any version, and the heavier take is much rarer. By the time they got to the always-awesome "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", I was ready to forgive them for playing the entire weaker half of Star Wars.

Wilco kept up the energy and kept the great songs coming one after another. There was hardly a dull moment for the rest of the night, and the band played in top form. Cline's guitar and noise work was always particularly thrilling, but his solos on "Art of Almost" and "Dawned on Me" were especially remarkable. I was pleased to see Tweedy throwing in some solid solos, too, as in "I'm the Man Who Loves You". "Impossible Germany" was another highlight if for no other reason than that Cline, Tweedy, and Sansone all got to play lead guitar simultaneously. The instrumental passages may have gone on quite long, but when they are written and performed as well as this was, one simply cannot complain.

I don't want to overlook John Stiratt or Glenn Kotche, either. Stiratt's bass has always been one of my favorite parts of the Wilco sound, and his basslines are particularly strong on the better half of Star Wars. His backing vocals are perhaps under-appreciated, but on stage it is obvious that his harmonies are an essential element of the band as well. While his voice has a countrified inflection that might otherwise annoy me, in tandem with Tweedy they balance and strengthen each other. Kotche's moments to shine were of course "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and "Heavy Metal Drummer", but there were plenty of songs where his drums drove the song.

The band hardly paused between songs, often barely even letting one finish before the guitarists were exchanging instruments and preparing to dive right into the next one. This careful strategizing allows them to pack as many songs in their setlist as they can. They played 24 songs in 100 minutes before finally walking offstage. Of course, they came right back, but only for one song: the long, droning "Spiders (Kidsmoke)". I was worried this could be the end, but in the dark I could see the stagehands rearranging the stage.

When the band returned for the second time, they settled down at the front of the stage with acoustic guitars and a minimalist drumset for Kotche. The entire final set was done solely with acoustic instruments, similar to their recent performance on KEXP. I liked the change of pace; it was a nice way to do something different but still have space to shine. Some of the songs worked better than others in this setting; "Casino Queen" has never been their strongest song, but "I'm Always in Love" and "A Shot in the Arm" both worked quite well. Jorgensen switched to melodica and Sansone to banjo or xylophone for most of the songs, and while they were sometimes hard to hear in the mix, the arrangements were great. Cline's slide guitar was still the primary instrument, but the dirtier, earthier tones actually reminded me somehow of Blixa Bargeld's trademark guitar sound from his days with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

"It's Just That Simple", the only Wilco song written by Stiratt and featuring his lead vocals, bears a certain charm that fit right in with the set. I find it endearing enough that I rather wish Stiratt would write and sing more often. "California Stars", however, is an undisputed three-chord masterpiece, and the band made the most of it by trading solos between the verses. I only wish they had played more songs from the Mermaid Avenue albums.

31 songs in less than two and a half hours is fairly impressive, especially when many of the songs are not at all brief affairs. Wilco have a tendency to play and replay about half of their back catalog while consistently ignoring the other half, which makes their setlists always slightly different but never wildly unusual. This is a blessing and a curse: they know what their best songs are, and you'll usually hear most of them at any given concert, but you also rarely get surprises. However, while it could be pure coincidence, it does seem like they tailor their setlists for each city to maximize the variation over time for a given audience. At any rate, their high level of energy and musicianship combined with a very good setlist made for an excellent evening. The full album performance of Star Wars might be imperfect, but the night only got better after the weaker half of the album was over.

William Tyler: B+
Wilco: A-
Star Wars: B-

P.S. The setlist for the second night can be found here. It actually is quite different than the first night, perhaps leaning a little more towards the obscure. I wish I'd seen "A Magazine Called Sunset", though!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kraftwerk - Live 2015.09.25 (Late Show)

After selling out their originally scheduled show, Kraftwerk added a second show later in the same evening. There were conflicting reports as to whether this show sold out as well, but judging by the number of empty seats, it most likely did not.

Artist: Kraftwerk
Venue: Bass Concert Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 25 September 2015 (Late Show)

01. Numbers
02. Computer World
03. It's More Fun to Compute → Home Computer
04. Computer Love
05. Pocket Calculator
06. The Man-Machine
07. Spacelab
08. The Model
09. Neon Lights
10. Autobahn
11. Airwaves
12. Intermission → News
13. Geiger Counter → Radioactivity
14. Ohm Sweet Ohm
15. Electric Café
16. Tour de France
17. Trans-Europe Express → Metal on Metal → Abzug

Encore 1:
18. The Robots

Encore 2:
19. Aéro Dynamik
20. Boing Boom Tschak → Techno Pop → Musique Non-Stop

This is a band I don't think I ever imagined I would get to see. Kraftwerk don't seem to tour very extensively, and they rarely ever tour the US. As far as I know, they've only performed full US tours twice before last year: in 1975 and 1981. (For details, see here.) Last year, they toured the world to promote their reissued Catalogue box set. This year, they've returned for more with a Kraftwerk in 3D tour. It seems logical to connect this recent burst of touring with the departure in 2008 of founding member Florian Schneider, who was known to be rather reclusive.

Initially, I was concerned that the 3D aspect was just going to be a gimmick, similar to the attempts of Hollywood to use the same idea to convince moviegoers to return to the theaters and pay extra. However, I'd long since known that Kraftwerk had taken to developing intricate visual experiences for their concerts to make up for their lack of traditional "stage presence". For a band bound to their keyboards and electronics (and also considered to be somewhat awkward and reserved), this is a wise strategy, and it certainly paid off.

Obviously, I was there for the music above all else, but I was very impressed by the visual component. The band started off with a bunch of songs from their Computer World album from 1981, which were enhanced by floating and pulsating numbers, various technological imagery, and other scenes clearly referencing the associated album artwork. The visuals served to further highlight the continuing relevance of many of the tracks: the references to big business and data security in "Computer World", the precursors to online dating presaged by "Computer Love", and the foreshadowing of smartphones in "Pocket Calculator".

Kraftwerk then proceeded to a section of songs from The Man-Machine (1978). "Spacelab" was particularly humorous, as the visuals were projected such that it appeared that the band members were manipulating a space ship orbiting Earth. As the song progressed, their ship appeared to be landing. One visual featured satellite imagery panning northwards from Mexico. The crowd understood what was happening and cheered when a red marker appeared at the geographic location of Austin. This changed to a street map of downtown Austin followed by photographs of the actual venue. Ultimately, their ship settled down right in front of the building!

The imagery for the classic "Autobahn" began with an display resembling the associated album cover, but then continued to display various vehicles driving about the (presumably German) countryside highway. Most of the visuals seemed to be an excuse to show off high-quality processing of reflected images on the chrome and mirrors of the cars. The song was rearranged to be substantially shorter than the full 23-minute album version, but it was perhaps a little longer than nine-minute version from The Mix.

The next segment featured a series of tracks from Radio-Activity, including several of the shorter, experimental sound collage pieces. This included the "Geiger Counter" intro to "Radioactivity" and the faux-radio announcements of "Intermission" and "News". The latter featured the spoken text floating backwards in space, and as more voices were overlaid, the text field became increasingly crowded. "Radioactivity" was adapted to include references to Sellafield and Fukushima, clearly highlighting the political nature of the song. (Kraftwerk have appeared at many anti-nuclear protest concerts.) I was also delighted by the odd choice of "Ohm Sweet Ohm", a ridiculous track that reveals their dry humor.

After continuing their waltz through their back catalog, the curtain fell on the stage briefly before lifting up for "The Robots". But instead of the band members, there were animatronic human figures moving about behind the synthesizers. The visuals featured complex computer-generated images of similar robot versions of the musicians. It was simultaneously hilarious, creepy, and fascinating, all of which was more than enough to distract from the fact that we were presumably hearing a taped version of the song.

The curtain fell again, and after a long pause, the (real) band finally reappeared for a final encore. "Aéro Dynamik" might not be a very exciting song, but the extended medley derived from the first side of Electric Café (1986) was a great way to end the night. While "Musique Non-Stop" fittingly continued to pulsate, the band members one by one walked to the edge of the stage, bowed, and departed. The programmed music continued for another moment before it reached its end.

While the visual experience of the show was exceptional and far better than I had expected, the musical component should not be overlooked or taken for granted, either. The band had rearranged and updated most of the songs, such as to make them immediately recognizable, yet different from album versions in subtle ways. Many songs were really medleys with elements from multiple songs or components that were restructured from the recorded versions. Their willingness to keep developing the songs made the show unpredictable in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion.

Furthermore, the lyrics were a blend of the German and English versions – along with the French, Russian, Spanish, and whatever else is heard in all versions of some songs. I honestly wasn't expecting the bilingualism, but I liked the effect, and as a German-speaker, it reminded me of the slight differences in translation required by setting lyrics to a melody. (For the sake of convenience, I have used the English or international titles throughout this article, although it would have been just as fair to use the German versions.)

I had high expectations for this show going into it, considering how influential this band has been upon musical history and myself, but Kraftwerk exceeded all of them. The sound quality and mix were pristine; you literally could not ask for better. The 3D visuals were great, and even if some were a little cheesy, their playfulness and wit made them well worth the while. I suppose one could always ask for new songs or (gasp!) a new album, but for a band that's been around over 45 years, they do a fairly good job of reinventing themselves and staying relevant as time goes on. It helps that they were so far ahead of their contemporaries in the first place.

Score: A

P.S. Big thanks to my dad, both for introducing me to this band eleven or twelve years ago and for flying into town to join me at this concert. Thanks also to my mom and Alyssa for excusing us for an evening!

P.P.S. For the setlist of the early show, see here. It is conspicuously similar with the exception of missing "Ohm Sweet Ohm" and "Electric Café" and trading "Aéro Dynamik" for "Planet of Visions". I think I got the better deal!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Xylouris White - Live 2015.09.14

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 14 September 2015
Opening Act: Xylouris White

1. Hope Drone
2. Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'
3. Lambs' Breath
4. Asunder, Sweet
5. Piss Crowns Are Trebled
6. [Unknown New Song]
7. Moya
8. [Unknown New Song]
9. The Sad Mafioso

I have a bad history with getting really excited about a band just after they've broken up. Take, for example, my fascination with The Smashing Pumpkins, who I became a fan of in 2001, less than a year after they'd split. Or consider Siouxsie & the Banshees, who I found out about just after their final reunion tour in 2002. Well, it turns out that I bought my first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album (actually, it was their EP) in 2004, about a year after they'd split up.

Sometimes, though, you get a second chance. Obviously, it's debatable whether The Smashing Pumpkins are quite as good the second time around, but at least when it comes to GY!BE, one could almost believe they didn't disappear for seven years. It's not that their two post-reunion albums don't show growth from Yanqui U.X.O. (2002), but it's more like they just needed a break and then decided to take the next logical step forward. Long gone are the days of vox populi spoken word segments and tracks with multiple individually named movements. The band still prefers lengthy works with large-scale dynamic buildups, but now there is even less focus on specific words and ideas and more of a sense of depth, imagery, and heaviness.

While the band has always expressed themselves well without words, seeing them live only proves the point further. The eight instrumental members sit or stand on stage in something of a circle with no vocal mics anywhere to be seen. They start and stop playing like they could do it even if they weren't deliberating facing each other and avoiding eye contact with the audience. There's one extra element that brings it all together: the ninth member, not be found on stage, but rather about five feet to the right of where I was standing on the first balcony. Karl Lemieux patiently manipulated three slide projectors and racks of bits of tape throughout then entire show, and it's his work (along with whomever else produced the images) that contextualizes the music and makes the implicit messages a little more, shall we say, explicit.

Initially, the slides were mostly just vague, scratchy scrawls with the occasional appearance of the word "hope", lending a name to the band's post-reunion regular opening drone. This may have gone on a little long, but it certainly set the mood for the subsequent performance of the entirety of the new album, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Even though this rendition was not substantially different than the studio recording, it is still a powerful experience and certainly enhanced by the visual material, which shifted towards themes of urban decay and abandoned houses. (Certainly this wouldn't be a critique of unbridled American capitalism, would it!?)

This performance was also special for a historical reason. The band has been performing the material on this album since 2012, when it was known by fans as "Behemoth" due to appearing to be a single, continuous 45-minute work. It was at this same venue in that year that the band played one of the first versions of this work, and a high-quality (authorized!) fan recording widely circulated the following day. (See here; it's still freely available for streaming and download.)

The second half of the evening was a mix of very old favorites ("Moya" from the aforementioned Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP and "The Sad Mafioso" from their debut album F♯ A♯ ∞) and two new songs, continuing their longstanding trend of debuting new material on the road years before releasing studio versions. The old songs were no surprise but great to witness live. "The Sad Mafioso" was extended substantially, building from the opening sparse, wayward guitar notes and droning soundscape to a massive, heavy, rocking beast.

The two new works were the highlight of the night: they were entirely unpredictable even while still working in the band's familiar modes. The first opened with pretty bass chords followed by chiming, interlocked guitars before expanding outward. Slides depicted unfinished or abandoned buildings and stock market tickers, seeming to indict senselessly destructive real estate speculation. The second started with folky violin and picked guitar patterns. It built up very slowly with a slow tempo, but eventually changed direction entirely with heavier guitars and a faster pace. It ultimately felt like a very long piece; recent concert recordings indicate it is about 22 minutes long. (See here or here, for example.) The slides for this piece mostly followed train tracks through a wooded countryside. The emotional message was less clear to me, but the music was good enough that I didn't mind.

There is only one other thing I can really criticize about the show: the mix. For the most part, it was as great as most shows I see at this venue or almost anywhere in Austin. However, the low end was overdone and a bit muddy. Mixing a band with two bassists, three guitarists, two drummers, and a violinist is probably a bit of a de facto challenge, although in practice the only part left to be desired was the distinction and clarity of the two bassists. I could usually hear one or the other, but rarely both. The resulting morass of low-end excess actually felt physically weighty and almost sickening. I had to give up my spot and sit down at one point because I couldn't take it. Now, I usually enjoy the physical element of live music (when I have appropriate ear protection at hand, of course!), but on this occasion I think there was a flaw in the sound design.

A word about the openers: I was interested in seeing this collaboration between Cretan lutenist George Xylouris and former Dirty Three drummer Jim White, but as the set times weren't posted until 6pm and the opener went on at 7:15pm, there was little I could do to see the full set. Of the 15 minutes I did see, it seemed like they held promise, but it's hard to say more than that. Xylouris' lute sounded way cooler than I would have expected, but his voice didn't do much for me. Meanwhile, White's drumming was maybe just a bit too unhinged. Perhaps I looked too closely, but I thought the timing wasn't always as sharp as I would've expected. Still, I wish I could've seen the whole thing.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: B+
Xylouris White: B-