Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Cure / The Twilight Sad - Live 2016.05.13

Artist: The Cure
Venue: Frank Erwin Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 13 Friday 2016
Opening Act: The Twilight Sad

The Twlight Sad's setlist (thanks to here):
1. There's a Girl in the Corner
2. Last January
3. I Became a Prostitute
4. I Could Give You All That You Don't Want
5. Cold Days From the Birdhouse
6. It Never Was the Same
7. And She Would Darken the Memory

The Cure's setlist:
01. Out of This World
02. Pictures of You
03. Closedown
04. A Night Like This
05. All I Want
06. Push
07. Last Dance
08. Lovesong
09. Just Like Heaven
10. This Twilight Garden
11. Lullaby
12. Fascination Street
13. Screw
14. The End of the World
15. Want
16. Us or Them
17. The Hungry Ghost
18. Prayers for Rain
19. Bloodflowers

Encore 1:
20. Step Into the Light
21. Shake Dog Shake
22. Never Enough
23. Wrong Number

Encore 2:
24. Hot Hot Hot!!!
25. Close to Me
26. The Exploding Boy
27. In Between Days
28. Doing the Unstuck
29. Friday I'm in Love

Encore 3:
30. Burn
31. It Can Never Be the Same

Encore 4:
32. A Forest
33. Boys Don't Cry

The Twilight Sad are a Scottish band merging post-punk roots inspired by the likes of The Cure with a more contemporary indie rock sound and effects-laden guitar straight from the shoegazing canon. Despite the scheduled set time of 7:30pm (already fairly early), they actually went on ten minutes early. That was a first for me. I liked the keyboards and vocals, and the guitar was great, but the drums were loud and overpowered the other instruments, especially the bass. This could have just been a product of where I was sitting, but it worked against them. On the slower and more open sections where the drums were less intense, the rest of the instruments became much clearer and distinct, which made me wish they all sounded like that. I had trouble understanding the vocalist, but I still liked the general direction of the songs. Robert Smith has made his fondness of the band well-known, and it's easy to understand why.

[The Cure.]

I've seen The Cure twice before: a disappointing show during 2008 in Kansas City when Robert Smith was sick, and a better, albeit abbreviated, headlining set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2013. This time, my expectations were tempered by my previous experiences, but I was still hoping for a solid, full set to make up for those shortcomings.

As usual, the setlist was a mix of material from throughout their long history, but most biased towards their most popular and critically acclaimed era, spanning roughly 1985 through 1989 (i.e., The Head on the Door; Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me; and Disintegration). They don't play much from their last two albums or their somewhat maligned Wild Mood Swings from 1996, but the songs they do pick from those tend to be the same choices every time, and it speaks plenty about the mediocrity of the production of those albums that the songs in question sound much better when performed live. "The End of the World" was never a very good song, but "Want" and "The Hungry Ghost" actually fit right in with the rest of the material. Even "Us or Them" turned out decently.

Otherwise, they consistently do a great job of appeasing both casual and diehard fans. They played just about all of their big hits, but they also played a wealth of deep album cuts ("Closedown", "All I Want", and "Screw" were somewhat unexpected delights), a few really old songs ("Shake Dog Shake", "A Forest", "Boys Don't Cry"), two new songs, and even two b-sides. Other special treats were "Burn", a grand, looming song from the soundtrack of The Crow, and two superior cuts from Bloodflowers, their last great album. I could always ask for more of the really old material, but they played so many great songs, including a lot of surprising choices, that it wouldn't be fair to complain about the setlist. It is kind of ridiculous that they played over half the songs from Disintegration, but I doubt anyone is going to argue about that.

Both of the b-sides were excellent songs that sometimes make one wonder how songs that good could end up left as flipsides. "This Twilight Garden", a b-side of "High" from 1992, is a dreamy, darkly pretty song that was better than half of the songs that actually were on Wish, and "The Exploding Boy", a b-side of "In Between Days" from 1985, is an uptempo number that is almost as good as the a-side. These are the type of songs that make Join the Dots (the b-sides and rarities collection from 2004) worth owning.

Both new songs were reasonably good, if not outstanding. "Step Into the Light" was somewhat by the numbers, but "It Can Never Be the Same" was more sprawling and had more depth to it. I'm curious if these are from the large set of unfinished songs from the 4:13 Dream sessions or if they are more recent compositions. More importantly, does this imply that The Cure are finally readying a new album for release? (It's only been eight years!)


I'm glad that The Cure tour as a five-piece again. The Cure without a keyboardist isn't really The Cure (unless they are playing Three Imaginary Boys), and Roger O'Donnell has proven himself an integral member of the band, so I'm glad he is back in the fold. However, Reeves Gabrels still strikes me as an unsuitable replacement for Porl/Pearl Thompson. Reeves' guitarwork is too flashy and aggressive for The Cure; these songs demand melody, grace, subtlety, and careful tonality, not blazing, roaring solos. When Reeves played the songs by the numbers, they worked fine, but when he stepped out into his own ground, such as in "Wrong Number" or the solo in "A Night Like This", the songs suffered from his showmanship. "Shake Dog Shake" and "Never Enough" fared somewhat better; his wild abandon mostly worked with the unrestrained energy of both songs.

Drummer Jason Cooper tends to be overlooked, but he plays the parts of his predecessor drummers with effortless ease. All of the little drum flourishes of "Prayers for Rain" were right where they should be, and the toms-heavy parts of songs like "Closedown" were right on the mark. Similarly, it can also be easy to forget that Simon Gallup's bass contributions are fundamental to the sound of the band, but on stage, he was visibly driving every single song. His bass was pleasantly prominent without being overwhelming, and he was also the only member that really moved around on stage much.

Robert Smith's instrumental work is as solid as ever, and he still took a few solos, such as in "Lovesong", "Prayers for Rain", and "A Forest". He even brought out a flute for the intro to "Burn". His vocals aren't quite what they once were, but he mostly avoided the squealing, yelping style that has characterized the last two albums, the re-recorded vocals on some of the demos on the older album reissues, and the last Cure concert I saw. Actually, this was probably the best vocal performance I've heard from him in a long time. The only noticeably weak moment was at the end of "In Between Days", when it became obvious that Robert couldn't hit the final notes of the "without you" line in the higher octave. He didn't even try and instead sung them in the lower range used for the rest of the song.

[What a great way to waste electricity during the encore break.]

It's amazing that the Cure can still sell out stadiums despite not having released an album in eight years, and it's not like their last two albums were particularly good, either. I suppose the fact that they have enough strong back-catalog material to play incredibly long sets that vary significantly from night to night is probably a big part of their draw. It certainly worked for me. Even with a few weak songs and the occasionally indulgent guitarwork from Gabrels, this was the Cure concert I wish I'd seen back in 2008.

Scores:
The Twilight Sad: B-
The Cure: A-

Monday, May 2, 2016

Levitation 2016 Day 1

Levitation has a bit of a mixed track record, although I still think it's the best festival in town in terms of the quality of the music, which is of course the most important criterion anyway. Last year, I was so frustrated by the failure of the shuttle system that I wasn't sure I wanted to come back this year. (The rainstorms and mud didn't help, either.) However, they once again put together an incredible lineup and I decided to give it another go. In fact, I bought tickets for both Friday and Saturday.

As I'm sure everyone has heard by now, the festival was canceled as of 5pm on Thursday. Heavy thunderstorms were looming once again, and the festival site was already worse for wear from storms throughout the last week. The organizers rushed to put together as many shows at local venues as they could manage, but unfortunately most of them sold out as soon as they went on sale, as the demand was understandably out of control. I failed to procure any tickets, but decided to try to see what I could see anyway.

Event: Levitation 2016 Day 1
Venues: KUTX Studio 1A and Scoot Inn
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 April 2016

Details about the make-up shows were a bit scarce and initially available only through Facebook and Twitter. The Austin Chronicle began keeping track of them, and I saw that one of the bands I was interested in, Dungen, would be making an appearance at KUTX. I mentioned this to a friend, and he immediately was on board, so we rushed to the University of Texas campus, found a parking spot, and made it to the radio station studio just in time to be let in.

All I knew about Dungen was that they were Swedish and occupied a space somewhere between psych, folk, and prog. The started playing something that sounded like standard-issue indie rock, but driven by a grand piano and a prominent bass. However, as the song progressed, it gradually turned into a serious prog rock jam. It slowly wound down, but without really pausing, the band started into the next song, which led into another tremendous jam. At the end of the third iteration of this pattern, someone whispered in the singer's ear and they brought the show to an end. They only played for fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was a fantastic journey. The instrumental work was top-notch, the harmonies were transcendent, and the jams were captivating without being excessive. It was just a shame they didn't get more time.

[Dungen at KUTX.]

It was before, during, and immediately after this set that the fiasco of the make-up show tickets occurred. Around 2:30, Levitation announced a series of make-up gigs, with a claim that ticket holders would have advance access. This took the form of an email sent at about 2:50 that contained the same links to Transmission Events ticketing pages that were available on the Levitation website. The tickets were supposed to go on sale at either 3 or 3:30 (reports varied), but it fact they appeared to go on sale at variable times throughout the hour. I tried my best, but I did not get tickets for anything. They all sold out with incredible speed. There was really only one that I was really, really interested in, though: Slowdive with Brian Jonestown Massacre and Twin Peaks at the Scoot Inn. In desperation, I scoured the internet for scalpers, but I could only find others looking for the same tickets.

At this point, it was clear that it wasn't actually going to rain that day. This matters, because Scoot Inn is an outdoor venue. Admittedly, it was odd that an event that was canceled due to weather would be moved in part to an outdoor venue, but I guess it worked out. I decided to head to the venue and try my chances at getting a ticket on the spot. I biked on down and quickly realized I was one of many looking for a ticket. I gave up as soon as I realized that there was a grassy parking lot adjacent to the venue's stage that was full of people hoping to catch some of the scattered sound waves. I found a decent spot where I could see the speaker racks on stage, sat down, and waited to see what happened. This was my view when Twin Peaks went on:

[Twin Peaks at Scoot Inn.]

It wasn't a perfect experience, but I was excited for the show and figured it was worth making the most of it. Realistically, I couldn't see anything, and the audio wasn't as good as I'm sure it was inside, but I could still hear enough to enjoy it. (It also helped to have a friend join me and bring beer.) I'm going to do my best to review what I heard, although my scores will be admittedly somewhat tentative. I doubt my experience truly represents what the bands offered to the people inside.

Twin Peaks played a sort of catchy but rather generic garage rock. They seemed to play rock 'n' roll fairly straight and by-the-numbers, but I appreciated that they did have some finesse about it. They were skilled at dropping in little rhythmic flourishes and shifts that kept their set from getting too boring. They didn't seem particularly sophisticated, but they sounded better than their studio work had led me to expect.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre were up next. I actually saw them at Levitation two years ago, back when it was still Austin Psych Fest, and they were the topmost headliner after Primal Scream dropped out. That time around, they played good music, but they went on late, only played for 45 minutes, and were plagued by sound issues. This year there were no major sound problems, but they still only played for about an hour since they weren't the headliner. They again featured an abundance of guitarists that all mostly played the same thing, and while it did make for a fairly big, warm sound, it also was a somewhat monolithic or monotonous sound. They played consistently good grooves, but rarely played something really thrilling. The vocals had a characteristic sort of lazy, stoned quality to them, which contributed to a fairly mellow mood despite their classic rock obsessions. The side of their music more akin to shoegazing, as represented by their early album Methodrone (from which they played "She's Gone"), came to the fore. I suppose it was only appropriate considering the headliner, although I may have just been reading into it because of the pairing, and my removed location may have influenced my perception as well. An incomplete setlist can be found here.

[Brian Jonestown Massacre at Scoot Inn.]

Finally, Slowdive came on stage. Here's the setlist (with some help from here):

01. Slowdive
02. Avalyn
03. Catch the Breeze
04. Crazy for You
05. Machine Gun
06. Souvlaki Space Station
07. When the Sun Hits
08. Morningrise
09. She Calls
10. Alison
11. Golden Hair (James Joyce/Syd Barrett cover)

Ever since they reunited in 2014, Slowdive have relied on a fairly regular setlist for their shows. It's hard to complain, though, since it's a solid collection of songs. It is quite biased towards Souvlaki, and includes more EP tracks than anything from either other album, but that's probably a fair representation of their best work. Naturally, they started with the eponymous "Slowdive" from their debut self-titled EP.

Slowdive also have a tendency to let their three guitarists meld their sound together into one big sound, but they make it work more successfully. While The Brian Jonestown Massacre aim for a thick chorus effect, Slowdive develop a gigantic wall of sound. They rely on a variety of guitar effects, driving bass, and airy vocals to build up their desired atmosphere. It makes for a beautiful and hazy sound that just washes over you in waves. While the music flowed past, the vocals were mostly indecipherable, although that's fairly par for the cource with shoegazing acts. At any rate, the music was somewhat heavier and more intense than on record, which may reveal the insufficiencies of the production available to them at the time. At the point in "When the Sun Hits" where the song really picks up, it felt huge. It's already a great song on record, but this performance felt transcendent. Some other songs admittedly seemed a bit vague and meandering, but most of them were a wonderful experience to bask in.

Final Thoughts: This was a strange day by any metric. It was very disappointing to have the festival canceled, especially with such short notice, but it would seem that Travis County made the call and that was that. (Apparently the flooding concerns were bad enough that the Lower Colorado River Authority decreed that camping by the river would not be permissible.) Although Friday was ultimately a clear day, overnight it stormed heavily. Levitation and Carson Creek Ranch posted pictures the following morning showing the devastating results: thoroughly flooded grounds, knocked-down fences and portapotties, and destroyed tents. It turns out they made the right call. (Amazingly, there were claims floating around the internet that Levitation conspired to cancel the event since it didn't sell out and they could recoup the insurance benefits. This makes no sense when you consider that the festival has never sold out.)

Despite my frustration and disappointment, I can't really say I'm upset, since it was clear that Levitation wasn't happy with the situation and was trying to make the most of it. I was far angrier after the shuttle situation of last year. However, while I sympathize with Levitation and trust that they are a committed, local organization dedicated more to the music than to the money, that's not to say they handled everything as well as they could have.

Levitation did a great job of putting together last minute shows all weekend, but disseminating the details was occasionally difficult. On the positive side, the shows were all $5 (or free) and all proceeds went to the Austin Relief Alliance. Much less positive was the fact that ticket holders were not actually given any sort of advance opportunity to purchase these tickets, despite the initial claim. This was particularly unfortunate for people that had traveled from out of town; all of their planning and early orders did nothing for them. In fact, the line of people that formed outside Scoot Inn for the Slowdive show got entirely screwed over. Supposedly, despite initial promises that they'd get the first chance at tickets, they were told at the last minute that they'd too have to use the overburdened website to try to buy tickets like everyone else. Since the tickets were cheap and could be bought in sets of up to four, there was a lot of complaining about scalpers, although I'm not actually sure how much of that really occurred. I've heard one report of a $75 resale, but not much else.

In the end, I still got to listen to two of the bands I wanted to see, and I caught a brief set of another, and that was all for free. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was better than nothing. I was far from alone; they were multiple hundreds of people in the fields and on the street around Scoot Inn, and I'd bet many of the other make-up venues had external crowds. I'm very disappointed that I lost my chance to see David J and the Gentlemen Thieves, and I missed out on Brian Wilson, Animal Collective, Woods, Lee Ranaldo, and plenty of others. On the other hand, I did see some interesting sights at the Scoot Inn parking lot, like this:

[Firedancer outside Scoot Inn.]

Scores:
Dungen: A-
Twin Peaks: C+
Brian Jonestown Massacre: B
Slowdive: A-

P.S. Many thanks to Mustafa!

P.P.S. What does it say about my luck (or the effect of climate change on Texas) that I have held tickets for the only Levitation to ever be canceled as well as the only day of Austin City Limits Fest to be canceled thus far?

[Edit 2016.05.03:] P.P.P.S. Phone video footage of the entire Slowdive set can be found here, and an mp3 of the entire Dungen set can be downloaded from KUTX here.

[Edit 2016.05.12:] P.P.P.P.S. The setlist of the Dungen radio appearance is here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Peter Murphy / Casual Strangers - Live 2016.04.28

I've seen Peter Murphy twice before (in 2009 and 2014), and neither time did he particularly impress me. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist seeing him again, especially since this tour was advertised as being a stripped-down, primarily acoustic affair. I also initially held out some hope that I might see a partial Bauhaus reunion since David J was scheduled to play two days later at Levitation. (More on that in my next post.) That didn't happen, but I didn't really expect it to since David J later announced a show in California on the same night as this show.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: The North Door
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 April 2016
Opening Act: Casual Strangers

Setlist:
01. Cascade
02. Secret
03. Indigo Eyes
04. All Night Long
05. Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem
06. The Bewlay Brothers (David Bowie cover)
07. A Strange Kind of Love
08. The Rose
09. King Volcano (originally performed by Bauhaus)
10. Kingdom's Coming (originally performed by Bauhaus)
11. Silent Hedges (originally performed by Bauhaus)
12. Never Fall Out
13. Gaslit

Encore:
14. Lion
15. The Three Shadows, Part I (originally performed by Bauhaus)
16. Hollow Hills (originally performed by Bauhaus)
17. Your Face

When Casual Strangers came out, I thought two of the members looked awfully familiar. I quickly realized they were Paul Waclawsky and Jaylinn Davidson of The Boxing Lesson, whom I had seen open for Murphy in 2014! However, instead of a rock-oriented approach with prominent lead guitar, this band aimed for a chilled-out, contemporary take on Kosmische Musik. Waclawsky still played some guitar, but in a more effect-laden, spaced-out manner, and he also played keyboards. Davidson again used a variety of keyboards, and they were joined by Katey Gunn (who looks like she could be a sister to Davidson) on electric slide guitar and keyboards and Jake Mitchell on drum pads, drum machines, and keyboards. It was a very synthetic experience, but one that worked. While very much a cosmic affair, there was just enough beat and noise to keep things interesting. It was relaxing and put me in a good mood.

[Casual Strangers.]

Peter Murphy was joined on this tour by longtime bassist/violinist Emilio DiZefalo-China and new recruit John Andrews on guitar. When they started out with "Cascade", they relied on some rather heavy-handed samples, and both of the accompanying musicians seemed to have little to do. It wasn't a great start, but thankfully the backing tracks did not reappear too often in the setlist. In fact, although a few other songs did use pre-recorded material ("All Night Long", "The Rose", "Gaslit", and "Your Face"), it was rarely ever again so obtrusive, and usually served to make the songs work well.

On the majority of the songs, the instrumental work was remarkable. DiZefalo-China was the star in that regard. For example, he played the great bass part and all the lead parts in "Indigo Eyes" on his fretless bass, and he adeptly applied effects and clever techniques on his violin to simulate the lead part of "The Bewlay Brothers" and the chromatic piano in "King Volcano". And even when he wasn't doing something unexpected, his bass work and lead violin parts were consistently great. Andrews was no simpleton, either: he mostly played acoustic guitar and filled out a wide variety of complex picking patterns. He occasionally switched to electric guitar, where he would make the songs come alive without overpowering them. He even brought out a bow for "Hollow Hills", which suited the song perfectly!

Peter Murphy himself was in good form as well. It was a bit odd to see him sit for just about the entire performance, but he also played more guitar than I've ever seen before ("Indigo Eyes", "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem", "A Strange Kind of Love", and "The Three Shadows, Part 1"). He might not be the most technically proficient guitarist, but he handles his 12-string guitar with a comfortable ease that makes me wish he'd use it even more. "The Three Shadows" was a real treat, even if Murphy's wordless vocal near the end was off-key. It was a somewhat unexpected choice, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that Murphy would play the main rhythm guitar part.

[Peter Murphy playing 12-string guitar.]

Other than that one bit of vocal faltering, Murphy's voice was soaring. He can still belt out huge songs seemingly effortlessly. His choice of songs was excellent, too: we got two great songs from the underappreciated Secret Bees of Ninth EP, one of the better tracks from Ninth itself, several classics from Murphy's heyday, and a total of five Bauhaus songs. The only weaker moments were "Cascade" (I wish he'd chosen anything else from that album!) and "Lion". Even "Lion" was a touch better than it is on record, and the other song from Lion, "The Rose", was certainly an improvement over the studio version. "The Bewlay Brothers" was a somewhat odd choice, but Murphy isn't new to covering Bowie, and he did it justice. The Bauhaus songs were all quite successful, and "Hollow Hills" was perhaps the best of the bunch: Murphy even played melodica in a few parts.

[Murphy on melodica for "Hollow Hills".]

It wasn't clear if Murphy would give us an encore. Several nights of this tour have not gotten one, or just a short one, and the last time I saw Murphy he didn't play his planned full encore. We were graced with a full four additional songs, and when Murphy reappeared, his only words were "I'm a black star, I'm not a gangster", quoting from the title track of David Bowie's last album, Blackstar. He also was adorned with a red rose attached on an armband, which he plucked apart and tossed on his backing musicians before "Your Face". Murphy didn't say much at all through the night, but he did walk to the very front of the stage at the end of that last song to shake hands with audience members. He finally broke a smile and acknowledged the adoration of the crowd.

Scores:
Casual Strangers: B
Peter Murphy: A-

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 Jeanne-Marie Varain 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+