Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Jesus & Mary Chain / Cold Cave - Live 2017.10.12

The Jesus & Mary Chain were one of the first "older" bands that I was introduced to in high school, and yet after hunting down several of their albums, I lost interest. Psychocandy may be novel, but Darklands is the only album I still listen to regularly. They always had a rather crass and debauched side to them, and over time that increasingly bothered me. When they reformed and played at Levitation in 2015, I had a passing interest, but they were doing one of those full-album shows for Psychocandy and I just wasn't sold on it. But with a new album in tow, I figured it was finally worth giving them a chance.

Artist: The Jesus & Mary Chain
Venue: Astra Kulturhaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 October 2017
Opening Act: Cold Cave

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Amputation
02. Happy When It Rains
03. Head On
04. Always Sad (with Bernadette Denning)
05. Black and Blues
06. Mood Rider
07. April Skies
08. Between Planets
09. Snakedriver
10. Teenage Lust
11. Cherry Came Too
12. All Things Pass
13. Some Candy Talking
14. Halfway to Crazy
15. Darklands
16. Reverence

First Encore:
17. Just Like Honey (with Bernadette Denning)
18. Cracking Up
19. In a Hole
20. War on Peace

Second Encore:
21. Sidewalking
22. I Hate Rock 'n' Roll

When Cold Cave hit the stage, the venue was still quite sparsely populated, so I got up close despite the loud volume. They matched their retro synthpop/darkwave sound with a stark look emphasized by heavy shadows and white light. It was hard to tell what was pre-programmed, what was synthesized on the spot, and what was the result of heavily treated guitar and drums. I liked their use of effects, but it did make me wonder what exactly I was hearing. Their uptempo, danceable songs sometimes sounded a bit too much like New Order, except that it continually seemed like there was a melody or something in the high end that was missing. It's possible that the problem was just that the mix was poor, especially since it seemed like the keyboardist's backing vocals were mostly inaudible.

[Cold Cave.]

The new album from The Jesus & Mary Chain, Damage and Joy, isn't particularly notable except that it sounds a lot like their classic work, despite being released about 19 years after their previous album. I admittedly had only marginal interest in seeing the new songs live, but they largely fit in right alongside the older ones. The most bizarre part was that Jim Reid sounded identical to his younger self from 30 years before. Also strange was that Jim sang all of the songs, even the ones that William Reid had sung on record. Meanwhile, William stuck to the shadows with his guitar, and Jim didn't even touch an instrument. Drummer Brian Young, bassist Phil King, and rhythm guitarist Mark Crozer rounded out the band, although none of them retreated from the shadows.

I was concerned about the quality of the performance after I caught a few stumbles by William and Young in the first few songs. However, they quickly hit a stride and pumped out some solid tunes. Not every one of their songs was a winner, but they mostly kept to the better half of their catalog. Only a couple of their choices reminded me of their less appealing side (e.g. "Teenage Lust"). Furthermore, it seemed that the band share my feelings about their career peak: they played four numbers from Darklands, more than any other album except their latest.

Their lyrics have never been particularly strong, but sometimes (as with "Darklands" or "April Skies") they get a combination of mood, melody, and music together to make something affecting. Their best songs might just be a combination of 60s bubblegum pop and heavy distortion, but sometimes that just works. There were also a few successful exceptions, like the dense, swampy, extended "Reverence".

Thankfully, the band didn't live up to their reputation of being antagonistic and short-tempered. There were no drunken brawls and it was not just a brief affair of pure sonic assault. They played a long set (with two encores, even!) and thanked the crowd. That said, it was incredibly loud. My ears were ringing despite using my strongest ear plugs. Even if they aren't as wild and exciting as they may have once been, I think consistency and reliability have their merits, too. The show ended up being a bit better than I was hoping, and far better than I feared it could be.

[The Jesus & Mary Chain with Bernadette Denning.]

Scores:
Cold Cave: B-
The Jesus & Mary Chain: B+

Friday, October 6, 2017

Slowdive / Isan - Live 2017.10.03

Last time I saw Slowdive, it wasn't under the best of circumstances. While I still managed to enjoy the show, trying to watch from outside the venue wasn't exactly ideal. When I heard about this show, I jumped at the chance to see them in a proper setting.

Artist: Slowdive
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 October 2017
Opening Act: Isan

Setlist:
01. Slomo
02. Catch the Breeze
03. Crazy for You
04. Star Roving
05. Slowdive
06. Souvlaki Space Station
07. Avalyn
08. Don't Know Why
09. Blue Skied an' Clear
10. When the Sun Hits
11. Alison
12. Sugar for the Pill
13. Golden Hair [Syd Barrett / James Joyce cover]

Encore:
14. No Longer Making Time
15. Dagger
16. 40 Days

Isan are an English electronic duo. They played some warm, chill grooves with an outdoor vibe, almost like I was at a campsite at dusk. The dream-like sound suited the mood of the band they were opening for, but they risked being too mellow and easy to get lost in. Especially since they had no stage presence and the light show was minimal, it was easy to be distracted. The audience was only partially interested. A couple of their tracks picked up with a heavier beat, which served to break things up and keep attention focused, but I ultimately enjoyed the lower-key music more. Their closing number crescendoed more substantially and brought things to a nice finish.

[Isan.]

Slowdive started the night with their new self-titled album's opening track, the slowly unfolding "Slomo". They immediately sounded just as good as I could've asked for, and they picked a perfect song for the job of introducing themselves and their new album. The instruments started sparse and shimmering, but gradually layered across each other magnificently. Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell's vocals took their time to enter but melded seamlessly. The mix of instruments was excellent, and the vocals were surprisingly clear and strong (considering that the band is famous for exactly the opposite).

Their setlist may not have been full of surprises, but they chose a good mix of songs from across their career. The place for surprises came in the form of the nuances of the performances. Continually throughout the night, I found myself noticing details that I'd never heard on the records, like a bass riff or drum fill that only appeared briefly in the background. I'm still not sure if those elements were always there and had previously escaped my notice, or if the band just adds little flourishes at will when they play live. Either case is believable, but in any event, those additions made the performance sound particularly special.

Several songs featured intense, extended jams that took their recorded versions as a blueprint but launched much further and deeper than what I'd heard before. "Catch the Breeze" was especially notable in that regard; it built up to thunderous peak that had me completely entranced. "Golden Hair" was given a similar treatment, although I was expecting that one.

"Souvlaki Space Station", on the other hand, was played in a more dynamic style. The band emphasized the calmer verses by dropping the intensity of the guitars substantially before the trademark sweeping effects returned to focus for the rest of the song. Most songs carried a high energy level, but "Dagger" was extremely stripped down, and "Blue Skied an' Clear" was fairly tame as well. These quieter moments might have been a let-down but for the fact that they served as a reprieve and a counterpoint to the rest of the set.

Slowdive's new songs are no disappointment, either. While the laziness of self-titling the album is unfortunate, the contents are what matter, and they are impressively consistent with the band's older work. Although it may sound like familiar territory, the band only had two original classic albums (sorry, Pygmalion), so re-asserting themselves in the same vein is hardly a matter to take issue with. Live, the new songs fit alongside the older work gracefully. Their quality is high enough that I found myself anticipating and enjoying them just as much as the other songs.

The only flaw of the show came in the form of a few drumming hiccups. A couple were minor and easy to forgive, but at the start of the coda of "No Longer Making Time", right when the music picked back up, a drum effect went haywire and the band just cut off the closing chords of the song. It was no great loss, and to an extent there is comfort in seeing a great band make a mistake so that you at least know that it's not all pre-recorded. And if that's the worst thing I can complain about, I know that this was a superb show.

[Slowdive.]

Scores:
Isan: C+
Slowdive: A+
Slowdive (the new album): A-

Monday, September 25, 2017

Lol Tolhurst - Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys (2016)

Title: Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys
Author: Lol Tolhurst
Publisher: De Capo Press (US), Quercus (UK)
Year: 2016

[US cover.]

Rock star memoirs appear to be in vogue these days. It seems like any musician that wants to get taken seriously has to write one, and getting contracts must not be very difficult. In the world of musicians I follow, this trend started to pick up steam with Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (2012) and Peter Hook's The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2009). Then there was the inevitable stir caused by Morrissey's Autobiography (2013). Tellingly, each of those artists has written subsequent books. We've come far enough now that it isn't just the frontpeople of famous bands writing these memoirs. We've got David J's Who Killed Mister Moonlight? (2014), Johnny Marr's Set the Boy Free (2016), and now a book from Lol Tolhurst of The Cure.

Tolhurst has some notoriety in The Cure's history. He was a cofounder that lasted right up to the release of their (arguably) most famed album, Disintegration (1989). He was known to have contributed next to nothing to said album due to being an alcoholic mess. He was originally a drummer but moved to keyboards. He was briefly the only member of the band besides Robert Smith. He was credited as cowriter on almost every song published during his tenure. He sued the band after his dismissal for co-ownership of the name and lost. He eventually made amends with Robert Smith and briefly appeared on stage with the band in 2011 for some nostalgia concerts.

It's not hard to make a case that Tolhurst has a unique story to tell. Considering that Smith has not yet written a memoir, the opportunity was perfect for another Cure insider to do so. Lol is well-suited for the job: he knew Smith since they were both five, he was there through it all for the band's rise to fame, and he's currently on good terms with Smith. Even I was curious what the most notoriously estranged member of The Cure would have to say.

While the book certainly suffices as a narrative of the friendship between two bandmates, the burden of that perspective actually serves to detract from the book. Tolhurst never once speaks ill of Smith and goes out of his way to contextualize any questionable decisions he made. The same largely goes for the other members of The Cure, although they are mentioned to a considerably lesser degree. Tolhurst details his role as a moderator and go-between for the various members of the band in the early years, but he rarely explains what the disputes and misunderstandings actually revolved around. He hardly provides any explanation for the departure of the other founding member, bassist Michael Dempsey. He glosses over the details of the (temporary) split between Smith and the band's longest-serving bassist, Simon Gallup. Any rifts between himself and Smith are described with even less detail.

Tolhurst doesn't even seem to be upset that Smith kicked him out of the band. By that point in the narrative, it has become clear that Tolhurst was an unhealthy person, and that he has since recognized it. In fact, it slowly dawns on the reader that much of the book is oriented around Tolhurst acknowledging his own failures, owning up to them, and trying to make amends. While stories of drunken revelry and dangerous behavior rarely interest me in literary form, personal redemption of this variety is at least somewhat more interesting.

About a third of the text is devoted to Tolhurst's youth and the earliest days of The Cure leading up to their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979). The descriptions of Tolhurst, Smith, and Dempsey (and on-again, off-again member Porl Thompson, who designed the cover) as childhood friends is actually rather endearing. Tolhurst presents them as outsiders in a bland, boring town that they all longed to escape. Imagining Smith throwing bottles at skinheads and fending off ruffians is hard to believe but yet quite amusing.

Initially, I was anxious to get to the more exciting periods of The Cure's creative and popular peaks, but in retrospect, Tolhurst doesn't have much to offer on those eras that hasn't been said before, and the stories of the early days are imbued with a deeper personal insight. Tolhurst views the beginnings, when they still had to prove themselves, as something special and magical. Perhaps it felt more like a tight group of friends trying to do something different rather than a commercial enterprise. It may also be that Tolhurst's addiction hadn't yet consumed him and he had more to contribute to the band in those days.

Anyone reading the book with an expectation of learning something about The Head on the Door that they didn't already know will be let down. Anyone who isn't already a fan probably wouldn't become one by reading it. But if you are looking for the story of a rock star that fell from grace and perhaps has learned from his mistakes, this might be it. Tolhurst's story is rather sad and occasionally frustrating, but at least you could read this and learn something about recovery from alcoholism and where to go from there.

[UK cover.]

Score: B-

P.S.: This book is a prime example of why I don't read the back jackets of books. The text on my US edition is literally the last paragraph of the book.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Sisters of Mercy / The Membranes - Live 2017.09.12

I've been a fan of The Sisters of Mercy ever since I first heard the ridiculous incessant drumbeat that opens "Dominion/Mother Russia", years before I started this blog. But considering how rarely the Sisters tour the USA, and that the band has apparently never played any American city I've lived in, I never had the chance to see them until now.

Artist: The Sisters of Mercy
Venue: Columbiahalle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 September 2017
Opening Act: The Membranes

The Membranes' setlist (thanks to setlist.fm):
1. The Universe Explodes into a Billion Photons of Pure White Light
2. Dark Energy
3. In the Graveyard
4. Do the Supernova
5. Space Junk
6. Black Is the Colour
7. The Hum of the Universe
8. Myths and Legends

The Sisters of Mercy's setlist:
01. More
02. Ribbons
03. Doctor Jeep → Detonation Boulevard
04. Crash and Burn
05. Walk Away
06. No Time to Cry
07. Body and Soul
08. Marian
09. Alice
10. Arms
11. Dominion/Mother Russia
12. Summer
13. First and Last and Always
14. Rumble [Link Wray cover]
15. Flood II
16. Something Fast

Encore:
17. That's When I Reach For My Revolver [Mission of Burma cover]
18. Temple of Love
19. Lucretia My Reflection
20. Vision Thing
21. This Corrosion

The Membranes might have claimed to be cut from the same cloth as Joy Division, The Fall, and The Sisters of Mercy, but Blackpool is a resort town, not a post-industrial wasteland. Vocalist/bassist John Robb, carrying the torch as the band's only original member, performed with gusto while his bandmates mostly hid in dark corners. The two guitarists rarely took what one might consider a traditional solo. They instead preferred to make odd sorts of sounds, albeit mostly of the thick and distorted variety. The bass work was simple but rhythmically effective, which is more than I could say for the vocals. I caught some whiffs of Swans or even Bauhaus in their heavy drone, and their occasional sparser moments had me thinking they had more to offer. The set mostly consisted of songs from their latest album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy (2015), with simple lyrics marveling at galactic complexities.

[The Membranes.]

Despite that The Sisters of Mercy haven't released a new album since Vision Thing in 1990, let alone a single since 1993, they haven't given up or even really slowed down. They tour almost every year and regularly play new songs. (There were three such songs on this night.) Their setlists are full of classic hits and album cuts, often with a few unusual covers thrown in the mix. This tour has gotten some attention for the inclusion of their early single "Walk Away", which they hadn't played since 1985. They're a strange and unique band, and they've captured my amusement by straddling the line of serious-minded, politically charged, club-oriented, hard-edged rock and campy, dramatic, over-the-top, ironic gothic rock.

When the house lights fell, a large black curtain fell to the ground to reveal a huge installation of mirrors. Meanwhile, the band emerged from a cloud of fog machines. As the band started into "More", the crowd became wild with excitement. So far, the show was just as I'd hoped.

The two guitarists, Chris Catalyst and Ben Christo, were both more interested in showmanship and heavy-handedness than I'd like, but the Sisters have always been about putting on a show, so that didn't bother me. The lack of a steady bassist over the last decade or two has become as much of a joke as the lack of a drummer since the band's earliest days, so Ravey Davey's comical role at the helm of a series of laptops was also no surprise. Andrew Eldritch maintained his odd demeanor, ever-present sunglasses, and only looked slightly more like a goblin than I had anticipated.

However, about a minute into that first song, I realized something was wrong: Eldritch can't sing anymore.

Something must have changed since the last time I listened to a live bootleg from the band. While the guitarists pranced and Davey danced, Eldritch merely struck farcical poses and croaked into his microphone. Instead of his booming bass vocals summoning some sort of anarchic revolution, all he could produce was groans, whines, and an occasional disturbing yelp. It was hopeless to try to discern lyrics. A bare minimum of melodic content was provided by the guitarists, who occasionally sang the backing vocal hooks.

Without Eldritch driving the songs, the show lost any magic it should have had. The music devolved into aggressive beats and stereotypical distorted guitars. What would have otherwise been an impressive setlist became only marginally distinct from generic hard rock. To further make matters worse, songs like "More" and "This Corrosion", which depend upon a long build-up to deliver their full dramatic power, were performed in truncated versions, cutting short any energy the band tried to invest in them.

While the light show was good, smoke and mirrors can only go so far. Was this, too, just another opportunity for Andrew Eldritch to troll the world?

[The Sisters of Mercy]

Scores:
The Membranes: C+
The Sisters of Mercy: D

P.S. Thanks to the Sisters Wiki.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Patti Smith - Live 2017.08.15

Just over ten years ago, I wrote my second-ever record review about Patti Smith's then-new album, Twelve (2007). It's a terrible review, and I was clearly still learning the ropes, but it does prove my passion for a unique artist. Since then, I've bought all of Smith's albums and enjoyed them all in greater or lesser capacities, even if, just as I feared in that mess of a review, none of them match the power and perfection of her debut, Horses (1975). I've anticipated seeing her live since way back then, and since her health is apparently gradually declining, I consider myself lucky that I got the chance.

Artist: Patti Smith & Her Band
Venue: Zitadelle Spandau
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 15 August 2017

Setlist:
01. Wing
02. Dancing Barefoot
03. Happy Birthday [Patty and Mildred Hill cover]
04. Ghost Dance
05. My Blakean Year
06. Mothers of the Disappeared [U2 cover]
07. Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter) [Sun Ra adaptation]
08. Beneath the Southern Cross / Within You Without You [The Beatles cover tease]
09. A Day in the Life [The Beatles cover]
10. Peaceable Kingdom / People Have the Power [first verse]
11. Summer Cannibals
12. Because the Night
13. Gloria: In Excelsis Deo/Gloria [Them adaptation]

Encore:
14. Can't Help Falling in Love [Elvis Presley cover]
15. People Have the Power


The show took place in a 16th-century Renaissance fortress that required traversing a moat, so as soon as I entered I knew this would be a special show. As I walked to the stage, I realized that Lenny Kaye was DJing 7" records from the same stock as his Nuggets compilations. He left the stage right at the scheduled start of the show, 7pm, but was merely replaced by house music. For the next hour, every time a song began to fade, the audience started to cheer. The later it got, the louder the audience voiced their impatience. It wasn't until after 8:15 that Patti Smith and her band finally walked out.

They started with "Wing", which set the mood for the evening. The slow, contemplative, lyrical song presaged a set full of mystical, meandering readings that followed Patti's whims. Although she never got as far as the abstract exploration of "Birdland" or "Radio Ethiopia", she seemed to prefer the slower and weightier side of her catalog over the sheer, raw power of songs like "Till Victory" or "Gone Again". This fit with the general aesthetic of her last album, Banga (2012), although she only performed a single track from it ("Tarkovsky").

The second song of the night was nonetheless one of her most upbeat songs, the classic "Dancing Barefoot". While it was a pleasure to hear, it seemed to lack some of the strength and energy of the recorded version. It also felt conspicuously slow. Patti then announced that it was Wim Wenders' birthday, so she led a round of "Happy Birthday" in his honor before beginning "Ghost Dance". Although it's a personal favorite of mine in part due to the complex vocal parts, the live arrangement seemed somewhat simpler. Nonetheless, Patti still made it feel alive. "My Blakean Year" and "Tarkovsky" both approached a transcendental state, and while I would've rather heard another original than a U2 cover, I appreciated the subject matter of "Mothers of the Disappeared", and Patti shaped it well.

"Beneath the Southern Cross" was given an extended reading with a lengthy guitar solo from Patti's son Jackson Smith. He topped it off by joining with bassist Tony Shanahan in interpolating the melody of George Harrison's "Within You Without You". After that song, Patti departed and left the band on their own for another Beatles tribute: "A Day in the Life", in which Lenny Kaye sang John Lennon's part and Shanahan sang Paul McCartney's. They were just a bit shaky, but judging by the music stand that Kaye required, their choice seemed decided upon under short notice.

Patti returned for another downtempo groover, "Peaceable Kingdom", at the end of which she began chanting the first verse of "People Have the Power". It was unclear if she was preparing to launch into it with full power, but instead, the band came to a gradual stop before launching into a run of higher-energy songs. "Because the Night" brought out the cameras for seemingly everyone in the crowd, but "Gloria" was the real treasure of the night. Patti still works it like she had something to prove with it, and her blend of classic rock, religious self-determination, and gender non-conformity sounds as relevant today as ever.

The encore started with an explanation: Patti claimed that she originally was no fan of Elvis, but that she'd come to appreciate him, and the following day marked forty years since his death. Thus, the band did a faithful take on "Can't Help Falling in Love" that brought out the classical elements of the song. The nuanced waltz time was quickly overpowered by the fulfillment of a complete version of "People Have the Power", Patti's perpetual rallying cry of hope. It was a fitting conclusion, even if I still wanted more.

Throughout the show, Patti still appeared vibrant and lively, even if there wasn't quite the level of immediacy and strength that she once had. Her music always has the power to capture my attention, but on this night it seemed slower than necessary, and the mix lacked a punch. Only "Gloria" felt truly full and complete; the others were either a touch too loose or were missing something.

Her band, too, was well-honed, but perhaps less adventurous than they once were. Kaye rarely took solos and instead left most of the job to the youngest of the band, Jackson Smith. However, Jackson's style was a bit too conventional and careful for my taste. He is certainly talented, but he played his parts with a finesse and care that seemed inappropriate for the material. I would've gladly seen a little more wild abandon!

At age 70, Patti Smith is still an impressive performer. Her casual style, passionate performance, and earnest discourse make her readily endearing. Her and her band might not be in top form, but they still have most of what counts, and I appreciate that they haven't packed it in or merely offered a predictable set of greatest hits. There wasn't a bad moment in the show, and they had my complete attention for all of it, but if they'd only played "Gloria" and nothing else, I still would've walked away satisfied.

Score: B+

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Melodica Festival Berlin 2017 Day 1

Event: Melodica Festival Berlin 2017 Day 1
Venue: Klunkerkranich
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 29 July 2017

I'd been aware of the Melodica Festival for a while and finally now had a chance to experience it firsthand. It was also my first time at Klunkerkranich, the chosen venue for this year's Berlin edition. I was immediately intrigued by the directions that instructed me to go to a shopping mall, find a specific elevator, and take it to the top of the parking garage. It turns out that the place is a rooftop bar with a fantastic view of Berlin. Part of it is covered and forms something like a café, and inside is the stage.

First was Oh Lonesome Me, a singer-songwriter trio from Berlin. The guitar and keyboard interplay was pleasant, but the real draw was the dynamic harmonies of the two women vocalists. The drummer occasionally offered some backing vocals as well, but he held his own with his kit, which helped keep the songs moving.

[Oh Lonesome Me.]

Next was Lisa Kudoke, a solo guitarist/vocalist also from Berlin. I liked her fingerpicking style, but the tone was too bass-heavy and got lost in the noise from the crowd. There might have been something entrancing in her songs, but without any flourishes, the performance came across too monotonous.

Third came Next Stop: Horizon, a bit of a break from the expected folk and singer/songwriter genre. The Swedish trio delivered upbeat, dancable electro-pop with a few slower, sparser songs as well. They expanded their guitar/bass/keyboard instrumentation with a drum machine, programming, vocoders, and a lot of effects. They sounded polished, confident, and oddly convincing.

Ida Wenøe from Denmark initially appeared solo with just her acoustic guitar, but after just a few songs brought out Ian Fisher to provide harmonies, guitar, and banjo. Another song also featured her roommate Espen on vocals. The added interplay embellished the songs quite fortuitously, even though the stage was becoming increasingly harder to see and hear.

[Ida Wenøe with Ian Fisher and Espen.]

Tom Klose from Hamburg came next. Although his bluesy, percussive style had some promise, it became so loud and difficult to see that I couldn't understand his words and could barely even discern the music. Eventually I gave up and decided to just enjoy being on the rooftop with a nice view.

Oddly, it was entirely impossible to see the stage from almost anywhere on the rooftop except in the covered section, and although there were speakers outside to spread the music, they were rendered practically inaudible from the crowd. Hence, my willpower was overcome and I entirely missed the performance from Jonathan Kluth.

The Klunkerkranich is a really cool venue, but not quite ideal for an intimate singer-songwriter performance. The Melodica Festival is similarly a great idea, and being able to see a bunch of good musicians for 5€ is certainly a bargain, but the choice of venue this year might not have been very well suited to the goal. I enjoyed what I saw, but I wish I could have taken it in with less distraction.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Merchandise / B Boys / Street Themes - Live 2017.06.14

Yes, one more show in Austin...

Artist: Merchandise
Venue: The Sidewinder (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 14 June 2017
Opening Acts: Street Themes, B Boys

Setlist:
01. Lonesome Sound
02. Unknown →
03. Schoolyard
04. Right Back to the Start
05. Green Lady
06. In Nightmare Room
07. Little Killer
08. True Monument
09. Flower of Sex
10. Anxiety's Door
11. Unknown Dead Side cover →
12. My Dream Is Yours

Street Themes started off the night with a brief set of sludgy hard rock and metal. I detected a trace of The Jesus & Mary Chain in the drummer's cocksure vocal style and the cacophonous, steady throttle of the instrumentation. The heavy feedback and effects made for some interesting noise, but the aggression didn't work for me, and the vocals were mixed too low to understand a word.

[Street Themes.]

I was initially disappointed by the goofy, simple punk vibe of B Boys, but I gradually realized that they were actually playing a very tight, measured, mechanical, constrained brand of punk that has largely fallen out of vogue since the late 70s. They played direct, minimalist, uptempo songs about mundane matters in unusual perspectives. They reminded me thoroughly of Wire or even early Talking Heads. The two vocalists weren't particularly melodious, but I actually like their disassociated technique.

[B Boys.]

I saw Merchandise twice just three months ago at SXSW. Despite their complaints of lacking their full setup, they still played strong sets that incorporated live arrangements of new material and an overview of the best of their back catalog. This time, I was hoping for a more thorough set with some deeper cuts and more time for the new songs.

While they did end up playing four songs from A Corpse Wired for Sound, they only played three recognizable songs that I didn't see at the recent SXSW shows: "Right Back to the Start", "Green Lady", and "Flower of Sex". However, they also threw in two shorter pieces that appeared to be covers. I couldn't identify the first, but the second was announced as a Dead Side cover. Otherwise, I was left wanting more. "Schoolyard" was a great throwback to their earlier days, but nothing else was much of a surprise. Furthermore, they didn't even play for an hour. They stopped a little after 10pm without an encore despite that the venue had claimed the show would go until 10:30.

Instrumentally, Merchandise was in top form. Dave Vassalotti always brings his best game, and new drummer Leo Suarez balanced the clean and processed drum sounds well. He also seemed to be driving the samples, which helped fill out the songs a bit more than I would have guessed. They were mixed well and never overwhelmed the live instruments, which was just the right thing for their sound. Bassist Patrick Brady contributed backing vocals to several songs, which also helped expand their sound.

The weak link was unfortunately frontman Carson Cox. It was his 31st birthday and he appeared to have indulged in a few substances. This wasn't the first time I've seen his recklessness negatively impact a show (namely the 2015 SXSW set I saw), and while he didn't perform terribly, his vocals were a bit sloppy and slurred. I appreciated his good mood and humor (he introduced that band as being from El Paso), but he seemed to be taking the show for granted.

When Merchandise get the balance right, they shine and soar. They rarely fall completely flat, but sometimes they do misstep. I've enjoyed watching them grow rapidly in the last few years from the first time I saw them at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2013, and I appreciate that they can still play some of the older songs with full force. They still performed a convincing set this time around, but I've come to expect just a little more from them.

[Merchandise.]

Scores:
Street Themes: C-
B Boys: B+
Merchandise: B-