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-

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Belle & Sebastian / Wild Moccasins - Live 2015.08.28

A third opportunity to see Belle & Sebastian in Austin in the space of just over two years? How could I resist? And my spouse even came along for the show!

Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 August 2015
Opening Act: Wild Moccasins

01. Nobody's Empire
02. Allie
03. The Party Line
04. The State I Am In
05. Seeing Other People
06. The Book of You
07. Perfect Couples [extended version]
08. We Rule the School
09. Electronic Renaissance
10. Photo Jenny
11. Crazy [Willie Nelson cover tease]
12. I Took a Long Hard Look [debut performance]
13. Dog on Wheels
14. The Boy with the Arab Strap
15. Sukie in the Graveyard
16. Sleep the Clock Around

17. Dress Up in You [partial]
18. Get Me Away From Here, I'm Dying

I'd been vaguely interested in seeing Wild Moccasins ever since I'd heard of them during SXSW 2014. I never got a chance to see them, but I was always curious. They're ostensibly an indie rock band, but there are hints of dream pop, post-punk (particularly in the lead guitar), and quite a bit of disco and dance rock. The disco beats popped up early in the set, and the further along they went, the dancier it got. By the end, they were teasing bits of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love". They tried hard to get the audience to move, but the crowd was skeptical, which in turn probably only fed into the band's nervousness. While some of the material seemed by-the-numbers, they never played a bad song, and several of them held some promise. The basslines were solid and there were lots of good elements, but they rarely came together to make a truly exciting song.

[Wild Moccasins.]

Belle & Sebastian started out with three songs from their newest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. After a couple throwbacks to their earliest albums in 1996, they played two more new songs before setting out on a journey through their back catalog for the rest of the show. The newest material is explicitly much more dance-oriented than they've ever dared, although they've been toying with the notion ever since going pop with Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003. While this made for a bit of a jarring transition between dance pop and folky indie rock, there were a few songs that bridged the gap. "Sukie in the Graveyard" is probably in the middle ground, and "Electronic Renaissance" benefited quite a bit from their current frame of reference. While originally a lo-fi and seemingly out of place electronic piece from their debut album Tigermilk, it now sounded clear, fresh, and energetic when presented by a band a little more comfortable inhabiting the shoes of electronic dance music. Almost all the members played keyboards on the song, and the melodica parts made it seem like even more of an homage to New Order.

While I'm always going to prefer the band's older folkie days, I can mostly get behind their current state of affairs as well. "Nobody's Empire" makes for a decent story, and it seems much more honest and personal than the band usually offers. Similarly, I can appreciate the sarcasm of "The Party Line", even if the sampled triangle and whatever else was a bit unnecessary. Some songs, particularly the newer material, were often accompanied or introduced by videos. These included a couple official music videos, clips filmed with the cover star of the latest album, and in the case of "Nobody's Empire", a generic YouTube-style slideshow of photos vaguely related to the lyrics. This was the only video that specifically annoyed me, in part because it wasn't very good, and in part because it included the problematic picture of a US sailor drunkenly and aggressively kissing a nurse at the close of WWII.
[Sarah Martin singing lead on "The Book of You".]

"The State I Am In", the first song from the band's first album, remains a classic and still one of the band's best. That song was an early high point, and it was followed up with the excellent and witty "Seeing Other People". Sarah Martin then took the lead for "The Book of You", followed by Stevie Jackson for an extended version of "Perfect Couples". While not their best song, they made it a bit stronger live with fuller instrumentation including a noisy guitar intro from Bobby Kildea. Stevie's other lead vocal, "I Took a Long Hard Look", was originally merely the b-side of "Funny Little Frog" in 2006, but it also appeared on the 2013 compilation The Third Eye Centre, which may have contributed a bit of increased attention and led to its apparent public debut at this show. Stevie also teased a bit of Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and explained that he was quite a fan. (The venue is notably located on Willie Nelson Boulevard, better known as 2nd Street, and a large statue of Nelson stands outside the entrance.)

As seems to be the norm these days at Belle & Sebastian concerts, the band started bringing fans on stage for "The Boy with the Arab Strap". People kept streaming up long after the band had selected a few people, and the security could hardly keep most of them from getting up. I also saw some members of Wild Moccasins in the mix as well. This was the largest number of fans I'd seen on one of their stages, and probably the most ridiculous group as well. Some individuals exhibited no shame in taking selfies, filming with their smartphones, singing into available microphones, and trying to embrace Stuart Murdoch.

[Crowd invasion during "The Boy with the Arab Strap".]

"Sleep the Clock Around" was another highlight, and it culminated in one of their classic jams, where the band just vamps on the main chords of the song for a couple minutes after the main vocal narrative is long over, as found on many tracks from their early days. It seems so simple, yet the band really brings some energy to these jams and they end up being quite fun.

Coming back for an encore, the band started taking audience suggestions, but they could only play a verse or two from "Dress Up in You" before Stuart forgot the words. I suppose it was nice of them to try. Their final offering, "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying", was a strong choice and a great song to finish out the show.

Somehow they managed to only overlap two songs between the setlists of this show and their last headlining show in Austin (at the same venue) two years back. Even their recent show at the Austin City Limits festival last fall only had four songs in common, two of which are songs from the new album. This seems intentional, which is great for fans like me. They have a large catalog of songs, but it would seem that they go out of their way to provide a good mix for the people that keep coming back. I've now seen them play a lot of my favorite songs!

The band again featured Dave McGowan on guitar, bass, and other instruments; Sarah Willson on cello and percussion; and CJ Camerieri on trumpet. However, it notably did not include a string section as it had on previous tours. This absence was not tragic, but it did present the band in a different light. Instead of focusing on the band's orchestral chamber pop attributes, they emphasized their dance proclivities where possible. There was still a contrast with the older, folkier material, but I can appreciate them willing to branch out and try new things. It's hard to complain when they still provide plenty of the songs that the fans want to hear.

Wild Moccasins: B-
Belle & Sebastian: A-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Nowhere Man on Bandcamp

For some reason, despite that I am a musician in addition to being a music writer, I have rarely even mentioned my own music on this blog. Today, I will change that.

For many years, I have released music as The Nowhere Man, and since 2009, this output has been freely downloadable from my hand-coded website, While I don't have a new album to promote, I have overhauled my online presence, recompiled and remastered some of my back catalog, and provided lyrics to everything. I've retired my old website in favor of a Bandcamp page, (The old custom URL will redirect to the new site.) This move also means that my music is available online in lossless form for the first time. It's all still free.

Alongside my three primary albums, there are two carefully compiled collections of additional material, titled The Best of the Rest, Version 6 and More of the Rest: Early Recordings. Furthermore, there is a loose space for assorted demos and ephemera, collected under the generic heading Miscellaneous Demos. This includes, for example, the first song I ever wrote and recorded, as well as "The Other Side", which I wrote and demoed in 2014 and really should make a better version of.

It's all there for the taking, so listen and enjoy if you'd like. I should also take the opportunity to promote my last band in St. Louis, Missing Values (our album Insignificant Results is also free to download on Bandcamp), and I should mention my current group, Sea State Six, as we are working on our first recordings presently.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Octopus Project / Golden Dawn Arkestra - Live 2015.07.24

Artists: The Octopus Project and Golden Dawn Arkestra
Event: Music Under the Star
Venue: Lone Star Plaza, Bob Bullock State History Museum
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 24 July 2015

Music Under the Star is an event put on by the Bob Bullock State History Museum in which they sponsor local bands to play free early evening shows in the shade of the museum. The "star" in question is a literal monumental star (i.e. "Lone Star") in the adjoining plaza. It might sound ridiculous, but it actually works well. People can bring chairs and they sell drinks and food. This summer's edition was cosponsored by Transmission Events and Fun Fun Fun Fest, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. This was the final night of this partnership.

Golden Dawn Arkestra came out first, although they actually emerged from the museum and wound their way around the crowd before finally marching up to the stage. Much like when I saw them at SXSW earlier this year, they were all dressed up in various cosmic outfits. While there was no dancing among the audience this time, there was plenty of dancing on stage, as well as much praising of Ra, and a hell of a lot of funk.

[Golden Dawn Arkestra.]

The Arkestra has a lot of members, which might seem like a gimmick, but when the sound is as good as it was, all the instruments were discernible: two guitarists, bass, two horns players, a keyboardist/vocalist/saxophonist, three percussionists, a xylophonist/keyboardist/vocalist, and four dancers. (To be fair, while the dancers were not audible, they were quite visible. Even the somewhat elderly guy that just grooved in place for the entire hour.) All combined, it makes for quite a spectacle and quite a jam. It's really hard not to want to get up and move to this music. It's fascinating and wonderful.

Their grooves would go on for a while and I'd get lost in them, and after what seemed like a long time passed, they'd pause for a moment and I'd fear they were done. But then they'd just go right into another really funky riff and keep going. Their energy never let down. They'd say a few words, mostly about peace and Ra and something cosmic, and then just carry right on. Actually, most of their songs were instrumental, and those with words were not always easy to understand, but I heard plenty of the same themes. And somehow that xylophone took the lead in half the songs!

[Note the bubbles being blown into the air at the end of their set.]

The Arkestra ended up being a great match for The Octopus Project, as they too are a primarily instrumental outfit. However, their approach is less of an ensemble funk style and more of a dancey, high-energy synthpop direction. Their four members were all multi-instrumentalists and constantly traded their tools between (or during) songs. The man that started at the drumkit stayed their for half the show, but even he came out and played guitar and bass for most of the rest of the set, and near the end even contributed vocals.

[The Octopus Project. Note the theremin!]

I'd seen The Octopus Project last year at Austin Psych Fest, but I thought they were a little different this time around. This was partly due to a more cohesive sound and energy (last time they seemed to have two divergent approaches, i.e. noisy rock and more direct synthpop) but perhaps also due to the replacement of Ryan Figg with Lauren Gurgiolo earlier this year. At any rate, I thought they did an even better job bringing together guitars and synthesizers in the name of electropop.

When the various band members did sing, I again couldn't understand a word, but at least the music was good enough to keep me interested at all times. Sometimes words aren't necessary, anyway. It's still quite a thrill to see a band convincingly wield a theremin on stage, and the rest was rather good, too.

[Yvonne Lambert let the audience control the theremin before leaving the stage.]

This ended up being a really fun show with two great local bands. It was amusing to see the intermingling of young and old, where students, parents with kids, and the aging rockers and hippies can come together to enjoy the evening. When they get bands of this quality playing without cover, I'm surprised it wasn't even busier. I'm also fond of the earlier set times, as I too cannot always manage to stay up as late as one often must for concerts.

I kind of wish I'd gone to the previous weeks of the Fun Fun Fun Fest collaboration, as its hard to beat free shows with good bands at accessible times. Why aren't there more shows like this in the early evening, whether in public spaces or not? It seems like a great formula.

Golden Dawn Arkestra: A
The Octopus Project: B+

Sunday, July 5, 2015

David J - Who Killed Mister Moonlight? (2014)

Title: Who Killed Mister Moonlight? Bauhaus, Black Magick and Benediction
Author: David J. Haskins
Publisher: Jawbone Press
Year: 2014

I have what feels like a long history as a fan of David J, which can perhaps be ascertained by perusing some of my reviews of his work dating back to 2007. He was always my favorite member of both Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, and his solo albums, while quite unlike his band efforts, drew me in like I had found some sort of private, forgotten treasure. I appreciated his artistic sensibility and aesthetic; I liked that he was a weirdo, a contrarian, an outsider; and I prized his ability to rock, be it with a blissfully fuzzed out bass or with an unaccompanied electric guitar.

But over the last few years, I've begun to wonder if the paths of our interests have diverged. Reconsidering his debut solo album, Etiquette of Violence, upon its reissue in 2013, I couldn't help but feel like it was less refined than I'd remembered. His first solo album in eight years, Not Long for This World (2011), I found to be overburdened by the weight of its morbid subject matter and arrangements. His latest album, An Eclipse of Ships, is musically superior, but lyrically and stylistically a turn for the worse.

When J announced the publication of a memoir, my curiosity was naturally piqued, although I couldn't resist some skepticism, especially with the current trendiness of alternative rock star memoirs. Furthermore, after both of J's major bands reformed in the last decade, it is well known that both split apart (again) under terms that were less than amicable. Hence, I was concerned that J just had an axe to grind.

In the first section of the book, which covers his youth and the original lifespan of Bauhaus, my fears were allayed. Rock star cliché is mostly avoided, and J actually speaks quite highly of his bandmates as well as other musicians, writers, artists, engineers, and music businesspeople that he encounters. He doesn't shy away from speaking ill of those that deserve it, or for criticizing the failures of those of whom he perhaps expected more, but more often than not, the target of such remarks is himself. He might be a little hard on Peter Murphy, but he contextualizes the situation well, and provides just as much approbation as critique.

At any rate, these character judgments are merely secondary matters to the primary story of the struggles Bauhaus went through to prove themselves, to grow and develop, and to carve out a scene and a name for themselves. He tells many great stories of the era, and provides some welcome insight into some of the band's creative processes. This section was just what I was hoping for: very little obnoxious melodrama, but lots of detail about specific songs, recording sessions, and live performances.

The second section of the book is a rather sudden departure in style and content. J hardly mentions his immediate post-Bauhaus activity with the Jazz Butcher or his various solo albums and singles. (Much of his output isn't even mentioned at all until the discographic appendix!) Nor does he leave much ink on his many years with Love & Rockets, although he does at least cover a few aspects of that band, such as the fire at Rick Rubin's house that destroyed their gear and left Genesis P-Orridge badly wounded.

The primary preoccupation in this section is the occult, i.e. the pursuits of magick (sic). Perhaps if I was interested in such things myself, I might find these descriptions more fascinating, but I was not impressed by J's long tales of messing around with drugs and incantations with Alan Moore. His visit with William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas is a little more compelling, but most of his meetings with mystics and famed figures of yore seem a little bit too much like oversharing or just self-indulgent name-dropping. His story of meeting and recording with René Halkett (from the first section of the book) is fascinating, but few of his other similar stories have much of the same poignancy or relevance.

Ultimately, after all his adventures in magickal practice, he suddenly shifts to living in LA, estranged from his wife of 20-some years, and somewhat arbitrarily undergoing two spiritual transformations. However, he hardly provides any sense of closure in these matters. He never follows up with how he gave up on magick nor where his newfound spiritualism took him. In fact, these matters are entirely untouched in the last section of the book.

There is one chapter in the second section about the Bauhaus reunion tour of 1998, and the third and final section is dedicated entirely to the Bauhaus reunion of 2005-2006. However, all of the technical detail, honesty, and pleasant reminiscence of the first section is replaced here by accusation, disappointment, and bitterness. He paints Ash and Murphy in rather unflattering lights and unashamedly blames them for poor performances, a basically unfinished final album, the loss of a promising record contract for said album, and ultimately breaking apart. (He also blames "rampant illegal downloading" for the album's poor sales, which is never a good look.)

While some of the latter-day Bauhaus stories are interesting, and he occasionally has something worthwhile to say about his bandmates (or anything at all about his underappreciated drummer brother Kevin), the last section feels like a set of second-hand rock-n-roll clichés that I was hoping to avoid. Drugs, sex, and ego don't actually always make for a good story. Whereas the first part of the book found J admitting his own weaknesses and admiring the strengths of others, by the end, he seems nearly faultless, while his bandmates make all the bad decisions. It doesn't help that the title of the book, while of course the name of a song he wrote and sang with Bauhaus, also appears to be a blatantly pointed finger at Murphy and Ash.

I can't help but feel like the book lost its focus. The first section is great, but the rest is mostly off the mark. I'm disappointed that J ended up using his memoir as an excuse to vent his grievances of his former working partners at the expense of telling more worthwhile stories of his career. I also found the end rather abrupt, and since it cuts off in mid-2006 yet wasn't published until 2014, one is left wondering what happened to the intervening time. Was there nothing worth telling about the Love & Rockets reunion that came together right as the Bauhaus reunion fell apart? Where did his spiritual quest take him? Why does it feel like the book was written in the heat of anger after the Bauhaus reunion, and he couldn't get a publisher until now?

Score: C+