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
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

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]

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

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]

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

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.


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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ten Years of Music Reviews

Today marks ten years since I posted my first review on this blog: Morrissey's 48th birthday concert at the Pageant in St. Louis, Missouri. It's hard to believe that I've managed to write almost 200 posts on this blog in the meantime. I have no plans of stopping now, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I'm in the process of moving to Berlin, where I expect to continue growing my tastes and expanding my interests. I will miss the wonderful festivals and the plentiful concerts by local and touring acts that grace the Austin music scene, but I suspect that Berlin has its own treasures to uncover.

Quite a bit has changed in ten years, both personally and in terms of the music industry at large. Ten years ago, when I was at the peak of my collector's mania, I was living in St. Louis and second-hand vinyl was plentiful and cheap. Hence, I amassed a huge collection of vinyl often purchased as cheap as a dollar per record. Online retailers such as iTunes were already growing in popularity at that time, and CDs were already clearly on the way out, so they were generally also plentiful and cheap.

Now I'm in the midst of packing my things in preparation for an international move. While I'm considering what to take, I'm substantially trimming my physical music collection. Those cheap 90s CDs with terrible packaging that I criticized in one of my first posts were some of the first things to go. As previously mentioned in my post about selling my old Devo records, my tastes have also changed somewhat, which made getting rid of some things easy. However, my preferences on how to collect have only continued to evolve, and since that post I've even gotten rid of the Hot Potatoes greatest-hits album that I advocated for.

In that case, I at least kept a digital copy. Since hard drives are so cheap, it's an easy choice to keep a lossless copy of a CD whose packaging is unimpressive but whose musical contents are still worthwhile. (I've written about that before, too.) Even vinyl records have started to lose some of their appeal to me. At this point, I only want to keep my absolute favorites, the prized rarities, the limited presses from my friends, or the ones with the incredible artwork. Considering how expensive new vinyl is, especially compared to lossless digital downloads, it's rarely worth it for me anymore.

Ironically, I still love record stores, even as they continue to transition to selling more and more vinyl and there is less and less that I actually want to buy in them. There's still an appeal to the hunt and the random chance that leads to a new discovery. And anyway, I no longer feel obligated to indefinitely keep everything I buy: I can always spin an album for a few months and then decide to pass it back into circulation. This gets to the heart of a complicated issue: the matter of collecting versus curating. The reality is that there is too much good music to possibly own it all.

Streaming is a convenient middle ground, but I'm not entirely sold on it. On one hand, the low royalties associated with it are well-documented and the source of much consternation. On the other, it does make music widely accessible in a legal manner that was never possible before. Some royalties are better than none, and the discovery aspect is real. Despite my hesitation, I can't deny that Spotify is incredibly useful at times. I still love SoundCloud, too, even if I'm concerned for their long-term stability.

The increasing market share of streaming services reinforces the question of the ephemerality of music. For better or worse, I still cling to the notion of possessing music, but now I accept digital possession as valid in a way that I never let myself before. However, even that concept of possession is changing for me. Do I really need to have a flac or mp3 of every song I like? Is it really worth tracking down every obscure b-side of a new favorite band? Why bother, when I can just find those tracks on a streaming service on the rare occasions that I actually want to hear them?

Obviously, I haven't quite made final decisions on these matters, and I suspect my preferences will continue to change. In the meantime, I'll still be going to concerts and writing up reviews when I can. After ten years, I'm happy to report that I still enjoy live music and critical analysis thereof. I'll still be listening to as much recorded music as ever in one format or another, and I will probably continue to occasionally get inspired enough to write about that, too.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

ChameleonsVox / Frank the Baptist - Live 2017.05.10

No more secrets: I'm in the process of relocating to Berlin. While I've been mostly focused on finding a job at present, this was a concert I couldn't pass up. I was also amused that the venue is named after the third album from Ideal, the classic Berlin-based Neue Deutsche Welle band. It's conveniently but unexpectedly located underneath the above-ground subway station Schlesisches Tor, although there is hardly any signage to alert passersby of its presence.

Artist: ChameleonsVox
Venue: Bi Nuu
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 10 May 2017
Opening Act: Frank the Baptist

01. Swamp Thing
02. A Person Isn't Safe Anywhere These Days
03. Monkeyland
04. Dali's Picture
05. Looking Inwardly
06. Thursday's Child
07. Caution
08. Soul in Isolation [including teases of The Doors' "The End", David Bowie's "Be My Wife", and The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby"]
09. In Answer →
10. I'll Remember
11. Singing Rule Britannia (While the Walls Close In) [including teases of The Clash's "White Riot", Joy Division's "Transmission", and something else I couldn't quite discern]
12. Denims and Curls

First encore:
13. Second Skin
14. Nostalgia

Second encore:
15. In Shreds [including a tease of The Beatles' "Please Please Me"]
16. Don't Fall [with guest vocalist]

Opening band Frank the Baptist has been based in Berlin for a decade despite their roots in San Diego. I was curious to about what they might offer, but was quickly disappointed by their fairly generic hard rock sound and weird carnival sideshow aesthetic. Some songs started out with a promising atmosphere, but inevitably were quickly quashed by heavy aggro guitars. There were occasional hints of gothic rock that in their best moments reminded me of second-rate Sisters of Mercy, but those moments were rare. Frank sang with strength, but he only had one tone, and his words were hard to understand. I was amazed they were allowed to play for a full hour.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to expect with ChameleonsVox. Since original Chameleons drummer John Lever died earlier this year, and guitarists Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding have seemed unwilling to participate in further reunions, this project only features bassist/vocalist Mark Burgess from the original band. When he formed ChameleonsVox in 2009, Lever was on drums and regular collaborator Yves Altana joined on guitar. Their obvious intention was to resurrect old Chameleons songs, although in 2013, they released the M + D = 1(8) EP, featuring three new compositions along with a cover of "Across the Universe". Lever had left around that time and is not credited on the EP.

The current lineup features Altana on drums, Chris Oliver (who also played on the previous EP) on guitar, and Neil Dwerryhouse on guitar. This lineup has just recorded and released a new EP, Where in the World, continuing the Chameleons tradition of reissuing and repackaging the same songs in a million different versions and collections by featuring re-recordings of four of the more obscure original-era Chameleons songs. (Oddly, "Ever After" isn't on the physical 12" vinyl, but is included with the digital download.) The press release claims the original versions were demos, which is a bit hard to believe since all of them except "Dali's Picture" were never described as such until now.

"Denims and Curls" and "Free for All" are new versions of tracks from the amazing Tony Fletcher Walked on Water EP, originally recorded in 1987 while the band was breaking up and finally released in 1990. This same EP was included in the Dreams in Celluloid compilation released in 2013. That compilation also included "Dali's Picture", a demo from circa 1981, first released on a compilation of the same name in 1993. "Ever After" was originally a bonus track on some editions of Strange Times (1986). As one would hope, the production values of the new recordings are markedly superior. Mark's voice is as strong as ever and the musicianship is just as solid. The admittedly dated-sounding drums from the Tony Fletcher EP are gone, but so are most of the keyboards. The new arrangements are mostly very similar, although "Denims and Curls" and "Ever After" feature extended outros. The EP makes for a great listen, although "Dali's Picture" sticks out a bit for being older and less ethereal than the others, and one can't help but wonder how necessary this project was.

Upon consideration of the new EP, the live show largely followed suit. The setlist exclusively featured songs from the original era of the Chameleons with nothing from their early 2000s reunion nor the previous M + D = 1(8) EP. That being said, they do a terrific job keeping the old songs alive. Since the beginning, Burgess has always including improvised segments in some of the songs, which he usually uses for teasing lyrics of other songs, often to reinforce the intended political sentiments. "Soul in Isolation", for example, included lines such as, "Lost in a Facebook wilderness of pain / And all our leaders are insane". Most of the arrangements haven't changed much since the beginning, except that "Denims and Curls" featured the same extended outro as the version on the EP, and several songs, such as "Nostalgia", featured more wordless vocal parts during instrumental sections.

Although I wouldn't complain if they played some newer songs, they played almost all of my personal favorites (except "Tears"). They balanced their spacey side with their rawer edge. The irony of playing their first b-side "Nostalgia" was not at all lost on me. We were even graced with a second encore featuring two of their punkier songs, which really got the crowd going and closed the evening on a strong, energized note. The closing number, "Don't Fall", featured a guest vocalist whose name I didn't catch. He mostly sang in unison with Burgess, so he didn't particularly add much, but it was still cool to see the two vocalists play off each other.

The band played the songs tightly outside of a few minor flubs. I don't know if it is a testament to the skill of Burgess and his bandmates that they can summon the familiar sounds so effortlessly or if that implies that the original band is simpler to replicate that I'd expected. Certainly the sounds they made in the 80s were innovative for their time, but I imagine the wealth of effects pedals available today make reproduction easier than ever. Whatever the case may be, their transcendent, astral splendor still captivates me as much as it did the first time I heard the original recordings over a decade ago. It also makes me wonder if they were a precursor to shoegazing bands like Ride and Slowdive.

[ChameleonsVox with guest singer.]

Frank the Baptist: D+
ChameleonsVox: A-
Where in the World EP: B+

Thursday, March 23, 2017

South by Southwest Music Festival 2017 Final Thoughts

Once again, I'm going to do a brief overview of my South by Southwest experience this year. Here's a complete list of everyone I saw:

Day 1 (Monday): RF Shannon / Hot Nut Riveters / The Kraken Quartet / Fragile Rock / Hard Proof / Holladay Brothers / Madame Gandhi / Suzanne Ciani
Day 2 (Tuesday): Dude York / IAN SWEET / Diet Cig / Creepoid / Little Simz
Day 3 (Wednesday): Tim Darcy / Forth Wanderers / Aldous Harding / Merchandise / One Week Wonder / Sylvan Esso / Chastity Belt / Albin Lee Meldau / Die Heiterkeit
Day 4 (Thursday): Cosmonauts / No Joy / Free Mint / Merchandise / Death Valley Girls / Boogarins / The Blind Suns / Vedett / Frankie Rose / Ringo Deathstarr / Tempers / Indrajit Banerjee / Golden Dawn Arkestra / Matt Hollywood & the Bad Feelings / Survive
Day 5 (Friday): Let's Eat Grandma / Middle Kids / Spoon / Perera Elsewhere / Agnes Obel / Robyn Hitchcock / Ela Minus / Priests
Day 6 (Saturday): Khruangbin / Ray Wylie Hubbard / Survive / Anna Meredith / The Living Hour / The Dumplings

This was the first year in which I was (mostly) free from work for the whole week. Hence, I took my time and saw more bands than I had in any previous year. I could've seen even more, but tried not to overdo it nor stay up too late. I saw a lot of really good music, and this may have been my best year yet.

After two years of seeing and hearing about less hype, fewer big names, and a general (relative) lack of excitement at SXSW, this year seemed to put rumors to rest that the festival was losing its edge. There's still plenty of room to complain about corporate takeover, but the selection of performers was strong. On the other hand, the police presence this year was more intense than ever before, and even more than last year, I frequently heard talk of fire marshals and venues at capacity.

Correspondingly, there were many shows I wasn't able to see. Part of this may have been because film and interactive badge holders were allowed into music showcases, or it may have been that the strong lineup and increased hype meant there were simply more people at the festival, or it may have been that venue capacity limits were being enforced more strictly.

As always, there were more bands that I wanted to see than I had time for. I would've liked to see Real Estate, Jay Som, Weaves, and plenty others, but it just didn't work out. As always, there were several interesting bands that canceled after being announced (Anna von Hausswolff, Yemen Blues, Imarhan, etc.) and a few that I was planning on seeing that canceled at the last minute (Trementina and Soviet Soviet) because of visa problems that seemed to stem from the recent political shitstorm in the USA. Then there was Mammút, who canceled last-minute due to weather and travel delays, and James Chance & The Contortions, who canceled last minute without any sort of explanation that I could find.

Lastly, I will share one anecdote. While at the Levitation showcase at Hotel Vegas on Thursday, I got fairly close to the stage during Golden Dawn Arkestra's set. (I've never hidden my adoration of that band.) However, whenever I am able, I take notes and try to write down the setlist. Well, on this occasion, while looking down and writing a lyric to help me remember the name of "Dimensions", the lead singer stage dove in my general direction. Thankfully, the people around me caught him, but you can see the effect on my notes:

Pardon my bad handwriting; I could hardly see what I was writing. Anyway, that was supposed to say "Come and Join Us"...

P.S. Thanks to Jacob, Mustafa, Peter, Andrew, and Eric!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

South by Southwest Music Festival 2017, Day 6 (Saturday)

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 6 (Saturday)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 18 March 2017

I've heard about the free day parties at Hotel San José on South Congress for years now, which they amusingly call "South by San José". They usually manage to get most of the best bands every year to play there, and this year was no exception. However, since I live north of downtown, it's always seemed like too much of an ordeal to prioritize the extra distance to get there. This year, despite how sore my legs were, I made it happen and rode my bike there.

My goal was Khruangbin, an East Texas band claiming influence from 60s Thai funk. It seems bizarre or ridiculous, and it kind of is, but when I listened to the band in advance, I liked them so much that I immediately bought their album. You can argue about cultural appropriation, but the only real questionable element is their name. The music itself is complicated, since it's not like the original Thai funk musicians existed in a vacuum. Besides, the supposed influence is somewhat tenuous: this is decidedly Khruangbin's own style.

The trio is smooth, relaxed, and chill, but always tight. The grooves were infectious and their lyrics were infrequent and simple. They played just as much as necessary and not much more. The guitarist was the nominal lead player, but his style was not overwhelmingly flashy. Meanwhile, the bassist was studied but casual and the drummer precise but uncomplicated. (When asked to solo by the guitarist, he just stopped playing for a measure.) There's a lightness or breeziness to the band that risks seeming pedestrian, but they reach a good balance. The guitarist did most of the talking, and he was a bit over the top, but even that was forgivable. The only other downside was that the bass was overwhelming at first and it seemed there was some sort of low-frequency hum or feedback that was interfering with their sound.

[Khruangbin at Hotel San José.]

On my way back downtown, I made a slight detour to visit a friend at Threadgill's, where Ray Wylie Hubbard was performing acoustic guitar country blues with his son on lead electric guitar and a drummer. The guitarwork was superb, although I wished that Ray would've taken more leads instead of leaving most of them to his son, whose style was more conventional.

I headed back to Red River Street to see Survive (which they often annoyingly stylize as S U R V I V E) at the Sound on Sound + Brooklyn Vegan day party at Cheer Up Charlie's. Unlike Thursday night, I actually saw most of their set, and they performed somewhat longer than anticipated. The band is just four men operating synthesizers without any hint of interaction with the audience. They sound cinematic, spatial, and (dare I say) epic, much in the vein of Tangerine Dream's sequencer heyday. They've been on my radar for a while, since they are based in Austin and play the festivals here frequently, but it seems they've recently simultaneously increased their recognition and improved their abilities.

After a stop at the Peruvian food truck, I went to Latitude 30 to see Anna Meredith, an English composer. She performed keyboards, vocals, clarinet, percussion, and glockenspiel and was accompanied by tuba, drums, electric guitar, and cello. Most songs were instrumental, but all five musicians sang, usually together. The sound was underpinned by electronics, but existed in a strange semi-classic continuum that certainly isn't rock but also isn't really what people think of when they hear "classical". Even "art rock" and "prog rock" aren't appropriate, but if the terms hadn't already been co-opted, they might have worked. At any rate, the music was energetic and unconventional. It was a bit hard to tell what was what, as some instruments were occasionally apparently inaudible, but at other times were effected to such an extent as to sound synthetic. The guitarist would do these crazy runs that recalled speed metal, but the tone was usually more like a buoyant synthesizer.

[Anna Meredith at Latitude 30.]

Next was The Living Hour from Winnipeg at Esther's Follies. I enjoyed their warm dream pop sound on record, but on stage, it didn't quite come together. They just sounded like a slow indie rock quintet without much energy or groove. It didn't help that there was interfering noise coming from neighboring venues. The highlight was that the singer occasionally wielded a trombone. She wasn't even exceptionally skilled with the instrument, but that extra element entirely improved the texture of their sound. Even more rarely, the drummer picked up a trumpet, which also helped. Otherwise, there were good parts here and there, such as some atmospheric guitar and rousing crescendos, but none of their songs were particularly notable.

[The Living Hour at Esther's Follies. Note the trombone and trumpet.]

I was at a loss for what to see next, as there weren't a lot of bands that I hadn't already seen left on the schedule that interested me. After another break for more food, a friend and I decided to take a chance on the young Polish electropo duo The Dumplings on the patio of Swan Dive. They started out fairly conventionally and unconvincingly, but they gradually picked up energy and improved their performance as they went along. The singer's vocals became more impassioned and impressive as she started singing more songs in Polish. I also appreciated the other member's use of drum pads and live bass guitar.

[The Dumplings at Swan Dive Patio.]

At that point, I was tired and ready to be done. There were still a couple hours left of the festival, but nothing called out to me enough to make the detour worthwhile.

Khruangbin: B+
Survive: B
Anna Meredith: B+
The Living Hour: C
The Dumplings: B

Monday, March 20, 2017

South by Southwest Music Festival 2017, Day 5 (Friday)

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5 (Friday)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2017

I started my day at the Twin Peaks-themed Showtime showcase at Clive Bar. It was fairly weird, as I'm not really sure if there was any connection whatsoever between the bands playing there and the television show. In fact, considering the nature of the show, the one band I saw there is perhaps an odd choice. But anyway, I was there to see Let's Eat Grandma, an electronic pop duo of two teenagers from England. They were a fairly hyped act, and I was impressed by the creativity of their studio recordings. However, on stage, most of their songs were slow, drawn out, and not very inspired. They both sang fairly well, but the guitarwork and electronics were rather plain. There was one brief sax solo that seemed included solely for the sake of having a sax solo. After about twenty minutes, they seemed to be experiencing laptop problems in the middle of a song. After both members had a try at fixing it, they unceremoniously gave up, closed the set early, and walked off. I think this band has promise and plenty of time to grow and learn, but that was not the show I was hoping for.

[Let's Eat Grandma at Clive Bar.]

I then biked across town to Waterloo Records in the hopes of seeing Middle Kids from Australia. However, there was a surprisingly long line, and I didn't get through it until after their set was finished. I could hear something of a general indie rock sound, but I couldn't discern enough to form any real opinions.

At least I was able to make it in to see the headliner of the day party: hometown favorites Spoon. Since I hadn't been able to make it to one of their "residency" shows at The Main (they didn't go on until 1am each night), I was really hoping to catch this show. It paid off. Spoon brought their top game and played a strong set of a few new songs and a bunch of career highlights. Even in their five-piece touring formation, they still remain tight, focused, and well-honed. They strip their songs down to the essentials and leave no excess. That isn't to say there aren't any flourishes, but rather that you sense that every note they play is there for a reason. They still remain inventive, dynamic, and fresh after all their years. Here's the setlist (with help from here):

01. Do I Have to Talk You Into It
02. Hot Thoughts
03. Inside Out
04. Small Stakes
05. I Ain't the One
06. Can I Sit Next To You
07. The Underdog
08. Rent I Pay
09. My Mathematical Mind

10. The Beast and Dragon, Adored

That encore was a legitimate surprise! Encores are already very rare at SXSW, and in this case, the record store staff had announced that the show was over and the band wasn't coming back on. People were already streaming out of the exits when the cheering broke out and the band reappeared for one more.

[Spoon at Waterloo Records.]

After a break for food, I went to my first official showcase of the night at Barcelona to see Perera Elsewhere, born in London but based in Berlin. The venue is entirely underground beneath 6th Street, and the vibe is something of a techno dungeon. It was long, narrow, dark, not entirely clear where the performer was or when she started, and full of drunken revelers entirely unconcerned with a live music performance. The music was something like electronic folk music made as if lost in the woods and attuned to the sounds of nature. Perera's voice was airy and sounded like it was just a part of the larger soundscape. She also played trumpet with effects that recalled Jon Hassell. Her chosen name is appropriate; the style is hard to place and sounds like it came from some unknown place that's barely known. It was very strange but fascinating. It's a shame that the drunks were loud and oblivious to their interference. While I liked the music, I was glad to escape the weird vibes of the venue.

I went to what might be the polar opposite, specifically the "historic sanctuary" of St. David's Episcopal Church, where I saw Agnes Obel, originally from Denmark. She straddled a line between being a singer-songwriter and a classical composer. Primarily working with cellos and keyboards, she and her band created a stately, operatic, bizarre, intense, ominous swell of music. This is perhaps what was originally meant when the label "gothic" was first applied to music. The venue was oddly appropriate, or at least the acoustics worked in her favor. The drunken frat boys seated in front of me with beer and a vaporizer did not, and unfortunately the enforcer figure did not catch them. On my way out, I was amused by the young greeter's parting words: "See you in another year," spoken in such a way as to be ambiguous whether it was meant sincerely or sarcastically.

I then went a block down the street to another church, the Central Presbyterian, to see Robyn Hitchcock. I know him best from his long-ago membership in The Soft Boys, but he's maintained a prolific solo career since their dissolution in 1981. He appeared alone with just a guitar, playing a sort of weird singer-songwriter folk music in a whimsical, witty, and surreal vein. His songs would often end up where you wouldn't expect, both lyrically and musically. His voice is unusual but skilled, much like his guitar technique. Between songs, he would tell jokes or stories that carried the same air of fancy, humor, and wit. Rarely did his narratives make sense from start to finish, but I was smiling during the whole thing. The acoustics of the venue were superb and for once I could hear and understand every word that he said or sung.

[Robyn Hitchcock at Central Presbyterian Church.]

As quickly as I could, I jumped on my bike and headed to Rainey Street to catch as much of Colombian electronic musician Ela Minus on the patio of Lucille as possible. I liked her cool, chill synth tones although they were abstract and nebulous. The environment was both distracting and advantageous: the well-heeled crowd that sipped their drinks and conversed carelessly seemed largely unaware that a live performance was underway, but I also had the impression that Ela Minus' music was well-suited to being a part of a larger setting. She risked fading into the background, but you could listen actively or passively and enjoy it either way.

I ventured up the street to get in line for Neko Case at the Clive Bar, but the badgeholder line was long enough that I didn't think I would make it in. Having just seen her last summer as part of case/lang/veirs, I accepted my fate and moved along. I met up with a friend, ate some more food, and eventually made my way to Cheer Up Charlie's, where I ran into another friend by chance.

I was there to see Priests, a Washington, DC post-punk band with a heavy political angle. They actually leaned more punk than post, and their aggressive, unrelenting energy was a bit overmuch. Even though I agreed with their political diatribes during and between songs, I found their approach to be unappealing. There's something impressive about their intensity, and there was skill in their angular, sharp-edged performance, but I couldn't get into it.

[Priests at Cheer Up Charlies's.]

Let's Eat Grandma: C-
Spoon: A
Perera Elsewhere: B
Agnes Obel: A-
Robyn Hitchcock: A-
Ela Minus: B-
Priests: C+

Sunday, March 19, 2017

South by Southwest Music Festival 2017, Day 4 (Thursday): Levitation Showcase

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4 (Thursday): Levitation Showcase
Venue: Hotel Vegas
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 March 2017

Every year I've gone to SXSW, I've ended up at the Austin Psych Fest/Levitation showcase at Hotel Vegas on Thursday. I've never been disappointed, even if there are often hiccups. This year, I decided to simply spend my entire day at the showcase. I was well rewarded.

Hotel Vegas expanded this year by taking over the adjacent property at 1504 E 6th St., which they called the annex patio. This caused some sound bleed between that and the main patio stage, but it was still pretty cool to have four stages active at one venue.

Cosmonauts (annex patio): This band has been on my radar for years, but I never managed to see them until now. They had a rocky start with some mix problems. They produced a psychedelic smog that was a bit dirtier than I would've liked but still fairly strong. The real weak point was that their vocals were sloppy and the lyrics were bad.

No Joy (annex patio): I recently got into this band and was really looking forward about this set. However, when they got on stage, guitarist Laura Lloyd was nowhere to be seen. Instead, singer/guitarist Jasamine White-Gluz was accompanied by another guitarist, a drummer, and a backing track for the bass. That was already a bit disappointing, but the mix wasn't very good, either. Vocals were mostly inaudible (even more so than on record), and the second guitar was too low. Furthermore, they were having problems with their in-ear monitors. They eventually pulled them out, tried one song without them, and then just gave up after four songs. They only played for about fifteen minutes.

[No Joy.]

Mint Field (Volstead inside): I only caught a few minutes but found them interesting enough to make note of. Hailing from Tijuana, they made a shoegazer storm that sounded promising albeit vague.

Merchandise (main patio): I just saw them the day before but couldn't resist another opportunity. Here's the setlist:

1. Intro jam
2. Lonesome Sound
3. In Nightmare Room
4. My Dream Is Yours
5. Become What You Are

This time, the intro jam wasn't as noisy and actually had words, but I couldn't understand them. "In Nightmare Room" was a delight, and "My Dream Is Yours" was a good additional selection from the new album. Carson Cox remarked that it was the "festival version", presumably because of a simpler arrangement, but I thought it worked well. "Become What You Are" was again the weaker slow version, but it's still a great song, and this time, they brought out Rat Bastard for the second half to make a delightful noise jam. They'd brought him out the last time they played at Hotel Vegas two years ago, but this time his contribution was much better suited. Cox also threw in a few lines of The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" in the midst of it. It seemed like their set was shorter than the one the day before, but the sound was better, they played stronger, and it made for a tighter package.

[Merchandise with Rat Bastard.]

Death Valley Girls (annex patio): At first, their retro rockabilly style seemed hokey and artificial, but their enthusiasm was infectious, and I gradually realized that their lyrics were hilarious, particularly with songs like "Pink Radiation" and "I'm a Man Too". When the frontwoman switched to an organ, their sound improved, and the songs where drummer sang lead were a bit better executed.

[Death Valley Girls.]

Boogarins (annex patio): I first saw this band at my first SXSW three years ago (and saw them again mere weeks later at Austin Psych Fest) and while I don't like their second album (Manual, 2015) as much as their first, I still wanted to see them again. The sun-drenched sound of their first record was mostly absent, replaced by a lot of psychedelic guitar jams with vocal effect experimentation. The new drummer was quite active and was a good addition. The new songs weren't as melodic as the older ones, but they've also become better musicians and improvisers, such that even the older songs were retooled and rearranged into something new. I missed the harmonies, though; only "Lucifernandis" from the first album featured them.


The Blind Suns (Volstead inside): A French psych band with English lyrics and slight country and rockabilly touches. They ranged from melodic pop with a bit of jangle to heavy rock jams. I liked their use of a partially electronic drum kit, but was disappointed by what sounded like a backing track for the bass parts. I couldn't quite figure them out, but I appreciated their juxtaposition of styles. I was also entranced by the unaffiliated team of projector artists working their magic.

[The Blind Suns.]

Vedett (Volstead inside): A French band on the line between punk and psych. They used keyboard backing tracks that almost sounded like synthpop underneath the noisier, aggressive live instrumentation. It was an odd mix that didn't quite gel right.

Frankie Rose (main patio): I was very interested in seeing her in part due to her strong track record in other bands, but her set seemed to get off on the wrong foot with monitor and mix problems. She kept complaining about a "vocal sample" not being in her monitors, but I never really heard anything that fit that description during the set, and I question the use of such a thing in a rock band. I liked their post-punk style and the reverb- and delay-heavy guitar tones, but the second guitar and keyboard were hardly present in the mix. At least the bassist had a solid, driving style that meshed with the drummer to venture into Krautrock territory at times. It seemed like their set was short, perhaps because the sound crew was tired of dealing with her petulance.

[Frankie Rose.]

Ringo Deathstarr (main patio): I've seen them a couple times before, and while their basic formula hasn't changed (My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze with wild guitar solos), their execution has only gotten better with time. They follow the Jesus & Mary Chain aesthetic of noise plus pop, except that they prefer a bit less pop and a bit more punk. They've clearly worked on their dynamic range, because they managed to cover ground from the heavenly shimmering of The Chameleons to power trio hard rock riffage. The guitarist and bassist seemed to do a lot more singing together, which also worked in their favor. This was their best set I've seen yet.

Tempers (Volstead inside): An electronic duo with a darkwave edge. They mostly relied on backing tracks, but one member played guitar throughout and occasionally provided backing vocals. The combination worked well, and their stark appearance fit the sound. The light show had moved outside, so they were shrouded in dark shadows and white light. At times I was just barely reminded of the darker sides of Beach House.


Indrajit Banerjee (main patio): A highly skilled sitarist accompanied by Gourisankar on tabla. They played just a few pieces built around captivating improvisation, and although each one was rather lengthy, I hardly noticed how much time had passed.

Golden Dawn Arkestra (main patio): I've seen them many times before and they've never disappointed. This time, they didn't march through the crowd as is their norm, but there were still about fifteen people on stage, a lot of dancing and messages about taking care of our planet, and a really strong dose of astral funk. They played several of their best songs along with what I believe are two new songs. They are always an incredible sight to behold and it's practically impossible to resist their grooves. Here's the setlist:

1. Osaka
2. Spacewaves
3. The Wolf
4. Stargazer
5. Promised Land
6. Dimensions
7. Masakayli

[Golden Dawn Arkestra.]

Matt Hollywood & the Bad Feelings (annex patio): After rejoining The Brian Jonestown Massacre around 2010 and recently being unceremoniously removed, Hollywood has taken a break from band associations and has begun touring under his own name. He performed several BJM songs, a few by his other major band, The Out Crowd, and one or two new compositions from an upcoming solo album. While the BJM songs are classics that I was pleased to see Hollywood carry the torch for, I started to notice that all of his songs followed a similar pattern. They start with a slow guitar groove and spaced out singing, invariably about sex or drugs, and then suddenly they break into a big distorted jam with psychedelic guitar solos. At least in musical terms, it's a good pattern, but it did start to get old. Here's most of the setlist:

1. B.S.A. [originally performed by The Brian Jonestown Massacre]
2. Got My Eye on You [originally performed by The Brian Jonestown Massacre]
3. Miss June '75 [originally performed by The Brian Jonestown Massacre]
4. new song?
5. Drugsick [originally performed by The Out Crowd song]
6. Honey, I Ain't High [originally performed by The Out Crowd song]
7. new song
8. Oh Lord [originally performed by The Brian Jonestown Massacre]

[Matt Hollywood & the Bad Feelings.]

On the way out past the main patio, I caught a bit of Survive's synthesizer soundtracks, but I was too tired to stick around.

Cosmonauts: C
No Joy: D
Merchandise: A-
Death Valley Girls: B-
Boogarins: B
The Blind Suns: B
Vedett: C
Frankie Rose: C+
Ringo Deathstarr: A-
Tempers: B+
Indrajit Banerjee: B
Golden Dawn Arkestra: A+
Matt Hollywood & the Bad Feelings: B-