Thursday, November 16, 2017

Einstürzende Neubauten - Live 2017.11.14

I bought a ticket for this show a month before I moved to Berlin because I knew this was something I did not want to miss. The opportunity to see such a quintessential Berlin band in their hometown was irresistible.

Artist: Einstürzende Neubauten
Venue: Columbiahalle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 14 November 2017

Setlist:
01. The Garden
02. Haus der Lüge
03. Nagorny Karabach
04. Dead Friends (Around the Corner)
05. Unvollständigkeit
06. Youme & Meyou
07. Die Befindlichkeit des Landes
08. Sonnenbarke
09. Halber Mensch [partial] → Von wegen
10. Sabrina
11. Susej
12. How Did I Die?

First Encore:
13. Silence Is Sexy
14. Let's Do It a Dada
15. Total Eclipse of the Sun

Second Encore:
16. Salamandrina
17. Redukt


The band came to the stage without percussionist Rudolf Moser or guitarist Jochen Arbeit for the performance of "The Garden". Although I like the song, I found the live performance to be a bit dull. I was concerned that the show might be a dud, but the rest of the band came out for an explosive "Haus der Lüge" and convinced me that they still had something in them. Most of the rest of the show was somewhere in between those two extremes, combining conventional beauty and restraint with chaotic energy and noise.

Seeing the band live, it becomes apparent that bassist Alexander Hacke is the underpinning of the band. His bass dominated the mix and was the foundation upon which most songs were built. The self-made percussion was also critical (and a delight to behold in person), but I was surprised by how many songs had backing tracks presumably controlled by touring keyboardist Felix Gebhard. Blixa Bargeld even commented while lighting an "herbal cigarette" for the introduction of "Silence of Sexy" that "man darf nicht alles glauben, was man hört" ("one shouldn't believe everything that one hears"). There's an irony to me that a band so focused on customized instrumentation and experimentation would still use synthesized accompaniment. Despite such assistance, the band was occasionally a bit loose. I don't expect perfection, but the lack of precision was disappointing.

I was also a bit surprised that Arbeit's guitar was pushed back in the mix. The guitar was rarely the centerpiece; it was rather a textural element, often played with an ebow to sound entirely unlike a guitar. It was amusing as well that unlike most rock bands, the guitarist and bassist never swapped out their instruments, but the two percussionists were constantly changing and adjusting their collection of tools. The band's large array of pipes, machinery, metal sheets, bars, springs, gears, and contraptions remains their greatest novelty and contributes substantially to the visual experience (to say nothing of the auditory experience!).

The other special trait of the band was Blixa's trademark bizarre screeching ability. While it is less terrifically frightening and otherworldly than it once was, it has become expertly trained with time. Otherwise, his voice was still strong, although not always perfect in time or pitch. All of the regular bandmates also contributed backing vocals, which was another nice touch.

The setlist relied heavily on Silence Is Sexy (2001) and Alles wieder offen (2007), closely matching the material on their new Greatest Hits collection. That set oddly features only one song from Haus der Lüge (1989) and nothing whatsoever from the eight years and four albums preceding that. (It also only features "The Garden" from Ende Neu (1996) and "How Did I Die?" from their latest album, Lament (2014).) The setlist was similarly biased, although they did a short version of "Halber Mensch" as an introduction to "Von wegen", which itself concluded (as in the studio recording) with a short quotation from "Sehnsucht" off their first studio album, Kollaps (1981).

"Unvollständigkeit" was perhaps the only song they played that didn't entirely work; it felt a bit lethargic and restrained. "Let's Do It a Dada", on the other hand, was a total success, despite the recorded version having limited replayability. But where was the rest of Eneu Neu and Perpetuum Mobile? "Was ist ist", "Ein seltener Vogel", or "Selbsportrait mit Kater" would've been great. And while "Salamandrina" was excellent, where was what I take to be their best song, "Die Interimsliebenden"? (However, I know from recordings that the live arrangement sounds like half the song is missing.)

I like just about all the songs they played, but most lacked the intensity that dominated their 80s output. Even the experimental aspects of their 90s albums were missing. I can appreciate that they've grown and developed into yet another phase, but I still wonder where they might go from here. When I reviewed Lament, I had hoped that after seven years of little activity, they might enter a fourth stage of their creative life. However, now they are still playing the same set of 00s material and are barely acknowledging Lament. The setlist had no surprises nor any hints of the "Rampe" improvisations that once were a hallmark of their shows. Nonetheless, Neubauten still manage to fascinate me with almost everything they do, so I still harbor hope that they have more creativity left in them yet.


One more note: the band maintained their usual tradition of selling USB sticks after the show containing the complete concert. I found 25€ a bit expensive but still couldn't resist. However, when I got home and gave it a closer look and listen, I discovered that the audio was a mere 256 kbps mp3 file. The spectrogram is loud and appears overdriven and compressed. Clipping can be heard throughout the show, particularly during "The Garden". "How Did I Die?" even has skips in it. If you can ignore those faults, it's a fair record of the show. But without editing or the visual element, it sounds more like a bootleg than a professional job. I'm used to that level of quality, but at that price, I expect better. It's cool to have as a record of the show I saw, but as an independent live album, it's not particularly strong.

Scores:
The concert: B
The recording: C-

P.S. A recent concert at the new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg can be seen on YouTube here. It's a slightly stronger set than what I saw and you can see all of the percussive creations in their full glory. The audio gets oddly terrible in the last song ("Redukt"), but otherwise it's quite well done.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Ride / Dead Horse One - Live 2017.11.05

In recent years, three of the biggest and best shoegaze bands (My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride) reformed, went on tour, and eventually released a new album. In each case, I saw a live appearance before they'd released any new music, then purchased their new album, and then have seen them live again. In each case, the new album was no disappointment. With My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, the second show was markedly better than the first, almost like the new album infused them with newfound energy or confidence. I even gave the Slowdive show I saw a month ago an A+. However, I'd already given Ride an A+ the first time I saw them (at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2015), so my expectations for this show were rather high.

Artist: Ride
Venue: Festsaal Kreuzberg
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 5 November 2017
Opening Act: Dead Horse One

Setlist:
01. Lannoy Point
02. Charm Assault
03. Seagull
04. Weather Diaries
05. Taste
06. Dreams Burn Down
07. Pulsar
08. Cali
09. Twisterella
10. Impermanence
11. Lateral Alice
12. From Time to Time
13. Leave Them All Behind
14. All I Want
15. OX4
16. Vapour Trail
17. Drive Blind

Encore:
18. Rocket Silver Symphony
19. Grasshopper [with Anton Newcombe]
20. Chelsea Girl

Dead Horse One are a five-piece from France. They played a strong and entrancing set that seemed like a perfect match for Ride. Other than the obvious shoegazer link, they drew from the psych sound of bands like The Black Angels. They would fit in quite well with at Levitation! They let the keyboard take a lot of the melodic role while the two guitarists created a dense, warm ball of sound. There were a few bits of reverb-laden gothic rock guitar as well as moments of heavier, darker energy. I was actually disappointed that they only played for a terse 30 minutes.

[Dead Horse One with a guest tambourinist.]

Ride came out to the sound of the keyboard that opens their new album, Weather Diaries. They ended up playing most of the new album, but interspersed it with several of the best tracks from their early classic albums and EPs. Some of their new songs ("Charm Assault", "Cali") have a distinct pop angle, but the band has still retained their core astral guitar sound. Early in the set, the band proved that they haven't shunned their roots by jamming out an extended and captivating take on "Seagull". Other particularly strong classic songs were "Dreams Burn Down", "Leave Them All Behind", and "OX4".

The incorporation of electronic elements is often a challenge on stage, but the band handled it comfortably by treating their occasional backing tracks as a mere backdrop to add just a bit of texture behind the main attractions. "All I Want", a song that is on the line of sounding like an annoying electronic pop remix, came through surprisingly well. Although some of the other new songs felt a bit weak and less energetic than the classics, there were no duds, and I appreciate their willingness to write and perform new material. We were even treated to one of the first performances of their new non-album single "Pulsar", released just a couple weeks before the show.

By the time they got to "OX4" and "Vapour Trail", the closing tracks of their best two albums, I was expecting the show to end at any moment, but they didn't slow down. "Drive Blind" sounded even better than the original studio version, and they did their standard trick of extending with a long noise jam in the middle.

[Ride.]

And then came the encore. First they played "Rocket Silver Symphony", which featured drummer Laurence Colbert's vocals in the verses, and then they introduced a guest: Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, who happens to live in Berlin! They elected to play "Grasshopper", a b-side from 1992 that they claimed never to have played live before (although setlist.fm disagrees). Newcombe's guitar wasn't very high in the mix, so it wasn't entirely obvious what he contributed, but it was still cool.

The quality of the mix was the one issue that distracted from a great set. It is possible that my position near the back of the venue was at fault, but throughout the entire show, the vocals were muddy and indistinct. The bass lacked punch and the whole package lacked clarity. It took away from some of the power and intricacy of their performance.

The new material might not be their best, but in some sense Weather Diaries seems like an alternate version of where they could have gone in the mid-90s. After the raw, early-era My Bloody Valentine ripoff of the Ride and Play EPs (both 1990), the sublime shoegaze of Nowhere (1990) and the Fall (1990) and Today Forever EPs (1991), and the slightly more mainstream, power pop-inflected Going Blank Again (1992), what if they had tried out an electronic edge instead of espousing generic 90s rock cliché and regurgitating bland 60s references? It seems like everyone, including the band, would rather forget their latter-day albums Carnival of Light (1994) and Tarantula (1996). (They only played one song, "From Time to Time", from the former and nothing from the latter.)

Despite a few flaws, Ride played a strong show, and I appreciated that the kept going for two hours. It wasn't quite as perfect as the last time I saw them, but I like their new album (and single), and I'm glad they were willing and able to grow and still keep their best elements.

[Ride with Anton Newcombe.]

Scores:
Dead Horse One: A-
Ride: A-
Smile (compilation of Ride and Play EPs): B
Nowhere (with or without the Fall EP appended): A+
Today Forever EP: A+
Going Blank Again: A-
Carnival of Light: D
Tarantula: D
Weather Diaries: B+

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Tomatito y grupo - Live 2017.10.28

Artist: Tomatito y grupo
Venue: Konzerthaus
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 28 October 2017


Tomatito, the renowned flamenco guitarist from Andalusia, may have spent two decades accompanying singer Camarón de la Isla, but he now fronts his own group. He was joined by his son, José del Tomate, a proficient guitarist in his own right; his daughter, vocalist Mari Ángeles; vocalist Kiki Cortiñas; percussionist El Piraña; and percussionist/dancer El Torombo. Most (but not all) of their songs featured vocals, but the star of the show was usually Tomatito's guitar. His technique ranged from lamentful, minor-key arpeggios to whirlwind runs that were faster than the mind could follow.

The only other tonal instrumentation came from José del Tomate. While he mostly played rhythm parts underneath Tomatito's firestorm, he took a couple solos that were just as impressive as his father's. The vocals from Mari Ángeles and Kiki Cortiñas were similarly dramatic. They typically sung in harmony, and while they clearly had expressive voices, I found their style to be less compelling than the instrumental performers.

The percussionists were both a special treat. El Piraña initially played in a rather restrained style, but he gradually picked up energy as the night went on. His drumset consisted of a snare, a conga, several cymbals, and a cajón, all of which he struck only with his hands. He took one solo near the end that became a wild and fantastic fury of rhythm.

The real surprise came from El Torombo. I was initially amused that he appeared to be solely a professional handclapper. All of the performers contributed hand percussion in some form of another, but the one microphone near El Torombo was pointed at his hands from underneath, and he neither played an instrument nor sang. However, shortly before the end of the show, he got up in the middle of a song and slowly but carefully walked to the center of the stage. In a sudden flash, he swung himself around and began dancing in an elaborate manner with rhythmically complex footwork. He continued this role for the next song as well. It was an astonishing act in itself, but the music matched the rhythm of his dance with an incredible precision, even when the tempo increased to a frenzied peak.

Tomatito and his group put on a captivating show. His guitar playing was fascinating on its own, but combined with a talented group of complementary musicians, it was a continual pleasure. Some of the slower songs that focused more on the vocalists dragged slightly, but the instrumental showpieces were a delight on every occasion. I appreciated that each member contributed something vital to the show. The combination of incredible guitarwork, well-crafted rhythm, and the bonus dancing made this a quite memorable performance.


Score: A-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

[The Konzerthaus interior.]

Sunday, October 29, 2017

St. Vincent - Live 2017.10.26

I enjoyed seeing St. Vincent at Austin City Limits Festival a few years back so much that I immediately bought a ticket for this show as soon as I heard about it. This was before Masseduction was even announced. Once I finally heard the album, I was a bit skeptical, but still more than curious enough to see what she had to offer.

Artist: St. Vincent
Venue: Huxleys Neue Welt
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 26 October 2017
Opening Act: The Birthday Party (short film)

First Set:
01. Marry Me
02. Now, Now
03. The Strangers
04. Actor Out of Work
05. Cruel
06. Cheerleader
07. Strange Mercy
08. Digital Witness
09. Rattlesnake
10. Birth in Reverse

Second Set (Masseduction):
11. Hang on Me
12. Pills
13. Masseduction
14. Sugarboy
15. Los Ageless
16. Happy Birthday, Johnny
17. Savior
18. New York
19. Fear the Future
20. Young Lover
21. Dancing with a Ghost
22. Slow Disco
23. Smoking Section

I hadn't heard anything about an opening band, so when the 8pm showtime came and went without any appearances, I wasn't too surprised. Besides, the house music was Brian Eno and David Byrne jams that were a pleasure to hear on such a large sound system. But fifteen minutes later, when a projection screen was revealed, it all became a bit clearer: we were getting treated to a showing of The Birthday Party, a short film directed by Annie Clark, the sole member of St. Vincent.

The film depicts a woman trying to hide the death of her husband from their child on the morning of the lattermost's birthday. It relied on suspense and black humor, but the suspense was overplayed by the extremely heavyhanded audio cues. The final scene was accompanied by intense music from St. Vincent, which matched the emotional content of the action, but I found the whole setup rather predictable. The film was artfully produced and not without its clever touches, but the plot wasn't notable and the style was just a bit gimmicky.


When St. Vincent appeared on stage in person, she was alone with just a microphone. The curtains still hung around most of the stage, implying that there was still something to hide. After performing a song from her debut album to a backing track, a masked stage hand brought her a guitar. She continued to play songs from her career in chronological order, mostly in pre-recorded arrangements that seemed toned down and scaled back. The curtain revealed the rest of the stage at some point, but there were no additional musicians or instruments, just a couple microphones. The backing tracks initially focused on arty, less rock-oriented arrangements, culminating in "Strange Mercy", which featured nothing but strings and Clark's voice. The songs from St. Vincent (2014) were more fully synthesized with the expected dance beats.

And then she left the stage. The stage lights came on for just a few minutes before the curtain came up again. St. Vincent appeared again with her guitar and a change of costume. She proceeded to play the entirety of her new album, Masseduction, in full. Again, she used backing tracks for everything she couldn't do herself. She left again and that was it.

It was a strange concert. St. Vincent's persona is always somewhat affected, sarcastic, bizarre, and mechanical, so part of the show felt like she was making a big joke and everyone was in on it. Her choreography and movement felt like something from the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense playbook, except that she was the only live performer. The decision to rework and play around with the arrangements of her older songs was solid, but without a live band to give them any life, they felt stiff and artificial. St. Vincent's guitar style was wild and fascinating, but she wasn't even manipulating the pedals and effects herself.

The chronological ordering of the material was another interesting choice. but it meant that the show built up to a crescendo in the first half, then slowly came down as the performance of Masseduction reached its end. I'm usually skeptical of full-album performances and this was no exception. Coupled with the reliance on backing tracks, the set was entirely predictable. Worst of all, there was no encore. A few strong back catalog tracks could have brought the show to end on a high note, but we were left with nothing further.

St. Vincent's vocals and guitarwork were as strong as ever, and her stage presence was commanding. I appreciate her style and her willingness to experiment with different ideas, but I don't think many of her choices succeeded at this show. Most of the best elements that drew me in when I saw her perform with a band at ACL were absent. Playing to a backing track sapped away most of the energy and excitement. The songs were good, but there was hardly any spirit in it. If St. Vincent goes the way of an electronic pop star, then so be it. At least she can still play a mean guitar.


Scores:
The Birthday Party: C
St. Vincent: D+

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Jesus & Mary Chain / Cold Cave - Live 2017.10.12

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cold Cave.]

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

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

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

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

[The Jesus & Mary Chain with Bernadette Denning.]

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Slowdive / Isan - Live 2017.10.03

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

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

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

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

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

[Isan.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Slowdive.]

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

Monday, September 25, 2017

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

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

[US cover.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[UK cover.]

Score: B-

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Sisters of Mercy / The Membranes - Live 2017.09.12

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Membranes.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Sisters of Mercy]

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

P.S. Thanks to the Sisters Wiki.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Patti Smith - Live 2017.08.15

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: B+