Category Archives: LIVE REVIEWS

Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2016

Fitz

Firefly has become the music festival equivalent of Facebook: it used to be just for college kids, and now your parents do it. What was once the strange, frightening realm of 19- and 20-year-olds has evolved into an adult kid/empty-nest-parent bonding experience, like going to a Phillies game. Even Delaware Governor Jack Markell, who’s 55, whooped it up all four days of the fest. “My 20-year-old son gave me a list of bands to check out,” he said to a group of music writers at Friday’s press conference.

This is due in part to the improved infrastructure and amenities, like air-conditioned camping tents and quinoa-slinging food vendors, as well as to the main-streaming of many artists through Buick commercials and social media, and to the explosion of music festivals in general. The event’s meteoric rise over the past five years has attracted attention too. If 90,000 people go to it, it must be good, right?

Noting the increasing popularity of the festival and the fact that it seems to rain on the third weekend of June every year, I tried planning ahead after the conclusion of Firefly 2015. Since I just crossed the 30 mark and couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping in a squishy tent, I was determined to find a hotel room for Firefly 2016 where I could keep my belongings mud-free and eat miniature boxes of Fruit Loops at the free continental breakfast each morning. When I tried booking a Dover hotel room the Monday after Firefly 2015 for 362 days out, I found all rooms booked within a 30-mile radius. And the actual dates for 2016 hadn’t been officially announced yet. Clearly, the festival is not just a scene for VW-bus driving, shower-shunning, broke college kids anymore.

Like everyone else planning to be at Firefly, I refreshed weather.com five times a day during the week leading up to the event. Based on the forecast, I started wondering where I put my poncho from last year. As it turned out, a soggy Thursday night gave way to blue skies and sunshine, low humidity and breezy nights for the remaining days of Firefly, much to the relief of attendees and organizers. All dread that crackling loudspeaker announcing that the rest of the acts have been cancelled for the day due to impending storms, leading to a stampede to the exits and confused, drunk people frantically stumbling around trying to find their friends.

As I walked through the parking lot to the Woodlands on Friday, I witnessed the now-familiar sight of festival-goers streaming over the highway overpass bridge, cars and trucks honking cheerfully as they drove underneath, and planes towing signs for Trojan Groove condoms flying overhead. Adults and teenagers with turtle backpacks, melting body paint, tiny ripped shorts and bandanas were chattering excitedly about the artists they wanted to check out as the musty smell of trampled grass and pot smoke wafted through the sweaty bodies.

Every year, festival organizer Red Frog Events adds new, fun features. This year was no different. After finally making it through the security line, I walked past art installations and photos of Fireflies past. I also noticed that, even though it had rained the night before, a muddy bog didn’t swallow my shoes like in prior years. Since Firefly has established itself as a staple in the Dover, Del., community, permanent infrastructure improvements have been made, including drainage, new pathways and roadways, and two stages, the Coffee House and The Treehouse.

I wandered over to the Coffee House, which was a magical combination of college-campus bar, indie record store and urban-park picnic area. A rotation of smaller acts played throughout the day among lots of chalkboard artwork and several local roasters selling hot java, iced coffee and muffins. The quirky stage reminded me of Tiny House Hunters, with its trapezoid roof and natural wood shingles. During the time I was there, up-and-coming dance-rock duo Powers put the espresso to good use, energizing the crowd with spunky singles like “Beat of My Drum,” which has been featured in Taco Bell promotions.

Across the grounds at the main stage, neo-soul ensemble Fitz And The Tantrums succeeded in tiring everyone out from dancing even before the headliners performed. The six-piece group from Los Angeles played multiple songs off its just-released self-titled album, as well as hits like “Moneygrabber” and “More Than Just A Dream.” To watch this band is to witness masters at their craft, like watching a basketball team where every player is named LeBron James.

As the weekend progressed, it became clear that Firefly was about more than just the music. Festival-goers let their colors fly—literally. The recent event in Orlando compelled many to show their patriotism and support for the LGBT community. Dozens of rainbow and American flags were hoisted, and colorful stickers, scarves and full-body suits were worn proudly. One guy carried around a giant rainbow-striped cutout of a penis with a Go-Pro nestled inside, presumably to record others’ reactions. Most people gave him a thumbs-up and shouts of encouragement.

On Saturday, Firefly veterans Chvrches took to the main stage in front of thousands of happy, burnt faces. “We played here a few years ago at a much smaller stage,” keyboardist Martin Doherty said, acknowledging the band’s rise in popularity. The Glasgow synth-pop trio, led by the diminutive Lauren Mayberry, played favorites like “The Mother We Share” as well as more recent tracks off of last year’s Every Open Eye. Wearing an ivory, billowing skirt, Mayberry floated around stage as her honey-sweet voice soared over the crowd, juxtaposed with the thudding bass and synth behind her.

Death Cab For Cutie, which headlined Saturday evening, has been delighting indie-rock lovers for almost two decades, releasing eight studio albums and multiple EPs, not to mention frontman Ben Gibbard’s cul-classic collaboration the Postal Service. Over that period of time, Death Cab has garnered critical accolades and commercial success, including multiple Grammy nominations. Despite the fact that its demographic has greyed, hipsters still love Death Cab. These guys’ pleasant and unique brand of pop transcends generations, which is why they’re still enjoying success. This was evident at their well-attended performance at Firefly. As they progressed through their 75-minute set, I was amazed at just how many hits they have produced over the years. “Soul Meets Body,” “Photo Booth,” “I Will Possess Your Heart” … the list goes on. As if to highlight the influence they have over the indie-rock world, Chvrches’Mayberry lent her voice during a cameo in one of their songs. Death Cab punctuated their act with the reverberating, tidal “Trasatlanticism.”

By Sunday afternoon, crowds had thinned a bit, as people began to realize they had to work on Monday and felt the effects of three days of day drinking $12 Bud Lights under an unrelenting sun. While energizing a weary bunch of festival-goers might be a daunting task for some acts, Grouplove was up to the task. Co-lead singer Hannah Hooper bounded onstage in a Poison Ivy-meets-Kurt Cobain ensemble, wearing a tight green body suit with a flannel shirt wrapped around her waist. Vocalist/guitarist Christian Zucconi flanked her, sporting black Converse and a red Hugh Hefner robe. As the band churned out songs like “Shark Attack” and “Tongue Tied,” Zucconi crowd surfed, then threw his guitar six feet in the air and deftly caught it. Both singers darted back and forth onstage like monkeys on Adderall, inciting the crowd to jump and dance.

As the sun began to sink behind the tree line, rekindled punk-pop band Blink-182’s performance transported me back to the days of Total Request Live with Carson Daly, and of being dropped off at Warped Tour by my mom, decked out in tube socks, Vans and a studded belt. Though it’s amusing to listen to 40-year-olds play songs about the angst of youth, they were still entertaining, playing old classics like “What’s My Age Again” and bantering onstage with each other and the crowd.

Just like Facebook has been ingrained into our modern-day social fabric, so too has Firefly become woven into the fabric of Delaware and of the early summers of so many music lovers, young and old. It’s become a place where people can express themselves with swirling body paint and statement attire, and to connect with others through music, whether that’s the stranger next to you at Mumford & Sons, or Dad. It’s also where you can unapologetically revel in nostalgia, no matter if you are remembering your golden years via Earth Wind And Fire or Ludacris. It’s for everyone now. Which means when I’m finished writing this, I’m immediately heading over to hotels.com and booking my room for next year.

—Maureen Coulter; photos by Theo Wargo of Getty Images

SaintMotel

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Live Review: Papier Tigre, Paris, France, May 12, 2016

PapierTigre

A pantomime horse will not gallop with grace. A Papier Tigre, on the other hand, makes an admirable show of it.

Indeed, disparate parts—be they intended for absurd theatrics or musical compositions—tend to fit together awkwardly. But this post-punk trio from Nantes, France, deconstructs, then reassembles, the rock song to pleasing effect. Imagine a cubist painting set to music. The two guitars and drums conjoin, not clunkily, but Lego-like. One hears each element, each player’s individual contribution, distinctly.

Live, the distinctions are even more pronounced. Seeing Papier Tigre perform is like witnessing Dr. Frankenstein assemble his monster from pilfered limbs. Jagged riffs and sharp, percussive snaps segue into playful, even dance-y refrains. What the Fugazi-esque “Health And Insurance” lacks in cathartic release, it compensates for in the richness of its creativity and the urgency of its dynamics. The band’s precise, layered math rock recalls the soaring emo of Dischord’s most urgent acts and the restless experimentation of Thrill Jockey’s least unlistenable.

A stark exception to the group’s eclecticism is the crunchy minimalism of the nine-minute “A Matter Of Minutes.” Guitarists Eric Pasquereau and Arthur de La Grandière huddle around Pierre-Antoine Parois’ drum kit, and the trio hammers out a repetitive motif that is more Shellac than Don Cab.

This stylistic digression underscores the diversity in their sound. Art punk is a colorful marketplace of ideas, and this band wanders among its stalls with hungry ears and sticky fingers.

Towards the end of the set, Pasquereau busts his high E and then—to entertain the crowd while he restrings—relates an anecdote. Two Tinder users had apparently “liked” one another because their profiles both declared an appreciation for Papier Tigre.

Not exactly music you’d fuck to, but disparate parts can indeed fit together … to pleasing effect.

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: Future Of The Left, Norwich, United Kingdom, April 16, 2016

FOTL

“I too once liked Metallica. It’s called puberty.”

And the crowd went mental.

Andrew Falkous, frontman of Future Of The Left, is storming the proverbial citadel, taking arms against the most sacred avatars of the Establishment: Narnians and their Christianity, Thatcher and her Evil, heavy metal and its dinosaurs. Fans of the U.K. combo—by virtue of being earnest and unkempt, if not secular and uncircumcised—are unwavering in their adoration of this iconoclastic band and its verbose vocalist. They bang their scraggly heads in perfect unison with the group’s pothole rhythms. They scream the absurdist lyrics verbatim as if reciting holy scripture. And they guffaw full-throatedly at the witty inter-song banter like penny-stinkers snickering at Shakespeare’s token dick jokes.

To be fair, their enthusiasm is understandable. Both venue and performers offer a unique experience tonight.

Playing in a 15th-century church converted into a punk club, FOTL burns with the white-hot intensity of Mclusky, the spectacular post-hardcore trio that Falkous and drummer Jack Egglestone dissolved a decade ago. The “covers” of their former band’s “Gareth Brown Says” and “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” whip up a nasty indie-punk frenzy. “If AT&T Drank Tea What Would BP Do,” from new LP The Peace & Truce Of Future Of The Left, recalls the dissonance and ferocity of alt-noise heroes the Jesus Lizard. “Arming Eritrea,” “Eating For None” and “Robocop 4—Fuck Off Robocop” are as avant-garde, sharp-edged, and searing as the best of harDCore, without any of the insufferable self-importance.

Falkous himself is in typically frisky form. His vocals, when not as staccato and acerbic as a coked-up hyena or a Dalek performing at a poetry slam, can actually be quite melodic and catchy. In fact, despite their grating guitars and herky-jerky rhythms, “The Limits Of Battleships,” “Running All Over The Wicket” and “Miner’s Gruel”—all from the new album—are rousing, pub sing-alongs, and indeed the crowd does join in with gusto. A convivial ambiance settles in, facilitated by beer, sweat and laughter. Even the slam-dancing is—as Falkous remarks with approval—“energetic yet respectful.”

During the outro to set closer “How To Spot A Record Company,” the band slowly dismantles itself just as Falkous has dismantled society’s most cherished institutions throughout the gig. Bassist Julia Ruzicka retrieves an unwitting volunteer from the crowd to fumble through some awkward notes, Falkous methodically disassembles the drum kit while Egglestone is still playing, and the song spirals into madness. In this former place of worship, what better vaccination against the mainstream than anarchy?

It’s actually quite simple to be an iconoclast. Irreverence, blasphemy, open mockery—these are dime-store virtues, though virtues they certainly be. The trick is to offer a sustainable alternative to the status quo.

Or, if you’re Future Of The Left, to be really fucking entertaining while driving the bus over the cliff.

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: Eric-Fest, San Francisco, CA, Feb. 20, 2016

EricFest

“I’m going to be playing, pretty much, for the entire four-hour event,” chuckles a gray-bearded Scott McCaughey, founder of Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows as well as the Swiss utility-knife of R.E.M. for years and years. And, except for a brilliant two-song set by a reconstituted Rain Parade and a fab, late-afternoon delight by Allen Clapp’s Orange Peels, McCaughey was as much an onstage fixture at San Francisco’s cozy Thee Parkside as Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.

The event was dubbed “Eric-Fest” by its organizer, the dynamic Kim Wonderley, lead singer for the Bay Area’s best-kept, power-pop secret, the Flywheels, whose debut LP will appear soon on Clapp’s Mystery Lawn Mountain imprint. Wonderley lost her dearest pal (and Flywheels’ co-founder), Eric Scott, to cancer late last year, and this afternoon’s free extravaganza has become a bubbling crock-pot of Scott’s friends, fans and relations. The pungent aromas created here must have wafted all the way past Ocean Beach into the Pacific Ocean as aftermath to the recent mega-surf competition held at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay.

Without anyone similar to late Fillmore Auditorium impresario Bill Graham to point at his wristwatch and keep things moving, the afternoon showed a few holes in the rug by lurching to a halt while no one was loading in or out. But once the tiny, two-foot tall stage was occupied by the Flywheels, the music was an absolute delight with material that ranged from the Jam’s “In The City” and the Kinks “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” to Jimmy Silva’s “Hand Of Glory” as well as the Flywheels doing their own “Hello Cruel World” and “Let Me Take You Down,” described by Wonderley as “the last song Eric and I wrote together.”

The Eric tribute also lured current Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken all the way from New Jersey to play alongside the band’s former bassist Mike Mesaros in an ad hoc, psych-pop outfit dubbed the Scott McCaughey Experience. “When I return to San Francisco these days, somebody in the Haight-Ashbury usually shouts out to me, ‘Hey, Jerry Garcia!'” says McCaughey, a Saratoga, Calif. native who opened the day’s second set with a brace of Kinks tunes, followed by debut R.E.M. gem “Radio Free Europe.”

Two decades after Jimmy Silva stumbled into Valhalla, his presence is still felt today. It’s no surprise since Scott and Wonderley were both members of Silva’s delightful final combo the Goats, and McCaughey and Silva had been musical collaborators since they were teenagers.

Special kudos are due today to a pair of iron-man performances by John Moremen and Gabe Coan. Silva’s onetime drummer, Moremen is now the lightning-fingered lead guitar of both the Flywheels and the Orange Peels, while Coan plays percussion for both. Other prime pinch-hitters are bassist Armistead Wellford from Athens, Ga.’s Love Tractor and Paul Whiting, keyboardist from vintage local mod outfit, the Hoovers.

A brief, surprise set by legendary Paisley Underground mainstays Rain Parade was the boysenberry on top of the sundae this afternoon, even though the former Angelinos’ hi-octane mix had a few little kids scurrying from the main room with fingers lodged in their ears.

Boiled down to the enduring essence of guitarist Matt Piucci and bassist Steven Roback, Rain Parade whipped through onetime set standards “Blue” and “No Easy Way Down” like nobody’s business. Once again they fulfilled Piucci’s prophetic remark from their 1984 performance at San Fran’s I-Beam when he described their work as “snake-charmer music.” Eric Scott once played live with Roback’s post-Rain Parade combo, Viva Saturn. The excellent drummer who accompanied Piucci and Roback today was a volunteer from the audience whose name remained unknown to Roback and Piucci, afterward.

As the late afternoon shadows lengthened into early evening, and the two-hour show began looking more like four, original Flamin’ Groovies vocalist Roy Loney took the stage to rip through a Teenage Head-era set of Groovies diamonds that never lose their cutting edge. The evening came to a roaring conclusion with another Silva-era band pointing everyone homeward. The nervous energy of the Grifters with McCaughey, flanked by original members Jim Hrabetin and Steve Cirelli, ignited one final burst from the crackling campfire before the embers were extinguished by the diehards left standing in a circle like a deleted scene from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, holding hands while papier-mâché owls hooted their approval in dusty cardboard trees overhead.

—Jud Cost; photo by Greg Smith

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Live Review: (The London) Suede, Paris, France, Jan. 28, 2016

Suede

Do you ever hear those little voices? The ones buried inside your head, but not as deeply as you’d like, taunting you, pushing you to dive headfirst into the forbidden?

Touring in support of new album Night Thoughts, Suede—that’s “The London” Suede to you litigious Yanks—has conceived an elaborate production for the live show that speaks directly to those self-destructive, yet tantalizing, impulses from within. A film—actually, a long-form music video—accompanies the album and is projected on a semi-transparent screen behind which the band performs. At strategic moments, a soft spotlight singles out one or more of the musicians, who appear to bubble up to the surface like a faint memory.

The film depicts a small cast of characters interacting lovingly and violently, dispassionately and emotionally. They dance and drown, frolic and fight, lend aid and commit suicide. This duality is matched sonically, as the album shifts seamlessly from the gritty to the orchestral. “Outsiders” and “Like Kids” recreate the sass and strut of the sharp Britpop that the group perfected more than 20 years ago. “Pale Snow” and “I Can’t Give Her What She Wants” are touching ballads as light as butterflies caught in a gust of wind.

Lyrically, the album explores themes of ageing and loss—natural extrapolations of the band’s traditional obsessions with unrequited desire and imperfect love. “No Tomorrow” enjoins the listener to “fight the sorrow like there’s no tomorrow.” An ambiguously optimistic lyric. Yet while bleak and theatrical, the album neither descends into self-indulgent goth nor loses sight of the value of a catchy chorus and rousing riff.

In fact, with poignant closer “The Fur and the Feathers,” the film and album end on a note … well, not so much of hope as of acceptance. A recognition that we have to soldier on, to keep running, to embrace “the thrill of the chase.”

Night Thoughts tells tales of tortured and transcendent love, frightening and enticing death, all in a coherent-yet-loose narrative that wisely stops short of a forced, bombastic rock opera. The album, coupled with the film and tonight’s live performance, is not merely a triumph—it’s a fucking stunner.

After a brief intermission to reconfigure the stage, Suede returns for a second set that runs through the band’s deep catalog of Bowie-grade, glam-rock gems. The bawdy and sordid “This Hollywood Life” and “Killing Of A Flash Boy,” the mournful and damaged “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away” and “For The Strangers,” the seductive and coked-up “Animal Nitrate” and “Beautiful Ones”—holy shit, an embarrassment of pop/rock riches.

Indeed, for all the pain and sleaze and torture and filth, tonight’s show is elegant and uplifting. Artist and spectator arrive at a joyous communion. With Suede, misery does not merely love company—company rejoices in the misery. During the iconic “The Drowners,” vocalist Brett Anderson mingles in the crowd where he is promptly groped (by both men and women). But the most emblematic Suede moment of all is the interpretation of Coming Up’s “Trash.” Anderson towers atop his monitors, projecting, bellowing, egging on several hundred fans to sing the self-effacing lyrics that best summarise the relationship between these Britpop legends and their misfit fans: “We’re trash/You and me/We’re the litter on the breeze/We’re the lovers on the street.”

Fight the sorrow? No, celebrate it.

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: Glowsun, Lille, France, Jan. 16, 2016

Glowsun

If potheads didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them. Who else would have found a treatment for glaucoma?

But one mustn’t paint with broad brushes when describing a social group. Stoner-rock groups, for example, typically try to stupefy or pummel, whereas Glowsun focuses on setting a mood.

At the start of tonight’s set, drummer Fabrice Cornille carefully places a lit stick of incense at the edge of the stage. A fog of dry ice billows into the crowd like a cottony tsunami in slo-mo. Were it not for the long and narrow dance floor in this houseboat-cum-concert hall named La Péniche, one would think it was late at night in a freshman’s dorm room. A tension, so palpable that you could clip it with a roach, has been firmly established.

Glowsun accompanies the mood perfectly. Guitarist Johan Jaccob and bassist Ronan Chiron pluck out the slow, hypnotic opening lines of “Death’s Face” to conjure a soft eeriness; wind chimes and a light play of cymbals accent it, then a riff builds into a vigorous gallop. In fact, most of Glowsun’s work alternates between establishing a creepy vibe and setting that vibe ablaze.

The band’s latest album, Beyond The Wall Of Time, is a major step forward for the French trio. With greater melodic diversity, more prominent drums, a wider sonic palette and a more adept hand at arrangements, the LP adds a polish that enhances the power. For the most part, the song remains the same, but now it’s more expertly executed.

Stripped of the studio noodling, the band delivers an impressively muscular performance live. Although squarely within the realm of stoner metal, Glowsun dials down the doom. And where Harsh Toke chases the exhilarating rush of turbo psychedelia and Earthless that of jam-band freakouts, Glowsun is more controlled. Riffs thump and rhythms thunder, but the group favors the undeniably satisfying payoff of structured compositions built on a strong central motif.

The band cherry-picks from the best of its predecessors: “Dragon Witch” (Acid King brawling with Soundgarden), “Arrow Of Time” (the Melvins fêting Pink Floyd … again) and “Barbarella” (Black Sabbath scoring a porn soundtrack). The external influences are honored, but here in Lille the boys in Glowsun are treated as hometown heroes. The audience reaction tonight is enthusiastic and playful. With the close of the set, the revelers chant the band’s name, howling their pleasure over the power chord thuds to the gut and the stomach-churning rollercoaster of tempo changes.

Fortunately, everyone had on hand the perfect remedy for nausea.

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: NYC Winter Jazz Fest 2016

DavidTorn

The 12th annual NYC Winter Jazz Fest is this week, with most of the action happening in Greenwich Village via a marathon series of showcases with more than 100 acts and a dozen different venues. The fest has grown steadily since its inception, and the organized quality of this art extravaganza now draws music seekers young and old with an appetite for cultural experience and a varying interest in jazz. To curate well is the key, and the organizers of the WJF seem to have that part figured out pretty well.

Among many events presented at the WJF are two full nights devoted ECM Records, the European record label guided by Manfred Eicher that’s been presenting improvised music for more than 40 years. While its back catalogue includes countless classic LPs by the likes of Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, ECM has managed to stay up to date and it’s current roster consists of many notable musicians. Friday night’s ECM presentation included the celebrated Vijay Iyer Trio, keyboard whiz Craig Taborn solo (and in trio), and Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s current quartet.

Veteran guitar genius David Torn opened the ECM evening, performing an atmospheric solo set that was introspective and inspiring. Torn has been an ECM artist for more than 20 years and is an adventurous musical spirit with focused concentration. Working an electronic gizmo that processed a maelstrom of sound, Torn didn’t even touch the strings of his guitar for the early minutes of his showcase. Twisting knobs and working an array of foot pedals, he played a lengthy instrumental before explaining to the audience, “That was a song about clocks.” It’s not often that I get to reference musique concrète and a whammy bar in the same sentence, but that’s David Torn.

The Mark Turner Quartet followed Torn’s performance, and saxophonist Turner led his evocative jazz band through a set of new compositions as well as material from their 2014 ECM release Lathe Of Heaven. Accompanying Turner was ECM stable-mate Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Morton and the amazing Marcus Gilmore on drums. As ever, Turner is one to watch.

Meanwhile, over at (le) Poisson Rouge (on Bleecker Street), the Sex Mob celebrated itself and 20 years of canny improvisation, clever humor and cover tunes that you know and love. Led by slide trumpeter/master of ceremonies Steven Bernstein, the Mob titillated the crowd with their unique New York values and muscular musicianship. Drummer Kenny Wollesen was amazing, and his rhythm partner Tony Scherr was rock solid, while altoist Briggan Krauss was a perfect counterpoint to Bernstein’s outlandish trumpet stylings. WJF organizer Adam Schatz presented the band by saying, “Sex Mob makes every day like a Bar Mitzvah.” How can one argue with that? Brooklyn’s own party-hearty Red Baraat followed the Sex Mob set, bringing their North Indian Bhangra/rock/jazz/funk concoction to a roomful of appreciative, dancing converts.

Another standout who must be mentioned is keyboardist Marc Cary’s Indigenous People, who played at the New School Jazz venue on West 13th. Blending electronic keyboards with a front line of horns, reeds, violin and vocalist as well as a rhythm section featuring one drummer and two bassists, Cary led his diverse group through an ecstatic set of original compositions, as well as an adaptation of poet Langston Hughes’ immortal poem, “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)” that had the crowd mesmerized and moving. Add to all this a surprise special show featuring the contemporary jazz trio, the Bad Plus, and you know the 2016 NYC WJF is already being considered a total success. Stay tuned.

—Mitch Myers

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Live Review: Pneu, Paris, France, Nov. 29, 2015

Pneu

The greatest fear at a rock show used to be a wayward elbow in the mosh pit or, at worst, a group of skinheads itching for a fight. Now, you have to worry about goddamn terrorists with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests.

Just two harrowing weeks ago, a coordinated team of dickless bullies murdered 130 people here in Paris, including nearly 90 concert goers at the Bataclan club. How should civilized people react to such barbarism?

Antonin Artaud wrote that no one has ever painted, sculpted or invented for any objective other than to forge a path out of hell. So perhaps we should fight fire not with fire, but with art.

Tonight, in this reeling city, Pneu takes its cue from Artaud and responds to the spray of bullets with a spray of notes. This inventive spazzcore duo from Tours, France—one-fourth of the rock collective La Colonie de Vacances—conjures sonic razor blades flying about in a blender, but choreographed down the most minute slice.

Pneu is math rock that doesn’t bother to carry the one. The all-instrumental, guitar/drums combo starts and stops on a centime, but—while the music is tightly controlled and precise—the primary goal is the euphoria of unbridled expression. Speed metal, noise, hardcore and occasionally stoner sludge converge in a chaotic thrill ride. Wisely, the fracas never descends into cacophonous skronk.

Yes, “Grill Your Eyes” is attention deficit disorder plugged into a Marshall stack, an indiscriminant spunk splatter of cymbal crashes, snare snaps and hardcore riffing. But the deliberate “Gin Tonique Abordable,” which owes much to the middle break in Nirvana’s “Drain You,” builds with the patience of a slowly boiling kettle. Eventually, it delivers a satisfying payoff that depletes the listener as much as it does the musicians.

In fact, Pneu sets up its gear in a way to maximize this communion with its audience. Inspired by kindred spirit Lightning Bolt, the duo places its equipment in the center of the dance floor, wordlessly inviting the audience to form a huddle. The intent is clear: the pair removes the barrier separating performers from spectators, to ride the rollercoaster side-by-side, to share in the rush.

Fans are packed in so close they can smell the musicians’ sweat and ache with their fatigue. The venue is pitch-black, save for an upward-pointing spotlight beneath the drum kit. The vibe is that of a group of friends snuggling around a campfire, telling horror stories.

But Paris has had its fill of horror recently. Tonight, the miracle of artistic creation delivered us from evil.

#SprayForParis

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Paris, France, Nov. 4, 2015

JSBX

Kids today care as much about the blues as Fox News does about the blacks.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was therefore lucky to have emerged in the big-tent ’90s, when audiences would embrace both unhinged experimentation (example: metal/rap hybrids, electronica) and unabashed retro (swing revival), when the melodramatically earnest (emo punk) could thrive alongside ironi-rock (Beck). And all of it was considered “alternative.”

JSBX embodied much, if not all, of the above.

But more than 20 years after the trio first dragged punk kicking and puking into the Delta, the blues are no longer de rigueur. Even torch bearers the White Stripes, for whom Spencer and Co. paved the way by bestowing hipster cred to the genre, have disbanded. Fortunately, there are bands whose careers outlive their genre’s shelf-life. And there are clubs for them to play in that embrace both the quaint and the avant-garde.

The venue for tonight’s show, Paris’ La Gaîté lyrique, is a self-described cultural crossroads for the digital era. It features a grandiose façade worthy of a Loire Valley chateau, yet the interior is fitted with touch screens and Tron décor.

An appropriate choice for the gig, since JSBX has always had one foot in the cotton field and one in the arcade room. 
The trio opens with “Betty Vs The NYPD”: a high-energy number that encapsulates much of the Spencer ethos. The song is raucous, chest-beating, and cartoonishly sincere. Many more such tunes from the band’s latest LP, Freedom Tower—No Wave Dance Party 2015, follow: “Funeral,” “Do The Get Down,” “White Jesus,” “Tales Of Old New York: The Rock Box” and a deliciously sharp rendition of “Wax Dummy.”

Blues purists may whine that Spencer’s shtick (I lost count of the number of times he yelled his trademark non-sequitur “Blues Explosion!!” between and within songs) is flippant, sarcastic, and blasphemous. Sure, the group has added rap, electronic knob-twiddling and even a goddamn theremin to its arsenal, but it has actually done a great service to the blues. It honors the genre by reimagining it in its own image, filtering the blues of its self-indulgent soul-searching yet retaining the beauty of its raw passion. You only imitate what you love.

Late in the show, Spencer finishes his theremin hand jive (writhing and gesticulating like he’s feeling up the Invisible Woman) and heads back to the mic. He channels the late, great James Brown, dramatically tossing off a towel draped over his shoulders by a stage hand, in an obvious riff on the Godfather of Soul’s famous “cape act.” Now, as then, it is all a bit of fun. Energy, emotion—entertainment.

More than 350 years ago in this very town, French playwright Molière wrote, “I wonder if the main rule above all other rules isn’t simply to please.” JSBX exemplifies this rule. The blues are traditionally a vehicle to vent pain, but—fuck, the genre came up with one sexy groove.

So quitcha bitchin’, and just shake ya ass.

—Eric Bensel

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Live Review: Grimes, Seattle, WA, Oct. 28, 2015

Grimes

It’s almost Halloween, and so far, fall 2015 has turned into the Season of the Witch(house); Grimes’ time to shine as the world readies itself for her first full-length in three years, a much-anticipated Event Release in a year chock full of them.

And so, the Big Questions spill forth:

Will any of the early singles (which Grimes—nee Claire Boucher—herself has discredited to some extent, saying that early versions of the record which may or may not have included songs such as polarizing EDM track “Go” either “sucked” or were “depressing”) be included on her fourth/forthcoming album, Art Angels (4AD)? Or would it be a separate affair, governed only by Grimes’ unerring ear and instinct for the zeitgeist and, more to the point, whatever she was feeling artistically at the moment it was being recorded?

Would high-profile personality profiles of the sort penned by the New Yorker or New York Times truly capture the dilemma she was facing—an artist with something to say, at the top of her game, trying to make the most of her Pinnacle Moment to transform from DIY noise-art kid to fully-formed pop artist, albeit one with a mean eccentric streak—or would they simply create more hype than could possibly be delivered? (Or worse yet, play to all the time-honored pop-music clichés and diminish her immense potential by pushing her forward as merely the latest from Central Casting to do battle with the Biz Borg.)

And what’s with all this much-balleyhooed focus on “IRL” instrumentation, as signaled by the guitars that form the churning analog bed beneath the album’s insanely catchy first single, “Flesh Without Blood?”

You want to root for her. But it’s unclear whether rooting for her means that an altogether individual work such as 2012’s “Oblivion” makes it to the top of something like Pitchfork’s “200 Best Tracks Of The Decade So Far” (perhaps the most pop-sounding composition about a harrowing brush with sexual assault ever recorded), or if Going for Grimes is more akin to wishing her an unexpected, lightning-strike hit single that grants her a lifetime’s worth of artistic and economic independence?

A world of false choices.

One sure way to tell whether any of this teapot tempest is real or not is to watch the artist experiencing just such a period play live. That way, you can draw your own totally subjective conclusion (free from the bothersome influence of the media or the mosquito-hum nudging of the internets to color your view): Can she deliver the goods onstage, or no?

Last night’s show here in Seattle—one of the first dates on her Rhinestone Cowgirls tour, in support of the new LP—went quite some way in affirming her myriad gifts with a shouty “Hells, yes.” This version of Boucher’s alter ego bears a strong resemblance to the one I saw in NYC a few years ago, but with some key evolutionary signifiers: This one has dancers, fierce grrls dressed in flight suits bumping and grinding in a somewhat coordinated fashion, but not one that you’d confuse with the Hollywood polish of Left Shark vs. Right Shark. This Grimes will proudly tell you, in her totally discombobulated but charming between-song banter (littered with f-bombs, contradictions and self-deprecating asides), that she is “proud” to play “Go” and “Phone Sex,” songs she created in partnership with her red-hot producer friend/fellow Canadian Mike “Blood Diamonds” Diamond. Today’s iteration is totally OK giggling to a packed house that she “hit the wrong button” in firing up her onstage rig just prior to rebooting “Oblivion,” then killing it with a degree of execution her live show hasn’t really demonstrated before.

In other words, Grimes is a work in progress. A glorious mess. An artist who reminds me as much of people like Prince or even Michael Stipe—bloody-minded independents not given to explaining themselves or their art, creating aural moodboards with the same passion and determination as their radio-ready pop—as she does Bikini Kill, Joanna Newsom or any of the other points of reference that are frequently mentioned in the same breath as Boucher.

Watching her bounce around onstage at the Showbox last night was somewhat akin to watching age-group soccer – the ball flies off in one direction, and 20 kids tear after it, more thrilled and focused on the chase than on any sort of game-winning strategy. This is Grimes, writ large – an artist so enamored of the sound, of the pursuit of what she’s hearing in her head, that any attempt to channel her art into something “au courant” or explainable to anyone other than Boucher is to kill the spirit of it, utterly. From her opening track – “Circumambient,” one of the highlights from 2012’s Oblivion – to new cuts getting worked out right before our eyes such as “Venus Fly” and “Kill vs. Maim” (her “encore” that wasn’t really an encore because leaving and coming back onstage “just feels fake, right?”), Grimes is in charge of this shit. Even if (and especially when) she isn’t, exactly.

I, for one, can’t wait to see how she develops. It’s not going to fit into anyone’s preconceived notions of greatness for her. Boucher is going to follow her muse down a flurry of one-way streets, dead ends, and rock-strewn roads. And we’re still gonna dig the hell out of it every step of the way.

—Corey duBrowa

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