All photos by Steve Streisguth
Guided By Voices:
All photos by Steve Streisguth
Guided By Voices:
It’s the 2014 Hudson Project festival. MAGNET’s Maureen Coulter reports from the festival.
“I never thought I’d find myself on one of these again,” a festival-goer remarked as we all piled into a yellow school bus serving as the shuttle between the parking lot and the Hudson Project festival grounds. It turned out to be a fitting way to travel to the event at which everyone felt free to unleash their inner child. Nestled in the mountain town of Saugerties, N.Y., far from reliable cell-phone service and the daily grind of work, schoo, and other responsibilities, the mostly 20-something crowd frolicked about in pajamas, underwear, costumes, bathing suits, body paint and mismatched plaid and tie-dye combos.
Like the first day of a new school year, people were excitedly striking up conversations with each other. “Where are you from?” “You pumped for Modest Mouse?” When we arrived at the venue and walked amidst the Ferris wheel, tents and yard games, it was apparent that festival-goers were here to play. A big, burly guy in a tie-dye T-shirt carried around a “Free Hugs” sign. Half-naked girls in body glitter hoisted signs and props such as oversized photos of Oprah and Gary Busey, glowing jellyfish umbrellas and inflatable sharks. A giggling group of friends were rolling down the grassy hill next to one of the stages. And this was before the music had even started.
As dusk settled upon the festival-goers assembled in front of the Empire Stage on Friday night, Modest Mouse played its jilted-yet-melodic brand of folk rock, starting off with the strong banjo riff of “Satin In A Coffin.” Singer/guitarist Isaac Brock spewed his raspy, gut-wrenching lyrics into the microphone like it had pissed him off. He took command of the stage through brute force, rather than by intrinsic charisma. With a polo T-shirt, copious tattoos and a mop of hair, he looked like someone who frequents the local sports bar instead of the front man of one of the most successful indie bands of the past two decades. Wasting little time bantering with the crowd, the group segued into favorites “The View,” “Dramamine” and “Third Planet,” before sending us off with the thunderous “Cities Made Of Ashes.”
Once darkness enveloped the festival grounds, the costumes and props emerged in full force. Glassy-eyed kids in cow suits and sparkly fairy outfits marched to the Explorer Stage with homemade illuminated signs, blinking hula hoops and glow sticks to take in festival veterans Sound Tribe Sector 9, the psychedelic instrumental electro-rock group favored by the jam-band scene. STS9 could barely fit a fraction of its work into the 90 minute set—the prolific band has made 11 albums since it began 10 years ago. Across the grounds inside the Circus Tent, the dance party continued into the night with electronic dub-step artists Savoy and Excision.
Pretty much every day we were at the Hudson Project, we witnessed people having fun with antics that would raise eyebrows, trigger snickers or outright offend in any other setting. As everyone waited for the shuttle on day two, we watched one guy—built like an NFL wide receiver and wearing nothing but a patchwork skirt and muddy Vibrams—play in the parking lot with bubbles while smiling and waving at amused bystanders.
We took in a few second- and third-tier acts throughout Saturday afternoon. ZZ Ward is Adele with a harmonica. If she ever breaks out, parents across the nation will be hearing their teenage daughters belting her songs from the shower. Wearing a fedora and black boots, she buttered up the crowd, telling them how delicious and sexy they looked. However, this was the beginning of the day, when no one’s makeup has melted off yet and their bodies were not yet burnt to a crisp.
Early in the evening, Rebelution, the talented Sublime-esque reggae crew, played to a burgeoning crowd as the odor of pot grew increasingly pungent. Acid-jazz, trip-hop DJ Bonobo and lively hip-hop duo Big Gigantic warmed us up for the later acts.
A downpour around 8:30 p.m. sent festival-goers running for the tents. We ended up huddled with a few hundred others in the New York tent with a mediocre local band that had never seen this many people see the group play even in its high-school orchestra production. However, once the rain cleared a few minutes later, the sopping-wet crowd hauled their signs and props back to Big Gigantic.
Matt And Kim embodied the theme of the festival, living up to its reputation of having a fun, D.I.Y. attitude toward music and basically doing whatever the heck the band wanted to do onstage. Upbeat and party-friendly, the duo is best known for perky 2009 hit “Daylight,” and its songs are in every commercial and movie trailer made in the last five years. Kim, with her checkered pants and Colgate smile, throttled the drums with her Crossfit biceps and couldn’t sit still, climbing on top of the set and shaking her very toned rear at the audience while still drumming. The duo played interludes of club music like Master P’s “Make ‘Em Say UHH” and engaged the fans in the audience in a way that would make Blue’s Clues proud, throwing balloons into the crowd and encouraging dance parties and sing-alongs. The duo was also hilarious. “We are going to play something by a great American poet. You may have heard of Robert Kelly, known as R. Kelly.” Then Matt commenced a group recital of “Bump n’ Grind.” By the end of the set, I wasn’t sure who had the better time—the audience, or Matt And Kim.
On the third day, bleary-eyed and sunburnt festival-goers straggled into the venue and headed straight for the food and beer concession stands to cure their hangovers. Early afternoon was cooler than the previous two days, but rain clouds loomed. We took in a few performances including the Floozies, who played an electro-funk set to a packed Circus Tent. Mid-afternoon, organizers appeased futbol fans by showing the World Cup Final on a big screen in the New York tent. At the 75th minute, an announcement came in over the loudspeaker telling everyone that they were suspending the festival due to severe weather concerns. Not wanting to be conductors of lightning, and realizing that the shuttle pick-up zone could turn into a Titanic situation, we hustled to the parking lot and hopped onto a bus. Other people weren’t so lucky. Packed-up vehicles floundered in the mud, and marooned and cranky attendees left unhappy comments on the festival’s Facebook page.
Despite the less-than-perfect weekend, we still enjoyed two-and-a-half days in a bubble of good music, good vibes and free expression—which is all that folks will remember a month from now anyway. The next time I ride a school bus, I hope it’s during Hudson Project 2015.
The Copenhagen Jazz Festival is a 10-day summer event that’s especially broad in scope and range. It runs from July 4 through July 13 and has been bringing decidedly idiosyncratic programming to Denmark since 1979. The festival is a humongous behemoth of jazz and beyond, showcasing nearly 1,200 concerts at more than 100 different venues—including indoor, outdoor, large, small, free and ticketed events. From restaurant gigs at places like the Café Sommersko to auditoriums like the Danish Radio Concert Hall, the festival is hosting Danish and Scandinavian talent, cutting-edge European artists and the cream of American musicians trekking across the continent of European summer jazz fests.
Besides local heroes like drummers Alex Riel and Stefan Pasborg and bigger acts like Chick Corea & Stanley Clarke, John Scofield, Josh Redman and Tinarewin (the desert-blues sensation from Mali), the Copenhagen fest puts on a high percentage of avant-garde performances. One such showcase at the venerable Jazzhouse venue was the pairing of Swedish power-saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and avant-rock guitar hero Thurston Moore.
With Gustafsson blowing with gale-force intensity as well as pushing a storming brew of electronic keyboard sounds, Moore was free to scrape, pick and pound away on his guitar, matching Gustafsson in both potency and focus and making their ear-bleeding duet feel like one long improvisational fever dream. Feedback and an array of tonal colors streamed back and forth between the two men, going from soft and contemplative into high, screeching volume. Much of the young audience had filtered over from the nearby Roskilde Festival to see Moore, but even the older, seasoned jazzbos in attendance had to admit that this gig was one breathtaking improvisational experience.
Another unlikely gig of scorching intensity was deranged Japanese vocalist/poet Damo Suzuki—best known for his stint as singer in the German group Can. Suzuki brought his unusual performance narrative to fruition at the stripped-down rock club KB18 in Copenhagen’s meatpacking district. The noise-loving youth of Denmark once again came out for the spectacle, as Suzuki was playing with the reunited Danish outfit White Trash featuring guitarist Jakob Bro and keyboardist Søren Kjærgaard. White Trash provided an appropriately harsh groove while Suzuki ranted, growled, screamed and sang in several languages—none of which I could understand at all. Still the show was downright killer, so there you go.
Let’s just hope for a few more sonic outbursts before the Copenhagen Jazz Festival ends on Sunday.
—Mitch Myers; photo by Kristoffer Juel Poulsen
With music festivals popping up across the country like food trucks outside of a hipster bar on a Saturday night, it’s hard to decide which one is worth three precious PTO days and half my paycheck. Though Summer 2014 is nearly half over, there is still a host of options to choose from. Will I go regional, like Summerfest in Milwaukee? Or international, like the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal? Or perhaps chic and urban, like Outside Lands in San Francisco?
The recent trend has been toward music festivals in close proximity to, or within a large city, such as Lollapalooza in Chicago, Made In America in Philly and L.A., and Governor’s Ball in New York City. I’m not a fan of crowded and sweaty, and public-transit jaunts and easily accessible Starbucks franchises don’t engender fond memories like the dusty hippie-love fests of yore—which is why The Hudson Project holds promise. This weekend (July 11-13), the festival launches its inaugural affair at Winston Farm, the bucolic site of Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, N.Y.
While I certainly have the option to glamp in comfort with luxurious bed linens and embroidered throw pillows in a Safari-style tent, far from the common folk, it seems as though The Hudson Project promotes a spirit of community, much like its festival ancestors. Due to the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere, camping space is plentiful, and pitching a tent is encouraged. Against the geologically striking backdrop of the Catskill Mountains, the festival features more than 85 acts spanning multiple genres, and is also promoting collective peace/love/happiness through onsite art installations, artisanal food and local craft beer, plus free yoga, meditation and hooping workshops. Like most music festivals in the time of YouTube and Spotify, The Hudson Project went for a diverse lineup, catering to ravers, rockers, hipsters, hip-hop lovers and jam-band enthusiasts alike, with headliners including Modest Mouse, the Flaming Lips, Bassnectar, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dog and Matt And Kim. While there is sure to be a few first-year glitches, The Hudson Project appears to have a lot—including history—on its side.
It’s the 35th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.
The 35th Montreal Jazz Festival keeps on rolling along, devouring all in its path. On Sunday the fest presented Elvis Costello with its esteemed Spirit Award for overall musical excellence. Costello performed a solo concert at the beautiful Maison Symphonique auditorium, and perhaps it was just a coincidence that his Canadian spouse, Diana Krall, just happened to be playing a huge free outdoor show, the Grand Event, on that very same evening. Costello’s own show was well received but felt rather perfunctory as he cruised through a selection of songs from his 40-year career. Gracious, witty and sly, Costello played plenty of his obscure compositions as well as crowd-pleasers like “Watching The Detectives” and Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.” Perhaps he was saving himself to some degree, because later on he appeared as a “surprise” special guest at Krall’s show, joining her concert encore of “Ophelia,” “Whispering Pines” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in front of approximately 100,000 people.
Quality jazz gigs continue to capture the imagination. The Jack DeJohnette Trio came through town, displaying the veteran drummer along with bassist Matt Garrison and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. One interesting thing is that Coltrane is the son of John Coltrane, and Garrison is the son of John Coltrane’s old bassist Jimmy Garrison, making this band a second-generation jazz supergroup or, as they say, “in the tradition.” DeJohnette seems particularly energized by his cohorts, as the 70-year old drummer is playing with the fire and conviction of someone half his age.
The Jeff Ballard Trio is another drummer-led ensemble, and its late-night gig at the beautifully intimate Gesú was an unqualified success. Ballard is a wonderful percussionist, and his unorthodox group features West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón. Loueke played both bass and lead parts on his electric guitar, and he also “sang” percussive clicking noises derived from the Xhosa language. This is a remarkably adventurous ensemble, and Ballard was gracious enough to invite trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire onstage for one number, who also did not disappoint.
Akinmusire is one of the brightest young trumpeters on the contemporary jazz scene and is really hitting his stride. His tone is unique and almost immediately identifiable, harking back to the pioneering spirit of Miles Davis. Hosting three different nights at the Gesú for his part in the Montreal Festival’s Invitation Series, he began his residency with a duet concert alongside veteran guitarist Bill Frisell, which Akinmusire called a “life-changing” experience. On Monday Akinmusire played with his working quintet, doing some material from his new CD, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint. Simply put, Akinmusire is one to watch. He’s already a star with a long road ahead.
Aging drum legend Ginger Baker was in town leading his Jazz Confusion group through a well-attended show at the Theater Maisonneuve. Although Baker is best known as the old rock drummer from Cream, he’s actually a jazzman through and through. His quartet featured saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, bassist Alec Dankworth and African percussionist Abass Dodoo. The band played standards like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” but Baker also showed his affection for the music and rhythms of Lagos and Nigeria. Baker’s percussion interludes with Abass Dodoo were reminiscent of his time with Fela Kuti, and the band also drew haunting melodies from Ginger Baker’s Air Force circa 1970. Tiring as the show was for Baker, he gave it his all and that was good enough.
Returning New Orleans star Trombone Shorty kept the party going late at the Métropolis on Monday. As usual, Shorty’s band was rocking and dynamic. I mean—dynamic! Mixing hip hop, funk and in-your-face rock with some truly wailing guitar, screaming saxophone, a killing rhythm section as well as his own trombone and trumpet, Shorty sang, chanted and jammed Tremé-style all night long. And that’s simply the best way to clear one’s palate here in Montreal after another long night of jazz—to dance your ass off.
—Mitch Myers; photo by Sharonne Cohen
It’s the 35th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.
This is getting serious. I’m at the 35th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, which runs from June 26 through July 6, and there’s already way too much fun. With a massive amount of programming for free outdoors and ticketed indoor performances showcasing hardcore jazz, mainstream pop, soul, modern rock, hip hop, blues and lots of international flavors. The festival’s organization is only getting better, and so is the physical layout of the downtown area. This year they kicked things off with a “pre-opening” concert featuring Beck, and it has been musique nonstop ever since.
On Friday night, French artist Woodkid put on a wildly visual and sometimes mesmerizing spectacle for a huge outdoors gig. At the same time, the legendary Heath Brothers played at tiny little Upstairs, the one and only genuine jazz club that actually works along with the festival.
At Club Soda, young singer Trixie Whitley put on an uneven performance but endeared herself to the audience when mid-show, she confessed to being pregnant, “Most of my family doesn’t know yet, but you guys do!” Whitley, who had played onstage the night before with Quebec hero Daniel Lanois, admitted she was most afraid to tell Lanois about her current status, but all is well.
Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa brought his Gamak fusion project to the intimate Gesù venue with Rez Abbasi on guitar, bassist Rich Brown and wonder drummer Dan Weiss. Mahanthappa and Abbasi often played in strict unison, combining Indian classical music structures and long elaborate jazz melody lines with breathtaking results.
Elite pianist Keith Jarrett played a highly anticipated solo concert at the sizable Maison Symphonique auditorium Saturday night. Jarrett hadn’t played a solo show in Montreal for 25 years and since the event was recorded for posterity there were several restrictions on the show; no photographers were allowed, no late arrivals, and absolutely no leaving once the music started. After a melodic opening number Jarrett addressed the audience and explained that usually he starts an improvisational show with something atonal, but had tried something different for his first tune. “So, if the next one is more difficult to listen to, hey, I can’t help it.” Luckily, everything went smoothly and Jarrett dazzled the audience with a totally improvised set of spontaneous compositions. Jarrett was so pleased with the way the whole evening went that he came back for three encores.
Meanwhile, next door at the Jean-Duceppe auditorium, Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Brian Blade performed a playful-yet-serious and very engaging set. As a jazz trio, they call themselves the Children Of Light, undoubtedly a reference to their status as longstanding members of Wayne Shorter’s Quartet. Perez was more than solid on piano, but Brian Blade, who had also played the festival with Lanois and Whitley, was a true standout. Interestingly, John Patitucci’s favorite acoustic bass was damaged by the airlines last week, which resulted in him playing a lot more electric bass. It actually made the trio’s set quite exciting, so let’s hope Patitucci keeps things plugged in more often in the future.
Finally, Saturday’s late-night set at the Club Soda featured modern soul man Cody ChestnuTT, who charmed the crowd with earnest funk-confessionals going all the way back to his fabled Headphone Masterpiece CD. His band was funky, and ChestnuTT held the stage until well after midnight. The man is on a mission; you can tell by the war helmet he still wears onstage.
—Mitch Myers; photo by Sharonne Cohen
“Fat, balls and hair.”
No, that’s not the teaser for a Tad reunion tour, it’s the tag line for Paris’ “Stoned Gatherings,” a regular gig held in the Glazart club to showcase the scummiest, druggiest metal passing through the French capital.
The description is fitting (it’s “Du gras, des couilles et des poils” in the original, in case you’re the rare head-banging Francophile), for the shows feature much—and little else—of all three. One can understand the logic behind the choice of venue: the Glazart is a former bus station converted into a sheet-metal dive, sitting adjacent to a highway overpass and a homeless soup kitchen. This isn’t Parisian glamour; it’s biker grit.
Tonight, the greasers adhere to the club’s dress code, donning their leather and—get this—jean jackets with band patches. The one exception is a slim figure wearing a pig mask. Actually, one hopes it was a mask; I suppose it could have been Renée Zellweger.
If the audience conforms to a vapid stereotype, Acid King is a Jungian archetype—a universal unconscious ideal of the lethargic burn-out, toking a path of blissful oblivion through a life filled with pain. The California trio may sport the traditional battle gear of metal (long hair and tats), but it is so primal and unassuming that bands with whom the threesome shares the bill appear to pose with false bravado in comparison.
Sonically, Acid King plays in a register lower than a dead elephant’s wrinkled taint. Guitarist Lori S. relies largely on barre chords, resulting in a distorted mush that is blunted but wide. She may not have des couilles, but this Acid Queen sure plays like she does. Taken collectively, the group’s sound is thick, colossal and almost impossibly bottom-heavy. These guys are the Brontosaurus-shaped Weeble of stoner metal. Their music strips the Melvins’ catalogue of everything except the plodding riffs and muscular sludge, and they’ve replaced King Buzzo’s gloriously grating malevolence with a hypnotic, inexorable drone. They do not (or at least, no longer) impose on the listener a cartoonishly doom-and-gloom vision of Hell; everything from their stage demeanor to their actual music is matter-of-fact, natural.
Their relaxed confidence is on full display tonight. “On To Everafter” and the anthemic “2 Wheel Nation” (both from their 2005 masterpiece of muck, III) are casual yet triumphant. Driving the band’s performance is Joey Osbourne’s spectacular drumming. He is dynamic yet disciplined, workman-like, triangulating a style somewhere between Keith Moon, John Bonham and Bill Ward.
Repeated requests from the audience for “Evil Satan” from first album Zoroaster went unanswered. This may have been for the best, since the group’s early output often came off as empty posturing and toothless goth-mongering. But with its later work, the trio has found its identity: Lori’s vocals now seamlessly absorbed into the mix, the band has evolved into a much more convincing and powerful unit. It has realized that thunderous Sabbath riffs and Sleep-y doom is most viscerally combined with soft, trippy vocals rather than the stridency of tough-guy boogeyman barking.
Perhaps the group’s one misstep of the night is the meaningless flourishes of wah bass, crowbarred into a couple of songs with little payoff. (A bit like when Marvel Comics introduced Flatman, the lamest superhero in the X-Men pantheon, probably in an equally lame and non-sequitur attempt to impress a woman obsessed with the comic franchise.)
As Acid King’s set winds down, Lori slips off her guitar and retires to the side of the stage, one hand holding a beer and the other tucking a thumb into her pocket. She watches with admiration, as the entire audience does, while Osbourne delivers his stunning drum outro to “Sunshine And Sorrow.” At his final slap of the skins, an unexpected silence overtakes the room, which the audience immediately fills with a gasp of pleasure and a rousing ovation. Osbourne rises from his stool, offers a sheepish smile and nods to the crowd.
There is no chest-thumping, fist-pumping, or finger-pointing. Acid King came to do a job, and it fucking nailed it. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.
The really cool kids found out about Slint back in 1989. I found out about them in 1993. (Hey, I was stationed at the Antarctic weather station of my own lameness at the time, and the record store there refused to carry Touch And Go shit.) In all seriousness they did not make it easy for uncool kids like me. They were always an enigma wrapped in a riddle. They were named after the one dude’s pet fish—Slint isn’t even a real word. They hated every picture ever taken of them and let nobody see them. They thought doing press was “stupid.” And they broke up before Spiderland, their mysterious 1991 math-rock masterpiece, was even released.
There was never any real explanation for the band’s dismemberment, and the glaring absence of information only added to their mystique. But nearly 25 years later, we finally find out what really happened. The I answer, I think, comes at the one hour and eight minute mark of Breadcrumb Trail: The Story Of Slint, filmmaker Lance Bangs’ Slint documentary that’s included in the new boxed set reissue of Spiderland. The band is talking about finishing up the recording of the album and that all that was left to record was the vocals. The only problem was there were no vocal parts, nor lyrics written and they had to be made up on the fly. Drummer Britt Walford talks about how the band watched from the control room as Brian McMahan, alone before a microphone in the studio, cloaked in near-total darkness, a single ray of light shining down upon his head, sweating profusely through the recording of the vocals for “Good Morning Captain.” At one point he even vomits from the intensity of it all. And then he sings those haunted words that come at the 5:53 mark, right before the band’s final, primal crescendo:
“I am trying to find a way home/I’m sorry/And I miss you”
If he sounds like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it’s because he was. Shortly after the recording of Spiderland, McMahan checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. There would be no tour in support of the album. Slint would never record another note of music.
Fast forward 23 years, to Philadelphia’s Union Transfer. Slint takes the stage to show us what could have been, what should have been and what shall forever be. The set is a mash-up of Spiderland and Tweez, their 1989 Steve Albini-recorded debut, where all the songs are titled with the first names of their parents. They perform in near- total darkness. They say nothing to the crowd, save a few goofy non-sequitars uttered between songs by McMahan in a faux-ancient negro rasp. They are precision incarnate, but they make their flawlessness look effortless. They are humble masters of tension and release. They raise anti-climax to an artform. They swing like a sledgehammer, with more groove than four white kids from Kentucky have a right to. If you listen closely, you can hear their pre-history, that they were a coming-of-age art band battle-hardened in the trenches of the all-ages punk wars of their Louisville youth who built the perfect machine in the drummer’s parents’ basement. That they swallowed Big Black, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth and the entire Dischord back catalog whole and metabolized it into a seminal math-rock mysticism that far exceeds the reach and scope of its influences. That they were so far ahead of their time, it took them nearly a quarter of a century to grow into their precociousness.
When grunge’s lifeblood pooled into a sticky crime scene on Kurt Cobain’s floor 20 years ago this month, brothers Eoin and Rory Loveless were still in their nappies.
The duo has since graduated to the big-boy potty and formed a band called Drenge, which means “boys” in Danish—but which could easily be a conflation of “dredge” and “grunge,” for the U.K. group is frequently accused of exhuming Seattle’s corpus delicti.
The comparisons are not entirely baseless. Drenge revels in self-pity and malevolence but veers away from the depths of Nirvana and—yes—the guitars are thickly distorted although not exactly dripping with the grime of the Pacific Northwest.
Grunge’s classic themes—angst, sickness, anger wet-blanketed by apathy—are indeed prominent in Drenge’s lyrics. While it’s heartening to see the younger generation embrace the macabre pessimism of its elders, Drenge doesn’t exactly deep-throat all seven-inches.
The gods of grunge were masters of the slow build and the gentle/gruff dynamic. Deliberate, tense verses would balloon then burst in a jizzbomb of distortion and bellowing. Lacerating guitar lines and buzz-saw solos would cut through mountain-thick riffs. The music may sound trite all these years later, but I assure you that your nana and I really got off on it.
Drenge, on the other hand, only employs these devices in moderation; its blues-tinged garage punk is more straight-forward. This is of course the attraction of the garage: dank, direct, dick-hardening.
To be fair, critics have labelled the band “post-”grunge, but the prefix can imply anything from an homage to a mutiny. It is immaterial to speculate where, or if, Drenge reside salong this spectrum. It is its own band, and the public has taken notice: NME anointed it the best new band for 2014, and both a resigning Labour MP and a hipster BBC DJ have given the group man-crush shout-outs.
Tonight, in Paris’ La Maroquinerie club, the band plays a thoroughly no-nonsense set. Minimal pauses between songs, no inter-song banter beyond a mumbled “Merci.” The brothers playfully toss plastic water bottles at one another, appearing more focused on themselves and their music than on the 200 or 300 dolts howling and pointing at them from the pit.
The group kicks up a respectable bit of dust. On record and in concert, Eoin’s guitars are dense enough that the listener does not pine for bass. Drummer Rory does a passable Dave Grohl impersonation, minus the tats. The live set—almost entirely devoid of that quagmire of rock-star indulgence, the guitar solo—is raw yet tight and recalls a muddier Arctic Monkeys stripped of their lounge crooning.
Naturally, the band plays a large chunk of tracks from its sole album, 2013’s self-titled barn-burner. “Dogmeat” is driving and blood-soaked, and “Nothing” a fuzzstorm worthy of Mudhoney or the Melvins. The band really excels when Eoin steps back from the mic and the two simply thrash and burn, for example during the lumbering, glorious mess of the bridges on “Bloodsports” and “Backwaters.”
Even if its music is dark, its future looks bright. And yet, the band has claimed that its second album will be more upbeat and radio-friendly. Drenge may be second-guessing itself to dodge the sophomore jinx: Such a change will either spell total disaster or turn the band into media darlings.
Root for the former.
After all, it is better—to paraphrase Cobain’s suicide letter via Neil Young—to fuck off than to fade away.
And fuck off, these youngsters do. At tonight’s show, perhaps inspired by the reduced French work hours, they take their quittin’ time prematurely. This headlining act plays—maybe—45 minutes and finishes by 9:50pm. Too early to get a goddamn buzz on, let alone to set off the ringing in one’s ears. Fucking school night.
Cleveland is a town with a long history of spawning important and wildly disparate acts. Devo, the O’Jays, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and the James Gang all emerged from here in one way or another, but no group ever seemed so organically rooted in the Sixth City’s industrial and post-industrial character as Pere Ubu. In its first hometown show since the release of 14th album Lady From Shanghai, David Thomas and Co. laid down a set heavy on material from the new record, with a few canonical numbers thrown in for the long-term fans. And if Thomas’ stage presence is so distant it’s sometimes like he’s not in the same room with the audience, the evening was loud and weird and energetic enough to honor the band’s history. Even his personal coolness seemed about right for the occasion; he remained seated for the entire show, warbling into his microphone, sometimes into a repurposed rotary phone handset, and nodding his head, eyes closed, as if he couldn’t have cared whether anyone showed up or not. Which, when you think about it, is about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.
Thomas has always been less a traditional frontman than an artistic director, shaping the sound and experience in a way that feels more controlling than spontaneous. All of which is to say that he’s “chilly” onstage compared only to an opening act of a more recognizable pop-music model, like This Moment In Black History, the Cleveland punk quartet whose early, sweat-slinging set slowly raised the energy level in the room until the stagefront was crowded and jittering in time to the band’s high-decibel performance. TMIBH singer/keyboardist Christopher Kulscar chided the crowd at the outset for hanging in the back of the smallish standing area—“You’re all back there on the grassy knoll!”—but as the band’s set unwound, and as Kulscar pogoed, jumped and high-stepped around his tiny Realistic synth with the low-end bass and drum rumble piling up throughout the room, the crowd slowly hooked into the volume and noise. Following the set, TMIBH left the stage to interact with the crowd in the Ballroom’s side bar and sit-down food service area, before the next act came up.
A word about the Beachland: Though it celebrates its 13th anniversary this year as a live music venue, the building’s been around since 1950, when it began life as Cleveland’s Croatian Liberty Home. This is a no-frills space with a smaller side stage (the Beachland Tavern) and a central performance area (the Ballroom) resembling the combination gym/auditorium in a medium-sized junior high school. There’s no bad place to stand, because when you’re inside the Ballroom, you’re standing more or less directly in front of the floor’s speaker rig no matter where you position yourself.
And that’s where we all were when Thomas appeared without announcement to play the second opening set as Gagarin, a laptop-noise-and-video-projection act, during which he intoned and declaimed into the aforementioned telephone handset. Gagarin is credited separately with providing various keyboards on Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai, but tonight’s set was all Thomas frazzling and shouting into the receiver as if he were sending out radio updates from Venus. At one point a colleague in a rubber full-head rooster mask emerged onstage to Thomas’ left, to deliver him a small glass of brown spirits, moving slowly and striking minimalist interpretive dance poses, after which he left at the same pace he’d (eventually) arrived. It all seemed to make sense at the time—self-consciously artsy, a little mannered, but somehow absurd enough to keep from seeming precious. After a second short pause, Pere Ubu took the stage for a performance with very little air between the songs.
Pere Ubu’s current lineup is a five-piece—guitar, bass, drums, keyboard/theremin and voice—and you got the feeling early on that this is an incarnation of the band that has its internal responsibilities sharply assigned. As a group, even after several iterations, Pere Ubu has always been about music over stage presence, and although for much of his life, Thomas was a sizeable frontman, even in the band’s earliest days he always seemed to want to get out of the way of the music, or maybe to disappear himself inside it. Now, having just turned 60, Thomas is a smaller physical presence, and he moves with the precise, deliberate motions of a man who once carried that music on a taller, broader frame. Thomas positioned himself dead center onstage, flanked by band members from his own generation and the one that followed him (drummer Steven Mehlman, born in 1971, is currently the youngster of the group), and led his bandmates through the new record, which is as catchily peculiar as Pere Ubu’s always been. “Musicians Are Scum,” “Mandy” (with its clipped, hiccuppy refrain “Won’t-cha-come-out-to-plaaaaaay”) and the ominous “414 Seconds” were standout renditions, and though the crowd seemed equally split between those familiar with the new record and those who kept their radar on for the opening bass run of “The Modern Dance,” the entire set was received with respectful enthusiasm and gratitude.
Most of the audience response seemed quite beyond Thomas’ notice, though he did smile once or twice and even told a couple of very short stories about playing festivals with funk bands in Europe, during which he noted that drawing “the lay-deeeez” to shows was “ve-reh, ve-rehim-paw-tent” to a working band, as fanboys tend only to attract other fanboys. Still, it all sounded rather more good-natured than it probably appears in cold type, since Thomas has often described Pere Ubu as the longest-lived failure of a rock band in pop-music history. Somehow, despite locking into a sound that’s as high-art as that sort of thing comes in rock, the band’s enjoyed a shelf life longer than most groups even remotely similar in approach, of which there are admittedly very few.
And yes, toward the end of the evening, Pere Ubu played “The Modern Dance,” which is among the three or four songs most central to the band’s catalog, and a fine, raucous rendition it was. They also turned in “Misery Goats” and “Final Solution,” at which point the crowd, as they say, went wild. “And now,” Thomas said, “we come to my favorite part of the show: the end.” Thomas and Mehlman retired to the merch table, which Mehlman had been staffing pre-show, and spoke briefly with old Cleveland fans. But soon enough Thomas had done his due post-show diligence, and announced as much, rising from the table and retreating into the depths of the venue.
Outside on Waterloo Road, heavy street construction had chewed up an entire lane of blacktop as far as the eye could see in both directions. This wasn’t any simple pothole-patching or curbside refinement. Piles of gravel and broken asphalt mounded the street and encroached on the walkways, reducing what is ordinarily the Beachland Ballroom’s adjacent sidewalk and street to a zigzagging path of dirt and rock fragments constrained by orange barrels and yellow caution tape. For a longtime Pere Ubu fan, this was somehow the most perfect detail of the night: A band that emerged from the exhausted, broken detritus of the Rust Belt, and somehow converted those fragments into a fractured, dreamy sound that’s still utterly unique in American rock music, played a fine loud show, and then disappeared without saying goodbye into the Cleveland rubble. After a time, so did we.