Thursday, July 31, 2014

Merge 25 - Night Four at the Cat's Cradle - 7/26/2014

Merge 25
Neutral Milk Hotel, Caribou, Teenage Fanclub, Bob Mould, and Mikal Cronin
Cat's Cradle
7/26/2014

I tried to prepare myself for a long day of standing in the hot Cat's Cradle parking lot by purchasing a chocolate milkshake, and this led to me arriving at the venue late and only seeing part of Mikal Cronin and his super-catchy fuzz pop.  This might lead the regular person to exclaim "damn you milkshake!" for making them late, but it wouldn't be sincere on my part because the milkshake is the true love of my life.  Anyways, I believe all of the songs I did get to hear were from his excellent Merge record "MCII," and since I didn't miss hearing one of the best pop songs of the last few years, "Shout It Out," I can't get too mad about missing part of his set. 

I know this will possibly result in my "music fan" card being revoked, but I've never listened to much Bob Mould or Husker Du.  And the thing is, every time I hear a song by either act I usually enjoy it...just never translated to any prolonged listening to his/their music.  Mould's backing band is the current rhythm section of Superchunk, Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, their second and third times playing the festival respectively.  Narducy managed not to make himself bleed this time, but Wurster did still sweat a shirt shiny.  I didn't know most of what they played but I liked it - the only song I did recognize was "I Don't Know You Anymore," and I'm told he played a couple of Husker Du tracks.  Also, host Margaret Cho (oh yeah I forgot to mention she was the MC of the day's festivities) came onstage and sang a couple of songs with the band - apparently she's a huge fan.  She didn't have a bad voice for a comedian, but maybe not a great voice for a musician, ha.

Finally, what anyone with good taste had been waiting for, one of the greatest pop bands of all time, Teenage Fanclub.  I was as giddy as one of those crazed One Direction preteen fans, minus the high-pitched shrieking.  I don't think I've ever seen as many musicians watching another band as I did during this set - a large selection of most of the acts on the day's bill were posted at the side of the stage taking it all in.  The band might be a little older but they haven't lost a step musically - everything sounded gorgeous.  The set list, while short, sampled their entire catalog...sure, there was a ton of things I would have loved to hear like "Star Sign" and "Radio," but getting three songs from their perfect record "Songs from Northern Britain" takes the pain away.  And then there was the end of the set, when they amped up the awesome exponentially - first with "The Concept," then "Sparky's Dream," and finally "Everything Flows."  It might sound like an exaggeration but this set alone was worth the price of the entire four day pass; this kind of happy doesn't come along that often. 

After Fanclub I knew I was kinda going to be ruined for any other live music, but there were still two bands to go.  I went inside the Cradle to have a drink, cool off out of the sun, and try to get my brain screwed back on straight.  When I wandered back outside, Caribou was partially through their set.  I had always thought that this band was just one guy manipulating shit on his computer, and maybe that is the case on the recordings - but live it was an actual four piece band with an exceptionally bad ass drummer.  There's nothing I can tell you about this band or show that you can't read elsewhere with more details, but I will say if you are like me and wrote these guys off as boring knob twiddlers, that definitely isn't the case. 

Neutral Milk Hotel were the closer for the night, and for the festival.  After plenty of admonishment not to take any photos or videos or recordings or to look Jeff Mangum in the eye (that last part may or may not be true), Mangum took the stage by himself to perform "I Will Bury You in Time," and was shortly joined by the rest of the band (which could be anywhere from five to seven members depending on the song they were playing at the time).  There was a couple of horn players (hornsmen?  horners?), each of them with a ton of different instruments from trombones to french horns to trumpets to...I think a euphonium?  Also, at least one of those hornsmen was the human embodiment of Papa Smurf, in case you were wondering.  There is really no reason to go into what songs the band played, because it was obviously their two albums they released over 15 years ago.  As much as I love their recorded material, the live show was a bit ramshackle.  Maybe it was the mix, maybe it was the musicians, maybe it was the poor acoustics of an outside show, but whatever it was, the gig wasn't as good as I had hoped.  Not bad by any means, just...okay I guess.  In fact the best material of the night were the handful of tracks that Mangum played by himself, his voice clear and unmuddled by the cacophony of sounds coming from the stage.  That was how Neutral Milk Hotel ended the show, the same as how they started - just the iconic singer and his guitar, closing out a great four days of music.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Merge 25 - Night Three at the Cat's Cradle - 7/25/2014

Merge 25
Destroyer, Wye Oak, The Mountain Goats, and David Kilgour and the Heavy 8s
Cat's Cradle
7/25/2014

After stuffing myself silly at Carrburritos, I got into the Cradle right at the end of Imperial Teen's set and caught their final two songs.  I've never been all that excited by these guys, but maybe I was in a good mood or the songs hit me just right but I liked what I heard - tons of energy and the crowd seemed way into it, but as per usual I don't have anything else to say about Imperial Teen. 

I got there a little early specifically because I didn't want to miss any of David Kilgour & the Heavy 8s.  To be completely honest I've not listened to his solo work all that much, but I love his band the Clean so much I felt it imperative I see him perform live as much as possible, regardless of what songs he might be playing.  Even though I didn't know any of the setlist, I thoroughly enjoyed the band's set - most notably Kilgour's excellent guitar playing, which held me transfixed for much of the set.  His New Zealand accent was so thick he jokingly put on a fake British accent to be understood, but you need no translator to understand good music.


I've never seen a Mountain Goats show that featured so little banter from frontman John Darnielle - I guess they took their short time slot to heart and decided to power through as many songs as possible.  They played a lot of crowd favorites like "San Bernardino," "Amy," "This Year," and what is probably the band's greatest song, one that had the entire crowd singing along, "No Children."  There was also a cover of the American Music Club song "Who You Are," a track I had never before heard, but Darnielle and company really made it their own.  Knowing how rabid Mountain Goats fans are, I'm betting there were folks who attended this show or even this festival specifically for them - I hope they at least enjoyed the quality of their offerings since there was a lack of quantity, because the quality was high. 

Wye Oak held down the penultimate leg of the evening.  I've said it elsewhere but they're really two different bands these days, the former guitar-based Wye Oak versus the current bass heavy electro-pop Wye Oak.  I really like both versions, though I might give a slight edge to the older, more rockin' version of the band because that is the one responsible for their best song "Holy Holy," which they thankfully played in their set this night.  Outside of that track and a couple of other older ones, Jenn Wasner left her guitar in it's stand and focused on songs from their new record "Shriek."  It's a little bit of a shame because she is such an excellent guitarist; but it's no surprise that on the new songs, she dominates the bass just as well.  Oh, and that amazing voice, plus she's incredibly attractive.  Honestly it wouldn't take much cajoling for me to quit my job and travel the world stalking her professionally (at a respectable distance, of course - I'm no creep; well, only a slight creep).  It's an odd feeling, loving a band's new direction while simultaneously missing their old sound...usually I hate when a group changes as drastically as Wye Oak have, but in this rare case it works. 

Destroyer closed the night, and it was incredible.  The last time they rolled through town in support of "Kaputt," it was like the whole band, especially frontman Dan Bejar, had downed a fistful of 'ludes before taking the stage.  By comparison this outing was downright ebullient!  Early in the set Bejar exclaimed "Gotta find my tambourine...it's gonna be worth it," and I knew based on his mood it was going to be a good night.  Including Bejar the band was running at eight members, including two full-time horn blowers and an organist.  Outside of a couple of new songs (which sounded great), most of the setlist was made from the albums "Rubies and "Kaputt" - and the best songs off of those albums to boot.  The list included "Savage Night of the Opera," "Chinatown," "European Oils," and the closer for the night, the epic "Rubies."  There was still a little time until 2 AM and I was hoping the band would keep going until closing, but like some crusty old Englishman once told me we can't always get what we want.  I'm pretty sure this gig is going to lead me down a manic Destroyer listening party for the next few weeks.  I don't see that as a problem.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Merge 25 - Night Two at the Cat's Cradle - 7/24/2014

Merge 25
Superchunk, Reigning Sound, The Rock*A*Teens, and The Clientele
Cat's Cradle
7/24/2014

Night two of Merge 25 was upon us, and after last night's cushy seated gig it was time for a long evening of standing on the cement Cat's Cradle floors.  Let's do this. 


I got in the club just before the Clientele got started, and in my usual way wormed my way near the front amid a sea of photographers and three videographers with serious professional rigs.  Why all three of them were basically filming from the same angle is beyond me, but they're the pros and I'm sure they know what they're doing.  I wouldn't call myself a superfan, but this was one of the bands I was most excited about.  Why?  I couldn't say exactly, but probably some combination of their somber jazz pop sounding really good to my ears these days, combined with the fact that I've only seen the band a couple of times so there was a certain novelty to their performance as opposed to someone like Superchunk who I've seen tons.  Is it weird that I think of them as a British Sea & Cake?  It's not an exact match, but they're mining the same vein.  The band is both fantastically smooth and smoothly fantastic, and the only thing that would have made it better is if they had played "Rain."  I picked up the recent reissue of their classic "Suburban Light" when I left the club later that night. 

Next up was the Rock*A*Teens.  I'm 98% certain I saw these cats a few times back in the late nineties, be it opening for someone like Superchunk or at the old Kings or something along those lines.  They never really moved the needle for me back then, and I was interested to see how I would react to them this go around.  The verdict: while still not my favorite band in the world, I was definitely feeling it more than in the past.  They have a ramshackle, jangly garage pop vibe to them, a little sloppy but I'm not sure that is particularly important to a band like this.  There were a number of sound issues, most seemingly from the house and not the band, but the Rock*A*Teens plowed through without a care in the world.  I might need to go back and revisit their old records now. 

Speaking of sound problems, Reigning Sound also seemed to have no shortage of them.  Greg broke a guitar string early in the set and after changing it he just never seemed to get the guitar tuned back to his liking.  My musically stupid ears couldn't hear anything wrong, but then again I thought the music sounded fine when he was just playing five strings before he changed the broken one.  The band just released a new record called "Shattered" and played a number of tracks off of it, as well as some classics like "Stop and Think It Over," "Debris," "I'll Cry," and probably the best song they've ever written "Drowning."  Despite the difficulties I very much enjoyed the show, as I do with any Reigning Sound show.  So stoked they're on Merge now.  

Superchunk closed out the night.  I had sorta hoped and/or expected them to play a "special" set in honor of the anniversary - a complete classic album or all requests or obscure b-sides or something unusual, but it was just a regular Chunk show.  It might sound like I was disappointed, and maybe I was a tad, but you can't be that bummed out when one of your all-time favorite bands is banging out classics like "Skip Steps 1 & 3" and "What Do I" and "Brand New Love" and "Hyper Enough," paired with great new jams such as "Low F" and "Digging for Something" and "FOH." At one point new bassist Jason Narducy got so spazzy he fell backwards into the drum kit and ended up with a trickle of blood running from his head down his face and it wasn't until a couple of songs later when Jon Wurster told him that he had any idea.  That's rock and/or roll right there!  So it was a fun show, regardless of "specialness," and a nice cap on the second night.

Merge 25 - Night One at Baldwin Auditorium - 7/23/2014

Merge 25
Lambchop and Mount Moriah
Baldwin Auditorium
7/23/2014

Finally, the 25th anniversary of Merge Records is upon us, and the music festival that goes with it.  I'd been looking forward to this for months. 

I managed to hear about two minutes of William Tyler before entering Baldwin Auditorium...going to shows solo in fancy seated venues mean you can find a spot up front even if you arrive late, because there are always a few single empty seats here and there.  All of the bands were set up at the same time on the giant stage, so switching from one act to the next took no time at all - I think it might have been five minutes between the end of Tyler and the start of Mount Moriah, which is unheard of at a rock show. 

I've seen Mount Moriah numerous times in multiple rock clubs across the Triangle, and it was a little weird seeing them on this giant auditorium stage in front of an extremely quiet crowd.  The band almost seemed unnerved by how quiet it was, as they should have been - it was downright eerie, way too many well-behaved adults in one room.  The great thing about these types of rooms are they sound great, and Baldwin Auditorium was no exception.  Yeah, I might have turned the bass up a little bit in the mix, but Heather's vocals were fantastic and Jenks' guitar work as good as I've ever seen it.  There were only a few older songs in the set, "Miracle Temple" and an epic, amazing version of "Plane" being the standouts, and the rest were new songs for an album on which they are working.  If this was the preview for that new record, count me excited to hear the final results once Merge releases it. 

Lambchop.  To paraphrase what I said elsewhere, to say Lambchop were awesome would be redundant because there is never a time when Lambchop aren't awesome; therefore, a better description is to say Lambchop were Lambchop.  This evening they were doing a rare performance of their classic 2000 album "Nixon" from start to finish, which Merge recently issued on vinyl for the first time in the US as part of their 25th anniversary reissue series.  If there is ever a perfect location to hear Lambchop, it's in a deathly silent auditorium where you can hear every faint guitar pluck and muted horn and piano tinkle...audio-wise I'm hard pressed to think of ever attending a better sounding show in my life.  "Nixon" made up the entirety of their set, with the band re-taking the stage after a brief standing ovation to play a one song encore of Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love," a glorious end to a musically gorgeous evening.  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Vetiver / The Papercuts / Peggy Honeywell at Café Du Nord - 2/18/2003

Vetiver
with The Papercuts and Peggy Honeywell
Café Du Nord
2/18/2003

A damn fine night of local music at Café Du Nord.  Peggy Honeywell started it off with her unique brand of balladeering.  She has a fine voice, reminding me of both Chan Marshall and Gillian Welch without really sounding like either.  She has an interesting sound, in that her voice says country while her guitar playing says blues.  Either way, I enjoyed it.  I just wish she had played her song "Puppy Love" off of her album on Galaxia, it's a great track.  Her set was short and to the point, just how I usually like my live music.

The Papercuts were next.  This was my second time seeing them in during the month of February.  After some talking with Daz, we both thought the best band comparisons we could come up for them would be a combination of The Violent Femmes, For Stars, and The Shins.  There are also obvious comparisons to the local group The Ceramic Isles, but since these two bands share members it might be redundant to even go into that one.  I thought they sounded swell; I’m enjoying them more and more each time I see them.  For their next to the last song, the singer put down his guitar and played the house piano at the back of the stage, which was a nice change.  The piano could have been a little louder to match the volume on the keyboards, but it was still nice nonetheless.

The final group was Vetiver.  It just came to my attention that the singer/guitarist of Vetiver is from one of my favorite North Carolina bands of all time, The Raymond Brake.  I already liked Vetiver, but this just immensely increased how cool I think they are.  If you ever have the opportunity to pick any of Raymond Brake’s music, do it - you won’t be disappointed.  That said, on the Vetiver tip, they were great as expected - lots of new stuff that I hadn’t heard before (granted, I’ve only seen them once before, but most of the songs from this night was not on their demo that Daz lent me either).  Seemed like the strings were playing a more up-front role this time - last time they kinda came across as secondary to the singing and guitar.  I’m really looking forward to these cats putting out a proper album, and how.


(Photo not mine, found randomly online.)

Thee More Shallows / Vetiver at the Hemlock - 11/8/2002

Thee More Shallows
with Vetiver
The Hemlock
11/8/2002

Man, I really love being surprised at shows.  It doesn’t happen all that often anymore, considering the amount of music I’ve listened to up to this point in my life.  As you get older, you start hearing a lot of bands doing a lot of the same things.  Maybe that’s why the more original stuff hits me as hard as it does, because it stands so out so well from the rest of the rabble.

Vetiver - they blew me away.  I had never heard anything by them, heard anything about them...in other words, I didn’t know shit about shit.  I would probably throw them under the classification of Americana, but that’s only because I can’t really pigeon-hole their sound.  The band has three members - violin dude, cello girl, and guitar playing singer, who was also a guy.  The music made me think of some weird mix of Nico and Rufus Wainright, only the voice was a little less mannish than Nico, and not quite as flamboyant and over the top as Rufus.  And if you think that’s the dumbest band description you’ve ever heard, I promise I can always go dumber.  Anyways, a lot of the guitar playing was finger picked rather than strummed - anytime I hear finger picking, I always think of Crooked Fingers, but playing style is really the extent of that comparison.  I was mesmerized for their entire performance, and the only thing that bummed me out was that they didn’t have anything to buy and listen to.  Hopefully they are recording now or will be soon, because I’m dying to be able to listen to this group at times other than their live shows.

Let me say from the get-go that Thee More Shallows were damn good too, but I was still reeling from Vetiver and couldn’t quite get into it as much.  It was pretty crowded earlier, but now it was a packed house for these guys.  I’ve listened to their album some and I dig it.  Makes me think of Grandaddy a little bit, but doesn’t sound like them - not keyboard-y enough.  Live, they reminded me of a less country version of Lambchop, and maybe a little spookier too.  The vocals were mostly spoken rather than sung, and the singer had a box with a pig on it - not a real pig, but some sort of decal if I remember correctly - and this box seemed to make lots of noises or have pedals in it or something, cause he was always messing with it.  It should be noted that the singer reminded me of the character "Bug" from the movie "Uncle Buck," not that there is anything wrong with that;  and noted even further, that is a highly underrated John Hughes film, John Candy is awesome and dearly missed, and that Mcauly Caulkin kid is good in the movie but looks like a crack addict nowadays.  Why do I mention all this?  No reason, but I just watched this movie recently, and remembered how much I like it.  You should really celebrate John Candy’s entire catalog of films, not many misses in there as far as I’m concerned. 

OK, so the bottom line is -
1.  Vetiver - amazing.  Do what you can to see them.
2.  Thee More Shallows - really great too.  A fine night of music.
3.  Watch more John Candy movies.

US Maple / Heavenly States / Black Ghost at Bottom of the Hill - 5/25/2004

US Maple
with Heavenly States and Black Ghost
Bottom of the Hill
5/25/2004

Ah, a night of quality rock action at the Bottom of the Hill.  It had been quite some time since I last saw US Maple in all of their glorious weirdness, many moons ago at Kimos.  Tonight, I would remedy that situation.

First up in this trifecta of performers was Black Ghost.  Although I know both of the kids that make up this band, I’m not in the business of heaping praise onto anything I don’t feel worthy…if the music didn’t catch my ear or inspire me in any way I could have easily just left them out of the review.  Instead, they brought the rock in a much larger way then you might ever expect of a duo – I don’t know if it was because of the band or the soundperson or a little of both, but the size of the sound I was hearing did not match the two small people that populated the stage.  Very mathy, heavy, and mostly instrumental (and when there were vocals they were pretty much screamed), this group has improved by leaps and bounds over the last time I saw them, probably six months ago or so.  If they keep on this track, can domination of the “noise rock” community be far behind?

I wasn’t sure how or why the Heavenly States got on this bill – they didn’t really fit in with the noisy, chaotic sounds that the other two bands made, but rather had a classic pop-punk type of thing going ala Superchunk or the more upbeat Wrens stuff; which I liked pretty well actually, it just seemed to stand out amongst the rest of the line-up is all.  I’d heard a few songs off of the band’s website some time back, and most were just okay; the glaring exception being the song “My Friends,” which is one of the best things I heard all of last year.  There was a great energy to their live performance, and it seemed like most of the folks there were into what they were doing onstage.

Finally, after a bit of a delay, US Maple took the stage.  Slowly.  It started out with just the guitarist out there playing by himself, and slowly the rest of the members joined him.  I’ve head a lot of different descriptions of the music these guys produce, and the truth is there is no single way to describe it; to me, they sound like the musical embodiment of what going crazy would be like.  I don’t really know how to explain it; it’s just one of those things you have to see.  Therefore it is fitting that the singer, Al Johnson, looks like a man who is verifiably insane.  And I don’t mean in that “oh look at the hyper singer jumping around, he’s so crazy” way; rather, he has that look in his eyes that screams dementia.  He stalked around on the stage like a caged tiger, ready to strike but never quite going for it; and those actions are fairly analogous to the band’s music – lots of build up and tension, without any resolve.  It’s all pretty fantastic really, and some of the most original stuff I’ve ever heard.  While these guys certainly aren’t for everyone, and even though I’m not even sure I “get” it, I really like US Maple and hope they come back around again sooner rather than later.