Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Pedro The Lion / John Vanderslice at the Cats Cradle Back Room - 5/6/2019

Pedro The Lion
With John Vanderslice
Cats Cradle Back Room

Back in my Bay Area days (which feels like yesterday but was actually 11 years ago, and that is DEPRESSING), you couldn’t throw a cat at a small or mid-size indie rock show for which John Vanderslice wasn’t an opener.  It had been a long time, but seeing him on stage was a real flashback to days gone by.  For me, Vanderslice was always one of those performers who was just…fine, you know?  I didn’t dislike him or his music, but I was also never excited to hear him.  This many years later, I suppose I enjoyed him a little more than I did in the past, though I still wouldn’t have been angry if he wasn’t on the bill.  One big difference is instead of a full band, at this gig he just had his guitar, a Roland drum machine of some sort (my favorite part of his set), and a jar of questions that he would periodically answer.  In fact he might have talked as much as he played – this might be why it felt like he played for too long.  He seemed to have a lot of fans in the audience though, so I might be in the minority with my middling feelings on a John Vanderslice performance.   

Pedro The Lion had a light show set up on the stage that, while not overpowering, looked goddamn ridiculous for a stage the size of the Cat’s Cradle Back Room.  But other than shining directly in my eyes and burning out my retinas a few times, it was more a humorous footnote than anything else, a rare sign of excess from a surprising source.  I saw the first version of Pedro in the late nineties at the old Go! Studios, which just happens to be the club the Back Room most often gets compared to by old people like myself, so it sorta feels like the band has come full circle.  Or maybe I have?  Or both?  Or maybe the clubs in Carrboro are just really enamored with this small, two-story style of venue.  Additionally worth noting: well over half of the crowd looked exactly like frontman (and let’s be honest, he IS Pedro The Lion) David Bazan – a little overweight, bearded, middle-aged, and bald or on their way there (I’m 4-for-4 on each of those traits).  It makes you wonder: does the crowd pick the band, or does the band pick the crowd due to some cosmic alignment from the god or gods or absence of god floating in the ether?  Speaking of god: to no one’s surprise, there were a couple of “hip” pastors standing behind me talking shop about congregations or steeples or whatever it is preachers do to fill their days.  That whole thing is very weird to me, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Hey, how about I stop talking about this useless nonsense and actually mention the performance?  If you’ve ever seen Pedro (or any Bazan outing), you know you’re not getting a dynamic stage show…however you will get great songs and some deadpan banter that is always much funnier than it has any right to be.  They played a lot of tracks from their most recent record “Phoenix,” a terrific return to form after a 15 year hiatus (even if, let’s be honest, Bazan didn’t really stop between those years and instead released solo records that more or less sound exactly like Pedro because it’s all the same thing no matter what name he wants to put on the spine of the release).  Of course I would have loved more older songs, but we did at least get “Penetration” and “Big Trucks,” two of his all-time best.  I would sacrifice a small child to get an entire performance of the album “It’s Hard To Find A Friend,” for the record.  Still, it a was a good time – I’m sure all the middle-aged shlubs in attendance would agree. 

Idles / Fontaines D.C. at Kings - 5/5/2019

With Fontaines D.C.

When this show was announced I was on a cruise in the Caribbean, but I was so excited that I bought their expensive (and slow) internet just to make sure I could get a ticket, thinking it would sell out before I got back on land.  It ended up not selling out until a few weeks later, but Idles sells out 3000 seat venues multiple nights in a row in the UK, and I wasn’t going to tempt fate with a venue the size of Kings.

First though: Fontaines D.C. from Dublin, Ireland.  Kings doesn’t typically start their shows right on time but tonight they did – and with the line to get into the club out the front door downstairs, I could only listen to muffled versions of their first couple of songs.  Their set was only  eight songs total, but what they lack in longevity they make up for in intensity.  They reminded me of a more punk, more modern version of the Fall, and I was way into it.  From a (somewhat) local perspective, if you dig Patois Counselors you’ll probably be into these kids.  It was due to this performance that I went back and listened to their debut album “Dogrel” again – seeing them live was the key to unlocking what is surely one of my favorite records of the first half of the year, after somewhat ignoring the album on my first listen a few weeks before this gig.

After nearly ten years of seeing shows there, Idles managed to produce the most animated crowd I’ve ever seen at Kings – fist pumping, moshing, crowd surfing, and LOTS of singing along (I’m guilty of that last one myself).  It might actually be the most active I’ve seen any crowd, regardless of venue, since some of those Archers of Loaf and/or Superchunk performances at the Cradle in the nineties…back when youth was on the side of both myself and those bands.  I had seen live footage of Idles online so I knew more or less what to expect from one of their performances, but it still managed to blow my expectations out of the water.  The guitarist closest to me was stripped down to his underwear before the first note was struck, and it felt like he spent as much of his time in the crowd (or standing on the bar in the back of the room) as on the stage.  The other guitarist was frequently playing on his back on the ground, like someone trying to perfect their impression of Marty McFly when he was pretending to be Chuck Berry.  All the while singer Joe Talbot presides over the mayhem like a circus ringleader, a knowing grin on his face as he barks to the crowd about class struggle and loving your fellow man.  I can say unequivocally his between song banter was the most enlightened/”woke” I’ve ever heard, which isn’t surprising given the content of their songs from their two full lengths, “Brutalism” and “Joy As An Act Of Resistance.”  Their set was mostly from these two records, leaning more heavily on the latter – sing-alongs to fan favorites like “I’m Scum” and “Danny Nedelko” were worth the price of admission alone.  In Fugazi-like fashion (surely a HUGE influence on these guys), there would be no encore, as the band would give it their all during regulation and without the need for overtime.   

Hot Snakes / Mannequin Pussy at Motorco - 5/2/2019

Hot Snakes
With Mannequin Pussy

It’s pretty exciting to have the opportunity to see Hot Snakes live again, this time without the cross-country flight, but rather a 20 minute drive.  This gig was originally scheduled last fall but got cancelled, and honestly I wasn’t holding out much hope that it would be rescheduled – Durham is a long damn way from San Diego, after all – but sometimes good things happen.  Gar Wood couldn’t make this show (and I assume the whole tour?), so instead Hot Snakes had Night Marcher’s Tommy Kitsos fill in.  This would have been an ideal time to have a Night Marchers reunion, since the Hot Snakes’ John Reis and Jason Kourkounis are also in that band, but we’d still be short one member…and that one member would be the missing Gar Wood.  I guess at that point you’d have to get Hot Snakes’ front man Rick Froberg to fill in for Gar, but then you’re just back to where you started – three-quarters of two original bands, or one Frankenstein act.  Fuck it, we got half of Drive Like Jehu and Pitchfork on the stage too, how about all of them play and we sort out the details later?  Where am I going with any of this hoopleheadedness?  Damned if I know.

Unfortunately Hot Snakes doesn’t always bring out the best people to their gigs – in particular there was this one lumbering, performative giant who spent the first half of the show draped all over me, no matter how much room I kept giving him beside me.  He also spent a lot of time half on the stage – I think he was mistakenly under the impression folks were there to see him and not Hot Snakes.  Another particularly out-of-hand character at one point grabbed me by the throat in a half-assed attempt at a stage dive, but I still preferred this attempted re-creation of the end of “Bloodsport” to Paul Bunyan and his constant need to be seen and felt (never mind his arms always in front of my camera as he constantly pointed his finger directly in the face of Reis).  Despite all of this I still enjoyed myself because goddamn it all, Hot Snakes are so fucking good at doing music, particularly live.  I wasn’t even mad that the vocals were often way too low (hopefully that was just a front-of-the-stage problem and not true for the whole house) – on hits like “LAX” and “Automatic Midnight” and “Suicide Invoice,” the crowd was doing plenty enough singing along to help.  There was of course a lot of tracks from last year’s “Jericho Sirens,” an album that stands just as tall as anything they recorded during their first pass as a band – “Six Wave Hold-Down” is the stand-out both on that record and live.  It is here I will also lodge the same complaint I did the last time I saw them – the lack of “Mystery Girl” from their set is a serious fucking bummer.  It’s their best song, and for some reason they’re allergic to playing it live…maybe Reis is just over singing lead, but I don’t give a shit who sings it, I just want it sung.

The opening act was Mannequin Pussy, a band of which I had heard, but not sure I’d ever actually “heard.”  It would be kinda hard to forget that name, after all.  Their music was mostly in the realm of heavy punk with some occasional almost-hardcore moments, plus a few mainstream nineties-style “alternative rock” songs strewn into the set here and there.  For these more mainstream tracks, it would be impossible not to compare the band to Hole, as Mannequin Pussy singer Marisa Dabice seemed to be directly channeling the ghost of Courtney Love during these particular offerings.  These slower songs were not my favorite part of their set, but then again I was never a Hole fan.  At the same time, it’s this more “pop” direction that is most likely going to move the band up the ladder of success, if that’s what they’re interested in.  Speaking of Dabice – she was a born performer.  It’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off of her for the entire performance, particularly on the few songs when she put the guitar down and went into full “lead singer” mode.  Also, I’m struggling to figure out how much I can even say about this performance without being an inconsiderate asshole in this day and age – let’s just say it felt quite sexual to me, whether or not that was her intention.  Subsequently, the way she was moving on stage was very photogenic, but part of me felt wrong for taking photos of it (obviously, I still did, because my desire for a good shot is greater than my shame).  She was clearly performing in public for all to see, but still, something about it felt…private.  And I definitely felt like a dirty old man watching & taking photos of it.  I’m not entirely sure what to think about this band after this show – they have a new record coming out on Epitaph (who I thought only released mall punk) very soon, and I’ll be very curious to hear what it sounds like.  Mannequin Pussy are at a minimum intriguing, which is always better than boring right?  And shit, they might even be good.   

Monday, May 6, 2019

Spiral Stairs / Spider Bags at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room - 3/30/2019

Spiral StairsWith Spider Bags
Cat’s Cradle Back Room

I was supposed to be seeing Hamish Kilgour (of the Clean) in the opening slot of this Spiral Stairs gig, but at some point between when I bought the ticket and show time he had been swapped out with Spider Bags for reasons that would never be given (though the obvious culprit is likely travel from New Zealand).  I’ve seen Spider Bags a shit ton lately, but they’re still a damn fine back-up plan that I’ll never complain about.  This isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but their sets seem to be getting shorter by number of songs, but the songs are getting longer and jammier in that great seventies butt-rock way.  I keep waiting for a James Gang or Joe Walsh cover to make their way into the set list.  They played pretty much everything I wanted to hear except for “Keys To The City,” so stop not playing that please, Mr. Bags.  

This Spiral Stairs outing was very similar to the last time I saw him – new record to promote, guest appearance from Pavement drummer Steve West (who lives somewhere in Virginia), a little sloppy, but for sure a lot of fun.  They kicked things off with the opening track “Hyp-No-Tized” from the new album “We Wanna Be Hyp-No-Tized,” and Scott Kannberg spent the entire time roaming the stage and adjusting the volume of the entire band’s amps like that mad man Mark E. Smith (RIP).  I finally figured out where at least a couple of his backing band members come from: the Posies and Snowglobe; maybe by the next time they come around I will have figured out the entire band.  The set was mostly from the two most recent records, plus a Preston School Of Industry track and a Nick Lowe cover (“Truth Drug” maybe?).  And, of course, we can’t forget the Pavement portion of the evening with West on drums: they played an all-time favorite “Kennel District,” plus “Date With Ikea,” “Passat Dream,” and “Painted Soldiers.”  I really, truly do like the Spiral Stairs records, I think Scott’s recent production is just as good as that of his former counterpart Stephen Malkmus…but hearing Scott & Steve play Pavement songs is never not going to be the highlight of the evening. 

Teenage Fanclub / Eric Bachmann / The Love Language at the Haw River Ballroom - 3/18/2019

Teenage FanclubWith Eric Bachmann & The Love Language
Haw River Ballroom

There is no tool to accurately measure just how excited I was to see Teenage Fanclub again.  Last time was five years ago at Merge25, in the middle of the day in the blisteringly hot parking lot of the Cradle, and despite all that it was still a blast.  This time around, with a better venue, a reasonable temperature, and me planted right at the front trying to get a good picture or two?  It quite literally doesn’t get any better than that.  One major bummer is founding member Gerard Love is no longer with the band – his harmonies were definitely missed.  That said, I doubt it’s tough for a band of this stature to find adequate fill-ins for their touring ensemble – in this case, bassist Dave McGowan (Belle & Sebastian) and Euros Childs (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci) signed on to join Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley, and long-time drummer Francis Macdonald in a fantastic performance of tracks from across the band’s entire 30 year catalog.  They played one or two songs from all nine of their full-length releases; the exception was my favorite Fanlub record, “Songs From Northern Britain,” which got four(!!!) selections.  Highlights included “The Cabbage,” “I Don’t Want Control Of You,” “The Concept,” “Alcoholiday,” “Baby Lee,” ...and also every other song they played, to be completely honest.  The harmonies between Blake & McGinley were still spot on after all these years – it’s absolutely impossible not to sing along when Teenage Fanclub is playing, people standing around me be damned.

While this gig was a few months earlier than the proper Merge30 festival in July, it was still considered part of the 30th anniversary festivities - and consequently the label filled both opener slots with fellow Merge artists.  The Love Language started the night, a group I hadn’t seen in ages though I’m not entirely sure why.  Outside of front man Stu McLamb, I’m pretty sure the membership of this band is different every time I see them – this version was a five piece, for those keeping track at home.  Eddie from Fin Fang Foom/Solar Halos was playing bass, which was a bit of a surprise because I don’t think of him as a pop guy, but of course he did a fine job.  I must confess I only really know Love Language's first two records, but I know them quite well – and luckily they threw in just enough of those older tracks to hold my attention, including two all-time favorites “Providence” and “Lalita.”  The middle-aged guy standing near me might have been more into this performance than any person I’ve ever seen at any show ever.  I wish I knew that level of joy in my life.

The middle act was Eric Bachmann…hey, I’ve seen this guy before!  His band was the same three dudes he had with him at the Merge Hopscotch day party last year, and they played many of the same songs (though the set was slightly longer).  There was a smattering of old Crooked Fingers material (“Crowned In Chrome,” etc) but it was mostly tracks from his last two solo records – “Murmuration” and “Dreaming” standing out as highlights.  Much like last time, I was hoping Skylar Gudasz would show up to add backing vocals, but it wasn’t to be.  One of these days I’ll hopefully get a repeat of that Hopscotch performance from a couple of years ago, but until then I’ll still enjoy basically any show I can get out of the man, no matter the format, line-up, or songs played.   

The Cowboys / Personality Cult at the Nightlight - 2/26/2018

The Cowboyswith Personality Cult
The Nightlight

I’ve been trying to see Personality Cult for ages now, and by “trying” I mean not leaving the house but silently cursing myself for being suck a lazy pile of shit.  This bill was strong enough to motivate me though – that and the fact I hadn’t seen live music in nearly two months.  The band is fronted by Ben Carr, who you may also know from Last Year’s Men and Natural Causes and probably a bunch of other things (I feel like maybe I saw him in Paint Fumes at one point too?), plus a couple of other dudes I didn’t know who may or may not have been twins.  What’s great about Carr is all of his bands go in a different direction – Last Year’s Men did a twangy garage thing ala the Reigning Sound, Natural Causes went down an angry Gary Numan synth punk path, and this latest act is just straight-up first gen catchy-as-fuck punk ala the Buzzcocks.  They bashed out pretty much their entire self-titled record from last year in around 20 minutes – outside of having to borrow a guitar from the Cowboys after breaking two strings on the very first song, the band was no muss, no frills, no banter, just rock.  I’m good with that.  More acts would be smart to follow that same pattern.

The Cowboys are a quirky power pop four-piece out of Bloomington, Indiana that single-handedly defy the stereotype that nothing good ever came out of that state other than “Hoosiers.”  The band has a lead singer!  For some reason that will never not be odd to me at any music venue outside of a large amphitheater or arena.  I always wonder – are they still required to help carry gear in and out of the club?  I hope they at least help the drummer out, he’s got so much damn shit to haul.  I’m not even sure where to begin with the bassist – it was like a spaghetti western extra collided with a Madchester-era raver, but goddamn he did a fine job on those four strings.  The guitarist saw how high Ian Williams plays his instrument with Don Caballero/Battles, and decided to literally take it up a notch (he was also super talented, for the record).  Drummers are always weird so need to dwell there.    Their songs are catchy and enjoyable as they are, but given the genre the hooks could use just a touch of work – maybe Robert Pollard needs to offer weekend workshops to up-and-coming bands to help write a chorus that turns into an ear worm.  They were still a damn fine group though, and I would definitely see them again – and not just because I would want to see what the bassist was wearing. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Bandway / Enemy Waves at Kings - 1/5/2019

With Enemy Waves

I can blame it on the winter or maybe even my rapidly advancing age, but the end result is I’ve barely gone to any shows these past few months.  One thing I never, ever miss though – Bandway.  They’ve only played 3-4 times over the past decade, what with the duo busy being psychiatrists and cabinet makers and such, so it’s always a goddamn joyous occasion when they take the stage for a night of sing-alongs and drunken revelry.  Anyone showing up to a Bandway show in 2019 is almost always already as big a fan as I am, and likely just as old - I’m sure a number of babysitters got paid this evening.  Their set sampled their entire career, but possibly the most noteworthy item is they actually had a new song called “Sprinkles” that included lines such as “I love my pussy with wrinkles” and “my hang down has the drippies.”  Brooks commented after that they actually have a new record coming out…as soon as they write the rest of the songs for the album.  The sing-along highlights of the night were two obvious ones – “King Kong” and “Four Day Weekend” – wherein the crowd was possibly even louder than the band.  Shockingly not included was “Balls Out,” a minor grievance on an otherwise stellar night.  I’m super excited to see them again in two or three more years, and to hear that new album in 2030.

Finding an opener for Bandway is no easy task – few can measure up to their particular brand of nonsense.  Given that, Kings honcho Paul Siler just threw himself on the bill with one of his bands Enemy Waves, because why not.  I hadn’t seen them in a while, but I really liked the direction of their new tunes – particularly the last one of the first part of their set, which had this strong Mdou Moctar/Tuareg-style guitar line all the way through it that had me mesmerized.  After that, just for shits and giggles apparently, the entire band put on fake beards and then proceeded to play three ZZ Top songs – including the two chart toppers “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’.”  Something you rarely see addressed with your more prominent ZZ Top cover bands: how do you play guitar solos when your fake beard is draped all over the neck and strings?  It’s a real conundrum in this day and age, one hopefully the nation’s leading scientists can tackle in the coming decades.

It should also be noted, for reasons unclear to everyone (including the people involved): between the two bands local man-about-town Trent Bowles took the stage, dressed in a Super Dave-type outfit, and proceeded to ride an electric scooter (stolen off the street) off of a terrible make-shift ramp directly into the far wall.  The result was as expected – he collapsed into the ground, cursed a lot, and then freaked out and start throwing things all over the stage (the ramp went through the drywall more than once).  Like most pranks of this ilk it was 2/3rds funny and 1/3rd went on for too long.