Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Guided By Voices at the Cats Cradle - 11/12/2016

Guided By Voices
Cats Cradle

It was nearly twenty years ago that I saw Guided By Voices for the first time in this same club, standing only a couple of feet to the left from where I stood on this night.  "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars" tour if I'm not mistaken - June of 44 opened.  It was a damn good time.  These days, Robert Pollard might do a few less high kicks and drink a few less beers during the performance, but not much else has changed.  The band has nearly always rotated members, and of course this time was no different  - frequent collaborator Doug Gillard made up one-half of the guitar corp, and the other half was a real treat - Bobby Bare Jr, an alt-country star with a long solo career who I guess decided it might be fun to learn 50 or 60 short pop songs.  GBV didn't play any of his songs or anything, but he was still a nice addition to the performance. 

The band had the set down to a science - play a couple of new songs, then a classic song, a couple more new ones, back to a classic or two, etc.  In this case "classic" means songs from what most people consider their golden era - tracks like "Motor Away," "Game of Pricks," "Teenage FBI," "Tractor Rape Chain," etc; and "new" songs are not only tracks from the more recent GBV releases from the last half-decade, but they also mixed in plenty from Pollard's various other bands - Boston Spaceships, ESP Ohio, Circus Devils, Ricked Wicky, etc.  I'm of course only speaking for myself here about new or classic - the more knowledgeable fans all around me seemed to know every track regardless of era or band.  Of particular note was the annoying middle aged man next to me, who spent the entire performance not only singing along to every song, but pointing at Robert Pollard aggressively from start to finish.  I was also entertained when he decided to put earplugs in around an hour and a half into the set.  I'm sure that will make everything better, fella.  Anyways, they played at least two hours with three encores; it's impossible to leave a Guided By Voices show and not feel you got your money's worth.

Ted Leo / Outer Spaces at the Pinhook - 11/10/2016

Ted Leo
With Outer Spaces
The Pinhook

Until I saw the listing in the Pinhook calendar, I hadn't thought of Ted Leo in ages.  I knew he had a band with Aimee Mann that played occasionally, but otherwise he had sort of disappeared, at least from my radar.  I decided why not go see him perform and find out what the hell he's up to these days?  It was a solo gig, no Pharmacists in sight - just him, his electric guitar, and a super fancy microphone running through a very elaborate amp set-up.  I'm assuming the mic was fancy based on how good his vocals sounded - that is, exactly like the record.  If the songs weren't slightly different, you'd almost think he was lip-syncing they sounded so much like the records.  He would talk to the crowd a bit, play a classic song or two, talk to the crowd some more, play a new (or newish) song or two, more get the idea.  Any time he played one of those classic songs the crowd treated it like a singalong, and even though that often annoys me I might have been guilty of it myself in this case.  What can I say, the dude has written a lot of damn catchy songs!  He even played a Chisel song that someone in the crowd "requested" aka yelled out ("The Town Crusher" if I remember correctly)  - if it had been a while since I had thought about Ted's solo work, I really REALLY hadn't though about Chisel in a long time.  Probably the funniest moment of the evening is when a clearly over-eager fan standing right in front of the stage yelled out what gauge strings he was using - this both confused and amused Leo, who after answering the question went own to plead for a sponsorship from D'Addario, because he's tired of buying his own strings after all the years.  Whether I knew the songs or not, the man is a very engaging & capable performer.   

The opener tonight was Baltimore's Outer Spaces, a trio that I was nearly as excited for as the headliner Ted Leo.  Their full-length debut "A Shedding Snake" is excellent (as is the EP the preceded it), and they were great the last time I saw them a year or two ago at Nice Price Books in Raleigh.  I struggle to find a comparison for this band - it's mid-tempo pop with a nineties tinge, a lot of piano (which takes the typical spot of the bass in this trio), and fantastic vocals by bandleader Cara Beth Satalino.  They played a number of tracks from that record as well as a couple of new ones - it was a fairly subdued performance and reception, as I'm not sure this crowd of mostly Ted Leo superfans really knew anything about them prior to this gig.  Hopefully they won over some new fans though, as more people should treat themselves to this great, underrated act. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bull City 11th Anniversary Party at Ponysaurus Brewing - 8/6/2016

Bull City 11th Anniversary Partywith Superchunk, Pipe, Last Year's Men, and Daniel Bachman
Ponysaurus Brewing

Ponysaurus is located just a few blocks from the more "newly developed" parts of downtown Durham, but it's like a different world - boarded up buildings, blight, and the typical trappings of inner city poverty abound.  You can see the changes creeping that way though, that new money slowly overtaking block by block in the same fashion kudzu covers everything it encounters.  I suppose Ponysaurus itse;f would be one of those agents of change themselves.  I'll leave it up to the reader to decide if this a good or bad thing (or as is almost always the case in these situations, both), I'm just painting the scene...

I got there and Daniel Bachman was already well into his set.  Just him and his guitar performing really pretty, intricate instrumental music.  He also played this weirdly shaped lap guitar that I'm going to assume was a dobro until I'm told different.  He's really damn young!  Way younger than you'd probably expect given his talent level...his recordings make you would assume he's a much older cat, or at least that applied to me.  Maybe he just has an old soul, whatever that means.  These instrumental guitar dudes are really hot right now, right?  It feels like there are a lot of them.  Daniel is as good as any of them if not better. 

I was pretty excited Last Year's Men were playing this party, because I was pretty sure they had broken up.  Maybe it was just a "hiatus," but either way they sorta fizzled out and I believe it had been quite a while since they last performed live.  Does this gig signal that the band is back for real or was this just a one off, a favor for Bull City Records?  I guess time will tell.  They were as good as ever, playing a number of tracks from their great album "Sunny Down Snuff" as well as that second record they released only as MP3s that I must confess I haven't really heard.  I was into the jams anyways though.  One noteworthy change was Montgomery was back in band - before their previous hiatus (or whatever it was) he was no longer with the group, instead focusing all his attention on Flesh Wounds.  It was nice to see him back in the fold.  I hope I get to see them again, and soon, because they're one of my favorite local acts. 

Pipe!  PIPE PIPE PIPE PIPE PIPE.  That's really all the review of this band should be.  I've seen them dozens upon dozens of times and it's always the same...the band rocks out to pretty much the same songs they always play, holding shit down in a straight-forward but necessary fashion; singer Ron Liberti, Robert Pollard's long lost twin, puts on a performance that is somewhere between pantomime, modern dance and your favorite drunk uncle; the crowd throws beer cans at the band; I smile and laugh the entire time.  They played a lot of great hits, including two of their best "Biscuits" and "Yr Soaking in It" and a cover of Joe Jackson's "One More Time." At one point Ron caught one of the beers thrown at him, took a drink from it, and then threw it back at the crowd as if the whole thing was choreographed.  He also sang at least one song standing under a giant plastic tarp like he was wearing the world's most suffocating ghost costume.  Pipe is everything rock bands should aspire to be. 

In a lot of ways what I said about Pipe also holds for Superchunk, minus the difference in antics of the respective singers - about the most you get from Mac is a jump off of the drum riser and/or some windmill guitar work.  Like Pipe, I've seen Superchunk dozens upon dozens of times, they play a ton of songs I've seen them play a more times than I can count, and they're incredibly dependable.  Unlike Pipe, they've actually continued to write songs and release albums since the nineties, and their material is a lot more fun to sing along to (sorry Pipe, I still love you).  In the run-up to this show the band mentioned that this is the first time they've played locally since Merge 25 in the summer of 2014, which makes sense because I've been grousing about not getting to see them for a good two years.  There's not a whole lot I can say about these guys at this point, just know that other than Laura no longer playing with them live, they've not lost a step. 

Superchunk / Skylar Gudasz at Dorton Arena - 10/19/2016

With Skylar Gudasz
Dorton Arena

The folks that used to handle the music booking for the North Carolina State Fair made a great decision last year - instead of throwing a lot of money at washed-up and never-has-been rockers, country crooners, and family friendly fare, give a little money to a local agency who can book local musicians and actually support local North Carolinians, one of the main reasons to even have a state fair.  The hard work of local scribe Grayson Haver Currin probably helped them make this decision to change by digging up just how much money the Fair folks were losing on the crappy, mostly unwanted acts they used to book - it was going so wrong, why not try something else?  Long story short, a bunch of shit changed behind the scenes at the State Fair and now I get to see Superchunk in Dorton Arena for free after walking around eating junk food all day. 

First though was Skylar Gudasz, their opener for the night.  I got to the venue in time to see most of her set, getting slightly delayed because I stopped first to eat a cinnamon roll half the size of my head.  One of my better life decisions.  She was fronting a six-piece band featuring two keyboardists (one of which was sometimes Skylar) and the drummer from Flesh Wounds (I'm not sure what bands the other members are from, but they all looked familiar).  Most of Skylar's performance focused on her debut album "Oleander," but there was a couple of new songs as well - if those are a preview of her next release, I predict another gem.  Her voice was as strong as ever, and sounded damn good in Dorton - I've always heard folks say the sound in there was subpar, but it seemed pretty dialed in this night.  It should be noted that she doesn't sound quite as much like Karen Carpenter in person as she does on record...though it would be totally fine if she did. 

After not getting to see Superchunk for a couple of years, this would be my second time in three months.  That's great and all, but it's still not as often I'd like - once a month would be a lot better.  You could tell they were excited to play such a legendary venue - drummer Jon Wurster even posted a selfie on Instagram in the backstage shower where "Gene Simmons might've had 2-minute workmanlike sex in 1976."  For whatever reason they leaned heavily on their classic hits this night, putting together what might be the strongest set list I've ever seen by them.  The highlights included "For Tension," "Detroit Has a Skyline," "Skip Steps One & Three," "Driveway to Driveway," "The First Part," a very rare appearance of "Her Royal Fisticuffs," "Nu Bruises," "Cast Iron," a cover of the Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies," and they ended the night with "Throwing Things."  That's basically every single one of my favorite Superchunk songs minus "Animated Airplanes Over Germany" and "Why Do You Have To Put a Date on Everything."  Due to profanity rules from either Dorton Arena or the State Fair officials, for the first time in forever they didn't play "Slack Motherfucker" so as not to offend any old church ladies or small children or old church children or small ladies that might have wandered into the free show.  Fuck it though, they would have been a little better off in life to hear a little live Superchunk, curse words or not. 

Nada Surf / Amber Arcades at the Cats Cradle - 10/3/2016

Nada Surf
with Amber Arcades
Cats Cradle

The last time I saw Nada Surf live was back in my SF days (aka pre-2008) - much to my dismay, the band doesn't seem to have much love for shows in North Carolina.  This is especially surprising since Matthew Caws has family in the state, and some were even at this show, at least according to his stage banter.  Perhaps their reticence to play is the crowd, or lack thereof.  My (often poor) estimate is there were probably a couple hundred people there, but I was truly shocked that the place wasn't full, or close to it - sure it was a much more comfortable environment, but Nada Surf deserve better.  They're probably second best pure pop band working after Teenage Fanclub. 

They're a pro outfit - every song sounds impeccable, they had their own fancy light rig synced up to the music, and you can tell by the way they interact with the crowd that they're very comfortable on stage.  To my surprise Doug Gillard is now in the band - I guess this happened a few years ago, but like I said, I haven't had the chance to see Nada Surf live in quite a while.  This is at least the third band I've seen him with - Guided By Voices and Superdrag being the two others (for some reason I feel like there is one more, but my brain just can't recall).  They played for probably an hour and a half, hitting nearly everything you might want to hear - there were classics ("Always Love," "Blonde on Blonde"), new favorites ("Friend Hospital," "Rushing"), and they even played their nineties hit "Popular," which I don't think I've ever heard them perform before.  They closed out the night with a totally acoustic (as in no amplification at all) version of "Blizzard of 77," complete with a robust crowd sing-along.  There might not have been as many people at the gig as there should have been, but those that did show up were very enthusiastic. 

I caught about half of the set by openers Amber Arcades, who I knew not a single thing about.  They were a five piece with a female singer who reminded me of Mac DeMarco for some reason - visually, not musically.  I think it was the hat she was wearing, or maybe I'm just an idiot (or both).  Musically they made me think a lot of the Aislers Set, a clean shoegaze/jangle pop hybrid, and I quite liked it.  When I'm dictator more bands will sound like the Aislers Set, per official decree.  Oh, and then after the show I googled the band and it turns out they're Dutch, it's primarily the work of the singer Annelotte de Graaf, and she has two law degrees and works for the international war crimes tribunal.  I wonder if I play nothing but Amber Arcades around my daughter she will turn out that awesome?

Built to Spill / Hop Along at the Cat's Cradle - 9/22/2016

Built to Spill
with Hop Along
Cat's Cradle

It's a pretty simple - if Built to Spill comes to town, I go.  It doesn't even require any thought, the ticket just gets bought the second I see them available for sale.  God knows how many times I've seen them at this point, but I never leave one of their gigs disappointed.  I'm not sure if it's the first time I've seen the band as a trio, but it's definitely been a long time - since the early days when Scott Plouf and Brett Nelson first started playing with Doug Martsch, back when his plan was to have a different rhythm section every record (this didn't last long).  These days it's the pair of young dudes that have been touring with him the last few times Built to Spill came to town, and they do a fine job.  I did miss (occasional touring guitarist/Caustic Resin founder/all around rad dude) Brett Netson's added guitar playing though - luckily, if anyone can hold down all of the Built to Spill guitar parts by himself, it's Doug.  I mean, he did write them.   

The first third (or so) of Built to Spill's set was dominated by this couple standing next to me rubbing on each other constantly.  I don't mean off-and-on either - for the entire 30-45 minutes they were next to me, the movement and rubbing was constant, like a sack full of dry eels.  This would have been less of an issue had the Cradle not been so packed, and I wasn't pressed right up next to them, thereby encountering unwanted accidental rubbing myself.  Ick.  Eventually one or both of them likely climaxed and moved elsewhere, and things got a whole lot better, or at least more comfortable, from there on out.  Doug, personable as always, almost never spoke to the crowd even when he was tuning his guitar...the occasional "thanks" counted as a verbal outburst.  Tons of classics in their set: "The Plan," "Hurt a Fly," "Reasons," "Kicked It in the Sun," "Big Dipper," "Carry the Zero," "Car" plus one of the best songs from their newer material "Hindsight," and their cover this time (there's always at least one cover) was the Creedence Clearwater Revival track "Effigy" - a song that sounds so much like something Doug would write that I'm sure some of the younger folks in the crowd who might not have been familiar with the original probably didn't bat an eye, thinking it was just a new Built to Spill tune.    

Typically, the openers for Built to Spill shows are Boise/Idaho acts that are friends with the band.  Also typically, I never get to the show in time to see these openers, which bit me in the ass this time.  The band was called Hop Along, are apparently from Philly and putting out records on Saddle Creek, and like so many of the kids these days, are doing their damnedest to reinterpret the sounds of the nineties for a modern audience.  The crowd seemed way into it, so much so that it's possible a chunk of them might have been there primarily to see Hop Along, not Built to Spill.  I'm not sure what an apt comparison would be, maybe Dinosaur Jr meets Courtney Barnett, or at least something in that general ballpark.  If they come back again I'll try to see more than two songs. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hopscotch Music Festival, Day Three in Downtown Raleigh, 9/10/2016

Hopscotch Music Festival, Day Three
Downtown Raleigh

The third day of Hopscotch is always the toughest to motivate for, at least for this middle-aged, out-of-shape, lazy bastard.  The first day runs on excitement; the second day runs on adrenaline; and the third day runs on...determination.  It didn't help that of the three days this one had the line-up of bands for which I was least excited, but there were still some gems in there. 

I'm not going to lie, I really only showed up early enough for Vince Staples at City Plaza because I thought I might get some interesting photos, what with my pass-assisted access to the photo pit in City Plaza.  Without that, I probably would have shown up just early enough to catch a couple of songs at the end of his set.  I did get a couple of decent snaps so I guess it was worth it, but I can't say Vince's music ever won me over.  Just not my kind of hip hop, and I don't think I could even tell you why - neither his rapping style or his music really engaged me.  Also, the audio quality seemed all over the place - one track would be normal and clear, and the next would have so much distorted bass I had a flashback to high school when all the rednecks (as well as one of my good friends) had those huge speakers in the trunk of their cars.  I once bribed my friend with a t-shirt he wanted to get him to turn his speakers down, it was so loud I thought it was making my heart beat improperly.  Anyways, I did eat a tasty chicken and cheese pita during his set, so that was cool. 

It's pretty impressive that the biggest turnout and most rambunctuous crowd I've seen in the seven years of Hopscotch was for local favorites Sylvan Esso.  It feels like it was only a couple of years ago they were opening for the Rosebuds at Memorial, and now they're drawing thousands of people as a festival headliner...wait, it was just a couple of years ago.  I've seen them a few times since that Memorial outing, but this was the first gig I've seen where they actually played new songs, songs not on their self-titled debut.  They still played most of the songs from that record too, and of course the crowd went nuts for each one of them, including me when they played their best song "Hey Mami" at the end of the set.  Who would have guessed that if you write super catchy pop songs and set them to an electronic beat it would be so popular?

From electronic pop to mellow folk, I made my way to Fletcher Opera Theater to catch a little bit of Maiden Radio.  I'd never heard a single note by them, but read that Joan Shelley was in the group and she has a magnifficent voice so it was definitely worth a shot.  The band was a trio of females playing banjo, guitar and fiddle (in various combinations) and singing solo or together (in various combinations).  I only caught about half of their set, but it seemed like it was mostly covers of old mountain folk songs - how much these songs resembled the originals or were complete reimaginings, I have no idea.  As to what Maiden Radio sounded like, think about all the Gillian Welch/Emmylou Harris/Alison Krauss tracks from the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and you're on the right path.  It sounded great, two thumbs up from this dude.   

I would have gladly stayed for the entire Maiden Radio set if I didn't need to get next door to Memorial Auditorium to see Eric Bachmann.  It was just him and two backup singers, local phenom Skylar Gudasz and another gal named Avery, but I didn't catch her full name.  Bachmann was in a snazzy suit, the ladies were in matching sparkly dresses, and the crowd was seated and impeccably silent...of the dozens of times I've seen Bachmann play either solo or with a band, I've never seen him quite like this.  I took some snaps for a couple of songs, and then just sat down and listened intently for the rest of the set.  He played most of his new self-titled record, which makes sense as so many of those songs feature backing vocals, and these two ladies weren't on stage just to show off their sparkly outfits.  Of the couple of older songs he trotted out, I remember "Bad Blood" was one of them, a classic to be sure.  I'm not sure if the rest of the crowd was totally engrossed (like me), asleep, or just staring at their phones, but I was impressed with how quiet and attentive everyone was.  Easily one of the shows of the festival for me, but like the Wye Oak performance on the first night, I knew this would be the case before he even played the first note. 

Even though I had sorta just seen her with Maiden Radio, I popped back in next door at Fletcher to see Joan Shelley play solo.  Well, sorta solo, as she had a dude supplying guitar accompaniment the whole time, plus the other two gals in Maiden Radio came on stage occasionally to add some additional instrumentation or vocals.  I suppose the the big difference between the two sets was during this gig Joan was playing her own songs instead of covers of old mountain folk ditties.  I don't really know any of her music well, I just know her voice - but it was real damn pretty and I stuck it out for a few songs before I got itching to move on.  Nothing against Joan, but I was needing something a little more rocking than the delicate folk I've seen over the last three acts. 

Walking down the street, I met a few friends that talked me into going to see Soldiers of Fortune at the Lincoln Theatre because Cheetie Kumar from Birds of Avalon would be sitting in with them.  I didn't know a single thing about the band (noticing a theme with my lack of preparation this year?) but if Cheetie was participating it would be worth checking out.  Turns out they're some NYC supergroup featuring Kid Millions and others from Oneida, a dude from Endless Boogie, another dude that plays with Interpol apparently, and plenty more vets (some that were here, some that were not).  Their set was just one long song, seemingly improvised or at least mostly so, which is not shocking because of the level of talent present on stage.  Kid Millions was handling the vocals from the drum kit, but I have no idea what he was saying and I'm not sure it mattered.  I'm not even sure how to really describe the sound - sort of a repetitive kraut rock vibe, fairly heavy but never venturing into metal territory, and a shitload of guitar shreddery, especially from the guest star Cheetie.  I probably could have just said it sounds like a crazier/bigger version of Oneida.  For something I randomly decided to go to, this was a nice find, and further proves the old adage "always trust the Birds of Avalon."  At least I'm pretty sure that is an adage people say. 

Baroness was playing next at the Lincoln and since that who I was planning on seeing anyways, it made for a short commute.  Not only did I not have to exert myself and walk to another venue, but I was in a great spot to get photos of the final act of Hopscotch.  I saw Baroness play a number of years ago, but honestly don't remember a ton about it - I certainly don't remember them being as polished as they were on this night.  They were heavier and gruffer before - now, I'd almost call them pop metal.  That sounds like an insult and I don't mean it that way, but their songs have hooks and harmonies that you usually don't get in a typical stoner metal setting.  Also, how did I miss the news that Sebastian Thomson from Trans Am is now their drummer?  I knew their old drummer quit the band after their horrific bus crash a few years back (they were actually supposed to play Hopscotch right after that crash, but that appearance was obviously cancelled since almost the entire band nearly died), but I had no idea Sebastian was now their stickman.  Anyways, yadda yadda yadda, they put on an amazing show, it was basically an entirely different band than I saw so many years ago, and I enjoyed it immensely - I was planning on only staying for a couple of songs but ended up watching most of the show.  I like this version of Baroness a lot more, for the record - what can I say, I'm a pop fan at heart - make the metal songs catchy and all of the sudden I'm feelin' it. 

I went home satisfied (and extremely tired) after my three day experience at Hopscotch 2016.  Probably my favorite festival since 2013 or so.  I'm already excited for next year.