Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Merge Fest with Crooked Fingers and friends at the Cat’s Cradle - 7/30/2004

Merge Fest
Crooked Fingers / Camera Obscura / Radar Bros / Portastatic / Double Dynamite
The Cat’s Cradle

On the second night of Merge Fest, I had noticed Ira and Georgia from Yo La Tengo hanging around; then Ivan from the Rosebuds (who are on Merge) said they were somehow involved with the opening act on this night, under the moniker Double Dynamite.  We had no idea what to expect, but what we got was a cover band featuring Ira on guitar and a bunch of who-knows-what rounding out the rest of the act.  There were a lot of costume changes, insuring that the entire audience saw the singer’s cock-and-ball set at some point during the performance.  Songs ranged from ELO’s “Telephone Lines” to Queen/Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to The Chi-Lite’s “Ooh Child,” and a number of songs I either didn’t know or that were originals.  The whole event was sloppy at best, but highly entertaining – between the outrageous costumes and a lot of stumbling around in an unintentional manner by the singer, my sides hurt by the end from laughing so much. 

Next up was Portastatic - that equals Mac from Superchunk for two days in a row, not something I’m against.  I can’t claim that I was paying a ton of attention, as the Galaga machine kept beckoning my quarters, but I did notice a few things, most notably a guest appearance by David Kilgour of the Clean to perform a song with the group.  It also occurred to me - where Portastatic seemed to start out as an outlet for Mac to play the pop songs he was writing that didn’t really fit in with the sound of the Chunk, but over the years Superchunk has more or less turned into a pop band.  The only thing really separating the sound of the two groups is that you are much more likely to hear keyboards in Portastatic; but with Mac’s unique voice being one of the hallmarks you will remember upon hearing either group, I could imagine those out there who aren’t terribly familiar might get a little confused. 

The third band for the night was the Radar Bros.  It was obvious from the beginning that most of the crowd wasn’t interested or didn’t know much about the band, but I was upbeat and excited and moved right to the front of the stage. A friend and I were discussing how familiar most of their songs sound to one another, due to them almost all being in the same key and at the same tempo, but I still find it damn enjoyable; so I guess the key is if all of your songs are going to sound the same, you’re cool as long as it’s a damn good song.  A highlight of the evening for me was their final song “Shifty Lies,” my favorite song of theirs.

Camera Obscura filled the next-to-final spot, and they did a damn fine job.  I had put off seeing them a couple of weeks before in SF since I knew I would be seeing them at Merge Fest, but hindsight being 20-20 tells me I’m an idiot and should have gone to see them both times.  They were so great – probably the highlight of the whole fest for me.  For some reason, their sweet twee-pop was just what my ears wanted to hear, and they delivered in the form of an hour’s worth of material covering a large chunk of their discography.  I was unsure how they would be taken in Chapel Hill for some reason, but the crowd seemed to really dig it despite the fact that most of them didn’t know much about the band.  It’s hard not to smile when you hear sounds so sweet emanating from the stage.

Finishing off the night in a big way was Crooked Fingers.  Even though Eric Bachmann may not live here anymore, the love for his former band Archers of Loaf is so great in these parts that he could probably record an entire record of squeaking brakes and fart sounds and everyone in Chapel Hill would own it (and so would I, to be quite honest).  Every time I’ve seen Crooked Fingers over the last few years, the line-up has been different; this time around was no exception, as there is now a female vocalist/keyboard player in the band (not one of the ladies from Azure Ray like on the last tour, this was someone totally different).  She added a great dynamic to the vocals, it was like the whole show was one big Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet-fest at times.  

Crooked Fingers played lots of new tracks, some of which I remember from the last time I saw them here in SF, as well as plenty of classics like “New Drink for the Old Drunk,” “Black Black Ocean” and “Crowned in Chrome” off the top of my head.  They even had one of the dudes who plays horns with Destroyer on stage a couple of times, most notably helping out on “Sweet Marie” from their most recent release “Red Devil Dawn.”  But the highlight - not just of their set, not just of the night, and not just of this trip to Chapel Hill, but of my recent time on this earth – was when they decided to play the Archers anthem “Web in Front” as their final song.  I thought the entire place was going to go into a full scale riot…the sound of every single person in a venue screaming the lyrics of the song along with you, bouncing off of one another with huge smiles on their face…it’s an amazing feeling just to be a part of it; I can’t even fathom what it might be like if it was a reaction to something I had written or performed.  Without a doubt, and not to get too hippy about things, but it’s moments like these that makes you glad to be alive.

Merge Fest with Superchunk and friends at the Cat’s Cradle - 7/29/2004

Merge Fest
Superchunk / M. Ward / Richard Buckner / The Rosebuds
The Cat’s Cradle


This is the first of two parts chronicling my trip back to North Carolina to see the first two nights of Merge Fest, a celebration of fifteen years of Merge Records.  Yeah, I can’t believe it’s been that long either.  (Note: technically, it was the second and third nights of Merge Fest, as they added a last minute show that happened on the 28th that I couldn’t make it to…)

Kicking things off on this Thursday night was the Rosebuds, a husband/wife duo with a very good hired-gun drummer.  Ivan plays a sparkly Dan Electro guitar and sings, and Kelly plays the keys.  For lack of better terminology, or maybe because it’s unnecessary, these kids play pop.  Simple, straightforward, owing a bit of gratitude to the garage-pop of yore and the Spoon of today; they sound like everyone and no one at once, instantly recognizable even if you’ve never heard it before.  Just like their set, their songs were short, sweet and to the point. 

It was an eclectic line-up to say the least; the blissful pop of the Rosebuds was followed up by what is nearly their polar opposite, the brooding melancholy that is Richard Buckner.  Having seen him many times, you never know what you’re going to get, every show a unique experience.  This time around it was just the man by himself, a couple of guitars, and a shitload of pedals, a couple of which were samplers that he used to loop various guitar parts that he would then perform over top of, creating a very layered yet still distinctly Richard Buckner sound.  As per usual, he played a number of tracks I either didn’t know or that were so transformed that I couldn’t recognize them; however, right in the middle of his set, he played a huge chunk of songs from “Since,” which pleased me to no end (it is my favorite record of his, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly).

I missed most of the middle act, The Essex Green, so that I might recuperate from the night’s festivities so far (and also so I could play some Tron and Galaga, as the Cat’s Cradle has a great mini-arcade in the back).  Following them was a solo performance from M. Ward, who played a fine set to be sure and really seemed to grab the attention of my friend I was at the show with.  Even more notably, Lou Barlow was standing directly in front of me and seemed to know every single word to all of Ward’s songs…it’s nice to see that it’s not just us commoners who really enjoy a good show – even indie rock royalty can really get into it!  For just being one man on stage, Ward performed a pretty mesmerizing set, and he paced the stage the entire time like a caged baboon.  His portion of the night included his unique rendition of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” and it was a decidedly good time. 

But as great as all of the openers were, the real reason I traveled across the country and was at this show at all was for the opportunity to see Superchunk rock the Cradle again.  I don’t know how many times I saw them on this very stage years ago, a huge influence and highlight of my college years; and there’s something about being in the band's home town with a crowd that loves and adores their every song that I never tire of.  Since Merge is owned by half of the band, it was an especially important night for them to celebrate fifteen years of success.  Who would have ever though, all those years ago, that this tiny label would grow up and come to be the home of so many great acts?  The Chunk played a set that seemed to go chronologically backwards, starting with new material and finishing on their final encore with “What Do I,” the very first song they ever released if I’m not mistaken.  The show instantly transported me back to my late teen years when I first really got into this band.  Things have changed over the years, the crowd is older, and Laura Balance might be up on stage rocking out while seven months pregnant, but none of that really matters when you have an entire room full of people singing, nay screaming every single word to “Detroit has a Skyline” or “Mower” or “Slack Motherfucker.”  And if just the show alone wasn’t enough, there were two absolutely brilliant guest appearances: first, Ash Bowie came on stage and the band ripped through a cover of Polvo’s “Can I Ride?” with Ash singing; then after that, Lou Barlow joined the group for a version of Sebadoh’s “It’s So Hard to Fall in Love”, which Superchunk had covered years ago and is featured on their “Tossing Seeds 89-91” singles compilation. 

In my world, it just doesn’t get much more perfect than that.  And it may ruin me for all other live music for the rest of the year.  Or at least until the next day's festivities. 

Pleasant Grove / The Red Thread / Mark Mallman at the Make-Out Room - 6/16/2004

Pleasant Grove
with The Red Thread and Mark Mallman
The Make-Out Room

All I have to say is I’m glad I got down to the Make-Out Room early enough to catch the last few songs of Mark Mallman - that guy is a madman.  Imagine if you will a non-sexually fixated Har Mar Superstar crossed with Jonathan Richman playing songs that sound like they’re from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”  It was just Mark playing the keys maniacally, a really fantastic drummer, and they were both playing along with an iBook that sometimes added guitar and/or bass lines to the mix.  At some point during the last song, when things were just going nuts, Mallman licked his fingers, stuck his hands in the air and said “this is why I get paid!” and then started banging away on his keyboard.  It was very entertaining to say the least.  I can’t imagine they’ll live up to the live performance, but I’m going to keep my eyes out for any of his recordings in the future; the songs were pretty enjoyable and catchy after only the first listen.

I’ve seen the Red Thread a number of times over the last year, and I continue to like them more and more with each successive listen of their album or live viewing.  This was my first time seeing them since I’ve really been able to soak up the goodness from their newer record “Tension Pins,” and it was nice knowing pretty much all of the songs they played.  Additionally, it was their guitarist Daryle’s last show with the band (as an SF resident) as he is moving south to that bad part of the state.  Word on the street is they will continue the group, meeting up with Daryle whenever possible to round out the experience.  I’m glad to hear this, because it would be a damn shame to lose this band from the local scene.

I was “pleasantly” surprised at how great Pleasant Grove was (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun, I’m easily amused).  I had planned on only checking out a couple of songs (I was mostly at the gig for the Red Thread), but they some how snookered me into sticking around for their entire set, sans encore.  They were a strange combination of noisy/shoegaze rock and alt-country, which sounds kinda funky to me as I write this but it really worked for them in a live setting.  Especially of note was how amazing the drummer was, at times somehow working these intricate breakbeat rhythms into what was otherwise fairly simple music.  If I had to draw up band comparisons, this would prove difficult – the closest I could think of was a combination of the beautiful, rootsy weirdness of Sparklehorse crossed with the swirling sound of Swervedriver.  Since I’ve never heard their album, my only experience with the band was from this performance – but it made me eager to hear what they sound like in a studio setting.  Surprisingly, there seemed to be tons of Texas folks there to root on this Dallas-based band, hence the reference to an encore up above, probably the first encore I’ve ever been party to at the Make-Out Room.  And they certainly put on a performance worthy of the adulation being thrown their way.

The Polyphonic Spree at Slims & the Apple Store - 7/18 & 7/19/2004

The Polyphonic Spree
Slims & Apple Store
7/18 & 7/19/2004

I had no idea that experiencing, first hand, the musical output of the cult-in-the-making Polyphonic Spree could be so fun and rewarding.  If this is what religious zealotry is like, sign me up; I’ll have the tailor measure me so that my robe fits well.

I was simply blown away by the band.  I felt like I was attending one of those old–fashion tent revivals that still go on back in the south where I’m from; the band was giving the performance of their lives, the crowd was ecstatic, and there wasn’t a face in the house that didn’t have a huge smile on it.  The material was mostly from the new album (pretty much all of it, actually), with an encore of older stuff like “Soldier Girl” and “Light and Day”.  Curiously, and something that never occurred to me before seeing them live, is how much they remind me of the more recent Mercury Rev output; I kept getting Rev songs stuck in my head during the show, and then I’d think “I hope they play that one!” until I realized a few minutes later that it wasn’t one of their songs at all.  I’d been meaning to check these guys (and gals) out for a while now, but every time they came through the city I was either out of town or already booked into seeing another show.  After this experience, I won’t be missing them ever again in the near future.

…And just to prove I wasn’t lying, I found out about a last-minute in-store they’d be playing at the Apple store the following afternoon.  Despite some problems trying to get in to see them, and poor sightlines (they were playing in a bit of a pit), it was still awesome to see them play some of the same songs I had just heard less than 24 hours earlier.  They sounded great especially since this wasn't a proper club; what’s more, the eclectic nature of the crowd pleased me to no end.  I guess a lot of folks will apparently wait in line for anything, even if they have no clue what it is, just because everyone else is waiting in line for it.  The bewildered look on some of the out-of-place tourists and business folks was priceless.  And hopefully for the Spree, they won over some new fans – cause god only knows how they manage to afford to tour with so many people playing such small venues; but as a fan I’m certainly happy to see them playing there.

(Photo not mine, found randomly online.)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Superdrag at Bottom of the Hill - 3/28 & 3/29/2003

Bottom of the Hill
3/28 & 3/29/2003

Someone was smoking some weed in the crowd.  Another (presumably different) person yells out "What’s that smell?", to which Sam Powers, bassist for Superdrag, replied "It’s a Lynyrd Skynyrd song." 

I’m just going to jumble these two shows together and treat them as one. Not that they were the same: on the first night, Superdrag opened and played a much shorter set than on the second night when they headlined. They also played a lot of different songs each night, with less than half being the same on both nights. It didn’t bother me to hear the same songs again though, as I honestly would have still enjoyed myself even if both shows were exactly the same. They played a great mix from all of their albums, not really focusing on any one too heavily. Out of my ten favorite tracks by Superdrag, I think they played seven of them over the two nights. On the first night they even played "Sucked Out," their one hit song from the mid-nineties, but I doubt that all the young kids there to see Ozma had even heard it before. Possibly the biggest highlight was that for their last song on the second night, Doug Gillard of Guided by Voices fame got up on the stage and joined the band. God knows why he was at the show, but it was rad. There appears to be some bond between GBV and Superdrag as Robert Pollard sang back up on "Baby Goes to 11" on Superdrag’s newest album "Last Call for Vitriol." Bottom line – awesome show, awesome band. More people should give these guys a chance – they’re way, way better than the "one hit wonder" status that seems to have saddled them throughout their career.

(Photo not mine, found randomly online.)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Hives / The Deadly Snakes at the Warfield - 12/11/2004

The Hives
with The Deadly Snakes
The Warfield

I was almost as excited to see the opening band for this show, the Deadly Snakes, as I was to see the headliners.  These Canuck garage rockers are yet ANOTHER reason to move to Canada…the amount of great music coming out of that frozen wasteland is ridiculous.  They were all kinds of good, a bluesy-soulful-garage rock mess with horns, lots of organ and a boatload of catchy songs.  They were great compliment to the garage-schtick of the Hives, and likely won over a few new fans in the process.  Hopefully is they’ll come back through town soon and play a smaller club where I can actually see the band members’ faces.

The Hives were…well, the Hives.  If you don’t know what you’re going to get with them by now you’ve probably not being paying very much attention.  They are consummate performers, one of those bands I would take most anyone to see even if they didn’t like the music – Howlin’ Pelle and company simply know how to put on a show and work the crowd.  The great thing is that I saw them years back opening for The (International) Noise Conspiracy at the Great American Music Hall, and they had just as much pomp and attitude then… it’s what they do.  Their set was about an even mix of tracks from the new record and tracks from their previous hit record “Veni Vidi Vicious,” which made me happy; I know that older album well but was worried they’d spend all of their time playing new material that was foreign to me.  Luckily, there was nothing disappointing about this evening, a fine show to be sure. 

(Photo not mine, found randomly online.)

The (International) Noise Conspiracy at Slims - 10/6/2002

The (International) Noise Conspiracy

The politics of the (International) Noise Conspiracy make me seem and feel really conservative, but I’m glad there are people out there with their point of view even if I don’t fully agree with them.  The bottom line is that they seek change and hope to achieve this through their music, lyrics, and actions.  On their tours they always have a table of books and pamphlets that outline things they believe in and sing about.  I'll not get into the capitalist idea of them selling socialist literature.

I’ve seen these Swedish meatballs a few times, and this wasn’t my favorite time seeing them.  Not that the show was bad, far from it - just seemed to be lacking some of the energy that I’m used to seeing them with.  I think it was a combination of the venue, which I’ve never been crazy about, and the fact that the drummer had been injured for a while and probably wasn’t able to put his all into it.  Bad back or something like that apparently.  The previous couple of times I saw them had been at Great American, and I had a seat both times in the balcony and was able to get a bird’s eye view of singer Dennis Lyxzen and all his great dance moves.  He also clamored around on the ledge of the balcony like a monkey, which is always entertaining.  But back to this Slims show: they played a nice selection of songs from both their albums, including "Capitalism Stole My Virginity," "Smash It Up," and "Up For Sale."  There was also a couple of new ones, one which sounded like a disco song which I wasn’t really feeling, but I’ll judge it fully after I’ve had a chance to hear it few times properly recorded.  The set wasn’t terribly long due to the drummer’s back, about an hour long with a one song encore.  A decent show all in all, but I hope they are back at Great American next time around.  

(Photo not mine, found randomly online.)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Midlake at the Local 506 - 11/11/2013

Local 506

I've been a huge fan of Midlake for years and seen them live a number of times - their 2006 album "The Trials of Van Occupanther" would easily make my top ten records of the last decade.  But then their singer Tim Smith left before they finished their most recent record "Antiphon," and honestly I didn't know how the hell their live show would turn out.  You can lose a drummer or a guitarist and generally replace them fairly seamlessly, but losing the voice of the band is another thing entirely.  Short of holding an international search for a new singer and finding a diminutive sound-alike from the Philippines, they did the next best thing and just had guitarist Eric Pulido take over on the mic. 

Last time the band was in town they played at the Cradle - it wasn't full, but there was a healthy crowd there.  This time, they're playing to a half-full Local 506.  Probably not a good sign, but I hope that doesn't serve as a deterrent for them as a band or from returning to our area.  Even with the singer change, it still worked - they are still a fantastic group both recorded and live.  The new lead vocals aren't spot on, but they're close enough.  they showed up with their own pro lighting gear and a personal sound man, which is a funny sight for such a small club.  IT was such a tech set-up they didn't have monitors but rather ear pieces, arena rock style.  The band did a good job mixing their new songs with older tracks from "Van Occupanther" and "The Courage of Others," as it should be.  I really enjoyed myself tonight, and I'm glad they are able to continue even with the change in frontman. 

Pelican / Coliseum at the Local 506 - 11/4/2013

with Coliseum
Local 506

According to the band this was the first time Coliseum had ever played in the the Triangle in their ten years of existence.  A band bypassing our area for a long period of time isn't that strange, but given these guys are only from Louisville it does seem odd they never would have toured here.  But hey, they're here now and that's what counts.  I have heard from multiple friends that they put on a top-notch live show, and those reports turned out to be 100% true.  Their records are enjoyable but they just can't measure up to the power and ferocity of the band on stage.  I'm not sure if it's just me or a truism for the genre, but I find this often to be the case with heavy and/or metal bands.  These cats are more than just metal though, I hear a distinct tinge of punk throughout most of their music - specifically, Black Flag.  And then there wee a couple of other times when they approached a Queens of the Stone Age radio-friendly hard rock vibe.  Regardless of sound, it was all great, and hopefully it's not ten more years before they come back. 

I might have been at the show slightly more for Coliseum, but I've been a fan of headliners Pelican for years, having even seen them a good decade ago when I lived in San Francisco.  I don't remember much from that show other than being there (at Bottom of the Hill I believe), so it was nice to get a refresher from this instrumental metal act.  I'm not sure what to really say about them though - they sounded great, the songs rocked.  I've listened to their records but couldn't tell you the name of any of their songs, which obviously isn't helped when the songs have no words.  If it was me I would have flipped the order of the bands because Coliseum seemed a more fitting closer, but two good bands is two good bands regardless of when you see them on a bill. 

Built to Spill / Slam Dunk at the Cat's Cradle - 10/30/2013

Built to Spill
with Slam Dunk
The Cat's Cradle

I never tire of seeing Built to Spill live.  I've seen them dozens of times and like a fine wine they get better with age.  At least this is what I'm told, I ain't one of them fancy yuppies what partakes in spoilt grape drink.  Brett Netson and the other bald guitarist who isn't Doug Martsch were still with the band, but they had a new rhythm section.  Other than that it was business as usual with a BtS live event - great songs. hot solos, and the always awful crowd they seem to attract.  I guess that also says something about me but I'm old now and who gives a shit really.  This outing they played a lot more older songs than usual, especially from "There's Nothing Wrong with Love" - "In the Morning," "Car," and "Big Dipper" off the top of my head.  Other highlights included "Kicked It in the Sun," "Joyride," "Carry the Zero," plus a couple of covers: Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?".  On the cover songs in particular Doug and Brett really got to play up their guitar god status, they nailed all the riffs and solos perfectly.  I eagerly look forward to their return again next year.     

They had an interesting opener called Slam Dunk, and as is typical for Built to Spill they appeared to be friends of theirs from the Pacific Northwest.  I guess they had sort of a "cow punk garage pop" thing going...imagine the Meat Puppets crossed with the Craps crossed with some indie pop like Modest Mouse.  I seem to recall there being a lot of shouting on stage.  As you might imagine with a combination of sounds like I heard, some songs were interesting and enjoyable, and others were a bit of a mess.  I liked them more than I didn't though, and I'd check out their record if I came across it. 

Lovers at the Pinhook - 10/25/2013

The Pinhook

This is the second time I've gone to see Lovers at the Pinhook, and it's the second time I've rearranged my schedule to do so.  The first time, I didn't exactly postpone my vacation so I wouldn't miss their show, but I definitely made the vacation plans a day late because of it.  This time around I already had a ticket to the first night of Mountain Oasis for the purpose of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel, and as soon as I saw Lovers were playing that same night I sold the shit out of that ticket a soon as I could.  It was worth it. 

It is hard to say if the crowd was better this time around than a couple of years ago, but what we lacked in numbers we made up for in enthusiasm.  Despite my constant prattling on about this band and trying to get my friends to give them a chance, no one listens.  Never mind that I rarely listen when people suggest bands to me, that's not the point here!  I did bring the wife with me just in an effort to make sure as many people were at the show as possible.  Their set list was mostly songs from their last two records, the perfect "Dark Light" released in 2010 and their most recent release, "A Friend in the World," which will definitely be found on my "best of" list at the end of the year.  They sounded fantastic, especially the vocals, which drive their music.  I rarely talk to bands after the show but for the second time I kinda completely fanned out on them, lauding them with so much praise they probably thought I was screwing with them, but I stand by everything I've ever said by them.  Brilliant, brilliant electro pop music that should be light years more popular, but I'm partly glad I still have them to myself.