Monday, June 4, 2018

Moogfest (Day 3) in downtown Durham - 5/19/2018

Moogfest (Day 3)
Downtown Durham

My second day of Moogfest (the actual third day of the festival) included more artists and much less rain, just how I like it.  Also, I ate a giant burrito from a taco truck so it was a damn good day.

After I picked up my daily press passes at the American Tobacco Campus, I had enough time to pop into “The Cage” (aka the covered, outdoor basketball court) to catch some of the DJ action happening there.  And I stopped for good reason – the legendary
Pete Rock was spinning classic nineties jams.  Did CL Smooth show up and they performed the all-time great “Mecca And The Soul Brother” album in its entirety, and everyone collectively lost their shit?  No, it was just a DJ set, but it was still pretty cool and obviously he was playing nothing but that good good that was a huge part of my formative years.  There were lots of folks there, from little kids to those even older than me, all having themselves a good time.  The best part were the little kids in the back of The Cage dancing, not a care in the world.  Also, can we talk about how Pete Rock is nearly 50 but looks 20 years younger?  Dude must sleep in a hyperbaric chamber, making me feel all bad and gross about myself – it’s equal parts impressive and anger-inducing.

The first act I was scheduled to shoot this night was
Psychic TV at the Carolina Theatre.  I honestly knew more about the band historically and conceptually (godfathers of the industrial genre, early pioneers in the techno world, and of course the identity politics) than I actually knew their music, but given their “legend” status it would have been stupid to miss them.  I have no idea about the membership of the group outside of Genesis P-Orridge, but on this night they were a five piece in matching white denim, and trippy, super-colorful collage backdrop visuals that were such a big part of the performance it was like a sixth band member.  Perhaps my biggest shock of the entire festival was what I heard during their set – fairly straight-forward heavy rock music.  I was expecting shit to be super weird!  Instead, they kicked things off with a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire,” and from there it was a series of noisy, dark dirges not that different from the Birthday Party or someone of that ilk.  They really seem to enjoy stretching their songs out and letting them breathe in a krautrock-like fashion.  I was honestly way into it – after taking photos up front for the first few songs, I went to the back of the theatre, sat down, and let the sounds wash over me.  It might have been my favorite moment of this entire Moogfest.

Next up on my dance card was the highly-regarded Norwegian artist
Jenny Hval, just across the street at the Armory.  At this point I can’t claim a lot of new firsts when seeing live music, but this was definitely the first time I’ve ever seen a pregnant woman eat a banana in an inflatable clam as a part of a musical performance (this is obviously a very common sight in a non-musical setting).  The pregnant woman was one of band members, and I’m honestly not sure if it was intended to be part of the performance, or she was just tired and hungry.  Later on Hval would sing a song after sticking a half-inflated ball down her shirt and then performing (half-assed) synchronized stretching with the pregnant woman (this was post-banana, obviously).  Basically, I didn’t understand a single goddamn thing that was happening onstage other than the music – and the music was pretty decent.  It landed somewhere on the spectrum between ambient, atmospheric electronic music and straight-forward electro-pop.  I’m not entirely sure I’d go our of my way to see it all again, but I was glad to experience it at least once.

Back across the road again at the Carolina Theatre (if you haven’t guessed, I spent all night just going back and forth between here and the Armory), I caught the last few minutes of
J Rocc, best known for his work with the legendary turntable crew the Beat Junkies.  If you’ve ever seen those YouTube videos of a one or a few dudes on multiple record players cutting, chopping and scratching their way through a shitload of records and in the process creating new music – well, this guy is one of the OGs of that sort of thing.  As far as DJs go you’re not going to get much more entertaining than J Rocc, though as I’ve noted on past occasions when it comes to watching DJs perform live, there should be an overhead camera so you can really see what is going on.   

Instead of ending his set, J Rocc just handed over the equipment to the DJ for
KRS-One, and the party kept flowing.  KRS-One was a large part of Boogie Down Productions, the group responsible for one of the top five greatest hip hop albums of all time, “Criminal Minded.”  Getting to hear “South Bronx” and “The Bridge Is Over” live after three decades of listening to those songs was serious bucket list material.  I would have preferred more songs and less freestyle from the man, but at this point I guess he has earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants when on the mic.  This show was  real who's who:  the legendary Freddy Fox was with him, Pete Rock was hanging out on the side stage, and even Michael Stipe was there (you might remember KRS-One appeared on the REM track “Radio Song” that got a little bit of airplay back in the day).  He seemed super concerned with “real hip hop,” though I’m not sure anyone has ever settled on a real definition of what exactly that is.  On the downside – so much feedback coming from the monitors; a distracting, annoying amount…but as bad as it was, it was the only technical issue I experience all weekend which feels like a small miracle given how many electronics have been involved with all of these acts.

My final show of Moogfest would be 
Mouse On Mars back at the Armory, performing with Spank Rock (the rapper) and Sonic Robots (robotically automated percussion that was scattered around the stage).  Also, they did all of this in near darkness, with only a small amount of backlighting and some computer screens to guide the way.  Photographically, it was a pretty frustrating note to go out on – I had my speed cranked up to 6400 and my aperture all the way to 1.4, and I still only got a handful of non-blurry, sorta lit photos out of about 100.  Given the billing more Spank Rock would have been nice, as he was my main motivation for being there; he came out and rapped with his back to the crowd for one song, and did a little more work sitting in the back, but that was about it for the 45 or so minutes I was there.  Despite all of that, it was still a decent showing – the live version of their music was much more dynamic and organic than I would have imagined, with real drums and guitar getting incorporated into the expected electronic sound.  They’re not someone whose recorded output I’ve paid a ton of attention to, but this set piqued my interest in what their latest album for Thrill Jockey has to offer.  Will have to put that one on the “to do” list…

For a festival that I had minimal interest in before it kicked off, I ended up having a damn good time for the bulk of it.  It’s a reminder to myself to sample the unknown fare more often at these type of events - who knows what unknown or overlooked band might become a future favorite.  

Moogfest (Day 2) in downtown Durham - 5/18/2018

Moogfest (Day 2)
Downtown Durham

I wasn’t all that enthused with this year’s Moogfest line-up when it was released, but I was given the opportunity to take photos for the festival, so I was going to be there regardless.  The flip side of not having a ton of shows you feel like you have to see -it leads to a lot more exploration and investigation of the acts you don’t know, instead of just seeing performers that you already know you like.

Case in point – my favorite artist this Friday night was
Annie Hart at the First Presbyterian Church.  Her name didn’t mean anything to me at first, but after a little digging I discovered she was one-third of Au Revoir Simone.  Spacy electro pop in a dark church?  I’m there.  I’m not sure when they started using this venue, but it was my first time seeing anyone perform here – it’s a great spot.  I’m always game for a church performance though – the setting lends itself to a quiet, respectful crowd; though the flipside is you feel very self-conscious while taking photos because many times it was so quiet you could hear the camera shutter over the music.  It was definitely a great setting for Annie, adding to the atmospheric vibe of her whole endeavor.  Roughly half of the set was just her, and for the rest she had one and/or two other women adding backing vocals, bass, and just a smattering of drums (or rather drum, since there was only one).  Sound wise, other than a couple of more upbeat songs, I’m not sure it was really all that different from an Au Revoir Simone performance (outside of the band members involved obviously), or at least I’m not smart enough to spot the differences.  It was great regardless, and now I really need to hear that record she released last year called “Impossible Accomplice” (note: apparently it was only released on cassette and since I don’t have a cassette player anymore I’ll need the digital files instead, but the point stands).

I’d planned to do a bit of bouncing around to different venues, as one does at these festivals, but the weather had different ideas.  Intermittent downpours meant I waited until the rain was at least somewhat manageable, and then hot stepped it to the Armory to spend the rest of my night.  I was planning on only catching a few minutes of
Yves Tumor, but I ended up with a full set out of a necessity to keep dry.  Yves is just one person for the record – a dude who was dressed like an extra from Blade Runner in futuristic clothes, a white cowboy hat, and what looked like a surgical mask?  I’m not sure I have the slightest idea on what was happening on the stage – heavy, industrial noise with a tinge of techno and vocals so distorted I’m not sure he was even trying to form words – and if he was, you’d never know what they were.  The only lighting was erratic strobes scattered around the venue (until Yves told them to kill the strobes, and then it was dark as shit).  The whole affair was disorienting, ominous, maybe a little creepy…I’m not sure I would call it enjoyable though.  My snarky side would say it wasn’t even music, but eye of the beholder and all that, who am I to decide what is music?  It just wasn’t for me.

After all of that, whatever that was and whatever you decide to call it,
Shabazz Palaces closed down this night at the Armory.  The duo was positioned behind a bank of electronics and a wide assortment of percussion for pretty much the entire show, but it still felt like a pretty dynamic performance.  The music may be quite different, but it’s hard not to hear Digable Planets whenever Palaceer Lazaro (nee Butterfly) raps, his voice is so distinctive – plus I listened to the fuck out of those two albums Digable Planets released in the mid-nineties.  The tweaked out, electrified & fried percussion laid down by Baba Maraire was just as excellent as you would expect from a dude who grew up under an African music master, Dumisani Maraire.  The entire time the backdrop was filled with projections that ran the spectrum of anime to clips from the movie “Malcolm X,” which added to the trippy vibe of the performance.  It definitely inspired me to spend some more time with some of the Shabazz Palaces recorded output, weird ass space alien lyrics be damned.  If Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips can make a career of writing songs about this nonsense, there’s no reason we can’t have a hip hop version of roughly the same content. 

Carolina Rebellion at Charlotte Motor Speedway - 5/6/2018

Carolina Rebellion (Day 3)
Charlotte Motor Speedway

There’s typically never enough happening at Carolina Rebellion to garner more than a passing glance from me – usually no more than two or three bands in any given year that I would actually get excited to see.  But for some reason this not only where there quite a few more groups I liked in the mix this year, but all the ones I wanted to see had been scheduled for the same day!  A festival of this nature would require more than my typical solo attendance, so a couple of longtime friends from Wilmington and Asheville were called into action for a day of rock, rednecks, overpriced concessions, sunburn, inhaling at least a pound of dust, and a shitload of fun.

I hadn’t initially planned on starting my music festival day as early as we did, but one of my dudes insisted on seeing
Quicksand – and why the hell not, the tickets were paid for, might as well get our money’s worth!  I had not thought about these guys since the mid-nineties, which is understandable since they hadn’t released any records since 1995 up until last year.  One friend insisted we saw them in Wilmington at the Mad Monk back in 1994 or 1995 with Sensefield…this seems entirely plausible, but all I remember from that night was Sensefield and our friend that was punch-dancing in the middle of a non-existent pit.  Anyways, Quicksand were definitely worth getting there early for – played a few of their older songs that I was surprised to remember, and the new songs were decent – melodic hard rock/punk, not that different from the old shit really, at least live.  It was a good enough set that it made me want to check out their most recent album “Interiors.”  It’s still weird to me that the singer, Walter Schreifels, is the same dude from Gorilla Biscuits.

Next up was one of the bands I was most excited about –
Mutoid Man.  I saw them randomly on a whim at Hopscotch in 2016 and was blown away.  The three-piece came on stage this day wearing matching sleeveless tuxedo t-shirts, so it was scientifically impossible this wasn’t going to be a fun gig.  My best description of Mutoid Man is they’re a modern take on old-school eighties speed/power metal, somehow in on the joke but completely sincere at the same time.  Singer Steve Brodsky might be the happiest metal musician on the planet – he never stops smiling.  Yeah, their banter and song intros are a little canned and predictable, but they’re so damn good at what they do who the fuck cares.  Around the middle of their set they threw some shade at fellow festival band Great Van Fleet, dedicating their performance of part of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” to them.  I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence they played a song called “Bridgeburner” soon thereafter – this band doesn’t seem to give a shit about hurt feelings.  They ended their set with a bang, maybe the single best thing I saw all day – a cover of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” with new Baroness guitarist Gina Gleason taking on the Eddie Van Halen solos.  They even included all the mid-song banter, with some slight modifications.  If you like heavy music and don’t feel the need to take all this shit so seriously, never miss Mutoid Man if they’re ever playing near you.

So, speaking of
Greta Van Fleet…most of the time I’m a “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” person, but I can’t help myself here.  They were playing one of the two big stages, and a shitload of people there to see what might be the biggest buzz band at the whole festival.  I had heard they sounded like Led Zeppelin, but had never actually heard them – I love Robert Plant & co as much as the next guy raised on seventies classic rock, so that’s gotta be a good thing right?  Holy shit, they were DREADFUL.  Well, comically dreadful, as we had a good laugh for as long as we could stand it.  It felt like seeing a really terrible Led Zeppelin cover band that never got around to playing any actual Led Zeppelin songs – instead, we got nothing but shitty, mid-tempo originals that sounded like Zep minus the hooks and the talent.  They were even dressed like seventies rock rejects for fuck’s sake.  To be fair: the tiny singer could actually hit all those Robert Plant notes, which was probably the only impressive thing about them… even if he was mostly just saying “mama” over and over and over.  Unfortunately, the rest of the band couldn’t come within a 1000 yards of Page, Jones, and Bonham.  My friends and I most of the time looking at each other with “can you believe this shit?” eyes while laughing our ass off.  Somehow though we were in the minority as the crowd was, much to our amazement, really into it.  These people are going to be blown away if they ever get a chance to hear a copy of “Led Zeppelin II” or “Houses Of The Holy” at some point in their lives.   

GVF were the first in a long line of mid-day bands I had little interest in, but I knew that was going to be the case going in and just rolled with it.  We watched a few songs from
Code Orange, a band I’d never heard of that did that really screamy, aggro energy drink metal that I associate with shirtless bros and Juggalo types.  This performance had the first really serious pit I saw all day.  They had the rare combination of a drummer that was also the lead singer, but unfortunately they didn’t sound at all like the Romantics.  There was a lot of lurching from multiple band members everywhere on the stage, which was quite disorienting…and that’s gotta be hell on the back.  After that we watched a good amount of Clutch on one of the big stages.  They’re one of those bands that have been around forever and I have no particular opinion about them…just straight-forward heavy rock from some no-frills middle-aged dudes who have been doing this forever.  It was better than a lot we saw in the middle of the day, but not good enough to actually get excited about.  We then walked all the way back over to the other big stage to see some of the Struts, who I referred to as a modern day version of the London Quireboys, a comparison no one else seemed to get.  They did that typical bluesy/glam hard rock thing, with a singer that was basically a Mick Jagger impersonator - definitely not my bag but I’ve heard worse.   They would have probably been huge if this was 1986.

The day finally got interesting again with
the Sword…it’s not often you get to combine metal with Moog synths and a blonde guitarist wearing a Guayabera shirt that looks like he’d make more sense in a Beach Boys cover band.  I never know what to call the music they make – surf stoner metal maybe?  It’s pretty similar to whatever the hell it is that Fu Manchu also does.  They sound like a band that could have been playing in the background when Spicoli falls out of that VW van in a cloud of pot smoke in “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.”  We only caught a few songs, but they were a good few songs.  Probably a band better viewed in a small, dingy rock club though, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Before this festival, I don’t think I’d ever given much thought to seeing
Billy Idol live - but now that I’ve seen him, I’m damn glad I did.  His voice might not be what it once was, but the energy and performance from both him and the band (especially guitar god Steve Stevens, who is still a wizard) more than made up for it.  There’s always some worry in seeing a classic artist, worry that the set list will have too much “new” material that no one gives a shit about, and not enough of the classics.  When you’re talking about a 45 minute long festival window though, Idol smartly just went with what the people wanted - hit after hit after hit…and he has a lot of hits.  Sometimes you might forget what a great song “Dancing With Myself” is, and this was a terrific reminder.  The acoustic-to-electric version of “White Wedding” as the encore was terrific, as was Stevens busting out his iconic Top Gun theme in the middle of one of Idol’s tracks.  We also saw a girl trying to crowd surf, only to beef it straight to her face and have to be helped out.  Knock it off with the stupid crowd surfing, people – it’s one inconsiderate person denying a ton of people the opportunity to watch the show they paid a lot of money to see for fear of being kicked in the head.

After waiting for Incubus to finish their caterwauling, my most anticipated act of the whole day was upon us –
Baroness.  Despite my high expectations, they still managed to surpass them.  Like Mutoid Man I also saw them randomly at Hopscotch a couple of years back, was completely blown away, and have since listened to their 2015 album “Purple” obsessively.  Luckily, they played A LOT of that record, and from the crowd reaction I’m not the only one who has been feasting on that release.  I mentioned her appearance during Mutoid Man, but holy shit it needs to be mentioned how hard Gina fucking shreds the guitar – any Neanderthals out there still harboring the idea that women can’t play guitar as well as a man needs to witness this woman and then punch yourself in the face for being so stupid.  All of the harmonized solos between her and singer John Baizley were perfection - you’d think she has been with the band forever, not just a few months.  This is also where I mention what a goddamn trip it is that their drummer, Sebastian Thomson, is also in the synth band Trans Am.  The pairing shouldn’t make any sense on paper, but he definitely makes it work – it helps that he is a machine behind the kit.  The forty minutes or so that Baroness played breezed by, I would have happily taken twice that.  Let’s hope the new record isn’t too far off, and in support of that a tour date somewhere in the Triangle.  Though I’ll gladly travel much farther to see them again.

We had one last act to see this night,
Queens Of The Stone Age, but whether it was tired legs or brains melted from the glory of Baroness, it sorta felt like a chore.  Also, we were 132 miles from the stage (approximately).  Don’t get me wrong, they sounded great, and were playing a lot of older songs from their seminal album “Songs For The Deaf” which is really all I wanted to hear, but the heart wants what it wants, and mine wanted to leave this dust pit for more comfortable environs.  After about a half-dozen songs, it was time to make the mile walk back to the parking lot…I’ve never been happier to sit in a car in my entire life.  All in all, a day well spent – the music was good more often than not, the weather wasn’t too bad, there were a lot of ridiculous people to look at, and most importantly I got to spend some quality time with a couple of good friends, something that doesn’t happen nearly often enough in adulthood. 

Built To Spill / The Afghan Whigs at the Cat’s Cradle - 4/28/2018

Built To Spill
With The Afghan Whigs
Cat’s Cradle

Built To Spill is easily one of my all-time favorites…there’s no more than a couple of bands that I’ve seen live more than them (thanks in part to frequent four-night stints at Slims and/or Great American Music Hall in my former home of San Francisco, where I went to multiple performances most times).  I’m there every time they come through town, and gladly.  With all that said, there is no way in hell they should have been headlining over Afghan Whigs.  You get no frills with BTS – tonight it was just Doug Martsch, his guitar, a shitload of pedals and electronics, and those same two young dudes that have been working as his rhythm section for the last few tours.  There’s no fancy backdrops, no elaborate lighting, almost no banter with the crowd – just the man, the songs, and a lot of guitar solos.  What the band lacks in personality, they more than make up with it via a particular strong setlist this evening – since there was no new album to promote, they decided to focus heavily on their first few records - particularly from their two best, “Perfect From Now On” and “Keep It Like A Secret.”  They also included a cover of the Pretender’s “Back On The Chain Gang,” which Doug more than made his own.  I’d love for them to put out  an entire record of covers, every tour there are at least one or two great ones in the set.  For a big fan like me, Built To Spill undoubtedly put on a damn fine show, but I’m not sure it won any of the fans of Afghan Whigs over.  To be fair, given that nearly all of them left right after the Whigs finished, it would have been an especially difficult task. 

As you’re already aware, the
Afghan Whigs opened.  It was mostly the same as when I saw them at Hopscotch last year – matching amps, drums, and backdrop all covered with the graphics from their most recent release “In Spades,” and a set made mostly of songs from their two post-reunion albums.  The thing with the Whigs is that if you’re like me and don’t really know most of the new songs that well, they’re still damn fun to watch (and it will definitely make you want to give those most recent records a second listen).  Greg Dulli and company aren’t just musicians, they’re performers – the sound is big and professional and animated and really fills the room.  They didn’t play only new material – “What Jail Is Like,” Somethin’ Hot,” and “John The Baptist” were a few classic highlights, along with a couple Twilight Singers tracks and a brief foray into Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer” during their final song (a favorite tactic of Dulli: instead of doing a full cover, he’ll do part of one of middle of a Whig’s songs…and it always works, no matter how different the two tracks are).  As always it was a masterful performance from the band, one deserving of the final slot no matter how big of a Built To Spill one might be. 

Superchunk / The Rock*A*Teens at the Cat’s Cradle - 4/27/2018

With The Rock*A*Teens
Cat’s Cradle

I was in line to enter the Cat’s Cradle at 9:05, and I could hear the
Rock*A*Teens already playing.  Really loving that this club is starting shit right on time, but I guess I’ve got to do a better job at showing up on time.  I last saw them four years ago at Merge 25, and while I never considered myself a big fan I enjoyed that gig.  I felt the same way on this night; I don’t think this is because the band has changed that much, but rather my tastes have slightly shifted.  I guess I do listen to a lot more jangle pop these days, and the Rock*A*Teens are kind of a slightly garage rock-ish version of that pop sound that Athens has been doing so well for four decades now (this is where I point out this band is from Atlanta, right next to Athens, for those unaware).  Surprisingly, the band actually has their first new record in almost two decades, “Sixth House,” coming out in a couple of months, and the new songs they played from this really worked for me.  Also, they’re a five piece now…or were they always a five piece and my brain isn’t functioning probably?  Either is equally possible.

It’s always pretty full at the Cradle for
Superchunk shows, but it feels like it’s been a while since they actually sold the place out, especially way in advance.  I’m sure it has everything to do with all of the positive press they’ve gotten on their excellent new record “What A Time To Be Alive,” reminding many older fans who haven’t gone out and seen them in a while that it might be time to see Superchunk live again.  The new record is easily their most upbeat/angry/aggro since their first few offerings in the early nineties, and these new songs lend themselves greatly to a fantastic live experience.  One huge difference from the early nineties though – no matter how fast the songs are, this collection of (mostly) bald, slightly overweight dudes in their late thirties to late forties ain’t moshing no more.   The crowd was way into it, lots of singing along to the hits like always, just with way less aggression.  The last thing the world needs is another long-winded, fawning review of a Superchunk show from the likes of me, but trust me when I say this was one of their best performances in quite a few years.  Also, they played “On The Mouth,” their best b-side of all time, and any time they play that song it’s a good gig.

Two noteworthy moments during their performance:
1.  Jim Wilbur, while Mac was tuning: “If you’re tuning, I’m talking – the people want content!”
2.  During the final encore song “Fishing,” Mac replaced drummer Jon Wurster mid-song and Jon took over as front man.  He then proceeded to sing a medley of songs, including some Connells and Black Flag’s “My War”; he then somehow lost the mic, and, naturally, finished the song by singing unsuccessfully into the mic cord.  The man is a goddamn treasure.