Friday, May 21, 2010


with Avi Buffalo, Lasers and Fast and Shit
April 10, 2010 at Lincoln Hall
Chicago, IL

How many musicians does it take to make a rock band?  Time was, maybe 30 years ago, the answer was pretty reliably, "four, give or take."  Guitar + guitar + bass + drums.  Done.  These days, plenty of 'bands' make a living on as little as two, and sometimes even one (with computerized accompaniment.)  In light of this, it can often be useful to consider what a band is able to accomplish given the number of performers it drags on stage.  The first of Japandroids' two opening acts, Lasers and Fast and Shit took the stage with a standard rock 4 piece set up (see above), yet barely managed anything remotely interesting, progressing lock-step and hammering onto the same notes all at once, and screaming vocals to overcompensate for (or embellish) their brash inelegance. There's only so much you can do with smash 'n grab rock, and LnFnS play music too simple to be metal, yet too boring to be much of anything else.  Given their dopily-juvenile band name, it seems clear that this is all by design, but you can definitely color me uninterested.

Avi Buffalo presented an even less enviable problem.  Announcing that it was their first show in Chicago, they began with nicely evocative lyrics, each phrase discernible, every word understandable (already an ugly juxtaposition with their predecessors.)  And it was pretty alright, but... huh?  It just didn't fit.  Sandwiched in between two hard-rocking guitar outfits was a band perfectly content to dole out four-minute slices of easy-listening, vaguely artful soft indie rock.  Just when you thought you were doomed to 30 minutes of staccato piano trill,  however, they smashed a hard rockin' outro, and everyone briefly took notice. The band had a blend of friendly, non threatening pop and capacity to almost-shred at a moment's notice. Eventually, though, the band's restraint came into full view. The crowd was disinterested, and my thoughts too turned to whom to pin this crime on.  Someone out there was guilty of booking this band to open for Japandroids, and their guilt had now been foisted onto this capable but outmatched little outfit from California.  Put this band in front of The Swell Season and they'll probably bring the house down. So--who's the asshole? Japandroids for booking them?  That's my vote.  Not cool, dudes.  Whether you genuinely like and want to promote 'em or not, this band is not a match for you, and you should know better.

In the last decade or so, the rock duo has  progressed from am occasional novelty to a grand and noble tradition. From the White Stripes to the Black Keys to DFA1979 and Local H (who were at the vanguard,) dozens of bands have proved what is possible with a guitar (or a bass) and a set of drums. Not surprisingly, the music produced by these groups has almost uniformly tended towards irreverent, boozy bluesy-rock.  Suitably sloppy and powerful, Japandroids quickly found a place for themselves. For those not fan-boyish enough to know the the difference (myself included,) they looked awfully familiar up on stage, both tall in black t-shirts and with bushy, curly brown hair. A box fan had been placed at the front of the stage, and the effect of the lead singers hair blowing wildly up while back-lit was a little corny, but not too off-putting.  Likewise, a smoke machine positioned directly under the drummers riser gave the illusion of a massive percussion ass-cloud every 5 minutes or so.  Not particularly spectacular execution by the Lincoln Hall crew.

Japandroids played the entirety of their most recent record "Post-Nothing," filling out their set-list with assorted singles and one-offs, as well as a copious smattering of covers. This is the dillemma of a touring band with only one legitimately recognizable album to its credit.  I while I'm not gonna pretend I recognized all of them right off the bat (I don't know who sings "Racer X," even though they said it when they introduced it,) but in general they were well chosen and well received.

The band played mostly well, although I did take issue with a few choices in the performance. One in particular I have experienced more than once--don't record the song with the high-pitched vocal if you don't plan to attempt it that way live. Do you think Kings of Leon would get away with doing 'Sex on Fire' to a packed stadium in a lower register?  I don't think so.  Acknowledge the sing-along factor and sing it how it sounds on the record.

As the evening neared its close. the band began to run out of songs.  They apparently felt the need to apologize for "I Quit Girls;" I've no idea why, as it's a great song and standout on the record. Not surprisingly, the band then had the balls to forgo the typical BS of leaving the stage and announced the encore in advance, which was another cover (Mclusky's "To Hell with Good Intentions.")

Japandroids are a fine band with some amazing songs that simply don't translate 100% to a live setting.  Doubly true in a mid-sized venue like Lincoln Hall, suitable for accompanying their growing fan base but not ideal in terms of conveying a loud, raucous atmosphere. (Empty Bottle or Metro would have probably done them better.)  Like a lot of rough-around-the-edges bands, their best shows may well be behind them, but it's not for their lack of trying.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Fiery Furnaces

with Cryptacize

December 31st, 2009 at Lincoln Hall
Chicago, IL

When the Fiery Furnaces announced they would playing be in Chicago for New Year's Eve, a wave of pure joy came over me, and I cracked a smile that was at least a mile wide. Full disclosure, here--the Furnaces are my favorite band, bar none. I've been a mini-fanboy since Blueberry Boat (which, to be fair, wasn't as long ago as their voluminous output since might suggest, released in '04.) Championed early and mightily by Pitchfork, the band has only further endeared itself to me by remaining true to their singularly frenetic and tuneful vision, and never backing down from their whims (Rehearsing My Choir, which was built around vocals by the duo's husky-voiced, elderly grandmother, probably cost them a massive chunk of fans, yet it's my favorite of their albums.)

Doubly fantastic was the fact the the Furnaces would be playing Lincoln Hall, a new venue in Lincoln Park which I'd not had the opportunity to check out yet. For a NYE show, tickets were ridiculously cheap. I secured a few guests to accompany me, and It was a done deal. I was off to the races.

It was colder than a witches tit on Halloween in Chicago on New Year's Eve. Somewhere around fifteen degrees, and the wind was blowing hard. The high-perched El stops were exercises in endurance and stamina, and the warmth drained out much more quickly than it came back. Yeah, it was cold. But we made it, taking the Blue line down, to Brown line up, and arrived at the venue about twenty minutes past 9.

Now, the show was billed as three acts--The Smith Westerns, Cryptacize, then the Furnaces. I know this because I received somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty or so emails from Lincoln Hall announcing the set time and line-up additions. Now, granted, we arrived around 20 minutes late, which any concert-goer will tell you is plenty early, as I've never once been to a show that started right at the announced time (let alone on NYE.) But, around 10 pm, Cryptacize took the stage. Did the Smith Westerns play? If they did, it was the shortest set in the history of rock & roll. Either way, it was fine. Cryptacize was good-not-great, a suitable opener, maybe a little sleepy at times.

Lincoln Hall had been born out of the building which had formerly housed the Three Penny Cinema, which had been out of commission for some time (the famous Biograph is right across the street.) Seeing it for the first time, I must say I was impressed. Following in the trend of incorporating a slight restaurant vibe to live-music venues (see: Schuba's, LH's sister club, et al.) We waited for a bit , but all was well. Bud drafts were $3. Throughout the night, LH proved capable of splitting the difference well; the front bar and dining area remained occupied, and the stage area, a large, separate room with an accompanying expansive balcony, was a fine place to see the music. I will jump at future chances to see bands here, no doubt about it.

The Furnaces are known for blending up and reinterpreting their tunes at their live shows, and tonight was no exception. In a slightly-irking move, Matt, the brother of the duo, chose to tackle the show with guitar only, forgoing keyboards entirely. Though the set list seemed chosen appropriately (no doubt purposefully) for this, I will say that the piano lines on the records are often pretty integral to the songs. Even though most of the tunes were reconfigured to accommodate this, a few of the hooky keyboard parts from the records would have hit the spot. But this is a small complaint, as if I were forced to choose, I would quickly and gladly prefer the Furnaces always fun and spectacularly musical reworking of tunes to straight up interpretations. By a mile. So file that under "minor quibble."

Eleanor Friedberger is undoubtedly one of the most under-heard and under-appreciated vocalists in rock (all the more reason to support the band--she could have made a mint in a lot of others by now). It's always remarkable to watch the ease which which the Furnaces rifle through their crazily hyped-up and wonky reworkings. Even more so now, as "I'm Going Away" features what most would dub some of the Furnaces most accessible and poppy tracks. Not so much on stage, as tempos are altered, sequence goes right out the window, and just about anything else you can imagine goes topsy-turvy as well. It really is enough to make your head spin, particularly if you're trying to keep up, or (God help you) sing along. But a lot of the enjoyment of their performances is marveling at the mind-boggling jumbling and juggling of the original songs. This being NYE, they obligingly did a few straight-up bars of "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight, and some confetti fell. In all honestly, we were well in the bag by then, but it was a transcendently boozy moment of bliss. We toasted our plastic champagne flutes and swayed along for the rest of the set, which could have gone on forever, for all I cared. It was after 1 o'clock when they finished, but the set somehow still felt too short.

The record might be called "I'm Going Away," but I certainly hope they don't, nor can I imagine that they would. Like most of my favorite bands, the Fiery Furnaces seem to have enough pent-up creativity to see them through about a dozen more albums, at least. And, as if our evenings greatness thus far had not enough, as we milled about at the bar after the show, Matt and Eleanor made their way up front to pack up the merch, and I somehow got a hug from her, and autographs (on server's notepads) from both. How 'bout that? I bet I blushed a little. So what's the lesson here? That it's OK to be a fanboy sometimes, I guess. And that there are still bands out there worthy of such rabid devotion, and ready, willing and able to earn it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dirty Projectors

with tUnE-YaRdS

November 13th, 2009 at The Bottom Lounge
Chicago, IL

The Bottom Lounge, a lesser cousin to Chicago's more seasoned big-indie clubs like Metro and Empty Bottle, scored quite a coup by landing Dirty Projector's only Chicago stop on their tour for the already-guilded Album of the Year sureshot Bitte Orca (excepting their free set at Millennium Park earlier this Summer.)

When the show finally kicked off, a full hour later than the posted time of 9 pm (an annoyingly obvious attempt by the Lounge to cash in on this larger-than-usual Friday night audience and sell a few extra beers,) lone opener tUnE-YaRdS (her character inflection, not mine) took the stage with a bass player accompanist. The brainchild of front-woman Merrill Garbus, she quickly endeared herself to the crowd, donning an over-sized ukelele and flanked by a floor tom and snare drum. With so many artists now fulfilling the promise of looping equipment, it takes something interesting to stand out from the pack, and Garbus' caffeinated wizardry did not disappoint. Something like Paul Simon by way of the Fugees, by way of the Lion King soundtrack, she alternated brassy, sing-songy vocal blasts with diva-inflected, belting punctuations, navigating a microphone from drum to mouth, building layered loops of rhythm and vocal harmony on top of each other, and then harmonizing back over the top live. A great mood setter, tUnE-YaRdS was soulful, playful and joyful. All the "'fuls." Full, in fact. Just very.. full.

Then came Dirty Projectors. Dave Longstreth's band has built itself quickly into one of indie's "biggest things," due in no small part to this year's Bitte Orca, a record which, for me at least, has already burrowed itself so deeply into the pantheon of the great rock documents of the millennium that their previous record, Rise Above, which had formerly been regarded as DP's breakout record (and which remains quite a formidable achievement in its own right) somehow now feels light years away. Indeed, the band's set list drew only minimally from that record, as the majority of the night was spent devoted to Bitte Orca and its accompanying, newer odds and ends.

I had seen flashes of the Projectors' greatness earlier this year at their aforementioned Millennium Park performance this Summer. However, much as I love that venue and the opportunities for free music it has provided in Chicago, it generally does a disservice to rock bands, forcing many a non-festival/non-stadium style band to project themselves out hundreds of feet to an audience they are used to having just an arms-length away. The Bottom Lounge is no sardine can; they can easily accommodate Empty Bottle-sized crowds, but the change of venue predictably enhanced the effect of the show, which was similar in many ways (albeit longer) to the set they had played at Millennium. Longstreth first took the stage solo to perform a new song. Then the band joined him (Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, Longstreth's go-to featured accompanists, as well as recent vocalist addition Haley Dekle, and bass and drums.) From there on out, it was night and day, and the Dirty Projectors lived up to their hype with commanding authority.

Having already been crowned the undisputed heirs-apparent to the Talking Heads, the comparison has further cemented itself by virtue of the blessing of David Byrne, who invited the band to play at his curated stage at Bonnaroo, and even collaborated with them on their recent standout addition to this year's all-star Dark was the Night compilation. True enough, Dirty Projectors don't seem too interested in dispelling the idea (why should they be?) If anything, they seem to have taken it as a call to arms. The vocal acrobatics displayed by Deradoorian and Coffman (and now Dekle) are without precedent; on "Remade Horizon," they hoot back and forth at each other like cartoon owls, with such flair and precision that I find myself awestruck when they don't hyperventilate (or at least launch into a debilitating paralysis of hiccups.) Handed down by Longstreth, these vocals could be considered downright sadistic if he didn't subject himself to the equally high-flying guitar riffs that he does. The combination of these elements, as well as the suitably bombastic drumming, gel into a spectacular cohesion of enmeshed textures and rhythmic flavors. For all their on paper noodly-ness, Dirty Projectors end product is funky, fast and powerful, and rock music through and through. Not unlike, yes.. the Heads. Though the set featured mostly straight-up interpretations of Bitte Orca's songs, an acoustic reworking of "The Bride," complete with Bull Fiddle bass, provided a tantalizing glimpse of waters the band has not yet tread. Something tells me Longstreth will never long be at a loss for ideas.

Dirty Projectors 2009 is a band at the heart of their soon to be legendary powers. They get all the intangibles right; an easy peg that actually holds water ("the new Heads,") a sprawling, co-ed lineup, and most of all Longstreth out in front; head bobbing like the world's tallest pigeon, pulling the strings and hitting all the right notes. And, if they keep writing songs like "Stillness is the Move," they could easily be racking up the crossover hits in no time (it's almost a wonder the song hasn't already garnered more mainstream play; perhaps a deliberate choice by Domino Records?) It's worth saying a prayer that nothing unforeseen derails this band on their way to further greatness (I may be way off base, but Deradoorian particularly seemed almost depressed throughout the entire show; hopefully just an off night, or the residual effects of the touring life.) Otherwise, I look forward with great anticipation to the music Dirty Projectors have in store for us. There's no guarantee that Longstreth will have the staying power of David Byrne, but as his protege, he has certainly proven that he has the potential.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Daniel Johnston

with Tiny Masters of Today, Ralston Bowles

August 15, 2009 at The Metro
Chicago, IL

It was muggy in Chicago, and Wrigleyville was a ghost town on a hot Saturday night as I made my way down Clark street and into the Metro. The initial opener Ralston Bowles was genial and a good mood setter, offering his mellow songs and imparting some warm and genuine praise for Daniel as he related a few of his own memories of Chicago.

I knew nothing of Tiny Masters of Today until they bumbled on stage, whereupon I quickly estimated the combined age of the three band members to be somewhere around 25 (with a combined weight of about 200 pounds.) As it turned out, I wasn't that far off. The band is a brother/sister duo (w/ non-relative drummer accompaniment,) ages 9 and 13. The sister,
younger of the two, alternated between wrestling with an electric bass (which threatened to topple her at any moment) and simply singing. I swear I caught a glint of her braces.

Having heard some of the band's recordings since (and also browsed their all-too-professional web page,) I can see why some might be tempted to enjoy music like this. But live, the band was listless, unenergetic and totally dull. Their vaguely rocking tunes are sadly emblematic of a certain newly resurgent genre of rock making it's home in Brooklyn, NY. Call it 'yawncore? The brother, older and taller, with stringy hair and Jag Stang guitar, appeared bored, and his guitar style was equally rough around the edges. Close your eyes before the vocal kicks in, and it's easily Kurt Cobain and Chad whats-his-name circa 'Bleach.' To be fair, perhaps the only way this type of bare-bones music can be considered acceptable is when it's coming from prepubescents. But alas, their custom screenprinted bass drum head could not save them. Anyone but an audience of Daniel Johnston fans would have torn them to shreds.

Finally they exited, and Daniel was next. The dull drone of Tiny Masters gave way to the bright strums of Daniel's tiny custom guitar. His stage hands had set out five or six cold water bottles on the small table next to his music stand, but he carried a cluster of cold Diet Coke cans dangling from a six-pack ring as he walked on stage. Daniel was visibly nervous, shakily adjusting his mic stand, and his arms trembled heavily as his enormous hands clumsily clamped down on the chords. I'm guessing he can't finger the accordion anymore, and there was none present on stage, nor any piano. Johnston managed his way through a few newer ones and a few older ones, clearly laboring a bit, until he invited a guitar player (whom he introduced as an old college friend) to
join him on stage. With Johnston now in charge of only vocals, he was visibly more relaxed, and so was I. Much as I completely admire Daniel's determination to give us our money's worth, it was a little nerve-wracking to watch him struggle. His voice is his primary instrument now, and it's as beautiful and haunting as it ever was.

The audience at the Metro seemed to be keenly aware of the apparent fragility of the performance, as well as genuinely entertained, and the room applauded wildly at the conclusion of every song. Though there were the requisite two or three tactless idiot non-fans screaming nonsense (a brief aside; where do these people come from?? Why are they at these shows? I will never forget the fratboys who stood in front of me screaming "CUBS IN FIIIIIIVE!!" at John Darnielle at a recent Mountain Goats show.) Daniel and his guitar companion led the crowd in a rousing singalong of the Beatles "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," before stepping off for a brief break, after which he returned with.... Oh no! The Tiny Masters??

And so it was; Daniel up front, seemingly oblivious to the weirdness of the conglomerate of musicians, the Tiny Masters and the acoustic guitar guy trading not-all-that-comfortable glances at eachother to make sure everybody was in step. The band was lousy, and they played over the vocal a bit. It was all a little amateurish; in short, the kind of gig Johnston would have been comfortable playing as a young man in Austin in '91. These days, with pot belly and puma sweats, tangles of silver-gray hair, and his illness long-since diagnosed and broadcast to the world, the heart-on-sleeve rawness of his youthful early recordings have a very tangible twinge of sadness about them. And the audience, acutely aware, applauded perhaps a bit over-emphatically in an attemot to compensate.

A few notable absentees from the set-list (Walking the Cow, Sorry Entertainer) would seem to hint that perhaps a bit of the old stuff is too much for Daniel these days. Or maybe he's just forgotten some. Either way, it's a bit of a strange scene, these tiny children on stage with a manchild who must seem to them like a long-lost crazy uncle, accompanists with no clue or interest in his genius and largely paying no regard. But, they played on.