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.