Monday, April 24, 2006

Scissor Sisters, 4.23.06, Bowery Ballroom

by Charlotte Deaver

This was the best show I've ever been to. No exaggeration. The Scissor Sisters are in my life forever, and in attitude, spirit, and sexual/political ethics, the world would be a very different and much better place if they were in everyone's life.

Last night the band was so hot, as they always are (apparently -- this was my first time seeing them) and the crowd was on. We couldn't get enough of them, and they were just loving us back. Every song ripped. I was so gone, just high with life and music, dancing my ass off. Ana, my new goddess, singled me out of the audience and said something like "you, miss thing, are having the best time, aren't you?" "Me?!" I squeaked. "Yes, you. Everyone, give it up for the lady in the black glasses." I hooted and hollered as I twirled around to get my props.

Of course I fell in love with Jack, too, who is just a beautiful force of nature. Between the two of them, what more could anyone want? Except more, of course. They really do share the stage, create one huge, throbbing force field of music and energy. And the sexual empowerment they generate is crazy. I can see how their shows could truly be life-transforming and liberating. "We have to exercise our rights!" as Ana says. Yes, ma'am. Looking forward. . .

And below, the amazing Leslie Hall, Keeper of the Gems.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Weepies, 4.22.06, Living Room

by Charlotte Deaver

I was so excited about seeing Deb Talan for the first time a couple of years ago, having recently discovered her first two CDs and being astonished that she wasn't more popular. The show back then was a bit of a letdown, as I wrote about here, because she played only a few of her songs and put most of her effort into supporting the band she was opening for, The Weepies, fronted by Steve Tannen.

This time around, though, now that they really are one band (and one couple, btw), these two just seemed amazingly tuned in to each others' voices and musicianship. Deb has transformed both her own and the band's music by incorporating her solo stuff, as well as Steve's, into their live performances. Their songs are delicate, lilting, Deb's voice is charged and full, but subtle, all about texture, and about stroking the melody with her voice, and their harmonies simply melt into one another. Deb also happens to look great -- gorgeous and sexy, something I hadn't particularly noticed before, and has lost a lot of the girlishness she's demonstrated in the past.

With their recent release, Say I Am You, these two singer/songwriters have made deeply emotional, tender music that displays their combined respect for the simple structures of "the popular song" (Joni, Free Man in Paris), but also for nuance. While they rely upon folk/pop, singer/songwriter devices and conventions, their melodic and tonal shadings are just magical. I've been listening to the songs "The World Spins Madly On" and "Gotta Have You" since their release a few months ago and love them, but I just got the full CD. And it does not disappoint. There are lots of great songs on it, including "Riga Girls," "Suicide Blonde," "Love Doesn't Last," and "Take It From Me."

Check out their myspace site, listen to their interview on WNYC, and Buy their CD here.

Elbow, 4.20.06, Webster Hall

by Charlotte Deaver

Elbow might seem a little too slick for some. They can come across as such stable fellows, such mature pros, and their songs require precision from each instrument for their music to be as effective as it can. This is partly because although you want to notice the band, what you really want to do is close your eyes and focus on Guy Garvey's voice. I think he might have the most beautiful, perfect male voice on the planet. Okay, hyperbole, I know, but this is a blog, for god's sake! And that's how it feels when I'm listening to him. His voice just kills me.

Elbow's set at Webster Hall on Thursday night was very similar to the one at Hiro Ballroom last year (read my post from November here). This time, though, Guy was ambulatory (he had hurt his leg and was using a cane last time, when he walked at all), and the venue was, of course, completely different. Hiro is pretty small, more of a showcase venue, and allows for intimacy that a band isn't going to play Webster to achieve, while Webster is closer to an arena-type venue. It's kind of merciless; it likes to swallow bands up, which it often does, but if you get over at Webster you can probably play anywhere.

It didn't, as I was a little concerned might happen, swallow up Elbow. They had us hollaring for more, from way up front to way, way back. I was lucky enough to make the rounds of the club throughout the set, and except for one moment when Guy tried to get everyone clapping (I winced a little at that), their performance, their material, and Guy's voice were making our little world inside Webster Hall that night very happy.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Antietam, 4.14.06, Mercury Lounge

by Charlotte Deaver

I'm getting to this a week late (!), but last Friday night I saw one of my favorite bands, Antietam, at Mercury Lounge.

I love them mostly because of the axis around which they revolve: guitar "goddess," Tara Key. This woman is deeply connected to her guitar -- to its sounds and touch, how it rocks and jams, how it distorts, the nice, high Les Paul neck. Watching her and listening to her play, it's easy to fall into "Tara worship," revering an amazing woman who plays guitar like no-one else, and who has held a band together for decades. But that rock star reverence is diffused, nicely and appropriately, by her whole musical sensibility, which is about participating in the pleasure, not idolizing it.

This sensibility was particularly evident on Friday night because the entire line up of bands and musicians have known each other and played together for years. Red Eyed Legends, a punk band from Chicago, are friends with the evening's headliner, Eleventh Dream Day, as CD hawker and bassist Jason Dummeldinger told me. Headed by Tara's old friend and collaborator, Rick Rizzo, Eleventh Dream Day followed Antietam with hard, jamming, Zuma-like rock and roll. Their set felt like one long "Cortez the Killer," only live and playful.

Both Tara and Rick play Les Pauls, so it was fun watching them duel it out together, as the bands interchanged members throughout the evening. Sue Garner also helped out Antietam with keys and vocals, adding to the spirit of community generated by so much camaraderie. But don't think that the night was all about peace, love, and understanding -- oh no. These bands were here to play.

Last week in the Sunday New York Times, Bruce Springsteen makes an implicit distinction between rock and roll as he's trying to describe his current band: "There's no straight two-and-four, no rock tempos. This band rolls." Antietam does both, I think, and that's one of the reason they are so good. Some songs display crafted riffs and melodies, cutting to the quick in driving 2/4, while others maintain extended grooves that allow for Tara to blaze away, sometimes soloing madly, but often just stretching a single note until, to borrow another's lines, "it sounds the way she feels."

Next time I see them, I'm taking my own damn pictures (I forgot my camera! Thank you, Dawn Madell, for this picture of Tara at SXSW!) and posting the very same night! If, after getting blown away by both the rock AND the roll, I can still see straight.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

86 Noodles, Urban Glass, 4.15.06

by Charlotte Deaver

I discovered that Chris Gordon was a poet when I first saw him front his band, St. Christopher and the Sleeping Doormen, where he integrates different musical styles including punk, rock and some nice, long, funky rhymes. I also knew he performed in another hip hop group, 86 Noodles, with DJ Bobafet on beats, and T-Nasty and Skitzofrenik the Crazy working the rhymes.

Skitzo, of course, might prefer MF Doom and the Beastie Boys, while St. Christopher goes for Art Brut and The Ramones, and reconciling these somewhat opposite musical genres is, of course, simply out of the question. Why? Well, because Chris's world seems to be populated by many personas. He jumps around from "self" to "self," character to character, like a big, long theater piece. And why not? Why settle on some idea of a core identity? Why do we often think identity needs to be easily discernible, consistent, and safe?

I'm riffing here a little much, I know, on an idea that doesn't really have much to do with 86 Noodles, who just want to funk and rhyme, and get the audience to shake their butts. Which they did last Saturday night at Urban Glass. Although I think only two of us actually danced (what can I say for us white people?!), everyone was, yet again, having a great time.

Live Girls!!!, a crazy-ass punk band, played before 86 Noodles. The three guys in the band wore dresses and huge, messy wigs, while the two front women on guitars had, by the end of the set, ripped their clothes off, simulated sexual acts, and trashed their equipment. Nice. I wasn't expecting that, and I dug it. Thanks, Live Girls!!!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Art Brut, 4.11.06, Southpaw

by Charlotte Deaver

Before each upcoming song, after having chatted about it a bit, Eddie Argos turns to his band and asks, "Ready, Art Brut? Ready, Jasper?" Okay, c'mon now. Let's go, then, Art Brut."

These are rhetorical questions, of course, because Art Brut could not be more ready. And neither could its fans. Last night at Southpaw, there was moshing, crowd-surfing, insane fist-pumping and shouting along with the lyrics, and of course, the now-expected tour through the audience by Unstoppable, Top-Of-The-Pops Eddie.

It was a night of pure punk love.

Art Brut was great the last time I saw them, in November at Northsix. I missed the Bowery shows due to scheduling conflicts, but the word is that if you were only able to catch them play once this time around, the Southpaw gig certainly did the trick.

The difference between Art Brut last year and Art Brut now is not too vast. If they've changed much, after their label-signing, increased popularity, and mad touring schedule, they've changed for the better. The band is even tighter and more dynamic, with Ian Catskilkin and Jasper Future flying about the stage as they hold onto clean, spiky guitar licks. And unlike many acrobatic musicians, they don't come across as posers; these are sincere punk antics -- not angry, but jubilant. They are simply spending their youth, and spending it well. Bassist Freddy Feedback stands much steadier, as does Mikey D, the drummer (and, as you might notice from the photos, he really does stand!), in respectful service to rhythm and bottom.

I was right underneath Eddie for the first half (now, now, it's not like that) and moved back just in time to be swept up into all the moshing and surfing. At first I resisted a little, not quite sure if I wanted to get killed by a swarm of thrashing youth. But then I let myself go. I felt a guy's body above me (really, it's not like that!) and passed him along happily, as I continued to smash into the kids and howl, as we all were, for more and more.

One of the great things about Art Brut is their lack of bullshit, cynicism, and snobbery. They are clever, but don't assume that annoying air of being hipper-than-thou: "And yes, this is my singing voice, it's not irony, it's not Rock and Roll, we're just talking, to the Kids." When I was buying a t-shirt earlier from Jasper, I accidentally knocked into some guy with my elbow. Realizing that it was the same guy I had knocked into on my way in, of course I apologized, although it was a harmless bump in an extremely crowded club. But the guy snapped something nasty back at me, like "watch your elbows." I just smiled, inside wishing I hadn't, after all, apologized, and Jasper gave me the sweetest conspiratorial wink, along with two thumbs up, as I left the table. As I said, this band is definitely not from Williamsburg. (Wait, is that what I said?!)

Towards the end of the set (the last encore maybe? Did they do "Formed a Band" for their second encore? Oy. I just can't be certain), Eddie asked the audience if we remembered that last year he "ordered" each one of us to form a band. He has a very good memory, he threatened. And now he's back. And he wants to know, "Are you in a band?" "Are YOU in a band?" "And YOU?" "ARE YOU IN A BAND??!!" Well, are you?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Returning to Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters, and all things Mark Kozelek

By Charlotte Deaver

I'm sorry, but I can't wait until May 24th (Bowery Ballroom) to write about Mark Kozelek.

Every few months or so (sometimes less) I get into a listening groove that carries only the music of his various bands and solo efforts. It wasn't even very long ago that I got into his stuff, for years not having listened to much new music that wasn't radio-friendly. Tim, who usually prefers other kinds of music (e.g. salsa, gospel, renaissance choral music), came home with "Songs from a Blue Guitar" one night, having fallen for it hard at his yoga class. I was pretty dismissive at first (something he never lets me forget!). Such boy bands as Incubus, Chevelle, Vertical Horizon, John Mayer, Nickelback, and Tool had been holding my attention at the time. (Now, to an Indie lover, I have just outed myself BIG time. But I continue to stand by my pop and adolescent sensibilities. A good song will always be a good song, indie or otherwise, and I've never claimed to be hip. Just passionate.) I finally gave Red House Painters another listen, and this time, the floodgates opened quickly and furiously.

We tracked down just about every recording we could find, and saw Sun Kil Moon play an amazing show at Bowery Ballroom for the "Ghosts of the Great Highway" tour. Already melancholy, swooning music, at least three guitars and two other stringed instruments would hold on to the same chord, with subtle variations, to create a heartbreakingly lush sound. They played until all hours of the night, and as snarky as Mark can be, he was not in too bad a mood. Sure, he threatened an audience-member who was taking pictures, and snapped caustically at us when he felt like it, but he also twinkled with wise-cracks and played just about every song the audience requested.

The next time I saw him play solo, though, he was quite the kvetch. He told us that he had thought he wouldn't have to do madcap solo gigs like this to earn a living anymore, and that he really had hoped he'd be famous by now (a sentiment he echoes in this interview and impromptu performance, video-taped by Culture Catch). I kept thinking, wait, you're complaining about filling up the Bowery Ballroom with people who adore your music? Huh? He seemed to be doing almost everything he could to alienate us, and ended up walking off stage a little irritated.

It was a little bit of a let down, especially after having seen him be both ornery AND so good in the past. But part of the appeal of Mark Kozelek's music is that there is something disturbing about his particular melancholy, his darkness. And you don't want to "fix" that. You want to leave him alone and hope that he keeps moaning into the microphone and playing those alternate tunings on his guitar, "until it sounds the way [he feels]," as he says in the opening lyrics to "Void":

Find another corner of the house
When you need to get away
Her guitar leans against the couch
Sometimes I pick it up and play
Loosen and stretch its ancient strings
Until it sounds the way I feel

Mark Kozelek is not, of course, alone as a performer who resists, resents, and disparages his audience. Punk rock is defined partly by its anti-fan attitude, and who can forget Nirvana's "stupid and contagious" fans with guns, demanding to be entertained, in "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Indie audiences, on the other hand, seem to be all about the joy. This is the ecstasy generation. Some of the very sensibilities that punk rockers were reacting to, including the '60s hippies' love-in attitudes, have returned, reshaped, of course, by the specific influences of the current moment in time and history. Where the music industry worships the false idols of orgiastic corporatism and a ruthless bottom line, independent labels try to make money too, but without completely selling their souls (although, I wouldn't overestimate such a romantic view of independent labels). Bands do it out of love of the music, the life, and the performance. (And, of course, to get laid.)

As I am relatively new to the world of indie music and to small, intimate live music experiences (read here for an explanation of this trajectory), I have found the lack of cynicism in this band-audience bonding refreshing, if not inspiring. My own gigs (back in the day) were often nightmares, with the industry breathing down my back, offering no sense of sincere support and camaraderie. A sycophantic, "kiss-kiss" culture, the music business was all about "career" (not unlike my academic life, now!) and image, and it terrified me. Liberation from the painful emotional vestiges of the industry world I was involved in years ago must be, therefore, one reason I find the energy, openness, and passion of indie and other contemporary music circuits so appealing.

Part of the success of indie music now is that it gestures toward, at least ideally, a sense of community and abundance. Music-sharing, live performances at small venues that encourage intimacy (yes, of all sorts), and the mass of music bloggers who support the music they love as well as each others' sites connect people, rather than alienate them. And it always seems as though there's plenty of good music, great shows, great photographs, and different tastes and to go around. I don't get an overt sense of protective stinginess or brutal competitiveness, of "that's MINE!" It's not like academia, a world often driven, because of so little money and so few new ideas and brilliant minds, by pettiness.

Popular music is a derivative art form, and does not hold itself to the standards of originality that academia (hmmm...) and the fine arts do (hmmmm...). What IS required, rather, is an intensity of experience. Sure, there is some cool music out there that you wouldn't want to dance to, but that you could talk about and sound smart and critically distant. But that's not the kind of music that fuels this sub-culture.

Although Mark Kozelek's live performances do not arouse the same kind of group-happiness that other mostly younger and less gifted musicians do, his music satisfies the criteria of all the best rock and roll, I would say, because of the emotional potency it generates. Think of what it was like listening to Neil Young, for instance, in your basement or bedroom, over and over again, so that even to this day you remember every word of every song. No matter whether you were a part of the early or late generation of Neil Young, or of any other fierce band, you were changed by that music. Everyone's life is shaped by adolescent and early adulthood experiences: family relationships, the charge of blossoming individuality and newness, a first love, high school insecurities, and maybe even college manias. These experiences are so profoundly forged into your biological and psychic being during adolescence that all later experiences are marked by what happens to you at this time. It's a phenomenon Mark Kozelek tries to never let you forget:

When we were kids
We hated things our parents did
We listened low
To Casey Kasem's radio show
That's when friends were nice
To think of them just makes you feel nice
The smell of grass in Spring
And October leaves cover everything ("Have You Forgotten")

Friday, April 07, 2006

St. Christopher & the Sleeping Doormen 4.06.06, R & R

by Charlotte Deaver

Chris Gordon really knows how to throw a party. Sure, it's a cash bar, there's no food, and you have to supply your own recreational drugs. But you are guaranteed to meet some interesting people, laugh your ass off, get rocked and hip-hopped, and leave the party dancing.

This is the third time I've seen St. Christopher and the Sleeping Doormen, and whether or not it was the very best yet, I certainly had as much fun at this show as a girl should reasonably have. The more performances of his I've been to, the more familiar I've become with his audience, his wonderfully crazy friends and fans, who are, in a way, an extension of the band. They're certainly part of the act, the whole Chris-Gordon-hilarity-party-scene, and one of the reasons his gigs are such a pleasure.

The music punks a little, hip-hops a little, and rocks sometimes jaggedly, sometimes fiercely. All the while, Chris entertains, sings, raps (go hear him rhyme with his other group, 86 Noodles), tells stories about his cats, and dedicates songs to people he loves. He'll use different voices and accents tailored for different songs and remarks, which is part of his humor. He'll repeat a line over and over until it shatters. He'll never let you stay still. And you'll never be sure how far off the path you might be taken.

Each band member, too, is distinctive in his own way. Dan Lubell is just sweet on keys and backing vocals. He opts to round out the band's otherwise spare sound with melodic riffs, rather than using the keyboard as filler. The guitarist, Nick Zarin-Ackerman, is adorable (very Jake Gyllenhaal, which now has many meanings, I know, but the adorable part is all I mean). I think Nick plays well too (but I wasn't listening), and drums and bass were solid. I have lots of pictures of all the band members laughing as they're playing. Like I said, adorable (or did I say distinctive?).

Read my last post on St. Christopher & the Sleeping Doormen and see lots more pictures of the band here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Joni Mitchell, pilgrimage, wilderness: daylight savings and the Appalachian Trail, 4.2.06

by Charlotte Deaver

Yesterday I hiked for about six hours in the Bear Mountain State Park, spending most of my time on the Appalachian Trail while I pretended I was on a pilgrimage, which in a sense I was. I had been listening to Joni Mitchell's Hejira in the car on the way up Palisades Parkway.

"I'm traveling in some vehicle . . . porous with travel fever."

If I had high hopes for the inward and spiritual journey I would be taking along these trails, those hopes were soon replaced with such practical matters as huffing, puffing, slipping, falling, nose-blowing, direction-finding, and leg-trembling. I got lost, oh, at least twice, making my trek three hours longer than I knew this shapeless self was physically capable of.

Naturally, I cannot walk today. In fact, I will probably do no walking for several days.

But back to Joni. There is no way, being alone in the wilderness for that many hours, not to get a little reflective (I mean, look what happened to Jesus, although I prefer to imagine Dante's lost fugitive soul: "Midway in our life's journey I went astray/ from the straight road and woke to find myself/ alone in a dark wood." The Inferno, Canto I).

I was too happy, though, for melancholy, too invigorated for sober, personal inventory. I just kept walking. And when I realized I had strayed, I laughed (while my thighs, of course, cried). Had the paths been less steep and slippery (they were covered in last Fall's dead leaves), a six hour walk would not have been so debilitating. But I encountered mountain after mountain (okay, but they ARE called mountains), to the point of exhaustion. When I realized I was another two hours away from where my car was parked, Dante came to mind again: "I found myself before a little hill/ and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed . . . And there I lay to rest from my heart's race/ till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose/ and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace/ each footfall rose above the last."

I would rather have imagined the robust and visionary Wordsworth ascending Mount Snowdon: "With forehead bent/ Earthward, as if in opposition set/ Against the enemy, I panted up/ With eager pace, and no less eager thoughts." He cruises up that mountain (a true mountain, mind you) and is immediately rewarded with a f*@k%ng vision: mist and moonlight that transform into an experience of the sublime:

". . . a blue chasm, a fracture in the vapour,
A deep and gloomy breathing-place, through which
Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumberable, roaring with one voice.
The universal spectacle throughout
Was shaped for admiration and delight,
Grand in itself alone, but in that breach
Through which the homeless voice of waters rose,
That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged
The soul, the imagination of the whole." (The Prelude, Book Fourteenth)

What did I get at the top, finally, of my hill? Some guy, sitting on a rock with his guitar, bellowing out Radiohead's "I'm A Creep."

I liked it, though. At least it wasn't a John Denver song. I've never identified with Wordsworth, anyway -- only worshipped/cherished/swooned over his poetry, while resenting him for his perfect psychic and physical health. Radiohead and I, on the other hand, have a lot in common.

But back to Joni, with whom I identify the most. I love Hejira because of the way, along with being breathtaking musically (her voice! those chords!), it knocks metaphor against deep, personal revelation:

"I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl . . .

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line . . .

I know - no one's going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tribute to finality - to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality . . .

We're only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I'm always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of a hotel room . . ."

And below, Saturday night, with map, preparing for pilgrimage: