A few rambling recaps and on-the-fly photos from CMJ 2010

Jaill

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jaill at the Studio at Webster Hall

Before starting their set, the singer warned the audience in advance that the band had just eaten falafel and so no one should stand too close to the stage. The set started a little rough, but Jaill had won the crowd over by the end as the energy and songs got better as the set drove along. Their vocals live had the snarky tone of a young Tom Verlaine or Richard Hell. This is probably what prompted me to buy not one but two Television bootleg discs at the WFMU Record Fair a couple days later. Jaill sounded a little different than the recent Sub Pop release, a lot more loose and raw, not better or worse. Again, I had few expectations, but was totally won over by them by the end.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. at the Studio at Webster Hall

Stayed at the Studio for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., but wandered outside for a minute and saw the line all the way down the block trying to get in to see Two Door Cinema Club, I still wonder if any of those people actually got in. DEJJ had a full house even though they were playing several different venues throughout the course of the 5-day festival. They appeared onstage in Nascar racing suits covered in logos. One sported Cheerios across the chest and the other Lysol. I wonder if they actually got endorsements. They played great live and rocked, their songs trickled and soaked by bleeps and electronic pads. Their show also displayed make-shift strobe light bulb kits shining about 30 light bulbs each on both sides of the stage. Plenty of gimmickry, but they really delivered some great songs with an equally great performance.

Olof Arnolds

Olof Arnolds at Googies

Next I wandered to see Icelandic artist Olof Arnolds perform at Googies, a venue above the Living Room in the Lower East Side. Olof switched between guitar, violin and ukulele, while her partner switched between a white baby grand and guitar. There were a couple of sound issues and monitor problems brought to the attention of the audience by banter back and forth between Olof and the sound guy and audience. It ended up really distracting from the show and slowly started becoming the show. When it just grew too awkward and not much music happening, I had to make my way out and off to the next gig. Maybe next time Olof.

Drink Up Buttercup

Drink Up Buttercup at Bowery Electric

I had hoped to catch Lawrence Arabia here, but my stop for quick pizza slowed me down. It’s easy to forget about eating at CMJ. Drink Up Buttercup was epically amazing, the new material is a total departure from the band’s previous album. Operatic vocals, think Queen and Sparks blended into clamorous wild psych-rock songs. It made for a great live rock show and their energy was contagious. I had hoped to see Suuns, up the street, but the amount of people outside trying to get in half way through their set, made me realize that wouldn’t be possible. So Drink Up Buttercup was a good close to the night.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Devotchka

DeVotchka at Fontana’s

There’s nothing like seeing a great band in such a small basement venue. Lucky for the audience this one wasn’t listed in the CMJ guide, otherwise, I don’t think a lot of us would have gotten in. DeVotchka has a lot on its plate right now: the band has scored music for three films about to be released in the next month or so and has a new album due out in February. The set was beautiful and, as expected, nothing short of pro. They played a few new songs, which successfully excited the crowd for their upcoming album. The following night they played at Big Top and the show featured trapeze artists (not to mention, Big Top itself is a circus grounds). Crazy! Wish I could have made it. I ended up finding a clip on YouTube and kicked myself.

The Generationals

The Generationals at Fontana’s

The Generationals made their way through their catchy catalog and played two of my favorites “Angry Charlie” and “When They Fight They Fight.” (This song from their album Con Law is fated to close a TV show or film.)

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Album review: Two Cow Garage keeps on truckin’ on fifth album

Two Cow Garage
Sweet Saint Me
Suburban Home Records

The exact year is debatable, but shortly after the plug was pulled on the ’90s, punkers had their genre stolen from right under ‘em. The Sum-182 mall brats were popping up left and right, and punks felt cheated. Some went along for the ride, some abruptly jumped ship and some took refuge with another genre that was deeply rooted beneath punk soil: country. Except, naturally, when a bunch of punks play it, it’s going to sound a little more distorted and jarring.

And that’s pretty much where Two Cow Garage came from. At least that’s more or less how singer and guitarist Micah Schnabel explained it to me in an interview a while back.

Since its inception though, the Columbus, Ohio band has gradually shed layers of honky-tonk grit and settled into its weathered, barroom skin.Two Cow’s last album, Speaking in Cursive (2008), found the band waning off its cow punk, alt-country past and digging deeper into traditional rock & roll standards. Sweet Saint Me picks up where Cursive left off, but this time with a more questionably refined — yet still unhinged — sound.

It should be noted that Schnabel’s razor-gargling Rod Stewart-y voice is still as grating as ever, arguably more so. If you couldn’t take it before, this album may not sway you. Co-vocalist, bassist Shane Sweeny also grabs the wheel on a few tunes that unfortunately fall a little flat compared to his work on Cursive. But when he trades lines with Schnabel on the speedy, organ-oozing “Lucy and the Butcher Knife,” his Beam-soaked Waits-esque moan is jolted back to life.

“Jackson, Don’t You Worry” finds Schnabel singing a heart-swelling, acoustic lullaby to Sweeny’s newborn son. “Birthdays and graduations through a telephone/You’re the son of a son of a rolling stone…” sings Schnabel, as he warns Jackson of the trials ahead, and hips him to the hell Schnabel and Sweeny have raised in the past. “Lydia” takes on more of a PG-13 vibe and finds Schnabel offering apologies to an underage love interest that he’s trying not to be interested in, while Andy Schells’ keys clink and horns blast along to Cody Smith’s bouncing backbeat.

I don’t have to waste much time with comparisons or influences. You can find those within Schnabel’s lyrics. Off the top of my head, on Sweet Saint Me, he name checks Guthrie, Dylan, Van Halen, Soul Asylum, Springsteen, Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, coolly enough, Marvin Gaye. And judging by Schnabel’s witty literary references, you get the sense that the band’s tour dates earlier this year with fellow barroom heroes, the Hold Steady, made an impression too.

While Sweet Saint Me isn’t groundbreaking, it’s certainly a worthy endeavor. If nothing else, it shows a band that’s come a long way from its modest cow punk roots, only to find itself as one of the more hardworking groups of bar rock revivalists banging around the country.

Two Cow Garage performs at Off Broadway on November 22, 2010.

Two Cow Garage – “Sally, I’ve Been Shot”

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Concert photos: Los Campesinos! at the Firebird, Tuesday, October 26

All photos by Jon Gitchoff. View more at my Flickr.

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Digital DJ

The author at the Pulitzer/KDHX event Sound Waves Brazil, on September 16, 2010. Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/thepulitzer


Yes, that’s me in the photo. As usual, I am sure to disappoint my listeners with my appearance. Many times I have been told that the host of Radio Rio is probably a tan, long-haired brunette with an amazing figure. It is also assumed that I do my show in a bikini. The Girl from Ipanema I am not, dear listeners, but thanks for listening anyhow!

I include my photo only because I have recently done two DJ gigs where, for the first time, I have conducted the event solely using my computer. As you can see from the photo, the only tell tale signs that I may even be a DJ are the headphones and the mixing board but I could just as well be out somewhere looking for free WiFi.

There is no doubt that the digital age (and the automated age–grocery self check-outs, pay at the pump, and of course some “corporate radio,” etc . . .) is making the actual presence of a human less necessary. For my two recent DJ gigs, I could’ve simply dropped off my IPod or computer and had the venue play my list of selected songs. I felt totally unnecessary! (Granted, for one of the gigs I did have to change the “tone” as the evening progressed so it was good that I was present but it may have gone completely unnoticed.)

I am certainly not a Luddite. On the contrary, as a DJ and as someone who loves music, the digital age has been a great thing. Soon after the Internet became very powerful in the mid to late 1990s I remember reading an article about the Brazilian pop artist Ed Motta. He was asked what his feelings were about this new technology. He responded by saying that the first time he went online he wept because of all the music he now had access to, not just to download but to buy from the hundreds of record dealers that now sold online (I can confirm from my record store days that he would even call certain stores in the US from Brazil just to buy a rare record or two). The photo that accompanied the article showed a room of his house which was lined with hundreds and hundreds of vinyl records–he did not appear to be a man whose musical collection was lacking. Yet, the thrill of what the Internet could provide and expose him to was overwhelming, as it has been for many of us.

Yes, the digital age yields many fruits and has the potential to be great for the environment. Digital transmissions can lead to less mail which in turn means less fuel usage. The digital book and journalism age can probably save an untold number of trees. But yet, and here is where I get a little sentimental, there will be things that are lost from the onslaught of the digital–the physical presence not just of humans but of tangible things.

Most of us born before the onslaught of the Internet probably have some memory of when we first discovered an album, a 45 or a CD that changed the course of our relationship with music. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to look through my parent’s albums for the very cool record covers. The Beatles stick out for sure: Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt Pepper’s and Abbey Road were all covers that caught my eye. I wanted to listen to these records because I liked to covers. Visual images were one of my gateways to listening. Later, as a teenager, I would go to my local record store and look through the punk rock 45s and make purchases based on the cover art of those little sleeves. Today, I don’t even know what the “art” looks like for most of the music I download.

As I look around my house I realize that I could have so much more wall space if I put all of my CDs on my computer and then put them in storage or sold them. But then how would my kids find that CD that might capture their attention and begin their musical journeys? They already gravitate to the most colorful and provocative covers and if they sat down to listen to most of the CDs they are visually attracted to I think they would be pleasantly surprised by what they hear (at least this is what parents hope for). And because they are kids, they are not allowed to touch my computer so I am lamenting that I have begun the process of locking away all the music that I hope they will come to love.

I am not saying that the thrill of discovery will be lost because of the Internet. On the contrary. It can of course lead you to gateway after gateway and take you down musical paths you didn’t know existed. But these are also very shared and public ways of finding things. I think I will miss that solitary act of finding and discovering something on my own, picking it up, examining it and knowing it inside and out.

I called this piece the Digital DJ not just because of my recent laptop DJ gigs but because within a very short time, instead of just bringing CDs and records to play on the radio, I now also bring my laptop and IPod (I know that some of my fellow KDHX DJs don’t even bring CDs anymore). It is not necessary to bring all of these gadgets but it is incredibly helpful. I can now fill almost any request while I’m on the air because I have access to so much and this is a great thing.

When I shuffle the songs on my IPod I rediscover so much music (yet I rarely listen to full albums anymore)–it’s like listening to KDHX! I confess, I love my IPod and I love that if I want a song I can have it in a matter of minutes from the Internet. But as with all new technology something else is lost. The old ways of listening to and discovering music seem primitive to the young folks (some have never even seen a vinyl record). We don’t need to get all misty-eyed about “how things used to be” but we do need to recognize that this new digital age is also a very private age. The public–actual human beings and tantalizing physical objects–will become more distant and seemingly irrelevant which I think is something to lament.

My corny ending: I raise a glass to KDHX to say how grateful I am that I can be both a digital DJ and still be a live human being who gets to interact with other live human beings on the air every week.

Concert review: Blonde Redhead shakes off subdued crowd at the Pageant, Monday, October 25

myspace.com/blonderedhead

It was clear from the start that Blonde Redhead lets its music do the talking. There were no hellos and just a few thank yous during the group’s tight 80-minute set Monday night at the Pageant. The band took the stage to a sea of flickering yellow lights that mimicked candle flames as umbrella lights adorned the backdrop, reflecting gold light across the band members. The moody lighting created more of a theater feel than one of your typical rock concert.

That feeling only solidified more as red-headed singer Kazu Mokino took the stage wearing sparkly black vinyl pants and an odd white mask with blonde hair attached to it, making her appear as if she were an ominous character out of a fantasy production.

“Black Guitar” opened the set, a track off Penny Sparkle, the band’s most recent effort. Brothers Simone Pace (guitar, vocals) and Amedeo Pace (drums) were in tight sync with Mokino as one may expect after the trio’s 17 years together. Clearly this is a veteran group with a firm grip on its live show. The stage sound and house mix were nearly flawless.

It was difficult to take your eyes off of Mokino as she danced and swayed to some of the more uptempo numbers. Her hair covered her face, keeping her anonymous throughout the entire evening. Simone was equally enthusiastic, showcasing on guitar the underlying noisy, rock elements to the band’s sound. The performance was captivating and energetic, and the set design created an appropriately dark atmosphere for the music.

Still, something seemed a bit detached about the evening.

The crowd in attendance was fairly sparse, as even with the balcony closed, the venue’s main floor was only perhaps half full. For a smaller crowd the energy was pretty good, but something just didn’t feel quite right about the spirit of the show. Perhaps it was the lack of interaction with the crowd on the band’s part coupled with the empty chairs in the audience.

The songs that relied more heavily on electronic sequences came across a bit stale in the live setting. The arrangements simply were not adjusted from the studio versions and relied too heavily on backing tracks. Nevertheless, several moments really galvanized the crowd, who seemed to hold strong affections for the songs played off of the 2007 album, 23.

Highlights of the evening definitely included “Dr. Strangeluv” with its abundance of catchy guitar licks that Simone pulled off with distorted perfection.

“23 seconds, all things we love will die,” sang Mokino in her ethereal style, her voice as fragile as glass and yet as soaring as clouds, during an animated performance of “23,” which garnered a large crowd response.

The show really peaked during “Melody of Certain Three” off of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. “But in spite of all that, all is well….all is well,” sang Simone to a background of relentless guitar and percussion. Amedo really keeps the sound together with his onslaught of catchy beats and technical fills. The blend of sequences and live drums is seamless, merging the two together into a harmonious collective of rhythm.

After a brief intermission to a cheering crowd, the band returned for a 3-song encore that was fairly mellow. The musicians departed quickly after a few thank yous; then the house lights came on. For a band with a sound so huge and dynamic as Blonde Redhead’s, the music would have seemed more appropriate in a packed New York City venue or in a European nightclub. Regardless, the group played with much skill and passion, and the seductiveness of Mokino was nothing to scoff at.

Concert review and setlist: Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses kill the blues at the Old Rock House, Sunday, October 24

Kate McDaniel

If you’re wondering what the deal is with Ryan Bingham, consider the following: At his first St. Louis appearance since his band’s 3-song set at Farm Aid 2009 and first since “Weary Kind” earned an Oscar for “Best Original Song” (from the soundtrack to Crazy Heart), the 29-year-old West Texan passed on playing the anthem, all drunken audience demands notwithstanding.

That’s like a young Dylan or Springsteen skipping “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Born to Run.” The song isn’t just Bingham’s biggest hit and primary reason he can sell out the Old Rock House on a Sunday night. It’s a career number, a signature, or rather it would be if he didn’t seem to have an endless stream of excellent, deeply felt songs to take its place.

That wasn’t the case with opening act Rustlanders, who sounded fine, if by the numbers Americana rock is your thing, but who barely rose to the level of lobotomized Marah. I like songs about rainy nights, red wine and honky tonks, and I dig a good “shine on” chorus and a Leslie cabinet; it’s the facelessness that skeeves me out.

At the absurdly late start time of 11:15 p.m., Bingham and his durable band the Dead Horses — Matthew Smith (drums), Corby Schaub (guitar and mandolin) and Elijah Ford (bass) – grabbed the audience, by that point fairly well-oiled on beer and bourbon, and dragged them, fist-pumping and whooping, into the cursed, bleak and strangely enervating country blues badlands, where the road goes on forever and the indigence never ends. Opener “Day Is Done” demonstrated how good a Southern rock sound check can be, establishing the slide guitar tone for the night, then leading into the first of two marijuana anthems, “Dollar a Day.” It’s not a song about getting high. Like so many of Bingham’s compositions, it’s about political economy – really — the way the rules of the capitalist game send some men off to die in the desert and others to get what they can by planting a little seed.

And it’s a blast, tough-minded but comic and playful at the same time, driven by a band that has tightened up considerably over a few years of touring together and a couple of late night TV slots. The rhythm section isn’t about to make the atomic clock obsolete, but they don’t have to. They just need to follow the leader and his cast of fictional characters – the dealers, users, dreamers, losers, killers, killed, sinners and sidewalk prophets — around the curves and bends of his somehow believable stories.

Even on the more surreal, newer material, especially “Hallelujah” (sung from the point of view of dead man) and “Junky Star” (a riveting, unromantic portrait of a farmland murderer turned California H addict), it’s ultimately Bingham’s rusted-out croak, like a razor across an empty Skoal tin, that makes you believe the songs, that gives them their gnawing realism. That, and their melodies, built for rebellious sing-alongs, no matter how grim or pointed the story may be.

In other words, authenticity may be problematic but honesty isn’t. Introducing “Strange Feelin’ In the Air,” another song from Junky Star, Bingham acknowledged his small town roots by giving the finger to the prejudice he remembers. And on “Direction of the Wind,” his most left-wing song, the energy and clarity of his delivery kicked the soapbox out from under all of us.

The 18-song set unwound at an unhurried pace, shifting between all manner of mid-tempos to rhythms just near (but not quite) break-neck stomp. When turning to a slighter song, like “Bluebird” from Roadhouse Sun, the band churned up every refrain; when turning to the final songs of the encore, “Sunshine” and “Bread & Water,” a grand, double-electric slide guitar shoot-out and a litany of Southwestern locales summed up a riveting, moving, rowdy but meaningful party. Out in the parking lot, the tailgaters and their duck hunting trucks rocked past 1:30 a.m. The working day could wait.

Setlist:

Day Is Done
Dollar a Day
Tell My Mother I Miss Her So
Dylan’s Hard Rain
Hard Times
Strange Feeling in the Air
Junky Star
Depression
Bluebird
Hallelujah
Self Righteous Wall
Direction of the Wind
Sunrise
Southside of Heaven

Encore:
Snake Eyes
Ever Wonder Why
Sunshine
Bread & Water

Concert photos: Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses and Rustlanders at the Old Rock House, Sunday, October 24

Despite a raging storm and a late start for a Sunday night, Ryan Bingham played to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd. Fans stayed with him to the end, singing and swaying along.

All photos by Kate McDaniel. See more at my Flickr stream.

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Concert photos: Chuck Prophet and the Incurables at Off Broadway, Saturday, October 23

It’s not often that you get to witness someone who is a master of an art or craft working at his or her passion without filters or boundaries, but when you do….it sure does smack you in the mouth! This was certainly the case last night at Off Broadway, where Chuck Prophet showcased his brilliant songwriting and guitar skills. With a subtle confidence and a bit of witty banter, Prophet had the crowd’s full attention from the get-go and he didn’t disappoint. Combining glimpses of a rock & roll stage presence and showmanship with songs that may quietly stand the test of time, Chuck Prophet made a strong case as being one of the finest voices in music today.

Opening for Prophet were St Louis heavyweights the Incurables. Not settling for being “just the opening act,” the Incurables set the tone of the evening with a rockin’ set that featured some of the tightest musicianship offered by any of our city’s bands. If excellent guitar work and ear catching harmonies are your thing, then they are certainly a band worth going to see if you can catch them around town.

All photos by Nate Burrell. See more at my Flickr stream.

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