Concert review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen and Wampire soak the Firebird in feedback and feeling, Saturday, March 9

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A line of 50 people stood before the entrance of the Firebird some time around 8:30 p.m. Steeped in the well-known buzz of “stoked,” they chatted amicably amongst themselves and fellow waiters.

The majority in line was male, clad in street variations of their work uniforms. Burnt khaki-colored jeans, patterned sweaters and shoes that took a palette cue from neon, the crowd for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s set was as attractive and vibrant as it was dense.

Once inside, the solid crowd turned its attention to Portland, Ore.’s Wampire. Had the crowd not have been so curious, they would have missed, bar none, the night’s best set. Wampire’s guitar tones sounded clean enough to be prerecorded and the guitar solos were not ostentatious, but worked seamlessly within the songs without a cacophonous or self-indulgent air. Playing heavily in its favor was the awareness Wampire had of its sound, influences and audience.

On this evening, what made Foxygen and Unknown Mortal Orchestra less engaging than Wampire was their rehashing of Woodstock-era showmanship. The incessant use of feedback, delay pedals and three-minute jams on every four-minute song was overwhelming. It’s interesting to note that UMO’s bassist, Jacob Portrait produced Wampire’s full-length debut. Wampire’s tracks are multilevel, yet stacked well enough to pull off simplicity. Had Ariel Pink surfed off Ocean Park Pier with the Z-Boys, he would have recorded the undeniably pleasant tracks off “Curiosity.”

“Hearse” demolished any hope the latter acts would have of conjuring up sets as melodious and succinct as Wampire’s. The band’s interchangeable tones, manifest on the song “Hearse,” created a maelstrom of ethereal emotions. If the dawn could be heard from miles away, it would wake the world every morning with such sounds. Suffice it to say, I will yearn for “Curiosity”‘s May release. I’m not alone: crowd members purred “WHOM-PY-HER” in Bela Lugosi’s Transylvanian drawl when the set ended. They, too, had been bitten.

Adorned in a hoodie he constructed from the alpaca he shaved prior to the show, Foxygen’s Sam France looked like Father John Misty’s camelid-obsessed baby brother. Someone should have brayed “Bah Ram Ewe.” As indicated from his get-up, France did not appear to take the set all too seriously. Point: He spoke without any self-awareness into the microphone between songs. His banter ranged from confusion “What song’s next?” to incoherent introductions, “Y’know, same story…I don’t wanna be your boyfriend….” The only guiding light came from guitarist Jonathan Rado. Whenever he spoke it was refreshing; he sounded lucid and polite.

Given the right audience, France could be electrifying. He accompanied Foxygen’s quick-draw tempo changes with enthusiasm. He sung-spoke and performed in a Dr. Frankenfurter fashion as his amp crackled every five seconds or so. Unabashed, he stole mics from bandmates, forced some to sing and carried on like it was the second night of Bonnaroo and his acid tab had just dissolved.

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Concert review: Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (with Cross Examination, ThorHammer, and the Basement) thrash and bash at the Firebird on Wednesday, February 20

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Ponce de Leon may not have found the fountain of youth, but hardcore-thrash crossover band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles proved that spending 30 years in the thrash zone is the next best thing.

The Basement opened the night at the Firebird with a 30 minute set of pop-punk that aimed for Rancid but ended up at Green Day. The vocals were in the Tim Armstrong/Lars Frederiksen wheelhouse; they weren’t half bad. The guitar sounded great and their rhythm section propelled the songs along fairly well.

The set was not without problems. I don’t know if they were having an off night, but there seemed to be a lot of issues with forgotten lyrics and songs abruptly ending in trainwrecks. There were enough clunky endings that D.R.I. bassist Harald Oimoen shouted some advice from the merch booth in the form of “Work on your endings, guys!”

My main complaint was that the whole “punk” schtick was not coming across the way I think the band thought it was. Being a punk is more than buying some Manic Panic and a denim vest and saying “fuck” every other word. I don’t remember Dez Cadena or Glenn Danzig explain away forgotten lyrics or sloppy endings by saying “I forgot the lyrics. So what? This is punk rock.” If you have to tell someone that you’re a punk, you aren’t a punk.

I know I’m coming across a bit harsh here, but my point is this: Don’t try to mimic other bands or copy styles. Find your own thing and do it. There is nothing more punk than making your own path, so blaze that trail instead of trying to copy someone else. The effort is well worth the payoff in the long run.

Next to hit the stage was ThorHammer, and hit the stage they did. ThorHammer is one of those bands I want to hate because they play lightning-fast, complex riffs so effortlessly that I feel like a lesser primate when I pick up my guitar. However, once the riffer madness starts, I can’t help but love what I’m hearing.

The band’s entire set was loud heavy riffs and wailing leads underpinned by a rhythm section well-versed in laying down slabs of rock. Everyone was playing double-time without hiding sloppy playing behind mountains of distortion or overly high volume. They almost sounded like an over-caffeinated Exodus.

When I lived in New Jersey, I had this neighbor with a Pomeranian that would chase the neighborhood cats all over the street yelping and growling. That dog was a bad ass and was nothing to mess with, much like the vocals that were being shouted out over the music. The vocals were perfectly matched to the music and sounded great. The drummer looked like Gandalf beating the hell out of his kit, and there is nothing more suited to metal than a wizard, right?

While I was doing some research after the show, I read that this was the last show with this lineup and that two members were leaving. This was my first time seeing ThorHammer, and I sincerely hope they find new members to fill the vacant spots. Their set tonight was a prime example of how good metal should be played.

Cross Examination only played a total of about 20 minutes, but they were the most fun 20 minutes of the entire evening. The last thing I expected to see was an act that seemed more grindcore than thrash and didn’t apologize for a damn second of it. The music reminded me a little of Discordance Axis, without the douchebag pompousness. The liner notes from DA’s Jouhou album made me want to punch them in the throat. Cross Examination’s vibe made me want to buy them beer.

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Concert review: Man Man (with Murder by Death and Damion Suomi) gets weird with a wild crowd at the Firebird, Monday, February 18

Man Man at the Firebird. Photo by Kelsey McClure.

The Firebird stood near capacity as Damion Suomi took the stage with his indelible brand of Irish-inspired, booze-rocking acoustic tunes.

Typically performing as Damion Suomi and the Minor Prophets, Suomi unleashed a stack of songs that showcased his solo-acoustic ability. “City on a Hill,” a Cash-fueled, state-by-state roll-call, culminated in a satisfying drop where Suomi sang, “Fuck it, Ian roll another and we’ll be on our way.”

“Burn the Pain” inspected the station of emotional compromise by way of a moon-lit gothic mystique. Suomi warmed the crowd well, slamming PBRs between songs. “Camel,” “Sunday Morning” and a cover of Blitzen Trapper’s “Furr” finished off Suomi’s set with a flourish, though I felt the cover seemed unnecessary given the high-quality of Suomi’s songs.

After a quick set change, Murder By Death appeared on stage. Small-framed, but big-voiced lead-singer/guitarist, Adam Turla, opened the set with the quick spiritual, “Kentucky Bourbon,” from 2010′s “Good Morning, Magpie.” The song slid into “As Long as There Is Whiskey in the World” aflame with an old-world Pogues feel. Sarah Balliet sawed heartily on her cello, creating a vibrant array of sounds that moved the song from crest to trough to well and back.

“On the Dark Streets Below,” opened with the provision, “Slow down girl, you’ll feel much better in the end,” before bleeding into cello plucking and vibrant trumpet. Turla informed the audience that earlier in the day, the band’s van had gotten broken into by thugs, its sound guy had to go to the hospital — “For some fucked-up spider bite” — and, finally, that its normal multi-instrumentalist, Scott Brackett, was home in Indiana enduring face surgery. Yikes! Nonetheless, Murder By Death’s professionalism, perseverance and poise was only surpassed by an expert performance.

Murder By Death blazed through its set, which included the rustic, gypsy wobble of “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shaving With a Knife),” “No Oath No Spell,” performed as a serenade, the drunk ramble of “Rumbrave,” the somber “My Hill,” “Lost River,” “Brother,” the Doo-Wop-ing “Spring Break 1899″ and “I’m Coming Home.” As the set slid by, the crowd continued to tipple beers, sloshing suds over the floor and slipping in the hoppy puddles.

After Murder By Death, the stage was completely broken down and rebuilt. Man Man‘s eclectic and complex stage set-up (read spectacle) took about 30 minutes to set up. The band stood on stage twisting knobs, connecting cables, situating keyboards, setting up flowers, blocks, props and strobing LED light elements. During this time, the crowd spiraled further into a boozy delirium, apparently drunk enough to plunk down the requisite twenty dollars for a kitschy, mustachioed alien mask Man Man pushed at its merchandise table. As the band filed on stage wearing all black, I thought I had somehow stepped on a skunk, but it turned out to be a couple burning a jay to my left.

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Concert review: Kishi Bashi (with Plume Giant and Ross Christopher) works his looping magic at the Firebird, Saturday, February 16

Photo credit: Mark Runyon / ConcertTour.org

Kishi Bashi‘s personality seems to parallel his music, with joyful, lighthearted humbleness despite its complexity. His songs demonstrate an expert level of musical mastery, but he’s still able to laugh and make jokes between songs, and even smile as he played. You could tell he enjoyed performing, and that made everyone enjoy watching him.

Kishi Bashi, who used to tour as a backing musician for of Montreal and Regina Spektor, now makes solo music with live looping, mostly of violin, beat boxing and synths. He creates his songs right in front of you, but the loops come with such fluidity that if you close your eyes, it almost sounds like a full band.

When he played the Firebird on Saturday night, Kishi Bashi, born Kaoru, or K, Ishibashi, did have backing musicians for some songs. Elizabeth Ziman from Elizabeth and the Catapult added some intense, hip-hop style beats on and percussion and Mike Savino from Tall Tall Trees played banjo. I can’t decide if I preferred solo Kishi Bashi, or the songs with a backing band more. Both were stunning.

Ross Christopher, a singer and violinist from St. Louis, opened the show with a quick, 30-minute set. Christopher sounds similar to Kishi Bashi, with layers of loops, but he has a deeper, raspier voice. I felt that he spent a bit too long setting his loops, extending songs that lasted three minutes on an album to seven minutes live, which mainly posed the problem of his beautiful set cutting off after just five songs.

Brooklyn’s Plume Giant performed next, putting on a sweet, soft show that sounded like a campfire sing-along. Their songs varied from traditional Americana to poppier indie-folk, all with playful vocal melodies and delicate layering. They’d missed their sound check and had to tune their instruments as the show went, but provided some cute dialogue to keep the show moving. “We’re actually playing a lot of new songs tonight, in case you’re familiar with our collection and were hoping for the hits,” joked Eliza Bagg, who sings and plays violin and harmonium.

At around 10:30 p.m., Kishi Bashi took the stage. He wore skinny grey pants and a black-collared shirt with two bowties, one around his neck and the other hanging from his pant pocket. He had suspenders, too, but they fell off a few songs in. “In a real world, my pants would have fallen down, but [my suspenders are] what I call ‘decoration,’” he said as his perfectly planned get-up slowly fell apart.

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Concert review: Jukebox the Ghost (with Matt Pond and the Lighthouse and the Whaler) let pianos lead the way at the Firebird, Friday, February 15

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Youths swilled from various cans, glasses and cups as they awaited a night of synthy-indie tunes — featuring Jukebox the Ghost, Matt Pond and the Lighthouse and the Whaler — at the Firebird.

The Lighthouse and the Whaler’s Michael LoPresti (wearing a sweet bandana) opened the five-piece’s set with “This is an Adventure” from the 2012 release of the same name. LoPresti’s nasally-twee delivery was supported by frenetic mandolin work and violin from his backing multi-instrumentalists.

“Venice,” a breathy love song, found LoPresti crooning, “Why don’t we fall in love?” On “Little Vessels” LoPresti taught the audience the song’s “woah-o-oh” chorus, asking them to sing it back, which they did after some goading. While the band’s folky, pop-outlook was refreshing and the players all put forth an impressive effort, the Lighthouse and the Whaler didn’t do much to differentiate themselves form the legions of bandana-wearing, “woah-oh-oh-ing,” modern indie-rockers.

Matt Pond, having recently ditched the PA from his name in favor of a solo career, played a colorful, uptempo set that ran the gamut between his new work from 2013′s “The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hands,” and his prolific eight-record back catalogue of “PA” tunes.

Pond opened with the jangly and fall-sun-dappled “Halloween” from 2005′s “Several Arrows Later.” The song shined with cello, twinkling piano and Pond’s characteristic relationship-based introspection. “KC” from 2004′s “Emblems” impressed with a catchy, stair-stepping pre-chorus and lyrics based in seasonal change, candle flame and loss. “From Debris” rocked with heavy drums, piano accents and Pond’s lilting, whisper-soft vocals: “From debris you and me could start something.”

At this point in the set, Pond moved into songs from 2013′s “The Lives Inside the Lines in Your Hands.” The new sound represents a change for Pond who, after having broken his leg on tour last year, made a record fans could really groove-out to.

Yet another “Woah-o-oh” chorus somehow managed to stand out on “Let Me Live,” while “Love to Get Used” served up break-neck hammer-ons, fusing Pond’s old sound and his new, poppy direction as the tune moved from verse to chorus and back again. Pond rounded out his set with fan-favorite “New Hampshire” and the ephemeral “Wild Girl.”

Jukebox the Ghost, appeared before a banner draped on the back wall of the Firebird that depicted the band’s logo — a childish picture of a ghost with stick arms and googly eyes. Pianist and vocalist Ben Thornewill said a quick hello before guitarist/vocalist Tommy Siegel picked into the muted guitar of “Oh, Emily” from 2012′s “Safe Travels.” Jesse Kristin’s drumming was bombastic and chest rattling. The song served as apology to a girl for breaking her heart. “At Last” found Thornewill scaling up and down his piano, offering a ballad about a boy falling for a girl and doing his best to win her.

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Concert review and set lists: Tea Leaf Green and Tumbleweed Wanderers blossom at the Firebird, Thursday, February 14

Tea Leaf Green at Firebird. Photo by Wil Wander.

On Valentine’s Day in St. Louis, a Galactic show at the Pageant offered competition for music fans’ affections, but Tea Leaf Green still drew a healthy crowd of loyal supporters and date-nighters to the Firebird.

The attire ranged from jeans and Grateful Dead t-shirts to sport jackets and sweaters and even included a few party dresses and finer hats as the diversity of the crowd reflected the diversity of sounds on stage. Whether looking to rock, jam, groove or just dance, the show was sure to deliver.

Tumbleweed Wanderers opened the evening and complemented the headliners’ style well. Based just across the bay from Tea Leaf Green’s San Francisco home, the Oakland ensemble blends the sounds of soul, folk and rock into an eclectic groove. Dressed with a disregard for uniformity, each member of the five man group offered their own flavor to the mix through an assortment of instruments. With three vocalists, each song offered its own style and opportunities for deeper harmonies.

The band’s set featured a selection of original compositions based in the roots of jam style music, and was capped off with a soulful cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Still relatively new to the scene, the band and its set provided a good foundation for concert jams and studio albums, but the confidence to experiment and explore seemed to lack at times while the solos often proved that each musician was more than capable of doing so. It would be great to see these guys again in a couple years as they will likely blossom and reach the level of groups like the headliners.

As the set break let-up, the crowd quickly began to vie for position at the front of the stage and had filled in quite densely. Josh Clark stepped to the mic and began with a simple, Simpsons inspired introduction, “We’re Tea Leaf Green and we choo-choo choose you.” By the end of the opening song and jam session, the entire crowd had gathered tightly in front of the stage, leaving all of the other sections of the venue eerily empty. The total number of fans may have been just off their pull last summer, but it felt like a full house to everyone in the pit.

Without releasing any new material, Tea Leaf Green tours extensively with a different feel and sound in each show so that even the most dedicated fan never has the same concert experience twice, even if they were to repeat songs. This show had a different feel from the last as they opened with many of their high energy tunes before exploring the other depths of their sound mid-set and building back to a few favorites at the end.

While each and every member of the band is worthy of praise and attention, it was the bands cohesion that stood out. Josh Clark and Trevor Garrod often started the songs with their individual vocal styles, but the jams highlighted everyone, even during the solos. For those unfamiliar with Tea Leaf Green, one of the most distinctive aspects of the act is the drumming duo of McMillan and Scott Rager who demonstrate the bands cohesion with every rhythm, neither ever dominating with rhythms over accents. As veterans, they’ve become a prototypical assembly of musicians and a role model to others in the scene.

Often it was the break-down segments and introductions that stood out in the set, but perhaps the most distinctive moment was a two song segment featuring an acoustic trio set-up. Reed Mathis and Josh Clark put down their electric bass and guitar for the organic alternatives, while Garrod picked up a banjo and joined the others center stage. The three played and sang huddled around a single microphone as they played “Stick to the Shadows” and “I Believe,” which pulled the slowly spreading crowd back to the front again.

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Concert review: Twenty One Pilots (with New Politics) crash land at the Firebird, Wednesday, February 13

facebook.com/twentyonepilots / Amy Gibson

It was a surreal experience walking up to the Firebird at 7:15 p.m. to find a line of 200 people waiting outside to get in. The Twenty One Pilots show started at 7:30 p.m. — the earliest start time for a show I’ve ever been to — and the place was absolutely packed.

I’ve been to sold out shows at the Firebird before, but at this one, everyone seemed to be pushed up as close as possible to the stage, which made it seem a lot fuller than when a portion of the crowd is hanging out by the bar. For a lot of the night, I couldn’t move, but then there were other times when everyone seemed to jump in perfect unison and find pockets to throw their arms up in the air through.

Twenty One Pilots play a mangling of genres, with a bit of rap, a pinch of synths, some pianos and a ton of drums. I spent a good 10 minutes trying to think of who they sound like and searching the Internet for comparisons, but I really couldn’t find any that I agreed with. Many of the reviews I read described the band as “schizoid-pop,” if you have any idea what that would sound like.

After the show, I spent some time thinking about why we go to concerts. Obviously, it’s because we like the music, but the primary reason is to be entertained. I’ve been to concerts before where I didn’t necessarily like the music, but it came across in such a way that it was exciting to watch and I was glad to be hearing it. Twenty One Pilots are one of those bands. There’s so much to see that the music sometimes became secondary, almost like a soundtrack to the performance. That definitely isn’t how all concerts should be, but sometimes it works.

Before Twenty One Pilots came New Politics, a three-piece from Copenhagen, Denmark. They reminded me of Rage Against the Machine, partially for musical reasons but mostly just because of the political angst that ran through their lyrics. Half their songs were about starting revolutions. The set seemed like Occupy the Firebird.

During the third song, when frontman David Boyd asked the crowd to open up a circle, the floor became like a mosh pit without the moshers. He jumped down from the stage to break dance amidst the people. The move showed he was really performing for the crowd instead of just in front of us.

Twenty One Pilots actually exceeded my expectations in many ways, especially in the smart organization of the set. The biggest surprise came when they broke into their biggest single, “Holding Onto You,” only about 15 minutes into the show. I worried they’d just go downhill from there, but to follow it they covered Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” which I think is the only song that wouldn’t have been a downer to hear next.

In addition to acrobatics, like lots of jumping and handstands, a big part of a Twenty One Pilots show is the costumes they wear, full-body skeleton onesies for the first song, “Ode to Sleep,” and later bank-robber style ski masks for a few songs. By the encore, frontman Tyler Joseph was shirtless.

The Firebird’s stage is pretty small, and Twenty One Pilots were limited in some ways with what they could do, so they followed New Politics’ lead and took to the floor. For the encore, the packed crowd opened up again into a circle, probably about 15 feet in diameter, and the band carried three snare drums onto the floor. Joseph and drummer Josh Dun led a 300-plus-person drum circle inside the Firebird. The way the two jumped around the drums, hitting drumsticks against each other, felt almost spiritual, despite the theatrics.

I think if you’re going to listen to Twenty One Pilots, it has to be live. On their recorded album, “Vessel,” you don’t get the same energy and franticness of their concerts. Their live show is the kind that you need to keep thinking about for a while afterwards to make sure you didn’t forget anything (and admittedly, I probably did).

It’s the kind of show that leaves a mark, both in the form of crazy memories and bruises from crashing into the crowd around you.

Comedy review: Judah Friedlander (with Kelsey McClure and Sean O’Brien) delivers champion set at the Firebird, Friday, February 8

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Judah Friedlander — donning a custom, Aurebesh-script “World Champion” hat — brought both his laid-back brand of stand-up and an old-school Imo’s pizza party to the Firebird for a rare winter performance.

Kelsey McClure — a part-time KDHX employee — in self-described “denim, more denim and feminist boots,” opened the show. Crossing sex, religion and motherly blame, McClure quickly showed how a night of comedy often means no pulled punches. Her advice on being picky with what goes in one’s mouth hit rather hilariously though, as her quick set came to a close. On another note, her interview with Judah Friedlander in the Riverfront Times offers an enjoyable read on comedy and the stand-up process.

Sean O’Brien, host of the excellent local podcast “Tackling Tough Issues,” came on next. He quickly endeared himself with the eloquent and efficient self-deprecating opener, “I need to stop being such a little bitch.” Obviously used to the stage — Sean emcees the St. Louis Funny Bone regularly — the consistent enthusiasm buoyed the set while Sean recounted that every stereotype about car salesmen is accurate.

Then the World Champ arrived onstage.

While most know him from the recently defunct “30 Rock,” his IMDB affords a nostalgic trip through the past 13 years in film. Hitting a memorable cameo in most, Judah has worked tirelessly — he started standup in ’89 — to carve out a niche for himself. Keeping the list short, Judah appeared in “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Zoolander,” “Meet the Parents,” “American Splendor,” “The Wrestler “and even the animated film “Rio.” Bonus points for those who have thrown a ticket in a volunteer cop’s face a la Friedlander in “How High.”

Regardless, having worked with Mickey Rourke, Eddie Murphy, Paul Giamatti and Ben Stiller, it was only Alec Baldwin who wasn’t spared in Friedlander’s routine. “He’s only 3’6″,” Judah deadpanned halfway through the killer performance. One-upping Sean’s approach, Judah actually opened by complementing the applause received during his stroll to the stage. Having put the audience in his back pocket in approximately 30 seconds, he spent the majority of the night trumping the crowd’s comments and his own jokes with aplomb.

Requesting comments and questions from everyone in attendance, Friedlander shows a prodigious ability to riff rather than a structure a set. Focusing on his recent decision to run for President of the United States — apparently an eventual move — the comic filled the fans in on his Presidential platform. On gun control: “The answer is karate, dude, fists don’t run out of fingers.”

However, his paradigm-shifting approach to foreign policy elicited the most raucous laughs of the night. First, by Friedlander’s own genius — “I will unblur all Japanese porn” — and a second time by the question posed, in all-seriousness, from the bar side of the Firebird: “How would you deal with Stalin?”

Friedlander came across as a thoroughly down-to-Earth guy, only kicking out the frontrow couple after the rest of the Firebird set unanimously voted them out, as well as nodding to the venue itself for having a Galaga rig. Before taking off from the stage, Judah invited the entire crowd to the 5 Imo’s pizzas he bought. In as much a co-sign as refutation of Jimmy Kimmel’s national proclamation, Judah declared it “the greatest and shittiest pizza.”

Furthering the invite, he welcomed the faithful to kick it with him over the pizza before an eponymous sex party. One last time, making sure everyone left satisfied, he asked, “Anymore questions about the presidential platform, karate or my dick?”

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