Concert review: Man Man (with Murder by Death and Damion Suomi) gets weird with a wild crowd at the Firebird, Monday, February 18
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.
Concert review and set list: Cellist Ben Sollee (with Justin Paul Lewis) fights off stereotypes at the Old Rock House on Saturday, February 16
When most people think of the cello, they think of classical music or symphonies. Ben Sollee breaks those stereotypes and brings his instrument to a whole new level.
Show opener Justin Paul Lewis crept up onto the Old Rock House stage and began his solo-acoustic set without warning. Lewis’ take on the singer-songwriter genre was drastically different from what I’m used to hearing. He treats the guitar as a percussion instrument, producing shucking beats and heavily muted chords with his finger-style technique.
Lewis treats his vocals as another form of instrumentation, delivering his stories with a mumbled rhythm as if he were talking in his sleep and describing his dreams in real-time. The only comparison I can really draw is that he sounds like Tom Waits without the ravages of whisky and poor life choices warping his vocal cords. He spent the majority of his set hunched over his guitar, bobbing around and crooning while playing and whistling the horn lines his trumpeter, who was not with him at this show, usually added to his set.
Lewis’ motions were as mesmerizing as the songs themselves, almost a performance art piece in and of themselves. He got the crowd involved with the show by clapping the beat to a funky slow jam of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” before bringing Ben Sollee up on stage for a great performance of “Salt” from his most recent recording “Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.”
Ben Sollee was the next up, sharing the stage with drummer Jordon Ellis. I had not heard anything that he had performed before the show and opted to check him out based on a recommendation from singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, who occasionally raves about him on Twitter.
Sollee is a classically trained cellist that often forgoes the usual classical song structure to breathe new life into an old instrument. That was apparent from the first tune, which consisted of bowing and plucking a rhythm that would be equally at home on a New Order album. Every song seemed to shift in style from synth-pop to jazz to R&B and hip-hop grooves thrown in for good measure. Although there was a broad array of styles in play, the transitions were smooth as silk and nothing seemed out of place.
Over the course of the show, Sollee primarily kept to his cello with a change to octave mandolin for a couple of tracks halfway through the set. His vocals seemed to have a heavy lean toward the singing-storyteller style of Paul Simon, the words sung with a warm tenor that exuded wisdom beyond his years. When he was really getting into the groove Sollee would start to yelp and shout with joy, reminding me of the shouts that accompany “Better Git It in Your Soul” from the Charles Mingus album “Mingus Ah Um.”
There was also a strong jazz influence in the drumming of Jordon Ellis, who has more beats than Schrute Farms. He was running from hip-hop grooves to jazz riffs and filling the air with sounds that accented Sollee’s cello runs without stepping over or falling behind the beat.
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.
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
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.
Concert review: Twenty One Pilots (with New Politics) crash land at the Firebird, Wednesday, February 13
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.
Concert review and set lists: Yo La Tengo and Calexico contrast sounds and styles at the Pageant, Thursday, January 31
I arrived at a sedate Pageant night club at around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday and comfortably found a spot on the floor in the front row right up against the railing. With 20 minutes to go before Calexico took the stage, I passed the time by counting instruments.
There were six guitars (seven if you count the pedal steel), 10 microphones, two trumpets, a standing bass, a xylophone, a few pairs of maracas, a few keyboards, an accordion and a drum set. When my game of musical I Spy ended, I turned around to realize that the venue was now almost full. The area in the back of the Pageant by the bar was almost as crowded as the stage.
For the next hour, Calexico somehow managed to use every single instrument they brought with them, playing a game of musical chairs by running around to different spots when the music started and stopped. I think the only members who stayed with the same instrument the whole night were drummer John Convertino (though he did take up tambourine and maracas) and vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns, and even he switched between three different guitars. The set’s opener, “Epic,” was truly that, building to the point where it had so many layers that I really didn’t know who I should be watching play. The Spanish lyrics of songs like “Roka” and “Inspiración” added to the music that’s rightly described as “indie mariachi.”
My favorite song of Calexico’s set was “Fortune Teller,” a fairly new composition with smooth vocals, a tango vibe and ghostly “oohs” throughout that almost echoed the Shins’ “New Slang.” Calexico played an impressive set on all scales, and it was just the perfect length.
As for Yo La Tengo, I think I need to approach the set from two different perspectives. First, I’ll address the show I saw; then I’ll explain what I wish it could have been.
The songs Yo La Tengo chose to play sounded spectacular. At times, Kaplan let loose on his beaten-up guitar and exploded into screeching dissonance; that was simply a joy to watch. I loved that the band decided to invite members of Calexico on stage for a good number of songs, adding trumpets and keyboards to songs that are usually just guitar, bass and drums.
Another one of my favorite moments was Kaplan’s quirky dialogue — including the “parental” advice to not be like Ellie Goulding’s fans and instead to bundle up against the cold — as he introduced the band. “Obviously, we’re old,” he said. “Our bands almost 30 years old. Of course we’re old.” I didn’t realize it when I first got to the Pageant, but Yo La Tengo has been a band a decade longer than I’ve been alive. Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are old enough to be my parents.
So, I don’t want to say I left Yo La Tengo’s set feeling disappointed, but I did feel like it was missing something. I had done some research by reading old show reviews, and each one talked about the unexpectedness and creativity of a Yo La Tengo show. For a few shows last year, they brought a game show-styled wheel on stage and used that to pick what songs they played. I didn’t need that wheel, but I still hoped for a greater sense of spontaneity.
One of two covers played, a rendition of the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg,” came in the encore and actually turned out to be one of my favorite songs of the night. Another moment of unexpectedness came when I looked over at the merch booth during Calexico’s set only to find Kaplan himself manning the table. As a whole though, instead of the chaotic show I thought I’d get, the set came off as pretty controlled.
Concert review: A sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful night with Tristen, Local H and Rollercoaster Club at the Firebird, Saturday, January 19
After an inebriated fan hollered, “We love you, Tristen!” the Nashville, Tenn. resident deftly avoided being inundated with drunken proclamations of love by returning the fan’s adoration with, “All right, everybody hug their neighbor! C’mon!”
Tristen would proceed to have interactions like this throughout the night.
There was a pocket of legitimately drunk patrons situated stage front. They seemed to appear just before Tristen Gaspadarek walked on stage, thus missing opening band Rollercoaster Club‘s tepid set. The St. Louis natives sounded out of place in the Firebird‘s basement-like atmosphere. The FM-lite acoustic arrangements did little to pull patrons from their seats, and Adam Henrichs’ mellow stage demeanor caused his vocals to sound eked out. Their set would have been better suited for a coffeehouse open mic, somewhere patrons could sit Indian style, surrounded by cups of steaming black coffee, and await their turn to take a stab at spoken word.
Local H‘s Scott Lucas had an easier time corralling the audience. To be fair, he has been performing for over 25 years, ample time for him to feel comfortable enough that his onstage behavior would evoke the impulsiveness found when one is home alone. I must mention he wore a navy blue sweatshirt with a black and white French Bulldog illustration ironed to the chest. I was seized with sweater envy, and, more importantly, felt clued in to Lucas’ psyche. His first words were, “Hi. Hello. I’m Scott Lucas and I am very clever,” followed by a cover of “Last Caress” by the Misfits. He appeared a little deranged at that point. How many grown men wear sweaters with lapdogs emblazoned on the front and sing about killing babies?
During “All the Kids Are Right,” a Local H song/audience request, a girl walked in with some hair appliance attached to her cranium that gave her the look of a disco Predator. A dozen individual tubes of pastel shades of blue, green and phosphorescent white projected from her skull. As she bounced around the Firebird, her tendrils shook back and forth like organ-pipe coral in a sea storm.
After she appeared and disappeared into the Firebird’s tables near the bar, Lucas called out the couple sitting to my left. If you ever want to be scared for your life, cradle a notebook in your lap while conspicuously writing about everything within a 50-foot radius, then listen as the principal subject castigates a couple on the cusp of necking. I waited for him to call me out, and thankfully it never came. Instead, Lucas said twice to the lovers, “Hey. How are you? You. There. TO MY LEFT.” When they finally came to, he told them to enjoy the steak.
Tristen’s headlining set was permeated with appreciable flubs and charm. For every mistake she made — and I hesitate to call them “mistakes” as her reactions worked so well in her favor — she cursed audibly, shook her head at no one but herself and slunk towards her band while she rolled her shoulders forward under the weight of embarrassment.
Opening song “Red Lava Flows” was initially hampered by a forgotten vocal pedal. After taking up her guitar, she sang the first note with an off-key howl, hissed the word “Shit!” with a smile on her face and stomped out her mistake with one swift movement of her heel. She would later begin “Heart and Hope to Die” by singing into a mic-less stand.
On “Heart and Hope To Die” she demanded, “Show me how your mama and daddy made you,” Blithe and vulgar, she sang it accordingly. Her sweet rasp entered the voice in coo form, a suggestion, then morphed into persistent declaration, leaving her suitor with no choice. She abandoned both guitar and keyboard (which she played on “Frozen” and “Winter Night”) for “The Anti-Baby,” her set’s eighth song. The mid-tempo number had a troll-like momentum, with Tristen condemning codependency. It was the song Tristen was prepared to inhabit. She sounded detached in previous songs, even during “Frozen,” which buzzed with impulse and featured a drum pad and synthesizer; still, she never seemed to get into it.
While the song played, Tristen danced: She would keep her feet planted, slightly bent at the knees, but without moving her legs, and then do the running man with the upper half of her body. She moved like an elderly boxer, all the while with an enormous grin on her face and singing to her touring guitarist, drummer and bassist. Her guitarist danced with her and their movements appeared romantically, not platonically inspired. When she did move the lower half of her body, it was in a series of off-kilter pirouettes. She turned on her heels 180 degrees while making a waltz motion in the shape of a circle. When she finished the song, she exclaimed, “Music is fun!”
Her three-song encore would end with “Doomsday.” Having been alone for the first two songs, and after saying goodnight twice, she called her band up to the stage. The Firebird cut the overhead music. Tristen and company began “Doomsday” by playing the chorus to Young MC’s “Bust a Move.” Fun, indeed.
I’ve always thought that Canada and St. Louis have a lot in common. Both experience frigid winters, both are relegated in popular conscience as being backwaters of significant size and both carry an inferiority complex about their place in that conscience, because both know that they’re capable of so much more than anyone gives them credit for producing.
In addition to screwball comedy and jokes about moose, Canada excels at producing prog rock, the latest example being the Zolas’ “Ancient Mars,” released in October on Light Organ Records. I don’t normally recommend this approach – I like my gratification like I like my oatmeal, instant – but “Ancient Mars” demands a gradual approach. Listen twice, more if you can.
On first listen, “Ancient Mars” is pleasant, a solid release bolstered by a few singles that I’d probably put on a mixtape a couple of times. On second listen, the album opens up with track after track hiding subtle-yet-addictive hooks, the non-singles just as elaborate and intriguing as the rest. It’s a conspiratorial rather than provocative tactic, as if the Zolas are sitting nearby to gently nudge your elbow and mutter “Did you catch that?”
Vocalist/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski broke from Lotus Child in 2008 to take a break and record 2009′s “Tic Toc Tic” as the Zolas. This debut was a departure from the heavy pop orientation of Lotus Child, but still retained the verve and infectiousness of a rotatable release. “Ancient Mars” is a touch more subdued, showcasing melodies layered over shuffling rhythms, which, dare I say, sounds a little bit Britpop to me.
The Zolas and “Ancient Mars” seem just as influenced by The Shins as by Sloan. It’s a rock release assembled by musical geeks, surprising the listener with complex choices of vocabulary (“let in the cold / we defenestrate the past” from “In Heaven”) and echoey lamentation (“I’ve painted you a hundred times but I still can’t sign my name” from “Local Swan”) packed into a thoughtfully short length that tricks the ear into thinking it’s minimalist even when it isn’t.
This album is not completely sharp-edged; there is some restrained fuzz on the single “Knot In My Heart,” a track that’s perhaps the most tolerably mathematical song I’ve ever heard. “Strange Girl” is its fraternal twin, coolly upbeat with a crunching riff pairing off against chiming strings and an organ so quietly insistent that you could easily miss it on first listen. The tone and lyrical content of another track, “Cold Moon,” sounds like a previously unreleased Jeff Buckley song recorded in the time of Internet stalking, and “Observatory” includes a delightful meter manipulation to fit the title into the chorus.
While I listen to all of the albums I review several times, I’m on what is perhaps my seventh session with “Ancient Mars” and still finding treasures buried in its bedrock. It’s a rare album that grants the listener with an assumed ear and appetite, giving them so much more credit than most artists are willing to acknowledge. “Ancient Mars” whispers even when it blusters, and I’d like to nudge the Zolas right back to say “I heard everything.”