Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Yes, Rocktober is officially over and the Atlanta concert calendar is looking a little lean for the next few months, but last Sunday night, I couldn't resist the temptation to go to what appeared to be the one last "quality" booking of the year: Sharon Van Etten and Junip at the redoubtable, beloved, and ever-dependable Earl.
I really went more to see the opening act, Van Etten, more than the headliner, Junip, and that's more than a little surprising because I have to admit that I started out on the wrong foot in my appreciation of her music. I first heard her singing on a couple of tracks by the folk-rock band The Antlers, but at about the same time, the chamber-pop quartet Clogs released The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton, featuring former opera singer Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on several tracks. While I can appreciate the artistry, those tracks were not to my particular taste, and my mind eventually confused Shara with Sharon and Worden with Van Etten, and I came to assume that SVE sang in an operatic soprano and for much of this year I avoided listening to her music.
But I kept hearing about Van Etten in the press and on line. She seemed to be a musician's musician, and artists as disparate as Kip Malone even said in interviews that they wanted to record with her. So I checked out a few of her songs and found that instead of being a strident soprano, she was a captivating singer-songwriter, more in the tradition of Laura Viers or Josh Rouse, and I've been listening lately to several songs from her new album, epic. So on a pleasantly warm, Georgia autumn night, I drove over to The Earl to catch her set.
What hasn't really been discussed in many of these music-related postings lately is the awkward situation of a man my age going to these rock clubs, often alone, to hear these new, young bands. Typically, I'm at least 30 years older than the median age at these shows, and probably 15 years older than the second-oldest person. Did you ever hear Chris Rock's routine about that one guy you always see in the club who's way too old to be there? Sometimes I feel like that's me, so when I go out to these clubs or concert halls, I try to maintain a low profile, waiting quietly in the back until the music starts, and then slipping unnoticed into the crowd to enjoy the music. I've gotten a few odd looks and have even been teased a little, but generally the young audiences have treated me with what might be called a benign neglect.
I bring this up now because I was "outed" last Sunday night, from the stage, by Sharon Van Etten herself. Not in a mean way at all - actually, as you'll see, in the kindness, nicest way possible.
A pretty good-sized crowd for a Sunday night turned up at the Earl to see Van Etten, and when she started to play, a few of us (myself included in that "us") approached the stage. After her first song, she encouraged us to come closer still to the stage, joking "the worst that I'm going to do is spit on you." We came closer.
Her first couple of songs were greeted warmly by the crowd, and I wanted to make sure that she felt our appreciation. Her second or third song was the mesmerizing Don't Do It from epic, and when she finished, I shouted out a "great!" among the other cheers and applause. I thought that she looked my way with a smile, which encouraged me to yell out "you're great!" at the end of her next song.
With that, she thanked the crowd for their enthusiasm, and then pointed directly at me and said, "I want that guy right there at every show I do from now on so that I can hear someone say 'great' every time I sing." I laughed and nodded my head, but she kept on going. "I wish I could just record that 'great!' and play it back every time I feel down. I wish that I had a, um, you know, one of those recording things, to capture that 'great!' for all my shows."
So now the whole audience was looking at the old man standing by himself near the front of the stage, who was as self conscious as possible and just dumbly smiling back at Van Etten, but then The Earl's sound engineer made matters worse by walking up to the stage and handing her one of those, um, you know, recording things, a small box-like device for digital capture and playback. She pointed it at me and asked me to say "you're great" once again.
I teased her a little, using my fingertips to pantomime zipping my mouth shut, to which she said, "Come on. I want to listen to it to cheer me up when I'm blue." I told her I use her music for the same purpose, and then gave her a "you're great!" if only to get past the awkward moment and on, as they say, with the show.
So much for going incognito. Part of my mind wondered if she was being sincere or just teasing me for being that one guy in the club who was way too old to be there, but I doubt it - she seems overall to be one of the sweetest, nicest performers you'll ever meet. "I'm a nervous person," she recently confided to The Village Voice. "I know that I'm very insecure, but I'm a lot more secure than I used to be." Which leads me to believe that she genuinely appreciated hearing "you're great" and had no intention of mocking me.
But back to the show. For the first several songs, Van Etten was backed by a small band consisting of a drummer and bass player, while she played guitar and, on one number, harmonium. Eventually, her band left the stage and she performed alone with just her guitar, singing Cyclone at the request of someone in the audience she apparently knew ("Did you get a haircut?" she asked. "It looks good!"). She sang all of the songs that I had wanted to hear, had a warm and intimate stage presence, and by the end of the set, everyone in the audience understood what the buzz was all about.
Here's a video of her in LA last week performing her song One Day, a song she dedicated to her mother last Sunday night, noting that "Mom likes it 'cause she thinks it sounds like Fleetwood Mac" and dances around the house like Stevie Nicks (or Andrea Estella?) listening to it. After the song was finished, she then pointed out that although the song was dedicated to her mother, she had no issues with her father, and the line in the song that goes "I'm okay with that," was not "I'm okay with Dad," as her mother had thought she was singing.
If anything, her set was too short, having to yield the stage to the headliner. For now, Van Etten may be just a warm-up act, but I sincerely believe she's capable of a big breakthrough in no more than one or two recordings.
Sweden's Junip was the evening's headliner. Junip are from Gothenburg, the same town in Sweden that The xx are from, although their music is far different. While The xx bring a sort of ultra-minimalism to R&B, a form not necessarily known for its reserve, Junip brings compositional complexity to normally austere folk forms.
The most amazing thing about Junip may be that the band exists at all. Their front man, Jose Gonzalez, was born of Argentine parents but raised in Sweden. Junip released one EP back in 2000 but then went their separate ways, and Gonzalez realized a successful solo career recording several albums under his own name. But somehow the band got back together, and Gonzalez gave up performing his own songs and once again became a part of Junip.
Gonzalez is the singer and front man for the band, which last Sunday night also included a keyboardist, a bass player, a drummer and an multi-instrumental percussionist. Their music is a sort of moody folk rock, but the extra percussion gave their songs a propulsive kick and the keyboards provided electronic flourishes and washes of sound.
Like The xx, everything about Junip was polite - their music, the band, and Gonzelez' stage presence.
The normally reserved Earl crowd, which I've seen let several bands finish their sets without an encore, enthusiastically called Junip back on stage at the end of their set. For their encore, Junip had Sharon Van Etten and her band on stage with them for a rousing cover of U2's With Or Without You, Gonzalez yielding the microphone to Van Etten after the first chorus and allowing her to just soar with the verses. A great finish to the evening.
In fact, hearing Van Etten with a full band in a rock format hinted at one possibility for her future. She crafts wonderful and vulnerable yet cheerful songs best heard with as little adornment over her voice as possible, but when she wants to lift her voice up over a full band and project back to the cheap seats, lessons learned during a childhood of choir practice kick in. She showed that she can carry a rock band - or can be carried by a rock band - if she ever decides to go that route.
Van Etten's tour now has her in Japan for the rest of the year, and Junip will play a few dates back in Europe before heading to Australia.
So this really may be the last concert review on this blog for this year. I can honestly say that I don't regret going to a single show I've seen, but do have a few regrets over shows that I've missed. I'll try not to let that happen next year.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Zen Master Dogen instructed,
"In the end, he threw them into the sea."
"Zen monks should always bear in mind maintaining the way of practice of the buddhas and patriarchs."
"First of all, do not covet property. The depth of the compassion of the Tathagata cannot be fathomed even by analogies. Everything he did was for the sake of all living beings. He never did even the slightest thing which was not beneficial to living beings. Since he was the crown prince of the wheel-turning king, he could have ascended the throne and ruled the whole world as he liked. He could have cared for his disciples with treasures and raised them with his wealth. Why did he give up such a position and practice begging by himself? He refused to store up wealth and practiced begging for food because it was more beneficial for living beings in later generations and for his disciples in practicing the Way."
"Since then all well known patriarchs in India and China have lived in extreme poverty and practiced begging for food. All the patriarchs in our lineage have solely encouraged not accumulating wealth. Also, in the teaching-schools when people praise our school they primarily praise our attitude toward poverty. In the books handed down to this age as well, the poverty of Zen monks has been recorded and praised. I’ve never heard of anyone who was rich in material wealth who also carried out the buddha-dharma. All sincere practitioners of the buddha-dharma have worn patched rags and have always begged for food. The reason the Zen School was considered good and Zen monks different from others was that when Zen monks first lived among others in the temple buildings of the teaching or the precept-schools, they abandoned caring for their bodies and lived in poverty. We should remember this as the primary style of practice in this Zen school."
"Not clinging to wealth is not something we should look for written proof of in the holy scriptures. In my own case, I used to own land for farming as well as other property. I had my own wealth as well. Comparing the conditions of my body and mind then with my present condition of poverty, of barely possessing robes and bowls, I feel that my state of mind right now is better. This is the actual proof."
One day a monk came and asked Dogen about what to be careful of in learning the Way. Dogen replied,
“First of all, a person studying the Way should be poor. If you possess great wealth, you will definitely lose aspiration."
"If a lay person learning the Way still clings to wealth, covets comfortable housing, and keeps company with relatives, despite having the aspiration he will confront many obstacles in learning the Way."
"Although many lay people have learned the dharma since ancient times, even those who were known as good practitioners were no match for monks. Since monks do not possess any property except for three robes and one bowl, never worry about where to live, and are not greedy for food and clothing, they will obtain benefit as long as they devote themselves to learning the Way according to their capacity. This is because being poor is being intimate with the Way."
"Pang was a layman, but he was not inferior to the monks; his name has remained among Zen practitioners. When he began to learn Zen, he took all his family possessions and was about to throw them into the sea. People tried to dissuade him by saying, 'You should give them to others or use them for the sake of Buddhism.'"
"He replied to them, 'I am throwing them away because I think they are harmful. Since I know them to be harmful, how can I give them to others? Wealth is poison which sickens both body and mind.'"
"In the end, he threw them into the sea."
"After that, he made bamboo baskets and sold them to earn his living. Though he was a layman, because he abandoned his wealth, people thought he was a good person. So much more should a monk completely give up wealth" (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapters 7 and 11)
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Noted director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Sin City) directed the new video for our old friend Girl In a Coma, who opened for Xiu Xiu at the Drunken Unicorn back on March 6.
Also, in other music news, our old friends The Morning Benders performed the last show of their U.S. tour in support of their album Big Echo last night at New York's Webster Hall. Due to geographic challenges, I wasn't there, but I understand that they were joined on stage by Twin Sister's Andrea Estella for a cover of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams. It's been a big year for the Berkeley-based Morning Benders. Last night marked their 146th show since the tour began last March, and the other night I heard a sample from their song Excuses used as the background music in a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial. It's hard to get much more famous than that.
(photo from Brooklyn Vegan)
It's also been a good year for Long Island's Twin Sister and for Estella as well, and it's good to see that she had a chance to play Stevie Nicks on stage. The video below is the band performing the standout song from last August's show at Atlanta's redoubtable Earl, All Around and Away We Go. I plan on doing a remix of this song over the Thanksgiving holiday, but feel free to enjoy their version before I mangle it too badly.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Back in 2005, someone (an on-line acquaintance, but one who's musical taste I admired) recommended that I check out four new albums released that year. I managed to download all four of the albums, and although I really liked the first, Silent Alarm by Bloc Party, that band has since gone in a direction that was unimaginable from their fine first album, a direction that I'm not inclined to follow. But of all four bands, I was initially excited most about Bloc Party, and still enjoy hearing Silent Alarm if not their latter output.
But over the following years, I've continued to be a big fan of the other three bands. Spoon, whose Gimme Fiction was among the recommended albums, have only improved since 2005, and Metric, whose Live It Out was also among the recommended albums, also continue to release great music. I managed to see both of the these bands (Spoon and Metric) perform this year.
So that leaves one more band, the one that I finally saw perform last Friday night - Black Mountain. Back in 2005, I picked up their self-titled debut as recommended, and I've followed their output since that time. But before I discuss them any more, mention has to first be made of their opening act, Austin's Black Angels.
2010 has been a very good year for The Black Angels. Their latest album, Phosphene Dream, was released to uniformly good reviews, and has reached No. 6 on Rolling Stone's college radio chart. They've played on Letterman. If their tour opening for Black Mountain had started a month or two later, after their career exploded, they would probably be the headliner.
Their set Friday night was exceptional. Their music has been described as "a barrage of ghostly drones" and singer Alex Maas led the band on a tear through their set list. The band's two guitarists provided some incredible guitar work that would not have sounded out of place at a Big Brother & The Holding Company concert at the Fillmore West, circa 1968. They're obviously influenced by the louder output of The Velvet Underground - the band's name comes from the Velvet's Black Angel's Death Song, and a picture of the legendary Velvet singer Nico is featured on drummer Stephanie Bailey's bass drum.
Late in the set, the "barrage of ghostly drones" was interrupted by their single, Telephone, a pop song that almost sounds like it could be a cover of some 60s British Invasion band (fittingly, it's what they played on their appearance on Letterman). Bailey kept a steady, driving rhythm, playing her bass, tom and snare almost exclusively, and largely ignored the cymbals.
The Black Angels played a full, nearly 60-minute set, followed by a long intermission for Black Mountain to set up all of their equipment. Their stage crew performed what was probably the most meticulous sound check I've seen all year - the band are obviously perfectionists in getting their complex sound right, and their performance was worth every minute of the sound check.
Black Mountain's songs feature twin vocals by bandleader and guitarist Stephen McBean and singer Amber Webber over the band's heavy psych-rock riffs. It's a credit to both the band and The Earl's sound engineer that they got the balance right between the vocals and the instruments. Amber occasionally would get drowned out, only to have the engineer somehow get her voice back on top of the mix a line or two later. Their music has been described as psych-rock, and they sound a bit like some offspring of Deep Purple and Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young, with some Velvet Underground and numerous other influences thrown into the mix.
Anyway, they've become one of my favorite bands, and they sounded great in concert, blasting the room out during the parts of their songs that require blasting, dreamily carrying the audience along on the dreamy parts of their songs. They performed selections from all three of their albums, and like The Black Angles before them, played for well over an hour, followed by one short, single-song encore.
My ears rang for several hours afterwards, a fitting end to Rocktober. For those of you keeping score at home, Rocktober consisted of eleven bands in three weeks (Atlanta's Sealions and the aforementioned Metric at Vareity Playhouse, Thievery Corporation and Massive Attack at the Fox, Peter Wolf Crier, Vetiver and Dawes at Smith's Old Bar, Damian Jurado and Shearwater at The Earl, and finally The Black Angels and Black Mountain back at The Earl again). I blew off the planned Sufjan Stevens concert at Variety Playhouse - no disrespect to Stevens, but a slight case of mid-Rocktober burnout - and tickets never did materialize for the sold-out Mumford & Sons show, but still, it was a great run.
And now it's over. Time to clear my mind and get ready for Rohatsu.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Sunday, November 07, 2010
"Being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial. So thrive my soul; more light and light, more dark and dark our woes. Farewell, farewell. One kiss and I’ll descend. And trust me love, in my eye so do you: dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu." -Romeo Montague
Saturday, November 06, 2010
Last night, the ever-reliable Earl hosted a concert by Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado and Austin's Shearwater. I've decided that I probably won't post a "Best of" piece at the end of the year naming the best and worst concerts of 2010 (no one cares, and besides, how can one compare, say, Menomena, to, say, Laura Veirs?). But if I were to, last night's show would definitely be a contender.
Jurado didn't take the stage until 10:00 pm, but immediately justified the time that we had spent standing around and waiting. To give you some idea of just how awesome an evening this was, here's the video for Jurado's song Arkansas:
Dark stuff, but that's Jurado's stock in trade. I've been a fan of his ever since the release this year of Saint Bartlett, his latest album which features Arkansas and the equally awesome Cloudy Shoes, two songs, incidentally, that he played back-to-back last night. Although he's accompanied by a small band on Saint Bartlett, last night at the Earl, Jurado took the stage alone and unaccompanied. He used two microphones, one with an echo effect to capture some of the orchestration in his songs, such as in the choral bridge of Arkansas. Despite the spare arrangement, just a man and a guitar, he kept the audience spellbound with his songs.
I would have come out to see him play even if he were the only performer of the evening. But he was merely the opening act for Shearwater, an eclectic quintet of multi-instrumentalists. Their set opened on a tribal/primitive note, with drummer Thor using mallets to play some sort of handmade zither strapped around his neck.
Thor, it's been said, looks exactly like what you'd want a drummer named "Thor" to look like.
Bandleader Jonathan Meiburg sang mostly in the upper reaches of his vocal range in a Thom Yorke/Radiohead kind of way, and instrumentally alternated between keyboards and guitar, with other band members filling in the gaps as needed.
To give you an idea of what their ethereal music sounds like, here's a fan-produced video for their song Castaways:
Here she's bowing the vibraphone for an other-worldly effect (there were many such effects at various times last night):
The Darwin guy (I didn't catch his name, but he wore a Charles Darwin t-shirt) played guitar, bass, and keyboards (he's sitting at the Nord Electro 3 below as the band's other multi-instrumentalist plays trumpet).
But Meiburg was clearly the front man. He led Shearwater through songs that ranged from ethereal chamber pop to shoegaze to fast-paced, Talking-Heads-style new wave. Originally from Tennessee, Thor announced that Meiburg's parents were in attendance for last evening's show. For the first song of their encore, Meiburg came on stage alone and sang a powerful and moving song a cappella before the rest of the band came on stage and joined him.
Friday, November 05, 2010
Here, for our Friday Night Video, are our old friends The Morning Benders stretching their creativity and their musical boundaries a little (in three-quarters time).
Enjoy . . . and also - and more importantly - here's wishing a speedy recovery to Mettai Cherry!
Thursday, November 04, 2010
Meanwhile, back in Rocktober . . . I didn't get a chance yet to upload my pictures from Saturday night's concert at Smith's Old Bar. The evening got off to a late start since Dawes tour van apparently got a flat tire coming from an in-store appearance at Criminal Records. The doors, which were supposed to open at 8:00 p.m., didn't open until after 9:00 and the first of three bands finally got started.
Peter Wolf Crier at Smith's Old Bar, October 30, 2010, making good use of tape loops to sing over his own vocals and to make about as much music at two musicians on stage could (his drummer is not visible in this picture):
The very pleasantly surprising Vetiver at Smith's Old Bar, October 30, 2010, playing a very long set, probably to allow Dawes to settle in after their tire adventures in Little Five Points:
And finally Dawes at Smith's Old Bar, October 30, 2010, who didn't finally take the stage until after midnight and were still playing when I finally left at 1 am (I had newcomers at the Zen Center the next morning):