Sunday, September 18, 2016

Quilt / Mutual Benefit / Soft Healer - Live 2016.09.16

Artists: Quilt / Mutual Benefit / Soft Healer
Venue: Antone's
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 September 2016

Mutual Benefit's setlist:
01. Madrugada →
02. Skipping Stones →
03. Closer, Still
04. Statue of a Man
05. Lost Dreamers
06. Passenger →
07. Auburn Epitaphs
08. Moonville Tunnel
09. Strong Swimmer
10. Stargazer →
11. That Light That's Blinding
12. Advanced Falconry
13. Getting Gone
14. Golden Wake

Quilt's setlist:
01. Passersby
02. Young Gold
03. Saturday Bride
04. Eliot St.
05. Roller
06. Searching For
07. Arctic Shark
08. Hissing My Plea
09. Penobska Oakwalk
10. Tie Up the Tides
11. Secondary Swan
12. Talking Trains

Local Austin band Soft Healer started out the night. They are a four piece with a vocalist/bassist, a lead guitarist, a drummer, and a keyboardist/vocalist. Their music was sparse, mysterious, and just barely groovy. They managed to remind me a bit of Can's astral jams with lead guitar inspired by the "desert guitar" of bands like Bombino and Songhoy Blues. However, while the bass and drums were solid, the guitar was occasionally a bit weak, and the keyboards were too low in the mix. I liked the openness of their sound and the unusual combination of styles and sounds they presented, but they could still do some work on dynamics and focus.

The main draw of the night for me was Mutual Benefit. Of the three times I have seen them in Austin, this venue seemed to be the best-suited for them, and for once the sound quality was actually decent. The first time I saw them was at a terrible temporary venue for SXSW, where they played a short set plagued by sound problems, but I appreciated the fullness provided by their seven-piece lineup. The next time, the band appeared as a four piece without violins or bass, and again the sound at the venue could've been better. This time, they again appeared as a four piece, but with an altered configuration. Bandleader Jordan Lee handled lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, banjo, and loops as usual, and Mike Clifford and Dillon Zahner returned on lead guitar and drums/backing vocals, respectively. But in place of Jordan's sister Whitney on keyboards/accordion/vocals, there was a bassist/flutist that went unintroduced and whose name I cannot find.

In the previous incarnation, I complained about the lack of bottom end and the confusion of the higher frequencies. This time, the high end was much clearer and well-defined, and while the low end was much fuller, the bass was too low in the mix, and many songs seemed to be missing central parts and melodies. Dillon's vocals were subtle but excellent, and the bassist did occasionally switch to flute for some of the higher melodic components (such as the main keyboard riff of "Golden Wake"), but the sound would have been much more complete had regular collaborator and violinist Jake Falby been present. He was part of the core of musicians that contributed to the new album, Skip a Sinking Stone, and was featured prominently in the great early version of "Not for Nothing" featured on the Shaking Through webseries. Whitney was also missed, and since she apparently lives in Austin, I was hoping she might make a guest appearance, but that did not materialize.

None of those considerations should be taken as a criticism of the performers that were present: the quartet all played well and created a warm, mellow bed of sound punctuated with Jordan's pleasing melodies and a decent rhythm section. Although there was a pretense of rock, the band generally kept to a rather modest energy level. In fact, if there's a critique to be made, it's that they were almost too restrained. The fact that the songs were a little under-arranged only reinforced that notion.

Nonetheless, their songs have such an easy, comfortable appeal that it was still a captivating experience. Their setlist was evenly split between the new album, Love's Crushing Diamond, and older EP tracks. It was a bit odd that they only played five of the twelve tracks from the new album, while they also played five of seven slightly longer songs from the previous album. They didn't even play the best song from Skip a Sinking Stone, the sorta-single "Not for Nothing"! I didn't miss most of the lesser second half of the album, but I was still hoping for "Many Returns".

[Mutual Benefit.]

The audience shuffled about quite a bit between sets, but surged towards the front of the room when Quilt took the stage. Their regular lineup of Anna Fox Rochinski (vocals/guitar), Shane Butler (guitar/vocals), Keven Lareau (bass/vocals) and John Andrews (drums/vocals) was augmented on this tour by keyboardist June West, who greatly added to the fullness of their sound.

They slowly worked into the lead track of their new album, Plaza, which gave the band a chance to show off their sublime folk harmonies and their psychedelic guitar explorations. The effortlessness with which they unassumingly wield their voices in harmony was truly fascinating to behold, and the guitarwork was great without being a spectacle of pure show. Their bassist was also talented and kept a great groove while occasionally even contributing clever melodic additions.

While some of their songs were surprisingly short, most seemed to be extended into free jam territory. They never strayed too far away from the core song or let themselves meander into blandness. Some of the best songs, such as "Tie Up the Tides" and "Secondary Swans", exploded into great instrumental passages, but then returned back into new sections of the song with lyrics. It all flowed together seamlessly.

I was surprised that, much like Mutual Benefit, Quilt played for just under an hour. There were calls for an encore, and it wasn't even quite midnight yet, but the show was over.


Soft Healer: B-
Mutual Benefit: B
Quilt: A-
Skip a Sinking Stone: B+

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Man and the Scientist - The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof (2016)

Artist: The Man and the Scientist
Album: The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof
Release Date: 15 July 2016
Label: Self-released (via bandcamp)

01. Anubis
02. Bar-D-Que
03. The Sound of a Bumble Bee Keistering Pollen
04. 60/60 Vision: Right Eye
05. Toad Spokes
06. God Likes America As a Friend
07. Reverse Mechanics
08. Eavesdropping on Your Own Funeral
09. Happy Birthday Forever
10. 60/60 Vision: Left Eye
11. Do You Guys Give Up, or Are You Thirsty for More?
12. I Like to Count to 4 As Much As the Next Guy
13. It's All for You Damien [hidden track]

The Man and the Scientist is the collaborative project of Brad Schumacher (Night Grinder, The Least Comma, Street Justice, etc.) and Josh King (Tornado Head/The Everest Ruin, The Last Glacier, The Oust, and so on). They've worked on a series of other projects together as well, including some (full disclosure!) that have included myself (e.g., Baal's Beacon). Both enjoy building their own instruments and both have deep roots in noise and experimental music. However, Josh has a deep catalog of singer-songwriter, rock, and jazz-oriented material, while Brad has operated in variety of post-industrial affairs.

Their earliest performances and albums as a duo (Pornucopia, 2007, and Duke Brunch, 2007/2008) were primarily oriented around pure, experimental noise. Guitars were only present as inputs into noise rigs, just like the copious use of contact mics. Caves, recorded in 2009, espoused a more placid, practically ambient sound, with relatively clean guitar as a primary instrument. Their most recent album, a collaboration with Falsetto Boy/Cup Collector/Jim Fitzpatrick (Top Teeth, 2014, credited to Falsetto Man & the Scientist), married drum machines and synth-like noise with improvisational guitar and bass.

The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof takes this wide array of sounds and styles and brings them together. "Anubis" starts off the album with a heavy, aggressive, almost metal sound, recalling Brad's earliest punk days and the most intense moments of The Last Glacier. "Bar-D-Que" is a brief jolt of thick layers of static, noise, and radio garbage, which abruptly leads into another short blast of energy, "The Sound of a Bumble Bee Keistering Pollen". The percussion, consisting of a fast-paced metallic rhythm and what sound like tuned bells or bars, resembles Einstürzende Neubauten.

From there, the intensity takes a step down and the band explore ideas introduced from the members' assorted other projects. Unlike previous albums, in which the two core personalities were welded together to form one cohesive, overarching sound, this album reveals distinct, discernible elements of the specific interests of both members. The album has myriad sonic colors, although much of the album aligns roughly into two divisions.

Both "60/60 Vision" pieces, "Eavesdropping on Your Own Funeral", and "I Like to Count to 4 As Much As the Next Guy" are strikingly melody-oriented and almost peaceful. This isn't ambient music, though, as the sinister keyboard in "Left Eye", the chiming guitars of "Eavesdropping", and the dark synth tones of "Count to 4" make clear. Furthermore, while "Eavesdropping" has a light, pastoral mood, the title and theme are less comfortable. Part of the pleasure of these songs lies in the sophisticated bass work, which serves as a reminder that both Schumacher and King have gravitated towards the instrument in their recent work.

The opposite side of the spectrum is embodied by "God Likes America As a Friend", "Happy Birthday Forever", and the Home Alone-referencing "Do You Guys Give Up, or Are You Thirsty for More?". These are noisier songs, deliberately ugly and unsettling in places. "God Likes America" might go on too long after it makes its point clear, but the ridiculous sound collage of "Happy Birthday" is mildly hilarious after you get past the challenging listening experience. "Do You Guys Give Up" is a brutally self-aware statement to put near the end of a 56-minute noise album, but if you put the sparse soundscape in the perspective of Kevin McCallister booby-trapping his house against thieves, it too becomes more captivating. Even Brad's suppressed laugh fits the storyline.

"Reverse Mechanics" is the song most deliberately reminiscent of Brad's work as Night Grinder. The tense, hyperactive, squelchy drums and noise rig explosions would put the song right in line with Immediate Content (2014). On the other hand, "Toad Spokes" could practically be a b-side from Josh's Super Platformer (2014). The video game-like keyboards, the stilted rhythm, and even the bizarre spoken/rant section have the same sense of retro-futuristic otherworldliness.

The lone outlier is the final, hidden track, "It's All for You Damien". It consists simply of a conversation between the principals about a third person, a loud burst of noise, and then a conversation about shopping for electronics at Goodwill. It's not a particularly musical track, but if you've made it that far and can keep up with the humor, it feels like a coda, or a reminder of the human context that such unusual sounds and textures were born from.

The Invisible Hand Is a Hoof is the work of an experimental band that isn't done growing. It shares a few elements and a lot of the spirit of previous albums, but it is firmly a series of steps in a number of new directions for the duo. For fans of either member's other projects, it's a pleasure to hear them transform similar ideas into a different space for this project. This may be their most compelling album yet.

Friday, August 5, 2016

case/lang/viers / Andy Shauf - Live 2016.08.03

I heard about this show two days before it took place. I had already been surprised by how much I liked their brand-new album, and even though I also saw a show the night before, this seemed like too good and rare of an opportunity to pass up.

Artist: case/lang/veirs
Venue: The Long Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 3 August 2016
Opening Act: Andy Shauf

01. Atomic Number
02. Honey and Smoke
03. Song for Judee
04. Delirium
05. Blue Fires
06. Greens of June
07. Down I-5
08. 1000 Miles Away
09. I Can See Your Tracks [Laura Veirs song]
10. Margaret vs. Pauline [Neko Case song]
11. Helpless [Neil Young cover; lead vocals by k.d. lang]
12. Super Moon
13. July Flame [Laura Veirs song]
14. Sorrow Nevermore [k.d. lang song]
15. Man [Neko Case song]
16. Georgia Stars

Encore 1:
17. Best Kept Secret
18. Hold On, Hold On [Neko Case song]
19. Constant Craving [k.d. lang song]

Encore 2:
20. People Have the Power [Patti Smith cover]
21. I Want to Be Here

The show started with Andy Shauf playing slow, heavy, doom-laden chords on an electric guitar while mostly hidden in the dark. His rhythm didn't change when he started singing, nor when his band unobtrusively joined in. The drummer restrained himself with a tiny, tight kit. The bassist played as few notes as possible. The keyboardist was the only musician to really stretch out his sound, but his actual parts were still rather plain. I was expecting Shauf to take a big lead, or to open up his voice, but neither happened.

After the first overlong song finally came to an abrupt end, Shauf loosened up a bit, but the basic pattern didn't change. Shauf stuck to rhythm guitar, which he was quite good with, but the music was often left without melody or even much character. Most of the songs were fairly downbeat, there weren't really any solos or lead parts, and most of the songs ended with an unfinished feeling. Shauf seemed a bit awkward, yet managed to come off somewhat humorous, which was at least something of a counterpoint to the music. While he may be a decent songwriter, his vocals were unspectacular and the music never quite took off.

[Andy Shauf.]

When Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs came out, they lined up in an ellipse and launched into the opening track of their new collaborative album, case/lang/veirs. They continued in a run of songs all from the new album, initially following the tracklisting but increasingly diverging as they went along. As the opening of the album is quite strong, the performance started on a high note, but right about the point at which the album starts to lose its focus, the live performance kept up the energy by introducing songs from the various members' solo work. With the addition of each other's backing vocals, these older songs blended in reasonably well and brought an extra degree of audience adulation.

The three principles seemed genuinely thrilled to be on stage together, joking with each other and supporting each other's efforts. Veirs was a bit less at ease than the other two; Case and lang took the stage with natural grace. However, Veirs was also the one playing guitar on just about every song, while Case only played guitar for a few songs, and lang only took a banjo for "Sorrow Nevermore". Their backing band carried the songs through, but rarely took the spotlight. Guitarist Johnny Sangster and keyboardist/trombonist Steve Moore both took a few brief solos, but filled most of the sonic spectrum underneath the vocals. (Both occasionally sang into microphones, but I never could discern their contributions.) Drummer Barbara Gruske and bassist Lex Price were both solid performers as well.

[Veirs, lang, and Case.]

The three singers share some common ground, such as some country leanings, but they have fairly distinct styles. Lang is probably the most popular (certainly the punters indicated as much), and her songs were accordingly the most straightforwardly pop-oriented. She also has the best voice of the three, which she used to her full ability. Case is something of an indie rock icon, known for her casual style, unclear lyrics, and strong vocals. Veirs is the one I know least about, but her approach seemed more rooted in folk music. While she too possesses a good voice, she unfortunately wielded it in a slightly affected manner. However, it would be entirely unfair to label her a weak leak, especially considering that she wrote or cowrote every song on the album. (Of the fourteen tracks, four are credited to all three, two to Case and Veirs, four to lang and Veirs, and four to Veirs alone.)

These variations of sound and style did not detract from the performance, but rather enhanced it. It felt like I was getting the best of several worlds all at once, and excellent vocal harmonies on top of it all. Almost every song was a well-crafted effort of songwriting, honed for accessible appeal yet possessing emotional depth. The lyrics were good, the singing was superb, and the musicianship irreproachable.

"Helpless" may be a somewhat melodramatic song, but it remains one of Neil Young's classics and I can't help but like it. This trio's take was based on fellow Canadian k.d. lang's cover, starting with a unique bassline, gradually building up lang's vocals, and eventually introducing Case and Veirs' CSN-like harmonies. This song was one of the first that really excited the crowd, and the next to do so was lang's "Sorrow Nevermore". Before the latter, she invited the audience to approach the stage. This was readily obliged, particularly after she described her banjo as a "chick magnet".

[Veirs, Case, and lang on banjo.]

Both encores went over well, although I was surprised that Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" didn't receive the same level of apparent appreciation as "Helpless" or some of lang and Case's songs. I've always been a big Smith fan, and she seems to have a reasonably sized fanbase, but I can never tell who actually likes her and who doesn't. Anyway, the singers split up each verse into thirds for each to sing one of, and they all joined in for the big chorus. They took the anthemic nature of the original and made the most of it. The final number, "I Want to Be Here", was also a showcase for the collaborative vocal efforts of the trio.

Veirs mentioned at one point that this was probably a one-off project and a unique tour unlikely to be repeated. It felt like something special, and it was a lucky experience to see three such talented people in a room together all at once. They managed the rare feat of building off each other's strengths and making something better than the sum of their parts.

Andy Shauf: C
case/lang/veirs: A

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Woods / Cian Nugent - Live 2016.08.02

I was supposed to see Woods at Levitation earlier this year. Obviously, that didn't happen!

Artist: Woods
Venue: The Sidewinder
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 2 August 2016
Opening Act: Cian Nugent

I was getting a bit concerned when the scheduled start time of 8pm rolled around and nothing was happening. Maybe the venue had deceived us, hoping to get more people in the door, and actually expected to start a half-hour late. 8:30 came and went with no activity. Around 8:45, I finally recognized the members of Woods moving around on stage. Right as I concluded that the opener must have no-showed, I heard an "excuse me" in a decidedly Irish accent right behind me. It was Cian Nugent, carrying three guitars. He briefly conversed with Woods up on stage and they cleared off, leaving him just about ten minutes before their scheduled set time of 9pm. The house music finally quieted. Cian apologized for his delay, blamed a mix-up with time zones, and said he still had time for two songs.

[Cian Nugent.]

Cian played what looked like an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar pickup bolted over the sound hole. The combination gave him a tone that was beautifully clear, crisp, and sharp, yet still has the fullness of an acoustic guitar. Cian's lyrics were surprisingly well put together, but his voice was decidedly secondary to his easygoing but intricate fingerpicking patterns. He even managed brief, melodic solos in both songs. I was disappointed that I didn't get to see more of him, as he certainly had promise. I liked his bluesy folk feel and thought that with more time on the stage he could have really shown some outstanding guitar skills.

Immediately after Cian stepped down, Woods came up on stage. They started out as a five-piece with Jeremy Earl on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jarvis Taveniere on lead guitar and mostly inaudible backing vocals, Aaron Neveu on drums, Chuck Van Dyck on bass, and new member Kyle Forester on keyboards, percussion, and excellent harmony vocals. They started with four songs in a slightly psychedelic vein of folk. I loved the basswork, and the songs were reasonably good, but I quickly began to tire of the steadiness of the sound.


At just about that time, Woods brought out guest trumpeter Cole Karmen-Green, Forester picked up a saxophone, and Earl switched to an electric guitar. The music took a radical jump towards a vibrant take on jazz. These songs were presumably from their latest album, City Sun Eater in the River of Light. The brass section was superb, the energy level picked up dramatically, and Earl started taking wild, extended guitar solos. Van Dyck's basswork only got better, and Neveu's rhythms got noticeably more interesting, but Taveniere seemed to fade into a corner. His guitar and vocals were both mixed low, and with Earl on lead, it didn't seem like there was much space left for him. Regardless, the subset of songs in that configuration was the strongest part of the set.

Karmen-Green left after this run of jazzy songs, and from then on the band pursued a third sonic path, rooted in their folk side but more willing to branch into psychedelic rock. Earl switched between acoustic and electric guitars, and Taveniere occasionally played more visible lead parts. Compared to the first few songs, the last part of the show was decidedly more upbeat and jammy, but it didn't approach the jovial jazzy experimentation of the middle section.

[Woods with Cole Karmen-Green.]

The band maintained a low-key, friendly demeanor that I appreciated for its honesty. For example, a particular audience member loudly and repeatedly requested the song "Make Time for Kitty" from the band's debut, How to Survive In/In the Woods (2005). Forester eventually responded and explained to the audience that there was a small contingent of fans that advocated for that song. He seemed willing to play it, and told Earl, "It feels right. Tonight should be the night." The rest of the band were clearly uninterested. Forester offered to play his own rendition, but then admitted that he couldn't actually do it.

I went to the show without really knowing what to expect. I came away pleased. Woods played a rather tight set of about 75 minutes, and after the first batch of songs, it was a solid show. It wasn't that those first songs were bad, but in comparison to what followed, they seemed less exciting. This wasn't helped by Earl's voice, which is naturally rather soft and vague, but was mixed in such a way as to be particularly clouded and mostly indecipherable. Otherwise, I liked their general sound, but what really made the band stand out was the jazzier material from the new album. It represents a laudable departure from their previously recorded work that I hope will continue to bring fruitful results.

Cian Nugent: B
Woods: B+

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Cure / The Twilight Sad - Live 2016.05.13

Artist: The Cure
Venue: Frank Erwin Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 13 Friday 2016
Opening Act: The Twilight Sad

The Twlight Sad's setlist (thanks to here):
1. There's a Girl in the Corner
2. Last January
3. I Became a Prostitute
4. I Could Give You All That You Don't Want
5. Cold Days From the Birdhouse
6. It Never Was the Same
7. And She Would Darken the Memory

The Cure's setlist:
01. Out of This World
02. Pictures of You
03. Closedown
04. A Night Like This
05. All I Want
06. Push
07. Last Dance
08. Lovesong
09. Just Like Heaven
10. This Twilight Garden
11. Lullaby
12. Fascination Street
13. Screw
14. The End of the World
15. Want
16. Us or Them
17. The Hungry Ghost
18. Prayers for Rain
19. Bloodflowers

Encore 1:
20. Step Into the Light
21. Shake Dog Shake
22. Never Enough
23. Wrong Number

Encore 2:
24. Hot Hot Hot!!!
25. Close to Me
26. The Exploding Boy
27. In Between Days
28. Doing the Unstuck
29. Friday I'm in Love

Encore 3:
30. Burn
31. It Can Never Be the Same

Encore 4:
32. A Forest
33. Boys Don't Cry

The Twilight Sad are a Scottish band merging post-punk roots inspired by the likes of The Cure with a more contemporary indie rock sound and effects-laden guitar straight from the shoegazing canon. Despite the scheduled set time of 7:30pm (already fairly early), they actually went on ten minutes early. That was a first for me. I liked the keyboards and vocals, and the guitar was great, but the drums were loud and overpowered the other instruments, especially the bass. This could have just been a product of where I was sitting, but it worked against them. On the slower and more open sections where the drums were less intense, the rest of the instruments became much clearer and distinct, which made me wish they all sounded like that. I had trouble understanding the vocalist, but I still liked the general direction of the songs. Robert Smith has made his fondness of the band well-known, and it's easy to understand why.

[The Cure.]

I've seen The Cure twice before: a disappointing show during 2008 in Kansas City when Robert Smith was sick, and a better, albeit abbreviated, headlining set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2013. This time, my expectations were tempered by my previous experiences, but I was still hoping for a solid, full set to make up for those shortcomings.

As usual, the setlist was a mix of material from throughout their long history, but most biased towards their most popular and critically acclaimed era, spanning roughly 1985 through 1989 (i.e., The Head on the Door; Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me; and Disintegration). They don't play much from their last two albums or their somewhat maligned Wild Mood Swings from 1996, but the songs they do pick from those tend to be the same choices every time, and it speaks plenty about the mediocrity of the production of those albums that the songs in question sound much better when performed live. "The End of the World" was never a very good song, but "Want" and "The Hungry Ghost" actually fit right in with the rest of the material. Even "Us or Them" turned out decently.

Otherwise, they consistently do a great job of appeasing both casual and diehard fans. They played just about all of their big hits, but they also played a wealth of deep album cuts ("Closedown", "All I Want", and "Screw" were somewhat unexpected delights), a few really old songs ("Shake Dog Shake", "A Forest", "Boys Don't Cry"), two new songs, and even two b-sides. Other special treats were "Burn", a grand, looming song from the soundtrack of The Crow, and two superior cuts from Bloodflowers, their last great album. I could always ask for more of the really old material, but they played so many great songs, including a lot of surprising choices, that it wouldn't be fair to complain about the setlist. It is kind of ridiculous that they played over half the songs from Disintegration, but I doubt anyone is going to argue about that.

Both of the b-sides were excellent songs that sometimes make one wonder how songs that good could end up left as flipsides. "This Twilight Garden", a b-side of "High" from 1992, is a dreamy, darkly pretty song that was better than half of the songs that actually were on Wish, and "The Exploding Boy", a b-side of "In Between Days" from 1985, is an uptempo number that is almost as good as the a-side. These are the type of songs that make Join the Dots (the b-sides and rarities collection from 2004) worth owning.

Both new songs were reasonably good, if not outstanding. "Step Into the Light" was somewhat by the numbers, but "It Can Never Be the Same" was more sprawling and had more depth to it. I'm curious if these are from the large set of unfinished songs from the 4:13 Dream sessions or if they are more recent compositions. More importantly, does this imply that The Cure are finally readying a new album for release? (It's only been eight years!)

I'm glad that The Cure tour as a five-piece again. The Cure without a keyboardist isn't really The Cure (unless they are playing Three Imaginary Boys), and Roger O'Donnell has proven himself an integral member of the band, so I'm glad he is back in the fold. However, Reeves Gabrels still strikes me as an unsuitable replacement for Porl/Pearl Thompson. Reeves' guitarwork is too flashy and aggressive for The Cure; these songs demand melody, grace, subtlety, and careful tonality, not blazing, roaring solos. When Reeves played the songs by the numbers, they worked fine, but when he stepped out into his own ground, such as in "Wrong Number" or the solo in "A Night Like This", the songs suffered from his showmanship. "Shake Dog Shake" and "Never Enough" fared somewhat better; his wild abandon mostly worked with the unrestrained energy of both songs.

Drummer Jason Cooper tends to be overlooked, but he plays the parts of his predecessor drummers with effortless ease. All of the little drum flourishes of "Prayers for Rain" were right where they should be, and the toms-heavy parts of songs like "Closedown" were right on the mark. Similarly, it can also be easy to forget that Simon Gallup's bass contributions are fundamental to the sound of the band, but on stage, he was visibly driving every single song. His bass was pleasantly prominent without being overwhelming, and he was also the only member that really moved around on stage much.

Robert Smith's instrumental work is as solid as ever, and he still took a few solos, such as in "Lovesong", "Prayers for Rain", and "A Forest". He even brought out a flute for the intro to "Burn". His vocals aren't quite what they once were, but he mostly avoided the squealing, yelping style that has characterized the last two albums, the re-recorded vocals on some of the demos on the older album reissues, and the last Cure concert I saw. Actually, this was probably the best vocal performance I've heard from him in a long time. The only noticeably weak moment was at the end of "In Between Days", when it became obvious that Robert couldn't hit the final notes of the "without you" line in the higher octave. He didn't even try and instead sung them in the lower range used for the rest of the song.

[What a great way to waste electricity during the encore break.]

It's amazing that the Cure can still sell out stadiums despite not having released an album in eight years, and it's not like their last two albums were particularly good, either. I suppose the fact that they have enough strong back-catalog material to play incredibly long sets that vary significantly from night to night is probably a big part of their draw. It certainly worked for me. Even with a few weak songs and the occasionally indulgent guitarwork from Gabrels, this was the Cure concert I wish I'd seen back in 2008.

The Twilight Sad: B-
The Cure: A-

Monday, May 2, 2016

Levitation 2016 Day 1

Levitation has a bit of a mixed track record, although I still think it's the best festival in town in terms of the quality of the music, which is of course the most important criterion anyway. Last year, I was so frustrated by the failure of the shuttle system that I wasn't sure I wanted to come back this year. (The rainstorms and mud didn't help, either.) However, they once again put together an incredible lineup and I decided to give it another go. In fact, I bought tickets for both Friday and Saturday.

As I'm sure everyone has heard by now, the festival was canceled as of 5pm on Thursday. Heavy thunderstorms were looming once again, and the festival site was already worse for wear from storms throughout the last week. The organizers rushed to put together as many shows at local venues as they could manage, but unfortunately most of them sold out as soon as they went on sale, as the demand was understandably out of control. I failed to procure any tickets, but decided to try to see what I could see anyway.

Event: Levitation 2016 Day 1
Venues: KUTX Studio 1A and Scoot Inn
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 29 April 2016

Details about the make-up shows were a bit scarce and initially available only through Facebook and Twitter. The Austin Chronicle began keeping track of them, and I saw that one of the bands I was interested in, Dungen, would be making an appearance at KUTX. I mentioned this to a friend, and he immediately was on board, so we rushed to the University of Texas campus, found a parking spot, and made it to the radio station studio just in time to be let in.

All I knew about Dungen was that they were Swedish and occupied a space somewhere between psych, folk, and prog. The started playing something that sounded like standard-issue indie rock, but driven by a grand piano and a prominent bass. However, as the song progressed, it gradually turned into a serious prog rock jam. It slowly wound down, but without really pausing, the band started into the next song, which led into another tremendous jam. At the end of the third iteration of this pattern, someone whispered in the singer's ear and they brought the show to an end. They only played for fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was a fantastic journey. The instrumental work was top-notch, the harmonies were transcendent, and the jams were captivating without being excessive. It was just a shame they didn't get more time.

[Dungen at KUTX.]

It was before, during, and immediately after this set that the fiasco of the make-up show tickets occurred. Around 2:30, Levitation announced a series of make-up gigs, with a claim that ticket holders would have advance access. This took the form of an email sent at about 2:50 that contained the same links to Transmission Events ticketing pages that were available on the Levitation website. The tickets were supposed to go on sale at either 3 or 3:30 (reports varied), but it fact they appeared to go on sale at variable times throughout the hour. I tried my best, but I did not get tickets for anything. They all sold out with incredible speed. There was really only one that I was really, really interested in, though: Slowdive with Brian Jonestown Massacre and Twin Peaks at the Scoot Inn. In desperation, I scoured the internet for scalpers, but I could only find others looking for the same tickets.

At this point, it was clear that it wasn't actually going to rain that day. This matters, because Scoot Inn is an outdoor venue. Admittedly, it was odd that an event that was canceled due to weather would be moved in part to an outdoor venue, but I guess it worked out. I decided to head to the venue and try my chances at getting a ticket on the spot. I biked on down and quickly realized I was one of many looking for a ticket. I gave up as soon as I realized that there was a grassy parking lot adjacent to the venue's stage that was full of people hoping to catch some of the scattered sound waves. I found a decent spot where I could see the speaker racks on stage, sat down, and waited to see what happened. This was my view when Twin Peaks went on:

[Twin Peaks at Scoot Inn.]

It wasn't a perfect experience, but I was excited for the show and figured it was worth making the most of it. Realistically, I couldn't see anything, and the audio wasn't as good as I'm sure it was inside, but I could still hear enough to enjoy it. (It also helped to have a friend join me and bring beer.) I'm going to do my best to review what I heard, although my scores will be admittedly somewhat tentative. I doubt my experience truly represents what the bands offered to the people inside.

Twin Peaks played a sort of catchy but rather generic garage rock. They seemed to play rock 'n' roll fairly straight and by-the-numbers, but I appreciated that they did have some finesse about it. They were skilled at dropping in little rhythmic flourishes and shifts that kept their set from getting too boring. They didn't seem particularly sophisticated, but they sounded better than their studio work had led me to expect.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre were up next. I actually saw them at Levitation two years ago, back when it was still Austin Psych Fest, and they were the topmost headliner after Primal Scream dropped out. That time around, they played good music, but they went on late, only played for 45 minutes, and were plagued by sound issues. This year there were no major sound problems, but they still only played for about an hour since they weren't the headliner. They again featured an abundance of guitarists that all mostly played the same thing, and while it did make for a fairly big, warm sound, it also was a somewhat monolithic or monotonous sound. They played consistently good grooves, but rarely played something really thrilling. The vocals had a characteristic sort of lazy, stoned quality to them, which contributed to a fairly mellow mood despite their classic rock obsessions. The side of their music more akin to shoegazing, as represented by their early album Methodrone (from which they played "She's Gone"), came to the fore. I suppose it was only appropriate considering the headliner, although I may have just been reading into it because of the pairing, and my removed location may have influenced my perception as well. An incomplete setlist can be found here.

[Brian Jonestown Massacre at Scoot Inn.]

Finally, Slowdive came on stage. Here's the setlist (with some help from here):

01. Slowdive
02. Avalyn
03. Catch the Breeze
04. Crazy for You
05. Machine Gun
06. Souvlaki Space Station
07. When the Sun Hits
08. Morningrise
09. She Calls
10. Alison
11. Golden Hair (James Joyce/Syd Barrett cover)

Ever since they reunited in 2014, Slowdive have relied on a fairly regular setlist for their shows. It's hard to complain, though, since it's a solid collection of songs. It is quite biased towards Souvlaki, and includes more EP tracks than anything from either other album, but that's probably a fair representation of their best work. Naturally, they started with the eponymous "Slowdive" from their debut self-titled EP.

Slowdive also have a tendency to let their three guitarists meld their sound together into one big sound, but they make it work more successfully. While The Brian Jonestown Massacre aim for a thick chorus effect, Slowdive develop a gigantic wall of sound. They rely on a variety of guitar effects, driving bass, and airy vocals to build up their desired atmosphere. It makes for a beautiful and hazy sound that just washes over you in waves. While the music flowed past, the vocals were mostly indecipherable, although that's fairly par for the cource with shoegazing acts. At any rate, the music was somewhat heavier and more intense than on record, which may reveal the insufficiencies of the production available to them at the time. At the point in "When the Sun Hits" where the song really picks up, it felt huge. It's already a great song on record, but this performance felt transcendent. Some other songs admittedly seemed a bit vague and meandering, but most of them were a wonderful experience to bask in.

Final Thoughts: This was a strange day by any metric. It was very disappointing to have the festival canceled, especially with such short notice, but it would seem that Travis County made the call and that was that. (Apparently the flooding concerns were bad enough that the Lower Colorado River Authority decreed that camping by the river would not be permissible.) Although Friday was ultimately a clear day, overnight it stormed heavily. Levitation and Carson Creek Ranch posted pictures the following morning showing the devastating results: thoroughly flooded grounds, knocked-down fences and portapotties, and destroyed tents. It turns out they made the right call. (Amazingly, there were claims floating around the internet that Levitation conspired to cancel the event since it didn't sell out and they could recoup the insurance benefits. This makes no sense when you consider that the festival has never sold out.)

Despite my frustration and disappointment, I can't really say I'm upset, since it was clear that Levitation wasn't happy with the situation and was trying to make the most of it. I was far angrier after the shuttle situation of last year. However, while I sympathize with Levitation and trust that they are a committed, local organization dedicated more to the music than to the money, that's not to say they handled everything as well as they could have.

Levitation did a great job of putting together last minute shows all weekend, but disseminating the details was occasionally difficult. On the positive side, the shows were all $5 (or free) and all proceeds went to the Austin Relief Alliance. Much less positive was the fact that ticket holders were not actually given any sort of advance opportunity to purchase these tickets, despite the initial claim. This was particularly unfortunate for people that had traveled from out of town; all of their planning and early orders did nothing for them. In fact, the line of people that formed outside Scoot Inn for the Slowdive show got entirely screwed over. Supposedly, despite initial promises that they'd get the first chance at tickets, they were told at the last minute that they'd too have to use the overburdened website to try to buy tickets like everyone else. Since the tickets were cheap and could be bought in sets of up to four, there was a lot of complaining about scalpers, although I'm not actually sure how much of that really occurred. I've heard one report of a $75 resale, but not much else.

In the end, I still got to listen to two of the bands I wanted to see, and I caught a brief set of another, and that was all for free. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was better than nothing. I was far from alone; they were multiple hundreds of people in the fields and on the street around Scoot Inn, and I'd bet many of the other make-up venues had external crowds. I'm very disappointed that I lost my chance to see David J and the Gentlemen Thieves, and I missed out on Brian Wilson, Animal Collective, Woods, Lee Ranaldo, and plenty of others. On the other hand, I did see some interesting sights at the Scoot Inn parking lot, like this:

[Firedancer outside Scoot Inn.]

Dungen: A-
Twin Peaks: C+
Brian Jonestown Massacre: B
Slowdive: A-

P.S. Many thanks to Mustafa!

P.P.S. What does it say about my luck (or the effect of climate change on Texas) that I have held tickets for the only Levitation to ever be canceled as well as the only day of Austin City Limits Fest to be canceled thus far?

[Edit 2016.05.03:] P.P.P.S. Phone video footage of the entire Slowdive set can be found here, and an mp3 of the entire Dungen set can be downloaded from KUTX here.

[Edit 2016.05.12:] P.P.P.P.S. The setlist of the Dungen radio appearance is here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Peter Murphy / Casual Strangers - Live 2016.04.28

I've seen Peter Murphy twice before (in 2009 and 2014), and neither time did he particularly impress me. Nonetheless, I couldn't resist seeing him again, especially since this tour was advertised as being a stripped-down, primarily acoustic affair. I also initially held out some hope that I might see a partial Bauhaus reunion since David J was scheduled to play two days later at Levitation. (More on that in my next post.) That didn't happen, but I didn't really expect it to since David J later announced a show in California on the same night as this show.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: The North Door
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 28 April 2016
Opening Act: Casual Strangers

01. Cascade
02. Secret
03. Indigo Eyes
04. All Night Long
05. Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem
06. The Bewlay Brothers (David Bowie cover)
07. A Strange Kind of Love
08. The Rose
09. King Volcano (originally performed by Bauhaus)
10. Kingdom's Coming (originally performed by Bauhaus)
11. Silent Hedges (originally performed by Bauhaus)
12. Never Fall Out
13. Gaslit

14. Lion
15. The Three Shadows, Part I (originally performed by Bauhaus)
16. Hollow Hills (originally performed by Bauhaus)
17. Your Face

When Casual Strangers came out, I thought two of the members looked awfully familiar. I quickly realized they were Paul Waclawsky and Jaylinn Davidson of The Boxing Lesson, whom I had seen open for Murphy in 2014! However, instead of a rock-oriented approach with prominent lead guitar, this band aimed for a chilled-out, contemporary take on Kosmische Musik. Waclawsky still played some guitar, but in a more effect-laden, spaced-out manner, and he also played keyboards. Davidson again used a variety of keyboards, and they were joined by Katey Gunn (who looks like she could be a sister to Davidson) on electric slide guitar and keyboards and Jake Mitchell on drum pads, drum machines, and keyboards. It was a very synthetic experience, but one that worked. While very much a cosmic affair, there was just enough beat and noise to keep things interesting. It was relaxing and put me in a good mood.

[Casual Strangers.]

Peter Murphy was joined on this tour by longtime bassist/violinist Emilio DiZefalo-China and new recruit John Andrews on guitar. When they started out with "Cascade", they relied on some rather heavy-handed samples, and both of the accompanying musicians seemed to have little to do. It wasn't a great start, but thankfully the backing tracks did not reappear too often in the setlist. In fact, although a few other songs did use pre-recorded material ("All Night Long", "The Rose", "Gaslit", and "Your Face"), it was rarely ever again so obtrusive, and usually served to make the songs work well.

On the majority of the songs, the instrumental work was remarkable. DiZefalo-China was the star in that regard. For example, he played the great bass part and all the lead parts in "Indigo Eyes" on his fretless bass, and he adeptly applied effects and clever techniques on his violin to simulate the lead part of "The Bewlay Brothers" and the chromatic piano in "King Volcano". And even when he wasn't doing something unexpected, his bass work and lead violin parts were consistently great. Andrews was no simpleton, either: he mostly played acoustic guitar and filled out a wide variety of complex picking patterns. He occasionally switched to electric guitar, where he would make the songs come alive without overpowering them. He even brought out a bow for "Hollow Hills", which suited the song perfectly!

Peter Murphy himself was in good form as well. It was a bit odd to see him sit for just about the entire performance, but he also played more guitar than I've ever seen before ("Indigo Eyes", "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem", "A Strange Kind of Love", and "The Three Shadows, Part 1"). He might not be the most technically proficient guitarist, but he handles his 12-string guitar with a comfortable ease that makes me wish he'd use it even more. "The Three Shadows" was a real treat, even if Murphy's wordless vocal near the end was off-key. It was a somewhat unexpected choice, and I certainly hadn't anticipated that Murphy would play the main rhythm guitar part.

[Peter Murphy playing 12-string guitar.]

Other than that one bit of vocal faltering, Murphy's voice was soaring. He can still belt out huge songs seemingly effortlessly. His choice of songs was excellent, too: we got two great songs from the underappreciated Secret Bees of Ninth EP, one of the better tracks from Ninth itself, several classics from Murphy's heyday, and a total of five Bauhaus songs. The only weaker moments were "Cascade" (I wish he'd chosen anything else from that album!) and "Lion". Even "Lion" was a touch better than it is on record, and the other song from Lion, "The Rose", was certainly an improvement over the studio version. "The Bewlay Brothers" was a somewhat odd choice, but Murphy isn't new to covering Bowie, and he did it justice. The Bauhaus songs were all quite successful, and "Hollow Hills" was perhaps the best of the bunch: Murphy even played melodica in a few parts.

[Murphy on melodica for "Hollow Hills".]

It wasn't clear if Murphy would give us an encore. Several nights of this tour have not gotten one, or just a short one, and the last time I saw Murphy he didn't play his planned full encore. We were graced with a full four additional songs, and when Murphy reappeared, his only words were "I'm a black star, I'm not a gangster", quoting from the title track of David Bowie's last album, Blackstar. He also was adorned with a red rose attached on an armband, which he plucked apart and tossed on his backing musicians before "Your Face". Murphy didn't say much at all through the night, but he did walk to the very front of the stage at the end of that last song to shake hands with audience members. He finally broke a smile and acknowledged the adoration of the crowd.

Casual Strangers: B
Peter Murphy: A-