Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Peter Murphy in the 21st Century

Peter Murphy is an enigmatic personality who is tough to pin down. The first two decades of his career form a somewhat linear path of development, but in the 21st century, his activity has been varied and unpredictable. Some of the resulting work is forgettable, but other parts are all too easily overlooked. This article aims to cover the breadth of this output and evaluate each release's relative merits.

After co-founding and departing Bauhaus and Dali's Car, Murphy spent the rest of the 80s making keyboard-driven alternative and post-punk music with a mystical bent and a tendency for the grandiose. In the 90s, he gradually steered towards a more haunting, expansive, and electronic sound. When Bauhaus reunited for a tour in 1998, they recorded two songs (a cover of Dead Can Dance's "Severance" and new composition "The Dog's a Vapour") that fit well into this trend. After the reunion fell apart, Murphy released the perfunctory compilation Wild Birds (2000) and the excellent live album Alive Just for Love (2001).

At that point, it seemed that Murphy was at a crossroads. Having proven himself as a solo artist and briefly redeemed his glory as the frontperson of Bauhaus, there was no clear step forward from there. He could have gracefully retired. Instead, he took the far more interesting road of experimenting with his sound and taking more risks with his career.


His first studio album since Cascade (1995) was Dust (2002), a fusion of traditional Turkish music with modern electronics. It's Murphy's most unique and distinctive album, and for the open-minded and patient listener, it's a pleasure to absorb its meandering, obscure beauty. However, it's a very long and subtle album that is apt to cause the listener to lose focus. The album wasn't quite a success and it was somewhat confusing for long-time fans.

Unsurprisingly, Murphy's next album, Unshattered (2004), was a blunt return to rock music. It was perhaps intended to be a return to form, especially with the appearance of Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins and two members of Jane's Addiction, but it was not a turn for the better. The exaggerated modern rock production style immediately sounded dated, and the songwriting was not Murphy's best.


In 2005, Bauhaus reunited once more, but it wasn't until 2008 that they released Go Away White. By that time, they'd already very publicly broken up again, and the album appeared with little fanfare. Furthermore, the album was apparently unfinished and came across somewhat rough. There's an undeniable appeal to the unusual looseness of their compositions, but many tracks have sections that seem to be missing parts. Mostly notably, at one point in "Mirror Remains", Murphy is heard informing Daniel Ash of the opportunity to play a solo, and Ash responds that his minimal part is the solo. Somehow, it's still one of the best songs.

Go Away White sounds like a conscious decision to be more than a sequel to Burning from the Inside. It's practically a completely different band than the one that recorded the first four Bauhaus albums. In retrospect, it sounds like a Peter Murphy solo album with the best backing band he could ask for, i.e. Love & Rockets. Indeed, there are more traces of the sound of Love & Rockets (or even Daniel Ash's solo work) than there are of the original Bauhaus albums. If you consider the album in the light of a supergroup collaboration instead of a continuance of something over 20 years old, it makes more sense and seems like a more successful creation. Still, the inclusion of "The Dog's a Vapour" from the 1998 reunion seems out of place and feels like cheating. The album starts fairly strong, but that track and the forgettable "Zikir" bring the album to a disappointing conclusion.

Murphy toured in 2008 and 2009 without a new album to promote. (I saw his performance in Hannover on that tour.) He eventually released a series of iTunes-only covers across 2009, and he performed those songs on tour in addition to a few other covers and some new songs that would later appear on Ninth. Murphy has always been fond of a good cover (especially when written by David Bowie), so these so-called "Secret Covers" were not particularly surprising. Unfortunately, though, they weren't very good, albeit in each case for different reasons. "Instant Karma" comes off as cheesy and overdone with backing vocals that jar with Murphy's aesthetic. "Space Oddity" is understated, lackluster, and absent enough beauty to make up for the missing energy. "Transmission" is by the numbers, except that Murphy's vocal adjustments only serve to distract and detract. "Hurt" (with Trent Reznor) is good, but feels too much like a copy of the Johnny Cash version. In each case, Murphy's take offers no improvements over the original.


Once Ninth was finally released in 2011, Murphy's recent arc started to make more sense. In retrospect, Go Away White seems like a precursor to Ninth, and the covers were perhaps just a warm-up and reassertion of his presence. However, Ninth is far more polished than either to the point of appearing artificial and overdone. Moving away from Murphy's typical moody and arty work, it's another try at a predictable alternative rock sound, but thankfully it is nowhere near as dated and embarrassing as Unshattered. It's perhaps not as idiosyncratic as other Murphy albums, but it's a semi-successful change of pace, which is invigorating and encouraging for an artist with a 30-year back catalog.

Ninth starts strong, but loses steam quickly. Songs like "Velocity Bird", "Seesaw Sway", and "I Spit Roses" are great exercises in modern rock, with powerful vocals and nice synth touches. "Never Fall Out" is a really good ballad with expressive depth and subtlety. However, "Secret Silk Society" drags on despite the eerie atmosphere, and "Créme de la Créme" is an outlier that would fit in more with Murphy's dramatic older style except that it would be entirely overshadowed. The rest are mostly hard-edged rock songs that don't quite work. One senses that Murphy was trying hard to have an aggressive edge, but it doesn't come off well. Ironically, one of these songs is called "Uneven & Brittle".

Shortly after the album's release, with little fanfare, Murphy released an Amazon.com-only EP named The Secret Bees of Ninth. Unexpectedly, that EP is everything I wanted from Ninth with none of the try-hard fakery. The four unique tracks are all moody, introspective, haunting ballads in the vein of "Never Fall Out". (The full version of "Secret Silk Society" is nothing particularly special, though, and "Seesaw Sway is entirely redundant and out of place here.) The EP is less powerful than Ninth, but it makes for a much more consistent and enjoyable listen.


In this same time frame, Murphy had announced that he was reuniting with Mick Karn to work on a new Dali's Car album. Shortly thereafter, Karn was diagnosed with cancer, and he died in early 2011 before the album could be completed. However, Murphy managed to salvage an EP with some assistance (including drumming and mixing by Karn's former Japan bandmate Steve Jansen). In Glad Aloneness eventually came out in 2012, featuring two new compositions, two covers, and a reworked version of "Artemis" from their original 1984 album. It's disappointingly brief, but what is there (especially the two new songs) is great. There's a lot of promise, and it's quite sad to think of what might have been. Evaluating the EP in the context of Murphy's other recent work, it fits right in, but much like with Go Away White, it sounds like a distinctively Murphy-centered work with a top-notch collaborator.

In 2013, apparently disappointed with the undignified end of Bauhaus, Murphy announced a tour with his own backing band that would (almost) exclusively feature Bauhaus songs. This was loosely connected to the 35th anniversary of the band. I didn't make it to any part of the tour, but an official live recording of the LA show, Mr. Moonlight Tour, was released in assorted formats in 2014 and 2015. It presents Murphy taking the easy road, mostly just playing the same greatest hits. He awkwardly introduces several of the songs while the band plays the introductions, and while his voice is strong, he doesn't improve over any other versions. The band similarly do justice to the songs, but also take no risks and keep it reverential. The album (or at least the digital version I listened to) also has unnecessary and disruptive fades between each song. In every single way, it is inferior to Gotham (1998), the defining document of the reunited Bauhaus on stage, as well as Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape (1982) and just about any other live album of the original era.


Murphy's last release of new music as of writing was Lion in 2014, produced and co-written by Youth (Martin Glover). Featuring a heavier and dancier sound, it takes the energy, aggression, and polish of Ninth and pushes it even further, although in a more processed and less rock direction. It makes for a rather dense and cramped listen, as opposed to Murphy's usual celestial expansiveness. It's another interesting change of pace, but again has a feeling of trying hard to be edgy and modern without being very successful at it. Worst of all, in contemporaneous interviews, he repeatedly described the album in arrogant terms as vastly dynamic and diverse. At best, that was irony, because the album is the least varied of any that Murphy has ever been involved with.

A year later, Murphy released Remixes from Lion, which consists of seven extended remixes by Youth, three outtakes, and one "ambient" remix by Richard Thorne. Youth's remixes are unexciting and not substantially different than the originals. The three outtakes are at least somewhat interesting, and they actually provide some of the dynamics and diversity missing from Lion itself. "Gabriel" is a good song, but the other two are excessively lengthy and unspectacular.

Since then, Murphy released Wild Birds Live Tour in 2015, a retread of the Wild Birds compilation set on stage in LA from 2000. It would be fine, except that it is redundant and suffers from what sounds like bizarre compression on the drums and applause. It's incredibly distracting. The bassist flubs a few parts, and Murphy even has to stop in the middle of "Indigo Eyes" because his hand was cramping. At least that part is mildly amusing, and I'm glad they left it in instead of trying to fix it up somehow. However, the album stands in the shadow of Alive Just for Live, Murphy's brilliant live album from 2001 of another LA show from later in 2000. Where that album rearranged the songs for a creative electro-acoustic setting with just two other musicians, this album is a straight run-through with few variations from the norm.

Most recently, Murphy went on the Stripped tour in 2016. (My review of the Austin show is here.) Of the three Murphy shows I've seen, it was my favorite. Coincidentally, it was also somewhat similar in spirit and style to Alive Just for Love. Although I'm getting a little tired of Murphy's recent spate of mediocre live albums, I'm looking forward to his upcoming Bare Boned & Sacred, a document of the Stripped tour from a NYC show.

Murphy's last two decades of work have been all over the place. When he takes a chance and does something adventurous, he often succeeds. When he plays it safe and confines himself to more conventional alternative rock, he does himself a disservice. His attempts to be accessible and trendy are usually his least compelling work. Conversely, when he imbues his music with his own idiosyncratic personality, he shines and often produces something that no one else is capable of. It also seems that Murphy benefits from working with collaborators with their own strong visions. Instead of mere compromise, Murphy brings out the best in all involved parties. While another reunion of Bauhaus is unlikely (and impossible for Dali's Car), there is still promise that Murphy has more creative energy in him yet.

Scores:
Dust (2002): B
Unshattered (2004): D
Go Away White (2008): B
"Secret Covers" singles (2009): C
Ninth (2011): B-
The Secret Bees of Ninth EP (2011): A-
In Glad Aloneness EP (2012): B+
Mr. Moonlight Tour (2014): D
Lion (2014): C+
Remixes from Lion (2015): D+
Wild Birds Live Tour (2015): C-

Friday, December 16, 2016

Black Fret Ball 2016

I only heard about Black Fret in the last few months from a colleague that is a member. The organization is a charity based in Austin in its third year whose primary purpose is to give money to promising local musicians. More detail can be found in the recent Pitchfork article or the Black Fret website. It's an intriguing model, and while I am not a member at present, I was lucky enough to be invited to this year's annual ball.

Event: Black Fret Ball
Venue: Paramount Theatre
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 10 December 2016

The format of the event was that over four hours, almost every band that was nominated for a grant this year and was able to attend played two songs, and in between sets the organization's founders talked to the audience, introduced other guests to help present the major grant winners, and displayed videos about the organization. Since the bands barely had enough time to make an impression, I won't be assigning scores, but I'll write a brief review of what I can remember.

The night started with Golden Dawn Arkestra in their typical fashion: just as at their regular concerts, they started from the back of the crowd and worked their way to the stage while playing whatever instruments they could carry. The appeared in the largest configuration I've seen yet with fifteen members, including four horns players and three dancers. They played "Sama Chaka" and "Stargazer" from their new album and did an awesome job of it. Their otherworldly psychedelic funk jams always bring a smile to my face.

Leopold and His Fiction: The weirdly dated look of the frontman put me off immediately, but I tried to withhold my judgment until I heard their music. The first song was a tolerable, low-key affair with a decent picked guitar part, but they went quickly downhill with the second number. It was a clichéd rock song with lots of wankery and grotesquely sexual maneuvers with guitars.

Magna Carda: A hip hop outfit featuring a sizeable live band. The combination of good lyrics, a strong frontwoman, solid beats, and proficient musicianship made for a winning combination. They won a major grant later in the evening.

Carson McHone: A country singer/songwriter with a good voice and a standard backing band. The music was decent and she was inventive enough to carefully avoid too much cliché. One of her two songs was "Dram Shop Girl", which appears to be getting some attention. She also won a major grant later in the evening.

Harvest Thieves: A weighty Americana or alt-country band. I particularly liked the keyboardist/mandolinist's contributions, but the group wasn't particularly exceptional otherwise. The other memorable aspect was that they had an incredibly tall extra electric guitarist that I could swear I've seen somewhere else before.

Ray Prim: A self-described "singer soulwriter", but in truth he and his band landed in a nebulous space between a variety of genres. I appreciated that I had a really hard time trying to figure out what labels were appropriate. Prim was a strong frontman, and his two backing vocalists were nice additions even if I'm not sure how much the second one added. (This may be the first time I've seen a band with any number of male backing vocalists that did not play instruments.) The musicianship was just as solid as the vocals, and I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution and energy of the keyboardist, the violinist, and the violist. The rhythm section was similarly on point. This was one of the strongest performances of the night, and I wasn't surprised at all when they won one of the major awards.

Calliope Musicals: I'd been meaning to see this band all year and I finally got my chance. They are a delightfully bizarre blend of indie rock, folk, psychedelia, an art project, and a party band. The B-52s might be the best reference point, but even that isn't a perfect comparison. There were multiple dancers in various costumes, and the primary lead instrument was an electric xylophone. (I didn't even know that existed.) Their extremely high energy was enchanting.

Daniel Eyes and the Vibes: A fairly generic rock man-band quartet that didn't impress me.

Wendy Colonna: A decent singer-songwriter with some soul vibes and a full band. She didn't particularly stand out to me, but she won one of the major grants.

Dana Falconberry: The frontwoman/guitarist/vocalist was backed by two further women on banjo and keyboards, both of whom also sang. I loved their ethereal folky sound, the well-crafted harmonies, and the complex layers produced by just three musicians.

Swimming with Bears: An indie/alt rock band that was somewhat promising although not quite a standout. They won a major grant, though.

Suzanna Choffel: Another singer-songwriter with a good voice and a basic band. She had some soul, but was a little bit more in an indie rock vein. She was joined by the xylophonist/keyboardist from the Golden Dawn Arkestra, which was a great addition. She won one of the first major awards of the night.

Bee Caves: This band has been on my radar for a bit, and I was pleased to find their live set was actually better than my impression had been from their recordings. They made a decent mix of Americana, rock, and psych. Their sound was a bit hazy and transcendent, but fairly well grounded. They also won a major grant.

The Peterson Brothers: They won a major grant right before they started their set. The two brothers played guitar and bass and were backed by a drummer and a percussionist. The four of them put down some great grooves. The bassist had incredible skill and the guitarist was surprisingly creative with his solos. The two of them managed to keep me interested despite their lengthy jams that could've easily bored me. For their second song, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child", they brought out two additional guitarists: Eric Tessmer, who played in a rather generic style, and Jackie Venson, who was a welcome change of pace. As they played, various other musicians from throughout the night (along with the founders) gradually found their way on stage and it turned into something of an all-star jam.

Final Thoughts: I wasn't really sure what to expect from the evening, and I had some concern that so many bands in so little time would result in lengthy delays and bad sound. However, the night only ran about fifteen minutes past the scheduled four hours, and the sound quality was superb. While I know standards are high in Austin, and the Paramount is a particularly well-regarded venue, I'm still mightily impressed that the sound was that good for every single band. There were a couple bands in which the keyboards were too low in the mix, but that's literally the only complaint I could level on that front.

At first, the banter of the two founders between the sets annoyed me. There was a lot of self-congratulating and general hyping that in normal circumstances would really put me off. However, as the night wore on, I started to see the incredibly heartfelt and thankful responses of the musicians, and I realized that there's a reason why everyone is proud and excited about the organization. Furthermore, I gradually realized that the two co-founders were probably just nervous and under pressure, and they were simply trying to entertain a sizeable crowd while keeping things moving smoothly and speedily. Ultimately, I think they did good job of balancing humor, excitement, success, ambition, and a whole bunch of diverse personalities.

Hearing the major grant winners give short speeches of gratitude was occasionally highly illuminating. Several winners spoke of finally being able to release an album they'd been sitting on for a while but were unable to afford pressing. Others mentioned being able to record on more than a shoestring budget. Swimming with Bears were the most honest and memorable when they said they could finally afford hotels instead of sleeping in cars and showering at Planet Fitness. Their award was presented by Austin mayor Steve Adler, which was in itself a surprise. He claimed that he came to Austin in 1978 because the law school was the cheapest, but he stayed in town because of the music.

Each of those major grants is worth $17000, up from the $12000 awarded to the winners last year. In addition to the winners mentioned above, three further artists received awards but did not perform: Dan Dyer, Walker Lukens, and Nakia. The rest of the nominees still receive minor awards of $5000 each and remain eligible to be nominated again next year. (Winners have to sit a year out.) Three further bands were nominated but did not perform nor win a major award: Brownout, Sweet Spirit, and Name Sayers.

I left the night feeling overwhelmingly positive. I'm considering becoming a member. However, I was struck by one thing: some parts of this world have real public sponsorship of the arts. Musicians have access to grants, subsidized work and living space, publicly sponsored performance opportunities, and official networking systems directly from various levels of government. In a country or a state that valued such creation on a fundamental level, we wouldn't require membership-based organizations to fund the arts. Black Fret is an inherently classist institution in that the $1500 annual membership fee is prohibitive to working-class people. Undoubtedly, if Black Fret allows more artists to sustain productive careers in music, that means more music is more easily available to everyone, but the issue of privilege rears its head when you consider that only members can nominate and vote on the grant recipients, meaning the power of distribution is vested in the wealthy few. It's an odd microcosm of capitalism. While I obviously would prefer a true public solution, Black Fret bridges the gap and represents a clever middle ground of working within the capitalist system and doing the right thing with the means available to them.

P.S. Other reviews can be found at the austin360 music blog (including a compilation video of each of the performances) and AMFM Magazine. The Austin Chronicle has a write-up alongside some other local music-related nonprofits.

P.P.S. Thanks to Greg, Sana, and Alyssa!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dolly Parton - Live 2016.12.06

Artist: Dolly Parton
Venue: Frank Erwin Center
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 6 December 2016

Setlist (with some help from here):
01. Train, Train (Blackfoot cover)
02. Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That
03. Jolene
04. Pure & Simple
05. Precious Memories (John Wright cover)
06. My Tennessee Mountain Home
07. Coat of Many Colors
08. Smokey Mountain Memories
09. Applejack
10. Rocky Top (Osborne Brothers cover) → Yakety Sax (Boots Randolph cover)
11. Banks of the Ohio (traditional adaptation)
12. American Pie (Don McLean cover) → If I Had a Hammer (The Weavers cover) → Blowin' in the Wind (Bob Dylan cover) → Dust in the Wind (Kansas cover) → The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band cover)
13. The Seeker
14. I'll Fly Away (Albert E. Brumley cover)

Second Set:
15. Baby I'm Burnin' → Burning Love (Arthur Alexander cover) → Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis) → Girl on Fire (Alicia Keys cover)
16. Outside Your Door
17. The Grass Is Blue
18. Those Memories of You (Alan O'Bryant cover)
19. Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
20. Little Sparrow→ If I Had Wings
21. Two Doors Down
22. Here You Come Again
23. Islands in the Stream
24. 9 to 5

Encore:
25. I Will Always Love You
26. Farther Along (W. A. Fletcher/J. R. Baxter cover)

Dolly was scheduled to begin her performance at 7:30pm on a Tuesday night with no opening band. As my spouse and I both work office jobs with fairly typical hours, it was actually something of a challenge to get to the venue on time. We didn't quite manage it, but mercifully she started a few minutes late and we made it inside the building right as she was coming on stage. From that point on, though, the night was hers: she performed for over two and a half hours, not counting a half-hour intermission.

I was immediately surprised to find no drummer on stage (despite that a percussion track was audible). However, Dolly explained early in the set that since the name of the tour and her latest album is "Pure & Simple", she wanted to play simpler arrangements of her songs. I appreciated that she had no hesitation to admit the use of backing tracks – she even asked guitarist Kent Wells to demonstrate the operation of his drum machine! She also claimed that a drummer she had considered bringing along was rejected after asking if the theme of the tour would mean that Dolly would appear without make-up, her hair done up, and her usual flamboyant outfits. Obviously, that was not a direction that she was willing to consider. ("But that's just who I am!") In addition to Wells, Dolly was backed by bassist Tom Rutledge and Richard Dennison on piano and percussion. All three provided backing vocals, but Dennison's role was often so critical that on a few songs he was essentially dueting.

Much of the first set was done in the style of a variety show, where Dolly would take her time, tell long stories about her life and her songs, and interact with the audience. For example, she explained "Jolene" in great detail by first announcing that she'd been married for fifty years. However, early in the relationship, while her husband was working at an asphalt company, she got suspicious of the amount of time he spent at the bank, and one day she went herself to find that he appeared to be spending a lot of time at the counter with a particular clerk. She admitted to the crowd that her jealousy may have been unfounded, but nonetheless, that clerk was the Jolene that inspired the song.

A substantial amount of time was spent discussing her childhood in Appalachian Tennessee. While she occasionally went on a bit too long, her stories were generally interesting and appeared to match up with official accounts of her biography. Meanwhile, she frequently swapped instruments. During the course of the night, she played acoustic and electric guitar, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, pennywhistle, and during "Rocky Top", violin and saxophone. After her cowboy stage hand gave her the violin, she commanded him to dance while she played, which he naturally obliged. Then, after playing a sax solo, she asked if the audience wanted to hear her play it in reverse, which of course they did, and so she did it.

While the prospect of a performer just talking for something like a third of the evening probably sounds a boring prospect for most, Dolly managed to keep things genuinely entertaining. Her style was both engaging and endearing, and her life certainly comes off as a genuine story of hard work and determination to be successful on her own terms. One of her stories was that she was asked if Elvis Presley could cover "I Will Always Love You" in the days before it became the standard it is now. She agreed until she was told that when Elvis covered a song, it was expected that the songwriter would assign half the songwriting royalties over to him. She then declined, which was obviously a prescient decision. She also made me laugh out loud when someone shouted, "I love you, Dolly!", and she immediately shouted back without skipping a beat, "I told you to wait in the trailer!" I'm sure it wasn't her first time using that line or telling any of these stories, but it's hard not to enjoy it all. I was a little annoyed by the lengths she went in describing some her religious sentiments, but I also greatly appreciated that she explicitly spoke in favor of everyone practicing their own religion, including atheism.

Dolly approached her setlist with what seemed to be a certain amount of whimsy, joking that her manager told her she needed to play another song from the new album. She played a mix of her big hits, a few back-catalog choices, a handful of covers, and a couple medleys of material from various sources. While introducing the medley of older classic folk material (plus a few lines of "Dust in the Wind"), Dolly ventured into post-election political territory, but walked a fine line and shied away from making explicit statements. At face value, the medley was rather cheesy baby boomer bait, and the audience ate it up, but the irony is of course that the songs in question were all progressive anthems of their era.

While some parts of the show may have been a bit over the top or completely ridiculous, Dolly provided a legitimately entertaining evening, and a lengthy one at that. The band was sharp, Dolly's instrumental talents are not insignificant, and her voice is still in great form. Not every song was a winner, but many were, and she went a long way to make the show memorable and fun.

Score: B

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

P.P.S. I am aware that there are doubts about the authenticity of Dolly's saxophone performances. Certainly the miniature size of her instrument was suspect. However, I was seated too far aware to observe carefully, and she did appear to be rather winded afterwards (although naturally that too can be faked).

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ballet Folklórico - Live 2016.11.23

[The stained-glass curtain depicting the valley of Mexico.]

Event: Ballet Folklórico
Venue: Palacio de Bellas Artes
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
Date: 23 November 2016

Founded in 1952 by Amalia Hernández, the Ballet Folklórico has become a cultural institution that has performed twice a week in the capital city since 1963. The group underscores traditional dance and music with historical narratives that succeed in being both instructive and captivating. On one level, the performance is a colorful presentation of national culture, with brilliant costumes, elaborate choreography, upbeat mariachi tunes, and constant motion. However, all of this action serves to examine elements of Mexican history and regional diversity. It's easy to simply watch and be transfixed, but at the least one might find it curious to see a group of women dancing with rifles. That particular dance honors the soldaderas that fought in the Mexican revolution alongside the better-recognized men. Other dances originate in pre-Columbian traditions, street parades with huge papier-mâché figures, village festivals, and ranching activities.

The physical movement is artfully paired with accompanying music from a sizable mariachi band. The night I attended opened with a loud, propulsive drum performance. The drummers continued to strike their battery as the dancers gradually appeared on stage. Most of the rest of the night, the musicians played string instruments and horns loosely corresponding to the region and era being also represented in dance and costume. This typically consisted of several classical guitars, including a Mexican vihuela and a guitarrón, in addition to violins, trumpet, trombone, and mellophone. The musicians sang infrequently, and even when they performed without the dancers (presumably while they were changing outfits), they primarily played instrumentals. On one occasion, they surprised me by appearing in two of the venue's seating boxes to play marimbas.

[Note the marimbas in the second-level boxes on stage left. Photo by Alyssa Hammons.]

When I first heard of this group, I was skeptical of falling into a tourist trap. However, the performance understandably made few concessions to the non-Spanish-speaking portion of the their audience, and judging by the crowd's participation in a few of the songs, most of the audience did indeed speak Spanish. (I did not find my rudimentary familiarity with Spanish to be hindrance to my enjoyment.) One could perhaps criticize the embedded heteronormativity of some of the dances, but I nonetheless appreciated the ambiguity and lack of detailed over-explanation inherent in a performance without many spoken or sung words. There were a couple sections based around hunting themes that I could do without, but I could acknowledge the historical relevance of even those narratives.

The performance more than exceeded my expectations. The quality of the musicianship, the beauty of the costumes, and the fluidity of the dancers won me over immediately. Every component was exceptional and the physical dexterity of the dancers and musicians was astounding.

The venue specifically requests no photography during the performance, and while plenty of people obviously disobeyed that request, I did not. Hence, I can only leave you with another picture of the venue, but a quick internet search should satisfy any further visual curiosity.

[The exterior of the Palacio de Bellas Artes.]

Score: A-

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Sound on Sound Festival 2016, Day 2

If you've been following Austin music news over the past year, you probably heard about the messy breakup between the people behind local booking company Transmission Events and the real estate company that backed them, Stratus Properties. The short version is that almost all the main people of Transmission left and started a new company, Margin Walker, that is carrying on the best parts of Transmission's legacy. (The long version can be read here, here, and here.) Part of the fallout is that the delightful Fun Fun Fun Fest was also left with Stratus. As should be obvious by now, it didn't happen, and it doesn't look like it will in the future. However, Margin Walker acted fast and put together a new festival with a similar look and feel under the name Sound on Sound. They managed to hold it the same weekend that FFFFest usually took place, but due to a non-compete clause they had to find a new venue. They stepped up the challenge, thought creatively, and chose Sherwood Forest, the home of the (semi-)local Renaissance faire. What might seem like an unconventional pairing actually worked out rather well.

Event: Sound on Sound Festival, Day 2
Venue: Sherwood Forest
Location: McDade, Texas
Date: 5 November 2016

In past years of going to Austin Psych Fest/Levitation, I've had some trouble with the shuttle system, but still never gave up on it. (I vastly prefer biking and mass transit to driving!) With this being the first year of SoS, I was a bit concerned that it might be another rough experience. However, it seemed like they were trying to make the shuttles a compelling option by guaranteeing departure times and selling cheap passes in advance. Although I got drenched in a downpour while riding my bike to the shuttle pick-up at Mohawk, the bus was timely and comfortable, which made it well worth it.

Since I was only going for one day, I decided to go all out and get there early. I was on the second shuttle and arrived just in time to see Moving Panoramas at the Dragon's Lair stage. I've seen them twice before (last year at a Fun Fun Fun Fest late night show and again earlier this year) and they only keep getting better. In the meantime, it appears that Rozie Castoe has been replaced on bass by Jolie Cota Flink, and a keyboardist/percussionist/vocalist has just been added to the lineup. Drummer Karen Skloss may have made a few slip-ups, but Flink delivered an improved low end, and the new keyboardist was a very welcome addition. Their inviting, guitar-based, dream pop sound was stronger than ever. This was their best performance that I've seen yet.

[Moving Panoramas.]

I'd seen some of the members of Hard Proof play live with Gary Clark, Jr., but I somehow hadn't yet managed to see them in their own right. I finally got to change that, and I was immediately taken by their funky vibes and high energy. The ten-piece group played an instrumental take on Afrobeat with three percussionists, baritone sax, tenor sax, trumpet, bass, and three guitarists, one of whom also played keyboards. The music was instantly danceable and yet intricate enough to keep your attention. I'll admit it was just a bit surreal to see my former landlord grab a mic and hype the crowd when he wasn't playing the saxophone, but it worked. That's Austin for you, I suppose!

[Hard Proof.]

At that point I took a break to wander the grounds. Having gone to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival for years as a child, it brought back a wave of nostalgia to walk through the oddly familiar environment. Some parts were closed up or roped off, but many were open and in some cases even inhabited by what seemed like typical Ren faire vendors. There were plenty of food trucks from Austin, but there were also a handful of rides and events that intermingled the Fun Fun Fun Fest traditions with Ren faire themes.

I couldn't resist a Freeto Burrito from the Vegan Yacht, and I took the opportunity to sit and watch some of Orthy's set at the Forest Stage while I ate. Instead of the bland EDM that I had feared they might perform, they opted for a compromise between organic and electronic approaches. However, even the energy of a decent live band couldn't make the middling electronica seem particularly inspired.

I returned back to the Dragon's Lair stage to see Wild Nothing, and indie rock band with (again!) touches of dream pop and shoegaze. Their bassist was solid and played a thick and grounding groove. The two guitarists occasionally engaged in some great interplay, but too often remained content with keeping it simple. The keyboardist did a good job adding layers on top of the rest, and the combination of all the above was usually rewarding. The vocals and songwriting were decent without being outstanding, but they had a good balance between rock energy and pop catchiness. At times I was even reminded of The Chameleons[Edit 2016.11.12: Their setlist can be found here.]

[Wild Nothing.]

While again wandering around the grounds with a friend, we ended up watching most of the set from Alex G. He and his band worked up a decent alt-rock vibe reminiscent of the 90s bedroom circuit. The sound was was appealing familiar in a weird way but upon closer inspection was fairly standard guitar stuff. A somewhat adolescent angle and occasional bursts of aimless, jarring aggression didn't help.

After another excursion for food and drinks, I settled back at the Dragon's Lair stage to wait for Deerhunter, who I'd actually seen before (albeit while distracted) at my first Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2013. Frontperson Bradford Cox seemed to be having trouble getting the monitor mix just right, but eventually gave up about fifteen minutes after their scheduled set time and finally started the show. The music was rock-oriented, mildly psychedelic, and hard to pin down. The band consistently put down a solid beat, and the musicianship was good, but I couldn't follow the arc of the songs. At one point, Cox claimed to live on the same street as Big Boi (who played next on the same stage), which for all I know could be true, as both live in Atlanta. He said he was recently hit by a car while walking to his house, which interrupted him while writing a song in his head. Shortly after starting the next song, something went wrong (or Cox intentionally sabotaged it) and he joked that it was just like getting hit by the car. I got a decidedly weird vibe from Cox, like he was being antagonistic. He mostly sang, but also played some guitar with enough skill to make me wonder why he didn't play more. Oddly, for their last song, the other guitarist sang the lead. Their setlist can be found here, although it is incomplete.

[Deerhunter.]

Night had fallen, and once more, my friend and I walked around the festival and enjoyed the atmosphere of stumbling through the woods in the dark. I think I'd originally intended on seeing Car Seat Headrest, but for some reason I forgot about that and didn't really watch anything for a spell. I ultimately returned once more to the Dragon's Lair stage to get a good spot for Beach House. They were half an hour late for unclear reasons. Their stage setup was very similar to when I saw them in April, but this time I couldn't get a good picture. I did get the setlist, though:

01. Wild
02. PPP
03. Silver Soul
04. Space Song
05. Elegy to the Void
06. Beyond Love
07. New Year
08. Master of None
09. Wishes
10. Take Care
11. Sparks
12. Myth
13. 10 Mile Stereo

Compared to their last Austin show, this performance felt rushed and truncated. They barely addressed the audience and hardly took a breath between most of the songs. I suppose they were trying to make the most of what time they had, but for the topmost-billed band of the festival, 70 minutes wasn't enough. They played a strong set, but I was a bit disappointed that nine of the thirteen songs were also played at the April show. I would have loved more variation. Nonetheless, "Master of None" was a delightful throwback, and the other unique songs of this set ("Wild", New Year", and "Take Care") were all a pleasure to hear. Since they hardly have a weak song in their whole discography, I can't actually complain about anything they might choose to play, but for the last night of their Depression Cherry/Thank Your Lucky Stars tour, I was hoping for a special treat.

Beach House's sweeping, spatial, dreamy music suited the cool evening in a rural field with a bright crescent moon and clouded sky. It was as easy as ever to get lost in, which made the length of the set all the more conspicuous. They again built up the guitar-oriented "Elegy to the Void" into a thick crescendo, and for their finale, they worked up "10 Mile Stereo" into a noisy, blissful jam. It was a great show, but I was left wishing for more.

It was getting late, but I'd made up my mind to stay for at least part of Purity Ring's set. Of course, they were a full hour late, so I only stayed for half an hour before I had to get on a shuttle back to Austin. As soon as they got going, I was drawn in by their visual performance. They opted to appear as just their core duo, with Corin Roddick behind an interactive lightpost/synth tower and Megan James walking the stage under a huge LED fixture. It was easy to be transfixed by the lightshow. However, I found the actual music to be only slightly above average. Unless Roddick had more hands than I could see, most of the instrumentation was prerecorded, and even James' voice was vocoded/autotuned in parts without an apparent performer. The artifice was alienating even as the display was captivating. Their setlist can be found here.

[Purity Ring.]

Final Thoughts: After all the drama of the Transmission Events/Margin Walker divorce, I'm glad that the new festival started strong. It clearly carried on the tradition of Fun Fun Fun Fest without being a mere change in name. They made the most of their semi-exiled environment and had fun with it. The food and drink selections were good, and the lineup was a good mix. And thankfully, once I did finally pack it in, the shuttle line was short and there were multiple buses ready, so it wasn't even all that long of a trip back to town. Although weather may have caused a mess the following day, this was a promising start to a new festival tradition.

Scores:
Moving Panoramas: B+
Hard Proof: B+
Orthy: C
Wild Nothing: B
Alex G: C-
Deerhunter: B
Beach House: A-
Purity Ring: B-

P.S. Thanks to Mustafa!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Andrew Bird - Live 2016.09.30 (ACL Late Night Show)

I didn't particularly want to buy a ticket to the festival on Saturday just to see Andrew Bird, whom I've seen three times before, but when he announced a late night show after the festival on Friday, I jumped on that train. However, because I stayed to the end of the festival on Friday to see Radiohead, by the time I made it to Stubb's, the openers had long since finished and Andrew Bird was at least a half-hour into his set.

Artist: Andrew Bird
Venue: Stubb's (outside)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 30 September 2016
Opening Acts: Sinkane, Lucy Dacus
Event: Austin City Limits 2016 Late Night Show

Setlist (incomplete):
Puma
Left Handed Kisses
Roma Fade
Three White Horses
The Naming of Things
Plasticities
Valleys of the Young
Pulaski at Night

Encore:
Give It Away [one mic]
My Sister's Tiny Hands [one mic; The Handsome Family cover]
Fake Palindromes


Unfortunately I can't speak to the openers, and I haven't been able to find Bird's complete setlist elsewhere, so I can only provide what I witnessed. I was immediately surprised that the band was neither Bird's longtime accompanists (drummer Martin Dosh, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, bassist Mike Lewis) nor the crew from the last tour (bassist Alan Hampton, guitarist Tift Merritt, drummer Kevin O'Donnell, pedal steel player Eric Heywood). This time it was Ted Poor on drums, Steve Elliott on guitar, and a Luke whose last name I didn't catch on bass. (Apparently Hampton played on earlier dates of the tour.) While the band wasn't exceptional or experimental, they were really good and probably just a bit better than the last bunch.

I can make a decent guess as to what Bird played before I arrived based on the webcast of his festival appearance the next day and some his other recent setlists. It was probably several songs from the new album, Are You Serious, as well as a few classics like "Effigy" and "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left". There may have been a surprise cover or two. But from what I did see, he played several of the best songs from the new album, a few couple of his best songs from recent releases ("Three White Horses", "Pulaski at Night"), and a couple of his best older songs ("The Naming of Things", "Plasticities", and even "Fake Palindromes"). It came off as a very well-curated set balancing his various strengths.

"Left Handed Kisses" is a great single from the new album, albeit with a few phrases that always seemed oddly unbalanced for a singer that loves to fill space with clever wordplay. Playing it live without Fiona Apple's excellent parts proved a challenge, and although I kind of wished Bird had managed to cajole one of his bandmates into singing her parts, he did a modest job of doing it all himself. "Puma", meanwhile, is an impressively catchy song about his wife's chemotherapy. "Valleys of the Young" is slightly ridiculous and maybe a little more directly personal than Bird is used to, but I can appreciate the depth with which he weighs the decision of having children.

"Three White Horses" was the highlight of Hands of Glory (2012), and the version they played on stage also incorporated elements of the more atmospheric "Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses". It started slow and violin-driven, but then Elliott played a slide guitar solo before they suddenly picked up the pace and carried into a great rendition of the rest of the song. Bird has never one to be shy of having multiple versions of his best songs, which is also demonstrated by "Pulaski at Night". Originally the standout track from the otherwise instrumental I Want to See Pulaski at Night EP (2013), he released another (slightly inferior) version as just "Pulaski" on the deluxe edition of Are You Serious. The version they played live was a bit closer to the latter version, but yet it equaled the strength of the original.

Bird claims to have rarely played "The Naming of Things", which appears to be true, although it did appear on the Fake Conversations live EP given out for free to ticket buyers on the 2012 tour, and he played it when I saw him on that tour. It's one of his best songs, but he has a tendency to change the phrasing of it when performing it live, much like Lou Reed would. Bird is a much more talented singer than Reed, but it's still annoying to have the opportunity for singing along rendered practically impossible. On one hand, I like it when musicians can rearrange and reconfigure their songs live, but on the other, it can be alienating, especially when it is done to an artist's most well-known song, in this case "Fake Palindromes".

For the encore, Bird again reprised his one mic gimmick, although with the addition of the full drum kit. "Give It Away" is great song from Break It Yourself (2012), and "My Sister's Tiny Hands" is a typical example of the all-Handsome Family covers album, Things Are Great Here, Sort Of… (2014). While the album goes perhaps a bit too far, Bird has always done a good job of interpreting Handsome Family songs, and this song is no exception when presented in its own light. Both were well suited to the format.

I thoroughly enjoyed the part of the set I saw, so I wish I'd seen the full thing. The performance at the festival the following day was fairly similar, albeit condensed. For the shorter festival set, Bird dropped the one-mic section and focused mostly on uptempo, catchy numbers. However, he still managed to play a couple songs with lower-key, subtler sections ("Three White Horses" and "Pulaski at Night"). In both shows, he seemed to play to his proven strengths in the indie rock vein with limited crossover into the country/folk side of things. However, I'm still left with the impression that Bird is searching out new directions. His latest album is decidedly a return to indie rock after some brief diversions, but the directness of the lyrics is certainly a change. The album took a while to grow on me, but the live performance secured my impression that the new material stands up almost as well as his best work. I might still be waiting for a dramatic turn of events, but Bird is delivering satisfying music in the meantime.


Score:
Late night show: A-
Festival webcast: A-
Are You Serious: B+

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Austin City Limits Festival 2016, Weekend 1, Day 1

Event: Austin City Limits Festival 2016, Weekend 1, Day 1
Venue: Zilker Park
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 30 September 2016

My fourth year! Much like last year, the lineup seemed a bit weak to me, but it still wasn't hard to find a day I wanted to see. Actually, there were a few of acts scattered across the weekend that interested me, but they were thinly spread out and I was unconvinced to go for more than a single day. Since I had to work most of the day and I got inside the festival grounds a bit later than I was hoping, I missed Chairlift and Bombino, but I've seen the latter twice before, and I caught the former on the webcast the next morning.

I wasn't particularly excited about any of the bands playing for a couple hours, so I just picked things that seemed like they had at least a slight chance of being good. I started with Foals, a British band that kept switching contexts between indie rock and hard rock. The indie rock parts were tolerable, particularly when they leaned in an 80s new wave direction, but the harder stuff was just bland heavy riffing and some jarring screaming. I wasn't very impressed by the instrumental performances at any point. They kept threatening to break into big solos, but instead they just kept riffing more. They were missing something in the ways of nuance.

From there I wandered over to St. Lucia on the Miller stage while eating a burrito. I was totally unimpressed by their generic electronica, and the sound from the Cirrus Logic stage was fiercely interfering. I gave up and ended up going to that stage for Cold War Kids, who weren't much better and were also suffering from the cross-park noise. (Seriously, there were three stages all facing into the same section of crowd.) Cold War Kids at least had a decent piano rock vibe, but they came off as fairly generic pop rock. A few hints of Erasure slipped through, but filtered through acoustic piano and electric guitar. It struck me that when they stuck to keyboards, they had something going for them, but every time they'd switch to more guitars and it'd go downhill.

I was supposed to be meeting a friend around this time, but cell phone reception was so spotty near the entrance that we managed to miss each other and I gave up trying to find him after an initial search. I took the opportunity to see Flying Lotus after I missed my chance earlier this year due to the cancellation of Levitation. He was definitely was as weird as I was expecting (seemingly just for the sake of weirdness), and he lived up to the reputation of being difficult to classify and categorize. However, this very confusion makes him rather fascinating to behold. He draws you in by forcibly keeping your attention purely with his creative instrumentals. His raps were fine, but the real draw is his skill with blending a psychedelic collage of samples.

Eventually I realized I'd better find my friend, so aided by better reception I went in search of him in the Tito's tent, where Corinne Bailey Rae was playing. She was nominally playing a pleasant take on soul, but she frequently diverted into dancier electronic pop territory. I was less excited by that, but she had a solid band and a great voice at any rate. The bassist was superb but unfortunately kept switching to keyboards to synthesize the instrument in a far inferior fashion.

[Corinne Bailey Rae.]

After a detour to the food stalls and the merch booth, we headed towards the Samsung stage to get a decent spot for Radiohead. Despite that we missed out on some other options in the meantime, it was probably worth it. Here's the setlist:

01. Burn the Witch
02. Daydreaming
03. Ful Stop
04. Airbag
05. How Soon Is Now? [The Smiths cover tease]
06. 2 + 2 = 5
06. The National Anthem
07. Bloom
08. Lotus Flower
09. The Gloaming
10. Exit Music (for a Film)
11. The Numbers
12. Identikit
13. Reckoner
14. Everything in Its Right Place →
15. Idioteque
16. Bodysnatchers
17. Street Spirit (Fade Out)

Encore:
18. Give Up the Ghost
19. Paranoid Android
20. Nude
21. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
22. There There
23. Karma Police

[Radiohead.]

Radiohead, again augmented by second drummer Clive Deamer, began the show predictably and rather inauspiciously. "Burn the Witch", nominally a song driven by rapidly bowed strings, was simulated by a chugging bassline and what seemed to be synth strings, but the energy suffered from the substitution and Thom's voice wandered a little too far off-key. "Daydreaming" works fine as the follow-up track on A Moon Shaped Pool, but on stage its loose, drifting atmosphere didn't help ground things any more than the opener did. Thankfully, the band opted to skip a few more low-key album tracks and dove straight into the higher-powered "Ful Stop", finally kicking things off in earnest. "Airbag" solidified the deal and was greeted by huge applause.

Pausing briefly for a breather, Thom Yorke started singing lines from The Smiths' classic "How Soon Is Now?". The audience sang along, but before they got too far, the band launched into "2 + 2 = 5". From that point onward, they basically played a conventional greatest-hits set, interrupted only briefly for two more songs from the new album: "The Numbers" and "Identikit". While those may be two of the best songs on the album, I was surprised that they only ended up playing five songs from A Moon Shaped Pool. (At least they skipped the redundant version of "True Love Waits" that is a downgrade from the I Might Be Wrong live version, which itself was a downgrade from the original 1995 live version.) They similarly only played three songs from the previous album, The King of Limbs, and they didn't play any of the non-album singles they released around that time.

In fact, they didn't play anything at all that could be considered unexpected or surprising. Even "Exit Music" is one of their regular numbers, and this performance was marred by a brief loss of sound amplification and by an unruly group near me that decided to shout at each other during the quiet start of the song. I was hoping for "Let Down" (which they've been playing surprisingly often on this tour), "Climbing Up the Walls", or anything they hadn't played in a long time, but to no avail. The last time I saw them, they played an obscure b-side ("The Amazing Sounds of Orgy") and a song that wouldn't be released for four years ("Identikit"), so my hopes weren't entirely unfounded.

That said, what they did play was superb after the first couple duds. I'll take "Reckoner" and "Nude" any day, and the audience was exceptionally excited for "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". I still think "Everything in Its Right Place" works best in its right place as a set- or show-closer, and while it seemed a little too brief this time around, I liked they way they ran it straight into "Idioteque", which they in turn brought to an uncommonly frenzied pitch. "Karma Police" would be hard to complain about, and Thom graced us with a singalong coda of the chorus before leaving the stage for good.

Considering the limits of the festival stage and the fact they haven't toured in four years, Radiohead still maintained a high standard of performance, and they covered a wide breadth of material from the large catalog they have available to draw from. The show was a good time, but it seemed like they were playing a bit by the numbers. There really weren't any surprises and little to make the show stand out in a positive way. Their stature is such that they could afford to experiment and play around, so it was disappointing that they didn't take the opportunity.

[Radiohead again.]

After leaving the festival grounds, I went to Stubb's to catch a late night show of Andrew Bird, which I will cover in the next post.

Scores:
Foals: C-
St. Lucia: C-
Cold War Kids: C+
Flying Lotus: B
Corinne Bailey Rae: B-
Radiohead: B+

P.S. Foals' setlist is here, St. Lucia's is here, Cold War Kids' is here, Flying Lotus' is here, and Corinne Bailey Rae's is here.

P.P.S. Thanks to Jacob!