Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Peter Murphy / Lettie - Live 2009.10.18

Two great concerts within four days of each other in Hannover? Seems impossible, but it just happened.

Artist: Peter Murphy
Venue: Capitol
Location: Hannover, Germany
Date: October 18, 2009
Opening Act: Lettie

Setlist:
01. Burning from the Inside (originally performed by Bauhaus)
02. Velocity Bird
03. Peace to Each
04. Disappearing
05. Memory Go
06. Instant Karma (John Lennon cover)
07. In Every Dream Home a Heartache (Roxy Music cover)
08. Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem
09. Time Has Got Nothing to Do with It
10. Too Much 21st Century (originally performed by Bauhaus)
11. The Prince & Old Lady Shade
12. Deep Ocean Vast Sea
13. Uneven & Brittle

Encore:
14. A Strange Kind of Love → Bela Lugosi's Dead (originally performed by Bauhaus)
15. She's in Parties (originally performed by Bauhaus)
16. Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie cover)
17. Transmission (Joy Division cover)
18. Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)

Review:
After how long the line was when the doors opened when I saw Porcupine Tree with Robert Fripp just three nights before, I was surprised to be about the fifth person to enter the venue just after doors opened for Peter Murphy. Sad but true: Murphy isn't exactly as famous as he could be. By the time he actually hit the stage, there was a respectable audience, probably in the area of 200 people.

First, however, came Lettie. She came out by herself, grabbed her Fender Stratocaster, and started playing tunes with something of an ethereal new-wave vibe. She had a second microphone loaded with extremely heavy reverb and delay that she would sometimes switch to. She slowly integrated a loop pedal, a keyboard, samples, and a friend who came out and played some sort of electronic keyboard instrument. (It must have been some sort of synthesizer, but he used it to create fairly noisy, ambient melodies, if you can imagine that.) On one hand, Lettie isn't a great singer, the songs are fairly simple, her dancing was kind of awkward, and the whole act just felt a bit loose. But on the other hand, the music was interesting and she has a definite charm. The whole deal felt a bit retro, in a good way. Honestly, she kind of reminded me of my own performances, or maybe those of The Cure from their earlier days.

Peter Murphy came out accompanied by a standard rock trio: guitarist, bassist, and drummer. Considering Murphy's history with Turkish-influenced music, acoustic ballads, and more ambient textures, I wondered what sort of array of sounds he'd pull off through the night. I had no worries about hearing his gothic or alt-rock personas, and indeed, the opening song was a classic Bauhaus rocker. Even though "Burning from the Inside" isn't one of Bauhaus's more instrumentally impressive tracks, I couldn't help feel that the band wasn't entirely capable of filling the shoes of Murphy's first band. Daniel Ash's complicated picking patterns and David J's tricky basslines were not to be found here.

Nonetheless, Murphy was able to rock out rather well, introducing several new songs along the way. I'm not sure about all the titles; he's debuted about five or six new songs over the past tour. Although Murphy supposedly has an album in the works, this tour is labeled the Secret Cover Tour, inspired by a series of covers that he is releasing as singles in the meantime. His website makes it clear that there will be four, but only the first three have been thus far released: "Instant Karma", "Space Oddity", and "Transmission". The first is something of a surprise to me, but Murphy pulls it off fairly well. Murphy has long been a Bowie fan; Bauhaus released their fantastic cover of "Ziggy Stardust" in 1982, and he's been playing "Space Oddity" live since 2002. "Transmission" is also no surprise: Murphy played it live with Bauhaus in 2006, and later in the same year he performed four other Joy Division covers in a radio broadcast with Nine Inch Nails.

Murphy graced us with all three covers, along with his long-time favorite "Ziggy Stardust" and the surprise "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" (likely to be the fourth single). Considering his known idols of Bowie, Ian Curtis, Brian Eno, and Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry isn't hard to picture as well, but John Lennon is still a surprise to me. A good surprise, but I wouldn't have guessed it. The Roxy Music cover was also performed very well, with Peter playing the eerie keyboard part. [Edit 2014.08.01: By now it should be well-known that the fourth single was actually a cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt", recorded with Trent Reznor in a radio session in Atlanta in 2006.]

I have to admit, though, I felt a bit let down when Peter left the stage the first time. Where were all his hits? I was disappointed by his choice of two inferior Bauhaus songs, and I don't think Murphy was in top condition – "Time Has Got Nothing to Do with It" and "Deep Ocean Vast Sea" both felt weak and tame. The new songs were fairly good, the covers were good, and "Marlene Dietrich's Favourite Poem", complete with Peter on his 12-string guitar, was great, but I knew he'd have to do a solid encore to make up for the lesser parts.

Indeed, returning for the encore with the 12-string, Murphy started off again strongly with a great version of "A Strange Kind of Love", with the lyrics to "Bela Lugosi's Dead" appended to the end. It was a bit weird, just a bit dissonant, but it mostly worked, although the two sets of lyrics have nothing in common. "She's in Parties" was awesome and finally got the crowd moving. "Ziggy Stardust" was similarly well-performed (although, again, the guitarist was no Ash, let alone Mick Ronson!), and "Transmission" was the clear peak of the night – the crowd was way into it.

Covers can be a tricky business. Murphy has generally done a surprisingly good job of taking songs from his idols and tweaking them just a little bit to suit his fancies. Most of his covers don't sound that different from the originals, but his distinctive voice lends his versions their own unique flavor. That was certainly the case with "Transmission" – he sang it incredibly well, as opposed to the version he released as one of his singles, in which he tries a bit too much to sound like Ian Curtis and in the process ends up a bit off-key.

However, his take on "Space Oddity" confuses me. Instead of the psychedelic, transcendental pop of the original, he does a string-synth-laden ambient version that kills the folky funk of the bridge break and thus looses the driving momentum of the original. Apart from that, his version is good – it drops the whole folk feel and focuses on the spaced-out, thoughtful mood of the song. Live, though, he sang the words to his recording after he and his band sank to the floor. Weird. All four of them just lay there with the lights dimmed. I didn't see Murphy move at all – he might not have even been singing. And afterwards, they got up, said thanks, waved, and left. Confusing.

I remain surprised by the lack of his hit material – where was "Cuts You Up" or "Gliding Like a Whale" or "Indigo Eyes"? I suppose those songs might have been a bit complicated to perform with his setup, but I'm confident that he could have done it. And where were the funkier songs, like "Kick in the Eye" or "Final Solution"? Assuming his musicians were up to it, they could have really rocked those. In any case, I think Murphy was a bit off on this night, and the song choices were interesting but still left something to be desired. The covers are a decent idea, but I'll be curious to see how his new album turns out.

Scores:
Lettie: B+
Peter Murphy: C+

Friday, October 16, 2009

Porcupine Tree / Robert Fripp - Live 2009.10.15

As I explained before, I'm living in Germany for the time being. I recently moved to Hannover and was surprised to learn about the great bands coming here. Unfortunately, Depeche Mode is already sold out, marking my third missed opportunity to see them, but I'm certainly going to take advantage of everything else that I can manage. Last night was my first experience of live music in Hannover.

Artist: Porcupine Tree
Venue: Capitol
Location: Hannover, Germany
Date: October 15, 2009
Opening Act: Robert Fripp

Review:
When I heard about this concert I figured that despite my relative ignorance of the headliners it would be worth a shot. See, I've known about Robert Fripp for years; I've heard some of his experiments with Frippertonics, his collaborations with Brian Eno, his work with King Crimson, and of course his guitarwork on David Bowie's "Heroes". Although I don't know his whole catalog and I've never been a rabid follower, he's a well-respected pioneer. I mean, he's a big name. On the other hand, the only things I knew about Porcupine Tree are that they are a contemporary band and that my father is a fan. Usually I can trust my father's opinions on contemporary music quite well, since, I mean, he doesn't have time to listen to bad music, and why would he bother when he's been collecting good music for so long? In any case, I came to hear Fripp probably a little more than I came to hear Porcupine Tree.

Robert Fripp came out first, just him, his guitar, and his electronics. No longer using his signature Frippertonics technique, today he favors a style or technique he calls "Soundscapes", which is more or less an updated, digital version of Frippertonics. As I witnessed it, he sits down and starts playing on his Gibson Les Paul, using a digital processor to make ambient synth tones. He used some sort of digital delay units to create a somewhat ambient soundbed loop, to which he would add and subtract elements as he went along. Over the loop he played more normal-sounding guitar solo bits.

He played one single piece for about twenty minutes, and although it was kind of cool, I was a bit disappointed. His soundbed was nothing revolutionary, and I kept waiting for him to drop a really intense guitar solo, but nothing came. He played great, it all sounded good, but he just didn't pull any surprises. (It didn't help the certain sectors of the audience didn't appreciate the mellow tone, either; a number of punters were clearly impatient for the old bozo to leave the stage so that the hipper, younger Porcupine Tree could hit the stage. I am reminded of the barroom gig scene in Ghost World.) I hate to say it, but Fripp isn't on the cutting edge anymore. The scene that he pioneered over thirty years ago has since outgrown him – I mean, seriously, after seeing someone like Andrew Bird, I'm not as impressed. This is a good example of a situation in which the original creative force has ceased to grow, while new innovators have come to the field and taken things to another level. But don't get me wrong – it was still cool to see Fripp, and his piece was fairly good, but not mind-blowing.

I had no idea what to expect from Porcupine Tree. When they came out and played a loud, riff-laden metal jam, I was a bit taken aback. I mean, they pulled off a mean 5/4 rhythm, but I was hoping they wouldn't just be a Tool rip-off. The song wasn't bad at all, though, and when further songs showed a much more diverse array of sounds and tones, I was much more receptive. Unfortunately, I can't offer much in the ways of a setlist since I am totally unfamiliar with the band's catalog. They said that would play the entirety of their new album, The Incident, and I do believe that kept to that promise. From what I've read, most of that album was conceived as one extended suite, and I did get a feel for that in the live performance. It was often hard to tell when songs actually started or ended, and many parts seemed to go on for a while without pause. This was not to their detriment – I found the music quite enthralling. I quite appreciated the dynamics of the band: acoustic-based pieces were right next to more ambient parts, which could be followed by heavier jams and riff- or guitar-solo-based segments. It all flowed together quite well.

After finishing the album song-cycle, the band left the stage for a ten-minute break. Upon return, they played a full second set of material, about 45 minutes, presumably from their back-catalog. (The one song name I caught was "Lazarus".) The general sound of the music remained similar, although the variety of tones was perhaps even further widened. Lower-key and/or acoustic segments seemed a bit more prominent. After their second set, they left the stage, but as expected, they came back again for a brief encore. The first song featured a fantastic acoustic guitar part, and second song was announced as "Trains". (The singer asked what "train" is in German, but he had some difficulty hearing the answer.)

Porcupine Tree ended up putting on a pretty good show, especially for playing over two hours of music. I know they are labeled, for better or worse, as a modern progressive band, and I think the classification fits – they like long, expansive songs; they like to experiment with styles and sonic directions, even within one song; and they like to push the boundaries of rock music. They don't like to stand in one place too long. They are clearly rock musicians, but they don't want to be contained by just one corner of what rock means. And I really like that. Some of the intense metal bits could be a bit much for me, but with the energy of a live show, I could still get into it in the context of the whole performance.

Scores:
Robert Fripp: C
Porcupine Tree: A-

P.S. What would have made this show really cool is if Fripp had joined the band for an encore. They would have fit together well, I think, and that would have really blown my mind.

[Edit 2015.07.14:] I just noticed that the setlist was posted online:

Set 1:
01. Occam's Razor
02. The Blind House
03. Great Expectations
04. Kneel and Disconnect
05. Drawing the Line
06. The Incident
07. Your Unpleasant Family
08. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
09. Time Flies
10. Degree Zero of Liberty
11. Octane Twisted
12. The Séance
13. Circle of Manias
14. I Drive the Hearse

Set 2:
15. The Start of Something Beautiful
16. Russia on Ice (first half)
17. Anesthetize (Part 2: "The Pills I'm Taking")
18. Lazarus
19. Normal
20. Strip the Soul →
21. .3 (second half)
22. Bonnie the Cat

Encore:
23. The Sound of Muzak
24. Trains

Also, it's worth noting that Porcupine Tree's keyboardist is Richard Barbieri, also known for performing the same role in Japan!