Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra / My Empty Phantom - Live 2014.04.22

It's not often that I see a concert poster and say to myself, "I should see that show", but after all, that is how I found out about the show that essentially kicked off this blog in 2007. A couple weeks ago, I happened to see a poster for this show, and since I'd recently heard most of their new album and liked it well enough, I thought it was worth a shot. Tickets were cheap and the opener even seemed interesting.

Artist: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 22 April 2014
Opening Act: My Empty Phantom

Setlist (thanks to here for filling in the holes of my knowledge):
01. Fuck Off Get Free (For the Island of Montreal)
02. Austerity Blues
03. Rains Thru the Roof at Thee Grande Ballroom (for Capital Steez) →
04. Take Away These Early Grave Blues
05. 'Piphany Rambler
06. All the Kings Are Dead
07. What We Loved Was Not Enough

Encore:
08. Little Ones Run

Review:
My Empty Phantom is a local Austin multi-instrumentalist that does his live act by looping keyboard and guitar parts together and then playing live drums, as opposed to the "conventional" looping technique of starting with a drum loop and then building up the other instruments. He played five songs and they all followed the same pattern. There was some variance in whether he favored guitar or keyboard, but once he had a suitable instrumental base, he would then sit at his set and drum along for a while before bringing things back down. He was proficient at each of his instruments, and I liked the sound, but I didn't find it very noteworthy otherwise. You can stream his debut EP from bandcamp, and presumably the five tracks there are the same five he played live.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra is a consciously strange band and they are known just as much for their non-musical trappings as they are for their music. First, most people (including myself) know them mostly as a sibling-band to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a vanguard of the experimental rock/post-rock scene. The two bands share members (guitarist Efrim Menuck, bassist Thierry Amar, and violinst Sophie Trudeau) as well as a hometown (Montreal) and label (Constellation). Second, the band is known for changing their name and their lineup quite regularly. Most variations of their name include the words "Silver", "Mt.", and "Zion", leading fans to frequently refer to them as A Silver Mt. Zion as a compromise for consistency. (I will follow this convention for now.) Third, the band (as with Godspeed) are known for their left-wing politics, including virulent anti-capitalism and an honest attempt to live and work in a truly democratic, communal fashion. Fourth, the band's song titles and album artwork (again, as with Godspeed) are noted for being unconventional, atypically lengthy, and abstract, political, or both.

[Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra.]

A Silver Mt. Zion's music fits pretty well with their aesthetic. While it shares Godspeed's affinity for a less rock and more classically oriented composition style, as well as Efrim's powerful, effects-laden guitar, this band features vocals. While Godspeed seemed happy to let their album art, song titles, occasional samples, and musical atmosphere convey their message, A Silver Mt. Zion is a little more direct. The lyrics are almost confrontational in their honesty and anger about modern life. They claimed that they weren't political, that they are just telling it like it is, and while I agree, most people find honest discourse about the state of a nation or the economy to be inherently political. It doesn't really matter, but the band clearly has a lot to say about topics like the 2012 student riots in Quebec.

The only problem was that I couldn't actually understand the lyrics at the show. Hardly a single line, in fact. Part of the problem was that the vocals were mixed low, treated almost like an instrument à la My Bloody Valentine, and the other part was that Efrim sang most of the vocals and he has a terrible voice. I love his guitarwork, and I might sympathize with his ideologies, but I do not like his voice. He can usually stay on key, but his style is loose, yelpy, and shrieking. While all the other members also sang, they rarely sang lead, and they were mixed even lower.

That leads me to another problem I observed, although his may be a minor quibble of little significance. Much like Godspeed, the band appears to try to work as a collaborative collective, but yet Efrim was clearly the lead singer, he did the vast majority of the talking, and his bulldozer guitar dominated the mix. After "Take Away These Early Grave Blues", while taking a breather, he asked if the audience had any questions. Naturally, people called out a few things, and Efrim answered almost all of them, although he did insist that he couldn't speak for the other members. (I can thus report that Efrim's favorite song is "Complete Control" by the Clash and the first album he bought was ABBA's Greatest Hits.)

So while the vocals might not have done much for me, I found the music to be quite good. Thierry's basswork was excellent, and on half the songs he switched from an electric bass to a stand-up double bass. Drummer David Payant surprised me by occasionally playing a keyboard hidden behind his set. Violinists Sophie and Jessica Moss were unfortunately heard to hear in the mix, but I thought their contributions were the crux of what made the band's sound seem so nuanced and textured. Efrim's guitar tends to be big, heavy, delayed, and distorted, such that despite that he doesn't play many chords or traditional guitar solos, he still fills up a huge amount of space. Theirry's melodic bass parts make a nice bed of sound underneath that, and the violins complete the top end of the picture. It's a very big sound, and it's quite cool to follow its swells and movements.

Scores:
My Empty Phantom: C+
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: B

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The National / Warpaint - Live 2014.04.21

After missing my chance to see The National at the Austin City Limits Festival last year (day three of weekend two was canceled due to flooding), I was quite disappointed that all my studying up on the band was left somewhat unfulfilled. When I heard they were coming back to one of Austin's best venues for two nights, I immediately bought a ticket. (They later even added a third night!) I became even more excited after learning the opener was a band that had begun to show up on my radar with good praise.

Artist: The National
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, TX
Date: 21 April 2014
Opening Act: Warpaint

Setlist (thanks to here for filling in the holes in my back-catalog awareness):
01. Sea of Love
02. I Should Live in Salt
03. Mistaken for Strangers
04. Sorrow
05. Bloodbuzz Ohio
06. Don't Swallow the Cap
07. Hard to Find
08. Afraid of Everyone
09. Conversation 16
10. Squalor Victoria
11. I Need My Girl
12. This Is the Last Time
13. Ada → Chicago (Sufjan Stevens cover tease)
14. Abel
15. Slow Show
16. Pink Rabbits
17. England
18. Graceless
19. About Today
20. Fake Empire

Encore:
21. Runway
22. Mr. November
23. Terrible Love
24. Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks

Review:
Warpaint was just in town for SXSW, but because I already had this ticket, I decided it wasn't worth seeking them out there. At this show, they thanked anyone who had seen them there, but admitted that SXSW "was a bit of a shitshow" and that they were much happier to be playing in a "proper venue". It isn't hard to see why a band would prefer a spacious venue with good acoustics and plenty of time to set up and soundcheck over a hasty, rushed affair in some smaller club amid a mess of competing musicians.

I started hearing about Warpaint because they seem to be grouped in with the contemporary psychedelic crowd, which I have been hearing a lot about because of SXSW and the upcoming Austin Psych Fest. Warpaint have the distinction of being an all-woman band, as well as having a sound unto themselves, apart from any psychedelic connotations. I can see the relationship to that concept, but they merge the floaty, ethereal guitars of The Chameleons with a very rhythmic, rooted, earthy bass and drum feel. The solid, danceable beats with the flexibility of multiple singers reminded me just barely of The Slits or The Raincoats, or maybe even Gang of Four or The Au Pairs.

I consistently found myself mesmerized by the rhythm parts, studying the bass and drums and letting the vocals, guitars, and keyboards float through my awareness. That isn't to say the guitars weren't good; they are, after all, what drew me in to the band initially. I love the sound of delayed, atmospheric, effects-laden guitars, but I think this band lets the guitars fill space around the other elements of the songs.

[Warpaint. Sorry for the poor quality of these pictures, but it's better than nothing.]

If I had to criticize, I would say that some of their songs got lost in a bit of a trancey haze. I think the band has a bit of a formula, and for the most part it works, but I'm excited to see how they can break the bounds they seem to have set for themselves. I want to buy their new record, and maybe it is slightly more adventurous, but on stage, they seemed to operate in just one space. Of course, I like that space, but I don't know if it will work for them forever. The other problem was that their lyrics were a challenge to understand, mostly because the vocals just weren't clear and distinct from the other high-range instruments.

The National came to my awareness thanks to the recommendation of a friend, and as such I bought their last two albums (High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me) in anticipation of seeing them at ACL. I haven't heard much of their back-catalog, but now I am rather curious about what it contains. Seeing the band live made me realize that the impressions I have of the band must be incomplete or inaccurate. While I really like both of the albums I have, they do have a bit of a privileged white male perspective, and a lot of the lyrics deal with family life and upper-middle class social environments. The music is a very orchestrated, refined chamber rock that manages to have just enough energy to be thrilling but not enough to be anarchic, chaotic, or anything near punk. The "dad rock" cliché would be fitting, inasmuch as it fits a band like Wilco, which is to say, hardly at all except that a lot of aging white males seem to appreciate the combination of mature lyrics, youthful but restrained energy, and a refined update of classic rock sounds. Obviously, I appreciate those things myself, but sometimes I can't help but wonder if I'm being played to, like it's a calculated game to appeal to a certain demographic.

[The National.]

However, the concert experience defies this. The first sign was that there might have been more women in the audience than men. The second was that the age demographic was split fairly evenly between those around the age of 40 (as I might have expected) and those around the age of 20 (which I had not foreseen). Judging by the number of times I heard the cry of, "I love you, !", The National must have once had a different aura that lent itself more towards, uh… youth appeal. This contrasts sharply with the latest albums, which are not youthful at all (unless you take "youth" to mean kindergartners).

The other strange thing is that the band seems just a little awkward or goofy on stage. I don't know how to explain this, but I almost feel like they don't know how to behave up there. While brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf (drummer and bassist, respectively) didn't move or talk much, and twin brother guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner could only engage the audience at a minimal level (occasional mumbled offerings of thanks, occasional wanderings near the front of the stage with a raised guitar), lead singer Matt Berninger almost seemed to be overcompensating for the others. Despite his semi-conspicuous suit, he was already jumping on the stage monitors during the first song. It didn't take him long to start throwing down the mic at dramatic moments, or flinging water cups into the air, or jumping in the audience and running around while singing, forcing the stage hands to carefully watch the microphone cable. (The most hilarious moment of the show was during one of these jaunts, when Berninger straight up walked out a side door while still singing "Mr. November". He came back out right as the song ended.)

However, I certainly don't mean to write off the other members. I enjoyed watching the Dessner twins, although I have to admit I couldn't tell them apart at all. After doing some research, I think Aaron was on stage left and Bryce on stage right. Both mostly played guitar, but also sang backing parts and occasionally went to the back of the stage to play a piano. Aaron played harmonica on "Sea of Love", and halfway through the show I realized that on half the songs, Bryce was playing bass pedals with his right foot while also playing guitar and singing. Talk about coordination! His other trick was to grab an extra guitar for "I Need My Girl" and hit the headstock on the floor, letting it ring out and feed back at dramatic points. (This can be seen on several live videos, including this one. I actually like the effect enough that I miss it on the album version.)

[Note Bryce, stage right, slamming a guitar into the floor.]

The other thing that stood out to me about the Dessner brothers was that they didn't really ever play a guitar solo. They played lead parts, but never took center stage to noodle about on the upper fret board. They focus more on making a cool part that fits the sound and movement of the song. They play guitar as if it were a violin in an orchestra – important, but not the only part of the picture.

I also appreciated that the band toured with two additional musicians, a trumpeter and a trombonist, both of which occasionally also played keyboards or other instruments. They allowed the songs to sound full and layered without requiring samples, gimmickry, or sacrifice of vital elements of the songs.

The setlist mostly stuck to the two albums I have, but there were several cuts from the preceding albums Alligator and Boxer. In concert, those songs didn't sound particularly out of place, although I couldn't understand any of the lyrics, because it must be near impossible to mix Matt Berninger's somewhat monotone baritone with all the other mid-range instruments. Of course, at times, he would shift into a shrieking yell unheard on the albums, but still indecipherable due to the nature of screaming. But for the songs I already knew, I could follow every word, and I remembered why I like the lyrics and their willingness to explore.

One of the songs I didn't know, "Ada", was introduced as being an old song (2007! So old!) that Sufjan Stevens had done a guest piano part that they admitted they would not be able to reproduce accurately on stage. Nonetheless, they dedicated the song to him, and at the end, I caught the horns players paying tribute by playing the wonderful part of Stevens' "Chicago"! I cheered, but hardly anyone else seemed to notice, and indeed the setlist I found online made no mention of the tease (until I added it myself!).

The other highlight was something of a gimmick, but one that I thought worked quite successfully. At the end of the encore, all seven musicians came to the front of the stage, pushed away the microphones, and played a completely acoustic, seemingly unamplified version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks". I still can't say I understand the meaning of the song, but I joined the audience in happily singing along anyway.

Much as I may have criticized the band, I still thought The National played a good show. It was fun, even if it was tempered. I'm interested in examining the back catalog a little further, and I'm impressed that the setlists of the two proceeding nights are actually substantially different than the show I saw.

Scores:
Warpaint: B+
The National: B

P.S. Thanks to Josh P. for the original recommendation.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Neil Young - Live 2014.04.18

A long, long time ago (9 August 2003) I had a ticket in my name to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Starlight Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. However, my appendix intervened, and for the only time thus far in my life, I was hospitalized. I missed the show in order to have an appendectomy. And now, over ten years later, I've finally had a chance to make up for it.

Artist: Neil Young
Venue: Meyerson Symphony Center, Eugene McDermott Concert Hall
Location: Dallas, Texas
Date: 18 April 2014

Set 1 (see also Sugar Mountain for more details):
01. From Hank to Hendrix
02. On the Way Home (originally performed by Buffalo Springfield)
03. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
04. Love in Mind
05. Philadelphia
06. Mellow My Mind
07. Reason to Believe (Tim Hardin cover)
08. Someday
09. Changes (Phil Ochs cover)
10. Harvest
11. Old Man

Set 2:
12. Cortez the Killer
13. Pocahontas
14. A Man Needs a Maid
15. Ohio (originally performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)
16. Southern Man
17. Mr. Soul (originally performed by Buffalo Springfield)
18. Harvest Moon
19. If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot cover)
20. After the Gold Rush
21. Heart of Gold

Encore:
22. Thrasher

Review:
Neil Young is never an easy character to pin down. His recent albums have been released on his own schedule and cover themes and styles that are almost as varied and unpredictable as his 80s albums. He's been touring with Crazy Horse, but then reunited briefly with Crosby, Stills, and Nash for his yearly Bridge School Benefit shows, only to then suddenly announce a few sporadic solo shows in select North American cities. He also surprise-released his new covers album (A Letter Home) on the day before this show.

I saw his second show in Dallas, and I would argue that I got the better performance of the two nights, based on setlists and other reviews. Apparently, Neil got a bit upset at the hecklers on the first night, so he skipped a few of his stories. There were certainly hecklers the night I saw him, but they weren't as malicious. (Certainly makes one wonder why someone would pay a hundred or hundreds of dollars just to piss off their favorite musician.) The second night also got two more songs.

[The inside of the Meyerson.]

Neil's choice of venues does make me wonder, though. He seemed to be selecting venues with the best acoustics possible for this solo pseudo-tour. He remarked at the show that the Meyerson was one of the "top two or three places in the United States". Perhaps he is preparing concert recordings for a live release? There was a gigantic mixing board off to the side of the stage, which would be overkill for most solo artists, but I suppose Neil has a certain affinity for sound quality even if there's nothing more to it than that. In any case, I can't argue with Neil's statement; the sound was incredible. I could hear every note perfectly and it never got so loud that I needed my earplugs. (For reference, I always wear earplugs at concerts, because otherwise I can hear my ears distorting the sound.)

Apparently the venue is seen a model institution; it is featured in multiple books on acoustical architecture that I have, and a colleague told me that it was discussed in an acoustic course he recently took. Part of this acclaim can be attributed to a rather novel feature of the venue: heavy concrete doors can hide or expose large reverberation chambers above the balcony seats, meaning that the venue can easy adapt itself to the ideal reverberation times of a variety of styles. It was hard to tell, but I think the chambers were open for Neil.

[The openings to the reverberation chambers.]

Anyway, all of that discussion is necessary to say that the show was quite special even without considering the actual performance quality. And thankfully, the performance was great. Now, everyone knows that Neil is not a perfect singer, but he is distinctive, and he can sing quite well when he chooses. As Neil has aged, his voice has surprisingly not changed greatly. It might be a touch more gravelly, but his range is practically the same as it ever was. (He couldn't hit the highest notes in "Mellow My Mind", but he didn't actually hit them on the record in 1973, either.) His musicianship is also sometimes loose or rough around the edges, but he has an uncanny ability to make this seem legitimate, like it only makes him more authentic. Generally, though, he never hits a wrong note, and I think he views timing as being more about feel than exactness.

[The stage.]

The stage was arranged with a circle of guitars (and a banjo) up front and center, a couple more guitars and a statue of a Native figure behind that, a grand piano (painted by his daughter, according to Neil) on stage left, an upright tack piano on stage right, and a pipe organ on a raised stage in back. In total there were eight acoustic guitars, plus the banjo. I think two of the guitars were twelve-strings. Neil introduced several of the guitars with extended stories when he picked them up.

Actually, Neil spent a large portion of the night just telling stories. He was a little rambly at times, but he has a sort of captivating charm such that you wouldn't want to miss any of the wisdom he might impart. Some of the stories were fairly interesting; he held up one of the guitars to show the work that had been done on it after a previous owner was shot while playing it. He also claimed that a hotel lobby wall with two buttons, labeled "Man" and "Maid", was the inspiration for a "A Man Needs a Maid". Other monologues were more humorous, such as his repeated comments about sleep, or political, such as his repeated comments about water. His best quote: "Sleep is great. Almost as much as water."

[Neil Young talking about his piano.]

As far as the setlist goes, I couldn't have asked for much more. While he played a few songs I don't think are very special ("Philadelphia", "A Man Needs a Maid", "Harvest Moon"), he also did many of his best, including obvious crowd-pleasers ("Old Man", "Heart of Gold", "Ohio", "Southern Man") as well as excellent album cuts and obscurities. He even played what may be my personal favorite of his, "Pocahontas" (on a 12-string!). "Mr. Soul" was done on the pipe organ, giving it an odd drone feel not too distant from his electronic version on the wonderfully strange Trans album. "A Man Needs a Maid", while not one of my favorites, was given a more complicated arrangement in which Neil switched between the grand piano and a synthesizer for different sections.

The recent solo setlists have been notable for including several covers, but of course that's because he just recorded them for his new album. Hardin's "Reason to Believe" didn't seem anything special to me, but I thought Ochs's "Changes" was quite good and Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" was modestly good.

Some of the most special moments were the songs that Neil doesn't play very often. "Thrasher" is the most obvious – until this tour, it hadn't been played since the original Rust Never Sleeps tour in 1978. It's a great song with some of his best lyrics, and despite the adoration of the fans, Neil just doesn't play it. Since it has long been rumored to be about CSNY and Neil's departure from that scene in the 70s, it does not bode well that he has resurrected the song after a brief CSNY reunion and comments from Graham Nash that a full tour was not out of the question. All signs point to Neil not wanting to be tied down and held back, "lost in rock formations", or turned into "park bench mutations". Other lyrics include this: "So I got bored and left them there / They were just deadweight to me / Better down the road without that load".

A couple other songs were unexpected surprises as well. "Love in Mind" has been played very rarely since its Journey Through the Past tour debut in 1971, and the extended and political "Someday" was played only twice between its origins in the Freedom era (circa 1989) and this tour. Lastly, the solo acoustic version of "Cortez the Killer" has been fairly infrequent. The electric version is far more common, but I found this version quite compelling as well.


[Neil Young playing the tack piano.]

There was hardly a misstep during the whole show. Neil's banter may have been a little fragmented, and hecklers may have been a little annoying, but he didn't let any of that get him down. It's hard to make any other complaint. Neil played well, the venue was amazing (minus all the drunk people), the setlist was superb, and I was pleased that Neil hasn't toned down his politics. It's a rare opportunity to see such a renowned singer and songwriter in such good venue.

Score: A

P.S. Thanks to Alyssa and Cheryl!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jon Dee Graham - Live 2014.04.16

Artist: Jon Dee Graham
Venue: Continental Club
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 April 2014

On the advice of my bandmates, we took a field trip to see a local Austin favorite. Jon Dee Graham performs regularly at the Continental, playing just about every Wednesday night unless he's out of town. I wasn't sure what to expect of him, but I decided it was worth a shot to check him out.

Jon isn't a young musician by any means, but judging by his stage presence and his lyrics, he's clearly been around the block. I don't know many details about his history, but I do know he's been in several Texas bands and he's played guitar for a long time. His bandmates were not young either, but they too had the appearance of being quite familiar with the stage. While Jon did all of the singing and talking, he shared guitar parts (rhythm and lead) with a serious-looking but sharp-playing guitarist. Also present were a drummer and a bassist/backing vocalist.

Jon sings and plays guitar in a rootsy, uncomplicated, but emotionally compelling fashion. He doesn't have a pure or perfect voice, nor extensive range, but his voice does have strength and depth, and he clearly knows how to make the most of what he's got. Watching him sing was oddly captivating; he wasn't melodramatic or particularly showy, but he had a certain way of making me want to pay attention. His lyrics didn't lose themselves in metaphor or obscurity, but instead revealed honest and sometimes rather plain descriptions of life. I appreciated his willingness to break out of the narrow-mindedness of most songwriters who simply write about romance, as if that was all there was in the world.

In describing Jon, I find it hard not to use so many contrasting statements. This constant dichotomy underlies the crux of the experience. I felt like he wasn't quite up my alley, but he was appealing nonetheless. He didn't blow me away, but he kept surprising me in little ways, like a seamless chromatic ascension between radically different parts of a song, or a song sung in Spanish, as if he had been speaking bilingually the whole night. The bassist had a few tricks up his sleeve, but the second guitarist had even more. He switched between a semi-hollow Gibson and a dobro, both of which were tuned unconventionally, allowing for fingerings and phrasings that were easy to differentiate from Jon's. His expert use of a volume pedal to slide in and out of the mix made him all the more impressive.

I think I found myself enjoying the show more than I expected.

Score: B

P.S. I did not see any of the other bands on the bill. We were on a mission.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Arcade Fire / Kid Koala / Lost Bayou Ramblers - Live 2013.04.10

Despite being fond of Arcade Fire since the beginning, I never truly got into them until the last six months ago or so, when my spouse started playing their albums around me. When we heard they were coming to town, it wasn't hard to be convinced to go.

Artist: Arcade Fire
Venue: Austin360 Amphitheater
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 10 April 2014
Opening Acts: Lost Bayou Ramblers, Kid Koala

Setlist (see here for a slightly different tabulation):
01. Normal Person
02. Rebellion (Lies)
03. Reflektor
04. Flashbulb Eyes
05. Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
06. The Suburbs →
07. The Suburbs (Continued)
08. Ready to Start
09. Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
10. No Cars Go
11. We Exist
12. My Body Is a Cage (tease) → Afterlife → Temptation (New Order cover tease) →
13. It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
14. Heart of Glass (Blondie cover) →
15. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Encore:
16. Controversy (Prince cover)
17. Here Comes the Night Time
18. Wake Up

Review:
I can't review this concert without explaining the venue. The Austin360 Amphitheater is a new addition to Austin, just about a year old. It is part of a larger complex: the Circuit of the Americas, a motor racing circuit that opened in 2012. It is located on the edge of town, past the airport, apparently just outside city limits (as far as I can tell). It is difficult to get to by car and essentially impossible to reach by any other means. Once you arrive, it costs about $20 to park in a massive unstriped lot located approximately a mile from the seats. Tickets can be purchased in advance online, supposedly for $12, but because it's through Ticketmaster, it ends up being about $17.50. (What a deal!) Naturally, this is after the cost of tickets, which were nominally $46 for a decent seat, but again, because it is through Ticketmaster, there are about $11 in additional fees (per ticket). Lawn seats were slightly cheaper, but better seats ran the gamut up to $200.

I think the preface is necessary to understand the general mood as we approached the venue. There was still some fun to be had, because the band (apparently controversially) asked fans to dress up, and most did. However, I had made a key mistake in planning by not correctly predicting the set times of the opening bands. Since Kid Koala had gotten the lowest billing, I assumed he would go on stage first, followed by Lost Bayou Ramblers. Kid Koala didn't interest me, but Lost Bayou Ramblers did, so naturally I wasn't upset that being delayed by the atrocious commute and parking situation meant we missed whoever went on stage first. Or at least, I wasn't upset until we neared the actual venue and heard Lost Bayou Ramblers leaving the stage, followed by Kid Koala beginning a DJ set. It turns out he was set up on a second stage in the crowd, and so he filled the void between the bands. It wasn't a bad idea, but the nonstandard arrangement led to my disappointment in missing a band that I wanted to see and catching another that I didn't.

I think I would have liked Lost Bayou Ramblers if I'd seen them. I think I would have liked Kid Koala if I hadn't seen him. He didn't do much for me except fill some space; I didn't find much merit in his particular style, and I really didn't appreciate his offhand remark about strippers.

But anyway, eventually there was some movement on the main stage. A person came out on with a rather unique headpiece consisting of a four-sided television screen broadcasting Rick Perry's face. He addressed us and then introduced another person with a giant Barack Obama bobblehead. Somewhere in this process, masked bandmembers came out on stage to the tune of "Deep in the Heart of Texas". Eerily, a large section of the audience sang along, and even clapped in time at appropriate points. (Texas is strange sometimes.)

Finally, the masks came off and the band kicked into "Normal Person", a hilarious and biting song from their new album, Reflektor. Whereas the prominent lead guitar on the album is almost exaggeratedly loose, live it was stronger and tighter. "Rebellion" also exhibited a little more strength on stage, where almost the entire band shouted the "lies, lies!" backing vocals instead of just Régine Chassagne, as on the record. This began a pattern of alternating among highlights from each of their three biggest albums. (Neon Bible was represented merely by "No Cars Go", coincidentally also found on their debut EP, and a tease of "My Body Is a Cage").

I tried to make sense out of who all was on stage and what everyone was doing. This was a challenging task. The band nominally consists of six members, with two additional regular contributors who seem to come an go as "official" members (Sarah Neufeld and Owen Pallett). They were augmented on stage by four additional musicians: two percussionists and two horns players. While Sarah and Owen mostly stuck to their violins, the core members drifted between instruments throughout the show. Even Jeremy Gara, the primary drummer, switched to guitar for some songs. Régine and Richard Reed Parry, the most notable multi-instrumentalists, both sat in on drums on occasion (usually on a seemingly redundant second set) when they weren't switching between keyboards, celesta, vocals, vibraphones, guitar, bass, and steel drums. It was quite fun to see who played what parts, and impressive to behold the quality of the musicianship.

Other highlights were the heavy dub beat and bass of "Flashbulb Eyes" and a rousing rendition of the band's first single, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)", the only song on which Régine drummed alone. "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" was also a strong performance, but I was surprised to see that one of the dominant instrumental melodies was actually a bass solo!

Win Butler introduced "We Exist" with a clear statement that the song was intended as a demand for acceptance and respect for gays. "Afterlife" was an odd performance; it was preceded by a brief, minimalist version of "My Body Is a Cage", and near the end of the song, Win sneaked in a few lines from New Order's "Temptation" ("Thoughts from above hit the people down below / People in this world, we have no place to go"). The weirdest part was the presence of a strange, shiny, reflective figure that arose from a third stage in the middle of the crowd.

This was immediately followed by "It's Never Over (Oh Orpheus)", in which Régine went to the third stage and sang her parts from there. I suppose this was done in some sort of spirit of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but it was a little strange, since she was rather hard to see, and the people in the lawn were probably totally of out luck on that one. After that, Régine reappeared on stage, ready to sing another part as the band began to play what sounded like "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)". However, the band subtly switched gears and they did a full-blown, awesome cover of "Heart of Glass", before jumping right back into "Sprawl II" and doing the song it's fair justice.

The encore was another strange affair, started off by Win coming on stage with a giant Pope Francis bobblehead. He was accompanied by what I presume was a recording of the pope speaking in Latin. Eventually the rest of the band joined him for a version of Prince's "Controversy", which naturally includes a rendition of the Lord's Prayer. This led into a great take on "Here Comes the Night Time", complete with confetti cannons. The final song was their standard closer, "Wake Up", but at its conclusion, the band marched through crowd and kept playing on any instruments they could carry.

I found the performance to be quite strong and the setlist to be excellent. The sound was good, but not quite up to the standard of other Austin venues. (The fact that it was very windy probably didn't help.) The biggest downside of the whole thing was certainly the venue. I suspect that the band didn't quite know what they were getting into by playing there, and they apologized several times during the show for the trek we had to make to get there. While they were quite thankful that we put up with it, they seemed a little disengaged at times as a result. The show was great, but I think they asked for a lot from their audience, and it made them uncomfortable as a result. Hopefully they learned a lesson and won't return there.

Scores:
Kid Koala: D
Arcade Fire: B+

P.S.: Since I didn't actually see Lost Bayou Ramblers, I can't really give them a score.

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa for countless reasons!