This is what happened at various shows around New York City. We swear.
Saturday, April 30, 2005
Out Hud, Need New Hella Arkestra / First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, PA / April 22, 2005
The basement rec room of the FirstUnitarianChurch, on the corner of 22nd and Chestnut in Philly, is my favorite live music venue in the world. All ages. No smoking. Re-entry. Clean, plentiful bathrooms. Slippery linoleum floor, great for dancing. Three-foot-high stage for maximum intimacy (when the band isn’t playing on the floor, that is.) Totally D.I.Y. In recent years, a local record store has been setting up shop in the hallway, so you can shop in between sets. (Genius, right? Every venue should do this.) I have so many great memories from there: witnessing one of the first Atom & His Package performances, meeting my high-school boyfriend at a Franklin show, seeing KARP, Rainer Maria, Delta 72, Wesley Willis, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars…
I hadn’t been back to the Church in a couple of years, and I had to miss the NYC stop of the Out Hud / Hella tour due to Passover, so I was super duper excited for this show. But man oh man, nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen. After an opening set by some boring band featuring former members Ink and Dagger, an army of scruffy, shaggy hobo freak-folk people took the stage, some of whom I recognized as being in Need New Body. Then a quartet of old jazz outcat dudes joined them. Hella drummer Zach Hill and roadie extraordinaire Joe Meade stood in the center of the fray, directing traffic. WTF? This was not what I expected. Zach clued me in: his other half, guitarist Spencer Seim, had left the tour because his father had a heart attack, so Zach was recruiting local musicians in each city to do improv sets. Whoa! The jazz dudes were from the Sun Ra Arkestra. Double whoa!
They then proceeded to melt my face off for a half-hour. The Arkestra folks were cool, calm and collected while everybody else went apeshit trying to keep up with Zach’s Incredible-Hulk-meets-Speedy-Gonzalez drumming. At one point, Joe started dancing around the stage while wearing an elaborate headdress made of newspaper, crepe paper and an orange baseball cap. A long-haired hippie chick (the only woman on stage) made orgasm noises into the mic. That bothered me, I think for the same inexplicable reason it pisses me off when a band only has one female member and she plays keyboards.
After that half-hour, one of the Arkestra guys said something about working with Trey Anastasio, and that pretty much killed the mood. The second half-hour jam was just boring.
Like the Need New Hella Arkestra, Out Hud took for-fuckin-ever to set up, so it was after by the time they started. I was falling asleep on my feet waiting for them, but as soon as they launched into “One Life to Leave,” I was on. Brian Howe accurately captures the futility of trying to take notes during an Out Hud set here, and man, did I take some shitty notes. The room wasn’t crowded at all, probably because the Philly hipster population was spread thin due to the simultaneous Dizzee Rascal and Bonnie “Prince” Billie/Superwolf shows, so there was plenty of room to dance. I and all the other un-self-conscious white people (which were many) awkwardly thrust our limbs and midsections about in an approximation of what some would refer to as “gettin’ funky,” working up a nice smelly sweat. Nic Offer was King Dork, goofballin’ it up with jokes (“S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D.? More like Street Dead! Seriously, have you listened to that shit lately?” “I heard WaWa merged with Walgreens to form WaWalgreens.”) and uninhibited, overdramatic motion, which eventually landed him in the middle of the crowd. Phyllis Forbes continues to be one of the most gorgeous creatures on the planet. Molly Schnick had bags the size of golf balls under her eyes. Their vocals weren’t nearly as smooth and pretty as they are on the record, but it didn’t matter. We were all too busy dancing to care.
Pop Conference 2005 / Experience Music Project, Seattle, WA / April 14-17, 2005
(Better late than never, right?)
ATTENTION PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT ROCK CRITICS, ROCK CRITIC FANBOYS/GIRLS, POP MUSIC SCHOLARS OR MY FRIENDS: Move along, nothing to see here. Go play outside. I hear sunlight is good for you.
The reason why I haven’t been updating this blog too much recently is that my life has been consumed first by preparations for the 2005 EMP Pop Conference and then catching up on everything I missed because of it. This annual gathering of journalists, academics and plain old geeks (many of us fit in more than one of these categories) takes place at the pop music museum known as the Experience Music Project, a horrendously ugly building from the outside that is really cool inside. The 2005 conference’s theme was “Music as Masquerade: Poseurs, Playas, and Beyond,” so we all gave presentations having to do with that topic (some more loosely than others). I like to call EMP “Rock Critic Fantasy Camp” because we sorta get to pretend like we’re rock stars for a few days. Also, we stay up late drinking and gossiping and then whine to conference organizers / camp counselors Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard about how tired/hung over we are and how our papers suck.
Soo… here’s the rundown.
At Thursday night’s Keynote Plenary, Penn’s Gunthrey Ramsey Jr. said, “Sometimes we tend to over-theorize things.” That pretty much sums up EMP. But hey, us music geeks get off on over-theorizing. It makes us feel important. And it’s fun!
The Keynote featured a whole bunch of people talking about minstrelsy, with a focus on Eric Lott’s landmark book Love and Theft. (Lott, by the way, looks like an aging glam rock star, with his wavy blonde hair, goatee and earrings. Not what I expected at all.) Some of the panelists droned on and on, some said meaningful stuff. Sasha Frere-Jones’ plane was delayed, so he submitted his comments via email. I had one of those stoner “whoa, totally” moments when he talked about how it was weird that both Diplo's and DJ Shadow's artist albums are whitebread ambient background music, but their DJ sets are all funky beats. Oh, and he said something like “political correctness is the condom of pop culture.” Genius.
Unfortunately, I accidentally slept through a bunch of stuff I wanted to see, like Julianne Shepherd’s Courtney Love presentation. The blogging panel was a bit disappointing, if only because it’s such a huge topic that it would need its own conference to even scratch the surface. One accidental revelation: three out of the five panelists haven’t talked to their fathers in ten years. Whoa. That made me think… maybe we really do turn to music to fill some sort of deep psychological void. Another stoner moment.
Next up was superfriend/EMP roomie Daphne Carr’s ridonkulously good presentation about Polish disco music a.k.a. Disco-Polo a.k.a. polka that grew up listening to WKTU. Or WKTU listeners raised on polka. If you’ve never heard this stuff, your life is incomplete. Daphne was followed by Nate Harrison, who recorded his entire presentation on a vinyl acetate disc. So he sat there and stared off into space while his voice taught us all about the “Amen” break and how drum n bass culture is based entirely around six seconds of sound. It made me really, really want to listen to drum n bass.
I moseyed on over to the “Lessons in Mayhem” panel, which had nothing to do with the Norwegian death metal band and everything to do with Matmos/Soft Pink Truth/Pitchfork cutie Drew Daniel talking about this bizarre Germs “reunion” concert he went to featuring actors playing the Germs and the real live surviving Germs themselves. Drew’s paper also featured the conference’s greatest phrase: “a discursive smoothie of formaldehyde and lube.” Ooh, I get shivers just typing that. He showed a video of him getting a Germs Burn from Don Bolles, too. Punk fucking rock.
Greil Marcus had to follow that, and I actually felt bad for him. His presentation was kinda dull, with him droning on about various covers of blues songs and describing a scene from Ghost World in detail. Why didn’t you just play the clip, man? His thesis—that the most successful blues covers are those that are disrespectful—is right-on, but I wish he had included some sound samples to liven things up.
Marcus’ star was further eclipsed by David Thomas, the ginormous Pere Ubu / Rocket From the Tombs frontman, who delivered a spectacular rant about Ernie Anderson, a.k.a. Ghoulardi, who hosted late-night monster movie marathons on TV in Ohio in the ‘60s. Veins popping, hands shaking, voice cracking, he bellowed about how Ghoulardi introduced all the Ohio proto-punks to media manipulation. At one point, he exclaimed, “My eyes are sweating!” There was also PowerPoint involved. When he finished, he collapsed in his chair. I, too, felt exhausted, like I’d just witnessed an entire Pere Ubu performance. During the Q + A, Thomas was in full-on bitch mode, dissing bands like the Ramones for being too conservative and generally chewing out anybody asking questions. One guy asked if his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing influenced his music. His reply? “NO.”
The “My Other Life” panel started off with moderator Dave Dederer talking about being a has-been rock star (he’s one-third of the Presidents of the United States of America) and a consultant for a public affairs firm. Then this guy from Les Sans Culottes did some impressive air guitaring. Coincidentally (or not), he was followed by Ted Widmer, former member of the Upper Crust. Fake French joke band-o-rama! Widmer told the incredible story of going from being a Boston indie rocker to a speechwriter for President Clinton. Apparently, the FBI thoroughly investigated him, searching his old song lyrics for treasonous sentiments. Yowza. My other superfriend/EMP roomie Sara Sherr had to follow that, but she held her own quite well with her tales of debauched nights with the Philly drag musical comedy troupe Dumpsta Playas. The video footage of the Dumpstas’ performances was hilarious, particularly a scene involving an extremely lifelike dildo and a hole in a bathroom wall. My only complaint: more video of Sara as Mrs. Miller, please!
Edie Sedgwick closed the panel with a performance of his/her Martin Sheen song and some theorizing about the Deeper Meaning Of It All, blah blah blah. But by that point, I’d had enough brain calisthenics for the day, and all I could think was, Edie Sedgwick is balding!”
Most definitely a success was Joe Schloss’s examination of breakdancing culture, complete with a live demonstration by the presenter! For a nerdy white Tufts professor, dude can sure bust a move. Hopefully, everybody will remember the breakdancing and nobody will remember that girl’s shitty sound clips.
We all walked over to some funky performance space called On the Boards, where Ann had organized an evening of twelve-minute sets by various acts. I caught IQU’s delightful electro-pop medley (Theremin! Vocoder!) and El Vez’s sublimely trashy “Mexican Elvis” schtick. Dude can rock a fuzzy leopard-print catsuit like nobody’s business. Note to self: go see El Vez play next time he’s in town.
Then United State of Electronica’s publicist magically appeared out of nowhere, and he whisked us away to U.S.E.’s sold-out show at the V.E.R.A. Project, an all-ages venue that sells candy and soda at the concession stand. Joy! I was in a grumpy mood before the show, running my mouth about how U.S.E. make me want to kill puppies when I listen to them for too long, but the Grinch quickly disappeared once I saw the mass of adorable Hot Topic teenagers (and ecstatic ILM regulars) bouncing around to “Vamos a la Playa.” I guess the way to truly experience this band is live in their hometown, with an umbrella being passed through the crowd during “Umbrella of Love.” Oh, there was also a love train. And I’m pretty sure the keyboardist was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it. The show ended with scores of giddy fans bumrushing the stage to bop next to their heroes. As we were waiting for a cab outside after the show, a car drove buy with a guy hanging out the window shouting, “U-S-E! U-S-E!” I was high on Vanilla Coke, so I started shouting, too.
The best thing about EMP is the schmoozing. You get to share ideas with like-minded folks from all over the world, and they don’t treat you like a space alien because you’re a music geek. It genuinely feels like a community. And unlike ILM or a mailing list, you are having real conversations with real live people standing right in front of you. This is something we all should do more often, don’t you think?
Tori Amos, Matt Nathanson / Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA / April 11, 2005
Whoever decided to put Matt Nathanson on the Tori Amos tour is some kind of marketing genius. Tori fans tend to be overwhelmingly emotional and overwhelmingly female, so OF COURSE they’ll go crazy for a cute, doughy, spiky-haired Ryan Adams/John Mayer/Gavin DeGraw sensitive acoustic guitar dude singing about how yooouuuu broke his heart. I mean, the guy hadn’t even strummed a note yet and the screaming was deafening. It was one of those moments that makes me hate my gender so much, I want to claw my tits off. (Then again, was I seriously expecting to not feel that way at any point during the night? I was at a frickin’ Tori Amos concert!) Nathanson seemed surprised by the response, so he told some jokes about Philly’s heavy metal history. Yes, we gave the world Britny Fox and Cinderella, and we’re proud of it.
As we waited for Tori to come on, I noticed a strange smell and smoke billowing up from stage left. WTF? M.J., who was sitting next to me, explained that it was probably Tori’s pre-show incense-burning ritual. Ah yes, how could I forget? She talked about that in her book.
I should probably make it clear that I like Tori Amos. She was an important part of my development as a pop music fan, and her 1994 show at the Tower Theatre was the first “cool” concert that I ever went to. I will viciously defend all of her albums up to and including To Venus and Back. But after that, she lost me. Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper are adult-alternative snooze-o-rama. Fittingly, the lobby of the KimmelCenter was the scene of a showdown between dueling AA radio powerhouses KEXP and WXPN. Hot 97 and Power 105 got nothing on this!
Tori’s performance, as I wrote here, was absolutely perfect. And absolutely boring. It took all the powers of my journalistic ethics to keep from falling asleep. I did get a kick out of her cover of Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” though, especially since I had been shut out of tickets for the latest Springsteen tour that very morning. (Screw you, Ticketbastard!) The crowd was very calm and respectful for the entire concert, until the end of “The Beekeeper” heralded the end of the main set and the start of the encore. All of a sudden, a crowd bumrushed the stage. Again, WTF? Again, I consulted M.J. Apparently, Tori was sick of rabid fans interrupting performances, so she spread word via a fan website that everybody was allowed to come down front, but only after she stood up from the piano bench after “The Beekeeper.” Wow.
Alicia Keys, John Legend / Liacouras Center at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA / April 10, 2005
Alicia Keys has the sexiest back in the world. I know this because I spent the better part of an hour and a half staring at it last week. Whenever Ms. Keys sat down at her big white grand piano, I had a perfect view of her toned-yet-not-too-toned-lest-we-suspect-the-lesbo-rumors-are-true back muscles peeking through the glittering white folds of her artfully sliced catsuit or, after a costume change, her Harlem-renaissance-diva evening dress. Watching her heave up and down on the piano bench, I pinched my own back flab and vowed, for the thousandth time, to get that damn gym membership.
The crowd at the LiacourasCenter was the most diverse concert audience I’ve ever seen, not just in terms of race/ethnicity but also age, gender and class. Families, parents with their kids and their kids’ friends, middle-aged couples on dates, groups of working women celebrating Girls’ Night Out, thugs cruising for working women celebrating Girls’ Night Out, frat guys, sorority sisters, neo-soul bohemians, large ladies with large gold crosses around their necks getting into a car with the vanity plate GODSGRL. Not too many white hipster indie rockers, but hey, I was representing.
I highly recommend this whole reviewing-arena-shows racket, by the way. For the first time in my life, I got to sit in a pimped-out “press suite,” complete with its own bathroom, bar and cozy sofas, not to mention the complimentary Italian buffet from Maggiano’s! The Liacouras Center P.R. guy kept checking on me to see if everything was all right, too. Wow.
If you want to know about all that unimportant stuff like the music or whatever, you can read my “real” review here.
Anyone else here think that Joe’s Pub has the best sound in the city? I don’t go a lot, but almost every time the sound has been perfect, almost chillingly so. There was one marrow-melting Grant Lee Phillips show there about five years ago that I just don’t think you could even replicate anywhere else.
I hadn’t been to Joe’s Pub since the Dresden Dolls about a year and half ago, so last night I was sort of startled by what seems to be a new seat reservation policy. I got there plenty early and they asked if I had a seat reservation and I was, like, uhhhh. So they told me I had to stand at the bar in the back. I was not pleased. I was able to infiltrate the table of a splayed-haired guy who looked like a backup musician of some kind (you know that look, right?) by just being forward and asking if there was anyone else sitting there. He was nice. What’s up with this seat reservation thing? Is it for every show? Do you have to pay more?
But back to the topic at hand. Martha Wainwright. She looks like a 70s burn out, a delicate cross-pollination of Stevie Nicks and Cherrie Currie. Her new self-titled record has really started to grow on me. Her voice is this almost twee tremolo that rides into instant signature territory. A Martha Wainwright song can always be picked up out of an aural line-up. The only thing the songs on this diverse new record of hers have in common is her voice and her sticky phrasing that French kisses vowels.
This night the only appearance made by a famous relative was by her mom, Kate McGarrigle, who flew in from a gig in Amsterdam to play piano for a few songs and kiss “my favorite daughter.” Martha’s dad Loudon is known to be a bit of prick when it comes to competing with his kids in the musical ring; he had a record that came out yesterday, the same day as his daughter’s first full-length and he scheduled a show at Joe’s Pub the night after hers. Maybe it will help her out, who knows? It just seemed lame, like he is trying to pull some spotlight away from her. Not surprising, then, that Martha’s song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” is about how her dad doesn’t treat her seriously (this ripe song is the most folky one on the record.) I guess he’s treating her seriously now. Where's this family's reality show? It would end up on PBS instead of Fox, but still.
I’m not sure if I was incredibly impressed or a little disappointed that her set, bulked up with songs from the new record, sounded a lot like they do on the disc (a perennial barometer for live music). In this case, I am leaning on the side of impressed. It was a record release show and it played homage to the studio work. As she stood on the stage wielding her simple acoustic guitar, I couldn't help but think: what would a Martha Wainwright/Andrew WK duet sound like? What can I say---the $11 G-n-T was particularly strong. But I actually think it would sound awesome.
Man oh man, what some people will do to get into a sold-out LCD Soundsystem show! In addition to all the chatter about astronomical eBay and Craigslist purchases, some guys I talked to took a bus all the way down from Boston just for the evening. And the DFA made poor Nick Sylvester run around with a cameraman following him while he asked audience members silly questions about Death From Above 1979 and the pope in exchange for his ticket. (If that footage ever sees the light of day, I’m the asshole standing next to Matthew Perpetua and shouting something stupid about James Murphy and the WhiteCastle in Williamsburg.)
Mahi Mahi played a razor-sharp set of Numbers/Whirlwind Heat-type post-Kraftwerk icy robot dance stuff, but they were way better than Numbers or Whirlwind Heat. Too bad nobody saw them but a bunch of people from their hometown of Providence, me, David Byrne and David Byrne’s hot blonde lady friend. (Mr. Talking Head seems to be showing up at the Bowery Ballroom a lot lately, yes?)
I’m pretty sure LCD played the exact same setthey did at SXSW. Same bitchy jokes and same Deth Killers t-shirt on James Murphy, too, though he seemed less drunk. Alas, no mosh pit this time, though there was a group of hefty jock-type dudes who kept hoisting one another up on their shoulders, pumping their fists in the air and yelling. (I get the feeling Murphy would not have invited them to the Daft Punk show at his house.) If I hadn’t been spoiled by the SXSW set, and I had positioned myself somewhere in the room where I could actually see the band as well as dance, I would have probably gone bananas for this show. I mean, it was still a LCD Soundsystem show, therefore making it 100x better than most concerts. Few things on this planet beat jumping up and down while they play “Movement” or “Tribulations.” But I couldn’t help being that jerk who kept saying, “It was so much better in Austin, maaan.”
Nick (sans cameraman) escorted me to the after-party at the Tribeca Grand, where we danced like the dorky rock critics we are among the scary Russian mafia-looking men in suits and their molls in halter tops. Dave P. and Headman spun some surprisingly wack ‘80s crap that made me feel like I was at Culture Club or something. Of course, as soon as we put our coats on and headed out the door, they started playing Annie and “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”
I’m going to be brief, because I’m reviewing the show for the Voice, and some things that were talked about during that NAJP panel have made me paranoid about plagiarizing myself.
We all know how I feel about MC Lars. (Although, contrary to what a certain music editor wrote in a certain free alt weekly, I am NOT in love with him!) He did pretty much the same set as the Mercury Lounge show, although Bowling For Soup came up and played “Signing Emo” with him.
Riddlin’ Kids were eh. The crowd was not feeling them and neither was I.
American Hi-Fi have hipster haircuts but their hearts bleed Warped Tour. Apparently they are just as popular as Bowling For Soup. Who knew?
Bowling For Soup are my favorite pop-punk band right now. Their new single, “Almost,” is like the Sistine Chapel of bubble-rock, so perfectly executed I can hardly believe it was crafted by mere humans. I think I’m going to try to convince Pitchfork to let me write about it. (Oh man, can you imagine the fallout from that?!) They thanked the fans over and over and over again, and boy did they mean it. As the frontman said, “This is the first time we’ve played in Manhattan and over half the audience’s salary isn’t paid by Britney Spears.” That being a reference to the fact that they are on Jive Records, who amazingly have stuck by them all these years despite the fact that their being successful was about as predictable as Dr. Dre hooking up with Burt Bacharach. Bowling For Soup are a perfect example of how mainstream pop music continues to be awesome, despite so many doomsayers. They are this big, fat loogie of WTF lobbed right at the heart of the Billboard charts that has actually stuck. Hats off to you, dudes.
We are Caryn Brooks and Amy Phillips. Caryn came to NYC from Portland, OR (home of the fresh hazelnut *and* the Dandy Warhols) for a fancypants journalism fellowship and just never left. Amy started writing about music when she was in high school. Which wasn't that long ago.