Live Review: Animal Collective, Oakland, CA, May 26, 2009


People have been trying to do space rock ever since British producer Joe Meek topped the U.K. and U.S. charts in 1962 with “Telstar” by the Tornadoes, soon after the launch of the first Telstar communications satellite. Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Devo, Man…Or Astroman?, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized and even David Bowie have taken a crack at giving you the “deep space” experience. With Animal Collective, however, the point of view shifts dramatically. These sounds are meant to be created by extra-terrestrial creatures, presumably for their own enjoyment, if such a concept even exists in far-flung galaxies.

About 20 minutes before the show began, a roadie rolled a 12-foot white-rubber sphere into place, framed at the back of the stage by a large piece of glass that resembled the windshield of the Starship Enterprise. The giant globe would serve as both the planet of destination for the evening and as a screen to reflect a hyperactive lightshow that bounced off the web of giant concrete snowflakes on the ceiling of the Fox Theater. Four objects resembling either guitar amps on steroids or oversized church pulpits from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari began to glow ominously in the foreground. Illuminated by Dayglo light bursts and flickering strobes, these would be the audience’s focal points for the rest of the evening. Note to self: Bring sunglasses next time.

Every once in a while, you got a glimpse of what looked like an earthling wandering about on the shadowy stage, but whether human beings actually did any playing or singing was impossible to tell from the balcony. As the music ebbed and flowed, the sold-out crowd had to fit applause in whenever it could. It felt a little awkward clapping for inanimate objects, anyway. Avant-garde acts like the Residents had people up there to look at, even if they were topped by giant eyeballs. At the 50-minute mark, someone stepped forward and said something that might have been, “Thank you.” Or maybe not. The 80-minute set may have consisted of numbers from the new Animal Collective album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, but the live sound was much larger in scope, as though inflated by a giant bicycle pump to the point of bursting. Lyrics, much like those of ethereal Icelandic combo Sigur Rós, were indecipherable, as you would expect from visitors to this tiny blue planet.

Oddly enough, sprinkled in among the space opera were snatches of pounding tribal exotica that would have seemed right at home among the headhunters of Borneo. Or in a Calvin And Hobbes cartoon with Spaceman Spiff battling giant Jurassic reptiles. But the main thrust was interplanetary in nature. Some tunes successfully captured the hyper-drive blast of interstellar travel, while others sounded like you were stuck in a smelly Greyhound bus depot late at night in what passes for Tijuana on Rigel VII.

As I decompressed while removing hard hat, safety glasses and earplugs on the short walk to the Oakland rapid-transit station, I could have sworn I heard the comforting voice of HAL 9000, the super computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey: “So, what did you think of Animal Collective?” “I don’t know, Hal,” I said. “I kind of liked them.” A girl walking by gave me a funny look.

—Jud Cost

From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen At The Academy Of Music, Philadelphia, PA, May 13, 2009

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing all week. Read our Q&A with him.

leonard-cohen535cJohn Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen is a 75-year-old man at the top of his game. My previous “favorite concert of all time” was his show at The Royal Albert Hall in 1993 on The Future tour. And this was better. He certainly sang better. So I think I may have just seen my favorite-ever gig. Steering clear of 2004’s Dear Heather and with only a few glances at 2001’s Ten New Songs (the two albums he’s released in the last 17 years), Cohen, without a hint of nostalgia and with infinite grace, not to mention surprising vocal and physical agility, entertained us for three short hours with the very greatest of his greatest songs. The band was simply phenomenal—in the ’70s, they’d all have had beards and been called The Quiet Storm—fleshing out the programmed Euro-austerity of the studio records into living, breathing organisms. “I call to you, I call to you,” Cohen sings on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” “but I don’t call soft enough.” The sound embodies his lyrical vision.

The concert was sublime and profoundly moving, from the moment Cohen bounded onstage, through the humility with which he doffed his hat to every soloist, to the final moment he thanked everyone—and I mean everyone (and I mean by name, including the woman who looked after that hat)—after the valedictory hymn. So often he kneeled on the floor, as if in supplication; for Cohen, his songs are prayers. And the concert was, for its audience, a religious experience. All eyes are on Cohen, but his are beyond. Every performer of a similar vintage should be required to see these concerts as part of a compulsory refresher course, to hear the singer wring ever last drip of meaning from each word as though (literally) his life depended on it. The gentle humor, which has always held his work together (but which was ignored during the dull years, when his name unfairly became synonymous with the depressed bedsit singer/songwriter) is here, too, in his delivery and the show’s art direction. And in every line: a thought, a feeling, perhaps a change of content (“Give me crack and careless sex,” he now sings on “The Future,” replacing “anal” with “careless,” thoughtfully reconsidering a crisis).

Will I ever see Leonard Cohen again? I hope so. I wonder. His show is truly redemptive and leaves you feeling better and more generous. Even if you have been sitting behind the only person in this beautiful venue who is singing along and pumping his fists. It is by no means the smallest wonder of the night that I bore him no ill will. I had much better things to do. Watch a video of “The Future” from this year’s Coachella after the jump.

Continue reading “From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen At The Academy Of Music, Philadelphia, PA, May 13, 2009”

Live Review: Fleetwood Mac, San Jose, CA, May 21, 2009

fleetwoodmac320The last time I saw Fleetwood Mac in San Jose, there was a near-riot—and it wasn’t because people were trying to get in. When the U.K./American outfit played the half-empty, three-thousand capacity San Jose Civic Auditorium in January 1974, somebody must have thought the local residents were pretty stupid. The band that followed warm-up combo Silverhead (fronted by Michael DesBarres, husband of famed tell-all author/groupie Pamela DesBarres) onstage was definitely not Fleetwood Mac. We’d seen their photos, bought their records, and these were five guys named Moe. Patrons immediately stormed the box office, demanding their money back and were told that the band’s manager, Clifford Davis, who owned the name “Fleetwood Mac,” had fired the original members and hired an all-new lineup. Sign this list, kid, and you’ll be mailed a full refund. Still waiting for that check.

The itch was finally scratched last night when Fleetwood Mac played to a near-capacity crowd of more than 20 thousand at cavernous H.P. Pavilion, home of the San Jose Sharks. Lindsey Buckingham and Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks climbed onboard the Mac express in 1975 and shepherded the group through its superstar period during a 10-year run. Buckingham and Nicks reminisced onstage about their local connections. Both attended Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park in the late ’60s, San Jose State in the early ’70s, then cut their only Buckingham Nicks album in 1973. “When we played the Fillmore West opening for Quicksilver Messenger Service,” said Nicks, “Bill Graham screamed at a guy who was heckling me, ‘Get out of my Fillmore and don’t ever come back!’ That’s when I knew we were going somewhere.” Dressed in her trademark, free-flowing ensemble, Nicks spoke warmly of the boyfriend/girlfriend days she spent with Buckingham, dedicating the band’s ’82 hit “Gypsy” to “the paper roses, the house we had in Los Gatos and the gypsies that we were.” Nicks, who just turned 60, tentatively tried a pirouette on ’76 smash “Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)” but gave up about halfway through. With her voice as strong as ever, it’s probably time to think about switching from playing Ophelia to a long run as Lady MacBeth.

Buckingham, a year younger than Nicks, proved especially feisty, reeling off a juicy guitar break on “Dreams” (“Thunder only happens when it’s raining”) and a solid vocal turn on a re-tooled version of “Oh Well,” a searing, stop-and-start blues number first cut by the 1970 version of Fleetwood Mac that featured guitartists Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. It was also a treat to hear Nicks perform onetime Mac singer/keyboardist Christine McVie’s showcase number “Say You Love Me.” A hired keyboard player did his best to replace the USC marching band, the original accompanist (recorded at Dodger Stadium) for stirring 1979 number “Tusk,” a revered highlight of the Mac’s masterpiece double album of the same name.

Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (the band’s original namesakes) remain in place, with the stork-like Fleetwood, dressed in black knickers and red shoes, particularly nimble on a gavotte-styled bow that followed big hit “Go Your Own Way.” Everyone knew what the encore would be—the only ace in the deck they hadn’t dealt. 1977 classic “Don’t Stop” gained a second life as the campaign theme song for Bill Clinton in 1992. It sounded every bit as exciting in the first term of Barack Obama.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Green Day, New York, NY, May 18, 2009

greendaylivebImagine, at the height of their popularity, catching a set from the Who down at your local pub. Or a show from U2 in one of Dublin’s infamously gritty nightclubs rather than some flash, Pop Mart-like extravaganza. You’d feel like you’d gotten away with something, wouldn’t you? Like you and the small, amped-up horde around you had just witnessed history: something fleeting, rare, accessible but to a scant few who could legitimately claim that they’d “seen them back when.” Most important: You’d never forget that moment as long as you lived, mere feet away from an all-powerful rock tsunami usually viewed through the safe remove of binoculars at one of America’s countless sports arenas where such spectacles are typically scheduled for the benefit of the suburban masses. (And the bank accounts of the artists in question, of course.)

This is what it was like to see Green Day at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom (max capacity: 600) as the band warms up for its first world tour in three years later this summer. Having launched the dense and dramatic 21st Century Breakdown straight into the mouth of the recession late last week, the band has embarked on a barnstorming tour of New York, scheduling club gigs at the Bowery, Webster Hall and Tribeca’s P.C. Richard & Son Theater as well as a free show in Central Park (as part of its appearance on Good Morning America). Sure, it’s a savvy marketing move at a time when the recording industry is desperate for anything remotely resembling a “must have” release and corresponding tour, but by making a band that can easily sell out 50,000-seat stadiums around the world accessible to contest winners and fan-club members at small venues, the folks at Warners are cleverly cementing the myth of Green Day as The People’s Band, which tonight’s gig did absolutely nothing to contradict. For nearly two hours, Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, Tré Cool and the handful of friends who serve as the expanded lineup for Green Day’s upcoming tour played their new album and a set of choice encores as though their very lives depended on it.

The band’s first set consisted exclusively of songs from 21st Century Breakdown, an 18-track, hour-plus sprawl that will likely take months if not longer to settle in with the band’s faithful (even as radio gravitates almost immediately to the focus track, the now-ubiquitous anthem “Know Your Enemy”). A running narrative loosely based on the trials and travails of a young couple—Christian and Gloria—on the run from the economic meltdown and societal dissolution that surrounds them in a post-Dubya U.S. of A., it’s a shaggy summary of everything the band is capable of doing from a songwriting and performance point of view. You have your trademark hammer-down stompers (“American Eulogy,” “Horseshoes And Handgrenades,” “Murder City”), Beatlesque moments of melodic majesty that would completely shock the troops who once claimed these guys as their own back in their Gilman St. days (“Before The Lobotomy,” “21 Guns”), power pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cheap Trick album (“Last Of The American Girls”) and moments that are more Meat Loaf or Elton John than punk (“Restless Heart Syndrome”). It’s clear that Green Day is enjoying the act of playing together again; Armstrong was decked out in a sheriff’s getup (complete with silver star and bullet-casing belt) and whipped around the stage like a man with his pants on fire, marching in time one minute, windmilling like Pete Townshend the next, high-fiving the fans down front and recklessly throwing himself into the crowd at one point. Like American Idiot before it, this is an album that will give the band plenty of elbow room for experimentation and expansion in a live setting, so I fully expect these songs to take on a very different set of dimensions by the time the tour is about midway through its worldwide run.

That said, this was an exclusive fan-club show (thank you Sam from Craigslist!), and it was during the encore set that the real action took place. The band playfully grabbed songs from the recesses of its back catalog, from early favorites such as “Going To Pasalacqua,” “She” and “Longview” (the latter a crowd participation exercise in which a heavily tattooed young woman was hauled up onstage to sing the song in Armstrong’s stead) to latter-day hits such as “Minority,” “American Idiot” and a 10-minute take on what I maintain is Green Day’s finest recorded moment, “Jesus Of Suburbia.” Drummer Cool was even given the mic (after Armstrong took a moment to teach him the chords, to the amusement of the rest of the band) to sing his Kerplunk!-era country joint “Dominated Love Slave,” causing convulsions in the crowd and a bemused Armstrong to note, “Oh my god, that just really happened.” But for me, the moment that best illustrated what this band is all about and how far it’s come in its 21 years together was a medley of old-time rock and soul: “Shout!” “(You’ve Got The Cutest Little) Baby Face” and “Stand By Me,” performed while the band was on its collective backs onstage, having commanded the crowd to “get down low” for the finale. The show periodically took on the flavor of a family reunion; one kid down front caught Armstrong’s eye, prompting him to tell the crowd, “I haven’t seen this guy in four years! Where have you been, college? In Buffalo? Oh man, that’s almost as bad as Oakland!” Green Day is in its element in an intimate live setting such as this one, connecting with its legion of fans, sweating its way to salvation and generally having one helluva good time in the process.

It’s safe to say I won’t forget this night for a good long while. And I’ll bet there are about 600 others who streamed into the New York night saying exactly the same thing.

—Corey duBrowa

Live Review: The Shins, Philadelphia, PA, May 16, 2009

shinslive550bA concert venue featuring crooning indie-rock superstars the Shins was the perfect environs for serial-monogamist hipsters to bring their girlfriend/boyfriend of the moment. You could almost hear some of them squealing, “That’s our song!” when the band played “New Slang.” The newly revamped Shins—longtime members Marty Crandall and Jesse Sandoval have been replaced by Ron Lewis (Grand Archives, Fruit Bats) and Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse)—performed an alternately poppy and mellow set that suited the implicit date-night atmosphere at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory. Sentimentality poured from the speakers and riveted the audience, as giddy teens and balding boomers alike contemplated their sunset-and-margaritas-swilling trip down the shore two years ago.

Singer/guitarist James Mercer’s multi-faceted, octave-hopping voice penetrated bone marrow as the Shins segued from the jangly, carbonated “Know Your Onion!” to the musical NyQuil of “Weird Divide,” which gave me an urge to trudge to the lounge area and fight for a futon inside the cabanas at the back of the Factory. Listening to the cerebral lyrics of past albums such as 2001’s Oh, Inverted World and 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, I’d envisioned each group member sporting a James Lipton goatee and smoking a well-hewn pipe. While only Mercer had a beard, the band’s witty onstage banter and brown corduroys made me feel like I was in a debate-club meeting at Dartmouth College.

The Shins provided plenty of non-offensive tweaks and surprises, from a funky, Bonnaroo Festival version of “Sea Legs” to new material that sounded like a Shins-ified Austin Powers theme song. Even though you’d be hard-pressed to interpret any of Mercer’s lyrics as romantically inclined, the Shins sear an emotional brand into your brain that makes favorable associations inevitable. Those hipsters definitely knew what they were doing when they took their significant others to the show.

—Maureen Coulter

“Know Your Onion!” (download):