Live Review: Passion Pit, Tokyo Police Club, Philadelphia, PA, June 27, 2010

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On the evening of the Passion Pit/Tokyo Police Club show, the Mann Center for the Performing Art’s outdoor amphitheater was hotter than the backseat of a senior football letterman’s car at the drive-in movies, enough so that about 25 people were crammed into the air-conditioned ATM kiosk at any given time. Standing in the concession line was a feat of endurance. I was pretty certain I’d see a couple tattoo sleeves melting off.

Once the bands’ rhythmic synthesizers and throbbing drums pulsed onstage, however, the sticky Congo-jungle heat didn’t stop the crowd from ignoring their already-smeared eyeliner and start kicking up their heels. Barely legal Canadian post-punk quartet Tokyo Police Club banged out several songs off new album Champ, including “Breakneck Speed,” and maintained its playful energy by electrifying acoustic ballad “Tessellate.” I was impressed with vocalist Dave Monks’ dedication to hipsterdom when he sported a flannel shirt for the entire set in the Mann incinerator.

TPC’s act was a perfect segue into the emotive, chaotic symphony Passion Pit released onto the Urban Outfitted throng. Lead singer Michael Angelakos thanked the audience effusively, mentioning at least four times the fact that the band’s last Philly show took place in a church basement. This night, disco lights illuminated a packed stadium of several thousand fans tossing toys and dollar bills onstage, fans who mouthed the words of songs besides the band’s hit single “Sleepyhead.”

The arena would have swamped most indie acts like a kindergartner playing “house” in her mother’s pearls and pumps, but Passion Pit’s epic electro-synth melodies, robust percussion and spazzy, Björk-like vocals filled out the venue like a Playmate in a double-D brassiere. Similarly, it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Once the strobe lights began flashing and “Little Secrets” came on, even the over-40 gentleman in the tucked LaCoste polo and loafers next to me couldn’t help but flail his arms to the beat.

While the three-year-old group doesn’t have the concert performance experience of road veterans like Green Day or the Pixies, both of whom are touring this summer, those in attendance felt Passion Pit lived up to its name and came away sweaty and satisfied.

—Maureen Coulter

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 3

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It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu’s all-star segment of the festival’s Invitation Series wound to a close, I had to admit that this amazing game of musical chairs had its own worldly charm. For his final night, Fresu hosted Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and French mega-drummer Manu Katché for an evening of dark, swirling improvisation. Both Fresu and Molvaer have an affinity for electronics and often process their horns through a fund of electronic effects. The two began playing without Katché, riffing and darting around one another through an echoing cloud of sonic ambiance. Fresu’s style was more melodic than Molvaer’s, but to a great extent, their dueling horn-play was almost indistinguishable in lieu of the heavy electronic gloss that filled the Gesù Theater. Naturally, things picked up quickly when Katché hit the stage, as his impeccable rhythmic drive forced Fresu and Molvaer back into the moment and the group improvisation truly began. As trumpeters, both Fresu and Molvær owe an artistic debt to Miles Davis, and the processed sound of their respective horns mixed with Katché’s insistent pulse made for a Bitches Brew-type experience: a bubbling, churning cauldron of jazz fusion that pulled the Gesù crowd into rapt engagement. Molvaer was the most experimental, fiddling with a variety of sound backdrops on his laptop and singing into the bell of his horn, which was electronically processed into a ghostly, unintelligible croon. Toward the end of the lengthy set, a lone identifiable melody emerged. It was Molvaer leading a haunting version of “Scarborough Fair.” Katché was as much fun to watch as he was to listen to, and this gig was a harbinger of his own Invitation Series, which is set to begin.

It would be ridiculous to write about jazz this week without noting the recent passing of Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died on Thursday. Anderson was supposed to play annual New York City avant-garde summit the Vision Festival that night, but was instead honored with 10 minutes of silence, which seems like more than he will get here in Montreal. In related news, trumpeter Bill Dixon also passed away recently, and the two musicians had their share of artistic similarities. Both men were born in the ’20s, and both played key roles in the development of free jazz in the early ’60s. In Chicago, Anderson was one of founders of the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). Along with Muhal Richard Abrams and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anderson helped pioneer the supportive arts community that has inspired generations of musicians since. Dixon followed a similar track in New York, as he helped organize the famed 1964 “October Revolution in Jazz” and also founded the short-lived Jazz Composer’s Guild. Much like Anderson, Dixon was a role model and mentor to many upcoming artists over the years. While not the highest profile, both men were highly respected and came to reach a certain prominence in their golden years, and neither ever stopped playing music. And let us also remember Canadian jazz advocate Len Dobbin, who passed away one year ago during the jazz fest. He died suddenly at a local jazz club surrounded by his friends and family, which was quite shocking at the time. Looking back, Dobbin went out doing what he loved best. Hats off.

Back to the business as hand. In commenting on the presentation of Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project, I have to say, for me, it was more disappointing than anything else. Not that it was bad—with backing musicians like drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and guitarist Lionel Louke, it was way too polished and professional to be bad. It just felt like another mainstream move by the ever-popular Hancock. Jumping from funk-filled fusion to bracing acoustic improvisation to his recent Joni Mitchell venture and then finally on to his inspiration-oriented song choices off of the newly released CD, The Imagine Project, Hancock was clearly going for the lowest common denominator, and in an effort to please everybody, he certainly let me down. I also found the maestro’s efforts and comments somewhat patronizing and egocentric, but that’s just Herbie being Herbie. Hancock’s lovely and talented vocalist Kristina Train wore heels so high she could hardly move to the music onstage, and I was bored stiff during the band’s covers of tunes like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’” (sung by Tal Wilkenfeld!) and the especially ill-chosen version of Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” Auxiliary keyboardist Greg Phillinganes saved the day with his vocals on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “Don’t Give Up,” but when the substitute keyboardist from Toto is the high point of a Herbie Hancock show, you know there’s really something wrong. Even the funky encore of “Chameleon” didn’t move me, and the sight (and sound) of Herbie playing the guitar-like keyboard strapped around his neck made me wince. OK, sorry for the sour grapes.

Tomorrow will be another day.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 2

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It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Who are these guys, indeed. On the second night of the fest, trumpeter Paolo Fresu continued his Invitation Series’ explorations in collaboration, this time with veteran guitarist/composer Ralph Towner. Towner has been performing and recording since the late ’60s, most notably with the group Oregon, and has participated in classic duet albums on the ECM label with the likes of vibes player Gary Burton, guitarist John Abercrombie and, now, Fresu on the recent Chiaroscuro. Ensconced in the intimate confines of the Gesù, Fresu and Towner dazzled an enthusiastic crowd with soft, elegant playing. Eschewing the electronic accoutrement he’d embraced the night previously with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, Fresu’s flugelhorn sounded clear, revealing a more traditional/accessible jazz tone and style. And while Fresu’s previous night showcased high improvisation, the duets with Towner were much more straightforward, drawing arrangements from their new recording with delicate precision. Towner played nylon-stringed acoustic guitar brilliantly, revealing his affinity for Brazilian music and displaying some extraordinarily complex chording. The music was actually less interactive than I’d expected, and at times it felt like Fresu and Towner were traveling on parallel lines rather than intersecting. Still, the crowd was rapturous, embracing Fresu as a favorite son and Towner as the wise elder.

More to my tastes was the aforementioned Omar Sosa’s solo performance, which served as an opener for the David Sánchez Group at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe—a night of Latin jazz, if you will. Let it be said that Sosa is a truly evolved artist bursting with creativity. A towering figure resplendent in red with a white skullcap, he cut an imposing figure. Settling down in between two keyboards (one electric, one acoustic), Sosa mixed washes of prerecorded electronic sound with acoustic improvisations of the highest order. Straddling the space between his two keyboards with a stance wider than Larry Craig’s, Sosa won over the crowd with his passionate, evocative style and winning expressiveness. Although he played Montreal as a solo act and in duet with Fresu, Sosa has his own working group that’s more central to his unique style. Check out some of Sosa’s recordings; his latest is called Ceremony, and it’s on the Ota label. The way I see it, every time this guy sits down in front of a keyboard, it’s a ceremony, and I’m sold.

Although I stayed to check out some of the David Sánchez Group’s performance, the music was a little too stiff for this old head, so I hightailed it back to the Gesù for a horse of a different color. Once again, the Fourth World rule was in effect, this time with Nils Petter Molvaer and his powerful young band. Molvaer is a Norwegian trumpeter/composer who willfully embraces technology and all it has to offer, both sonically and visually. Much like Fresu on the opening night, Molvaer played his trumpet through a variety of electronic effects. More than that, he stood center stage, trumpet in hand, with his laptop at his side, manipulating the sonic backdrop. Basically, this show was a multimedia event, with a large visual screen providing digitized-impressionist images and a dedicated sound engineer who managed the extra-dimensionality of the band’s sound. It was psychedelic at times, with Molvaer riffing electronically off of his own trumpet sounds and leaving plenty of space for his drummer and guitarist to fill. There were plenty of soft/loud dynamics, and the sound was powerful, progressive and occasionally overwhelming. I personally was hypnotized by the shifting colors and shapes on the video screen and at one point awoke to the crashing din of the band playing full force. This show was pure 21st century, whether improvised or orchestrated, and must be deemed a success. Obviously not for jazz purists, Molvaer is a player playing a different game. Can you dig?

More to come, including a remembrance of Fred Anderson, Bill Dixon and Canadian jazz devotee, Len Dobbin.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 1

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It’s the 31st annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I found myself in Montreal, once again attending the city’s annual jazz festival, I had just one question, “Who in the hell are these guys?”

Sitting in a wonderfully intimate venue, the Gesù—Center Of Créativité, I embraced the opening night’s festivities with an early-evening show featuring Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. This unique pairing is only the beginning for Fresu, who’ll be hosting other collaborations as part of the festival’s Invitation Series, where the artist embraces a number of musical partners of his choosing. In Sosa, Fresu selected a kindred spirit of equal talent and temperament. Stirring and evocative, their duets showcased an intuitive, empathic dialogue that was organic and spontaneous. Fresu sat perched on his stool, one leg locked behind the other as he faced Sosa, who was somewhat restrained (for him) but still quite expressive in both his body language and musical improvisations. Fresu and Sosa both used electronics to enhance their collective sound, and at times the music reminded me of trumpeter Jon Hassell’s 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics. Hassell has described his Fourth World motif as “a style of music employing modern technological treatments and influenced by various cultures and eras,” which certainly applies to the sounds Fresu and Sosa were putting down. The nuanced playing reflected both of the artists’ backgrounds, with Fresu and Sosa tossing ideas back and forth with gentle intensity. Fresu occasionally used phasing or electronic doubling of his trumpet sound, and Sosa added strange samples and worldly rhythm tracks, which only contributed to their strange magic. Some folks might have thought the evening was rehearsed, but these guys were improvising from start to finish, and the emphatic audience seemed to love every minute of it. I know I did.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for the performance of Bitches Brew Revisited, which borrowed the concept and music of Miles Davis’ electric jazz/rock fusion phase but didn’t go the extra mile(s). With an all-star band of Black-Rock Coalition veterans like guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs as well as DJ Logic and trumpeter Graham Haynes, the Bitches Brew Collective vamped on classic Davis riffs without much excitement. Soloing at Haynes’ direction, the band played dutifully for about an hour without an encore, leaving the audience a little short-changed. Admittedly, the amazing Gibbs was at the center here, but the center just could not hold. The other musicians did not step up when they were really needed. It was a great idea on paper, but the funk and rock jazz-fusion trail-blazed by Davis was sadly in short supply.

Good thing I was able to head back to the sweet Gesù, and catch the late night set by the Vijay Iyer Trio. Iyer is certainly one of the most talented pianists on the scene today, and his 2009 CD, Historicity, was acknowledged as one of the year’s best jazz releases. Supported by the amazing rhythm section of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, Iyer took some time to heat up but eventually everything fell together as the band played originals in between interpretations of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” songs by jazz legends Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill, and even a selection from West Side Story. Once the band was in sync, it had a hard time stopping, and the show continued on well after midnight. Iyer, who’s no stranger to critical acclaim, seemed genuinely moved by the audience’s loving enthusiasm. Thanking everyone toward the end of the show, he stated, “We’ve got to come back here soon—that’s all I’ve got to say.”

That goes for me, too. Stay tuned.

Live Review: The New Pornographers, The Dodos, The Duchess And The Duke, Philadelphia, PA, June 21, 2010

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The Duchess And The Duke, the Seattle duo of Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz, had the task of rallying the crowd at The Trocadero on a sweltering summer night in Philly. They were promoting sophomore album Sunset/Sunrise (Hardly Art), which was recorded by fellow musician and producer, Greg Ashley. Sunset/Sunrise, though still reminiscent of classic ’60s riffs laced with minor chords, brings a new sunniness to the Duchess And The Duke’s style, making the album title seem all the more appropriate.

Next to take the stage were the Dodos.  Last year, Keaton Snyder (vibraphone) joined Meric Long (guitar, vocals) and Logan Kroeber (drums, vocals), giving the San Francisco band’s latest album, Time To Die (Frenchkiss), a whimsical, tinny sound above the guitar-driven songs. This mix makes for an interesting live show. Snyder used his mallets like a cellist would use a bow, creating an underlying, soft hum that bled through each song. Kroeber was impressive, with a percussion style that sounds like two frenzied drummers playing in unison, and Long did not disappoint, belting out crowd favorites “Red And Purple,” “Fools” and “Fables.”

The New Pornographers are one of those bands lucky enough to have a following that adore them. Really adore them. The crowd bursted into celebration as, under haphazardly hung lettering in bright white lights spelling their namesake, the eight-piece band began with the catchy “Sing Me Spanish Techno” from 2005’s Twin Cinema. Perhaps it’s the size of the band, the fact that each member seems to be able to bounce from instrument to instrument or the beautiful four-part harmonies that evoke the feeling of a well-oiled circus or a finely tuned family band.

The Vancouver natives have been making music together for more than a decade, and with that comes an audience as eclectic as its orchestral sound, which at times blends cheery, pop chord progressions, a somber cello and even a funky toy instrument. Baby boomers to freshly of-agers erupted into shrieks of excitement at the start of each song. The first notes of every tune had fans turning to each other, mouthing song titles with wide grins.

This tour is promoting the recent Together (Matador.) With A.C. Newman (vocals, guitars, keyboards, bass, banjo), Kathryn Calder (vocals, keyboards, piano), Neko Case (vocals), John Collins (bass, guitar, keyboards), Kurt Dahle (drums, vocals), Todd Fancey (guitar), Blaine Thurier (keyboards) and Dan Bejar (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion), you can’t get a much fuller, in-sync and precise sound. On the new “Up In The Dark,” Newman projected a modern-pop feel into a good ol’ American rock song. Also from Together came the whistle-driven “Crash Song,” which is another singalong giving that family-band image with an impressive multi-part whistling chorus.

The Pornos played some tunes from their debut album, 2000’s Mass Romantic, including “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism,” which wasn’t originally on the set list. Newman heard a rowdy fan in the crowd begging to hear it, finally giving in, “OK, for the drunk guy!” When Calder whipped out the accordion for “Go Places,” it became evident that each individual song has its own loyal following. Though sometimes criticized for trying to be too “power pop” with Together, the la-la-la-driven “Go Places” had fans re-energized through the dampening heat. Plus, Calder just looks so damn cute with that accordion.

Though most of the band’s sound transfers wonderfully and accurately from recordings to a live set, a few odd aspects—like Case’s lone claps on “Sweet Talk”—distracted from the material more than adding to it. This may have had something to do with the Troc’s sound, which seemed a bit wonky and unbalanced at times. The soundman couldn’t seem to get Bejar’s levels right until the encore with “Testament To Youth In Verse.”

After what had to have qualified as one of the loudest, foot-stomping, synchronized clapping requests for an encore ever at this venue, the band took the stage again with Newman joking, “You thought you’d lost us, but we’re back! Like our song. Get it?” The Pornos finished with the ever-recognizable “The Bleeding Heart Show.” This has to have been where the term “power pop” became forever linked with Newman and Co. It’s a song that you can’t help smile about and fight the urge to hold hands and skip in a circle. Luckily, it was way too hot in the Troc for such shenanigans, but it was tempting.

—Cristina Perachio

Live Review: Broken Bells, The Morning Benders, Philadelphia, PA, June 6, 2010

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The Morning Benders‘ sound is almost as sweet as their stage presence. This quartet blends dreamy vocals and beach-y percussion, grounded with funk-rock bass lines. At times, the vocals and island rhythms, like on the track “Promises,” sound like a fresh and innocent Vampire Weekend or even a rocking, not-quite-so-sleepy Beach House. These guys captured the crowd with Beach Boy-esque “ooo-aaa” background vocals and ‘50s chord progression, like on “Excuses” from their debut album Big Echo. Broken Bells can thank the Morning Benders for really warming up the Sunday-night audience. Frontman Christopher Chu singled out a fan wearing a Big Echo T-shirt and asked him which song he’d like to hear between “Mason Jar” and “Hand Me Downs.” The fan decided on “Mason Jar,” and that’s what the band played to an approving audience.

There needs to be some kind of appeasement or sacrifice made to whatever cosmic force brought the Shins’ James Mercer and DJ/producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) together. This collaboration, whose self-titled debut album sold nearly 50,000 copies in its first week in stores, is simply a perfect pairing of two solidly talented artists. Interestingly, the background animation that played throughout the show gave some insight into Broken Bells’ sound: Half the images were nature close-ups (a bubbling stream or sunset) and alternately scientific-looking items (rulers, orbiting geometric shapes) on graph paper. Mercer has this “lonely cowboy” thing going for him. His voice, lyrics and twangy-rock sound bring about images of a vast desert or speeding past a mountain range. Burton brings a calculated, almost scientific aspect to the music with catchy dance beats.

They opened with their radio hit “October,” which immediately got the audience swaying and singing along. While on the album Mercer handles vocals, guitars and bass and Burton plays organ, drums, piano, synths and bass, live they also had help from guitarist Dan Elkan, bassist Jonathan Hischke, keyboardist/trumpeter Nate Walcott and guitarist/keyboardist Nik Freitas. It was incredible to watch Burton seamlessly jump from organ to drums to piano to bass, and the six-piece band played a really tight set from start to finish. Each song off the album was performed with perfection, and they threw in two crowd-pleasing covers: Tommy James’ “Crimson And Clover” and Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me.”

What makes this album great is that each song has a certain amount of diversity within itself: using the synth to create a waltz, the trumpet to give songs a regal feel and the piano to create an “Entertainer” old-timey sound. On the clap-along “The Ghost Inside,” the trumpet brings a Southwestern sound to an otherwise guitar-fueled rock song. The last song before the encore was Broken Bells’ first single “The High Road,” which blends electronic sounds and Mercer’s desperate vocals to create a modern cowboy’s anthem so catchy you can’t help but sing along.

Mercer thanked the crowd for coming out to support the band on a Sunday night. The amount of orange Flyers T-shirts in the crowd was a good marker of the effect Broken Bells has had on fans. A note to Mercer and Burton: If Philadelphians are willing to forgo an important playoff game to see your band, you should probably continue making music together because you’ve got a great thing going.

—Cristina Perachio

Live Review: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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The first weekend of the 41st annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was, as usual, inspiring and full of surprises.

Friday’s forecast only called for cloudy skies, but constant, driving thunderstorms turned day one into a mud-drenched revelry. Local legend Anders Osborne took the opportunity to play his apropos “Lousiana Rain” as a mass of smiling, saturated fans of all ages danced to his gritty bayou blues. The most surprisingly fitting performance in the battering rain was Baaba Maal, whose sun-drenched sounds from Senegal had nearly everyone gyrating their bodies and kicking up mud. The storms seemed a perfect counterpoint to Maal’s rhythmic fury. But perhaps the luckiest people in this mess were those who arrived early and scored a spot in the shielded gospel tent. Not only were they protected from the weather, they enjoyed possibly the most stirring and overlooked part of Jazzfest: the goose-bump-inducing spirituals performed by the greatest gospel bands from all over the South.

Saturday’s weather was an even bigger surprise. Forecasts across the region called for tornado-like conditions with damaging wind and rain. Exhausted, drenched music lovers spent Friday night discussing if the show would go on Saturday or admitting their apprehensiveness to go through another day of such battering conditions. Many were disappointed that they might miss the hugely anticipated Simon & Garfunkel performance. But since they were having these discussions at a thrilling local concert or eating some of the greatest food in America, the attitude was devil may care. Miraculously, it didn’t rain all day, and the sun even came out for awhile just before it set.

As usual, there were many difficult decisions to make on Saturday. For me, the hardest was choosing between My Morning Jacket and Simon & Garfunkel. I chose MMJ, and Jim James and Co. didn’t disappoint, playing a riveting and passionate set of their greatest songs. James tore up solos on his Flying V guitar, confusingly donned a cape on various songs and led his band in delivering the epic rock show that they can’t seem to not pull off these days. Reports from the Simon & Garfunkel show were mixed. Garfunkel was quite sick and had lost his voice but made a valiant and somewhat unsuccessful effort to pull off the vocal harmonies that made their music what is was. Most of the crowd was just happy to see these legends play together in person, another one of the many iconic performances in Jazzfest history.

Sunday was the perfect day that everyone hopes for at Jazzfest: 85 degrees without a cloud in the sky and transcendental music flowing through the air at just about all of the 11 stages. New Orleans legends were displaying their greatness not only in their own sets, but in amazing performances with others. Voice Of The Wetlands All-Stars—featuring Dr. John, Johnny Vidacovich, George Porter, Jr. (Meters), Stanton Moore (Galactic) and Cyril Neville (Neville Brothers)—floored the crowd with an intense set of New Orleans funk, soul and R&B. At one point, the father of New Orleans soul, Allen Toussaint, joined them onstage, and seeing him playing the piano sitting right next to Dr. John on Hammond organ was one of those Jazzfest moments that you knew you were lucky to be around for.

But perhaps even more stirring was the following set from the Levon Helm Band. Helm paid tribute to the soul of New Orleans by welcoming Touissant onstage for a few songs, as well as Ivan Neville and even Dr. John for “Such A Night” (which was jarringly reminiscent of Helm’s performance of the song in the Band’s The Last Waltz). Helm’s band, with full horn section, was on fire. Helm was having a great time, drumming with as much authority and power as ever; on a few songs, he played mandolin and sang harmonies with his daughter and bandmate, Amy. The band ended with “The Weight,” inducing one of the loudest and most tailor-made sing-alongs I’ve ever seen.

The day ended with the Allman Brothers Band, which sounded better than it has in years. The interplay between Warren Haynes and the band’s other guitar wizard, Derek Trucks, was often breathtaking. Trucks (the closest to a reincarnation of Duane Allman on slide guitar) and Haynes weaved wailing, intense solos around each other. By the time the Allmans treated the crowd to an intense version of “The Whipping Post,” everyone was spent and more than fully satisfied. You could hear a lot of the first-timers in the crowd talking about how they’d be coming back to Jazzfest every year and bringing new friends to join in the amazing experience. Let’s hope they do. This great American city needs as much support and appreciation as the rest of our country can give it.

—Rocco DeCicco

Live Review: Dr. Dog, Deer Tick, Pepi Ginsberg, Hollywood, CA, April 27, 2010

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The smell of patchouli and incense wafted through the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood Tuesday evening. A sold-out crowd enjoyed a night of three offbeat pop/rock acts. Brooklyn-based songstress Pepi Ginsberg kicked off the evening with a spirited set culled mostly from her latest LP, East Is East (Park The Van). Ginsberg’s distinctive vocals, ranging from a deep throatiness to crystalline high notes, juxtaposed keenly with jagged guitar squeals and off-kilter rhythms. “Come on, what’s the matter, man?” she yelped during “Bingo/Ninths” while she attacked her Hofner archtop and thrashed along with bassist Tim Lappin, guitarist Amnon Freidlin and drummer Matt Scarano. Shades of Regina Spektor abounded on new song “Coca-Cola,” as Ginsberg’s tremulous voice swooped and dived abruptly. The adventurous crowd warmed to this idiosyncratic artist and capped off her set with enthusiastic cheers, including one new fan who screamed out, “What’s your name?”

Frontman John McCauley of Deer Tick wore a Thin Lizzy T-shirt, while drummer Dennis Ryan rocked a Lady Gaga ensemble. This seeming dichotomy actually fit the group’s vibe perfectly. Deer Tick is the postmodern version of a ‘60s country-rock combo. McCauley, with his ever-present shades and Budweiser-fueled stage banter, played the classic-rock-frontman role to the hilt. “And I know you saw right through me, afraid I’m taking you for a ride,” he growled on “Baltimore Blues, No.1.” Fittingly, he offered up an invite for fans to join the group on a trip to Sin City. “Let’s all go to Vegas! We can trip balls and gamble.” Mid-set, he yelled for Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes to get onstage to sing “Me, Me, Me,” a Faces-esque rave-up from their new side project MG&V. McCauley and Co. even threw in a cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which he jokingly attributed to Donnie Wahlberg. Deer Tick finished off its 12-song set with “Manage,” from the soon-to-be-released The Black Dirt Sessions. The thunderous riffing and bruising drums pummeled the crowd into submission.

Dr. Dog, however, brought its rabid fans right back to life. The Philadelphia natives performed a near-marathon set, taking the stage at 11 p.m. and finishing around 12:30 a.m. They opened the set with “Stranger” (the first track on new album Shame, Shame). The buoyant rocker energized the crowd with its chugging guitars and sparkling vocal melodies. On “The Breeze,” singer/guitarist Scott McMicken sings, “Do you feel like you’re stuck in time?/Forever waiting on that line/If nothing ever moves/Put that needle to the groove and sing,” while the band grooves away like an oddball mixture of the Beach Boys, Phish and Guided By Voices. Sweaty, bearded young men pogo’ed up and down while chanting the lyrics to every song, as bra-less girls swayed in time to the tunes. The set included almost every song from the sleek album. The group toned down some of its musical quirkiness, but retained its sunny pop instincts. The brief, funky “Mirror, Mirror” displayed a new modern-rock tinge with its jangling guitar lines and three-part harmonies. It’s about as sexy as Dr. Dog gets, and one boisterous fan loudly admitted to losing his virginity to the song. It builds into an organ-drenched climax, then, just as quickly, ends.

Singer/bassist Toby Leaman wiped his dripping wet face with a towel, as the Dog began “Shadow People.” The song started off as a Flaming Lips-ish ballad, but progressed into a full-on anthem with the entire group chanting the refrain, “Where did all the shadow people go?” Dr. Dog reached further into the past for inspiration on “Unbearable Why,” with a rhythm rooted in classic early-‘60s girl-group pop. The title track to Shame, Shame closed out the main set. The song slid and bumped along for four minutes, punctuated with clean guitar licks, ahhh-ing backup vocals and a spiraling crescendo. The audience, raucous from the start, got even crazier during the encore, when two overzealous fans leaped from the stage. The crowd failed to catch them, leading Leaman to comment, “Has anyone here ever been to a concert before? These dudes almost died!”

—text and photo by Danielle Bacher

Live Review: Midlake, John Grant, Toy Soldiers, Philadelphia, PA, April 10, 2010

MidlakeFans got an earful of indie music at the TLA on Saturday night with headliners Midlake, along with singer/songwriter John Grant and hometown openers Toy Soldiers.

“We’re used to smoky bars,” said Toy Soldiers guitarist Daniel King as the rest of the band rushed to tune instruments and begin their set promoting Whisper Down The Lane (Mad Dragon). Frontman and songwriter Ron Gallo brings a Dylanesque, homey feel to his group’s energized, jangling rock that pulls heavily from folk and southern influences. The guttural “Throw Me Down,” with soulful, riffing back-up vocals from Kate Foust, showcases the band’s raw, infectious energy. Poetic lyrics in songs like “Bloodmoon” and “Hardtimes” set Toy Soldiers apart from other local bands trying to be “the next new sound.” They take their cues from past greats with a more traditional folk/rock sound. All in all, they’re just fun to watch.

John Grant, previously of the Czars, took the stage next, backed by a band featuring one member of Midlake, which produced and played on his new record, The Queen Of Denmark (Bella Union). Grant uses his memorable, floating baritone vocals (think Rufus Wainwright in a deeper register) and cheeky lyrics to stand out against the melancholy melody. “I Wanna Go To Marz” is a bit Bowie influenced with its spacey, electronic sounds and stadium vocal echoes. On the title track and other songs, like “Sigorney Weaver,” the lyrics are sometimes humorous, sometimes experimental and other times more like the writings at a college poetry slam. While Grant uses his evocative baritone and odd lyrics to capture the audience, he relied too heavily on his often comical lyrics, and the energy of the set quickly deflated.

Midlake formed at the University of North Texas by a group of jazz students. The current lineup includes Tim Smith, McKenzie Smith, Paul Alexander, Eric Nichelson, Eric Pulido, Jesse Chandler and Max Townsley. The Denton natives use four guitars along with keyboards, bass and drums for an incredibly full sound, topped off with a lighter, jazzy flute, on their latest album, The Courage Of Others (Bella Union). Though rooted in jazz, this progressive folk band is more heavily influenced by Jethro Tull, with a sound sometimes reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and other ’70s rock. The title track pulls from a harder ’70s sound, but the dippy flute makes the full, ripping guitars jazzy-soft. As the flute acts to lighten up the driving group of guitars, bassist Alexander uses his sound to fill out the percussion, making songs like “Winter Dies” and “Small Mountain” sound like somber marches. While listening to The Courage Of Others, there is a definite energy pushing one song into the next; live, however, Midlake seemed lackluster. Unlike the album, where each songs plays into the next, picking up new energy, this live performance was like one long song. Midlake seemed to be missing that stage presence and audience connection that makes a great album transfer to a live performance. Not to mention the band members outed themselves as Astros fans on a night the Phillies played that Texas team, which never bodes well when trying to woo a Philadelphia audience.

—Cristina Perachio; photo by Kelly McManus

Live Review: Langhorne Slim, Philadelphia, PA, Nov. 19, 2009

langhorneslimOn a rainy Thursday night, three energetic bands took the stage at Northern Liberties venue Johnny Brenda’s. First up was April Smith And The Great Picture. Smith’s rag-doll appearance makes her larger-than-life vocals all the more stunning. Rock melodies combined with imaginative, Tom Waits-esque narratives resulted in a captivating first act. Though the audience was sparse during Smith’s set, she had most of us hanging on her every word. During “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” Smith crooned, “Is there anything going on in that pretty little head?/‘Cause if you’re just drop-dead gorgeous/You should just drop dead,” as she swung cheekily back and forth. At the end of her set, when Smith seamlessly slid into a few bars of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” the crowd had definitely fallen for Smith’s storytelling.

When Dawes took the stage, a large following of fans pushed its way to the lip of the stage to sing along to almost every one of the band’s Springsteen-inspired songs. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith seemed to draw a timeline of influence throughout his set: A toe-tapping blend of folk/rock with a country twang took cues from the plugged-in Bob Dylan, harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and, on one song, the lyrical cadence of Social Distortion. While the fist-in-the-air percussion and sunny melodies were satisfying, some of Dawes’ lyrics were hard to stomach. On “Love Is All I Am,” Goldsmith preaches, “Love is not excitement/It’s not kissing or holding hands … Love is all I am.” Oddly, the gaggle of fratboys in the front row didn’t seem to mind.

At few minutes after 11, the stage lights dimmed and the crowd erupted in hoots and hollers worthy of a much larger venue. Langhorne Slim (a.k.a. Sean Scolnick) could not hide his enthusiasm at the feedback from the adoring audience; his energy is like a wind-up toy only briefly stopping between songs to gather strength again. His raw gospel sound carried over tenfold in a live performance with help from Malachi DeLorenzo (drums, vocals), Jeff Ratner (up-right bass, vocals) and David Moore (keys, banjo, vocals).

Bright, folksy songs such as “In The Midnight,” “Mary” and “Electric Love Letter” had the audience smitten. Scolnick used this energy to create a massive call-and-response, though he admitted, “I’ve never really been good at organizing anything,” and relinquished the responsibility to an overly enthusiastic fan. Perhaps it was the hype of the call-and-response, manic clapping and foot-stomping that had one fan in a tizzy, calling out song titles just one beer short of “Play ‘Freebird’!” Scolnick put said fan in his place several times. At one point, Scolnick shot back in a steady drawl, “I’m gonna be playing your upper lip in a second, buddy.”

The exchange quieted the fan but only threw the women in the audience into more of a frenzy. It was amazing to see the ladies in the crowd catcalling and screeching notes usually reserved for boy-band concerts. Perhaps Scolnick’s Pennsylvania roots—he hails from Philadelphia suburb Langhorne—explains the swooning. The set seemed to be just one tense build-up, culminating in a square-dance-sounding tune that had Moore playing so fiercely that streaks of blood from his fingertips stained his bone-white banjo. Even when the band left Scolnick onstage to perform solo, the energy lingered.

Though the clap ‘n’ stomp gospel tunes propelled the show, Scolnick also reached the audience with multi-faceted tales of love and life. As he strummed through “Diamonds And Gold,” he sang: “Take some chances/Allow yourself to get lost/You’re beautiful, baby/You’re the boss/You’ve gotta learn to get happy along the way” had dozens of couples in the audience nudging each other as if to say, “He’s talking to you!”

—Cristina Perachio

“I Love You, But Goodbye” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/ILoveYouButGoodbye.mp3

“Say Yes” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/SayYes.mp3