Live Review: Of Montreal, Janelle Monae, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 29, 2010

The members of Of Montreal were not the only ones bedecked in wigs, drag and glitter tonight. On the eve of Halloween, the fans rivaled the headliners in costume-contest categories such as most creative, best Janelle Monae impersonation and best “I’m supposed to be a nurse/fairy/policewoman, even though I’m wearing a four-inch skirt.”

There was an ocean of sweaty, painted bodies milling around the gilded halls of the former vaudeville theater, along with a high frequency of glow sticks and hand-holding, the latter probably because guys don’t want to admit they like Of Montreal and so get their girlfriends to bring them.

Janelle Monae opened with an ear-tingling, hip-swiveling act that was part James Brown, part Gnarls Barkley and part Whitney Houston. She hushed the room with her epic pipes on ballad “Smile,” and a scrum of actors lumbered around onstage in hooded cloaks for “Dance Or Die.” Of Montreal’s flamboyant frontman Kevin Barnes joined Monae for a guest appearance before segueing into the main act.

Barnes and Co. crafted a performance best described as Alice In Wonderland—the Penthouse centerfold version–on acid. The lead singer pranced around in a purple leotard, frilly apron, headscarf and billowing tunic probably stolen from a noble at the Renaissance Faire, kicking aside most of his clothes halfway through the show. Players in head-to-toe, skin-colored body suits wearing skeleton and swine masks writhed among the unfazed band members.

While a portion of Of Montreal’s set included classics such as “The Party’s Crashing Us” and “Suffer For Fashion,” the band mostly featured songs off latest album False Priest, a Prince-like, collaborative body of work that lends itself to funk devolution. During each psychedelic, guitar-scratching “Let’s Get It On” montage, Barnes would perform antics that made the audience’s collective jaw drop. He grinded with a pig/human female in a way that would make Lil Wayne blush. Another time Barnes mimed fellatio and squealed, “You just made my mouth pregnant! What will my dentist say?”

The encore was a Michael Jackson tribute, featuring “Thriller” and “PYT.” During that time, several fans clambered onstage and began an impromptu dance party with the band, although the guitarist had to shove off a couple stumbling lushes.

Even without the added excitement of the crowd being able to prematurely show off their clever/slutty Halloween attire, Of Montreal has upped the ante yet again with its crew of players and ever-evolving Pan’s Labyrinth-ian props. However, next time it may be better if the band scaled back the theatrics and focused a bit more on what it does best: play music.

—text and photo by Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Greg Dulli, Craig Wedren, Baltimore, MD, Oct. 23, 2010

“This is the first time I’ve been hot on this whole tour,” said a gleeful Greg Dulli near the end of a rousing set on Saturday night at Baltimore’s Ottobar. If you’ve seen Dulli live with any of his past or current outfits (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), this might be a surprising thing to hear. But this 14-date U.S. tour, billed as An Evening With Greg Dulli, featured Dulli in a stripped-down, mostly acoustic setting. Backed by a violinist/cellist (Rick Nelson) and an acoustic/electric guitarist and backup singer (longtime Dulli bandmate Dave Rosser) for the entire tour, the group also added a drummer (Greg Wieczorec) over the last few dates. In this arrangement, Dulli’s normally howling songs were stripped to the bruised bone; their core of torment and dark urges laid bare. Despite the unplugged delivery, the show had a magical, sweaty fire that made it feel like a searing rock performance fitting of Dulli’s usual incarnations.

The crowd (well, me at least) had leaned hard into their Saturday night by the time Dulli and his band took the stage after 11 p.m. With the Ottobar’s website stating the show would start right at 9 p.m, the place was packed early. But Craig Wedren, former lead singer for Shudder To Think, didn’t take the stage until more than an hour after that, giving people plenty of time to throwback Baltimore’s iconic National Bohemian beer. It was worth the wait, though, as Wedren serenaded the crowd with his beautiful, fluttery voice. Standing alone in front of two microphones, he often looped vocal, guitar and simple beat parts to flesh out his odd-but-gorgeous songs. Highlights included Shudder To Think tunes “Red House” and “Hit Liquor” and a song he recorded for the HBO show Hung.

Dulli’s set started with him sitting at the keyboard, pounding out “The Killer” from the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle. From the beginning, this show was on a whole different level from the performance earlier in the week in Philadelphia. The band was visibly amped up and played harder and louder. The room rocked in response. Dulli whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Again” early on in the set and really never let up. The set list covered nearly every record in Dulli’s catalog, with the acoustic setting being the perfect chance for Dulli to dust off gems like Congregation’s harrowing “Let Me Lie To You,” “Step Into The Light” from Black Love, the overlooked “The Lure Would Prove Too Much” from the Twilight Singers’ A Stitch In Time EP and piano-driven Gentelmen classic “What Jail Is Like,” which led off the band’s first encore. Dulli also pulled from his Gutter Twins project and shared a number of songs from the next Twilight Singers record, which is due via Sub Pop in 2011.

Dulli mostly strummed an acoustic guitar, only taking to the keyboard on a few songs. He drank bottled water. No ceaseless smoking. No alcohol. He’s now entrenched in his mid-40s and while he still wants the crowd “to make party,” he himself has seemed to reign in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But this more sober stage act has not muted any of his showmanship power. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to craft a set list where songs build on each other, each one topping the next. A signature Dulli move is inserting a line or two from other songs into his own. Examples tonight included a nicked verse from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” at the end of “Teenage Wristband,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” appearing in “66” and even a teaser of his own “Milez is Ded” popping up at one point, which sent the crowd soaring.

No surprise, then, that after the band’s encore (which included the Twilight Singers’ “Candy Cane Crawl” and a blistering cover of Jose Gonzalez’s “Down The Line”), the crowd didn’t even look toward the exits. They continued to clap and howl until the band came back out and did a breathless rendition of Björk’s “Hyperballad,” with everyone in the room singing along. Glazed with sweat, Dulli and the band retired for good despite protests for a third curtain call, the U.S. leg of this tour closed out with a truly great evening.

—text and photo by Doug Sell

Live Review: Hoodoo Gurus, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 14, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night Five: Hoodoo Gurus

Some nights you don’t want to think of rock ‘n’ roll as great art. The Hoodoo Gurus know just what you need: to be hammered upside the head with terrific songs, one after another, until you start bouncing up and down like a brainless organ grinder’s monkey, begging for a banana. San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall is about half-full of people tonight, mostly in their 40s, who have left their social-networking devices in their pockets, so they can beg for bananas and concentrate on the thunder from Down Under about to beat them senseless.

Led by genial frontman Dave Faulkner and longtime members Brad Shepherd (guitar) and Mark Kingsmill (drums), along with bassist Richard Grossman (added in 1988), the Hoodoo Gurus stroll on stage after a short DJ set of stuff they grew up on: Velvet Underground, Flamin’ Groovies, Stones, Roxy Music. Faulkner’s trying to grow some of his hair back from the cueball-shaved look he sported for the band’s previous S.F. visit at tiny Cafe du Nord in 2007.

Faulkner formed Le Hoodoo Gurus in Perth, Western Australia, in 1981, but soon moved to Sydney and acquired Shepherd and Kingsmill. The Gurus were one of the de facto leaders of a brilliant assault force of Aussie big-guitar bands from the ’80s, most of whom achieved at least cult status in the U.S. It’s a lineup that included Screaming Tribesmen, Died Pretty, Celibate Rifles, the Sunnyboys, Eastern Dark, the Hitmen, the Scientists, New Christs, the Stems, Lime Spiders and the Hard-Ons.

“Wow, what a place!” Faulkner marvels at the ornate, Edwardian interior of the Great American Music Hall. “If we neglect your particular orientation, just give us a kiss,” he adds before launching into something from what he describes as “our much-neglected Mach Schau album. It didn’t sell much.” Like most of the anthems from a band savvy enough to title one of its nine albums Magnum Cum Louder (including those from current release Purity Of Essence), the song seems tailor-made for a thorough sonic shower, guaranteed to leave you refreshed if a little sweatier.

“I Want You Back,” from their 1983 debut longplayer Stoneage Romeos, features chiming guitar work and high-pitched, signature “Aah aah-aah, aah aah-aah” background vocals. “What’s My Scene,” from 1987’s Blow Your Cool, gives Shepherd room to stretch out on a spiraling guitar solo reminiscent of the best work of True West’s Richard McGrath.

“Now we’ll play that tribal number that you do so well, sir,” says Faulkner, bowing in the direction of Kingsmill, whose flailing, caveman drums strike enough sparks to ignite a raging bonfire to help ward off nocturnal danger. “Leilani” is a steaming, Bataan death march through the remote jungles of New Guinea, deep into a forgotten, headhunter-infested land where crazy reports of Stone Age reptiles have made their way back to Australia. The hypnotic “Whoa-o, whoa-o, whoa-o” auxiliary vocals meshing with Kingsmill’s throbbing floor-tom work make you well aware that it might not be a good idea to stray from the main path. Like most of the Gurus’ signature favorites, “Leilani” has been extended live into a 10-minute epic guaranteed to give you your money’s worth.

Faulkner seems truly sad to announce, “We’re going to have to break our string tonight with our next selection. Every show we’ve ever played in San Francisco has always featured a member of the Flamin’ Groovies. But I don’t see him anywhere about tonight.”

M.I.A. is guitarist/songwriter Cyril Jordan who covered “Bittersweet,” originally from the Gurus’ 1985 LP Mars Needs Guitars,” on a 1986 Groovies album titled One Night Stand. The tune sounds properly bitter and sweet tonight, played in missing-man formation. “Thanks, Cyril,” Faulkner murmurs as the last notes decay about him.

As a band that’s been playing with practically the same personnel for almost 30 years, the Hoodoo Gurus have become a well-oiled, rust-resistant machine. Their set list is backloaded with winners, none more bloodcurdling than Faulkner’s gem “Like Wow- Wipeout,” which poaches the Spectorian drum intro from the Ramones’ “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” then runs in the other direction with it. (“I kiss the ground on which you walk/I kiss the lips through which you talk/I kissed the city of New York when I first met you.”) Once again, Faulkner screams out his utter devotion to some road conquest, while Shepherd turns a “chainsaw massacre” guitar solo into a screaming delight that channels a Jeff Beck-era Yardbirds rave-up along with the Count Five channeling the Yardbirds. It’s a blistering gem, the Hoodoo Gurus at their very best, forced to watch some girl eating cake while they have to eat the crumbs. Of course, they’ll eat those crumbs for as long as the band exists. And like it!

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Teenage Fanclub, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 12, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night Four: Teenage Fanclub

For anyone who loves “melodic pop music with an edge,” it bordered on nirvana to experience Teenage Fanclub at its best in San Francisco. (And yes, it’s true, Kurt Cobain also loved these guys.) That’s how the Scottish band’s Norman Blake described its sound to me a few months ago, as he turned thumbs-down on the commonly used “power pop” classification, thus linking arms with a small army of the disaffected that also includes fellow travelers the Posies, Tommy Keene and Velvet Crush.

Looking more like stocks-and-shares salesmen or country veterinarians than rock icons, Blake and fellow guitarist Raymond McGinley and bassist Gerry Love—each of whom writes his fair share of TFC’s material—packed the Great American Music Hall to the rafters with the faithful after the venue was switched at the last minute from the much larger Fillmore Auditorium. TFC’s 75-minute set, tight as a python’s death-grip on a goat, had fans stomping on the floor and singing along football-style like it was a vintage set by Slade. The soaring three-part harmonies and stirring melodies of Teenage Fanclub—frequently compared to Big Star, the Byrds and the Beach Boys—were the most exhilarating thing heard in these parts since the halcyon days of the Cyril Jordan/Chris Wilson-era Flamin’ Groovies.

It was all business with the Fanclub. Just the basic red, yellow and blue stage-lighting and an auxiliary crew that included a drummer and someone on keyboards and extra guitar. No anecdotes about opening tours for R.E.M., Radiohead or Nirvana or of palling around with the Vaselines back when in Glasgow. Just an endless stream of those perfectly realized, breathtaking songs, each one with the lead line sung by the man who wrote it and drawn from a back catalog that includes highly lauded albums such as 1991’s Bandwagonesque, 1995’s Grand Prix and 1997’s Songs From Northern Britain. From the occasional grunge moments of 1993’s Thirteen to the sunshine pop excursions of 2002’s Howdy, each of the band’s nine albums, including the recent and very fine Shadows (Merge), rates at least a very-good-plus, a standard of excellence met by very few.

Guitar solos barely exist in the rhythm guitar-dominated live show of Teenage Fanclub. Instead, you’ll find an occasional, unadorned 16-bar lead break, tastefully executed a la George Harrison, by either McGinley or Blake. A few songs drizzled some backstage Flying Burrito Bros.-style pedal-steel guitar like backwoods barbecue sauce.

Now that the lads are all pushing 50, it adds an extra layer of irony to the franchise tag they chose more than 20 years ago, at a time when they hadn’t a clue this would turn into a career. “We thought there were a lot of pretentious band names around at that time,” said Blake. “So we liked the idea of having something that was the antithesis of that. Something that was completely dumb and meaningless.” And, he added, they’ve never regretted their choice. When a European border guard recently asked their driver the name of the band he was transporting, the official remarked, “Teenage? These guys look like a bunch of pensioners.”

Maybe grey hair is making the customary inroads, but the Fanclub still sings with the zeal of adolescent choirboys and writes songs like nobody else. And when they wrapped things up with Blake’s “The Concept,” the lead-off batter from Bandwagonesque, everybody in the house joined in, all but drowning out the onstage vocals. This hackle-raising anthem has always been an alchemical blend of joy and sadness, and just when it looks like the song has run out of gas, it’s kick-started back into full bloom for a stratosphere-scraping finale.

It’s plain to see, more than two decades down the road, Teenage Fanclub is a timeless outfit that has survived the trendy days and occasional excesses of the grunge and Britpop scenes, stayed true to its vision and has come out the other side of the tunnel all the better for it. It may seem odd to say at this time in life, but the best days of these grizzled professionals may still be in front of them.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Guided By Voices, Times New Viking, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 5, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night Three: Guided By Voices

A distinct demographic filled San Francisco’s run-down Warfield Theatre for the return of the classic, early-’90s lineup of Guided By Voices. Long before the music started, people all around me were talking about the band’s guiding light, Bob Pollard, as though they had a personal connection to the Dayton, Ohio, native and what he’s been doing since he broke up the band in 2004. They were citing obscure examples to each other of Pollard’s voluminous output over the past 30 years and how to acquire rare material available only as downloads or inserts in Swedish magazines.

It almost felt like I was an onlooker back at one of those record-swap, collectors-only gatherings of overweight, middle-aged guys with pony tails bending over hundreds of orange crates full of vinyl albums until their butt cracks were exposed in an unsightly manner. You could see some of them tonight, struggling to fit into the Warfield’s ancient, pre-stadium-style seating. But there were also entire families—moms, dads and their fully grown children—ecstatically bouncing up and down to the kinetically addictive melodies of Guided By Voices.

When Times New Viking, an accomplished-yet-nervous three-piece from Columbus, Ohio, took the stage to run through its set list as fast as it could—hardly any breaks between songs—to polite applause of a few dozen or so, the bans seemed grateful that only one rude guy had hurled an insult their way. “Keep it short and sweet: Nobody wants to see you,” bellowed some lout with an English accent from the balcony, except the trio drowned out the “see you” part with an ultra-quick start-up. Fortunately, they’ve improved the Warfield’s PA since a disastrous 2007 Stooges show where the only audible elements were the bass and the kick drum: no vocals, no guitar.

The excited multitude chanted “GBV” on at least three occasions and still no action. Finally, a professorial voice from some obscure instructional LP began to drone on about how to do something or other in measured tones as the stage lights dimmed to a street lamp-lit, film-noir level—and their heroes bounced out onto the stage. A fit-looking Pollard did pirouettes and pointed one leg at the ceiling like a gymnast warming up for a big meet. Legs akimbo, baggy-panted bassist Greg Demos practiced his Buck Dharma/Blue Öyster Cult rock-star moves and Chuck Berry duck walk, while twin-anchor guitarists Tobin Sprout on the left and Mitch Mitchell on the right tuned up as drummer Kevin Fennell fiddled with his cymbals.

“Hi, Frisco,” shouted Pollard as the crowd went nuts. There were very few here tonight old enough to remember late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen who loathed the term “Frisco.” For some reason, Pollard announced a song in a Rodney Dangerfield/Jackie Leonard vaudeville comedian’s voice. “Hold on, I’ve got to catch my breath,” Pollard said after another number. “I’ve had this problem before, where I’d play one show and the next day I couldn’t talk. I’ve gotta learn how to sing from the diaphragm, somebody told me.” The obvious birth-control double entendre—Old Bob singing into somebody’s diaphragm—was not lost upon the crowd.

Pollard, who must have written more music than anyone since Italian baroque master Antonio Vivaldi (a man who frequently penned two concertos over lunch), is the undeniable world champion of the three-minute pop song. Yet something seemed slightly off during the first half hour of the set, probably more to do with the band’s lack of rehearsal than anything else. The songs were going by too fast, the tempos seemed rushed. Nothing was sticking to the wall.

It took a few selections by Sprout, Pollard’s able musical foil, to get everything back on track. “Now here’s something by Toby Sprout and his gang of merry men,” announced Pollard as he faded into the background. A tall, gangly dude standing next to me started flailing away at ill-advised air guitar until his left elbow shot out and knocked the ballpoint pen out of my hand and over the lip of the balcony. Hopefully, no one below was looking up as the 79-cent missile hurtled downward. Sprout’s voice, distinctly lower than Pollard’s, is well suited for his minor-key-tinged songs that seem more Simon & Garfunkel folk rock than Pollard’s all-over-the-map, intensely garage/psych/power-pop numbers. By the time self-described “Uncle Bob, old avuncular Bob” had taken control of the tiller again, his caffeinated, angular songs seemed just like the good old days, leaping off the pages and grabbing you by the throat.

The plan tonight was for GBV to mostly play material from four of their best albums, cut by this crew: Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under The Bushes Under The Stars. But some of the material from lesser-known EPs like Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer also made the cut tonight. It was the most exciting evening with Guided By Voices I’d ever spent. No one got too bombed to stand up. The music, once it reached cruising speed, was unforgettable.

“I used to be a school teacher,” said an almost-confessional Pollard during a rare lull in the proceedings, as though we were all sitting around the fire while snow fell outside, downing a few brews. “I’d tell kids to follow their dreams and drink a lot. No, not really,” he tried, too late, to backtrack. Pollard now seems to be the indie-rock poster boy for taking his own advice. Since abandoning the “chalk brigade,” he’s had a few beers along the way and created an entire musical universe out of thin air. People love this music more than Pollard ever would have imagined back in the struggling, early lo-fi days of his band. To be in the presence of the same men who forged this wonderful material, playing it as well as they ever did, is not only a distinct pleasure, it’s almost an honor.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: The Clean, Barbara Manning And Rocket 69, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 4, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night Two: The Clean

The atmosphere was electric in San Francisco’s Independent club tonight: The Clean was in town. Lifelong good-will ambassadors for Kiwi rock, the Clean is the very embodiment of a cult band. Its fame has spread worldwide by tiny pockets of devotees who don’t mind waiting five or 10 years to see the band perform. Since drummer Hamish Kilgour has been living in New York for some time, while guitarist David Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott remain on New Zealand’s south island, the Clean tours and records only occasionally.

The legendary trio has just arrived in San Francisco from playing Matador Records’ 21st birthday party in Las Vegas. And no one is more thrilled to see her heroes perform than tonight’s opening act, Barbara Manning. Surprisingly, she says she’s never seen the Clean play live, even though she spent quite a while in New Zealand more than 10 years ago, recording Barbara Manning In New Zealand, an album cut with Scott, David Kilgour, Chris Knox of the Tall Dwarfs and Graeme Downes of the Verlaines, along with the boys she brought with her, Calexico backbone Joey Burns and John Convertino.

The brothers Kilgour formed the Clean in 1978 in Dunedin and would soon settle on Scott as the band’s permanent bassist. Their early sound was an exciting blend of DIY punk rock and the pervasive influence of the Velvet Underground. They’ve had hits in their native land on revered indie label Flying Nun, and their worldwide sphere of influence has found both Yo La Tengo and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus as card-carrying fans.

It’s almost as entertaining to spy on Manning squirming with delight in the seat opposite mine as it is to watch the band cover most of the highlights of its career. Hamish Kilgour’s drum technique is obviously homegrown, but that never stands in the way of his unwaveringly solid timekeeping, just as steady as Ringo Starr himself. David Kilgour’s guitar playing, as you would expect, has come a long way in 30 years. From the effective-yet-spindly early days, it’s grown to an economically lush-yet-ringing sound that easily fills the room. The alternating of lead vocals of David, Hamish and Scott give a welcome change of pace and plenty of variety for a three-piece.

When someone calls out for “Tally Ho,” their maiden hit single from 1978, David replies, “I dunno, it’s about fox hunting, and we don’t like fox hunting, do we?” Then they go ahead and play it anyway. David, whose eyeglasses have turned dark in the spotlight, moves over to a fourth mic to hammer out some Suicide-inspired chords on a mini-keyboard about the size of a loaf of bread.

When some unexpected feedback pops up during the set, Manning hollers out to David, “Give it a whack!” He does, and the irksome sound subsides. As the band winds things down, Scott, whose own mythical band the Bats played this venue back in the ’90s when it was called the Kennel Club, mutters for no apparent reason, “Never leave your wallet on a plane.” Maybe it’s a song he’s working on. With the Clean’s sporadic touring schedule, it may be 10 years before we find out.

Belying the even keel of her sultry mezzo-soprano singing voice, Manning has always been an excitable girl when she gets onstage. Tonight she was on fire. “I’m more excited than you are,” she nervously told a crowd of admirers, many of whom had come to see San Francisco’s onetime queen of underground rock back in the saddle.

Manning had worked the room like a political candidate earlier, hugging old friends, kissing babies. Since she last played S.F. at the Make-Out Room for the 20th reunion of her former band the 28th Day in 2003, she’s graduated with a degree in biology from Chico State University. “I think I want to teach biology in high school,” she says before she takes the stage with what she describes as her “power pop band,” Rocket 69.

Nattily attired in a brown-and-white-checked dress with black go-go boots, Manning sounds terrific as she belts out “Teenage Depression,” the title song from the first LP by Eddie And The Hot Rods. Just being back in the former Kennel Club has doubtless brought back a flood of memories. “I remember playing here with Roger Manning (no relation) when the sound man told me, ‘You are the most unprofessional musician ever,'” Manning reveals. When she subsequently double-clutches on an intro, one of her old pals yells out, “Unprofessional!”

“Here’s a great song by somebody I just saw yesterday,” says Manning, referring to the Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. “My guitarist, Maurice Spencer, is going to sing it, and I think he does it better than the guy who wrote it. But don’t tell him I said that.” Spencer does a fine job on Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind.”

After a stellar reading of one of her own songs, “Sympathy Wreath,” Manning continues her tradition of coming up with the most entertaining between-songs patter this side of Robyn Hitchcock. “How many people have seen Barbara Manning fall down the rabbit hole?” she asks. “Better yet, how many people here have tuned my guitar for me?”

Manning wraps up her set with what could have been an all-time power-pop one/two knockout punch. But it turns out to be a false alarm. She delivers the goods with the Records’ “Starry Eyes,” easily one the most thrilling songs from the ’70s, but then announces the last number would be something by the Only Ones. Instead of the one-hit wonders’ classic “Another Girl Another Planet,” Rocket 69 plays “City Of Fun.” When asked afterward why she didn’t play “Another Girl,” Manning replies, “I didn’t play that because that’s what everybody was expecting.” Huh? Personally, I love “Another Girl Another Planet,” and I’ve only heard it played live once, by the Only Ones themselves, at S.F.’s Old Waldorf in 1979. But at least that was the only disappointing moment during a true “rabbit hole” evening.

Live Review: The Flaming Lips, Oakland, CA, Oct. 1, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night One: The Flaming Lips

“Mother of God!” blurted out a young girl when she first glimpsed the Flaming Lips‘ flickering ace in the hole at the rear of the Fox Theater’s roomy stage. Clad in fluorescent orange jump suits, some topped with platinum blonde wigs, the Lips’ crew of two dozen scurried about moving amps, but the major piece of equipment was already in place: an eye-opening 30-by-60-foot Jumbotron-like screen resembling the face of a giant parking meter, trimmed with art-deco curves. Just the sight of this electrical marvel must have made any employees of Pacific Gas & Electric in the house rub their hands with glee. And then they turned it on. The electric colors blasting from the enormous screen were overwhelming, bright enough to singe the retinas of the unwary.

From out of nowhere, Lips ringmaster Wayne Coyne stepped to the front of the stage with a disclaimer. He warned anyone with a severe reaction to strobe lights (meaning those with epilepsy) “to cover your eyes if you feel a little weird. We plan to crank up the strobes to maximum capacity tonight. And that’s what you want, isn’t it?” Coyne added that members of their crew with light-sensitivity problems had worked through it, night after night. “We want you to stay until the end of the show, too,” he urged.

Things were so much simpler the first time I saw the Flaming Lips play in San Francisco. They drove all the way from Oklahoma City for one night at tiny Haight-Ashbury hot spot the I-Beam in August 1985. They cranked out tunes from their self-titled debut 12-inch EP, including psych-garage killers “Bag Full Of Thoughts” and “My Own Planet,” then turned the van around and drove back to Oklahoma. It was probably the wildest sound from that part of the country heard in these parts since Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators turned the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms upside down in 1966.

After his warning speech, Coyne disappeared for five minutes. Then the glowing behemoth in the back was switched on, and all hell broke loose. A giant, naked, gyrating go-go dancer assumed the giving-birth position while the camera zoomed in on her vagina, now turned into a cornucopia of throbbing dayglo colors, expanding and expanding, until suddenly Coyne burst through a door in the middle of it and walked onstage, followed by his bandmates—keyboardist/bassist Michael Ivins, guitarist Steven Drozd and drummer Kliph Scurlock—reborn and ready for anything.

In the middle of some grinding psych masterpiece, a man dressed in a bear costume began sparring with Coyne, who sang the rest of the song perched on the shoulders of the man-bear. Then came a cascade of multi-hued, four-foot-tall balloons tumbling all around the cavernous hall, recently retrofitted top to bottom in a neo-Egyptian/Assyrian motif. “Next time we’re here, we’re going to play on the ceiling,” said Coyne, directing the audience’s attention to the beautifully filigreed concrete level above, now dispensing thousands and thousands of one-inch squares of crepe paper, slowly fluttering towards the floor, a trip that took at least 15 minutes to complete.

Of course, the Lips also played sing-along versions of lusher, more melodic pieces like “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” from their 2002 Dave Fridmann-produced album of the same name, as well as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” a hit from 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, while laser-powered disco balls lit the room.

This grand spectacle reached a fever pitch when Coyne climbed inside a clear 10-foot-diameter balloon and bounced himself onto the outstretched arms of the adoring mob, giving the illusion of being lighter than air. How he gets into a balloon and how he breathes once inside is anybody’s guess. Once he’s made a full circuit of the hall and bounced himself back onstage, the plastic sac is wadded up like so much bubble wrap and tossed aside.

A menacing instrumental interlude, vaguely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe Eugene,” with the stage bathed in complete darkness, was welcome relief from all the indoor fireworks. But, of course, everyone knew the giant screen would explode one final time, cranking up the strobe effects that haloed an enormous close-up of the upper half of Coyne’s face to laser eye-surgery levels.

How the Flaming Lips will top this high-wire act, who can say? Like the Grateful Dead’s appearance at the Egyptian pyramids, maybe they’ll have to limit future performance sites to all the surviving Wonders of the World. And that includes the giant gorilla last seen clinging to the top of the Empire State Building. In the Flaming Lips’ case, it’s beauty that keeps the beast alive.

Live Review: David Bazan, Nashville, TN, Sept. 29, 2010

On one of the most pleasant autumn nights in recent memory, a friend and I made our way to Mercy Lounge to see the storied David Bazan perform to a room full of doting fans and Next BIG Nashville (NBN) attendees who were anxious to see the year’s first headliner. The show, which also featured the Mynabirds (Bazan’s tourmates) and local Aaron Robinson, was curated by the recently (and sadly) defunct Paste magazine, the first of several sponsored showcases that would take place in Music City from September 29 to October 2 as part of a joint music fest and industry conference called Leadership Music Digital Summit (LMDS).

Just five years young, NBN is vying to position the city and its diverse talent next to similar creative enclaves like Austin and L.A., shaking the world’s tired and inaccurate image of Nashville as solely honky-tonkin’ in the process. Each year, the scope of the festival gets more immense, as Nashville acts perform next to internationally renown artists at the height of their relevancy. This year, that strategy couldn’t be any more realized: Yeasayer, Washed Out, RJD2, Wavves, the Hood Internet, A Place To Bury Strangers and Javelin are just a few of the artists that have descended on Nashville in recent days to open arms from the city’s creative, academic and business communities. In other words, while it’s still held in untouchable reverence, the Grand Ole’ Opry might not any longer be the hottest ticket in town.

For its part, LDMS brings key players from the industry’s creative, legal and business arms to discuss its state of affairs and, more importantly, what’s next. According to NBN co-founder Jason Moon Wilkins, the combination of the two endeavors is a well-orchestrated effort to “[tell] the full story of Music City and the countless crossroads, musical and business, that run through it.” In addition to the previously mentioned artists, thought-leaders from the likes of Pandora, The Orchard, ASCAP, CAA, The Windish Agency and labels such as Fueled By Ramen, Columbia, Epic and Interscope gathered on panels in the presence of conference attendees to hash out the future of music making, marketing and consumption.

While the selection of Bazan by the NBN team initially struck me as odd—he’s already played Nashville twice this year, for one, and next to the other headliners (Yeasayer, RJD2 and Wavves), his “buzzworthiness” is negligible—my speculation was ultimately misguided. Indeed, the crowd was rapt from start to finish (a true rarity in Nashville), and I’d almost forgotten that Bazan’s catalog is so deep that he could play far more than three shows in a city per year and they’d all manage to sound completely distinct. This, in addition to the fact that he’s just as penetrating backed by the roar of a live band or alone, devoid of anything but a guitar and his rich tales of spiritual strife and indiscretion. On this night, perhaps more than any of the six or seven times I’ve seen him since 2001, he sounded an affirmed, raucous note, aligning his always gripping lyrics with a zealous musical punch that will undoubtedly leave an impression for weeks.

I’d already seen Bazan last fall touring in support of his latest solo effort, Curse Your Branches (Barsuk), a record that is often referred to as his “break-up letter with God” because of an article penned by Chicago Reader‘s Jessica Hopper, which detailed Bazan’s evolution over the last few years from evangelical Christian to skeptical agnostic. That show, at Atlanta’s Drunken Unicorn, was mostly filled with material from the new album. In Nashville, however, he would revisit his Pedro The Lion work in droves, reaching back as far as 1998’s It’s Hard To Find A Friend before rummaging through later albums Control and Achilles Heel. He even tapped into his inner Martin Gore with an eerie version of “Gas And Matches” from his synth-heavy Headphones album. Joined by Blake Wescott (guitar and vocals), Andy Fitts (bass and vocals) and Alex Westcoat (drums), Bazan bellowed through more than a decade of fan favorites with an impassioned clip that suggested time has only made him more fervent about his craft.

The set began with Curse Your Branches‘ “Bless This Mess,” an angular pop song that translated much more vigorously live than on record. The guitars were grittier and fuller, the rhythm section like a proud metronome and the three-part harmonies were immaculate and enveloping. A few songs later came “I Do,” a somnolent vignette of a married father at his most desperate. The tension of this song set the stage perfectly for “Rehearsal,” a noisy, guttural barb at an unfaithful partner who is as angry with a partner’s “stepping out” as he or she is with the lack of creativity used in executing the act. It is this kind of dark humor (that’s really not funny at all) that has made of Bazan one of the most compelling lyricists of the last decade, a fact not lost on Paste, which included him in its “100 Best Living Songwriters” list a few years ago.

After the first of three Q&A sessions—a regular feature at Bazan shows for as long as I’ve been watching him—he drifted into “Hard To Be,” which took the polar approach to much of the set, fleshing itself out more loosely and calmly than on Curse Your Branches. “Indian Summer,” “Please Baby Please” and “When We Fell” followed, each a dead-on rendition of its recorded counterpart. A few songs later, the crowd exhibited an obvious pleasure as Control‘s opener, “Options,” crawled underneath Bazan’s aching story of marital delusion. Here, as well as on “I Do” and closer “Band With Managers,” Wescott imbued the song with a washy drone that took the room one step closer to a sort-of emotional paralysis that was only undone when Bazan referred to Nashvillians as “some of the most delusional people in the country” to throngs of laughter in the final Q&A session. Sure, his comment was subjective, but the man speaks from experience: Cutting his teeth on the fringes of the Christian music industry before disavowing a belief (sometimes caustically) in the original sin narrative has undoubtedly brought on a healthy amount of righteous disdain from within the city, which to many is known as the “Christian Mecca” because it harbors more churches per-capita than any other city in the U.S. Of course, it’s possible he was referring to the myriad of musical pipe dreams littering Davidson County, but I’m going with the former thesis, if for no other reason than it hits closer to home for him.

While the brooding, drawn out intensity of “Bands With Managers” closed out the set in characteristically affective fashion, it was Achilles Heel‘s “The Fleecing” that sent me thoughtful into the night. Easily one of my favorite songs of his, it’s always spoken to me because of the way Bazan articulates the ultimate fallibility of spiritual discourse between believers and non-believers and its hinting at the godly ennui that would be fully realized on Curse Your Branches. On record, he sings in the chorus, “I could buy you a drink/I could tell you all about it/I could tell you why I doubt it/And why I still believe.” Six years, lots of questions and a drinking problem later, Bazan now closes the final line with “don’t” believe, before adding, “I was blind, but now I see,” satirizing a religious idiom to poignant effect. For most in the room, I’m assuming Bazan’s worldview shift is a non-issue, but for those who were perhaps introduced to his work through starkly beautiful covers of hymns or early meditations on grace, these lyrics had to invite a wince, or a tightening of the chest, as their hero—the only Christian artist who truly spoke to them for years—denounced it all with vehement courage right before their very eyes. To be (really) sure, living in Nashville does not a disciple make, but Bazan of all people knows how a message like that will be telegraphed in a city swarming with religious institutions. And, it works, no matter what you believe.

—Ryan Burleson; photo by Patrick Copeland

Setlist after the jump.

Continue reading “Live Review: David Bazan, Nashville, TN, Sept. 29, 2010”

Live Review: Toy Soldiers, Laura Veirs, The Watson Twins, Sisters 3, Led To Sea, West Chester, PA, Sept. 16, 2010

It was a “Lillith Fair kind of night” in the words of several of the featured musicians playing a rainy, Thursday night WXPN event at The Note in West Chester. Four of the five folky, Americana acts were comprised mostly of women with the exception of hometown headliners Toy Soldiers. I’m not sure if Live Nation, WXPN, The Note or simply the crappy weather was to blame for the weak turnout, but $12 a ticket for a five-act show seemed like a steal to those who did turn out.

Led To Sea—Seattle violinist/violist Alex Guy—began the night with songs from her latest album, Into The Darkening Sky. Guy’s experimental rhythm and timing, along with sometimes spooky/sometimes heartfelt songs, captured the interest of the small crowd, which seemed hypnotized by her steady voice and ferocious bowing.

Next up was Downingtown, Pa., family act Sisters 3, whose perfectly complimentary voices carried their set. The Note began to feel more coffee house than club show, as Cassandra (vocals, keys), Annachristie (vocals, guitar) and Beatrice (vocals) played their doo-wop-influenced folk. After a cringeworthy anecdote from Cassandra that evoked Michael Scott level secondhand embarrassment from the audience and death stares from her sisters, the set definitely could only go up from there. And it did with “Apocalypse,” which showcased Annachristie’s strong vocals, and somber lullaby “Morning Glory.”

After a long and deliberate soundcheck, the Watson Twins, just coming off a West Coast tour with a full band, said they felt “naked” onstage with just their guitars and their keyboardist and insisted throughout the night that the lingering crowd join them on the dance floor. “We’re going to do a stage dive later so if you could just fill this space in here,” laughed the Twins, stepping on each others words. They used a drum machine to fill in the gap of their “rhythm- and drum-oriented songs” that at first sounded a bit like toy instrument, but the sound filled out once Leigh and Chandra began harmonizing over ’70s soul- and gospel-influenced songs. Both the sunny, snappy “How Am To Be?” and cowgirl ballad “Southern Manners” draw from their upbringing in Kentucky, while a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” showcased their heavier, blues influences. Toward the end of the set, the ladies stepped to the lip of the stage and huddled together for “Give Me A Chance,” which transformed the club show into a sidewalk and the Watson Twins into street performers, singing for supper.

Laura Veirs took us back into the coffee house that the Watson Twins helped us escape from, and I was awakened after several of Veirs’ soundscape-sounding tunes, like the title track of her latest album, July Flame. Other highlights included “Wide-Eyed, Legless” and a sweet-yet-rocking version of “Wildwood Flower.”

When Toy Soldiers finally took the stage, they needed to rally to awaken the dwindling crowd. The Philadelphia folk rockers have gone through many transformations since they began as a duo and “a joke band” back in 2008 at Temple University. Recently, the outfit shifted members, slimming down from eight to five. This current five-piece, all-male version of Toy Soldiers retains the same twangy, energetic country/rock sound with frontman Ron Gallo filling in some of the higher-register notes and bassist Bennett Daniels and guitarist Dan King harmonizing. Perhaps it was just being surrounded by talented women all night, but the boys seemed smitten: Daniels dedicated almost every song to “the ladies.” They played crowd-pleaser “Love Ya Like I Love Ya,” and Daniels sang lead on his song “We All Know.” Jordan Hull, the baby-faced, Tennessee native and newest member of Toy Soliders, took the lead on a sweet, country/blues song he wrote called “By The Light Of The Moon.” To close, the boys ended with the loud and gritty “Throw Me Down,” which is truly anything but coffee house.

—Cristina Perachio; photo by Kelly McManus

The Outside Lands Festival: Phoenix, Al Green, Janelle Monae

MAGNET’s Maureen Coulter reports from the 2010 Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park.

Sunday, August 15

On day two of Outside Lands, I spent all my free time signing up for contests I’ll never win and nabbing swag I’ll never use. So far the count is two headbands, a neon-colored bandana/scarf, a T-shirt, shampoo, glow-in-the-dark dog tag and a Shrinky Dink. I also ate an entire meal comprised of free samples.

After making rounds at the promo tables, I joined the crowd on the Polo Field and hung out for Janelle Monae. Although she was a half hour late coming on, she made up for her curtailed performance in hair-tossing, hip-swiveling intensity. Monae is a pixie with American Idol-worthy pipes, and her music is spunky and distinctive, like a female Gnarls Barkley.

Having Al Green on the festival ticket may have seemed a bit out of place, but he owned the crowd. Beseeching trumpets and trombones combined with the gospel crooning of his three daughters onstage with him complemented his conversational, raspy voice and expressive hand gestures. He drove the audience wild with a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and had them singing, “I’m … I’m so in love with youuu,” on “Let’s Stay Together” as he tossed roses into the flock of middle-aged women with yoga-toned bodies, Ray-Bans and Chuck Taylors.

French pop group Phoenix played an energetic set anchored by a rumbling bass that could have triggered a tectonic shift. Lead singer Thomas Mars roamed around like a hyperactive child, climbing on speakers, bounding offstage and ultimately crowd-surfing. The percussionist whaled on the drums, sweat flying. The burgeoning swarm of shiny, booze-soaked concertgoers equaled Phoenix’s vivacity, showing its stamina even after two straight days of partying.