Live Review: Mirah, Sammus, Philadelphia, Oct. 13, 2018

Two strong women with local connections show the City Of Sisterly Love that it takes tough women to make tender music. MAGNET’s M.J. Fine (words) and Chris Sikich (photos) spend a (Philly) special evening with Mirah and Sammus.

There’s a time to be tender and a time to be tough. All too often, when circumstances have exposed our tender hearts, our impulse is to play tough to protect ourselves, or at least mask that tenderness in cryptic social-media updates. It takes a special sort to be true to where the moment takes them.

Playing at Johnny Brenda’s in a time of transition—her first show in her native Philadelphia since the death of her father and one of her last shows anywhere before becoming a parent herself—Mirah embraced the ambiguous nature of living through the best of times and the worst of times all at once. Joined by drummer Andrew Maguire and bassist/keyboard player Maia Macdonald, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter toughed it out, knowing that something major was missing and that it would have to be OK anyway because this is the only moment we have.

Songs from Mirah’s recent LP, Understanding (Absolute Magnitude), dominated the set, and from the dark guitar chords of the album-opening “Counting” to the slow-burn finale “Energy,” the common thread was the inseparability of love and loss. To take something mortal into your heart is to set an alarm to ring out in grief at a time you can’t predict or control. Try to possess a person and you’ll snuff out their desire; try to wall off a country and you’ll kill its ideals.

Or, as Mirah sang on “Information” (also drawn from Understanding), “You’ll lose your heart and you’ll waste your mind/If the information doesn’t make you kind.” Elaborating on the song before moving on to the next one, Mirah wondered what might be possible if we didn’t scroll through stories as though current events were just another thing to be consumed, but instead allowed ourselves to fully comprehend them—that is, if turning up the news also meant turning up our compassion.

If all that sounds a bit too heady, it really wasn’t. Mirah’s penchant for extolling the glory of the natural world (where she’s in a league of two alongside Laura Veirs) tempers any tendencies toward the abstract. Whether giving voice to the plants on the gorgeous “Sundial,” laying claim to the sensual benefits of aging on “Hot Hot” or turning “The River” (from 2009’s (a)spera) into a fast, pounding lullaby for the child she’s expecting, she never seemed less than firmly planted on this planet and fully present on the stage.

Like Mirah, opener Sammus rewards the tender listener; her homegrown beats, intimate rhymes and well-rounded references bear the hallmarks of a rich interior life—in addition to the titular astronaut, “Mae Jemison” namechecks Josie And The Pussycats, Miley Cyrus, Michael Jackson, Judy Jetson and more PlayStation characters than my NES-era brain could absorb in a single sitting—as well as the wounds of growing up brainy and black in a place that wasn’t so hospitable to girls like her.

Chasing the twin pursuits of a Ph.D. and an indie hip-hop career, Sammus has traded Ithaca for Philly, and if she’s still feeling somewhat raw, as evidenced by the fact that she had to cut short a couple of tracks when the emotions got to be too much, her new hometown has her back. Her music is candid and self-aware enough to address struggles with depression from both sides—as an artist and as a fan—and it hits a nerve because feeling somewhat raw is evidently the current status of being a human with eyes and ears open.

On “The Feels,” Sammus examines the complicity of the audience that keeps demanding the sad stuff long after their hero has moved past that point: “So what does that mean for an author/Who cut they teeth as a pauper?/Now they got cheese in they coffer/But we love the grief that they offered.”

At Johnny Brenda’s, the crowd clapped and cheered for Sammus and Mirah in their grief and in their swagger. For once, tenderness came out on top.

The Velvet Underground Experience

The Velvet Underground Experience just opened at 718 Broadway in NYC. The multi-media art/music exhibition celebrates one of the most influential—and best—rock bands of all time and runs through December 30. VU co-founder John Cale helped open the exhibit by participating in a Q&A with Q104.3 DJ Jim Kerr and answering questions from the audience. MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski was there to see what goes on and take these images.

Read our Cale Q&A from two years ago …

A Conversation With John Cale

… our review of this year’s boxed set of all the VU albums …

Essential New Music: The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground”

… Richard Hawley in MAGNET on VU …

Richard Hawley’s Notes From Sheffield: The Velvet Underground

… and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Baseball Project) in MAGNET on Lou Reed:

From The Desk Of Steve Wynn: Lou Reed

Live Reviews: Whores., Paris, France, Oct. 7, 2018

“Musick has charms,” asserts Restoration-era playwright William Congreve, “to soothe a savage breast.” But tonight, in this dank low-ceilinged ratskeller, while the musick certainly charms, not a single breast—savage or otherwise—would appear to have been soothed.

On the contrary, Atlanta noise-rock trio Whores. performs in a suffocating Parisian cellar with an aggression worthy of AmRep’s finest sadists. On “Bloody Like The Day You Were Born,” distortion and feedback coil around guitar riffs like a python around an infant. “Of Course You Do” seethes and rages, barking cynicism at the self-imposed slavery of conformity. With every shoulder-high leg kick and every headstock jerked to the ceiling, the group exults in the ecstasy of violence. If Unsane is the beast that shouts murder at the heart of the world, then Whores. is the primary suspect.

Between songs, singer/guitarist Christian Lembach lauds French anarchists and name-checks NWA’s “Fuck The Police.” While tuning his Telecaster, he recites the chorus from Slade’s “Cum On Feel The Noize.” The gig is abuzz with such rallying cries and expressions of animus towards the Establishment.

Each tune extols the liberating benefits of upending the system, tearing down its corrupt institutions and floating in the bliss of oblivion. Come to think of it, the caustic metal of “I Have A Prepared Statement” draws the set to a fitting close with the line: “I sink/I’m gone/I’m free.”

Perhaps this evening of simple, feral pleasures, appealing to the basest of our instincts, is simply an exercise in cathartic eschatology. Yes, Congreve, music does indeed have charms to soothe a savage breast. But it also hath power to provoke a clenched fist.

—Eric Bensel

In Brooklyn, Modest Mouse Delivers Good Music For People Who Love Good Music

Modest Mouse is in the middle of a U.S. tour that winds up at the Big Adventure fest in Costa Mesa, Calif., on November 4. Issac Brock and Co. floated into Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre to play a high-energy, 17-song set replete with some of the hits as well as a number of old fan favorites. (The band kicked things off with “Dramamine,” the opening track on 1996 debut This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About.) MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski didn’t miss the boat, did do the cockroach and took these great images.

Live Review: Rhett Miller, Ardmore, Pa., Oct. 6, 2018

Instigator. Believer. Interpreter. Dreamer. Traveler. Messenger. Rhett Miller is all those things and much more. MAGNET’s M.J. Fine (words) and Chris Sikich (photos) witness the Old 97’s frontman alive and wired.

In the Old 97’s “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive,” a candid and kinetic recap of what the band’s been up to for the past 25 years that’s become a staple of their concerts and frontman Rhett Miller’s one-man, one-guitar shows, the singer admits the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is “both a blast and a bore.” At Ardmore Music Hall, Miller was in full-on blast mode, and even he seemed a bit surprised by the packed venue and the raucous enthusiasm of the crowd.

This is what Rhett Miller does: He rolls into town (on his own or with the 97’s), works up a sweat while racing through an ever-changing set of some of the hookiest, wordiest and most relatable tunes men have written since commercial radio stopped playing that sort of thing, breaks a string or three, shares a few self-deprecating stories and promises to come around again soon.

Just one thing was missing Saturday night: Miller didn’t break a single string, no matter how many times he busted out his signature windmill moves. Everything else was in place, not least the Rhett SweatTM, helped along by the bright lights and full room.

The 26-song setlist was a deliberate mix of introspective yearning and drunken come-ons, that sweet spot where Miller dredges up long-ago romantic failures to charm a following that’s already thoroughly besotted with him. Given the wealth of material at his disposal—11 Old 97’s records and six solo LPs, not counting the teenage debut he’s disavowed—he did an admirable job of giving the fans the staples they crave (“Barrier Reef,” “Big Brown Eyes,” “Salome” and “Time Bomb” all from the band’s excellent third album, 1997’s Too Far To Care), recent standouts (the mildly blasphemous “Jesus Loves You” and “Good With God,” from last year’s solid Graveyard Whistling) and deeper cuts that even he had forgotten (introducing “Ride,” one of two well-received pieces he rescued from 2008’s disappointing Blame It On Gravity; Miller mentioned that he’d been inspired to relearn it after Sirius’ Outlaw Country channel reminded him of its existence recently).

Better yet, of the eight tunes drawn from his solo albums, not one had surfaced during his show earlier this year at World Cafe Live. He paid particular attention to 2002’s The Instigator, with three songs (“Our Love,” “Come Around, “This Is What I Do”) that were among the evening’s biggest crowd-pleasers. So too, was his cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” reprised from 2011 live covers record The Interpreter and a perfect fit for the encore.

Speaking of looking back, having read a magazine article extolling the 25th anniversary of Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne last week, Miller noted that the Old 97’s first time in a studio was at Cedar Creek, where they recorded their first demo the day after Uncle Tupelo made their final recording there. (“We might have stolen some of the mojo,” he joked.)

But Miller looked forward as well, playing one song apiece from his next solo outing, The Messenger (due November 9), and the Old 97’s forthcoming Christmas album, Love The Holidays (out November 16). For the former, “Total Disaster,” Miller glanced occasionally at his lyric sheet and proved yet again that no one has his number like he himself does: “Girl’s name and the color of her eyes/Street name and the phase of the moon/Write ’em down in a beat-up notebook/Set it to a catchy tune/This is what I do.” Can’t blame him; it’s a winning formula. He can sing that song forever, about a girl that he once knew, if he keeps doing it as well as he did Saturday in Ardmore.

True to form, Miller will be passing through again soon enough, pulling double duty as a solo opener when the Old 97’s holiday extravaganza tours up and down both coasts between Thanksgiving and Christmas, wrapping up with two dates in Texas before the year’s out.

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.: The Inaugural Sea.Hear.Now Fest Hits The Jersey Shore, With A Little Help From The Boss

The inaugural Sea.Hear.Now Festival kicked off fall at the Jersey Shore, serving up two days’ worth of music, art and surfing in Asbury Park. Jack Johnson and Incubus were the headliners, while the likes of Ben Harper, Blondie, Frank Turner, Langhorne Slim, the English Beat and Deer Tick joined in on the fun. The festival’s highlight came on the second night, when Social Distortion brought out a special guest and local legend for three songs: Bruce Springsteen. (What, you were expecting Southside Johnny?) MAGNET photographer Wes Orshoski was stoked to ride the Sea.Hear.Now wave, dude.

Jack Johnson
Ben Harper
Social Distortion
The English Beat
Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket)

Live Review: Liz Phair, Speedy Ortiz, Philadelphia, Oct. 5, 2018

On the eve of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, MAGNET’s M.J. Fine (words) and Chris Sikich (photos) take a trip through Guyville with Liz Phair—and Speedy Ortiz

With half the crowd in a state of despair and/or fury over Brett Kavanaugh’s impending confirmation to the Supreme Court on Friday, Liz Phair avoided addressing the headlines head-on at her sold-out Union Transfer show. But she didn’t have to. In a set dominated by songs from 1993 masterpiece Exile In Guyville, Phair spoke volumes. You could almost pick a line at random and find the secret thoughts of any woman who’s been sucked into the orbit of those kind of men.

Take “Help Me Mary,” where Phair paints a scene that’s familiar to any underestimated, overachieving girl: “I lock my door at night/I keep my mouth shut tight/I practice all my moves/I memorize their stupid rules.” As any longtime fan knows, it’s the origin story of the young artist steeling herself to succeed in the male-dominated Chicago music scene of the early ’90s, but it’s just as applicable to suburban teens trying to stay safe in the Reagan years and contemporary corporate climbers who couldn’t lean in any harder without breaking something.

If the lyrics of Guyville have held up all too well, the music proved equally timely. (Just ask Sadie Dupuis, whose band Speedy Ortiz opened the show with a tight set of hooky, pointed tunes that are deeply indebted to Phair both in craft and content.) Phair was in control at all times, smoothly bouncing between cocky (“6’1″”), sunny (whitechocolatespaceegg’s “Polyester Bride”) and transcendent (“Stratford-On-Guy”), with an impressive number of guitars in her rotation and solid-yet-inconspicuous support from mostly anonymous sidemen keeping the focus on her. (Cody Perrin’s Stones-y lick on “Mesmerizing” was a pleasant exception.)

While it wasn’t hard to read the room, it helped to hear so many songs that assured we weren’t alone in feeling this way. Indeed, despair and/or fury couldn’t keep the crowd from clapping throughout “Never Said” or from endorsing the enthusiastic consent at the center of Whip-Smart’s “Supernova” by shouting along.

Though Phair marked the 25th anniversary of her debut LP earlier this year with the Girly-Sound To Guyville boxed set and a smattering of shows that drew from her pre-Guyville juvenilia, her only nod to that much fetishized early material was a stripped-down “Go West” that owed more to the ’91 bedroom demo than the fleshed-out version incarnation that appeared three years later on Whip-Smart.

Phair paid even less heed to her more recent past, playing just four songs from this century. She completely ignored her last studio album, 2010’s Funstyle, and hauled out her acoustic guitar for “The Game,” a twangy, glossy—in her word, “adult-y”—number that may or may not make her next release, whenever that might be. Best of all, her bravado was infectious on “Extraordinary” and “Why Can’t I?”—the back-to-back pop singles from 2003’s polarizing Liz Phair that ended the main set on a fist-pumping high.

Of course, the show wasn’t really over until the double-downer encore of “Fuck And Run” and “Divorce Song.” But even in their brutal honesty and resignation, they fizzed with hard-won triumph in the way one woman turned her despair and fury into art that continues to resonate with listeners a quarter-century on and inspires a legion of younger women to create their own mythologies and make their own messy masterpieces.

It helped, too, that Speedy Ortiz’s Dupuis was willing to speak plainly, letting a heckler’s shouted protest (“This is not a political concert”) prove her point. Between frank songs about flirting (“The Graduates”), harassment (“Villain”) and not drinking (“Ginger”), she took on centrist Democrats; rejoiced at having received her absentee ballot earlier in the day; urged everyone to believe women and to vote; led the crowd in a mass scream at the injustice; and promoted Making Spaces Safer, a pocket guide to stopping harassment that the band has given to each venue on the tour. (Proceeds from the name-your-price download of Speedy Ortiz’s reverent cover of Phair outtake “Blood Keeper” go toward the effort.)

And though Gritty was a no-show despite Dupuis’ campaign for the Flyers mascot to join Speedy Ortiz at its hometown show, I can’t wait to hear how she transforms that disappointment into something you can dance to.

London Band To Watch Shame Brings Its Songs Of Praise To Brooklyn

Chances are, if you’ve spent any time at all with this year’s Songs Of Praise (Dead Oceans), the debut album from Shame, you know this South London quintet is the real deal. But not even an LP this good could possibly prepare you for the live show that Charlie Steen and Co. put on, a sweat-soaked, leave-it-all-on-the-field blast of sometimes-brutal post-punk energy that will leave your ears ringing for days. MAGNET photographer (and true believer) Wes Orshoski recently braved the mosh pit to capture Shame’s live sermons on the Music Hall Of Williamsburg mountain.

Live Review: Roots N Blues N BBQ, 2018

MAGNET’s Scott Zuppardo reports from the best little Midwestern festival you’ve never heard of. Photos by Chris Prunckle/Wannabe

The 12th annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival at the picturesque Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Mo., wrapped up my summer again for the second straight year. Some of the best live music talent in the world coupled with more than 20 delectable food trucks and a daily whole-hog feeding frenzy is a recipe for success in its sheerest divinity, not to mention the sporadic array of locally crafted libations and all that thereof. Yet again the weather was perfect and being taken in by some of the kindest people I’ve ever been around in those working and/or indulging in the festivities. Tell me again about a country divided? RnBnBBQ is simply a cornucopia of love and positivity that’s not even trying to be. Music, great food and like-minded folks have a way about that.

Musical festivities kicked off with local sweethearts the Burney Sisters. They busked outside the festival last year and opened for the Avett Brothers the following. Don’t let the cuteness fool you—they have delightful songs well beyond their years and arrangements as impressive as the fact that the oldest of the two sisters is 13. Emma and Olivia are future folk legends without a question.

Los Lobos turned in one of the ultimate highlights of the weekend with an early-yet-remarkable set. Dave Hidalgo is a god on vocals, guitar, squeezebox, whatever you need. Hell, the entire band is really. When not bringing blues-infused rock ‘n’ roll, its Mexican blues and traditionals are a tasty treat. Los Lobos is hands down one of the greatest American bands of all time, living legends with no signs of slowing down.

Keb’ Mo’ picked up what the Lobos were putting down with a phenomenal offering of funky-cum-jazzy blues with two sets of keys, an absolute killer on rhythm guitar and backing vocals—and one of the tightest rhythm sections around (a common theme throughout the weekend). One of the coolest cats around with a voice to melt butter and more soul than hominy grits and turnip greens, Keb’ Mo’ boasts four Grammy and stringed-instrument prowess that rivals anyone.

Others onstage were Lake Street Dive, the female embodiment of Joe Bonamassa in Samantha Fish and the fratboy folk of the Avett Brothers. Too each their own, I suppose.

Kelly Willis started my day with a perfect collection of country gold, a bit of rhythm ‘n’ blues and rockabilly shake. Soul-cleansing music sans one iota of “fluff”—that’s refreshing. She’s well-versed in an array of stylings but kept it in the fence for the sake of the festival. Local boys done well Ha Ha Tonka turned in an inspiring hour-plus with an unforgettable number about partying in Arkansas that I still can’t shake from my brain matter. Does anyone else make a Telecaster sound as perfect as Dale Watson? Yes, of course, but his axe bedazzled in coin currency has a unique voice. As does Watson himself, the consummate showman, entertainer and Lone Star beer pusher—long love trucker songs and humor-packed honk tonkin’.

Son Volt was shot out of a canon. Jay Farrar and Co. were purely on fire from commencement. A powerful set dipping slightly toward melancholy only to resurge the auditory onslaught again. Diehard fans got their “Windfall” and “Tear-Stained Eye,” though latest record, one-chord-blues-heavy Notes Of Blue, was heavily represented. Chris Frame’s guitar work was otherworldly, and the band seemed on a mission of sonic totality and succeeded in droves. Taj Mahal and his trio turned in some tasty picking overflowing with personality and legend. The three-time Grammy winner seamlessly sews the divide between folk, blues, jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll … if there even is one.

Ms. Margo Price and band were another example of an impeccable rhythm section. The entire group is finely tuned of epic vibrations, stretching out into cosmic jams. Price is a bonafide star who was made to front a band, an indelible mix of beauty, brains and creativity. Highlights included covers of Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5” and a rousing version of Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush.”

Enter Sturgill Simpson a mere 30 minutes post-Price. His is a four piece for the ages, like a Grateful Dead show on trucker speed, with a blood stream already full of Freddie King, Cash, Waylon, and Otis. It’s plain to see why Simpson has replaced a second guitar with Bobby Emmett’s organ and keys—there’s no reason for another six-string, as Simpson is simply one of the best guitar players on the planet. For those hoping to see High Top Mountain-era Simpson, their cards were rebuked. This was a rock show taking no prisoners, decibels at full tilt and souls on fire. There were plenty folks taken aback by sheer volume and heading for the hills. (Literally.) The set was perfect, especially with no encore,  because that’s punk as hell, right? Sturgill does Sturgill these days. Those in favor, strap in and hold on; those hoping for a boxed country show, good riddance. A blazing cover of the aforementioned King’s “I’m Going Down” has been on constant reply in my inner sanctum. An early congratulations to Simpson, as he and wife await the birth of their third child. He forewarned that he doesn’t have a clue as to when he may be playing a stage again after just one more festival appearance for 2018.

Music Maker Blues Revue started a fine Sunday and was the closest thing to church for yours truly in quite some time. Blues is a religion of sorts, and my heart was full. Israel Nash was a pleasant surprise, chock full of soulful country and rock ‘n’ roll. The Mizzou alumni blazed through a raucous set of great songs with a tight band and heartfelt delivery—thoroughly enjoyable. Valerie June registered positive vibes a-plenty with her succulent brand of folky soul and rock ‘n’ roll. She matched the weather with the PMA and evoked an “Aha” moment to step back and realize how much beauty was going on at that very second. Mine eyes got to misting, and for that I am grateful.

Amanda Shires wowed as usual on the heels of her brilliant new record, To The Sunset. Another shot in the arm of lovely ladies making poignant music. New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue brought a heavy dose of non-stop funky soul. Incredibly animated and loaded with party songs. It’s plain to see why Shorty and Co. have been worldwide festival mainstays for years and will continue to be so. A special shout out to everyone’s favorite sax man Uncle Dan as this was his 36th-birthday show. If Shorty is the anchor, Uncle Dan is the crow’s nest.

Doubling down on the Missouri Lottery Stage and closing out the festival was the remarkable Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. Stax Represent! The Hermann, Mo., native and his band of soul-schooled brothers swelled hearts and dusted off white people’s dancing shoes. Yet another unobtrusive band and dead-on rhythm section throwing in a perfect set of live music. I can’t think of a label catalog more suited for them than Stax. They’re the culmination of all that’s come before. From Missouri wine country to worldwide roc ‘n’ soul phenoms—fun, fun, fun.

The end all is how loving, polite and kind every single person is at RnBnBBQ. Whether working, playing or a little of both, everyone is full of good-ole Midwestern wholesomeness. Not the forced pastiche type but the real kind that comes from heart and soul to mouth and action. And from what I’m told, there were folks from 48 states in attendance so be that a testament to the spirit of Columbia, Mo. Kudos to head of Thumper Entertainment and festival organizer Richard King yet again. The only way this energy starts is at the top.