Live Review: Electric Electric, Paris, France, June 17, 2017

Rare are the gigs that successfully distill styles through a thesis/antithesis/synthesis triad. Tonight, Belgian duo La Jungle opens with a vibe that sets the spazzcore heroes in Lightning Bolt to turbo dance rhythms. Fellow Belgians It It Anita counters with a noise bath that recalls the grimiest of ’90s art punk. French headliner Electric Electric ably splits the difference, tenderizing Kkraut math experimentation with a hard-rock mallet.

The result is more than just a frenetic Trans Am or a family-friendly Atari Teenage Riot; Electric Electric triangulates the digital and the analogue, sweating euphoria through metronomic-yet-manic beats. With machine precision, the Strasbourgeois trio deploys electronics, blunt guitar riffing and repetition the way a masseuse employs whale song, oil and deep muscle kneading.

With “Minimal Maximal,” hard-hitting drums and trance coax the listener’s consciousness out of time and body. The combo could score a Philip K Dick film adaptation … or surgery to install neural implants. From latest album III, “Dassault” entices gently with a light beat, to which siren wails add a threat of impending calamity. The detached, monotone delivery of the vocals is deliberately blurry as to be detectable mostly at the subconscious level. “Klimov,” likely an homage to the Russian director of ’80s war film Come And See, is dancey and ominous and jagged all at once. Neither dejected nor joyous, the group’s sound is less cathartic than soothingly dehumanizing.

In a world where the insanity of terrorism is answered with the inanity of populist nationalism, perhaps the best (or, regrettably, the only) sane response is withdrawal within oneself. Unplug the mind and submit to the gaping void. Electric Electric demonstrates that a synthesis need not require the resolution of competing visions. It can be an acceptance that there are no good options.

Apart from escape into the hollow bliss of art.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Föllakzoid, Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017

Guitarist Domingo Garcia-Huidobro walks onstage with a careless authority. His shoulder-length frock of blond hair kicks back and forth like the legs of a Rockette. He wears Adidas coochie cutters and shin-high combat boots. His turtleneck sweater is pulled up over his mouth and nose, exaggerating his tall, gaunt frame to Muppet heights of silliness. He is, to understate the effect, an eyeball magnet.

His bandmates in Chilean trio Föllakzoid—bassist Juan Pablo Rodrigues and drummer Diego Lorca—are able foils. Where Garcia-Huidobro’s guitar lines are sinewy and ticklish, their rhythms are repetitive and droney. Where Garcia-Huidobro flails and romps, they are immobile and businesslike.

The contrast is striking. But the combination is intoxicating.

If ’70s krautrock bands disrupted popular music with avant-garde experimentation and electronic ambient, Föllakzoid smooths over the rough edges and enchants with an impressive capacity for groove and chill. Fresh off a collaboration with Spiritualized’s J. Spaceman, these space krauts generate a mood, in particular one that imagines the vibe in the lounge of an intergalactic liner.

Fists punching the air, Garcia-Huidobro eggs on the crowd, yet the volume is never thoroughly pumped up, the jams never fully kicked out. But Föllakzoid focuses on emitting a pulse, riding a wave.

While the band’s first two records were crunchy and Hawkwindy, the four tracks from latest album III are minimalist and feather-light, accentuated with random bursts of ringing chords. “Earth,” for example, opens with the churning inside a starship’s engine room then levels off to a smooth glide, looping back to the coarse intro, then bubbling over with cymbal crashes, guitar feedback and a bass rumble.

Bookending III, “Electric” and “Feuerzeug” are nearly mirror images of one another. Ethereal yet spiky, both tunes sprinkle prickly notes atop a slow but gritty rhythmic base, like dragonflies buzzing over a murky swamp. As with much of tonight’s set list, the songs ooze and hum. And when the moment strikes his fancy, Garcia-Huidobro unleashes a buzzsaw riff that jolts the audience out of its reverie.

Because that’s what wizards do.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: The Firefly Festival, 2017

It’s Firefly season, a time every summer when 90,000 giddy, glistening fans descend upon the 750-acre Woodlands in Dover, Del., to watch their favorite artists perform, and discover new ones. Every Father’s Day weekend since 2012, locals witness Dupont Highway bursting with cars packed with camping gear making their annual pilgrimage from across the East Coast and beyond. Over the past six years, the festival has expanded from a modest three-day event to a five-day bonanza featuring 140 multi-genre, multi-generational acts—everything from Bob Dylan to the Weeknd to AFI to Kesha to Weezer to Miike Snow.

Tweaking what was already a fun, efficiently run event, Firefly provided fans the opportunity to curate all aspects of the festival this year, from merch to campground entertainment to food options. Back in December, organizers posted various polls to the festival website so that fans could vote on what they wanted to include in the 2017 iteration of Firefly.

With so much competition and so many new festivals popping up like games in the Apple app store, Firefly’s strategy of fan engagement helps tether their fans to their festival, fostering a sense of ownership. Who wouldn’t want to attend a fest that they helped create? With so many Bumbershoots, Pitchforks and Boston Callings to choose from, it’s hard for fans to figure out where to spend their limited disposable income and PTO time. By being the self-proclaimed “first fan-curated festival,” Firefly is trying to make that decision easier.

Offering such a varied, wide-ranging artist lineup also attracts fans from across every age and demographic, expanding the potential pool of attendees who wouldn’t have previously considered going to a festival. Walking through the Woodlands this past weekend, I witnessed more diversity than any other year. For every glitter-encrusted teenager in daisy dukes waving glow sticks, there was a dad in a polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts with a braided leather belt looking like he was ready for a night at Outback Steakhouse. Apparently Firefly has now replaced many families’ Pocono lake or Jersey Shore trips, a new tradition that should be the envy of all others in the festival industry.

Although Firefly had been underway for close to two days by the time Friday night rolled around, the energy was elevated a notch once the 9 to 5-ers arrived. Weezer, the band that churned out mega hits like “Buddy Holly,” “Beverly Hills” and “Island In The Sun” in the ’90s and early aughts, kicked off the nighttime headliners as the sun sank below the tree line. Frontman Rivers Cuomo sported his signature thick-rimmed specs, and the band offered a predictably pleasant set, playing all of its popular songs that brought me back to the days of middle school, Total Request Live and Napster.

Indie trio Miike Snow, which includes the songwriters behind pop smashes like Brittany Spears’ “Toxic,” got the dance party started with “My Trigger” and “Paddling Out.” Lead singer Andrew Wyatt bounced from keyboard to microphone, from one end of the stage to the other, his voice climbing up to falsetto at times before plummeting into a deep, warbled bass. Their infectious beats filled your diaphragm and excited your cells at the atomic level.

On a sweltering Saturday afternoon the next day, 24-year old British alt-pop riser Bishop Briggs ran laps around the Main Stage in an oversize black sweatshirt and pants. Her dynamism never wavered as she belted out hits like “Wild Horses,” “River” and “Have Mercy,” underscoring her brooding, soulful voice. Combined with thudding beats and growling guitars, she sounded like a mash-up of Adele and Pretty Lights.

The Naked And Famous drew a large crowd at the Lawn Stage as dusk settled over the festival grounds that evening. The indie electronic band from Middle Earth broke onto the scene in 2010 with “Young Blood,” which was featured in numerous promos and commercials for shows like Property Brothers and The Leftovers. Alisa Xayalith’s ethereal vocals, combined with fuzzy synths and strong beats, exhibited their CHVRCHES-like sound on songs like “Punching In A Dream.”

After four days of 90-degree heat, marathon day-drinking and countless half-mile trudges from one stage to the next, you wouldn’t blame festival-goers for throwing in the towel and heading home early to beat Shore traffic. But on Sunday, the only evidence of flagging energy was the increase in cycle rickshaw trips from the parking lot to the front entrance of the festival. And the artists the fans stayed to see did not disappoint.

MisterWives, the cheerful pop/rock band from New York, made a triumphant return to Firefly during an early evening set. “Two years ago we were the opening band at 2 p.m. on Thursday, and we had to camp here because we didn’t have money for a hotel room,” frontwoman Mandy Lee told the crowd of several hundred people. “Don’t give up on your dreams!” Watching them play, it was clear to all why they have had such a meteoric rise since their first Firefly. All six group members acrobatically juggled multiple instruments throughout each song as they danced and bounded around onstage, displaying their musical talent, stamina and pure joy.

When electro-rock duo Phantogram took the stage as night fell, all eyes locked onto lead singer Sarah Barthel as she emerged in her signature superhero-esque ensemble, with thigh-high boots and a cape. She and childhood friend and bandmate Josh Carter played their moody, rhythmic hits like “When I Was Small” and “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” helping to close out the festival on a high note.

Firefly will enter into its seventh year of existence. Like every year, organizers will debrief this past weekend, survey the festival landscape and try to think up ways to bring back past attendees and to attract new fans. They’ll also assess the fan curation experiment, and figure out how to keep families away from the Poconos and Shore over Father’s Day weekend. At this point, however, Firefly’s excellence has been established. I’ve made it my own tradition, and I’ve already booked my Hampton Inn for 2018.

—Maureen Coulter; photos by aLive

More photos after the jump.

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Live Review, Coachella 2017

One of the laziest journalistic tropes ever is: “This (supersuccessfulthing) isn’t nearly as cool as it was back when it was (underground, lesser-known, hardly a blip back in the day, etc.).”

This is what LCD Soundsystem sent up so effectively with “Losing My Edge” and has been a theme we’ve heard associated with “Chella” over and over again in recent years. It’s a giant financial ecosystem of which music is only a part (in 2016, Coachella sold nearly 200,000 tickets and grossed about $100 million, not to mention all of the tangential revenue generated by sponsors, merchandise sales, concessions, etc.), there’s too much corporate largesse creeping into the picture, the bookings aren’t nearly as edgy as they were, it’s more fashion show and social media mirror than cultural statement, I saw your dad there last year, yadda yadda.

One way to think about Coachella: it’s a festival whose humble beginnings date back to when Pearl Jam was warring with Ticketmaster and booked itself into the Empire Polo Club in 1993, as lighting-oneself-afire an act of anti-careerist stubbornness as has existed in the music industry’s recent history. Another, perhaps more practical way to think about it, is that the festival has become a way for largely niche acts in indie rock, hip hop and various flavors of EDM to reach a broader audience that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to them given present course and speed of their organic development. When you think about artists such as Long Island’s Lemon Twigs, Seattle’s Tacocat or even the legendary Belleville Three (Detroit techno OGs Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson), the kind of affinity they can create with two weekends’ worth of energetic performances might eclipse everything else they’re capable of generating in a typical album/touring cycle. So: Coachella serves a useful purpose (as do other festivals of its type: Pitchfork, SXSW, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, etc.) no matter what the self-proclaimed cool kids may think or how snarky their Tumblr posts may be.

It was with this framing in mind that we packed our rucksacks and caught the party plane down to Palm Springs for this year’s opening weekend. Gloriously bathed in 90-plus degree sunlight, the Empire Polo Club hosts what is no doubt the most thoughtful and, if possible, comfortable long weekend of live music in the U.S.: There is ample space for the crusty campers, backdrops for the Instagrammers, food and drink for all, and if it’s possible to call 330 acres of desert oasis “lush,” these guys have figured out a sensible way to make it so. Therefore, two generations of duBrowa festival attendees took in the three day weekend of with a tacit agreement in place: We would humor each other by attending the other guy’s sets-of-choice to the extent it was logistically possible—your Louis The Child showcase vs. my GBV fix. It’s unclear who got the better of this particular deal, but it made for a fantastic weekend at the musical deli tray under near-perfect conditions, all the same.

Friday split the difference between a typically Angeleno party night and a visit from the touring artists of the Empire. Having opened with the Raspberries-meets-Walker Brothers stylings of Long Island’s Lemon Twigs (a plaid-suited Brian D’Addario jogging crazily around stage like a Faces-era Rod the Mod), we then transitioned to the first of several British acts who killed it with their particular brand of music: London-based grime superstar Stormzy, whose “big man wif a beard,” high-energy 140-BPM rap set the table for everything else that followed. L.A.-based party collective Brownies and Lemonade hosted a showcase EDM set at the LCD-festooned DoLab Stage, with producer Alexander Lewis adding some festive trombone to a series of trap tracks while the duo Louis The Child slayed a packed tent full of Stevie Nicks hippie-chick lookalikes with a sparkling set of future soul. Every festival produces its share of surprises and disappointments—British soul-man Sampha definitively qualified as an unexpected delight, packing in a sweaty tent and filling the VIP area up front (we saw Gwyneth Paltrow, Stormzy, Kevin Abstract and half of his Brockhampton rap collective boogying away) with a crew who came for his Drake hit “4422” but left singing the praises of his virtuoso solo keyboard performance “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano.” Expect huge things from this London-based R&B artist down the line.

As for Australia’s Avalanches—making their first U.S. appearance in 15 years on the back of their 2016 global comeback smasheroo Wildflower—the show proved that their real strength is as a studio creation vs. live act, with a catastrophic rig failure in the middle of “Subways” making for an interesting moment of improv for a band that isn’t really built for that sort of thing. Guided By Voices proved that Bob Pollard and Co. can still come correct with the old-school, serrated-guitar indie rock, their set ranging from brand-new material to songs unearthed from the Bee Thousand era. While Richie Hawtin and DJ Shadow demonstrated that ’90s-era techno and sampledelic hip hop can still summon a passionate audience in 2017.

Without doubt the spotlight act of the day was Radiohead—the band played before a sea of humanity and opened with slower, more contemplative material from A Moon Shaped Pool before suffering through three different sound stoppages, leaving the main stage twice before returning in a much feistier mood, with Thom Yorke changing the band’s setlist seemingly on the spot to troll festival organizers with the much-maligned “Creep,” blaming the various failures on “aliens.” L.A.-based EDM superstar Dillon Francis closed out the evening with a set heavy on moombahton jams, reprising his signature style from about 2013-ish for what appeared to be the largest single audience we’ve ever witnessed at a festival, filling an entire airplane hangar with sweaty, jiving fans who spilled out into the surrounding area with dayglo sticks, humorous hand-cobbled signs and a ridiculous number of “Christmas lights as costumes,” creating an undulating pool of people that washed rippling into the desert night.

If Friday was about new discoveries, then Saturday was devoted to surprise features—meaning, the time-honored tradition of bringing special guests onstage for a social media-amplified star turn. After taking in Mitski’s offbeat, Helium-like charms, the day turned to the half-Interpol/half-Wu emo tangle of Banks + Steelz and the hard, dark beats of French producer Brodinski, whose 90s-inspired techno would have been perfect in the midnight time slot (as it was, he packed the hangar-like Sahara venue full of writhing sparkle-face-paint kids). Portland’s Car Seat Headrest held to the indie-standard party line—guitars, attitude, skinny suit in a pastel color, more guitars—and then the parade of features began, with Angeleno six-string bass jazzbo Thundercat weaving his magic for an overflowing crowd before bringing out yacht-rock hero Michael McDonald (yes, that one, the silver-topped, golden-throated Doobie Brother) for a trio of beautifully ’70s-touched Fender Rhodes numbers that brought the house down when the familiar strains of “What A Fool Believes” wafted into the air.

British producer Mura Masa then proceeded to make a virtue out of his rotating backstage holding pen, with Desiigner, Charli XCX and finally A$AP Rocky all hitting the stage for their respective radio hits, which sent bodies overhead (Desiigner crowd-surfing his way into the front rows, and various kids in their desert finery passed back over the barrier in return) and produced probably the single best set of the day—dude is not only the owner of a golden set of ears, he can multitask with the best of ’em (keyboards, guitar, drums). Atlanta’s Future played to an ocean of fans before bringing out Ty Dolla Sign and then Drake out to close his evening set; while not to be outdone, fellow ATL resident Gucci Mane coaxed an appearance from hot-rap-kid-of-the-moment Lil Yachty and performed “Black Beatles” with guests Rae Sremmurd to wrap up his Coachella timeslot. Canadian rapper/producer Nav marked an otherwise low-key performance by inviting prior-night-headliner Travis Scott and the Weeknd to the stage, while French producer DJ Snake brought Migos to the stage for their ubiquitous radio anthem “Bad And Boujee,” then dropped the jaws of about half of the night’s attendees by conjuring the notoriously fickle Ms. Lauren Hill for a series of Fugees tracks (“Ready Or Not,” “Killing Me Softly”) before wrapping her cameo turn with a spin on her solo classic, “Lost Ones.” The night wrapped with Lady Gaga’s insanely produced and highly calibrated replacement slot for Beyonce (who bowed out months ago after announcing that she was expecting twins; Gaga returned the favor by dropping a surprise single, “The Cure,” just as she left the stage), and a fantastic, sunny-day-disco nightcap from L.A. production duo Classixx, whose admixture of electro, indie pop and straight-up ’70s dance music leaned heavily toward Disclosure territory and would have made the perfect soundtrack for Brodinski’s mid-day slot. All told—a day full of other people’s talents attached to a series of sets that were perfect for the 95-degree heat that baked the valley.

Our flight back to Seattle left early evening Sunday, so in an abbreviated day, we managed to catch the perfect Sunday comedown set from EDM producer/DJ Chet Porter, an experimental guitarfest from ragged-but-right Aussie indie-rockers Pond, a high-energy show from London grime artist Skepta that brought the house down, backed by a ridiculously bouncing set of pure party hip-hop from Lil Uzi Vert before wrapping up our weekend with a rare side-by-side-by-side performance from the aforementioned Belleville Three (unfortunately missing evening sets from OC OG punks TSOL, New Jersey indie-pop craftsmen Real Estate, a reimagined New Order, and rapper-of-a-generation Kendrick Lamar, whose amazing new full-length Damn will no doubt appear on many year-end lists) before heading back to civilization. We literally saw a little bit of everything over the course of three days: ferris wheels and freestyling, fairground food and fiery funk, famous features and FOMO-inducing moments of pure “you had to be there” magic. We see you, Coachella. And we promise we’ll be back to do it all again next year.

—Corey duBrowa and Tanner duBrowa

More photos after the jump.

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Live Review: Liberation Music Orchestra At The NYC Winter Jazzfest

On Tuesday night in downtown Manhattan, the 13th annual NYC Winter Jazzfest concluded its massive music marathon with a conscious concert at the le Poisson Rouge nightclub featuring Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. The festival itself ran January 5-10 and hosted more than 100 different artists on Friday and Saturday nights. Complimenting the festival’s 2017 theme of social justice, the LMO provided a compelling live set that was powerful, politicized and poignant.

Originally formed in 1969 by late bassist Charlie Haden along with arranger/pianist Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra has existed as an outspoken vehicle of protest and resistance for five decades. Balancing ecological, humanist and political commentary, Haden’s LMO has released a recording every 10 years or so, usually coinciding with the prominence of a Republican administration. This includes the recently released Time/Life (Songs For The Whales And Other Beings) on ECM, which was recorded prior to Haden’s passing.

Although Bley did not take part in the NYC performance due to conflicting commitments, the oversized, virtuosic band used her distinctive arrangements throughout, including an authoritative version of Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and distinctive twists on both “Amazing Grace” and “America The Beautiful.” With the gifted Geri Allen substituting for Bley on piano, the LMO boasted a mother lode of excellent musicians including saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, trumpeters Seneca Black and Michael Rodriguez (who served as bandleader) and veteran trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.

The premise of music illuminating protest is central to the LMO, and the band persists in upholding the outspoken legacy of Haden’s insurgent vision. The group closed the show with a moving version of “We Shall Overcome,” which was also the final number on its first album back in 1969.

There were plenty of socially conscious performances during the Jazzfest. Composer/trombonist Craig Harris’s Breathe was another massive ensemble expressing discontent and hope, remembering the martyred Eric Garner and exploring themes of Black Lives Matter. Chicago wunderkind bandleader Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone showcased explosive rhetoric by clear-eyed poet Marvin Tate and provided bracing counterpoint with a hard-charging band that included saxophonist Greg Ward. Saturday’s ECM Stage at New School’s Tishman Auditorium hosted bassist Michael Formanek’s group with saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver, as well as performances by Danish guitar phenomenon Jakob Bro, duets by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Virelles, and guitarist Bill Frisell working in tandem with bassist Thomas Morgan.

Once again the NYC Winter Jazzfest was an unqualified success and its heightened attention to social justice was right on time. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or as they say in Portuguese, “A Luta Continua.” The struggle continues.

—Mitch Myers; photo by Dave Kaufman

Live Review: Psychic Ills, Paris, France, Nov. 25, 2016


One cannot step into the same river twice, but most rock bands dip regularly into the same well.

New York’s Psychic Ills are an intriguing counter example. Over the course of five albums in a decade and a half, the group has transitioned from experimental space rock to psychedelic indie pop. With latest LP Inner Journey Out, the band dials down the grittier rock elements in favor of a more sophisticated production with string arrangements, lap-steel guitar, brass and even back-up gospel howlers. Gems such as “Coca-Cola Blues” and “All Alone” bear the marks of Luna’s graceful dream pop and the rustic simplicity of Anders Parker’s folk rock.

Longtime fans won’t bemoan this development. The chill psych rock is now simply a chill psych alt-country. And the hipster vibe still reigns.

On tonight’s elevated stage, under the ceiling’s unflattering metal gratings, the band’s core of Tres Warren and Elizabeth Hart make a curious visual impression. Warren’s cream-white suit is a string tie and top hat shy of snake-oil salesman. Hart’s flowing, ankle-length dress; her long, jet-black hair; and the thick crucifix dangling from her neck all scream goth priestess.

And yet, these are no charlatans. The songs are honest and exposed. Stripped of their orchestration in this live setting, they are pleasantly lazy, inviting the crowd to lose itself in the swaying melodies.

A languid “Baby” from Inner Journey Out and a sharp “One More Time” from One Track Mind set a deliciously trance-y mood. But the song most emblematic of the combo’s evolution is the drowsy-yet-chic “Another Change.” Over delicately insistent cymbals and a ticklish slide guitar, Warren drawls, “I don’t know if I can handle what I got coming/I’m going through another change.”

Indeed, the one constant is change. Or, at least as Psychic Ills have shown, it ought to be.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Lorelle Meets The Obsolete, Paris, France, Oct. 26, 2016


Arthur Rimbaud, muse to our most pretentious rock stars, challenged the poet to derail all senses and thereby arrive at a higher understanding of reality. His preferred method may have been absinthe, but were he alive today he may have favored Lorelle Meets The Obsolete.

The Mexican duo, composed of the elegant-yet-tenacious Lorena Quintanilla (Lorelle) and the scruffy-yet-subdued Alberto González (the Obsolete), delivers unto listeners this Rimbaudian epiphany. LMTO’s latest LP—the aptly titled Balance—disorients and comforts, disrupts and reveals. Armed with the kaleidoscopic range of psychedelic pop, the album triangulates the sweet spot between the gritty space rock of Chile’s Föllakzoid and the dreamy shoegaze of Russia’s Pinkshinyultrablast.

On tour, the duo expands to a quintet, and the delicately crafted recordings transform into ferocious jams. “Waves Over Shadows” and alternate take “Waves Under Shadows” could be children’s lullabies interpreted by My Bloody Valentine. A lazy synth melody wafts through a thick haze of distortion, like a toddler waddling through an active battlefield. The pendulum-swing hypnotism of the guitars on “It Must Be The Only Way” is deftly accented by Lorelle’s seductive and sweet vocals. “Sealed Scene” is a wailing space boogie concocted in a ’60s garage. Throughout the evening’s performance, every song is dreamy without being overly droney.

Psychedelia, above all other pop music sub genres, is poetry. It seeks out Baudelairean correspondences between the material and the mystical. It deploys the awkward, albatrossian glory of feedback to scramble our senses. It explores the outer fringes of human sensation and sends back vivid trip reports.

“Beneath the bush a wolf will howl,” wrote Rimbaud. “Spitting bright feathers/From his feast of fowl: Like him, I devour myself.” He could have been describing the self-destructive decadence of drug use. Or the method to the poet’s madness.

Or, just as plausibly, the psychedelic transcendence of Lorelle Meets The Obsolete.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Il Sogno Del Marinaio, Paris, France, Oct. 8, 2016


He has wondered whether he is a ball-hog or a tugboat. His first collaborator speculated that he is chalk, a dartboard, that his sex is disease, that he is a stop sign. But his current bandmates simply call him “Il Capitano Watt.”

Legendary bassist Mike Watt is not just a captain but a stylistic seafarer. Long inspired by the giants of other art forms (Dante, Bosch, Joyce) as well as those of his adopted métier (Coltrane, Who, Sonic Youth), Watt navigates from artistic port to artistic port. This son of a navy shipman draws heavily on maritime imagery in his work—he composed his first punk opera (1997’s Contemplating The Engine Room) around the theme of naval life. He refers to the tour van as the boat in which the black gang sails. An anchor pendant dangles from his neck, and an anchor inlay adorns his bass fretboard.

But his present project takes the metaphor 20,000 leagues deeper into the sea.

Il Sogno Del Marinaio (Italian for “the sailor’s dream”) matches Watt with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi in a combo whose jazzy post-rock charts a fascinating course through both calm and troubled waters. The trio dips into the sonic palette of Watt’s many bands, past and present. One hears the jangly indie punk of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE along with the mathy garage abstractions of the Missingmen.

Tonight, the group performed its Canto Secondo album in its entirety (although not sequentially). The difference between the record and this live performance is analogous to that between gazing up at Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse painting and actually being on a flimsy raft tossed on the waves. The restraint of the studio has been tossed overboard.

The angular stutter rhythms of “Il Sogno del Fienile” evoke the choppiness of a whitewater outing. The chill jazz of “Skinny Cat” feels like a pleasant afternoon of gentle sailing. The breathtaking “Us In Their Land” could be a powerboat racing to shore or a pirate ship capsizing in an angry storm. At times, the listener floats peaceably on the waves and at times is thrown violently against a bulkhead.

At the close of the set, Watt yells to the crowd, “Start your own band!” This tireless collaborator and icon of the DIY ethic encourages one and all to contribute to the millennia-old human conversation that is art.

To his shipmates, Watt is indeed the captain. But to the rest of us, he’s an everyman genius.

—Eric Bensel

Live Review: Hazel, Seattle, WA, Oct. 1, 2016


Nothing screams (or rather, insistently tells you—screaming would just be so rude for Stumptown) “Portland punk” more than the intro to Hazel’s new Tales From The Grease Trap Volume 4 installment on Cavity Search Records—a live document of two typical hometown shows from the band’s 1993 heyday. The first of these—recorded at the legendary-but-tiny X-Ray Cafe, a gig I attended (although I haven’t been able to locate my flannel-and-baseball-capped younger self in the black-and-white cover photo just yet) before splitting for two years in New York City—features an intro from whomever was emceeing that night, imploring the capacity-plus sardine-tight crowd to “respect everyone’s personal space and be good to one another.” Having been born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised on SoCal punk (think—would you expect such sentiment from infamous misanthropes such as Henry Rollins or TSOL’s Jack Grisham?), it took me a while to even consider bands like Hazel, or its running mates Heatmiser, Pond, 30.06, Sprinkler and Crackerbash, even remotely “punk.” They certainly weren’t “grunge.” Mostly what they were was noisy guitar pop, played quickly and loudly in small venues in front of a certain stripe of misfit who hadn’t been a Homecoming King and probably didn’t serve as Student Body President, either. It was all Perfectly Portland and redolent of an era in which record stores were still a hub for fans, radio was still a tool for musical discovery and regional “scenes” like Seattle, Portland, Chapel Hill and Chicago capable of arriving whole-cloth with their own sounds, look and aesthetic. Portland’s was, and to a certain extent remains (even today), “nice.” If perhaps more than a bit left of the dial.

Hazel was one of the standard-bearers of the Portlandia indie-rock scene, back in the day. Leader Pete Krebs had the songwriting chops and all the right relationships (he was tight with the late Elliott Smith but also friendly with just about every other artist instrumental in shaping Portland indie music at the time), openly gay drummer Jody Bleyle was the band’s lifeline to the queercore scene simultaneously brewing in Olympia (she would later go on to join Team Dresch with Donna Dresch and form/lead the Candy Ass label), Brady Smith cut an energetic figure as the band’s bassist, and then there was Fred Nemo, a full band member whose job description (much like Bez from Happy Mondays) was simply “dancer” and who often staked a spot center stage at the band’s gigs, climbing atop equipment, swinging large props around in the air and generally providing non-sequiturs of chaotic activity while the band earnestly pursued its short blasts of jagged pop. Hazel didn’t break up so much as it just stopped playing—an ill-fated European tour saw the band essentially disintegrate on the road—so when Seattle’s Macefield Music Festival (named after the spirit of noted Ballard neighborhood resident Edith Macefield, the Oregon-born real-estate holdout whose tiny home in Seattle formed the basis of the animated feature Up) phoned them to see whether they’d be interested in reforming, all it took was a quick calendar check for all four original members to quickly arrive at “yes.”

Hazel’s first show together in more than two decades came on the second day of the festival, a typically blustery Seattle fall afternoon in which rain came down in buckets for more than half of the group’s outdoor set. But for Hazel’s rabid fans (and new converts) in attendance, the weather could just as easily have been a 110-degree afternoon or a snowstorm for all it mattered. Hazel almost quite literally teleported in from the past—its hourlong set containing songs from both of its Sub Pop albums, Toreador Of Love and Are You Going To Eat That?—with the band betraying little rust or even that any time had passed in the intervening years since sharing a stage together. The group blasted through an ambitious set marked by its double-time pop (“J. Hell,” “Shiva,” “Day Glo,” “Big Fatty,” the baseball-themed “Boog,” “Lazy H” and electric Wipers cover “Tragedy”) and trademark intertwined vocals, with Krebs and Bleyle bouncing off of one another a la John Doe and Exene circa Wild Gift as their songs of relationships, insecurity and resolution resonated just as strongly today as they did back in Portland’s nascent blast-off phase. The band’s core trio sounded lean and tight, while Nemo worked his bizarro-world magic in much the same manner as when I last saw them, balancing full water pitchers atop his head, duct-taping himself to a chair, donning a dress and whipping both mic and landline telephone around like a slightly deranged Roger Daltrey (if Daltrey had been born about a foot taller, with a beard and little sense of rhythm). By the time Hazel wrapped up business with lovely closer “Truly,” its infectious blues had distracted from the fact that the sun was back out, the rain had stopped, and the crowd was totally theirs for the taking.

The band was headed back to Portland for a pair of shows in its hometown, and Krebs is due to be inducted into Oregon’s Music Hall Of Fame (along with Fernando Viciconte and veteran pedal-steel player Paul Brainard) later this month. He has a compilation of his solo work coming out and a new solo record in the hopper as well. I walked away from this show happy to have my old friends back in the fold (if even temporarily) and in such amazingly fine form. Hazel was never one of its era’s most successful bands, but from a purely PDX point of view, it was absolutely one of its best.

—Corey duBrowa