Live Review: M. Ward, Oakland, CA, May 16, 2009

mward_370A less likely rock star than M. Ward hasn’t come down Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway in many a moon. With an almost awkward stage presence that kept the between-songs chatter to a bare minimum, and a “Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates” kind of singing voice, Ward relied heavily on his startling talent with the guitar and his undeniable ability to write songs you swear you’ve heard before—and take ones you do know in totally unexpected directions. Make no mistake about it, Matt Ward hung 10 tonight on a giant wave of fan adoration at the recently refurbished Fox Theater, an ancient movie palace whose sumptuous interior dates from somewhere in between the Indiana Jones and Fry’s Electronics dynasties.

Even the uninitiated should have had some idea what was coming tonight after what sounded like a hand-picked set of pre-concert tunes that included semi-obscure ’60s nuggets that ranged from Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” to a Roger Miller double-play of “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug.” It’s easy to see why Ward gets on so well with former Grandaddy studio rat (and recently launched solo artist) Jason Lytle. They both revere Brian Wilson and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Before he takes it in a totally different melodic direction, Ward’s “To Save Me” begins with a whisper of a quote from “You Never Can Tell,” a 1964 hit by Chuck Berry (whose rocking guitar was one of three ingredients Wilson used to create the Beach Boys’ trademark sound).

After a lovely live version of “To Save Me,” played by two guitars, keyboard, bass and drums, Ward revisited the Berry mother lode with a rollicking run-through of “Roll Over Beethoven,” much less refined than E.L.O.’s 1972 version, whose snippets of Ludwig Van’s famous Fifth Symphony must have caused the old dead gentleman to do a subterranean 360. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, Ward unveiled his complete retooling of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” a highlight of Ward’s latest album, Hold Time. In his capable hands, the song trades Holly’s rockabilly hiccups and Lubbock yelp for tubular bells and a cherry-pie/coffee-shop ambience that makes it sound like it’s been cut by N.R.B.Q. under the direction of Phil Spector before he went off his trolley.

Ward has told me on several occasions that it’s the artist’s job to blur the lines between various elements in a song. For his solo-acoustic centerpiece tonight, he conjured the spirit (if not the letter) of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on “Fuel For Fire,” originally found on 2005’s Transistor Radio. “Hold Time” did a fine job of further muddying the waters with a sighing, Harold Budd-like synthesizer worthy of an updated film-noir soundtrack that wheezed its way around a heavily echoed, Lynne-style vocal by Ward.

For all his pulling the rug out from under people’s musical expectations (a funereal re-invention of Don Gibson’s jaunty “Oh Lonesome Me” on Hold Time, for example), Ward could never have been the irritating dorm roommate who put a bucket of water over the door and waited for you to walk in. He’s more like the slightly weird comic-strip character Liō, who played tennis with a giant squid and a zombie on the same weekend you went home to get your laundry done.

—Jud Cost

“Rave On” (download):

Live Review: Bottomless Pit, Pittsburgh, PA, May 15, 2009

bottomlesspit390Bottomless Pit shouldn’t even exist, but when a bizarre and tragic event took the life of Michael Dahlquist, drummer for the group Silkworm, in 2005, that treasure of a band appropriately folded and the remaining members (Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett) soon found their way back to the music in the form of Bottomless Pit. The band is looser and rangier and more serious-sounding, and you can hear the heartbreak and bewilderment and simple missing-you feelings in so much of Bottomless Pit’s mature, downcast guitar rock. (In case you don’t know the story: Dahlquist was killed on his lunch break along with two friends when a suicidal woman intentionally crashed her car into theirs, which was stopped at a traffic light. She lived and is now in jail.)

The Chicago-based Bottomless Pit has toured sparingly since forming about three years ago. A warm spring night in Pittsburgh found the band near the end of a few-days tour around the Midwest. The 31st Street Pub has a heavy-metal, biker-bar feel. There’s a display case of fake skulls and other freaky bones, and part of the ceiling is decorated in autographed symbols from drum kits. The Iron City beer is cheap. The place is rock ‘n’ roll. Opening, as usual when Bottomless Pit stops in Pittsburgh, was Karl Hendricks, a ‘burgh staple whose namesake Trio/Rock Band has been around for ages. It’s now a more back-burner concern for Hendricks, and he still puts out records but rarely plays live. You wouldn’t know it, though, as the three-piece didn’t exhibit any rust. Hendricks’ formidable guitar skills kept the set interesting despite the loud, murky sound and drowned-out vocals.

Expanded from Silkworm’s spare trio formation (Midgett has jumped from the bass to join Cohen on guitar, and the band is rounded out by Brian Orchard on bass and Chris Manfrin behind the drums), Bottomless Pit has a more layered and textured post-punk sound that delves into expansive classic-rock noodling and math-rock arrangements.The classic-rock leanings were most evident on the handful of new songs that opened the band’s set. Serious and stoic, Cohen and Midgett aren’t hell-raisers onstage. They executed their songs in a precise, thoughtful way, with the rhythm section so subtly holding down the back end that you sometimes forgot they were there. After the batch of promising new songs, the band played selections from its two records to date, 2007’s Hammer Of The Gods and 2008’s Congress EP, starting with the catchy “Dogtag,” which features a trademark driving chorus from Cohen. As with the Hendricks set, the sound at the club wasn’t as crisp as it could’ve been. Cohen has a great, flat Midwestern baritone that was lost in the mix. Despite that, it was a compelling, albeit brief show. There were a number of enthusiastic fans jumping around up front, but most people stood quietly listening, maybe seeing Bottomless Pit for the first time and not knowing the back story or maybe thinking about Silkworm and feeling that collective loss.

Bottomless Pit doesn’t play Silkworm songs. No one at any of the band’s shows I’ve seen has ever yelled for a Silkworm song. I think everyone just understands. They know you shouldn’t look back. While Midgett and Cohen have always appeared quite serious when playing, Dahlquist was the ham of Silkworm, almost always performing shirtless, talking to the crowd from behind the kit he played so thunderously, drenched in sweat and glee. That’s missing now. And that’s the heaviness and seriousness you feel at Bottomless Pit shows and on the band’s records. It’s an unsecret loss. When Midgett sang, “Silver moon/Hanging up in the sky/The same moon that you see/From the other side,” on the elegiac, set-closing “Red Pen,” you could feel a tangible weight because you knew exactly what he was talking about.

That was it. A few words of thanks. No encore. No frills. On the way out, I thanked Midgett for playing. While many of us wish Bottomless Pit didn’t ever form, we’re still very glad the band did.

—Doug Sell

“The Cardinal Movements” (download):

Live Review: The Vaselines, San Francisco, CA, May 11, 2009

vaselines410It must have been a shock for patrons entering the cavernous (700 capacity) Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco’s North Beach to find the place nearly packed. How could so many people possibly remember obscure Glasgow band the Vaselines, who broke up in 1990 after releasing one album and a couple of EPs? Surely, there can’t be that many Kurt Cobain devotees still around who recall (or care) that Nirvana took them out on tour, cut a pair of their songs (“Molly’s Lips” and “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”)—and that Cobain named his daughter Frances Bean after one of the Vaselines’ vocalists, Frances McKee.

The Scottish outfit’s other singer, Eugene Kelly, looked somewhat baffled when he and McKee strode onstage, backed by guitar, bass and drums. “In the old days there were only about 10 people and nine of them were throwing things,” Kelly smirked. The club PA had just blared out something from the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP when the reformed Vaselines launched into “Son Of A Gun,” a perfect recreation of their somewhat twee, boy/girl vocal tandem with Velvet Underground-style buzzsaw guitar. It sounded as though they had never left. Anyone even slightly versed in Scottish rock history would have no trouble slotting the slim volume of grainy, indie-rock snapshots by the Vaselines into the big picture created by the Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Belle And Sebastian, the Delgados and Franz Ferdinand. Stephen Pastel produced the second Vaselines EP, and McKee and Kelly have played a few reunion shows with members of Belle And Sebastian.

“You’re probably wondering why it’s been so long since our album came out,” said an earnest McKee, giggling nervously. “Well, we’re finally getting around to touring for the album.”

“Actually, Frances has spent a lot of time in jail, writing depressing songs,” joked Kelly.

The new material, sprinkled in among their early stuff, is moodier, slower and quieter. After taking flak from McKee for his ever-present guitar-tuning problems, Kelly responded with, “Yeah, I’m the straight man, and you’re the funny girl.” Kelly drew a slight gasp from the unwary when he announced, “This song’s about the Lord God, Jesus Christ,” then paused a full 10 seconds before adding, “and how I don’t believe in him.” If there were any lingering doubts, “Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” and “Teenage Superstar” answered all questions about the Vaselines’ lapsed state of conventional spiritual awareness.

“You’ve made an old couple very happy,” said Kelly at the conclusion of the one-hour show, the band’s first-ever in San Francisco. “We’re just like Donnie & Marie,” he said, pointing a thumb at McKee. “She’s a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” Rather than the pre-fab Mormon duo, it was more like the return of the barb- and wisecrack-filled glory days of Sonny & Cher, with enough mutual roasting to feed San Francisco’s homeless population for at least a week. The solid set of rock ‘n’ roll was pure dessert.

—Jud Cost

“Son Of A Gun” (download):

Live Review: Franz Ferdinand, Philadelphia, PA, May 6, 2009

franz-ferdinandliveFranz Ferdinand lead crooner and guitarist Alex Kapranos told Rolling Stone last year he wanted to capture “that naive energy you have as a kid when you hear music and you can’t control your body’s reaction to it, you can’t help flinging yourself around the room and bouncing up and down.” The youthful throng that gathered at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, powered by Red Bull and Franz, certainly exhibited that hormonal, jumping-on-the-furniture behavior.

Prior to the show, I contemplated hitting up a Starbucks, but the Scottish art-rock quartet’s performance was way better than downing a quad espresso. Armed with my photo pass, I slipped into the lane that divided the armpit-to-ear crowd and the stage. The only other photographer in the alley was wielding two professional cameras the size of AK-47s. When my screen blinked “Memory Full” after 25 shots, I turned around and saw the dude behind me staring at my handheld $49 Olympus. I shrugged.

Hot Topic drones with braces and Amy Winehouse eyeliner leaned over the barrier, probably inflicting some kidney damage as they tried to get as close as possible to the stage. Yes, I am a yard away from Alex Kapranos and his skinny jeans and you are not. The band’s set was comprehensive and dance-provoking, comprising “Take Me Out” as well as tunes off the more recent Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. Kapranos’ cascading, theatrical vocals punctuated vigorous synthesizers and drum machines as the group shimmied around onstage, at one point causing sensory overload when all four members started wailing on Paul Thomson’s drum set and the strobe lights went berserk. Franz Ferdinand was really big on audience participation. Kapranos directed his microphone to the crowd after just about every “La la la la” and “Ohhhh.” I kind of felt like I’d flown my ’88 DeLorean back in time to a Naughty By Nature concert. At the end of the night, I definitely took away some of that crazy naive energy Kapranos described, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t come in a Venti.

—Maureen Coulter

“What She Came For” (live) (download):

Live Review: Dengue Fever, San Francisco, CA, May 5, 2009

dengue-fever400Dengue Fever wowed a crowd of 1,400 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre on Tuesday night with its sublime original soundtrack for Harry O. Hoyt’s 1925 silent-film classic The Lost World. The six-piece, L.A.-based combo, which specializes in the exotic sounds of ’60s psychedelic-era Cambodian pop/rock (as heartwrenchingly chirped in her native Khmer dialect by vocalist Chhom Simol), accompanied the film as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

It was an offer too good to turn down, said sweat-drenched guitarist Zac Holtzman, giddy with triumph after the live performance. “He and I convinced our bandmates to go for it,” said Holtzman, pointing at Dengue bassist Senon Williams. “The rest of them were saying, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta record our next album.'”

“It took about a month, getting all the cues just right, but once we loosened up a little, it all fell into place,” added Williams of the band’s striking, one-off performance.

Viewed as a forerunner to 1933’s King Kong, The Lost World is based on a story by Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and features amazing, early clay-animation special effects of dinosaurs encountered in the Amazon jungle. Dengue Fever re-created a ’20s Duke Ellington vibe for the opening scenes, set in London. Once the exploration party—Bessie Love as Paula, Lloyd Hughes as Malone and Wallace Beery as Prof. Challenger—reached the Amazon, the band’s trademark exotica was a perfect fit. Like all successful soundtrack music, Dengue Fever—which also features keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, saxophonist David Ralicke and drummer Paul Smith—always complemented the film, never calling attention to itself. At times, you even forgot it was there.

—Jud Cost

“Sober Driver” from 2008’s Venus On Earth (download):

Live Review: Spoon, White Rabbits, Lancaster, PA, April 26, 2009

spoonlive550bMaybe it was the pastoral setting and the subtle effects of methane on the brain, or perhaps it was resentment stirred by the anal security guards and the “No Moshing or Crowd Surfing” sign posted in the entrance, but the crew that gathered to watch Spoon and White Rabbit perform at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster was as kooky as a reality-show judges’ panel. All five hipsters from Lancaster were there, mingling with frat kids from nearby Franklin & Marshall College and quite a few older—I mean some of them were pushing 60—fans.

Opening band White Rabbits are similar to Spoon but with double percussion and better bone structure. The Brooklyn-based sextet (whose upcoming album, It’s Frightening, was produced by Spoon frontman Britt Daniel) flaunted their versatility by trading off instruments mid-song, and their calculus-exam faces matched their keyboard-pounding, drum-smacking intensity.

The pungent head-shop odor I smelled when I first walked in quickly gave way to a mixture of sweat and beer once Spoon took the stage. Right in front of Daniel was a huddle of Lilliputians that I gravitated toward for safety and comfort. (I’m 4’1”.) Anyone over 5’6″ who attempted to block our view was harshly expelled by a spiky-haired hispanic chick who seemed to be the head facilitator of the midget brigade. During “Rhthm & Soul,” a pair of Paul Bunyans muscled to the front, their belt loops roughly level with my line of vision.

Spiky-haired chick: “Where do you think you’re going, Kobe Bryant? Get out of here! You’re like 6’10″—you can see from the bar!”

A veteran rock group like Spoon has a predictably well-honed act and a loyal following who’ll always emerge from a show saying, “Dude, that was freakin’ awesome!” While certainly entertaining, during both the Chameleon Club concert and their 2008 show in Philadelphia, the band doesn’t perform its best songs live. You can’t even attribute this phenomenon to obligatory “new stuff” bands play to promote a recent album, because Ga Ga (etc.) came out two years ago. Spoon sent up the crowd-pleasing “The Underdog,” which I think I heard in every movie trailer I saw last year. But where is “Chicago At Night” or “Telamon Bridge”? The set list played it safe tonight.

—Maureen Coulter

Spoon’s “30 Gallon Tank (Live)” (download):

White Rabbits’ “The Plot” (download):

Live Review: The Faint, Ladytron, Philadelphia, PA, April 13, 2009

ladytron360bBefore Ladytron (pictured) came onstage at the Trocadero in Philadelphia on Monday night, I mauled a random kid for a handful of glowsticks, claiming they carry special powers that give me confidence in my dancing ability. A few minutes later, I spotted Jared. Jared had bracelets up to his elbows, a tight, sleeveless turquoise shirt, eyeliner and lip liner and stars tattooed on his face. I immediately ran up to him and handed him my glowsticks.

“Hey, you look like you could use these,” I insisted.

My motive was somewhat selfish, because I was hoping he’d bust out in some crazy figure-eight light show when Ladytron started playing. No such luck. However, the rest of the crowd was eager to get their dance on the minute they stepped in the door. They probably didn’t even need the Faint or Ladytron, judging from the pockets of sweaty bodies bumbling around between sets.

Ladytron, an electro-rock quartet from Europe, upped the ante. Possessing the same intense, androgynous sex appeal as Karen O and Annie Lennox, frontwomen Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo juxtaposed their fluttering vocals with thumping dance beats as they keyed away on antediluvian synths. While the Faint took what seemed like an inordinate amount of time setting up, the energy buildup among the masses was almost tangible. I chewed impatiently on my glowstick. When Todd Fink and the gang finally appeared, it was sweet sensory overload. Video clips of crowds and faces that flashed in the background, billowing smoke, flickering strobe lights and the gangly dancing of the keyboardist made me grateful that I wasn’t: a) on ecstasy, or b) suffering from a latent neurological disorder. Their heavy drum and bass collided with blippy keyboard melodies that inspired my body to flail in an uncoordinated fashion, unable to decide whether to mosh or rave. The Faint played about half the songs from underachieving 2008 album Fasciination but made up for it in the encore with three classics, including “I Disappear.” Plus, you know, I got glowsticks.

—Maureen Coulter

Ladytron’s “Black Cat” (download):

The Faint’s “The Geeks Were Right (Does It Offend You, Yeah? Remix)” (download):

Live Review: Death Cab For Cutie, Philadelphia, PA, April 7, 2009

deathcab370Ben Gibbard is a stud now. The famously bookish Death Cab For Cutie frontman known for crooning heartfelt indie-pop lyrics jumped around onstage Tuesday night at the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, swiveling his hips seductively in time with his guitar. These are moves he clearly honed since the last time I saw the group four years ago. Death Cab played a healthy mix of old and new: tracks off The Open Door EP (due April 14 on Barsuk) alongside mellow, acoustic palate-cleansers such as “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” and classics like 1998’s “President Of What?”

However, Gibbard and the gang could have taken the night off and left the rest to a guy sitting next to me named Steve. Steve’s air guitar, air drums and air bass rivaled the band itself. He screamed requests during every brief interlude. His font of knowledge about each track was impressive. With sweaty enthusiasm, Steve detailed to those around him the backstory of every third song: “This one is about those fires in California. So sad!” Also, his Death Cab lyrical proficiency was in the 99th percentile.

Ben Gibbard: “Oh crap, I forgot the second verse of ‘Title And Registration.’ Where is Steve?!”

Back onstage, the smoke machines fused with Gibbard’s nostalgia-steeped vocals to carry us all back to freshman year of high school. Murky high-beam lights and trippy strobes united with guitar crescendos and rolling drums. You almost had to close your eyes in order to take it all in (and block out Steve’s flailing).

—Maureen Coulter

“Title And Registration” (download): 

Live Review: East Hundred, Philadelphia, PA, March 27, 2009

east-hundred-7450Three months ago, my editor introduced me to East Hundred’s first full-length, the charismatic breakup soundtrack Passenger, and since then I’ve looped it on repeat every time I’m in the office. At this point, he probably wants to lock me in the mailroom. [Actually, that’s because I want you to do the mail. —ed.] One of the better emerging Philly bands (read MAGNET’s recent profile of the group), East Hundred doesn’t quite square with a local indie-rock taxonomy that includes Dr. Dog, Man Man and the War On Drugs. The quintet branches off with its own brand of catchy, keyboard-laced alternative pop/rock. On Friday night, they played a gig with Seattle products Say Hi and Telekinesis at Philly hipster HQ Johnny Brenda’s.

Unfortunately, even the venue’s superior acoustics couldn’t save East Hundred when a guitar amp went kaput in the middle of the set. After a few minutes of confusion (the audience promptly used the unexpected intermission to grab beers and check iPhones), the group managed to punch out a few more songs before time ran out. What I saw, however, in East Hundred’s salvaged performance stirred my latent childhood dream of singing in a band; it’s similar to how I felt about Gwen Stefani in the late ’90s, before she tried to rap. Diminutive vocalist Beril Guceri exuded an outsized stage presence punctuated by her sweet, wistful vocals.

“It gets very hot up there when something like that happens,” said Guceri after the show, referring to the STD (Supreme Technical Difficulty). Considering the singer’s history of stage fright, she and her bandmates kept their cool as they ironed out the glitch.

—Maureen Coulter

“Slow Burning Crimes” (download):

Live Review: Lambchop, Columbus, OH, Jan. 25, 2009


“I’m havin’ such a good time,” said Kurt Wagner, shortly into Lambchop’s 90-minute set at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center For The Arts, “I don’t wanna fuck it up.”

Wagner made the sheepish crack as much to break the silence as anything, since the initial atmosphere inside the Wexner’s black-box performance space was all about the gravity of High Art. The Center’s current exhibit was a collection of seminal Andy Warhol films and audio recordings, and the film theater was running a lauded documentary on venerable sculptor Louise Bourgeois through the weekend. So by the time Lambchop’s audience of fewer than 100 people made its way through the maze of hallways into the black box, we’d been shushed into the quiet respect that comes with wandering through spaces where you have to check your coats, cameras and pens at the door.

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