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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Live Review: Wilco, Wilmington, DE, Aug. 10, 2008

“We’ve now played 48 out of 50 states,” Jeff Tweedy proudly announced to the sold-out crowd at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. “We’ll hit 49 next week,” he continued, alluding to Wilco’s headlining slot at the Jackson Hole Festival in Wyoming. Earlier this year, Tweedy and Co. announced plans to perform in cities and states otherwise ignored over the course of Wilco’s 14-year career. In addition to wowing newer fans at mega-fests such as Lollapalooza or Baltimore’s Virgin Mobile Festival, Wilco’s summer tour took it to the geographic edges of its U.S. fanbase, with dates in Montana, New Mexico, Alaska and North Dakota. The band’s performance in the historic Delaware auditorium spanned their celebrated nine-album catalog (save a curious absence of anything from 1999’s Summerteeth).

Continue reading “Live Review: Wilco, Wilmington, DE, Aug. 10, 2008”

Live Review: Beach House/Cass McCombs, Philadelphia, PA, Aug. 9, 2008

Early in the night, Johnny Brenda’s was full of loyal West Philadelphia fans in support of local singer/songwriter Annie Sachs (a.k.a. Tickley Feather). Sachs was joined onstage by a keyboardist and another band member manning the synths and pedals on the floor, and she opened by addressing the crowd: “These are my male models … they’re expensive.” Sachs spoke sweetly throughout her performance, thanking friends and fans for joining her for the night. The heartwarming display epitomized Tickley Feather’s captivating presence and music. Under dim lighting, the smoke machines wafted vapor trails through Sachs’ long hair to fit the eerie, minimalist vocals that are layered throughout her songs. At one point, she held up a small stuffed bird and squeezed it into the microphone, harmonizing with the toy’s tweets. Her mesmerizing set put the audience in a trance that was broken only by the gentle beats of a drum machine.

Continue reading “Live Review: Beach House/Cass McCombs, Philadelphia, PA, Aug. 9, 2008”