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.