Live Review: The Pogues, Chicago, IL, March 3, 2011

The fact that the classic lineup of the Pogues performed at the Congress Theater in Chicago on Thursday night mattered more to some folks than it did to others. Winding up their “final” tour, dubbed “A Parting Glass With The Pogues,” the whiskey-soaked soldiers of fortune played like their lives depended on it, one more time.

A shambling-but-upright Shane MacGowan, reunited with his original bandmates, gave life to the songs that have served them now for decades—not new life, but affirmation of a life chosen and a life led. Alcohol is one major subtext here, as MacGowan’s lifelong commitment to drinking (and drugs) has ravaged him to an extreme. Moreover, the band’s Irish-traditional aesthetic has led all of its members down roads of similar excess, both individually and collectively, and not without great cost.

So, what else can one do but raise a glass and salute these unrepentant alcoholics and empathize with their decision to play music together a little while longer. The Pogues started out slow and gained strength and spirit as the night progressed, and the musicianship and determination powered them through amazing songs like “Lullaby Of London,” “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “Bottle Of Smoke.”

The mosh pit in front was fairly mild, but there was still plenty of crowd-surfing and body-slamming. The band’s punk-rock two-step—generated by James Fearnley’s churning accordion along with the veteran picking and strumming of Philip Chevron, Jon Finer and Terry Woods—walked the line between focus and frenzy as MacGowan provided iconic shrieks on “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” and moving vocals on slower, emotional tunes like “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” and “Dirty Old Town.”

Before closing the show with even more classic drinking songs like “Poor Paddy” and a rousing “Fiesta,” whistle player Spider Stacy acknowledged that hitting his head with a beer tray in time to the music was now against doctor’s orders. It was a strangely bittersweet moment, emphasizing that the Pouges’ “farewell” tour might actually be their last, only because some of these guys might really be on their last legs.

But for the night, the brave men onstage were kicking against the pricks in true punk/troubadour fashion. Or, as someone else standing at the bar once said, “Pogue Mahone!”

—Mitch Myers

Live Review: The Get Up Kids, San Francisco, CA, Jan. 29, 2011

When I heard the Get Up Kids were doing a show at Slim’s in San Francisco, my thoughts drifted back to sophomore year of high school, riding four strong in my friend’s ’91 Taurus that had duct tape holding together the left side-view mirror, game-planning how we were going to smuggle in our house drink (read: water bottle with a mix of five kinds of booze from parents’ liquor cabinet) into the school dance.

The five-member indie-rock group from Kansas City, Mo., boasts an impressive body of work spanning a decade and a half that includes five studio albums, a live record and various EPs, influencing bands like Blink-182 and the Promise Ring that were a staple of many a high-school experience.

Indeed, the atmosphere at Slim’s on this night had the feel of a reunion. Not the “I just Botoxed half my face, cashed in a significant portion of my 401(k) to buy this Rolex and am currently on the fifth day of a wheatgrass-and-lemon-juice detox diet” feel. But the age of the audience hovered around 30, and several friends and family of the band were mingling amongst the crowd, including guitarist Jim Suptic’s art-school roommate. There was even a party in the ladies room: As we idled in wait for a stall to open up, several girls and I tossed around ideas on how to solve the female bathroom crisis experienced in concerts and entertainment venues across the nation. We concluded that female urinals were the answer.

The Get Up Kids disbanded in 2005, much to fans’ dismay, citing creative differences. They reunited two years ago to churn out a mature, beat-heavy, full-length new album, There Are Rules (Quality Hill), which came out last week. Their set featured many new numbers like “Paraelevant” with bass that rattled your rib cage, wafting into the range of psychedelic rock. This was a departure from the familiar basement emo/punk that defined Get Up Kids 1.0.

Classics such as “Beer For Breakfast” and “Overdue” provoked a lot of arm waving and finger-jabbing toward the stage and stirred a rapidly expanding mosh pit. The pack swarming the stage could have sang Matt Pryor’s lines for him. You could tell it was a homogenous audience of true fans, not just old heads looking for live music on a Saturday night or teenagers who found their older brother’s CDs last week.

So what is different this time, during their reunion tour? “When we broke up, we were in a dark place,” said Pryor after the show. “We’d been touring for 10 years straight, and we didn’t like each other anymore. Now, we make sure we take enough time off so when we come back together to play, it’s fun. Tonight was fun.”

Now that I think about it, I forgot I had holed up in my bedroom listening to “The Most Depressing Song” on repeat for a week after mom and pops took the car keys away due to my youthful indiscretion. (I guess parents notice when you water down their Sambuca.) While we can still reminisce through horn-rimmed, rose-colored glasses, it’s better that we are all adults now.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Gogol Bordello, Philadelphia, PA, Dec. 29, 2010

Fans stomping around in combat boots and military gear too stylish to ever be permitted at an Army base crammed into the Electric Factory like a throng of frantic shoppers in front of a Walmart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. Only instead of re-reading their gift list for the 47th time and devising the best tactics for nabbing that half-price 59-inch flat screen, Gogol Bordello devotees were desperate to elbow enough room for themselves so they could flail in the drunken-pirate manner appropriate for this band’s act. While such a claustrophobic environment would significantly detract from most other artists’ performances, the infectious enthusiasm spewing from Eugene Hutz and family swallowed up the audience and didn’t allow room for crying over spilled beer. More on that later.

The nine-piece, NYC-based gypsy-punk band, fittingly conceived at a Russian wedding in 1998, is taking its caravan on a cross-country tour to promote latest album Trans-Continental Hustle. Onstage, every member displayed their musical dexterity, often switching instruments mid-song, then discarding them to spring across the platform in a bouncy march. Their furious, sometimes chaotic melodies mix swift accordion, arm-jerking violin, punk guitar, throbbing percussion and dub with Hutz’s unapologetically over-the-top, Boris Badenov, Eastern-bloc vocals.

Songs like “My Companjera” and “Raise The Knowledge” transformed the Electric Factory into a dock at a foreign port, where everyone is surrounded by cargo boxes filled with spices and perfume from the Orient and people are stumbling around slapping each other on the backs and sloshing stoneware beer steins.

Having fans using beer mugs with lids would have greatly benefited me. Three-fourths of the way through the show, as I managed to ignore the chick behind me who thought she was Hutz and screeched the words to every song so we’d know she was a true fan, I was in my dancing groove and suddenly received a Southern California-style drenching of watered-down Bud Light. I turned around to fixate my death stare on the offender, grabbed a handkerchief from a kind soul nearby to wring the mess out of my hair and debated the awkwardness of resuming dancing in my previous carefree manner after I’d just let loose a torrent of dramatic, angry verbiage. Luckily, the bassist moseyed over to our side of the stage and began urging us to clap and chant, and I soon forgot about the alcoholic transgression (at least until I had to pick apart sticky hair strands in my rearview mirror 30 minutes later).

Watching a Gogol Bordello show is like watching a five-year-old make cupcakes. Their faces light up with each stroke, they want you to help them in the process of creation, they’re dying to share the finished product with you, and they watch you giddily to make sure you are enjoying every morsel. Every single band member looked like they were having the time of their life onstage, and during the entire 60-minute set, I could taste the passion in every bite.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Pretty Lights, Oakland, CA, Nov. 24, 2010

At the ritzy Fox Theater in downtown Oakland, Calif., the glow-stick-festooned crowd was on a collision course with a Mack truck of pot smoke, rib-cracking bass and, yes, pretty lights. On the eve of Thanksgiving, a day of wholesome family gatherings and pilgrim-hat centerpieces, the ravers were out in full force, replete with tiny backpacks, glitter, leather vests, a plethora of phosphorescent jewelry and plenty of E. They came to see Pretty Lights, a.k.a. Derek Vincent Smith, the product of a thriving DJ music scene in Denver, Colo.

Rhythmically bouncing behind his table of laptops and sound boards in a white hoodie, flat-rimmed baseball cap and aviator sunglasses, Smith was the DJ who is too engrossed in his beats to notice the 67 women in the audience throwing themselves at him. That focus has brought him from college-dropout record-scratcher to Red Rocks headliner and music-festival draw. He emerged from the lush electronic-music environment of the Mile High City, and the influence of DJ Shadow and RJD2 can be heard in Pretty Lights’ deft blend of vintage soul crooning over spacey bell chimes and glitchy hip-hop beats.

Modern music is becoming both more fractured and universal, due to the internet and iTunes and MySpace. We’ve heard it all before, so we are more particular about what we waste our ear quota on. Artists like Pretty Lights have risen to the occasion, cherry picking the best of what’s available, then chopping and sorting and mixing to craft something completely fresh and pneumatic. It’s not unlike pop artists of the prior century—Andy Warhol with his soup cans or Roy Lichtenstein with his Ben-Day dots—wielding them as sharp statements on culture and art as we know it. In Oakland, Pretty Lights wielded his beats like a carving knife, serving up a slightly pink and tasty concert experience.

The venue itself was classy and well designed, with strategically placed bars, a multi-tiered dance area and a lofty ceiling with walls adorned like an art museum’s cultures-of-the-world wing. It has an old-theater feel without the elbows in your face.

Pretty Lights lived up to its name. The light show in tandem with tracks like “Gold Coast Hustle” and “Hot Like Dimes” was like taking grandma’s warm apple pie and plopping a scoop of homemade ice cream on top. It didn’t just enhance it; it shot it into another dimension. Strobe lights, multi-colored lights, psychedelic swirling lights, clouds, fire and bubbles all pulsed with the blippy synthetic loops and drum cadence.

The set went on for more than two hours, but no one slowed down. Girls in furry animal hats were still grinding against the banisters, sweating out Four Loko as Pretty Lights wrapped up and sent them off to face their families the next day. Concert-goers can take comfort in the fact that Light therapy helps with depression.

—Maureen Coulter

Live Review: The Apples In Stereo, The Orange Peels, San Jose, CA, Oct. 31, 2010

If somebody had figured out the calendar right in the beginning, we would now be about a month into what should be known as “The Embers,” the four-month stretch that ends the year. September, October, November and December have the best family holidays and some of the nicest weather—not to mention the World Series, college and pro football and the annual rebirth of hockey and basketball. Like the dying embers of an autumn campfire, this is the finest part of the year. Maybe renaming this month “Octember” would seal the deal.

This October, in San Francisco, brings a rare opportunity to reflect on the MAGNET years: roughly, the last two decades’ worth of indie rockers who found a pulpit in the never-less-than-honest magazine founded by Eric T. Miller, still in college, and a few cronies back in 1993. Acts championed by MAGNET set to play the Bay Area this month include the Flaming Lips, the Clean, Guided By Voices, Hoodoo Gurus, Teenage Fanclub and the Apples In Stereo. MAGNET’s grizzled West Coast veteran Jud Cost will be there for all six shows, pencil tucked into the brim of his rumpled fedora with all-access laminates dangling from his neck, ready to fire off reports from the trenches.

Night Five: The Apples In Stereo

The wait for the Apples In Stereo to appear onstage at San Jose’s Blank Club seems interminable. It’s Halloween, so at least there are plenty of people in costume to gawk at. But by the time you’ve seen the guy with “Evil X” spelled out in electrician’s tape on the back of his T-shirt (with half the “V” drooping downwards) or the girl in the NASCAR racing gear lugging a steering wheel or someone wrapped up in the American flag or the guy in the Mr. Rogers-style red-and-yellow-felt superhero’s outfit walk by for the 25th time, it feels like you’re part of a living tape loop that will never end.

Then they switch off the barely watchable lo-fi big-screen TV that appears to be showing the top of the ninth inning of game five of the San Francisco Giants/Texas Rangers World Series. In its place is a video of Apples frontman/songwriting genius Robert Schneider in oversized sunglasses and spaceman gear, walking through a cave on a permanent loop. After 20 minutes, the video takes on the aura of a trapped Chilean miner endlessly wandering around his underground prison.

What Schneider described as “a short film” had looked captivating earlier that afternoon on his laptop, the same piece of hardware that had survived bouncing off a highway sometime during the Apples’ 2010 tour. Schneider had played the video piece on my dining room table while the BBQ chicken and portobello-mushroom caps were still being grilled for the nine-person Apples entourage. As he stepped outdoors to chow down, Schneider gasped, “What a perfect California backyard. I can see myself coming out here in the morning to write songs.”

It’s only right that the Apples and Oranges are on the same bill. The Orange Peels from Sunnyvale, Calif., cheekily described as “the Vale of Sun” by vocalist Allen Clapp, open the show with a tasty blend of pop originals, many of which, oddly enough, reference foul weather. “I don’t mind the rain,” trills Clapp in one of his songs, backed by versatile guitarist John Moremen, bassist Jill Pries and drummer Gabe Coan. With Moremen’s former connection to late master Bay Area songwriter Jimmy Silva, “Hand Of Glory” has been added to the Peels’ set. A few new songs from their recent album, 20/20 (Minty Fresh), have the same power-pop sheen as onetime Berserkeley Records legends, the Rubinoos. “Allen Clapp’s songs are so great,” Schneider says afterward. “I can hear them being recorded back in the ’70s by the Bay City Rollers.”

About 25 minutes after their scheduled 11:00 pm start, the Apples, now swollen to seven members and dressed in deep-space regalia, march onto the Blank Club’s tiny stage to greet Planet Earth. “We are space travellers from the future, returned to the past to play our music for you,” announces Schneider, summing up the theme of the Apples’ seventh full-length album, Travellers In Space And Time (Simian/Yep Roc). Schneider, whose costume also mimics a duster from a spaghetti-Western, once described the new sound as R&B emanating from a space ship.

In addition to their hyperactive singer/guitarist, flanked by longtime stalwarts John Hill on guitar and Eric Allen on bass, the band now consists of Bill Doss (formerly of the Olivia Tremor Control) on keyboards, onetime Deathray Davies member John Dufilho on drums, John Ferguson on keyboards and vocoder-rigged mic and Ben Phelan on guitar, keyboards and trumpet. After he spent a week at a math conference in San Jose last year, Schneider was determined to play the rebuilt steel-and-glass hub city of Silicon Valley on his next Apples In Stereo tour.

The current set is a fine, career-spanning mix of the new record along with a healthy dose of the band’s high-water mark to date, 2007 album New Magnetic Wonder, a disc so appealing that some of its hypnotic tunes (“Sun Is Out,” “Energy”) were used in national advertising campaigns. They also dig deep into the trunk for “Strawberryfire,” a psychedelic gem that so perfectly recreates the Beatles it could be a Sgt. Pepper outtake. With the extra personnel, Schneider can now recreate live more of what he hears in the studio, such as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass-like trumpet flourishes and a rocking cowbell ensemble right out of the Move’s “Do Ya.”

Schneider, who early in his career had a tendency to blow-up his voice early on a tour by over-singing, is now completely in control of his trademark instrument, with the ability to pump out those high-fructose, Sugar Pops-spiked vocal lines from start to finish. “We’re gonna play the next song backwards,” Schneider says before launching a Brian Wilson/John Lennon-style experimental float upstream to some outback village. Some of Schneider’s songs, “Dignified Dignitary” from Travellers, for example, are as lyrically deranged as the Mad Hatter—and as addictive as a double espresso.

“OK, here’s our second song,” Schneider slyly announces from behind a beard that would do S.F. Giants closer Brian Wilson proud. It’s now well more than an hour into a set that careens from an interstellar fly-by of the third moon of Pluto to a Power Puff Girls Saturday-morning cartoon fest in the blink of an eye. The meaty encore is dictated by a houseful of rabid Apples fans who dredge up requests for early numbers from classic albums Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution.

“See ya in the future,” salutes a sweat-drenched Schneider, whose evening’s work is far from done as he leaves the stage. True to his upbeat nature, Schneider begins to work the house like a political candidate, hugging anyone at least twice who comes up to congratulate him afterward. He’s the rare example of a man who has found not only what he wants to do, but exactly what he was born to do. The Apples In Stereo, using a bigger deck of cards wielded by sharper players everytime they pass through town, keep getting better and better.

And tonight is also a fitting cap for this six-show “Octember” stroll through the MAGNET years. Maybe you wouldn’t stay up so late at night, anxiously staring at that date circled on your calendar, if all class reunions were this much fun.

—Jud Cost