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

Live Review: Gorillaz, Oakland, CA, Oct. 30, 2010

The virtual band created by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett has burgeoned into a real-life phenomenon, with a 12-year string of Billboard hits, sold-out arenas and critical acclaim. At the drafty Oracle Arena in Oakland, the cartoon characters seen in the narrative music videos took to the flesh as a star-studded collective to wreak havoc on our senses and make love to our ears.

Although the venue is typically used for Warriors games, motor cross and Roger Waters concerts and was not conducive to schmoozing or dancing like some of the more intimate San Francisco venues nearby, those who chose to stand up and flail around could do so without feeling self-conscious, as seats were strategically placed to direct everyone’s attention to the stage.

Gorillaz unleashed a fire hose of visual stimulation with a carousel of vocalists, players and instrumentalists (including an Arab-American unit performing the intro to “White Flag”), gliding on and off stage while music videos and intervals of cartoon dialogue pulsed on the massive screen overhead. They ran with the Halloween theme, with grinning jack-o’-lanterns placed around the stage and band members wearing perspiration-smeared zombie makeup and sporting Inglorious Basterds army-sergeant uniforms and goblin masks.

They offered up a perfect mix of old and new songs off their various albums and EPs, with uptempo dance numbers like “DARE” and the emotional “Cloud Of Unknowing,” featuring Bobby Womack (during which they showed graphic clips of war planes crashing). The set list delighted even the most casual fan (a.k.a. parents chaperoning their 12-year-olds—“Hey, it’s the iPod song!”)

As disgruntled as fans may have been about the wallet gashing they endured on the $100 tickets, $30 parking fee and $8 watery beer, the constant barrage of animation, Yukimi Nagano’s tinkling voice, masked brass players, vigorous rapping and Albarn’s lithe vocals and attempted political banter made the outside melt away, if only for 90 minutes.

—text and photo by Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Of Montreal, Janelle Monáe, San Francisco, CA, Oct. 29, 2010

The members of Of Montreal were not the only ones bedecked in wigs, drag and glitter tonight. On the eve of Halloween, the fans rivaled the headliners in costume-contest categories such as most creative, best Janelle Monáe impersonation and best “I’m supposed to be a nurse/fairy/policewoman, even though I’m wearing a four-inch skirt.”

There was an ocean of sweaty, painted bodies milling around the gilded halls of the former vaudeville theater, along with a high frequency of glow sticks and hand-holding, the latter probably because guys don’t want to admit they like Of Montreal and so get their girlfriends to bring them.

Janelle Monáe opened with an ear-tingling, hip-swiveling act that was part James Brown, part Gnarls Barkley and part Whitney Houston. She hushed the room with her epic pipes on ballad “Smile,” and a scrum of actors lumbered around onstage in hooded cloaks for “Dance Or Die.” Of Montreal’s flamboyant frontman Kevin Barnes joined Monáe for a guest appearance before segueing into the main act.

Barnes and Co. crafted a performance best described as Alice In Wonderland—the Penthouse centerfold version–on acid. The lead singer pranced around in a purple leotard, frilly apron, headscarf and billowing tunic probably stolen from a noble at the Renaissance Faire, kicking aside most of his clothes halfway through the show. Players in head-to-toe, skin-colored body suits wearing skeleton and swine masks writhed among the unfazed band members.

While a portion of Of Montreal’s set included classics such as “The Party’s Crashing Us” and “Suffer For Fashion,” the band mostly featured songs off latest album False Priest, a Prince-like, collaborative body of work that lends itself to funk devolution. During each psychedelic, guitar-scratching “Let’s Get It On” montage, Barnes would perform antics that made the audience’s collective jaw drop. He grinded with a pig/human female in a way that would make Lil Wayne blush. Another time Barnes mimed fellatio and squealed, “You just made my mouth pregnant! What will my dentist say?”

The encore was a Michael Jackson tribute, featuring “Thriller” and “PYT.” During that time, several fans clambered onstage and began an impromptu dance party with the band, although the guitarist had to shove off a couple stumbling lushes.

Even without the added excitement of the crowd being able to prematurely show off their clever/slutty Halloween attire, Of Montreal has upped the ante yet again with its crew of players and ever-evolving Pan’s Labyrinth-ian props. However, next time it may be better if the band scaled back the theatrics and focused a bit more on what it does best: play music.

—text and photo by Maureen Coulter

Live Review: Greg Dulli, Craig Wedren, Baltimore, MD, Oct. 23, 2010

“This is the first time I’ve been hot on this whole tour,” said a gleeful Greg Dulli near the end of a rousing set on Saturday night at Baltimore’s Ottobar. If you’ve seen Dulli live with any of his past or current outfits (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), this might be a surprising thing to hear. But this 14-date U.S. tour, billed as An Evening With Greg Dulli, featured Dulli in a stripped-down, mostly acoustic setting. Backed by a violinist/cellist (Rick Nelson) and an acoustic/electric guitarist and backup singer (longtime Dulli bandmate Dave Rosser) for the entire tour, the group also added a drummer (Greg Wieczorec) over the last few dates. In this arrangement, Dulli’s normally howling songs were stripped to the bruised bone; their core of torment and dark urges laid bare. Despite the unplugged delivery, the show had a magical, sweaty fire that made it feel like a searing rock performance fitting of Dulli’s usual incarnations.

The crowd (well, me at least) had leaned hard into their Saturday night by the time Dulli and his band took the stage after 11 p.m. With the Ottobar’s website stating the show would start right at 9 p.m, the place was packed early. But Craig Wedren, former lead singer for Shudder To Think, didn’t take the stage until more than an hour after that, giving people plenty of time to throwback Baltimore’s iconic National Bohemian beer. It was worth the wait, though, as Wedren serenaded the crowd with his beautiful, fluttery voice. Standing alone in front of two microphones, he often looped vocal, guitar and simple beat parts to flesh out his odd-but-gorgeous songs. Highlights included Shudder To Think tunes “Red House” and “Hit Liquor” and a song he recorded for the HBO show Hung.

Dulli’s set started with him sitting at the keyboard, pounding out “The Killer” from the Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle. From the beginning, this show was on a whole different level from the performance earlier in the week in Philadelphia. The band was visibly amped up and played harder and louder. The room rocked in response. Dulli whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Again” early on in the set and really never let up. The set list covered nearly every record in Dulli’s catalog, with the acoustic setting being the perfect chance for Dulli to dust off gems like Congregation’s harrowing “Let Me Lie To You,” “Step Into The Light” from Black Love, the overlooked “The Lure Would Prove Too Much” from the Twilight Singers’ A Stitch In Time EP and piano-driven Gentelmen classic “What Jail Is Like,” which led off the band’s first encore. Dulli also pulled from his Gutter Twins project and shared a number of songs from the next Twilight Singers record, which is due via Sub Pop in 2011.

Dulli mostly strummed an acoustic guitar, only taking to the keyboard on a few songs. He drank bottled water. No ceaseless smoking. No alcohol. He’s now entrenched in his mid-40s and while he still wants the crowd “to make party,” he himself has seemed to reign in the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But this more sober stage act has not muted any of his showmanship power. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to craft a set list where songs build on each other, each one topping the next. A signature Dulli move is inserting a line or two from other songs into his own. Examples tonight included a nicked verse from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” at the end of “Teenage Wristband,” Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” appearing in “66” and even a teaser of his own “Milez is Ded” popping up at one point, which sent the crowd soaring.

No surprise, then, that after the band’s encore (which included the Twilight Singers’ “Candy Cane Crawl” and a blistering cover of Jose Gonzalez’s “Down The Line”), the crowd didn’t even look toward the exits. They continued to clap and howl until the band came back out and did a breathless rendition of Björk’s “Hyperballad,” with everyone in the room singing along. Glazed with sweat, Dulli and the band retired for good despite protests for a third curtain call, the U.S. leg of this tour closed out with a truly great evening.

—text and photo by Doug Sell