Live Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, IL, July 17, 2009

davidyow1Chicago’s favorite indie-music festival, held in Union Park in the city’s South Loop, made a limp start yesterday afternoon when local heroes Tortoise took the stage at a drizzly 5 p.m. In fairness to the band, the late afternoon was a cruel slot with the weather overcast and the crowd still tepid. The band was also conforming to the “Write The Night: Set Lists By Request” demands, which required them to faithfully revisit selections from such vintage albums as Millions Now Living Will Never Die.

In contrast to the slow-moving Tortoise, the Jesus Lizard followed, and singer David Yow (pictured) came out blazing: chugging Bud, spitting constantly and berating the audience. Yow said that everyone could get a refund for their ticket and come see the band in November at the Cabaret Metro before launching into the crowd for one of his legendary surfing sessions, which inspired countless imitations and gave security a nightmare. Yow’s behavior throughout the set was delightfully appalling, making Shane MacGowan of the Pogues look like a patsy, while the rest of the Lizard kept things tight and punchy and never dropped a beat.

Capping the evening, which also included some great guitar antics from Yo La Tengo on the Aluminum Stage, was Built To Spill, whose triple-guitar assault behind frontman Doug Martsch’s thin-yet-effecting voice sent a strong message through the cool night air. All in all, a solid, rousing beginning to the three-day affair.

—photo and text by Michael Jackson

Live Review: Blonde Redhead, San Francisco, CA, July 15, 2009

blonderedhead350iThe longer you watch Blonde Redhead onstage, the more you are irretrievably sucked into its universe. It’s impossible to take your eyes off singer/keyboardist Kazu Makino (originally from Japan) and Italy-born/Montreal-raised twin brothers Amedeo and Simone Pace on guitar/vocals and drums, respectively.

For a three-piece, with some pre-recorded bass and keyboard material, Blonde Redhead gets a noisy, room-filling sound that bears an occasional resemblance to Sonic Youth. Steve Shelley, SY’s drummer, produced the trio’s early work and released it on his Smells Like label. Over subsequent albums on Touch And Go and now 4AD, the band has achieved a dreamier sound. Both elements were in play tonight.

Even if you didn’t know that Blonde Redhead’s name came from a tune by no-wave combo DNA, its transplanted New York roots are undeniable. Although it’s been almost 30 years since the heyday of the second great wave of NYC art-rock bands that followed in the wake of Television, Talking Heads and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blonde Redhead somehow seems to be time-traveling contemporaries of the Bongos, the Feelies and the Bush Tetras.

It’s the spooky, impossibly high-pitched vocals of Makino that indelibly stamp Blonde Redhead as a bona fide original. She sings in a quavery, stratosphere-scraping range unheard since the glory days of Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield. Makino seems fully recovered now from the horseback-riding accident that broke her jaw sometime after the release of their 2000 album, Melody Of Certain Damaged Lemons, a harrowing spill that found her trampled by the horse. Whether she (or Amedeo, who sings about a third of Blonde Redhead’s material) performed any songs in Italian, French or Japanese tonight was difficult to tell. As with all great rock bands, it would make no difference if they were singing in a language that only a Star Trek fan would recognize. They are that good.

—Jud Cost

Live Review: Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band, Morgantown, WV, July 9, 2009

connoroberst550123 Pleasant Street is one of those dank college-rock clubs crouched just off the interstate in every university town. Its performance area is as deep and narrow as a fish tank, and the poor ventilation is not at all helped by standing, industrial-size fans. Two bars, one clean and well-lit, one dim and redolent of Parliament smoke, offer dollar Black Label specials, and the sight of the men’s room floor makes you despair of your pant cuffs. It was a venue perfectly suited to Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band’s current live show, an earnest attempt to channel both the Rolling Stones’ early-’70s grime and the Black Crowes’ sweaty gospel. In cold type that looks dismissive, but it’s not meant to be—and believe me, it’s a fair summation of how Oberst and the band are approaching their summer performances.

Opening acts Deep Sea Diver and AA Bondy, both of whom deserve wider audiences, kicked off the evening spot at 9 p.m. sharp. (We in the union-friendly Mountain State go all squishy for bands that respect the clock-in time.) DSD’s barn-burning set went for the solar plexus—no group with only four people should sound this heavy—and won the crowd over right out of the gate. Bondy, a guitar player and songwriter of raw and arresting talent, was much more reserved. But as the set rolled on, his high-verbal murder balladry had commanded most sets of ears in the place, except for the dink six inches in front of me who was texting her boyfriend every five minutes and wouldn’t have noticed if Bondy had been singing right to her. (Memo to dinks: Go do your incessant texting by the front door or in the bathroom, so the rest of us don’t have to broadcast your poor concert etiquette to the reading public. Also, we can all read what you’re writing, and be advised that a social inept like you doesn’t deserve an athletic lover like that.) And then came the headlining act.

As much as any American indie musician can, Conor Oberst grew up in public. He’s endured roughly a decade and a half of whiplashing opinion regarding his music, much of it from us tongue-waggers in the alternative-music press: It’s coy, it’s amateurish, it’s accomplished, it doesn’t rock, it rocks too much, it’s unfinished, it’s immaculate; he’s a boy genius, he’s an idiot savant, he’s down to earth, and who does this kid think he is anyway? On this tour, Oberst is precisely and exactly who he’s made himself through half a lifetime of watching high-energy rock shows: He’s a Young Lion. The guy screams, struts and dances, preens and cock-walks through damn near a two-hour set that brings to mind not only the Stones and the Black Crowes, but also Springsteen’s energy and Iggy Pop’s stark, staring stage presence. Before anyone cries hyperbole, let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the quality of the music, which is fine enough. I’m talking about the band’s onstage persona, which looks to be copped directly from sweeping arena-rock gestures and up-close punk styling. Outer South, the album the band is touring behind, is itself an anthology of styles, from garage rock to Gram Parsons country pop. It’s as if Oberst and Co. were so taken with the songs on that record (as well they might be; it’s a great disc and a great summer record to boot) that they feel they’ve got this one chance to pull off a live show that matches the jumble of genres therein.

This makes for an intense live show, and one that replicates the performances on the album faithfully; so faithfully, in fact, that for all the onstage flash and filigree, very little of it feels spontaneous. My companion, who’d caught Oberst twice previously, talked around it until she could articulate it: It’s odd that such a high-intensity performance in such an intimate space should feel so programmed. The live show is heavy on new material, which is itself heavy on stomping rockers; “Big Black Nothing” and “Nikorette,” among the new songs, provided the most engaging moments of the night. Oberst reaches back into the songbook for older material, but all of it sounds bigger, faster, harder than it ever did before. Even “Ten Women,” the most intimate-sounding track on Outer South, was treated to a beefier rendition.

Much of this high-volume delivery is understandable once you get a look at the band’s tour itinerary, a combination of headline performances in hallowed-ground indie clubs like Athens, Ga.’s 40 Watt, some bigger shows in Detroit and L.A., and a handful of slots opening for Wilco. By any measure, that’s a schizophrenic booking schedule, and you can see exactly why Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band are swinging for the bleachers. More often than not, it works, and at night’s end, it paid off big: The encore-closing performance of “I Don’t Wanna Die (In The Hospital)” hit like a goddamned air raid, and the whole crowd, politely if loudly effusive until that point, went up for grabs.

So it’s an excellent show, technically proficient and carefully executed. If it feels less risky than much of Oberst’s output up to now, I’m not sure that’s a reason to gripe. The band is having a great time, the show rocks loud and hard, and we all went home sweaty, smoky and satisfied, which constitutes some of the many things a great live show can accomplish. Even for the dink, whose post-show plans I’m too much a gentleman to discuss.

—Eric Waggoner

“Nikorette” (download):

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 11

bill-charlap-houston400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Pianist Bill Charlap is an archetypal traditionalist, a 40-ish balding dude who wears a suit and is most at home playing music from the middle of the previous century. In many ways, the straight-laced Charlap is an exact polar opposite of loose-goose piano all-star Brad Mehldau. Once a child prodigy who studied classical music, Charlap has been working the trad-jazz route for decades and even made an album with his mother. Charlap paid his dues backing singers like Betty Carter and Tony Bennett before forming his own remarkable trio and has been recording as a leader since the mid-’90s. He’s certainly one of the more celebrated pianists working today—the point here being that he could’ve showcased anyone that he wanted to bring to the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Charlap imported veteran tenor saxophonist Houston Person for an evening of intimate duets.

Born in 1934, Person is a generation ahead of Charlap in terms of years, but he’s right on the pianist’s wavelength in terms of music. A old-fashioned “boss tenor” player in the tradition of Gene Ammons or Zoot Simms, Person is remembered for his soul/jazz albums on Prestige in the 1960s and best known for his duo with late singer Etta Jones, who he worked with for 30 years until her death in 2001. Charlap has played on Person’s more recent recordings, and if you’re interested, there’s a fairly comprehensive three-CD set of that stuff called The Art & Soul Of Houston Person. Thankfully, the Charlap/Person show in Montreal was a late-night affair at the cozy Gesù theater, where the twosome showed the sensitivity, skill and nuanced playing that’s a hallmark of both their careers.

“We’re just going to play some good old music,” Charlap told the audience. Then he turned to Person and said, “What do you want to play?” They proceeded to stroll through a number of lovely old standards including “I’ll Remember April,” “Memories Of You,” “Once In A While,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Now And Then.” Charlap took an amazing solo turn, then Person did the same, playing an old blues written by the great Percy Mayfield. Both Charlap and Person have devoted their lives to listening and resonating with other musicians in a supportive fashion. As a result, this was a sweet, rarified evening of classic jazz by two incredibly sympathetic players. I don’t have anything else to say except that the festival is winding down slowly, and so am I.

—photos by Michael Jackson

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 10

ornette-coleman-9719It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

Sobered by the bad news of Montreal jazz historian Len Dobbin’s sudden passing, I attended a press conference where the festival’s founder, Alain Simard, presented Ornette Coleman with its annual Miles Davis Award. Being the 50th anniversary of Coleman’s album The Shape Of Jazz To Come as well as his group’s famous breakthrough gigs at the Five Spot in New York City, the award was certainly appropriate. At 79, Coleman still gets around pretty well, but he was quite tired from lack of sleep and almost cancelled the press conference.

Still, Coleman arrived looking sharp in his tailor-made suit and graciously accepted the award with a philosophical commentary about the quality of existence, life, death and the need to improve ourselves. The Montreal press corps tried to ask him a few questions, but Coleman merely listened politely and resumed his existential discourse. He did include his familiar anecdote about wanting a saxophone when he was small and his mother encouraging him to work for it and surprising him a year later with a saxophone under his bed. He thought it was a toy, but he learned about sound, and here we are. When asked if he ever wanted to do any more work playing on movie soundtracks like he’d done for David Lynch’s Naked Lunch, Coleman said, “What I would like, is for everyone on Earth to be happy—and to never die.” Boom.

Coleman’s quartet concert on Thursday night was amazing. Flanked tightly by stand-up bassist Tony Falanga, electric bassist Al McDowell and son Denardo on drums, Coleman came out slamming with a discordant flurry of sound. Playing alto, trumpet and violin, he led the band through a series of dramatic passages, drawing vintage compositions and stray melodies from all points of his idiosyncratic career. Besides the man himself, Coleman’s two bassists were especially impressive, and the crazy counterpoint included Falanga bowing his upright and McDowell playing his five-string electric bass like a guitar. Coleman played with an emotional power and directness that is still unique and exceptional, and his expressiveness on ballads such as “Lonely Woman” was beyond compare.  At one point, the band definitely played a segment of “Dancing In Your Head,” but beyond that I’d be guessing at song titles. Let it just be said that Coleman’s concert was another classic exhibition of sonic intensity and musicianship. And of human feeling.

The only other show I caught on Thursday night was Vieux Farka Touré, the Malian guitarist/singer whose late father was famous African bluesman Ali Farka Touré. All I can tell you is that Vieux is a chip off the old block, and he burned up the Club Soda stage with his red-hot rhythms and blazing guitar. Playing pentatonic blues scales with a percussive, ringing style as his band churned out its bouncing African boogie, Touré is something of a rocker, but he’s tied to infectious tribal beats and deep blues roots. This was a joyous affair, and almost everyone in the club was up and dancing. Touré has simply got to break into the jam-band circuit here in the U.S. Somebody tell Derek Trucks about this guy right away.

—photo by Michael Jackson