Monday, January 28, 2008

The Satellite Nation, Media Club, Vancouver

So, Saturday didn't quite turn out like it was supposed to. My sole task for the day was to get from Mountain View, California, back to Vancouver, and by 11am, things were looking rosy. I'd managed to shake off the effects of a tough night playing Rock Band (the gravelly voice, the ache in the calf muscles and forearms, the sense of edgy excitement - it was like I'd just got back from a big night out on the town and/or a live show, but really I'd just stayed up late playing video games with workmates - and don't be surprised if people stop forming real bands and just sit around living rooms playing this - it really is that much fun), and get myself to San Jose airport. Flight number one to Portland was a little tense, I was sitting next to a scared flier, which is always a nerve-wracking experience, especially when my casual nonchalance towards flying intensified her agitation even more.

But in Portland, things went south, with weather and mechanical problems turning a 40 minute layover into a 8 hour ordeal, of which the only saving grace is the fact that in PDX airport you can get a microbrewed pint of beer for less than $4 dollars. And then they have the gall to run a happy hour from 3 to 6, where the price dropped even further. And there's no sales tax. I don't know how other states stay in business, because everyone in their right mind should move to Oregon.

So let's just say that by the time I got to The Media Club in Vancouver, at around 10.30, I was in quite a state. and it didn't help my mood at all when the first thing I saw was a Dustin Diamond lookalike (what is it with people looking like him? there was a guy playing second drums for Menomena last time I saw them who looked like him as well) draped in an Australian flag. And behind the stage was another incredibly large, red, white and blue monstrosity (the best thing about the australian flag? if you're a little bit drunk, and you squint your eyes just right, you can convince yourself it's the New Zealand one). Things were not going to turn out well.

Now, I like Australians as much as the next guy. Sure, they've generally got an smug air of superiority about them (the Flight of the Conchords episode where the Australian character brags about Ayers Rock - "It's a bloody big rock, mate" - is pretty much spot on), and they can lay it on a bit thick with the sheep jokes, but when you're on the wrong side of the world, you generally find yourself relating to their way of thinking more so than you do than with any other nationality. And plus, it's someone to talk about cricket with.

However, as soon as you get a large number of australians in one place, and make any sort of mention of nationalism, patriotism, or sporting events, pretty soon you're ready to strangle anyone who dares shout "Aussie, aussie, aussie, oi, oi, oi" for the ten thousandth time (Also - Dear North America, It's pronounced "ozzy", like the lead singer of Black Sabbath, not Oss Si, as you seem to be intent on pronouncing it. It's their nickname, learn how to say it properly. Regards,). I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers of TVs smashed in New Zealand during the Sydney Olympics skyrocketed to unprecedented levels - every time there was a crowd shot or the local colour reporter was mingling with the populace, there'd be a parade of green and gold-clad buffoonery as far as the eye could see.

But you see, when walking in to the Media Club on Saturday night, I realized what I'd done. I'd gone to see an Australian band on Australia Day, which is pretty close to hell to someone of my geographic persuasion.

Luckily, it all turned out pretty goddamn well. For all the doom and naysaying to this point, the kids in Satellite Nation know what they're doing. In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I have, on occasion, spent time with the members of said band, and enjoyed their company. But they're still a whole bunch of fun.

Now, their particular brand of pop/emo/rock is not really my cup of tea (and I realize how much of a knob it makes me while sitting on my couch watching Vampire Weekend videos on youtube ( - PS - anyone wanna teach me how to embed videos?) and making holier than thou comments like that) but sometimes people like me just need to get over themselves and enjoy a night out for what it is - a group of enthusiastic and talented (and it must be said, not unattractive) young men play cracking pop songs to a captive audience. Which, also means that they've got the Alpha Males beat on at least two of those three points (I'll leave it up to you to deduce which ones).

The lads left the australio-centric histrionics to a minimum and let the music do the talking, belting through 8 or 9 songs (it could have been more, I was long gone by this point) of good quality, sandwiching their radio hit somewhere in the middle. From what I understand, they were relatively popular in Australia, doing national tours supporting some high level bands, and have come up to North America to try their luck here. They've got a nice clean live show, and I've seen them blow local bands off the stage on more than one occasion. It sounds like they're getting some play on one of the local rock stations, which will do them well. and the video's pretty fancy too (and looks like it's racked up nearly 3,000 hits on youtube in the last two months, which currently is roughly 2920 more hits than the last song I wrote that got posted on the internet, but who's counting? (and again, in the interests of full disclosure, I should again note that at least 40 of those hits on my song were probably from me))

As always the Media Club was it's divealicious self, as per standard the bathroom had been repeatedly soiled by 11pm, and by about 12.30, I was pretty close to soiling it myself, so I beat a hasty retreat to my icy apartment. Thank the lord my winter is being temporarily interrupted for a two-week burst of temperatures in the mid 20s. And did I mention Interpol, Sonic Youth, Rufus Wainwright, and enough summery pop from people who spent too much time listening to Pet Sounds to sink a battleship. God bless the southern hemisphere.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Blakes, The Blacks, Bottom Of The Hill, San Francisco

Apparently there's only two things enjoy about shows. Well, there's more than two, but the two best are banter, and good haircuts. And there was plenty of both in the offing at the Bottom of the Hill tonight at the Blakes, who are a bit of a buzz band out of Seattle. But first, some entirely unnecessary background.

I've been having a pretty entertaining half week in Silicon Valley, roaming the streets of Mountain View, CA, looking to make smug google nerds feel bad about their lack of social skills. We also planned a trip out to Cupertino to harass Apple kids for free software updates for my ipod, but alas, we didn't make it.

But all the free public wifi in the world can't make up for the fact that this place is pretty much a cultural wasteland (even if those I've had in my company for the last few days have been first-rate), so Friday night I decided to jet up to San Francisco proper for a show (although the thought of the 50 minute each-way drive, and the fact that Ghostbusters 2 was on TV, made me nearly consider curling up and staying in).

Side note - When my friends' new math-rock band, the Nested Ifs (whose current poster tag-line should be "We're so new, we don't even have a myspace page") finally lets me join (apparently there's a 13,000 mile geographical issue), we should definitely do a week-long tour of the valley - Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Jose, Cupertino etc. These freaks (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) lap up Excel jokes like they're going out of fashion.

I've been to San Francisco something like 6 times in the last 18 months, but until now, I've yet to get to a show. I tried to go to Yo La Tengo in August, but ended up at Japanese-language karaoke instead, and I once saw a Soft Cell tribute band at an 80s club night, but I don't think that counts (can anyone name another Soft Cell song that's not Tainted Love? - that's ok, because neither could the Soft Cell tribute band).

So, upon the recommendation of a colleague, I got in my convertible Chrysler Sebring (there was a mix-up at the rental car agency, and I'm stuck driving the world's dorkiest car. I came this close to making a bumper sticker that read "My other car is a 92 Chevrolet Corsica" just so people wouldn't think I was the kind of tosser that would buy one of these) and set out on the 101, and rolled in to the surprisingly easy-to-find venue.

Apparently the place has a reputation for being one of the best places to see a show in the city, and I can see why; it's the quintessential small rock club, low ceilings, a little too hot, easy access to the bar - in short, pretty much my spiritual home. It also has a nice air of non-pretension about it, the bar staff are middle aged, instead of young and hip, and the bands set up and pack down all their own shit, with only a ten minute break between bands - none of the keeping the audience waiting bullshit. The only weird thing about it was that it was all ages - but there was no segregation between the minors and the bar. Maybe it's a California thing, and I'm just used to living in places where they're anal about alcohol, but it's still a little disconcerting to see a 15 year old kid standing next you while you're pounding back a beer.

I wanted to say that the place was kinda like the bar in a scene of "10 Things I Hate About You" where Julia Stiles goes to see a girl punk band (part of me wants to think the bar is called "The Cat's Meow"), but that comparison would be plainly inapt. I just really wanted to use that reference.

The appetizer this evening was a band called the Blacks (with my accent, asking strangers in the crowd what the support band was called produced some interesting confusion -

Random Stranger "They're called The Blacks"
Me "No they're not, I can see the Blakes over there. They're playing next. What are these guys called?"
RS - "The Blacks"
M - "I know, but who are these guys"
RS - Thinking (probably) "This guy is retarded. and he keeps looking at my girlfriend. I'm going to the bar."

Anyway, they're a guitar/drums/tambourine combo with a boy/girl singer, and they're kinda new wavey patti smith/blondie ish. It sounded pretty good, and I'd claim that the enthusiastic tambourine player had taken his cues from the tambourinist from the Brian Jonestown Massacre had I: a) ever seen them play, or b)seen the movie "DIG". However, I've heard enough about both anecdotally to know that this is the gold-standard for enthusiastic tambourine playing.

The Blakes were playing tonight, which worked out pretty well, because I've been wanting to see them for a little while now. I listen to a lot of KEXP through the day, and they play a lot of them, as they're from Seattle, and play pop-rock that's straightforward enough to be radio-friendly, but interesting enough to not bore the tits off a bull. I'm sure they've been playing at at least 4 festivals that I've been to in Washington, but I have an unfortunately habit of having atrocious border luck when I drive to festivals, and always end up missing the first bands I want to see (and if the border gods are particularly against me, I miss all the bands I want to see, and get there in time for Fergie. Awesome.)

But the Blakes had exceptional haircuts (that wouldn't have looked out of place on Rusty Hopkinson (incidentally, some quick wikipediaing just taught me that Rusty's cat is called Chairman Meow - I'm using that some day) circa 1996), and a refreshing enthusiasm and excitement to be playing. They bantered well (they started with "I think we've got the wrong place, there's too many people here") and someone bought the band a round of shots, only for the bassist to pound them all, along with a follow up shot for good measure. and these were good, 3 ounce, american shots, too. By the end of the show he was trolleyed, it was outstanding. but they looked and sounded good, and write and perform snappy garage pop songs that wouldn't have gone amiss in the 3 weeks in 2004 when Auckland was the garage rock capital of the universe. Everything's infused with a strong sense of melody, and the lyrics are delivered with a good, old-fashioned, pack-a-day, gravelly wail.

Something about them reminded me of Jet. And then I immediately resisted this sentiment, before catching myself - there was nothing wrong with Jet. Like Jeff Tweedy once said to a reporter who cracked a disparaging joke about his son being in a Jet covers band "You mean, you don't like rock and roll?"

Methinks that next time they play a festival in Washington, I'll make a point of getting there in time to see them, but I'm guessing they'll be playing later in the day - I think their days of early afternoon sets are numbered.

and if I can figure out how to attach a link here, check this out.

So, after that, there was another band, but the thought of the long drive at 1am, with a 7am wake up call saturday was too much to bear. And I'd had enough fun to feel satisfied for my $10 outlay... maybe I'll see the Magic Bullets another time. As it is, the sentences aren't really flowing like they're supposed to.

Righto, you'll have to excuse me, I'm flying to San Diego early tomorrow to stalk Ryan Adams, and to get him to teach me how to seduce young, vulnerable starlets, and then write critically acclaimed albums about them.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bison, January 12, the Astoria, Vancouver

It's a little sad that show number 1 of 2008 didn't arrive until 12 days in to the month, but for some reason winter turns Vancouver into a musical backwater. So it was with some excitement that I opened my account for the year by trooping to a metal show in the Downtown Eastside.

I've written at length elsewhere about how the DTES is a weird paradox of a place, and a fair proportion of the people who may eventually read this are already familiar with the concept, but it's a part of town that is a haven for the indigent, addicted, mentally unstable, and unhealthy. The poorest postal district in Canada, it's a place where it's probably easier to get crack than a can of coke, but lately it also seems to be home to a bevy of hipster bars, rock shows, and general awesomeness (rock and roll in a japanese restaurant where the audience sings karaoke hits in the breaks between bands, anyone?). And when I say "lately" I mean "in the two years since I've been in Vancouver" - any time the Vancouver Sun does a profile on the "new" trend of kids hanging in the 'hood, you can pretty much guarantee it's been going on for a considerable period of time.

So we rolled up to the Astoria, and it was packed - for possibly the first time in the bar's long and storied history, there was a line outside. I've not been to this particular establishment before, so I can't comment on it's normal level of patronage for a Saturday night, but it's obvious they were expecting big things - they'd set up supplementary alcohol stations at alternative locations around the room in order to sate the audience's thirst for cut-price beer (it's the closest I've seen to a crowd drinking a bar dry since the Alpha Males Bastille Day Extravaganza at Rick's Pool Bar, where we even finished the Turkish beer right at the back of the fridge).

Anyway, Bison are a local metal band, who came heartily endorsed by my friend Karen, who had seen them previously (I believe she called them "hard-driving", whatever that means). I can't remember the last metal show I went to (or if I've ever been to a metal show), but I did kinda see Mastodon in Chicago last summer (and by kinda, I mean I walked past, stopped momentarily to admire the amount of hair on stage, and then kept on walking to get another slice of deep dish pizza and to watch skinny kids in plaid shirts try and play basketball), so I'm familiar with this particular genre of metal.

Standing in the crowd, nursing a locally mass-produced beer (no product endorsement here, kids) I was reminded of a conversation I'd had earlier in the week, about whether hipster and scenester were complimentary or derogatory terms. I've always used hipster to describe a certain aesthetic (e.g, you can drink hipster beer, or go to a hipster bar), but I generally use it in a positive context, whereas I'll use scenester to describe the bandwagon-jumper in the corner, who read in GQ magazine that cardigans, beards, and slumming it at downtrodden bars was in this season. So, it turned out that my fellow conversationalist had fairly similar definitions for the same words, but they were directly reversed. Which is all apropos of nothing, except to say that the crowd for the most part fell into the first category, whatever that might be called.

I felt remarkably clean cut. Admittedly I have had a haircut in the last 3 months, which is good for me, and I'd shaved sometime in the previous 48 hours, but I was overwhelmed with a desire to go sit in a dark corner and concentrate on growing some facial hair. And you have no idea how much I wished my hair was long enough to shake around - having your fringe flop foppishly onto your forehead might gain you kudos at a Smith's covers band, but it is nothing compared to the waterfalls of unwashed man-mane that fly about at a metal show.

and the astoria is a weird venue. the sound set up looks about as reliable as the Vancouver weather (screamcore skate-metal bands lose something of their visceral power when the mike and several of the amps cut in and out during the course of a song), it has a strange medieval theme inside (arched panels line the walls) and it looked like someone set up a coloured disco ball (and those traffic lights that flash in time with the music) in 1976 and forgot to take it down.

The support for the evening was the aforementioned screamcore skate-metal band, Jaws, (highlights include the drummer stripping down to his underwear, the banter "this song's about skateboarding. Actually, all our songs are about skateboarding", and when the bassist's phone rang, and he went to answer it, saying "It's one of my bass buddies"), and Ladyhawk, of whom I didn't know what to expect. I have a friend who is in love with them, and we've been planned to get to their shows on 6 or 7 occasions, only to have our plans derailed by travel, apathy, or forces of nature. I have another friend who said she saw them supporting Mates of State, and that they were so out of place and bad, that she drunkenly heckled them for the duration of the show. Turns out that the band she saw and heckled wasn't Ladyhawk, because seconds after they came on stage, she sheepishly had to admit that they were someone completely different. Anyway, Ladyhawk were impressive - sharp, well-structured and solidly performed songs, that I wouldn't mind seeing again (and I'm betting I will, they seem to be relatively prolific about town).

and the headliners? Well, I don't really remember actually listening to them, I certainly remember being jostled (although I don't want this to be read as complaining - going to a metal show, standing within ten feet of the stage and complaining about being bumped into by a succession of over-enthusiastic gentleman is like going to the opera and complaining that some fat woman sang all the way through, ruining an otherwise enjoyable night out.) and I remember checking to see where my next beer was coming from, and looking about the room to see if any of the attractive women in attendance were looking at me (they weren't) - but everyone else seemed to enjoy it, and I'm pretty sure I'd go again, especially if it's at the Astoria.

PS - extra points go to the drummer in Bison who wore an improvised hat designed to look like a Buffalo. But let it be noted that points were removed when he took it off after one song. I realize it's hot up there, but you've got to suffer for your aesthetic.

PPS - anyone who was with me who may have said some of the things above that I have shamelessly copied and attributed to myself, I'm sorry. But get used to it. It will happen again.


Ladies and gentlemen (although I'd be surprised if anyone reading this legitimately fits into either category),

When it all comes down to it, I don't actually do a hell of a lot. Most of my days consist of waking up late, having an express shower, dashing out the door without even a momentary consideration of breakfast, and arriving at work at least 15 minutes late (but most likely 20-40 minutes late). Then follows a 9 hour blast through the emotional rollercoaster that is work - from getting irritated with annoying customers, being terrified at large-scale public speaking, to the elation of solving a tricky problem or nailing a demo - I often sit back in my chair after what feels like 3 hours of work to find that it's 4pm already.

Once that's done, I'm into my-so-called leisure time, which on the average evening either involves a trip to the supermarket to buy something wholesome for dinner (P=0.1) or a trip to the holy triumvirate of broadway and granville fast food (Vera's burgers, the pizza joint, and the chinese takeaway) (P=0.9) and a jaunt to the liquor store for a sixer of PBR or a bottle of Canadian Club (or often, both), all of which is consumed and washed down with some televised sport (preferably a Canucks game or a football game, but let's face it, the actual content is irrelevant - I've spent many an evening enthralled by poker, strongman competitions or woodchopping) . From there, I'll either do some more work, or more likely get dragged into either a youtube or wikipedia time-suck, whereby I'll look at the clock and find it's 11 o'clock, and that I have no idea how i got to reading a wikipedia article on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge

You'll notice the total lack of exercise, social interaction, or charitable deeds in the above. And while I'm tailoring the actual description to suit the particular narrative thread I'm clumsily attempting to weave (for example, I also do laundry and housework, but I haven't mentioned that), there's not much in the day-to-day existence that qualifies as an achievement.

Except for one thing.

I go to a lot of shows. And I like to think I go to some pretty goddamn good ones. In fact, I go to so many, that I start to forget which ones I've been to, and I find myself in conversation with strangers unable to remember how many times I've seen the Flaming Lips, (3, apparently) and where on earth I saw them (Auckland, Vancouver, and in a hailstorm in upstate Washington). So to counter the memory-deadening and disorienting effects of alcohol, loud music and the relentless march of time, I've started this blog as a self-indulgent tool to capture this. I hereby present a list of every show I attend in 2008, wherever they may be.

Until now, I've been incredibly resistant to write about concerts I go to, for the most part because live reviews as a genre are generally incredibly dull. The majority of mainstream shows feature a band plodding through several of the songs on their latest record, tossing in a couple of earlier hits, leaving the stage for the obligatary 2 minutes, 45 seconds, before interpreting the bored muttering of the crowd at large as a request for the default encore, and return to play the one hit that they clearly and obviously hadn't played yet. A blow-by-blow account of that stirs up about as much literary passion as a brisk scan through the pages of the Canadian Journal of Dental Hygiene

However, there are a couple of redeeming features that I hope will rescue this particular enterprise.

1. I generally go to pretty fun shows. For the most part, you can tell when a band might do something special in a live setting, and know when to stay away when I know all I'm gonna get is a formulaic run-through of the live show playbook. But then again, sometimes we're surprised, and that's part of what keeps me coming back. But from Jarvis Cocker's endearing rant about self-pleasure, to Tim Rogers from You Am I's drunken belligerent challenge to the thief of Davie's guitar, to Eddie from Art Brut getting the crowd to chant "Put records in record stores" cool stuff always happens at shows I'm at.

2. I go to a bunch of different places. It seem like I'm never at home, and most of the time when I travel, it's to see a band or go to a festival. And it's incredible how the aura and ambience of a show changes depending where you are, what the venue is like - even in the Pacific Northwest, a Vancouver show is markedly different to a Seattle show, which in turn is worlds apart from a Portland show (and god bless Portland shows, because they're fantastic).

3. I have an unfortunate habit (as you may have noticed - there was never any intent for this preamble to consist of 500+ words) of getting off topic. In true Klostermanian fashion (Chuck Klosterman once wrote a book called "Killing Yourself to Live" which was ostensibly an investigation into why the untimely death of musicians can lead to popularity well beyond that which they would have enjoyed had they stayed alive. This was a noble, and valid, premise, but it was derailed slightly by the fact that nearly the entire book was about several of his ex-girlfriends, (and if these ex-girlfriends were harbouring any desires to re-acquaint with Mr Klosterman, I suspect any such feelings of reconciliation were quickly dispelled once they had read the book). And the book was a thousand times better for this lengthy and involved diversion - and is well reviewed here.) this blog is going to be less "about shows" as it is about life (or my life, to be precise). Think of the narrative structure as the dressmaker's model upon which the fabric of the rest of the narrative is draped. Or not.

And to end this lengthy dissertation, a disclaimer, and a plea. I reserve the right to get bored of this entire enterprise within a month. And should anyone be reading this who has any pull in the publishing, recording, or moviemaking industries, or is just interested in random acts of philanthropy, feel free to contact me if you're interested in paying me large sums of money to either:

a) travel the world and go to shows for a living
b) fly my band to Vancouver to make a chart-topping nerd-rock record
c) let me make a film chronicling the controversial, career-changing and dramatic 1993-1994 New Zealand cricket tour of South Africa. But only if we can get Jake Gyllenhaal to play a young, fresh-faced Stephen "Flaming" Fleming, Mark Ruffalo as Dion "Smoke the Hash" Nash, and that irritating scamp Russell Crowe to play Danny "the narc" Morrison. Oh, and we'll need to write a role in for Ellen Page, too.
d) let me design a in-car turntable system.