Monday, April 28, 2008

King Cannons, the Rebelles, Atsushi and the Moisties: The Thirsty Dog, Auckland: April 12, 2008

Shamefully, this was my first time at the Thirsty Dog. It won't be my last: anywhere with live music yet carpets this plush deserves a second visit. Squares that we are, we were a little early - I'm getting awfully confused in my old age about whether a rock gig that says it starts at 9:00 starts at 9:00 or at 11:45, and I've been burned a few times recently. Anyhow, there were cosy benches, a stereo with various Clash and Mescaleroes records on shuffle and a handy system where my coloured bits of paper can be exchanged for their bottles of cold beer, so passing the time was easy.

Atsushi and the Moisties have a memorably awful name and a handy brass section who like to dance when not musically employed. Atsushi himself wears a cow costume and plays a mean guitar; it was unclear whether the gentleman in the front row in a similar outfit was a Moisties associate or just a particularly dedicated fan. I've never quite decided how I feel about ska: I'm pretty confident there's only been one ska song ever written, and every ska band plays it eleven times each night (I'd wager the name Rudy in the title somewhere), but it's a pretty decent tune to hear a few times on a saturday night after a few beverages. Given the dancing horn section and the multiple bovines, vocals would have been one gimmick too many, but if you're after an instrumental ska band to open your night, you won't go too wrong with the Moisties.

I'd seen the Rebelles once before, as the post-game entertainment at a roller derby, which was about as perfect a venue for their three girl, one boy ramalama as you could get. Here, they blitzed through about 15 songs in around 20 minutes and still found time to incite a human pyramid in the front rows. Their singer's Kat Bjelland / Poly Styrene-styled voice is a powerful thing, and carrying on singing without missing a beat even when being tackled to the ground by your fans is pretty impressive. I'm not sure how the Rebelles would fare as headliners, given the brevity of the tunes and the intensity with which they are played, but if a short, sharp statement is what you want, they do a fine job.

The King Cannons sound is reggae bottom end with a punk sensibility, buttoned-up Ben Sherman style. The band is new to me, but they've been round long enough to have a record for sale behind the bar, and long enough to know just how to work a friendly crowd such as this. I'm trying awfully hard not to use the word skanking, but even someone as allergic to reggae as me was getting into the rhythm, and the Cannons' stage presence is undeniable. Faithfully covering "White Man in Hammersmith Palais" is a pretty decent way to get the non-believers on board too...

Taking advantage of free tickets (thanks, job) to the unfortunately deserted *mantis show at Rising Sun was a nice way to finish off the evening: following up a punk reggae act with a hip hop gig was almost too unusual for my poor little brain, but some comfortably familiar squid rings at the Burgerie, just like after every rock show ever, sorted me out just fine. Take note, indie kids - if you're worried you're expanding your musical horizons a little too much, greasy takeaways do a pretty good take-two-aspirins-and-call-me-in-the-morning job

Monday, April 21, 2008

Joe's Garage, The Roxy, April 12, 2008

Disclaimer - the post that follows has nothing to do with music or anything interesting. It's also woefully out of date, but I didn't want to push the excellent Wilco review below the fold.
In these uncertain times, it can be difficult to know which way is up, and which way is down (especially when you move to the other side of the world and find that the water in the toilet doesn't actually flush in the opposite direction - if I had a dollar for everyone I've tried to explain the coriolis effect to, and who hasn't been convinced until I took them to the bathroom and proved that I could make the water go down in different directions based on whether I used the hot or cold tap to fill the basin.)

So, in order to make sense of life, and to give myself a basis to construct my ideological framework around, there are 3 facts that I know irrefutably to be true, that I can fall back on in times of self-doubt and crisis. They are:

1. Pearl Jam suck more cock than you do.
2. Bacon improves any food it is combined with.
3. If you play Prince in any social situation that includes a dancefloor, that dancefloor will fill with people.

Or so I thought.

But Saturday night, at the Roxy, I saw the opposite of #3 occur, where Let's Go Crazy sent them running for the bar, the toilets, the smoking area, and the exits. As my entire DJ career was based around the fact that even after I'd bore people into submission with obscure Norwegian pop-tarts, I could still fill the floor with the Purple one, and it pained me to see the exodus.

It was at this point that I stopped, and thought, how did I get here?

Well, I have a little bit of a drinking problem. Mainly the problem is that I quite enjoy it, and I'm remarkably good at it. But sometimes it leads me to say and do things that I end up cringing about the next day. For example, I vaguely remember telling a random stranger on Friday night that, when you strip it down to its base elements, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is essentially no different than "The Macarena" (and no, I'm not going to link to it - nobody needs to endure that). No matter that it was part of an elaborately constructed argument about how a classic pop song is nothing more than a couple of melodic hooks, it was an entirely inappropriate conversational subject for a chance meeting with a random stranger, and a remarkably stupid thing to say. And who do I have to blame? Well, mostly myself, but Mr Alcohol also needs to take some responsibility.

This same problem saw me lined up outside the Roxy on Saturday night. The Roxy represents different things to different people, but among my circle of acquaintances it is the very epitome of the trainwreck that is most of the bars in the Granville Street corridor in downtown Vancouver. There's always a line outside, that never seems to move anywhere, and the people in that lineup always look like bridge-and-tunnel kids. Having said all that, I've never actually been inside. So, when the chance came up head out for a few drinks with a friend, and he mentioned that he had some other friends heading to the Roxy, I was initially apprehensive, but eventually curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to tag along.

The Roxy was much bigger than I'd imagined, and the stage was filled with an assortment of gentlemen that looked like their best years were behind them. The lead singer looked a little like the lead singer of the woefully underrated band Auckland band of the late 90's, Pash. (who in turn looks like the guy in the Something About Mary duo that's not Jonathan Richman).

They were halfway through a Cars cover (sadly, not My Best Friend's Girl) as we walked in. While it was kinda empty as we showed up (were it not for the swift action of a friend of a friend, we would have been stuck at the back of a remarkably long line, which is just wrong for 8.40pm on a Saturday night), it soon filled with a crowd that seemed to be entirely comprised either with single women in their late twenties to early thirties without any imagination, who couldn't think of anywhere else to go on their one night out this month, and kids from the burbs who were there to prey on the others.

The band were unashamedly competent, as most covers bands are, and probably better paid than 90% of all bands I normally see (with the possible exception of Radiohead - I heard a rumour they're getting paid $600,000 to pay the Outside Lands festival in San Fran this summer), but the members looked like they were once contemporaries with the bands they were covering (and that they hadn't changed their wardrobes since the mid 80s). They also have the worst band name I've ever heard.

The keyboardist did China Girl with the third-best Bowie voice I'd ever heard live (after Mr Christopher Burton, and the man himself, in that order), but I suspect he was grotesquely ugly, as they made him stand behind a pillar. Occasionally they dipped into regions of the classic rock playbook that I'm not a huge fan of airing (for some reason, I never got the attraction of Journey), but for the most part, it was most enjoyable (although this is coming from someone whose standing orders for his tombstone are "Here Lies Glenn, he knew how to dance to classic rock" - although "Here Lies Glenn, who was tragically murdered by pirates" is running a close second).

The portions of the night where the band took a break were less enjoyable, and were the scene of the aforementioned Prince abomination. Luckily by that time my attention had been distracted by copious amounts of alcohol, and an empty ice bucket, so it didn't really matter.

PS - I've got a backup of show reviews that's nearly 3 posts long - I'll try and get one a night out through this week, now that I'm no longer working 12 hour days (and drinking for a good portion of the other 12 hours in the day). Not that anyone cares.

PPS - the overall air of smug superiority that invariably weaves its way through this post, is more a quirk of my particular writing style, and not really how I feel about people that go to the Roxy, and bars just like it (every town has one) the world over. I just can't help the way I write.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wilco; Opera House, Wellington, NZ; Easter Monday

While the metal hordes who had descended upon Wellington like a late 80s coked-up Ozzy to a line of ants (just read The Dirt whydoncha) were so very conspicuous, it would have been hard to guess that Wilco were playing if you were unlucky enough not to have a ticket. No posters up around town, not even at the venue, and the stylishly nerdy crowd of Tweedy enthusiasts beating their way to the Opera House blended in pretty nicely with Monday night Welly. Check shirts, quality pullovers, sensible footwear and trendy specs are part of the uniform in NZ's best, smartest city, and staying under the radar isn't too tough after a weekend where leather vests and studded codpieces seemed strangely appropriate.

Miriam Clancy was first up: Doc Matrens, pregnant tum and a big voice that comfortably filled the hushed, seated venue. The Opera House was an excellent choice of venue: like the Ryan Adams shows last year, the choice of an all-seater seemed to be well-received by an audience who were more than happy to sit down, shut up and listen from the moment the curtain opened. A loud, solo voice in a quiet room always makes the hairs on my neck stand up, and "Girl About Town" and "The Game" were powerfully performed: the latter's unfaithful lover / game of cards metaphors come close to being overplayed, but when cheerfully dedicated to a chap in the audience, the "You cheated on me" chorus packs some punch.

I latched on to Wilco quite late in the piece. Friends dug them, but at the time of their early 00s Big Day Out appearance, I opted to see the D4 for the umpteenth time on the other stage (and lost both shoes in the process, but that's a very different story). I finally cottoned on though, and hungrily tucked into the back catalogue. I'd never seen them live however - I even lived in their home town of Chicago for a while and still couldn't swing it: they played the day I arrived, the day after I left and a couple of times when I was out of town. So this was big news in my world: I was pretty excited about KISS, Alice and what was once Ozzy, but this was something else again...

It began with a lot of cheering, some shy waves and "Sunken Treasure". That Tweedy-centric opener was a bit of a curveball: for the first forty five minutes or so it was the Nels Cline show. He was on seated slide duties for the first song, but soon became the dominant presence on stage. Six-foot-lots in blood red jeans, looking for all the world like Britt Daniel’s crazy European uncle, he jerkily punished his guitar, throwing angular shapes over cracking versions of “You Are My Face” and “Company in My Back”. After six or seven songs we hadn’t even got a hello from the singer, but this never seemed standoffish or rude, just a man happy to forget the niceties and keep playing songs with the best set of musicians he’s ever been involved with. By reputation he can be prickly and curt on-stage, but when the greetings finally came, it was clear this was a relaxed and confident Jeff Tweedy. A few off-hand jokes about the weekend’s metal shows followed, and later he would even stop “Red Eyed and Blue” mid-song for a pretty sharp Ozzy impression.

Sometimes bands who enjoy changing direction on record struggle to put together a coherent live set, with stylistic changes from disparate albums jarring when mixed together live. I had wondered (until Kicking Television at least) whether this would be the case with Wilco, given the various tangents their albums have taken. Like the live album though, this set came together seamlessly – with the pop heart of the more experimental album tracks like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” exposed, and the straighter tunes like “A Shot in the Arm” given a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style roughing up.

Prior to this show, I didn’t rate a number of the Sky Blue Sky tracks as highly as others in the back catalogue, but tunes like “Impossible Germany” and “Side With the Seeds” were made for this kind of setting, their lengthy instrumental parts showcasing the brilliant musicianship of the current line-up. Glenn Kotche’s drumming is a key part of the latter-day Wilco sound, but it looks fantastic too, all jazzy flicks and fencing with the ride. Bassist John Stirratt’s impeccable backing vocals were also prominent, but it was hard not to focus on Cline, his lanky, jerky style belying an incredible dexterity. Cline’s skills were easy to contrast with the public guitar solo-off or Zakk Wylde’s lone shredfest at Rock2Wgtn – here, the solos made absolute sense with the song, rather than being just an aimless pissing contest. The fingers may not have moved quite as supersonically over the frets as those in the Cake Tin, and he probably can’t play behind his head or with his teeth, but I know who I’d rather be on Guitar Hero, and he ain’t the guy with the black and white circles on his guitar.

It wasn’t all layers, textures and dueling guitars – the likes of “Reservations”, “How to Fight Loneliness” and a gorgeous version of Mermaid Avenue's “California Stars” helped keep the light and shade balance. Encore one brought us back to Being There, and the straight-ahead country rock of “Monday” and “I Got You” sounded almost crude in comparison to what had come before – great, potent songs, but easy to see why they are kept separate from the main set. Encore two, never in doubt for a crowd who had long since given up on the idea of a seated gig (and kudos to you, lady who started the dancing), had to be “Kidsmoke”, and we piled out into the night, deaf and grinning.

We walked home past the last few hangers on in souvenir metal tees, and I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them: even without pyro or a dragon, they’d just missed easily the best show of the weekend. Maybe I just needed a bit more sleep, a bit less of a holiday diet and a couple of nights without a rock gig but a killer plan hit me: give Tweedy some fake blood and a flying fox to the back row and they’d be utterly unstoppable…

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Black Mountain, Ladyhawk, The Commodore, Vancouver, April 5

If there's one topic I'm not at all qualified to write about, it's local Vancouver bands. I've been in this town for less than 2 years, and for reasons beyond my control, I've only been gig-active for about a year. Having said that, the fact that so many touring bands come through town means I only occasionally end up seeing local bands in small venues.

In good old Auckland town, local bands are pretty much the only option you have, and luckily there's a bunch of good ones to see. In any given weekend you've got a choice of 4 or 5 excellent bands, that you listen to on the radio all week. The other perk is that there's about 100 people that go to shows and clubnights regularly, many of whom are in bands themselves, so you become intimately familiar with the love lives, habitual substance abuse, and tendencies for self-harm of the members of all your favourite bands.

It took me seven or eight years of gig attendance to obtain that level of familiarity with the scene and it's key players, and in Vancouver, I just don't possess the knowledge of the history of the scene to write with any real authority on the subject, when others cover it so much better than I can. Having said that, because I'm an obstinate ass, I'm going to try, regardless.

So after a most enjoyable art opening, where I got to see some fine people, some fine art, a couple of tasty beverages, and some parking lot frustration, we got to the Commodore just as Ladyhawk were kicking off their set.

When I first got to Vancouver, I was quite enamoured with the Commodore, it's a great space, and when you're as tall as I am, you can get a great view from anywhere. I've got friends that don't like it that much, and while it's not as intimate as somewhere like Richards, for a larger venue, it still has a great feel, and it's got 4 (count 'em) bars, which speaks to me in a way that few other venue features do.

As we walked in, the sold-out Commodore was pretty full. Since I last saw Ladyhawk I've been dabbling with some of their stuff, and I'm quite taken with it. I was reading a story in the local free streetmag on them while waiting for my burger this evening, and the story made much of their Neil Young grungey tendencies, which are certainly prevalent, but like the godfather of flannel, their songs also have the same melodic backbone that is such a feature of Young's material.

The band's set was snappy and sharp, and the bassist unleashed a waterfall of hair with such ferocity that I wager he was nursing a remarkably sore neck the next morning.

Right now is where I admit that I've never listened to a Black Mountain song all the way through before. While I like to listen to as much music as I can, I'm also (especially at this point in time) an impatient listener with the attention span of a gnat. If I haven't heard a pop hook in the first 90 seconds, I'll normally give up on it. As most Black Mountain embody the very definition of "slow-burning", that's normally where I tap out. I also like to go to shows where I'm not familiar with the band with an open mind - if I'm going to hear their stuff for the first time, I'd rather hear it live at the show, than indulge in a pre-show cram session to try and force myself to become familiar beforehand.

However, I appreciate that Black Mountain and their assorted offshoots/side projects have a long and storied history in the Vancouver musical landscape, and while I have assimilated an idea of what I was in store for from conversations with friends and magazines. Also, there was idle chatter (and it was incredibly idle) with a filmmaking friend about filming a Black Mountain video in my orange, sponge-painted kitchen.

So as Black Mountain walked out to a psychadelic light show and a wall of smoke (most of which seemed to be British Columbia's finest and generated by the crowd), I was a picture of curiosity. Black Mountain consist of a bearded guitarist with a penchant for Zeppelin licks, a keyboardist, who stands in a console surrounded by a keyboard, an organ, and a Moog, a drummer, and a cute female singer with a maracas, a floppy fringe, and a cute dress (and yes, I realize I used the "c" word twice in that sentence).

They specialise in dense, loud, dark jam rock that inspires communal synchronised head-nodding, and for the forty minutes or so of the band's set, I was having a pretty good time (although not nearly as good the guy who pumped his fists, enthusiastically through the entire show - I don't think there was a single beat that wasn't marked with a shake of this man's forearm). The crowd was incredibly stylish, the wall of tall people in front of me was proving my tall-person/musical taste hypothesis true, and the other outlandish claim I'd made earlier in the day was also proving true (which will remain undefined).

So, in short, Black Mountain were enjoyable, if a little prog for my taste. That was, until the encore. After a blissfully short pre-encore break, the band picked up tools again, and launched into a 12 minute bass jam, which was at least 11 minutes too long. When the singer in the band starts looking bored, and most of the audience is looking around for something else to do, you know it's probably time to start playing another instrument, or drop into a chorus of some fashion.

However, all told, my first Black Mountain experience was a good one, I think I'll just quietly slip out pre-encore next time. Which also has the advantage of making the coat-check line so much easier.

So I went home, and listened to a series of sub-2 minute pop songs, just to recalibrate, and I went to sleep satisfied with my weekend's activities.

PS - In pre-set conversation a friend and I were unable to name the 4th character in the village people lineup - we had the indian, the construction worker, and the policeman, but the fourth was eluding us. After asking the internet, it turns out there's six of them, and we missed the moustachioed motorcyclist, the GI and the cowboy.

The Satellite Nation, Whitfield, The Bourbon, Vancouver, April 4, 2008

I told myself I wasn't going to post about Friday night - both the band and the venue have been covered at length previously, and I didn't really feel like I had anything of note to add.

But then I sat down Sunday evening to put together a 3 hour presentation about the joys of Finite Element Analysis for evaluating stress in structures and products, which I'm giving in ten days time and still haven't really started, and decided that pretty much anything is an improvement on doing that. It seems like every time I'm under serious pressure to get anything done (exam times, during work crunch), I find ways of procrastinating and doing something completely different. For example, my house was never cleaner than it was during exam time, and during one particularly stressful period, I decided I'd take a day and a half out to teach myself how to do cryptic crosswords.

Anyway, Friday night it was back to the Bourbon for a second peek this year at The Satellite Nation, Vancouver's finest transplanted Australian modern rock band. We walked in to the final strains of the support, Whitfield, who were plodding their way through a number that sounded like Pablo Honey-era Radiohead. Turned out that it might have been just that, as their closing song was a Muse cover. Whitfield were notable for two things:

1. Their bassist played a Thunderbird. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I'm in love with said piece of machinery, so after seeing one in the hands of a mediocre local band, I thought that I may be able to get one for myself, just to keep on a stand in the corner of the room (all I know how to play on the bass is a series of Pavement songs, and the riff from Gigantic, and it doesn't seem right to play Pavement songs on that). However, after researching the cost, I realized that the bassist from Whitfield either has a) more money than sense, or b) a copy.

2. They employed one of the best set-closing manouvres I've seen for a little while. The singer finished the last verse, and walked off stage. The band continued to play another couple of bars, before the lead guitarist rang out a note, put his guitar down, and walked off, followed a couple of bars later by the bassist, and finally the drummer. It's obviously a move they stole from The Alpha Males international pop hit "Taken" (83 plays in 2 years, and counting) and it was great. However, the effect was diminished somewhat by the fact that they rushed back on stage to pack up their gear about 15 seconds after the drummer had walked off, while the sustain was still ringing out.

I bumped into the guitarist for The Satellite Nation before they went on stage, and found that it was his birthday, and that he'd been celebrating appropriately. The mark of a true rock star is the ability to play competent rockandroll despite being fall-down drunk, and the young man in question confirmed that he is part of that lofty pantheon already. The band were as tight as ever, and still look like they suit a much bigger stage. It says something both about the type and quality of their songs that the person standing next to me said to me "I've seen these guys 3 times, but I know most of the words to their songs". The songs follow a fairly set formula, but they don't skimp on the pop hooks, which makes it pretty fun to watch. These guys also do their best to look good on stage, and it makes a big difference, I'll never forget how underwhelmed I was when I saw a band in Vancouver wearing flannel shirts and sweatpants.

Again, post-show there was an appearance by the world's weirdest DJ (my favourite 3 song stretch went Justice>Beatles>Justin Timberlake), and dance floor silliness ensued. I vaguely remember trying to teach someone how to emulate my not-graceful-at-all spin, and also picking up an australian and jumping up and down, but that might be my imagination. It was that kind of night.