Sunday, December 21, 2008

the Led Zeppelin reunion, now a year past.

By looking through past entries, you can probably guess that I'm a big Zeppelin fan. That's an understatement.

Well we just passed the one year anniversary of the most import Zep-related thing to happen during my time as a fan: the Dec 10, 2007 reunion of the surviving members with Jason Bonham (son of the departed John) sitting in on drums. It was the first full concert the band gave since 1980. I've had an audio bootleg of the show since about a week after it happened, but just recently I downloaded a full video of the concert.

I really really enjoyed watching a DVD bootleg of the whole LZ 2007.12.10 performance. Of course I'd heard 4 different versions of the audio numerous times over the last year and I knew where the band excelled and where they faltered a bit in the performance. But it was fantastic actually seeing the whole thing for the first time earlier this month. I was totally sucked in!

I sat transfixed in my kitchen with my ear-eatting Sennheiser headphones on watching the whole thing on my laptop as the hour grew very late. I didn't finish the 2 hour show until nearly 3AM and had to work the next morning, but I couldn't pull myself away until the absolute last frame.

The 4 men on stage really sounded like Led Zeppelin, but a sort of nervous and very human Zeppelin. They didn't come across like the flashy, cocky rock gods of the 70s. From their body language it seemed they knew how important it was for their legend that they nail this performance (since the two 1980s sets were crap*) They seemed to be really concentrating, almost holding their collective breath. But every now and then, they'd loosen up and smile-- often when everything fell exactly into place for a few minutes or seconds and it sounded like 1973 all over again. It was in these moments of confidence that the old rock star moves would peak out a bit. Page or Plant would do a little flourish that called to mind the constant onstage dance of their heyday.

Watching the DVD I KNEW it would turn out okay, but it almost felt like I was there and the show was happening in real time. In the moments when they were a little less than together I felt nervous for them, thinking absurdly "come on, guys hold it together. Regain your footing!" The sound came from the best AUD sources (and actually gave you a few difference audio mix options like a REAL DVD release) and the picture came from 13 different sources mixing close ups, some BBC pro-shot stuff, and distant shaky camera phone style shots. The angles came from all over the vast venue so I really got a sense of the physical space of the show.

This is perhaps the best performance from the reunion. I never would've guessed this song would be included in the set.:

Watching this set, nearly fulfilled a dream for me: seeing a Led Zeppelin reunion in person. I became a fan in 1990, just after the second LZ reunion set and all throughout junior high I dreamed of them playing together again. I wrote about Zeppelin whenever I could in our daily "theme" pieces for English class. And once there was an assignment to design a poster for a pretend school concert. Well I figured that if the concert wasn't real then I could delve deep into fantasy and designed a poster for the 1990 reunion performance of Led Zeppelin at the Immaculate Conception Grammar School Gym in Somerville, NJ. It had "Led Zeppelin is BACK!" on the top and a drawing of Jimmy Page bowing his guitar a la 'Dazed & Confused.' I was very proud of my work, but when the assignment was handed back to me, written in red across the paper in my teacher's hand was "This is NOT what I meant!"

Oh well.

*( I blame the failure of the Live Aid July 1985 performance wholly on the presence of Phil Collins. He's an easy target. As for the 1988 set, it was marginally better but Jimmy Page was out of tune and out of sorts...)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Neil Young's Farewell(?) to the Philadelphia Spectrum

Getting to the faded Spectrum went really smoothly. We made our public transit connections without much wait time and the trolley operator wouldn't even take our tokens for some reason, so we got a free ride. The last stop on the southbound Broad Street subway line puts you about 200 feet from the Spectrum, and by luck, the "floor tickets only" entrance was the closest one to the subway exit. Nick, my companion for the show, realized that he had a slice of carrot cake in his jacket pocket that of course he couldn't bring inside. So we split it and got all sugared up on the the cake with cinnamon frosting before waltzing right in with no line and a very gentle pat down.

The tickets looked laughably like second-rate counterfeits: smudgy printing and only a barely perceptible "Comcast" watermark. But they scanned in fine. If I hadn't bought them right from the box office I would've thought they were fake. And yes, the tickets were really "$19.67" There was a very limited special first-day-of-sale deal in celebration of the Spectrum's final year (it was opened in 1967.)

Walking in the hall and on the floor I tried to soak in all its dingy outdated glory, thinking "this could be the last time I'm at the Spectrum." Though I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Phish will pay it a visit in 2009 before the building's implosion. I've only been there for concerts a handful of times, but I know its music history and have heard a lot of the shows through bootlegs. Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and most prominently the Grateful Dead. The old dingy brick of the place makes me think, this is about the same as what it looked like when the rock giants played here in their 1970s heyday. I'm reminded of that grainy picture on the back of the Kiss "Alive" record, with two shaggy headed teens on an arena floor. There are lots of benevolent ghosts still hanging around in the rafters of the Spectrum. Looking up, I smiled at the sight of the "Grateful Dead 53 Spectrum Sell-Outs" banner done like a Flyers hockey championship banner in black and orange, except the "53" was in tie-dye.

The ticket said show time was 7pm, so at exactly 7, Everest, the first opener, took the stage. And played for exactly 30 minutes to an arena that was no more than a third full. I really enjoyed their set. With their big-guitar country-tinged sound and reverbed vocals, they sounded very similar to My Morning Jacket (who in turn have been compared to Neil Young.) And I really like MMJ so I found myself head-bopping. And they got a surprisingly positive reaction from the crowd: moderate cheers after each song and only a single shout of "where's Neil?" Everest was arrayed in attire that looked as if it had been swiped from Neil's early 70s closet and one of the guitarists wore a poncho that looked liked it belonged to Stephen Stills a long time ago.

I thought about what carefree fun it might be to be the opening band in a situation like this. There's no pressure. No one is there to see you in particular, except a handful of guestlist friends, who probably love you no matter what you do. And the people shuffling into the arena aren't expecting much so it's hard to really let them down. And even though a band like Everest aren't rock stars and will probably never reach the popularity needed to headline a venue like the Spectrum, as the openers they can pretend to be rock stars. They were all smiles on stage. They seemed happy to be there. And if they messed up a solo or a verse, no one was gonna notice because no one knew what the songs wee supposed to sound like anyway. And maybe, just maybe they'd play a little something that'd grab the ears of some of the folks in the crowd; and this is exactly what happened in one of their last songs when one of the guitarists played a jangley outro figure that made me smile wide.

Everest set the mood for things to come.

Wilco was next and it was clear they had some fans in the steadily-filling arena. I've always enjoyed their music. I only have one of their early, more straightforward albums but have liked everything I've heard on the radio and from friends. And I enjoyed their performance even more than I expected. They started their 50 minute set with, "Via Chicago" a song that balanced a country pedal-steel and acoustic sound with a couple breaks of noisy chaos. During the racket the band didn't let on that all hell seemed to be breaking loose. Jeff Tweedy's vocals continued understated and sweet through the racket and the whole band snapped back together back into the melody right on cue.

The star of Wilco's set was lead guitarist Nels Cline. Kinda funny that he had a similar first name to the guitar god headliner, but there was never a Nels vs. Neil dual for ax-weilder supremacy during the show. Nels played everything from clear cleaning ringing tones, echoing shimmers, countryish lap steel and blips and distorted noise, processing his guitar through an effects board. When he soloed, a white spot light shone on him and often reflected off his shiny pick guard, sending a beam of light straight out onto the floor, hitting me right in the eyes; the perfect visual accompaniment to his sonic wizardry.

It was curious seeing Nels Cline in a huge arena on a high stage. The other time I saw him perform was in the Avant Gentlemen's Lodge* warehouse in West Philly where he played in a different ensemble as part of an evening of experimental music. The warehouse stage was about two feet high. That show was $5 at the door and I got to chat with Nels after the show as he milled about in the middle of the crowd.

The second Wilco tune featured harmonizing dual-lead guitars by Nels and Tweedy that worked the crowd into a froth and got people hooting and hollering. Their fourth tune had a Krautrock "motorik" beat to it that sounded like something from Can or Neu! I was dancing, smiling, floating on the sounds. Their music definitely tapped into a similar vein as Neil's but they could never be confused. They both sound very distinct but complementary. And by all the whoops and calling out of song titles it was obvious there were a lot of Neil/Wilco crossover fans in attendance. By the excited noise they made during Wilco's set, I figured the guys right behind me were teenagers. But when I looked back, I was truly surprised to see that they were approaching middle age, older than some of the guys in the band.

Wilco's set had a really warm positive feel to it, and by the time Neil came out I was really warmed up and ready to go. And Neil and his 5 piece band delivered. I've never heard Neil "phone it in" in the live setting. The sound and sightlines were excellent from my perspective, about 30 feet straight back from center stage. There was none of the boom and garbled echo that can come with arena shows.

It was difficult not to compare this show to seeing Neil last year. That show was definitely a cut above because of the beautiful old 2000-seat theatre venue (the Tower), the rarity-filled setlist, the solo acoustic set and the fact that it was my first time seeing Neil after being a fan for 15 years.
This 2 hour Spectrum set had a "greatest hits" focused list, but every single note seemed to be delivered with passion. And Neil's hits are hits for a reason: they're damn good.

"Hey Hey My My" may have been played to death on classic rock radio but I was bowled over by its power on stage. Neil convulsed with guitar in hands, struggling with it as if he were trying to wring the neck of some wild fowl. He was never still for a moment as he squeezed out growling, choking, crunching, heaviness.

"Powderfinger" is one of my favorite Neil songs of all time and it was great to sing along to it shouting passionately, "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing!" even though I've never figured out just what that means.

"Spirit Road" from the most recent LP fit in well with the old noisy guitar-jam classics and this seemed an even stronger performance than when I saw the song played last year.

"Cortez the Killer" was played very slow and heavy with mournful guitar leads sailing above the ominous sea that the rest of the band created. The instrumental section wandered, but never lost its way or intensity.

My experience listening to "Oh Lonesome, Me" and the solo pump-organ version of "Mother Earth" were marred somewhat by the Blah-blah cellphone man behind me (read the addendum "Rant" for more on this) but were still very moving to hear.

The new, acoustic "Light a Candle" was elevated by an unexpected and delicate pedal steel line by Ben Keith who continued his high lonesome moans on "Unknown Legend," and "Heart of Gold." He also played on the original classic sessions of these song. For "Old Man" a brief and precisely timed spotlight was shone on the mustachioed guitar tech Larry Cragg, so he could bust out the song's signature banjo line.

"Get Back to the Country" was a raucous pedal-steeled affair, much more lively and enjoyable than on the mediocre mid 80s "Old Ways" album. At less than 3 minutes though, it was all too brief.

Then Neil delivered a trio of new, unreleased rockers all about social change. For me, jury's still out on the first two. Neil is very prolific. He continues to release a new album almost every year, but his output is real hit or miss. It's rare that he puts out a truly bad song, but I think the first two of these new songs were just "OK." Maybe I'll get more into them as I hear them more. The last of the trio, "When Worlds Collide" was the strongest, with an ominous funk feel and minor key (intentionally?) strained chorus.

To close out the set, "Rockin' in the Free World" invoked the spirits of nearly 20 years of garage bands. The song is simple on a technical level so I've heard a lot of amateurs play it, but it's difficult to play and sing it with as much angry conviction as Neil. And though it's become a cliche, it still felt great to shout along to the chorus with fist in the air.

The encore was a very fresh take on the Beatles' classic/oddity, "A Day in the Life." I loved the sleighbells during the "Ahh-ahhh- ah-ahhhhh" break after "and I fell into a dream." And the echoing chord at the end of the Beatles' version became a noisefest in the Neil version. Neil sounded like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (himself influenced greatly by Neil's distorted proto-grunge.) Neil ended the noise by literally ripping the strings off his guitar and then leaning it up against an amp.

I thought this would be it, but after it quieted down Neil walked to the back of the stage to the raised platform with vibraphone that his wife and back-up singer Pegi Young had been playing earlier in the song. He picked up the mallets, looked mischievously at the crowd and then hit a single clean ringing note.

He then walked off the stage, signaling the true end of the show. I just had to laugh.

As the lights came up and we filed out of the arena, I again tried to soak in the ambiance of the venue, knowing I might not be there again.

set list.

Love And Only Love
Hey Hey, My My
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Spirit Road
Cortez The Killer
Cinnamon Girl
Oh, Lonesome Me
Mother Earth
The Needle And The Damage Done
Light A Candle
Unknown Legend
Heart Of Gold
Old Man
Get Back To The Country
Just Singing A Song
Sea Change
When Worlds Collide
Cowgirl In The Sand
Rockin' In The Free World

e) A Day In The Life

Addendum: the Rant

Him (gray hair, black shirt, black device held to ear) [loudly]: "blah blah, blah-blah, blah, blah"

Neil [somewhat distant]: "Oh-oh lonesome me."

Me [to black device blah-blah man]: "Hey, why don't you go out into the hall with that conversation. Your friend will hear you better and I'll hear Neil better."

Blah-blah man: "Fuck you!"

Me: "Why don't you ask the people around you 'Hey is ok if I talk on my cell through an entire song?'"

Blah-blah man: "Fuck you!"

I then turned around because the counter productivity was evident. I didn't want to argue. I didn't really care about winning a fight I just wanted mannerless Blah-blah man to shut up. It was certainly not every night I get to see Neil. By continuing to talk to him, I was just making matters worse.

He continued to make some rude comments directed towards my back, culminating in the ultimate comeback, "Hey why don't you stand in the back because you're so tall. You're blocking people's view. It's all about consideration." His prior comments negated any weight in this statement.

Throughout this incident, I felt a shaky tight feeling overtake me. It was the fight-or-flight feeling that I remember from the handful of schoolyard fights I've been in. I had this fear that at one point this guy's fist was gonna fly out and connect with my head or that he be waiting after the show to verbally assault me when the lights came up.

And funny, during the 2nd part of this incident, Neil was performing a solo take on "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," a song about respecting the environment. But how could we respect the Earth when we couldn't even respect our fellow concert goers and I was getting showered by "Fuck You's"?

Thankfully nothing bad happened after the initial shouts. Blah-blah stopped blah-blah-ing and the ragged glory of the Neil concert overtook my senses once again.

Still, though, the memory lingers. In hindsight it's kinda funny, but it makes me angry that people would even consider holding a cellphone conversation in the middle of a rock concert.
At any sort of seated orchestral event, red-jacketed ushers would be pulling Blah-blah out towards the exits before he even got out the first sentence. But somehow it'dsOK to get all chatty with an off-site friend just 'cause there's an increased volume and some pot-smoke in the air? I don't buy that.

I can accept having to make an emergency call and I know it's difficult to extract one's self from a packed general admission crowd. I'll give cell talkers a one minute grace period before I get angry. But Blah-blah man was really chatting it up for 2,3,4 minutes of one of the quieter songs of the show.

I can also accept the "hey buddy I wish you were here with me. Neil's playing your song" At this point the caller holds his cell in the air so some distant friend can hear a snippet of the concert in very low audio quality. Heck, I might even do that if I had more minutes on my phone. But that doesn't really involve much talking. And I enjoy the feeling of overflowing excitement that it brings. The "Oh my God, this show is so good I just have to share it with someone right now!" For any extended exchange of information, though, there's a silent little thing called TEXT MESSAGING. I believe some of these new-fangled cellphones have this feature now, though maybe Blah-blah's Blackberry didn't have this option...

*The Avant Gentlemen's Lodge ceased doing shows on a regular basis apparently after some fans, looking for the unmarked warehouse knocked on the wrong door, asking the surprised residents of a nearby house "Is this the Gentlemen's Lodge?" The residents heard "Gentlemen's Lodge" and thought, oh so there's an unlicensed strip club that those scruffy kids are running across the street. The police were called and busted through the door, but were surprised to find an unheated room full of a hundred or so kids in coats twitching to some non-melodic noise coming from some hunched over guys on stage and not a single nude woman. But since there were gross fire code violations and the building was not licensed as a performing venue the police had to shut thegood clean fun down anyway.

Or at least that's how I think it happened.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

35 years ago: a dirigible dream.

I had a joyous, vivid Led Zeppelin dream the other night. The dream put me into the summer of 1973 as a shaggy-headed teenager. In the dream, this Zeppelin performance was my first big show. A sold out arena show was a novelty to me and I was also somehow fully aware of just how culturally/musically important Zeppelin was in 1973 and how legendary they'd become. My shaggy little head knew this was an event of a lifetime.

A 40-something lady ripped my ticket at the gate. She had a big permed-out hairdo. She wasn't a fan of the music per se, but she was living vicariously through all the young fans swarming the venue. She smiled at me. She didn't say anything, but with her eyes and smile she told me "kid, you're in for a treat."

I had floor tickets and made it about half way up to the stage with the lights still up. The crowd was as important as the band for the scene. The buzz of excited talk and kids drunk, stoned, high and happy swirled in the air and passed through me. My natural high oozed out of my pores and steamed from the top of my head and joined the cloud of raucous positive energy in the rafters.

The whole scene of the dream was bathed in the colors of the Song Remains the Same live Zeppelin album/film, which was also recorded in 1973.

The band didn't play much in my dream. The dream was more about anticipation: the wait for the band to start, the floor-stomping, and the gasp and cheer that catches people mid-sentence when the lights go down abruptly. That moment is one of the most joyous things one can experience. Contradictorily, perhaps even more joyous than hearing the performance itself.

Zeppelin called the crowd that swarmed the arenas to see them, "the ocean" and yes, they wrote a song about it that they indeed performed in 1973. This clip captures that joyous human ocean and band sailing on top it, full of themselves, cocky as all hell but sucking me in every time (in dreams and awake) with vicarious rock star exuberance.

(I'm pretty sure this dream of sold-out rock show anticipation was subconsciously inspired by the anticipation of the return to the stage of one of my favorite live acts, Phish, after a five year hiatus. They're playing three nights in a row in Hampton Beach, VA in March. The shows sold out in a fraction of a second. I got shut out. Scalpers are asking ridiculous prices
but I will somehow get in the door and be part of that joyous human ocean when the lights go down on March 6th 2009.)

And of course I'll get to live that joyous lights-go-down in the arena moment in just one more day, when Neil Young takes the stage at the Spectrum...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the first concert I saw was the Grateful Dead in '93...

Fall 2008 has been a great time for me for big rock concerts, especially ones with a jammy bend to them. I've seen the Trey Anastasio Band twice (Trey is the guitarist of Phish for those not in the know) and Phil Lesh and Friends seven(!) times (Phil Lesh was the bassist for the Grateful Dead for those not in the know.) And these big shows have been mixed in with many smaller club and bar shows. The last big show of the season is coming up for me this Friday December 12th when I get to see Neil Young at the Spectrum here in Philly.

Neil at the Spectrum will have special resonance because after 40 years of hosting everyone from Zeppelin, to the Stones, to Floyd, to the Dead, Springsteen, and Phish the arena is slated for demolition in 2009. This will probably be Neil's last show there. And it might be my last time there as well. And I've got floor tickets too!

The Spectrum is gonna be imploded to make way for a retail complex (Yay! God bless the capitalist spirit!) Though who knows if people will actually be buying stuff in 2009 with the way the economy is heading.

So with all these big rock shows in recent memory and one big one coming up, I figure it's a good time to recount my 1st ever big rock show: the Grateful Dead in 1993.:

A few months ago right around the 15th anniversary of its occurrence, I downloaded and listened to this show, from Madison Square Garden, September 20th 1993.

It went something like this:

1: Touch of Grey> Greatest Story Ever Told , Row Jimmy, Race Is On> Dire Wolf, Memphis Blues> Lazy River Road> Johnny B. Goode
2: Samson &Delilah, So Many Roads, Truckin> He's Gone> Drumz*> Other One*> GDTRFB*> Morning Dew
E: Baba O'Riley> Tomorrow Never Knows
*with Edie Brickell on vocals, (last time "Race Is On" was played was 05-04-91)

You folks at home can listen along to the show too, as a streaming source or a download in a variety of qualities:
[Grateful Dead Sept 20, 1993 soundtrack]

I've had a cassette copy of the show for over a decade, but it'd been a while since I'd given it a spin. Listening back it was obvious that it certainly was not a flawless show. The cracks/heroin were beginning to appear, but there are plenty of moments of "this is why I like the Dead!" And the show is very special to me because it was the only time I got to see the Grateful Dead. Many times since Jerry Garcia's death I've seen different configurations of GD members performing (most prominently 43 performances and counting of Phil Lesh and Friends!) but I only saw the original, legendary band once.

Since the band was legendary, and the show was a very important moment in my life--- seeing one of my all-time favorite bands as my first big rock concert--- it's worth writing down everything I remember before it all fades into old age and ether.

I got to got to the show thanks to my dad. He was a complete non-fan, certainly no Deadhead trying to teach his offspring what "good live music" was. Being dragged to a show by Deadhead parents was the way a lot of my peers got their first dose of live Dead. But my dad took me for my 14th birthday because he knew the Grateful Dead were the band I most wanted to see at the time. And he knew he could at least tolerate the GD's music, which he often heard coming from my bedroom.

Taking me to the show still stands as one of the coolest things my Dad has ever done for me. He even went through the complex mailorder process to get the tickets via the official Grateful Dead Ticket Service. As a result, I ended up with a great looking embossed ticket full of sparkles and GD iconography. This is so much better than the generic ticketmaster stock.

Of course I still have the ticket. I keep all my stubs. It was the first in an ever-increasing collection that now numbers in the hundreds and weighs about 5 pounds:

These are all my enduring memories of the evening:

Dad and I took the train in from Somerville, NJ to NYC Penn Station, literally right below Madison Square Garden. Deadheads were all over the platform in that quiet suburb. I remember in particular a middle-aged woman with long straight hair wearing a close-fitting white sweatshirt with the artwork for the Shakedown Street album printed in black on the front. On the platform the Deadheads stood in small clusters discussing the eternal jam band question, "what do you think they'll play tonight?" Switching trains in Newark, I remember lots of denim jackets and vests covered in GD patches on the platform. A man with tall rainbow-colored socks and Birkenstocks got on the same NYC-bound train as us.

On the train ride back to Somerville, after the concert, the conductor repeated each station stop numerous times in a very slow and deliberate manner. After many years of the Dead doing week-long Fall residencies at the Garden, the NJ transit works were probably used to the hordes of Deadheads, many in altered state of mind. With the condescending-style of the homeward-bound station announcements, I think the train workers were on one hand making fun of the fans and on the other hand just trying desperately to get to the end of the line without encountering a slit-eyed beardo in a wrinkled tie-dye still in one of the seats, saying "hey man, where are we? Did I miss the Westfield stop?"

For the show I wore a tie-dyed shirt I'd made the previous month at a Catholic boys summer camp and an olive drab lightweight coat that was a bit heavy for late September weather. In my coat pocket I had a copy of Willa Cather's My Antonia which I had to read for Mrs. Gottlieb's honors English class. I also had a white handkerchief with me that I ended up dropping on the floor of MSG. My Dad told me "just leave it. It's dirty."

Going into the show I knew a little about Deadhead culture and the band's setlist structure. I knew from the books I'd read that the band hadn't played "St. Stephen"-- perhaps my favorite Dead tune at the time--- since 1983. I knew that if the band played it tonight, it'd be a big deal. I knew the setlist was completely different from night to night and that without warning the band would reintroduce songs into the repertoire that hadn't been played live in a decade or more. So hearing "St. Stephen" that night was unlikely but not an impossibility. Of course it didn't happen, but the hope stuck with me to the very last note of he show.

The spun and/or drunk Deadheads in our row made fun of my Dad for being so old, though he was actually 5 years younger than the bearded fat man on stage. One of them mockingly said to my Dad, "what do you normally listen to? Herb Alpert and the Tijiuana Brass?" To me, I think they said something about popping my cherry, not that I knew what that meant.

My dad was excited that he was familiar with the openers of both sets; "Touch of Grey" because it was the Dead's only top 20 hit and that song was hard not hear if one was alive and aware in the mid to late 80s; and "Samson & Delilah" because it came from a folk-blues song that my dad knew from the Peter, Paul, and Mary version. (Incidentally, arguably the only cool concert my Dad saw in his youth was P,P &M at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens with Simon and Garfunkel as the openers(!)) I remember him at MSG singing along to the chorus, uncharacteristically with fist the air: "If I had my way!"

I knew Deadheads wrote each night's setlist down as the show unfolded, so I brought a little spiral notebook to write down what I knew of the set in a hand made crooked by the lack of light. I also knew that in the middle of the second set there'd be a percussion duet followed by a freeform ambient/non-melodic jam. I knew this segment was known as "Drums/Space."

But I still asked " what is this?" to the guy next to me during most song sin the first set until he he said (with slight annoyance) "let's just compare notes after the set." My knowledge of the Dead at that point-- the very beginning of my freshman year of high school-- was patchy at best. I think my GD collection of the time consisted of a well-worn cassette of the Best of/Skeletons From the Closet. That collection was the first Dead recording I ever got. It was the first for a lot of people. It contained everything by the band that I'd heard on early 90s classic rock radio. WNEW on a beat-up 1970s radio was my introduction to the band as I painted Dungeons & Dragons lead miniatures in my parents' New Jersey garage.

I also had Live/Dead (I'd heard of the mystique of "Dark Star" so I had to check it out), In the Dark, Europe '72, and the oddball choice for 2nd ever GD recording in my collection --- One From the Vault. This archival release of a complete 1975 concert was a 12th birthday present that I asked for and received as the first CD I ever owned.

I think I asked for it because of 2 things:
1) I wanted a GD CD with a "Steal Your Face" logo because I loved the design. Of course this logo appeared on One From the Vault. The SYF was what first made me look into the Dead after seeing Tim Jellison (an 8th grader when I was a 6th grader) wearing a SYF tie-dye at a gym dance. I immediately loved the design before evening hearing the band, but even in the infancy of my 70s rock research I'd read numerous times that the original Steal Your Face album--on which the logo very prominently appears, thus giving the design its name -- was awful.
2) I'd heard a version of "Sugaree" on some sort of Jerry Garcia radio interview/special and really liked it. And I knew One From the Vault included a version.

In addition to One From the Vault I also had a cassette of the Blues For Allah album (mildly redundant since OFTV includes superior live versions of every track on it.)

So by age 14, I was certainly a bit more than a novice. I had intimate knowledge of some obscurities, but was also ignorant of some staples--- "Dire Wolf"? never heard of it. "Row Jimmy"? what's that? A real Deadhead could sing every word to these, but I wasn't there just yet.

I remember at one point, before the show or between sets, I told my Dad I wanted to go down to the floor and touch the stage. This was my first rock show, so the whole idea of barriers between stage and crowd and not being able to get to the floor with a 300-level ticket was foreign to me. I half-remember making it to the floor as far as the soundboard. Maybe I got that far because I looked like exactly what I really was, "just a kid," six days away from turning 14.

During the show some tall bearded guys were dancing off to the right of our seats near one of the exits to the hallway. They were eating what looked like brownies with cellophane wrapping. I don't think I knew about "pot food" yet..

I'd never heard "Row Jimmy" or "Memphis Blues" before the night of the concert, but they had such catchy repetitive choruses that I found myself singing along in the Garden before the songs were over.

The song I was most excited hearing that night was, "Truckin.'" I loved its rebellious travelogue narrative. I remember the lights shining in spiraling patterns on the stage left 100&200 sections during "sometimes the lights are shining on me." And I heartily sang along to the most famous of all GD lines, "what a long strange trip it's been!" even though my own Dead trip had just begun...

The one truly unique aspect of this show in the Grateful Dead's history was the one-time-only guest appearance by Edie Brickel doing vocals on a couple of songs. At the time I knew her one big hit, "What I Am" with the New Bohemians but I don't think I figured out for certain who the mysterious long-haired woman on stage was until months later. At the time I thought it might have been Donna Godchaux, back-up singer for the Dead from 1972-1978.

At one point during the show, my dad went to the bathroom, leaving me alone in the seat. While my dad was gone, a woman from the row in front of me turned around and said, "do you want to get blunted?" She held out what I assumed to be a marijuana-filled cigar. This was the first time in my life I'd ever been offered drugs. I could've taken a few ineffectual cough-inducing hits before Dad got back, but I declined the offer without any internal conflict. I really didn't want to smoke ANYTHING. Within two years I'd be calling myself "straightedge" and going to punk and hardcore shows in suburban basements, backyards, and Elks Lodge halls.

After the encore, as the lights were coming up, the Deadhead who I looked to for setlist help turned to me and said, "you just saw a good one."

On the way out of the Garden, I remember someone selling presumably unlicensed t-shirts in the stairwell. Heading back down towards Penn Station I also picked up a couple handouts. One was a religious tract from the 12 Tribes hippie Christian community/cult. And they've had a presence at just about every GD-oriented concert I've been to since then too. Just two months ago, I ran into 12 Tribes literature-distributers outside the Dead reunion Obama campaign benefit concert at Penn State.

That night I also picked up a handout for the new Dicks Picks series of archival live CDs. Volume one from December of '73 was do out later that year. I gave my mom my allowance money and she ordered it for me with her credit card.

Friday, November 7, 2008

808/pacific state!

808/pacific state!
It's feast or famine I guess. Here's the second post in two days, a nice oceanic follow up to yesterday's piece.

I originally wrote this in December of 2006. I just dug it up and tweaked it slightly.

808 State- "Pacific State"--- 1989 Calming, water lapping feet, dolphins dancing. But also neon, strobe, taxi rides, subway trains, coffee, liquor, cigarettes, ecstasy, cocaine, sex, steel, glass, concrete, dense populations, rushing. Either way, a rush. It's kind of sad though with the alto[?] sax bringing melancholy, calling me a loser for not hearing this classic till 16 years after it hit the dance floor. The sax is also of the blues, lamenting the era that has passed that was actually very present when the cut was first blasted on high powered night club PAs. It's a blues in hindsight, because when it was first played, it was new, fresh, innovative. Now the sing-songy looping keyboard synth sounds dated, demolished like the Hacienda itself. You can't go home again.

It also sounds a bit sleazy; the saxophone (or is it clarinet? or a synthetic melding of the two?) and propulsive pounding beat recalls half-remembered, half imagined, always fuzzy porn movies. And the encapsulated sleaze was also very real in '89: the desperate dance floor outing, which leads to the desperate dance floor grind (cock into denim), which leads to the desperate salivating kiss, which leads to the desperate shared cab at 3:30, and the desperate shared bed, and the desperate grinding sheets. And the sleaze is not just pheromonal, it's also synthetic: roughly cut cocaine, and what is dancing with out pills? The song recalls the sleaze of dancing as a means to another end.

But the song sounds lonely, recalling the nearly empty dance floor perhaps on an off night near close, or 10PM when no one with self-consciousness has yet made an appearance. It recalls the sleaze of 80s excess (and timeless excess: Excess then! Excess now! Excess later!) but also the spirituality of the solitary dancer, out for the beat and not the hook up.

And it also sounds dangerously close to smooth jazz: the saxophone, a trapping of the true Blue Note, re-contextualized with a propulsive beat to become waiting room wallpaper.

"Pacific State" has both beauty and cheese, but it's the mix that saves it from the smooth pap. There's a hint of rawness in its sailing. It's dangerously close to smooth jazz, but danger can be beautiful. It makes the heart beat fast.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ocean Blue Sunshower!

It's been a while since a song has grabbed me by the throat and made me fall in love with it before I'm even finished hearing it for the first time. But that just happened, now. (OK, actually exactly 12 minutes ago). I was dreaming in my kitchen with an internet radio station on and then all of a sudden this song hit:

Immediately I was headbopping. This was ecstatic pop with a UK lilt and a guitar riff straight out of The Edge's soaring, reverberant U2* playbook of U2's*. The song sounded both like an artifact of the mid 80s and a timeless droplet coming down from heaven through a hole in my roof. It had me turning up the volume and dancing around my kitchen.

One could call the song's sound "derivative," but what does that matter? It's made me deliriously happy.

And now I've found it online and have listened to it on repeat 5 times through. I'm enjoying the (apparently) American vocalist's wavering between British affectation and slightly off-key sincerity. It's making me nostalgic for some mid 90s high school love affair I never had. And the song's adding sun to this showering November morning.

I'm a sucker for upbeat songs about heartbreak. They're bittersweet. I can relate. "Bittersweet" seems a summation of my life. Joy and disappointment always seem to go hand in hand.

So who is it? What is it? The song is "Sunshower" by The Ocean Blue, originally released on an EP in 2004....I've never heard of the Ocean Blue before, though apparently they started in this part of the world (Hershey, PA--- the land of chocolate) and have been around since 1987. Now I'm debating whether to listen to more of their stuff or just keep blasting "Sunshower" on repeat. I fear I may have stumbled upon their best song first and am just setting myself for disappointment if I delve beyond this 3 and half minute pop gem.

*(while a rather lightweight fan of U2's catalog overall, the band's ecstatic soaring guitar debut "Boy" is one of my favorite albums of all time)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Today is my birthday, fittingly this is one of my favorite songs...

I turned 29 shortly after 8 this morning.
and this song is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard:

the Sugarcubes- "Birthday" (live)

The big ball of joy,sorrow, and mystery wrapped up in Bjork's "oh, oh, oh, ohwoahweeohh" brings tears to my eyes.

at 3:47, I think Bjork is saying " her birthday" but I swear it sounds like "Sebastian"!

It might sound ridiculous, but it's gems like this that keep me alive in tough times...

Monday, May 12, 2008

1236 words about Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" (with Kerouac + the Cruise +Empire Records digressions.)

I wish it could always feel like this:

That video is a pretty good translation of what it's like inside my head when my mood swings up (which has happened NOW).

I feel ridiculously happy, boundlessly energetic, young, invincible, twitchy, and a bit incoherent. Like the visuals here, my mind jumps from one thing to the next. The world feels beautifully dizzying and I have trouble articulating how I feel to anyone outside my skull.

And often there's music playing. If my mood swing isn't accompanied by good music actually playing nearby, then I bring my own music. When headphones aren't available I just let music play inside my head from memory. Often during these swings, this very Sonic Youth song is the one playing in my head.

This song calls for speed. As in velocity, not meth. The tempo is fast and I find it hard to sit still when it's playing. I always thought this song would be great for the opening of a late 80s left-field teen movie:

The movie opens with our hero in bed in a messy bedroom, mattress on floor, Gibson and amp in the corner, Clash poster on the wall. He's overslept. He wakes with a start as Thurston's riff kicks, realizing he has to be at his job at the pizza joint across town in 5 MINUTES! He runs out the door while still buttoning his jeans. His mom tries to kiss him, nearly getting knocked over in the rush. "What's the hurry, honey?!" she says in surprise and mild distress.

Moments later, our hero is on his bike, pedaling furiously. He passes by characters on the sidewalk who we'll get to meet later in this unmade movie. The look in his eyes tells the movie-goer that our hero is a bit nervous, but he's glad to be alive on a sunny late morning in California (because where else could a late 80s teen movie take place? That stuff has to be GOLDEN, palmed!)

He skids into the pizza shop parking lot. A Pepsi or Coke sign is on the building's wall (for sly product placement.) The paunchy middle-aged boss is standing at the door in his apron. He looks at his watch and then at our hero, now running towards the door from his bike with a slight sheen of sweat. The boss shakes his head. This is obviously not the first time our high school hero has been late. A barely perceptible smile creeps onto the boss' face, as if to say "oh you crazy rascal. You're a good kid. I was once like you, so I'll let you go this one last time."

As Thurston closes the song with "...on the riot trail" the camera goes for a close up of our winded hero's face. He wipes his brow and exhales, relieved as he walks inside for another day at the pizza shop. But we all know that since it's a movie, this will be ANYTHING BUT just another day at the pizza shop...

Quite honestly, that doubly fictitious screenplay excerpt has played in my head a number of times as my own actions and reality have mirrored that of our pizza-tossing hero. I've run out the door and hopped on my bike many mornings running late.
I take Springfield Ave to 47th. 47th to the Gaey's Ferry Bridge. On the Bridge I dodge broken glasses and nails in the barely existent bike lane while below me there's a brief marshy stretch of post-industrial wasteland along the banks of the Schuylkill. Then I turn right at the FedEx and boom! i'm at work. Just behind FedEx is the lot for Philadelphia Trolley Works/Big Bus Company. I work as a tour guide on top of a double decker bus.

It's sort of like this, except less nasally, obviously not in NYC, and in color:

Yes, my job might seem more interesting than that of our pizza shop protagonist. But I'm 10 years older than our hero, inevitably less handsome than the Corey look-alike who'd get cast in the movie and my boss isn't a fatherly small town business owner. Instead my boss is a cheapskate millionaire who barely maintains the 30 year old fleet of diesel-spewing vehicles, views his workers as expendable, and might just be cheating on his taxes.

Should I even put that in print?

Regardless, when I get to work sweaty, out of breath, and late there's no benevolent head shake and subtle smile. There's only the threat that I'll be removed from the schedule. And on rare occasions I have been sent home.

But when I do make it to work by the skin of my teeth (and the strength of my upper legs) I feel satisfied and alive. My blood is flowing and my heart's pounding. I've gone from 0 to wired in 10 minutes. "Teenage Riot" in my head is often the propulsion.
I sing it in my head, but I NEVER have it on headphones when biking.

For the record, I think riding with headphones in traffic is stupid and dangerous. If you throw in a fixed gear and no helmet, it's even more stupid. And this is coming from someone who broke his leg in a bike accident 2 1/2 years ago. So people you know DO get seriously hurt in bike accidents....rant over...and now back to our regularly scheduled RIOT-----

Sonic Youth had an incredible missed opportunity when they played a rare DIY(ish) R5 Productions show at the Starlight Ballroom here in Philly in the summer of '06. Naturally the show was sold out. Naturally it was incredibly hot. And not surprisingly, SY was late taking the stage. The fans were packed in and restless. Everyone was ready to rock out. "Teenage Riot"--- a classic beloved by hardcore fan and casual listener alike would've been the perfect opener. But no, the show started with a song off their most recent album, "Rather Ripped." It had been released just a few days prior. It seemed like few fans in attendance had heard the album and fewer had had time to digest and appreciate it.

Soon I'd grow to love "Rather Ripped." And while I may be in the minority here, it's become my favorite SY album. I like it better than then classic Daydream Nation that includes "Teenage Riot." Blasphemy? Perhaps, but I can't argue with the fact that I play DD maybe once for every 5 times I play RR.

Still, "Teenage Riot" is a great song and one of the best in the Sonic catalog. Anticipating the band taking the stage, I had visions of the entire place singing along to "Teenage Riot", people stage diving and generally losing their shit out of pure reckless joy.

Oh well. I'm sure the band has played the song literally hundreds of times. And their newer material is probably more meaningful and satisfying for them to play these days.
So it's understandable why they'd open the show with a new one.

But back to the song's video:

It captures the excitement of the song in a non-linear way that suggests the frenzy of my hypo-manic moodswing mind and what it's like to be teenager on a sugar high** . The video doesn't try to tell a story to go along with the song. It just gives a picture of pure yet unsteady energy and creative drive. And happiness! Everyone is smiling in the video. The 8mm footage of the band rocking out cartoonishly throughout the video makes them seem like a bunch of high schoolers in a basement who can't play their instruments but still have a great time making up for that lack with excitement and attitude. And then you've got guest appearances by a cavalcade of stars. These are the heroes of Sonic Youth. And some of them were my heroes too, intensely admired in my volatile high school days.

Each time I've watched the video, I've caught more faces.

Here's a partial list (some of these may be wrong since these clips shift so quickly) Quite literally, if you blink you might miss some one:

Patti Smith (twice!), Paul Reubens, Kiss, Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac*, Henry Rollins, the Beach Boys, Sun Ra, Neil Young, MC5 (or at least their White Panther button), the Minutemen, Ian MacKaye, Joni Mitchell, and William Burroughs.
And during the instrumental break around the 3 minute mark, the visuals switch to a few seconds of just colored stage lights, evoking the feeling of incoherent "pure yet unsteady energy."

*This brief view of Kerouac comes from my favorite clip of him. Of all the heroes shown in the video, Kerouac was probably the most important and influential on me. I was drawn to the myth of Kerouac and the freewheelin' hitch-hiking life. I was fascinated that Kerouac's own writing and life didn't quite live up to his myth's promise.
He was a flawed, anxious, angry, alcoholic, contradictory, misogynist, bigoted man. He also wrote a lot of self-indulgent crap. And he kind of wrote the same book 10 times. But when he was good, he was GREAT. And he had a wonderful speaking voice. Most of his jazz + spoken word recordings don't really mesh. But this one does. This is everything I love about Kerouac condensed into three and a half minutes.

I love the way he says the word "rags" and his accompanying facial expression at 3:10.
His lost puppy dog expression during the closing applause makes me want to reach through the years give him a hug.

I read in his Selected Letter that he vomited immediately after leaving the stage.

**Also, while I'm off on a tangent, "Teenage Riot" would've made a much better closing song than "Sugar High" for the awful Empire Records movie. If Renee Zellweger and company had mimed on the marquee to this tune instead of what they actually used then maybe (just maybe) that movie could've been salvaged.

This relates to my 80s teen movie screenplay idea, though Empire Records was actually mid 90s vintage. I saw the movie for the first time this past year. And my initial urge was to throw the VHS to the curb. Any movie set at a record store has SO MUCH POTENTIAL (and "Hi Fidelity" actually delivered on that potential more or less.) There are so many opportunities to slip in music nerdiness-- such as cult classic bands on the sound track, cult classic band posters shown fleetly in the background of scenes, cult classic bands at least mentioned by the characters.

But no! Despite being set at a independent record store, fighting fiercely to maintain its independence, the Empire Recods store is a thinly-veiled shopping mall Sam Goody's. And on top of the disappointment of the movie's denial of the existence of any non-mainstream music,the plot calls for disbelief to be suspended at least 90 percent of the time. At least I saw the film after I already knew what could and could not happen in teenage lives. I feel bad for the kids who saw this when they were 12 and thought, "gee whiz, when I get to high school, it's gonna be awesome!"

Some of my friends love this movie out of pure nostalgia, but watching it just made me angry. The movie feels like a product of 50 year old suit-and-ties sitting around a Hollywood boardroom saying "now how can we tap into today's youth market?" but then moving forward on the project without actually consulting anyone younger than forty.

On the plus side, Liv Tyler is very attractive in the movie. As a product of Catholic Schooling, her short plaid skirts equal nostalgic hotness for me, though I think I prefer her as an elf.

Friday, May 9, 2008

1170 words about the Mission of Burma LP reissues

NEWS FLASH: After finishing this up a few days ago, it was announced that Mission of Burma will be playing Philadelphia Friday 6/27 at the First Unitarian. The show will center around songs from their 1st two records "Signals Call and Marches" and "Vs." Tickets are on sale this Sunday 5/11. $18. I urge you to get one. I promise you won't regret it.

This may come across as an advertisement for the recent Mission of Burma LP reissues--- and maybe it is--- but it comes from the heart (the Ace of Hearts!) and I'm not getting a kickback for it. I have the urge to gush because the vinyl reissues of "Signals, Calls and Marches" "Vs." and "the Horrible Truth About Burma" have made me so happy recently. They look, sound, and feel great.

I never before had "real" copies of any of these albums, just faceless CDRs. But the full package experience has been so much more satisfying. I've been a big fan of vinyl since even before round physical mediums of music storage became obsolete. And these Burma records only increase my love.

So what makes these records so great? Well, first off, they're very satisfying musically. It's early 80s Bostonian post-punk. The songs are catchy and melodic, yet angular and threaded through by the tape loop experiments of off-stage member Martin Swope.
Swope took the sounds made by the guitar/bass/drums and voices of Roger Miller/Clint Conley /Peter Prescott, played around with them and spit them back into the mix as reconfigured textural elements.

You non-fans out there may already be familiar with what might be Burma's two most catchy anthemic songs-- "Academy Fight Song" and "That's When I Reach For My Revolver." Both are great angsty fist-in-the-air sing-a-longs.

The reissue packaging is also beautiful-- thick gatefold covers with booklets of present day interviews with the band and well-captioned pictures of the band in their heyday and pictures of original lyric sheets and equipment diagrams. And while the original releases were single records, they've all been rereleased with bonus tracks. And the bonus tracks are included on separate discs so preserved is the original flow of the albums (Ok "Signals..." is technically an EP.) And none of these bonus tracks is a sloucher either.

And the vinyl itself is heavvvy: 180 gram, maybe twice the weight of a "regular" LP. This heavy, high-quality vinyl is not only less prone to warping, it also also makes the music grooved on it seem more substantial since the medium is so weighty. Listening to these records there's a bit of synesthesia. The packaging and black plastic seem to merge with the sounds so it all seems to be coming at you through the speakers. You can't get this feeling from an mp3.

Admittedly vinyl is an inconvenient medium when moving about. But that's OK. These Burma LPs come with a free mp3 download of the whole album, so you get the best of both worlds. And that's good for me right NOW. While writing this, I'm sitting with headphones and a laptop in a coffee shop where I can't very well be spinning my 180 gram vinyl beauties.

And along with the bonus tracks and mp3s you get a live DVD with each set. And most of this video footage has never before been released. The 1980 footage included shows the band looking sweaty and nerdy, with their fans equally sweaty and nerdy. The 1979 footage is a bit botched by over-ly "arty" effects and twitchy angle shifts, but at least it sounds good. The '83 footage that fills 2 of the 3 DVDs covers both their final Boston shows. At these they look a bit cooler and more sure of themselves. But Roger Miller still looks pretty nerdy wearing rifle range ear protectors to try to keep his band-ending tinnitus from getting worse.

In this '83 footage, the Boston fans seem a bit confused by the band. Even this home town crowd didn't seem as if it really knew what to make of the group--- not quite punk, but shouty and aggressive, incorporating tape loops yet not wholly "experimental" because there are verses and choruses and plenty of melody. Their music falls into the very broad category of "indie rock" (which was just then emerging in the early 80s)--- but I guess the band was ahead of their time. For the Boston late show (21+) the front row just bobs their heads. There's not much visible singing along or enraptured audience gestures and only one or two stage dives.

This was the home coming show on their LAST TOUR (until the 2002 reformation) and the crowd knew this. Yet no one seems to lose their shit.

In the coming years, people would come to realize the greatness of Burma but "you don't know what you got til it's gone." We've now had 25 years to digest, study, and appreciate what Burma 1.0 left us. And if you could send some early 00s indie fans back in a time machine to Boston '83 they'd certainly lose their shit, sweatily singing along to every word....well at least I would.

And thankfully us early oh-oh-ers again have an opportunity to lose our shit and sweatily sing along. For the last five years, Mission of Burma has been back together with the nearly original line-up (the revered Bob Weston replaced Martin Swope on the loops) and the original energy and inspiration have been retained. They've released 2 more great albums, on par with the 80s material and can still put on a great show. It's inspiring that 50 year olds can perform new and old tunes that do justice to a legacy started nearly 30 years ago.

And if you want proof, here's a well recorded 2007 show that you can stream or download:
Mission of Burma in Atlanta, January 13th, 2007

And for two nights next month in NYC on the band will be present the whole Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (6/14) and Vs. (6/15) so you can almost build a successful time machine to the early 1980s

I'll be in NYC on June 15th, but unfortunately, I've already got tickets to see the equally amazing (yet totally different) time warp of Iron Maiden at Madison Square Garden. Oh Lord why must I have to choose?

But back to 1983 and the issue of the original Burma fans NOT losing their shit: the band really didn't do too much outreach to get the fans riled up. There was no "we'll miss you, thanks for 4 years!" speeches. There's very little stage banter at all at these shows. But the band plays really well. And it seems just the music itself should've been enough to whip the kids into a frenzy.

A frenzy gets whipped up and frothy at the early, all-ages show. There are kids stage diving during every song. But the frenzy seems arbitrary. It seems disconnected from the music onstage. I get the feeling the kids heard there was a punk show at the Bradford and just came out to stage dive with no knowledge of who the band was.
This clip exemplifies the disconnection:

" Trem Two" is a slower tempo song that's melancholy in mood and probably the least likely candidate in the set for stage diving. And yet the kids end up on the stage in full-force and end up sort of awkwardly slow-dancing in front of the band.

And when "Peking Spring" gets kicked out, the kids don't seem to go nearly as nuts as they should if they were really up on Burma's music. To my ears, this song is a perfect synthesis of punk energy and singable melody. In all fairness, the song remained unreleased until after Burma's first demise. But still, there's a great groove-filled "woah-oh" section that is just calling out for a good old mosh and sing-along. And yet the audience isn't visibly moved.

I'm fully in support of people dancing around and knocking into each other when they "feel it." I'm certainly one to lose my shit and spin around crazily when I fall inside the music I love. But I also agree with Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and I despise "violence disguised as dancing." And McKaye's early band definitely attracted a lot of aggressive dance (as the Minor Threat live video/DVD, also from 1983, shows)

though that DC dance and mosh seemed more of a community event. The kids seemed a lot more connected to the actual songs and there was plenty of singing along.

I get the feeling that all the stage diving at the Burma show was just a display of rebellious machismo. With the exception of one girl, it's all dudes doing the diving. Sweaty, often shirtless dudes too. These divers are not holy. They look and act like the people who arbitrarily moshed, kickboxed, and stage dove at shows during the era of my own punk/hardcore/emo show-going (1998-2002ish.) And I have a feeling that meat heads just like this are still spewing their testosterone at shows in 2008.

At the Burma all-ages Boston finale I only noticed one stage diver singing along. He steps to the mic and joins in for one chorus of 'Revolver." Oh well. The crowd kinda takes away from the music instead of adding to it. Roger just smirks away as the kids dive and dive. For a while the white-shirted staff tries to keep the kids under control. And at one point two cops come out and stand menacingly at the front of the stage for part of a song, providing unintentional donutty comedy. But eventually the authorities give up and give in. The stage monitors are just moved to the side to save them from the fray. And the kids dive on.

The clips that are posted online are from early in the show before the wide-spread stage-diving starts. Still, near the beginning of the clip below security practically rips the shirt off of a diver in flight and at the end of the clip you can see the crew removing some of the stage monitors in anticipation of a continuing onslaught. And in this segment you also get a fine "Red" with Swope-ian sound effects:

The awkward band-crowd dynamic makes the DVDs not wholly satisfying. But over half this footage has never been released previously. And each hour-long DVD comes as a BONUS to a full album's worth of audio. The camera angles are also very good (for the '83 footage) and it's an honest uncut document. (yes, I feel like a saleman here, but really, MoB isn't giving me a cent for any of this and I honestly think your life will be improved by the inclusion of these discs in your collection.)

Perhaps the reissues were just a money-grab for these aging Bostonians. But I get the feeling that a whole lot of care was put into these sets. The photos and layouts look great in glossy 12x12. Paging through the booklet while one of these records spins on your turntable (with the tone arm tracking set properly to 1.5 grams of course) you get quite a wonderful experience. You get a satisfying audio/visual package missing from a lot of today's albums and mp3 releases.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

572 words about Birds of Maya and Earth (May 5 2008)

I saw Kayo Dot, Birds of Maya, and Earth at Johnny Brenda's bar last night (May 5 2008) here in Philadelphia.

My experience during Birds of Maya's set was wonderful. They played beautiful heavy, fuzzy psych in the vein of early Sabbath. While they played, I closed my eyes and opened my mind to free associations across the blank black canvas of my lids.

Images built off of what I saw just before I closed my eyes. The images started with something in the room--- the shape of the singer/bassist hunched over his instrument or the arm of the person in front of me-- but with eyes closed and no outside visual stimulation for minutes on end, things morphed. My eyelids became a playground for my subconscious: images of my family's 1st home in Piscataway, NJ (1979-88), old lovers, abstract blobs.

All this came and went, shifting like a collage or a montage while I rocked back and forth with Birds of Maya's music washing over me. Every time someone accidentally bumped into me in passing, this trance, these visions would be broken. My eyes would open and I'd be rudely returned from the clouds and dropped back down into a Fishtown hipster bar.

At one point with my eyes open, I saw the singer/bassist crouched on the floor with his boom mike pushed down low and his bass propped up on his knee. I thought he'd been bowled over by the power of his band's own music , but after the set I learned from my friends that his guitar strap had simply broken, apparently while my eyes were closed, necessitating his awkward position.

BoM's set seemed to end too quickly. I think they actually played for 30-35 minutes, though it felt more like 20. But my perception was altered---- self-altered in a way, aided by good strong music.

As many of you know, I don't do drugs and I never have. But I like trying to experience something analogous to drugs through my own mental and sensory power. I like the idea of temporary "mind alteration." but I don't like the idea of the cost of drugs, the side effects, the possible physical and psychological addictions, the frequent injustice involved in their preparation, and the inability to "come down" at will when under the influence.

Drugs play off of the chemicals and circuitry already in place in the brain. I like seeing how far the brain can take itself just through internal and sensory stimuli. This seems to be a life-long experiment. And I take comfort knowing that I can come down nearly immediately if a situation around me requires a "level-headed" response.

Music doesn't always have such a powerful effect on me as it did last night. This was my 4th or 5th time seeing Birds of Maya and the first time I had a near-psychedelic experience. With my anxieties and racing thoughts it's infrequent that I can actually just let music wash over and have a drug-like effect on me. But I'm grateful that I CAN have this experience at all, without any "supplementary" substances, even if only happens occasionally.

Here's a clip of Birds of Maya, also recorded at Johnny Brenda's, late in 2006. I think they also opened with this song at the show last night. This video is choppy (as if half the frames are dropped) giving the band the appearance of dancers beneath a strobe. But the blurry, altered natured of the visuals suggests the altered nature of my own colorful closed-lid experience as the band played.

And the fuzzy sound is pretty spot on document of how the band sounds live.

Though Birds of Maya was the unexpected highlight, Earth was the headliner.

Earth's set, which came all (or mostly) from their newest album, was dark and beautiful--- doomy, instrumental country played at a heavy-hitting molasses pace. But by the time Earth hit the stage, it was nearly midnight and I was very aware of my tired legs. This made it difficult to fully lose myself in the music.

The standout of their set was the closing piece. Guitarist/mastermind Dylan Carson announced (sans microphone) that it would be a bonus track on the upcoming vinyl release of the most recent Earth album ("And the Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull.) This bonus track had a jagged trombone(!) line and a glacial yet catchy guitar riff.

I'm glad I haven't bought the album yet and have just been tiding myself over with a pirate download. Now I will certainly hold out for next month's release of the (inevitably) beautifully-packaged LP edition.

Here are two clips of Earth from the European leg of their tour earlier this year. The pieces accurately characterize the dark yet slow and relaxing flavor of the band's set last night

This second clip is the trombone "LP bonus track" tune that I enjoyed so much:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

994 words about an impromptu Patti Smith performance 4-15-08 at the Philly Film fest.

I wasn't expecting to see a Patti Smith concert on Tuesday night. But sure enough, I did. It was intimate, acoustic, and impassioned

Well, maybe "concert" gives the wrong idea. Patti Smith can easily perform an hour and half to two hours of songs, covers, and improvised poetic rants at one of her scheduled concerts. But this was just an impromptu few songs. It happened at the Prince Music Theatre as part of the closing-night festivities of the Philadelphia Film Fest. After a screening of the documentary film she did with Steven Sebring, "Patti Smith: Dream of Life" she came out and did a Q&A. And after the Q&A she said "well I might as well play a few songs."

Guitars and her guitarist-son, Jackson, were brought out. For me this was a bonus on top of a bonus on top of a bonus. I slept on getting tickets for the "Dream of Life" screening and it got sold out. But last week, a friend said she had an extra ticket and invited me to come along. Then at the theater, just before the film started, the emcee announced that Patti would be coming out after the screening for a Q&A. Apparently her Q&A appearance had already been announced, but since I wasn't following the Fest closely and it wasn't announced on Patti's website, I was ignorant. Once it was announced that Patti was in the building, I knew a performance of songs or poetry was a possibility but I wasn't really sure it was gonna happen until the guitars were brought out.

As Patti and Jackson came out there was a moment of discussion as they decided what to play. I shouted out for "Beneath the Southern Cross," my favorite of her acoustic songs. But my request went unheeded. Instead she refreshed Jackson on some chords and the they did "Grateful," a song that Patti had previously said was inspired by the smiling grey-bearded face of Jerry Garcia.

The venue and both of the Smiths on stage seemed only semi-prepared for the performance. The house lights were kept on and it didn't seem as if Jackson's guitar was mic'ed for the first song and Patti's guitar seemed slightly out of tune. And by her own admission Patti can't really play guitar despite having attacked one on stage from time to time for the last 30 years. But I enjoyed the ragged nature of it. After appearing larger than life on the big screen for two hours as part of a film that seemed to be aiming to increase the myth of Patti's mystical, goddess nature here she was just a hundred feet from me stumbling through a song with the child she had in the 1980s with Fred Smith (yes, Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5)

After the first song, I was hoping Patti would decide to honor my request for "Southern Cross," but then someone shouted out for "Because the Night." I groaned. It's undeniably a great song, but I think it's very over-played. Patti has dozens of great songs, but still "Because the Night" is the only song of hers that ever gets played on classic rock radio. It's her only hit single and it's the only song that the average non-fan knows (either through the original or the successful 10,000 Maniacs cover.) For such a rare, intimate performance , I was hoping for a rarely-played gem.
But "Because the Night" IS a great song, so I wasn't going to groan too much. And after checking with Jackson that he could actually play the song and acknowledging that the song was hard to pull off without drums, Patti launched into a near-definitive version of the song. Her voice, perhaps a bit tentative for the opening song, soared!
And the crowd took up the invitation to join her on the chorus. I felt a great feeling of community. The hardcore fans, the casual fans and the unknowing curious were united. Because everybody knows "....the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to lust." For a moment I shed my elitest super-fan attitude and was freshly swept up into the beauty of the song.

Patti then acknowledged the upcoming Pennsylvania primary and gave subtle support for the divisive Ralph Nader. Fittingly, she then launched into "People Have the Power" from the Dream of Life album. The song has a anthemic fist-in-the-air quality. It was relevent when she wrote it at the tail-end of Reaganism and it's still relevant at the tail-end of Bushist. The sentiment of the song seems a bit too dreamy and optimistic for my cynical "Darkly" self but every time I hear it live, I get swept up in the song.

The album version, ironically, lacks power. Its late-80s production is too smooth. It dilutes the raw righteous joyous anger of the piece. But on-stage the song really soars. The melody is simple enough to be carried effectively by a single acoustic guitar. The simple repetitive chorus lends itself to singing along. And "People Have the Power" sounds more POWER-ful when the People in their seats sing along.

And that was it. After 3 songs, the mini-concert was over. Patti simply walked off the stage through the crowd and out the door. I left feeling lifted.

Apparently Patti went to use the theater's public restrooms, just one of "the people" acting on universal necessity. Acting on that same urinous necessity, I passed Patti in the hallway. I was hoping she'd just get a few pats on the back with people saying "that was a great performance." But instead she immediately got surrounded by an autograph-hungry crowd wielding sharpies and LPs. She didn't seem enthusiastic. The bathroom hallway was a small space to start with. And with a starstruck mob it quickly turned into pure claustrophobia. Patti humored the crowd for a moment, signing a few things. She told people to back off and give her some space. I could see the anxiety in her eyes. Then she just gave up and with the help of her associates (friends? guards?) she pushed through the crowd and was gone.

It was a slight blemish on an otherwise wonderful event.

You probably noticed I didn't write anything yet about the actual documentary "Patti Smith: Dream of Life." And that's because the actual live performance was far and away the highlight of the evening. Steven Sebring's film was a documentary in the loosest sense. It was non-linear, non-chronological. It was a collage of performance, backstage, home, and travel footage spanning from Patti's mid 90s return to the stage and recording studio and onward to the mid 00s. I actually looked at my watch twice during the film, a sure sign that I found it less than enthralling.

I wanted a film that made Patti seem real. I wanted someting that got me inside Patti's head, and past the myth of her as a witchy mystic. But there was too much footage of her walking in graveyards and dancing in flowing dresses on beaches. It seemed more like an extended music video. It seemed like Patti acting out the narrators of all her songs. In grainy black and white, there was too much "art" and not enough "life."
I love Patti's art. That's why I have her poetry books, all her albums, and have seen her in concert 5 times. But the documentary, fitting to its title gave us just a dream of Patti and not enough of her real life.

There were a few really gratuitous moments that dragged. Towards the end, she and Flea (yes, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) were shown a beach playing trumpet and clarinet respectively. They then went on to exchanging awkward peeing stories.
Perhaps this was supposed to show her a a real, fluid-filled person. But it provided no insight and only a few cheap laughs.

Short of providing insight into her life, I'd hoped the film would at least include a lot of great performance footage. But there was surprisingly little of that. What was included was fragmented and interspersed with other sounds and scenes. The on truly great on-stage piece was a joyous excerpt of her and her band playing the feisty, controversial "Rock and Roll Nigger" during her first tour after 16 years. Everyone on stage was smiling and moshing with one another as they all huddled around the microphones shouting the song's chorus, "OUTSIDE of SOCIETY!"

The film's most sweetly insightful segment was of Patti with her parents in their humble South Jersey abode. Patti's mom said her favorite piece by her daughter was the "Horses/Gloria" medley. Patti's mom served burgers and coffee as she showed her collection of cow trinkets and she and Patti's dad talked about going to see their daughter perform at one of her sound checks at the Troc. Patti's mom (and maybe her dad now too) recently died and the segment was a candid tribute to a family that was earthy and "normal" but loving and highly supportive of their firebrand, arty, iconoclast daughter. Seeing Patti's parents at home made me think of my own normal yet very supportive parents in their own humble abode (also in New Jersey.)

I also enjoyed the inclusion of a few haunting clips of lo-fi home recordings of Patti and Fred "Sonic" Smith working on songs not long before his death.

The most overall moving, powerful part of the documentary was the audio of Patti performing the Declaration of Independence. She read the document, which seems eerily fitting for current times under the tyrannical rule of another George. And this reading morphed into her direct indictment of Bush's crimes against the environment, war crimes, crimes against civil liberties, and crimes against flooded New Orleans. Different points of this indictment got loud cheers from different sections of the crowd.

When I saw Patti perform at UPENN in the Fall of 2003, she performed a segueing "medley" of the Declaration>Indictment of Bush>People Have the Power that got me all riled up, cheering, and singing along with my fist in the air. And hearing it again as part of the film was nearly as powerful.

Here's the one clip of the documentary that I could find on youtube. It's not particular insightful and in that way it's sort of representative of the film.

Also, for anyone looking to recreate the experience of my evening as closely as possible. Here's the nearly complete Q&A session with Steven Sebring and Patti Smith.

part 1:

part 2:

Friday, April 11, 2008

The First Attack of the Rising Sun (1040 words about Philly all-night techno parties)

There were no good youtube clips available that were applicable to this blog. Kate Simko's music was the inspirational force behind my writing this. Her set of minimal techy housey goodness was the highlight of the March 8th party. But all I could find of her online were poor-quality 30-sec bass-distorted cellphone video clips. So instead, while reading this, listen to this mix. It's Kate Simko spinning a great 3 1/2 hour set in Philly at Inciting HQ from this past summer:

"The First Attack of the Rising Sun"--- this is the name of a bootleg of Led Zeppelin's first ever concert in Japan (Sept 23, 1971 in Tokyo.) "Rising Sun" refers to Japan's "Japanese" name ("Nippon.") Nippon translates to the "Land of the Rising Sun," acknowledging Japan's extreme position in the far east. By itself, taken apart from the wonderful recording of a classic Zep show, that title, "The First Attack of the Rising Sun" is poetic yet ambiguously sinister. Sunrises are a universally accepted example of natural beauty and a sign of hope, yet "attack" brings with it is a violent negative destructive image. And I like this contrast of images.
That "first attack" could reference the deadly 1941 strike on Pearl Harbor. Or the "first attack" could refer to an unwanted dawn--- something dreaded by vampires and attendees of all-night dance parties.

Last month, I was an all-night dancer. It was 5 or 6AM depending on whether one factors in the daylight "spring ahead." I came home just as dawn was breaking. It was so quiet after the warehoused bass receded. I could hear the creaking of my bike's little imperfections as I pedaled home. The passing buses were empty except for what looked like some brutally early morning commuters working the Lord's day of rest.

Minimal techno was the musical menu for the party I'd just left. MNML isn't very sexy music. I think that's part of why I like it. It's not sexy, but it moves the shoulders, arms and legs. It's played usually when people are gathered--at parties--but its minimal nature creates a spacious atmosphere. People dance to it together, but there's an introspection to it. Each person lost in his/her world. There's dancing in close proximity to one another, but the beats are generally too fast and clipped for bump and grind.

"Minimal" means no more than necessary; no full kit sound when a simple snare click will do. The rhythms are still strong and at times there are even little looping melodies. But the music is less dense than the kind of techno you might remember from bad high school parties in echoing gymnasiums and Jock Jams CDs.

The minimal nature gives the music a consistently propulsive yet often floating nature. There's none of the slap-in-the-face snares and punch-in-the-gut 4/4 bass kicks. That more heavy-handed techno has a tendency to make me feel pummeled into the ground. It was that sort of aggressive techno that turned me off to the idea of electronic dance music for so long.

In MNML the bass often cuts out, giving it more emphasis when it drops back in. In MNML there are peaks and valleys. There's a continual tension between repetition and change. The music will start repeating a phrase, one begins to think "is the vinyl/CD/mp3 skipping?" And then at the last moment, as one is just resolving to go to the DJ booth and say "WTF?!"---bam!---the music changes. The click is filled out with funky bass rolls, briefs pockets of density, vocal fragments, fists in the air.

And in MNML there aren't any "songs." There's just a continuous evolving rhythm lasting for hours on end. In the crowd there's no anxiety of "Oh they better play THIS song, THAT song, etc." Michael Jackson doesn't exist in a MNML set. There's are no lovers of Billie Jean here. There are no requests. Even techno tracks that one might have at home are cross-faded, combined, and re-EQed. Tracks are remastered in real time, looped, sped up, and slowed down so they are often virtual unrecognizable.

The police showed up 3 or 4 times at the LAVA party in March. They were polite from what I witnessed. They're probably aware of fire code violations, illicit substances, and under age drinking going on in the laser-lit darkness just past the metal door. But they also seemed to realize that the people were well-behaved. There was no shouting on the streets, or curbside vomiting. The party was self-contained except for the bass which oozed through the loose mortar for a block around.

The cops said they were there because neighbors complained. They'd show up and the volume would be cut accordingly. Then as soon as they left the floor shaking-bass would be dropped back in again with a rebellious cheer from the crowd. The cops had gone but the neighbors hadn't. They still had to suffer as 3 o'clock became 4 became 5.

Ironically the venue, LAVA, is subtitled "a radical community center." But here we were with our techno, primarily sweaty white kids dancing in the dark in the middle of a primarily black low-income neighborhood fucking over whatever community is at 42nd and Lancaster Avenue. The image of poor black folks with paint-peeling walls and cotton balls in their ears compromised my enjoyment of the music.

I don't listen to much techno off the dancefloor. I used to think that techno not making good music for kicking-back with the high-fi and a cup of tea back at the homestead made it intrinsically bad music. Insubstantial, not durable. But I now like that techno is so linked to the dance floor and body movement. The fact that it only works with one's body in motion is actually a testament to its strength as what it sets out to be-- DANCE music. Even off the floor, it's difficult to listen without at least twitching or head-bopping a bit.

People (mostly) come to Philly techno parties to dance, or at least enjoy the full body experience of standing around and soaking in the deep clitter/clatter/pow of a surround sound sub woofer PA. As I previously stated, the music isn't sexy. And it doesn't seem that people come to hit on or be hit. It seems people tend to leave with the same people they came with.

I take comfort in this. Sexually-repressed me doesn't have to deal with grinding. If I make physical contact it's with my friends. I come alone and just before dawn I leave, alone. Just as I expected. [Deep even breaths]

People don't dress up much for Philly techno. There's a come as you are, let it all hang out mentality. There are some tight dresses , shiny shirts, and sharp outfits to be sure. But one is more likely to see a Black Flag t shirt than a dress shirt at these parties. A good warehouse party will bring out 100, 200, 300 kids max. The scene is too small to be elitist. Philly is not Berlin. It's not London. It's not even NYC.

There are a few people I accept but don't quite understand at these parties-- the DJ watchers. These are the people, always men, who stand inches away from the DJ booth/table almost still as statues watching every knob turn, fader slide, and cue. Maybe they themselves are aspiring DJs, hoping to learn something about mixing from watching the DJ. Maybe they're crushing on the DJ. Or maybe these DJ watchers just feel awkward, drawn to the music but too self-conscious to dance.

But techno DJs rarely do anything showy. There's none of the scratching behind the back of hip-hop turntablists. The DJ is there to keep the dance floor going, not to be a focal point. Though sometimes the DJ has a pleasing and contagious time-keeping wiggle going on and sometimes there's a bit of an engaging micro-drama when the DJ uses both hands, quickly turning two knobs in unison, to dramatically and immediately change the sound.

These little motions are an added visual bonus for the dancer, but they never seem like enough to hold attention by themselves and stop someone dead in their tracks.
But at every party there's always a contingent of these statue-standing floor-blocks, reducing space for the dancers.

I DO like to keep looking over at the DJ every few minutes, trying to catch their eye when they're not too concentrated on the mix, hoping they see me dancing and know that whatever they're doing on the decks is working for me and keeping me moving.
I try to make eye contact because I want the DJ to feel connected to the crowd he's spinning for. From my own amateur DJing experiences I know how motivational, inspirational and satisfying it can be to have eye contact with happy dancers in motion.

I feel like I dance like a lead-footed handicapped person on every other dance floor in clubs and bars. But in the MNML tchno wrhse I feel a tad graceful. I feel I'm holding my own. And best of all, I often don't even think about how I feel. I'm just in the moment, dancing. At the best parties I lose my self-consciousness. I slide in and out of the beats and ascending and descending notes as if I were part of the sound, as if I were birthed from the speakers. And with all my anxieties, I most value things that kill my self-consciousness, even if for only a little while.

The phrase, "The First Attack of the Rising Sun" looped in my head riding my bike home from two all-night techno parties in the last month. Despite my oft-nocturnal ways I'm no vampire, but I am certainly a frequent all-night dancer. Seeing the sunrise, alone after no sleep at all, is both beautiful and sad. The solar "attack" is the punctuation on a unrelenting night of beats. The period. The final shimmering cymbal crash that fades to light. As daylight creeps through gaps in thick curtains, the empty bottles, cigarette butts, and baggies are revealed on the now empty dance floor.

Meanwhile I'm half across the city and exhausted. I'm at the limits of my unnatural extension of conscious through caffeine and sheer willpower. I'm very susceptible to strong emotional responses. My guard is down. The happiness feels happier and the sadness sadder. Things stop making sense. I'm filled with frightening confusion. And then I collapse and lose all consciousness as the sun, now risen, continues its attack.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

1400 words about seeing the Boredoms in Philly last night (April 2nd 2008)

i saw the Boredoms at Philly's Starlight Ballroom last night. It was the most intense show I've been to all year

I actually went to the show with very little knowledge of the Boredoms. I knew they were Japanese. I knew they'd been around since at least the early 90s. I knew they made experimental music and that they were well-respected by many left-field musicians and indie music fans. I also knew they'd staged a huge event in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on July 7th last year (7/7/7) with a total of 77 drummers known as "Boa Drums."

But before last night I'd only heard a few minutes of their music.

A friend in Portland had played the Boredoms through his laptop speakers at a moderate volume while we were hanging out earlier this year. I remember it being spacey and droney. It was music you could probably fall inside, but music that could also serve as a background (as it was serving in that Oregon living room.) We were able to hold a conversation while it was going on. What I heard must have been their most recent record, "Seadrum/House of Sun" which mood-wise characterizes as "trippy, hypnotic...detached, spiritual, soothing, reflective, ethereal, circular, calm, [and] peaceful."

This was not the mood at the Starlight Ballroom last night.

One couldn't be bored in a traditional sense during Boredom's set. The music overwhelmed the senses to such an extent that the feeling of boredom wasn't possible. But a possible reaction to the music was analogous to being bored: standing in place, paralyzed, mouth half-open, jut at the edge of drooling.

The set last night was unrelenting. The band played for nearly an hour and a half with no break. I expected a set full of peaks and valleys, maybe one with percussive freak-outs but also one with a lot of lushy, pillowy buzzy drones. But what I got was far from this.

I don't know exactly where my expectation came from. Part of it was surely based on what I'd heard on tinny laptop speakers in Portland, part of it was probably based on my most recent live experience with ANOTHER experimental Japanese experimental band: Acid Mothers Temple, and part of my expectations were probably just based on what I wanted to hear.

On another night, in another state of mind the Boredoms' set might have sounded beautiful to me. Sometimes the right music comes to you at the right time. And sometimes it doesn't. I was (and at the time of writing, still am) feeling a bit down. Going to the show, my mind was full of thoughts of failure, social anxiety that comes from being in a space with hundreds of other people and my coexistent contradictory loneliness, sexual frustration, creative blockage,anxiety and frustration that my income tax paperwork still wasn't done with just over a week to go. I could go on. But that'll give you the flavor of what was looping in my head walking into the Starlight.

I really wanted narcotic music, something I could listen to lying on the floor tucked into a sleeping bag. Something that was weird for sure, but something dreamy. Perhaps Flying Saucer Attack's Further--- a weird, droney album with some darkness and mystery for sure, but one that gives me an overall soft and peaceful feeling.

If you're not familiar with the music on that album, I think the beautiful cover photo captures the music's essence.


I have that cover shot as one of my profile pictures on my page on a certain online social networking site. I captioned it "I want to live inside this picture." And I kind of wanted to live inside that night time drone/dream last night too. But I got a nightmare instead. And drums...lots of drums.

Given the 77 drummers/"Boa Drums" event from last summer, I shouldn't have been surprised by the 3 full drum kits being played together on stage last night, but it still caught me off guard and pummeled me to a ringing pulp.

The drums started before Boredoms even took the stage. The two openers (Soft Circles, and Black Pus) were solo acts centered around drum kits. Both acts came from the same spastically percussive parent duo, Lightning Bolt, and both Soft Circles and Black Pus did sets that experimented in the same beat-heavy vein.

I couldn't see exactly what equipment the openers used, since I stayed towards the back in a booth chair to the side of the floor, but both acts seemed to augment their live drumming with percussive and tonal loops and effects-laden vocals. The PA was up so loud that the music was a physical experience. The low tones and bass drum and tom hits vibrated my bones and the seat below me. I couldn't see the performers clearly but I could see lights near the front and above me that lit up in time with the music. I think they were a (new) permanent part of the venue. I think these lights were beat-activated, operating in the same way as those "dancing robotic flowers" did that were popular in the late 80s. I found the repetition of these lights hypnotic and soothing, taking a bit of the edge off the evening's harsh music.

At times the music of the openers created a physically uncomfortable atmosphere. The bass drum kicks felt like a gut punch. And the beats went from a "tribal" drum circle feel, to disco breaks and bad "4 on the floor" techno. I like a far amount of techno too, but I gravitate towards (and dance to) more minimal varieties. I like techno filled with spaces, peaks and valleys, tension and release. The occasional techno-flavored beats of Soft Circles and Black Pus had no spaces. There was just the unrelenting "uh-uh-uh-uh."

Starting with the openers and all night long, there was tension, and it was unrelenting. There was never any release. I went into the evening feeling tense, even before the music started. Ideally, I wanted that cathartic release that the best live music events can bring. I never got it.

The music made me wish I'd brought my earplugs. It also made me wish I could go outside for a moment for some fresh air and quiet. Then maybe after a moment away- like a side break on a tumultuous vinyl album - I could come back and better appreciate the music with fresh ears. But unlike ever other show I'd been to at the Starlight there was no re-entry at this one. I wondered if this new "no-reentry" policy was a result of the shootings that had taken place outside the Starlight late last year, at an event unrelated to the R5 promoted concerts I attended. The thought of the venue as a site for a violent crime made me uncomfortable. And I since couldn't go outside. I could only sit there and take in the discomforting music.

The only drone and respite from the drums that I got during the evening was between the groups. Between acts, the PA played a most-vocal CD that sounded ceremonial and Indian or Far-Eastern in origin.

Boredoms took the stage around 10:30 and played continuously until midnight with only a few minutes break before the encore. The set started spaciously enough. The dreadlocked leader of the 5-piece ensemble kept knocking two wired glowing orbs together. They seemed to create some sort of a field akin to a theremin and when he banged them together, there was a violent electric sizzle that sounded like dueling light sabers making contact. I didn't quite know what sort of circuitry was really at work behind the showmanship so this was a suitably magical, other-worldly opening. It seemed like a invocation. In between sizzling contacts of these "electric orbs" the crowd cheered wildly. And this was really the last time one could clearly hear the cheering for the rest of the set. Soon enough, the three full drum kits on stage kicked in and let up very little over the next hour.

My senses got overwhelmed around this point. The VU meter in my head hit red at this point and stayed there. Behind the dreadlocked leader there was a "guitar sculpture"--- 7 electric guitars stuck together vertically. But they were never played like traditional guitars. This too was a percussion instrument. The strings were hit with drum sticks, making this "wall-of-guitars" an electrified version of chimes. There was one "non-percussion" member of the ensemble at the very back of the stage. In between retuning the strings of the 7 guitars, the guy in the back created tones on some sort of electronic set up. I couldn't see it at all. Occasionally there was a noticeable squelch or bassy growl, but the percussion up front was always in domination.

The Boredoms' drummers didn't create noise in the common sense of the word. There was little random clatter. The drummers played polyrhythmically, but certainly as a unit. They shifted, stopped, and started precisely together. There was obviously composition and practice involved. The drummers all wore headphones. I couldn't tell if they were substitutes for stage monitors or if they played a "click track" to keep the drummers together. Or maybe the headphones served both purposes. Their kits were set up in a semi-circular facing Dreadlocks.

The fact that no one in the band really faced or acknowledged the crowd during the performance added to the tense, discomforting, monolithic feeling. I felt distant from the band and pretty much everyone else in attendance, even though were all in relative close proximity. It was all drums, all night long without even a rhetorically "hey how ya doing out there?" to lighten the mood. The mood was somber and ceremonial. There was only a terse "thank you" before the encore.

And except for the brief respite between main set and encore, the band was so loud I couldn't think straight. I've been to loud, experimental performance many times before. But usually each performer's set will run less than a half hour. The sheer volume of the Boredoms' performance (both sound level and temporal quantity) made all the difference. I didn't feel particularly connected to the band and yet their pervasive drumming permeated my mind. All I could think about was "wow, the band is really loud!" And while not particularly pleasant, the hijacking of my mind through sound was an interesting event. It was remarkable enough to inspire this lengthy description of said hijacking that you've been reading. Many more pleasant shows have warranted very little or no written descriptions whatsoever from me (umm...tonight I saw Beach House at the Barbary Bar). The fact that I've gone on for over a thousand words about this ugly experience says something.

I could've left the show at any time (and not come back) but I stayed until moments before the end. There was something spell-like to the performance. I couldn't leave. The drums had me pinned inside the door. Also, I kept thinking "any moment now this has to resolve itself. There has to be a release after all the tension." But there never really was, except debatably during the encore when the drummers played a lighter disco-flavored beat. It was a little less dense than what had come previously and was more traditionally danceable. But even this "disco" beat was loud as all hell. And by the time of the encore, my ears hurt. The physical impact of the loud drums made me a bit nauseous. I already had my jacket on, ready to bolt. I hoped there wasn't going to be a second encore. I hovered by the exit and actually walked out with a couple minutes still to go in the final piece.

I also stayed until nearly the end because, perhaps masochistically, I wanted to get my $16 worth even it was apparently $16 worth of ringing ears. I'll often go to a show knowing it'll be a crap shoot whether I'll like it or not. And even if I don't like it, I still stay because I paid money. The ticket makes it seem like fate that I should stay. And also I often believe and hope that the unlikable music could shift at any point to something I might actually enjoy.

And often at these unenjoyable shows there are people dancing, singing along, shouting in jubilation. I start thinking something is wrong with me for not enjoying the music and I start thinking that maybe if I stay long enough I'll catch the fever of enthusiasm that people all around me are sweating through.

I'm not complaining about the Boredoms' performance. In hindsight, I'm glad I went. Even now, as the specifics of the music are evaporating from my mind, the memory of its intensity remains. I can still practically feel the performance. The feeling it gave me is something I've rarely (if ever) felt before. It put me in a unique state of mind. It was intense in a neutral sort of way. I'm glad I saw the performance in the same way I'm glad I saw Schindler's List and Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain. Those movies aren't fun in any traditional sense. But they're both powerful and worth seeing in their own ways.

The Boredom's last night wasn't a great show. Great isn't the right word. It was a POWERFUL show. My reaction to this power was strong and yet neutral. The performance was neither good, nor bad. It was simply overwhelmingly intense.

Here's a clip from a 2006 live set that illustrates some of the elements of last night's performance. The drumming is a lot more palatable when played at the moderate and listener-controlled volume of computer or headphone speakers: