This was me when I found out rain had forced the Tegan & Sara show inside at Stage AE — without the Debbie Reynolds smooching, of course:
Now for my airing of thoughts, grievances and non-sequiturs to ponder.
Is it just me, or do lesbians only go see acts featuring openly gay musicians? I’ve never seen such a concentrated population in Pittsburgh before. Though I never went to Lilith Fair — my girlfriend at the time had her foot run over by a Mercedes on the way to the show.
Shows are just better indoors. I’m sorry if that ruins your buzz, man.
Buff dudes with no necks that have jockeyed for position at the front and center of the stage… and then proceed to sing every lyric to every song written by a female pop duo are f’ing awesome. Seriously. I love you guys.
I hate it when I don’t have any major complaints about a show. I feel like I’m not doing my job and resident mehssimist of this here site.
Opening acts aren’t always worth the effort of getting to a show on time. I have two kids I need to throw in bed — I can’t always ditch them with the wife for the witching hour. If I do just hand them over upon the wife walking in the door, you know I’ve been given a stern beatdown by the daughters. When parents talk about their need to drink, I’m willing to bet their born-again alcoholism results, almost entirely, from their children’s behavior between 5pm and 8pm. Thursday, I had one of those days. So I finished dinner, got the nod of approval from the wife and bailed. My reward: hearing My Midnight Heart. I don’t know if it’s wholly accurate but here was my initial response upon hearing the band:
Off the top of my head: MY MIDNIGHT HEART = Berlin fronted by pre-crooner Whitney Houston. Solid stuff.
I was so smitten with the group I headed over the swag table to pick up an EP. Only, it wasn’t exactly an EP, per say. It was a gold-painted flash drive. I didn’t know how to process that in my matchbook of opinions of methods of media distribution so I walked back to the floor to get a better spot for Tegan & Sara. Before T&S’s encore I wandered back over and had smashing conversation with My Midnight Heart lead singer Angelica Allen about the thumb drive as a method for distributing music (“We can include videos too. And when you get all the stuff off, you can reuse it!”), the venue (“There’s no bad place to watch a show in here.”) and the extremely receptive crowd (“There was a ton of energy, I thought, for an opening act.”). I guarantee you’ll hear more from this band. Allen has a huge stage presence — and a huge voice.
Here’s “Chest of Hearts” from MY MIDNIGHT HEART:
But back to the main attraction: Tegan & Sara.
In case you can’t tell the identical twins apart by their disparate haircuts, that’s Tegan on the left. Sara on the right. I added a helpful guide.
Now that I’m thinking about the mental notes I made during the show, it’s possible today’s Rumble is still forthcoming.
What the hell is wrong with the music industry that Tegan & Sara aren’t one of the biggest acts on the planet? Is it the industry that promotes musicians? Or is it that people who listen to music are deaf? I’m going with a mixture of both. Take a look at today’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. Oh, don’t bother. I’ll do it for you. There are maybe four or five tracks on the entirety of the Top 100 that have hooks as good as anything on Tegan & Sara’s last record. Am I being too aggressive here? I don’t think so. Pick any track off that record — and it’ll be a better pop song than just about anything on the Billboard charts. Let’s give it a try. And we’ll start with the big guns. The #1 song on the Billboard 100 vs. the #1 single on Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob.
Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” vs. Tegan & Sara’s “Closer”
Maybe it’s not a fair comparison because I honestly don’t understand the appeal of the Iggy Azalea track. Sounds like most other slices of summer regurgitation, a bulimic rap backed with lazy synth leading to a rubbish hook. Maybe my point’s overall poorly executed, but you get the idea. The idea is that Tegan & Sara have been banished to Indierockberia when they’re writing pure pop-music. Inherently palatable and easily accessible by all. Is there a ceiling to how good pop music can be? And once you cross that threshhold you become hipster scum? What am I missing here? Is it that they’re Canadian? Or that they play for the other team? That they don’t ride magical flying dildos onto stage?
But now about the show.
I’d heard much about their tours. I don’t know how I was never able to catch one of their shows before. I bypassed their trip to Pittsburgh last year because A) they were opening for fun. and B) it was outside. If I’m really into an act, I have no trouble paying a premium to watch them open for someone else. BUT. You compound the lukewarm reception of an opening act with the distracted attentions of an outdoor crowd AND a zeitgeisty headliner that makes me question the extent of humanity’s tone deafness, that’s a surefire recipe for 30Hz rage. Thankfully, T&S deemed Pittsburgh worthy of a return headlining trip. And thank goodness for that.
Some acts force banter. I’ve discussed the importance of banter here and there around the site for some time, but it probably requires some retread here. If you can’t banter, don’t. If you don’t like improvisational anecdotes, don’t improvise. I value an act that gets up there, plays their songs and goes home. It is, after all, all about the music. That said, an act that engages the crowd with earnest appreciation and enthusiasm amplifies the enjoyment of a show. The duo played a handful of songs before breaking for their first bout of banter. Sara does most of the talking, but both radiate off-the-cuff eloquence. During one song (I can’t remember which — shame on me) Sara lost her train of song and just kept strumming her guitar while she tried to figure out where she’d gone wrong. Tegan took it upon herself to shake her tambourine with greater exuberance, a mid-track tambourine jam and a bit of showmanship that allowed her sister to collect herself.
After the song, Sara shook off the misstep by relating songwriting to parenthood. She said she imagined that messing up a favorite song during a live set like was a lot like parenting. (And I’m paraphrasing here… ) You have two children. One destined to be a brilliant scholar. You know they’ll go far and do great things. The other, well, you just hope they eventually move out of the house. And then you just end up dropping the brilliant one on its head and you can’t help but think, as that future Nobel Prize winner tumbled to the ground… why couldn’t I have dropped the other one?
Sara boasts a bit of an edge, like a permanently dissatisfied singer-songwriter stuck on a lyric while Tegan comes off as the free spirit that would make everyone in the audience green tea if she had the opportunity. If I were casting their bio pic I’d go for Ellen Page and Anna Kendrick. But they’d have to be twins, so that complicates everything.
Was there something more to be said? Plenty. But I’m not a fan of the weather in Indieblogberia. I’ll just half-ass this last bit to make sure I don’t bust through that glass ceiling of quality blog writing.
In closing, here’s a tremendous, acoustic version of “I Was a Fool” from Heartthrob.
…and here’s another clip from the same event that showcases Sara’s humor and eloquence on the mic.
Perhaps you read my tirade about outdoor live music in the post I wrote about the Mumford & Sons show last year. If you need a refresher, here ya go.
Now to test out a new section of my live music commentaries. I’ll call it The Rumble. It’s really just an everyday Festivus-style airing of grievances.
Outdoor shows and the people that attend them. Next on Springer.
Jack White has a point about those goddamn digital devices. Put them the hell down. Let’s start with detachment of 30 seconds. We’ll work up to a minute. Maybe by the end of the summer, you can go 20 without holding it up in my face.
To the very very very short woman who stood on her tiptoes in front of me to film the show, I really do hope you enjoy the back of the tall dude’s head soundtracked by the blaring redline static of music recorded on iPhone speakers.
Did I looked like I want to be sprayed with a hose like a zoo elephant? It was only 80 degrees. Humid, yes, but still 80 degrees.
Let’s play count the glowing screens.
These are not people taking quick pictures. These are people recording on their phones. I took my obligatory random shot of shit on stage and put my phone away. That’s how I roll. You see how it’s blurry? It’s because I held my phone up for a second, snapped three pictures and hoped one looked less blurry than the others. Occasionally, I’ll take a second shot later if I want to remember a moment for a writeup later. I say this because, yes, I’m trying to sound holier than all the rest of these morons who are watching a show through an itty bitty phone screen rather than just LOOKING AT THE SHOW THAT IS RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM.
Why buy a ticket? Just watch all the YouTube videos tomorrow.
The wife and I rarely attend concerts together. If we do it’s because we both really wanted to see a killer show. The last real rock show we would have seen was Franz Ferdinand… and we anticipated something similar from the Arctic Monkeys.
We weren’t wrong. Unfortunately we can’t live in a vacuum and select the people who attend a concert around us. We knew we were in trouble when our newly high-school graduated babysitter commented upon hearing we were attending the AM show, “Oh, like half my school is going to that.”
I’m not teenager phobic. I’m not standing out on my lawn waving a broom at any of the kids that walk by my property. Teenagers are dumb. I accept this about them. I remember being a dumb teenager. In theory, we’re good with this understanding that they’re dumb and I’m, like, kinda old (remember when 35 was f’ing ancient?).
I’m not good with idiots of any age, however, that somehow diminish my enjoyment of a good show. For example, yes, a 17yo girl of ample proportions wearing only a sports bra and cutoff shorts is not a welcome sight, but I file these images away in my geezer box, to discuss in great detail at a later time. (“How do we keep this from happening to our daughters?”) Oh, you plucked your eyebrows into independently functioning yin and yang shapes? Interesting. You had an older boy buy you beers for the first time and then tried to impress him with your alcohol tolerance? Cute. Now go puke with your girlfriends, preferably somewhere far away. But if you’re holding your phone up right in front of my face for entire songs on end, you are impacting my experience. Jack White was fucking right to have one of his trademarked hissy fits about this very topic. I think I’m having one now. What is it about outdoor crowds that turn everyone into a digital slave?
After “Crying Lightning” I turned to my wife and said, “Whenever you’re good, I can leave.” Before she could answer “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” came on. We listened intently, peering between cell phones, then she elbowed me. “Now I’m done.”
Our early exit was a disappointment. Frontman Alex Turner is something to behold, full of swagger and Elvis hips with a swath of Joe Strummer. As soon as he walked on stage — all eyes fixed on Alex Turner. He’s a refreshing throwback to the days when lead singers could be superstars. In a different world, one with less divided attentions, this could be our Mick Jagger.
But as a band they’re just not Franz Ferdinand.
In my mind the two bands are inextricably linked by space and time and shared ancestors. Arctic Monkeys’ live show compounded this connection with one major difference. Franz blew me away last year in Philadelphia. Old songs sounded fresh, and their performance allowed varied layers of their musicality to shine. By any measure, Arctic Monkeys are currently the bigger band. Broader appeal, more recent releases, greater production value and swagger. And, by and large, a younger crowd by at least a decade. But they lacked that *wow* factor. Despite Turner’s best efforts, the music somehow didn’t quite carry the venue. I’ll chalk it up to the Monkeys shallow (but still very visceral) musicality. Fun and frivolous, but transient.
After the show, the wife and I elected not to go home to relieve the babysitter just yet. We’d been gone for less than 90 minutes. So we partook in a longstanding concert tradition. The late night (in this instance an early bird late night) stop at Eat’n Park (or Denny’s per my own high school tradition). She ordered a grilled cheese and potato pancakes. I had coffee. We opened that aforementioned geezer complaint box and detailed the inexplicable sights we’d witnessed among the crowd, briefly touching upon the fact that it would have been nice to have enjoyed more of the Arctic Monkeys show.
Some nights pure enjoyment just isn’t in the cards, and on those nights, perhaps, it’s just better to cut your losses and enjoy the rest of the evening with good company, once again without the view of everyone else’s portable electronic devices blocking your view.
Anyway, here’s a sample of the live set from Austin City Limits to send you on your way, featuring my personal favorite Arctic Monkeys song.
Pittsburgh crowds rarely impress me for being *into* a show.
Last night, I was impressed — not just with CHVRCHES — but with the crowd. I want you to recognize how monumental that admission really is. If there’s any deterrent to me enjoying a show, it’s almost always the crowd. It’s like I seek out some reason to be intensely annoyed. On this occasion it was only the really odd girl who kept dancing at the bar when the opening act was playing.
I’m prepared to propose a law that refuses to serve people that dance while in the queue for beer. Don’t. Act like you’ve been there before.
Unprovoked rhythmic clapping and rampant fist pumping during bursts and rebirths of sound. I absorb and reflect and occasionally join the rhythmic clapping. But grand displays of enjoyment just ain’t my bag. Anything more than regular head nodding and I’ve probably had too much to drink and you might think to call me a cab. That’s just the way it goes, so it might seem strange to be “impressed” by a horde of Pavlovian concert-goers. Clap here. First pump here. Bounce here. And perhaps there’s the rub — none of it was choreographed by the band and none of it was premeditated. That’s what most impressed me, the rare spontaneity.
At the Fitz and the Tantrums show last year at Mr. Smalls, the band constantly called to the crowd for more energy. They’re a high energy band. They want a high energy crowd and they got what they wanted, but in order to get their wish they must have said “Pittsburgh” and cajoled us to great cacophony at least 27 times to get that sold-out crowd in the mood to party. Lauren Mayberry, frontwoman for the Glasgow synth-pop trio first spoke to the crowd after the third or fourth song. She admitted it was her first time in Pittsburgh. Cheers. Applause. And then admitted that all she knew about Pittsburgh came from the movie That Thing You Do when Jimmy dumps Fay and says “I shoulda dumped you in Pittsburgh!”
And that was pretty much it for the Pittsburgh talk or any talk in general. She popped back up to the podium once more to talk about how she’d also experienced her first Tornado Warning that day as well. (Happy to provide a memorable stay, Lauren, you beautiful little pixy!) But the radio silence wasn’t because she was awkward or uncomfortable speaking to the crowd. In fact, she had a warm, casual report. She just knew when to get back to the music.
If you’ve been read any of my year-end lists from the past two years you might remember CHVRCHES featuring prominently. (See here, here and here.) I’ve spun this record more than any record of the past dozen years and I’m pretty sure the folks that follow me on Twitter probably got tired of seeing this:
#nowplaying CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe #vinyl
Some shows I just can’t understand. The empty show for Savages at Mr. Smalls, for example. I’m still stunned at the attendance. WHY WAS NOBODY THERE?!? The age of the crowd at Naked and Famous. WHY WERE YOU SO YOUNG?? And so on and so forth. Obviously CHVRCHES has struck a chord with me, but I hadn’t anticipated the widespread devotion of a sell out crowd at AE. All ages. All varieties of people. The gathering defied irresponsible generalization on my part.
CHVRCHES played a by-the-book show with tremendous energy. And though I was initially skeptical of the histrionic gyrations of Iain and Martin on their tandem synths/samples — they provided an entertaining contrast with Lauren’s general stoicism. And when Martin Doherty stole the mic for his first of two lead vocals (on “Under the Tide”), he commanded every inch of his available stage, wacking about as if on ice skates, finally unleashed from his stationary synths and samples. Of their catalog (and I believe they played all but one song) “Night Sky” was the live track that most stood out from its album counterpart. That B-Side track from Bones of What You Believe found new life and vigor. The fist pumping registered off the charts with every “oh oh oh,” the rise and fall of that track amplified ever greater by the acoustics and fiercely in-tune crowd.
A “Night Sky” sample from a recent show in Cambridge:
A night of preposterous bass (thank you, AE, for threatening me with the brown note during the encore) and killer synth and then out into the Pittsburgh night with enough time to hop over to PNC Park to catch the last of the rain-delayed Pirates game. Not that I did, mind you, because I’m an old, tired dad with two kids. I went home to turn the game on in bed… and catch up on some of the #Bond_age_ live tweeting of A VIEW TO A KILL that I’d missed out on that evening so I could finally catch CHVRCHES in the flesh… and they were well worth the wait and the sacrifice of missing out on the roast of one of the worst Bond films.
I’ll leave this post with some more CHVRCHES content because I can’t get enough.
NPR Tiny Desk
CHVRCHES covering Arctic Monkey’s “Do I Wanna Know?”
Cloud Cult might just be the real world equivalent of Wyld Stallyns. And even if aren’t, I’m comforted in knowing that there’s a band out there making music that thinks that music is going to one day save the world.
Frontman Craig Minowa takes his shit seriously. No addressing the crowd except to acknowledge them briefly before each of their sets. I should start at the beginning — Cloud Cult played two sets with no opener. They began with an all-acoustic set followed by the electric set, and, pardon my regurgitation, but both were electric. Without seeing Cloud Cult it’s nary impossible to impress how much they rawk. I use that term completely without irony. And I just wasn’t prepared. Cloud Cult songs may not adhere to a strict pattern, but trends certainly emerge. Slow build with synth and/or strings, followed by furious percussion (good lord can Arlen Peiffer beat a drum) and finally a crescendo of rawk – guitar, brass and emotional, earnest lyrics spewed at maximum feel.
If Cloud Cult is coming to a city near you (I’m looking at you Concord, Boston, New York, Philadephia, Washington D.C., Vancouver, Seattle and Portland) buy a ticket.
And if you’re unfamiliar with the band, here’s the Cloud Cult song that made my Top 100 of 2013 last year.
Not all live music, of course. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of live acts that just don’t live up to the hype. I don’t need to relive my Mumford & Sons experience. Of course, that Mumford show lingered in the back of my mind when I committed to drive across the broad state of Pennsylvania to attend the Franz Ferdinand show at the Tower Theater. That’s 4 1/2 hours driving each way. That’s the cost of a hotel room. Plus whatever other unexpected obstacles would present themselves along the way.
My wife and I went back and forth for a week about whether to go. I waffled! I admit! And I’m the guy that’s been wanting to see Franz Ferdinand since he first saw the “Take Me Out” video on MTV, now almost a decade ago. That’s a long damn time to wait. I’ve written intermittently about the cathartic power of live music. All the what-ifs and worries shouldn’t have tormented me. Another night on the couch catching up on movies I’d DVR’d off TCM or Franz Ferdinand in Philadelphia? The choice should have been a simple one.
If you follow me on Twitter at all, you might have noticed I went on a bit of a rampage regarding my experience at the Mumford & Sons show a couple weeks ago. I’d meant to write it up for the blog but every time I thought about it, I added more seconds to the “time I’ll never get back” counter. Instead I let bygones be bygones. The wounds have closed up but scars remain.
Here’s the rundown.
On a normal day, it would take me 45 minutes to get to the First Niagara Pavilion for a show. The day my wife and I went to see Mumford & Sons, it took us more than 2 hours due to concert traffic. After finally arriving, the teenage flag wavers ushered us to a parking lot in West Virginia. This made me miss the Vaccines entirely, a band that, quite honestly, I was looking forward to seeing more than Mumford. Their first album was a bit of a revelation. We arrived just in time to visit the restrooms and locate our seats before Mumford came on stage right at 9:30.
Mumford played a by-the-numbers set, which just means they ran through most of their songs with little deviation from the recorded versions. The played with energy and with the most impressive lightshow for a folky act I’ve ever seen. It was like… well, it was like Mumford & Sons fancied themselves… rock stars. I might have enjoyed the performance more had we not been surrounded by your typical outdoor-pavilion hooligans. I know you know the kind I’m talking about. The kind that maybe go to one or two shows a year, both at the outdoor pavilions. They drink too much terrible $10 beer and turn every song into an occasion for groping. I don’t know about you, but from my set I found at least four couples that probably used Mumford & Sons as their sexy-time music. One particular couple thought they’d take their Antique Grope Show into the aisle directly in front of me. The people behind me kept dropping their shit through the back of my seat and bumping me every time they picked it up. Once I’ll forgive. Two or three times will warrant a dirty look. When I lose count, what. the. fuck. are. you. doing? You’d think that because I had the front row of a section I’d have more room. But you’d be mistaken. Anyway, the last song of the set began, and the wife and I made the easy executive decision to make a break for the car. We arrived at our car when we heard the band come back on the for the encore. The thought of open highways and speeds exceeding 20mph caused my pulse to race. I frantically put the car in drive pulled out of the spot… and stopped… and still sat without moving… for two and a half hours. This would have been bearable in the backyard-camping-situation kind of way had we been able to access the Internet on our phones. Because of the mass of humanity crammed into backwoods Pennsylvania the network had long ago become overloaded. I don’t mean to be the unironic #FirstWorldProblem guy but THIS is the reason that streaming video on cell phones can be awesome. It makes people who are forced to wait in parking lots tolerable humans. There were many intolerable humans yelling at people to move their cars. I assume because they also could not stream Parks and Recreation while they waited. I could also not tweet my rage for therapy. Twitter wouldn’t work either.
Despite my assertions that we “would never f’ing leave this pit,” we eventually arrived home at 2am.
$160 worth of tickets. 6+ hours in the car. 50 minutes of music. Priceless.
Last night was my first show since “the Mumford Debacle.” Savages at Mr. Smalls. Now in my mind Savages are a big deal. They’re THE rock band of 2013. So when I walked in at the tail end of the opening act and saw a half-full Mr. Smalls my jaw dropped. Mr. Smalls clearly had not expected much of a crowd; they didn’t even tap the kegs. Bottled beer only. (edit: It seems that Smalls has dispatched with the taps entirely as they were again without taps at the Gaslight Anthem show.) I was dismayed. And then I remembered the Mumford debacle and how, no matter what, this was not going to be like that.
I drank my Great Lakes Eliot Ness and then headed straight to the stage. I stood four people back, front and center. And nobody even bumped into me. This is a testament to the space available rather than the cordiality of my fellow attendees – though, I’d take this crowd of lazy post-punk headnodders over the folk-rock freakers any day.
But to further explain my dismay… Watching Savages on stage I experienced a sense of timelessness. Every so often I will attend a show that inspires awe – the kind of awe that makes me feel like I’m a part of something historic. Like the guys that still talk about how they saw the Stones on their 1965 tour. Whether or not the Savages or any other band goes on to become the Rolling Stones is irrelevant. All that matters is that feeling. In that moment. Savages owned that stage last night and what did they see when they looked out at us? A half-empty floor with a bunch of people chattering at the back by the bar. I wanted to force everyone to the front. I wanted to say “We’re experiencing a moment here and you’re missing it!” But then they’d cease to be the crazy ones for just being casually interested in the band on stage, replaced by me, the madman raving about “moments” and “history.”
Frontwoman Jehnny Beth prowled the stage like the love child of Siouxsie Sioux and Gozer the Gozerian (pre-Stay Puft).
She’s slight, dressed in all black with gold stilettos. T-shirt. Pleated pants. Short-cropped black hair and drastic mascara, Corvette red lipstick. Her singing style could best be described tribal, intense. At times I swore she took turns catching each of our eyes, staring us down, daring us to look away. She pounded her fists with the beat and frenetic bass rhythm. She never spoke a word to the crowd (perhaps a couple of asides), but on two occasions stood on top of the stage barrier, teetering on those massive heels. Twice she used heads in the front row for balance to keep her upright. She, like those devoted fans in the front, she remained immersed in the moment, reveling in the beats and reverb. Nobody cared that she didn’t establish a report with the crowd or break contact with the wall of noise and guitar and drums… my god the drums…
Drummer Fay Milton beat those poor bastards like they had one day left to live. Watching her raise the sticks above her head as she pounded and thrashed proved to be a spectacle in and of itself. When I was able to tear my eyes away from Jehnny Beth, it was the sight of her flailing ponytail that drew my attention. Milton, Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson and bassist Ayse Hassan were all business. This music, it meant something to them. It meant something to us. Savages have consumed the post-punk genre, they’ve made it their own and the result is a live show that transcends the act of playing music itself. A good live show merely entertains. A transcendent live show makes you believe that the moment is bigger than you. That music means more than just a few chords and a beat.
When the Savages finished their set, they didn’t come back.
There was no need for an encore. And quite frankly, I didn’t want them to come back out. There was nothing left to say. Their last song, one of the few not from Silence Yourself, repeated the refrain “Don’t let the fuckers get you down.” And as I stood there, in awe, basking in the noise and flurry of F-bombs, cherishing the moment, I still couldn’t help but think of that Mumford show. And how cold the whole experience left me about attending live music. Don’t let the fuckers get you down. And then there was this show, one of those rare shows that keeps us coming back for the live experience, enough to redeem 10 trips to First Niagara.
I’m good now. Those wounds have healed. My faith in live music has been restored. Back at Mr. Smalls tonight for The Gaslight Anthem.
I’m still never going back to the First Niagara Pavilion.
Here’s a tame KEXP-studio sample of the Savages live show. But it definitely conveys the intensity.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.