If you’re in Pittsburgh and available on the evening of 10/10, go see the Dig, a NYC-based indie-rock outfit that Consequence of Sound likens to a cross between Vampire Weekend and the Antlers. Read the full review here. If you’re not in Pittsburgh, at least check them out because they’re definitely worth some ear-time.
I first heard Imagine Dragons in late January on XMU on XM Radio. “It’s Time” was introduced with a small warning by the DJ that the band was probably going to be a big deal at some point in 2012. It was a far better than average pop-friendly radio song with a great hook. At that time, the band hadn’t even released their Continued Silence EP. I downloaded the album as soon as it was released — I like to be ahead of the curve (read: I like to be the asshole telling you about this great new band of which you’ve never heard) – and shared it with my wife, who was smitten… if you couldn’t tell by her guest bl-ggery here.
As time went on and my wife and I grew older and greyer (second children will do that. It’s an alarmingly accelerated decline), Imagine Dragons just kept popping up. She’d been pushing the album to any of her friends that would listen. It’s tremendous alt-pop music, but worthy bands just don’t necessarily get a fair shake. We expected very little out of their career trajectory. My three-year-old daughter could pretty much sing along with each of their six songs, for whatever that’s worth. (She’s actually a very good judge of the next big thing. She knew all the words to Gotye before he became big, too.) Anyway, I felt similarly about Remy Zero’s career trajectory. And whatever happened to Remy Zero? (Okay, so they provided the theme from Smallville, and appeared on a number of soundtracks, which is something, but did you honestly remember the name of the band that opened Smallville?) Their third album The Golden Hum was an alt-rock masterpiece and a highlight of that barren musical landscape immediately post-2K. The album was so well received that after that album they broke up.
But back to Imagine Dragons… their songs started getting more and more airtime on XM after the release of the EP. And then the bomb drops. Their music starts showing up movie trailers for major release films like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Frankenweenie,” in commercials, American Idol promos. Glee justcovered “It’s Time” in the season opener. This band was anonymous five months ago. But why the meteoric rise? What’s the secret? And why am I no longer special for knowing the band Imagine Dragons?
I pondered these questions as I crammed into Altar Bar on Thursday to catch my first Imagine Dragons show. Imagine Dragons, who were opening for Awolnation, a band whose fame they’d eclipsed over the duration of one little tour. At the beginning, relatively unknown. At the end, the main attraction. And yes, we left after Imagine Dragons. I was hungry and wanted to go drink. It was my birthday after all. (Happy birthday to me.)
You’ll be happy to know that I’ve solved the success of Imagine Dragons.
If you’re familiar with the band you’ll know that Dan Reynolds, the lead singer, beats on a bass drum at the front of the stage while he’s singing. If you’re not familiar with the band, I just told you by not telling you. Nice, right? There’s been a swell of lead singers who are more than just frontmen, but most of these guys are firmly contained within the straightjacket genre label “indie-rock.” Rarely do they branch out into pop-music proper.
For pop-music Reynolds is a kind of novelty. He’s an affable, humble chap on stage. He (and the rest of the band) seemed positively overwhelmed by their rapid success. (They’re even still setting their own stage and doing soundchecks.) Reynolds comes off as a less-glam, more everyday Brandon Flowers (The Killers). That they’re both Mormon probably has much to do with the favorable comparison in presentation and personality. But all of this might be irrelevant if he didn’t beat a motherflippin’ bass drum. Singer-only frontmen maintain an air of otherworldliness. They must do this to justify the fact that they only sing and often barely do that. Their gift is their stage persona. See Bono, Mick Jagger, et al. Nobody cares that they don’t play an instrument. But these are the greats, the once-in-a-generation rock gods. Their bands, however, are just guys with instruments. Follow this logic with me. If you saw Bono and Larry Mullen walking down the street together, who would you be more comfortable chatting up? Larry Mullen, of course. He’s no god. He’s just a guy that plays in a band fronted by a crazytown rock god.
There are so many different bands and kinds of music and distractions that without something unique to call their own, a talented band will more toil in anonymity than reach any measure of commercial success. Critical success, perhaps, but not commercial. Reynolds’ drum breaks down the barrier between the singer and his fans. He’s a singer, but he’s also just a guy that intermittently gets taken up in the moment and decides to unleash fury on some mylar (the material of which drum heads are most likely made – the more you know, eh?). When he’s singing and suddenly takes up the mallet, there’s a swell of excitement among the crowd. The anticipation of the drum beating is unmistakable. For these songs he gets the loudest applause and the most crowd love. For someone first seeing or listening to Imagine Dragons, the communal adulation at these shows will sell records. It is a novelty, sure, but it is also greatly entertaining and displays the dude’s sincere passion for the music. Because nothing says sincere passion like a winded, sweaty human beating a bass drum with all the fiber in his being.
I have some reservations about the band growing too big for these more intimate live shows. Imagine Dragons doesn’t embrace arena-rock in the same way the Killers do. Their sound, while poppy, and occasional quite possibly rocking, might get swallowed up by larger crowds and venues. The bass drum might lose its prestige as the centerpiece of their show. In a small venue, the drum commands the room. And if the bass drum loses its prestige, it’s on Dan Reynolds to make up the distance.
Oh, and there’s also the music… because there’s probably (just maybe) people into Imagine Dragons that haven’t seen a live show. Valid argument. Again, the element that sets their music apart… the bass drum. Beating a bass drum with a mallet rather than using it in a drum kit creates such a distinctly different sound and cadence. Take the drum out of Imagine Dragons what do you have left? Solid pop-music but no live drama. And no drama means no trailer spots, no commercial gigs and no more meeting Hermoine at the VMAs.
The magical thing about “It’s Time” is that Reynolds’ beats nary a drum. But how many of these A+ pop songs can he write? The perfect pop soundbite. Maybe he only needs one to launch a career, but that won’t speak to the longevity of the band. It’s the B-sides where a band proves its worth. And, so far, it’s on the B-sides (being any song other than “It’s Time” at this point) that the drum carries its weight. See “Radioactive” or ‘Demons.”
In conclusion, and because I’m out of words for today, a picture of Emma Watson. Just because she’s the closest thing we’ve seen to Audrey Hepburn since Audrey Hepburn.
I’d been a fan of G.O. since the days you could only order their music from their website. Hell, it might have even been a MySpace page. No guarantees on that. I knew nothing about the band other than that it was two dudes. One did the beats and one did everything else. I’d not seen them live, clearly, and thus had no idea what kind of crowd frequented a Ghostland Observatory performance. I didn’t know anyone else that listened to G.O. Do you know anyone that listens to G.O.? Probably not.
So I’m hanging out in my usual place in the Mr. Small Booze Tank (just the back half of the venue) and I’m seeing people wandering around with glow-stick necklaces, glow stick bracelets and, yes, even old fashioned plain old glow sticks. So instead of a traditional boring recap, I will retell my experience through my Tweets.
Who brings glowstick nunchuks to see Ghostland Observatory?
Now that you’ve read the tweets, I’ll present my pictorial recap that might help make sense of the sudden acceptance of the glowstick phenomenon.
But, yes, the show… Ghostland Observatory is comprised of the beats guy in the cape (Thomas Ross Turner) and the singer/guitar/frontman guy (Aaron Kyle Behrens). Their music has been described as “electro-dance soul rock.” Hence why I was confused about being at a rave. I’d always focused on the electro and rock part of the sound that didn’t necessarily require glow thingamabobs.
Here’s a video of a 2007 performance that gives you a good idea of the dynamic, laser show included.
Aaron Kyle Behrens is a game frontman. He called out to the audience a couple times during the show, discussing how they were creating a shared energy. And truly it was an energetic crowd, one of the most lively I’ve seen at Mr. Smalls. Behrens encourages the give and take between performer and audience. As the only foregrounded member of the band, G.O. shows are a conversation between Behrens and the rave-like crowd. Rock the microphone and dance. Rock the microphone and hammer away on a guitar. Basically there’s a lot gyrating, like a street performer, begging for attention. But he doesn’t have to beg for the attention, there’s no competition and all eyes are already on him. Turner remains in the darkness behind his bandmate, surrounded by his wall of synths and computers. For much of the show, all you can see of Turner is his hands. It was hard to tell if this was an intended result or just a happy lighting coincidence (but considering the elaborately choreographed light and laser show, I’d guess the former). As a result Turner appeared to preside over the show like a god, pulling the strings, manipulating us all with his omnipresent powers of electrofunkery.
Ghostland put on a show that broke the barrier between crowd and performer. Ghostland not only hosted the party, they were the party. Before the show I couldn’t help but listen in on groups and their conversations. At the bar, flying solo, this is what you do. The dynamic of these groups followed similar patterns. One person knew Ghostland Observatory before the show and/or had seen them before and dragged a bunch of people along with the promise of a good time. So it seems that I wasn’t alone in not knowing anyone that listened to G.O. The stunning thing about this show was, in fact, that by the end you couldn’t tell the difference between the fans and the people that just got dragged along to enjoy the spectacle.
By the way, at some point last week I saw M83 at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Homestead. And I’d do a write up, but, really, the statute of limitations has expired for that hard-hitting journalism. I’ll just post my “Random Shit on Stage Picture.”
Yeasayer’s second album, 2010’s Odd Blood, remains one of my favorite recent rock albums. Side A contained four songs that made the first cut for my 2010 Best Of list. Leading up to this show on Tuesday I had the record on repeat, all over again. And I found these songs just as fresh as I did upon release, the perfect balance between experimental electro-pop and indie-rock.
Their latest record, Fragrant World, comes out on August 21st. I’ve listened to a stream of the record and the band has taken the next step in fully embracing that electronic undercurrent that existed as only a twinkle on their debut. The album is more experimental, a little more elusive. A record like this takes time to digest, thus I’ve withheld judgment until I can get my hands on the record proper. The thing needs to simmer.
I had these thoughts about the new record in mind as I made the trek out to Millvale for the Yeasayer/Daedelus show. How much of the new stuff would Yeasayer play considering no one would know the material? A band will sprinkle a new track into a live set here and there, but being this near the release date, would Yeasayer treat the show as a Fragrant World tour?
I park myself in the boozers section at the back of the venue. This is where Mr. Smalls sequesters those with the liquor from those freewheelers without. Buying a Magic Hat #9 upon arrival has become my tradition. This is also where concert-goers can find a television in front of which to idle. The MLB trading deadline had come and gone that particular day so I found myself drawn to the television because I wanted to see how Travis Snider, the new Pirates’ recruit, would fare in his first game with the team. Beer, baseball, Android Twitter and shortly thereafter, Daedelus, an electronic artist in which I’d only been marginally interested when I was actually into electronic music. It was a veritable cornucopia of multi-tasking and attention deficit.
If you’ve attended a minor electronic music show, you’ll know it’s like watching professional golf from the 7th tee . It’s just a guy standing behind a box. Daedelus is a talented guy but I was distracted by baseball… and that’s just how it goes sometimes. Travis Snider, by the way, hit an infield single with his first at bat before being plated by a Neil Walker grand slam. You were concerned, I’m sure. Long story short, I was more impressed with his paisley ascot and the magnitude of the dude’s chops than I was his ability to command the crowd. He dresses like a host for BBC’s Masterpiece Theater.
Round of applause. “Yeasayer’s coming up next.” More applause. Daedelus exited stage right, chilled at the swag table.
I went back to watching the baseball game and Tweeting nonsense. It’s the fourth inning by now and AJ Burnett hasn’t given up a hit against the Cubs. To be fair to the Cubs, they are the Cubs (a AAAA lineup), but good for AJ, nonetheless.
Yeasayer arrives on stage at the end of the 5th, all business, their entrance prefaced by a mix of someone saying “Pittsburgh” over and over again. Without any hesitation they launch into an electronic-heavy song I didn’t immediately recognize. A new song, of course. During shows I like to make notes about the setlist for my write-ups. After the third song, I put my phone and it’s notepad away. Three songs. All new. The crowd’s into it. There’s a nice beat, creative synth, etc. But the show’s growing flatter with each new song. I’d never seen a show start with a handful of songs plucked from an album that hasn’t yet been released. And not once did the band address the crowd. I know some people crave that band/crowd interaction because they want to experience a band’s personality, but I just don’t consider it necessary. If they’re cool with chatting the crowd up, then that’s a bonus. But we came to hear music and music they were going to play. Beirut, The Twilight Sad, all business, no problem.
I get my second beer, a Rogue Dead Guy. AJ’s still throwing that no-hitter in the 6th. Yeasayer finally plays their first “recognized” song. I’d tell you what it was but as I said, I gave up on the notes. If I’m tossing out names, I’ll say it was “I Remember” from Odd Blood and move on from there. The crowd jumps into full-on sing mode. Muscle dudes in tank-tops are bobbing, likewise, the PBR sippers. A lively reaction for a mid-tempo rocker from a crowd starved for familiarity.
After only a couple more familiars, Yeasayer continued with the new tracks. Still no introductions, chatter or whimsy. And I realize why it’s sometimes useful for a band to address the audience. People have more fun at shows when they know the music, there’s an intimate connection with a song you love and have listened to a few hundred times. Fans notice subtle differences, and the choices a band makes in its live set provide some nice watercooler conversation around the old blogosphere. The crowd’s being treated to some great music but when that familiarity’s not there, the song doesn’t register and therefore no connection. Even minimal interaction with the crowd could have created some grounded anticipation. Instead those new Yeasayer songs just washed over me without leaving any particular lasting impression. During a Swell Season show a few years ago, Glen Hansard prefaced each song with a one sentence synopsis like “So, I wrote this when I had my heart broken by a pretty girl from London,” which was pretty much his backstory for every song. Even this would have offered the evening some shape. Even now, one day later, as I try to remember details about their set, I’m grasping at air.
With “Ambling Alp,” sanity is restored and I can’t help but think that we’re being treated to a band at the height of it’s powers, bolstered by fan expectation for the third album, an album that, due to its more experimental nature, can never really succeed in the same way as Odd Blood. The more ambitious sound lends itself to close examination rather than immediate gratification. It is a stark contrast to what has come before it, e.g. “Ambling Alp” and the still unplayed “Madder Red.” And then as I’m thinking all of these self-proclaimed profundities about the liquid awesomeness of this band, they hop off-stage, concluding their set.
I check the baseball score. End of the 7th. Was that a short set? Or was that just me?
The band returns a minute later, concludes their set by playing the remaining necessaries and then vacates, once again, all before the conclusion of the 8th inning. On one hand, I’m disappointed. The first album remained ignored. I felt like the entire act came and went faster than a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. During those Odd Blood Side A tracks, I saw a crowd ignited by music, wanting more more more from this band, and the band responded by dancing to the beat of their own drum, almost oblivious to the audience’s cravings (speaking of cravings, I could go for a Jr. Bacon right about now). The concert-going experience proved to be analogous to my early feelings about the new album. I’m excited for the prospect of growth. I desperately want to know what this band can do, but I’m conflicted; I really want to hear “Madder Red” and “O.N.E.” and “Ambling Alp,” but Yeasayer seems content to tell me that I’ll like the new stuff better. And while that might be true, I’m just not ready to open my heart to a new record.
On the other hand, the show ended early enough that a bunch of guys, myself included, sidled up near the televisions to watch AJ try for the no-hitter and talk Pirates baseball. Something that, quite frankly, has never happened in all of the years I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Burnett lost the no-hitter with two outs in the 8th. Many Wrigley faithful, with very little to cheer about on the home side, stand and applaud. I throw the gathered gents a nod and wander out into the night, chewing reluctantly on my conflicted thoughts about the concert, the new Yeasayer tracks and a near no-hitter because I know that my Wendy’s has already closed.
I’ve said it before. Why do guys in madras shorts constantly date girls well above their pay grade? I spotted at least another three, maybe four guys wearing madras shorts at this concert.
Why was Mr. Smalls showing the WGN feed of the Pirates’ game? This bothered me for hours. But do you really go up to either bartender to be the dick that says “Hey, you know the local feed for this game is on another channel.” No. You don’t. Because they get your beer and you don’t jeopardize that relationship.
Daedelus spells his name with that random ‘e’ and not the, you know, according to the Daedalus of Greek mythology that fathered Icarus. So my bad about all those misspelled Tweets, dude.
A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick