At a certain point during the Of Monsters and Men show last night it became painfully aware that I’m fond of music that is also “hearted” by teenage girls. When did this happen? How did it happen? Either I need to find some semblance of peace with this or I just need to go full on Pitchfork asshole and only listen to bands that repel not only reasonable human beings but woodland creatures as well.
Welcome to the third installment of THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY edition of the 30Hz Rumble. I’ll be your host. Statler of the famously crotchety Muppet duo Statler and Waldorf. I’d like to begin by saying:
So it goes with me and outdoor shows. I like live music (clearly). There’s nothing wrong with being outside. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music outside. But somehow, when you compile listening to live music outside I turn into an old, crotchety fart. Of Monsters and Men played a short, tight set. Much like Alt-J, they have a limited catalog from which to choose and they played it with much attention to detail. The outdoor version of Stage AE also sounded remarkably good (for an outdoor venue). A good time was had by all. It was a nice, placid, laid-back, one-beer night. But is that enough? Is that memorable? If we’re not seeking transcendence, why are we making the effort — the babysitters, the traffic, the people who idle in front of the concessions without any desire to partake of said concessions — to patronize live music? Perhaps this is too much of a conversation for me to tackle today. I need more coffee. I also need to write more #Bond_age_ essays. So it goes.
That was my view from left field. And as I said it was constant placidity until it was pointed out to me, however, that many of the songs played by Of Monsters and Men contain a “HEY.” I started to listen for that “HEY” obsessively. The songs in their catalog then become divided between those that have a “HEY” and those that don’t have a “HEY.” And then you start obsessing over all the other alt-folk-indie-whatever that have songs in which they say “HEY.” It’s a downward spiral from there. The Icelandic Of Monsters and Men plays a great, if too-palatable brand of zeitgeisty indie-folk. They’re a hard act to see immediately after The National, who, to my knowledge, doesn’t say “HEY.” The show further emboldened my appreciation for what I’d seen and heard the night prior.
I paused the spiral for a moment to really soak in “Little Talks” before setting off into the night, for the last time in THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY. I was tired. Three nights out in a row is a lot for an old concert going curmudgeon like me. And as it turned out, it wasn’t quite so OHMIGOD AMAZING, after all. But hyperbole is always more fun, ain’t it? And please, in the future, dear promoters, put all the bands I care about inside.
I imagine you’ll hear from me again after the Yeasayer show at Mr. Smalls near the end of the month. Until then…
Welcome to Part 2 of the THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY edition of the 30Hz Rumble. I’m sure everyone’s got an old story about how they saw The National playing their grandmother’s powder room. Small venue stories for a band that’s been around for a decade are de rigeur. That said, I first saw The National at Lollapalooza in 2008. They played an afternoon set. I walked up five minutes before they began playing and had a spot right next to the stage. And this was approximately a year after the release of The Boxer. In broad absolutely flipping daylight. I’d missed seeing them on a few occasions in Boston and was ecstatic to get a chance to finally see the band. Fast forward two records and you’ve got this:
As opposed to the Alt-J show the prior night, The National can’t help but own whatever space they play. I’ve seen them outside. I’ve seen them in a library. And now I’ve seen them in the 2000+ capacity Stage AE. Lead singer Matt Berninger embodies the gut punch/imperfect perfection model of frontmanning. At one point he just forgot a repeated line in “Green Gloves” and shrugged it off, threatening to play the song over again to get it right because that was the best line in the song. At every show he starts out a little tentative, a little tic-laden but the man gets geared up, like a 747 for takeoff, with a little gumption and some (and by some, I mean lots of) vodka in a Soho cup. By the time he screams the finale of “Squalor Victoria,” he’s airborne. In this show he broke three microphone stands and just threw the microphone at least as many times, if that gives you any indication of how the man attacks his duties. By the time he made his traditional Matt Berninger slog through the crowd during “Mr. November” I didn’t know if it was the vodka or the audience keeping him upright. He brushed by me and clotheslined me with his microphone wire. Twice. There’s nothing perfect or pleasant about his performance while he’s being mobbed by hundreds of fans. But the song is The National’s coup de grace, the final kick to the testicles. When you’re listening, idly, to the band on your iPod or computer, the full range of emotion is neutered by the inherent nature of recorded material. It’s not that reproduction is emotionless, but The National’s live show is an amplification of the beauty and rage and sadness and joie de vivre contained within their music. The way live music should be.
But back to the part about The National being motherflipping rock stars. The band commands the stage. Last night they weren’t overly affable or talky. They’ve been moreso in the past. During the show at the Carnegie Library Music Hall a couple years ago, Berninger shared a couple of stories about growing up in Cincinnati, visiting Pittsburgh frequently and eventually how they played some tiny venues to little fanfare. There was some mention of those lackluster days of yore playing the Club Cafe, but they were casual discards, buying time as band members swapped instruments. It was just enough talky interaction to engage the crowd and get back to blowing our collective minds. It was the lights, the 60′ video screen turning them into silhouettes. It was the Dessner brothers raising their goblets of rock as they, pardon my lingo, shredded. Yeah, that’s right. Shredded. Apparently more comfortable in their “rock star” status than in past, more understand performances.
The unsung hero of the National, clouded perhaps by the down tempo nature of much of their music is drummer Bryan Davendorf, the man who would be Tommy Chong in wristbands if he weren’t a drummer for a brilliant indie-rock band. During your next listen of The National, isolate the drum track. He is the backbone over which all of that gooey, brilliant humanity is draped. His parts aren’t easy; he just makes them sound that way. The National proved they can command any size stage, playing every song like a #1 Billboard charter. The crowd lost some of it’s mojo during new tracks from Trouble Will Find You, but not its rapt attention. It wasn’t until after the show that I realized the band failed to play my personal favorite track “Slow Show” from The Boxer. It just didn’t matter. Despite some curious setlist omissions of old standbys (No “Murder Me, Rachel” or “Mistaken for Strangers”), there was no cause to idly check my phone or tweet snark about the lovers quarrel to my left. You make amends to finish a National show. You just do. For the entirety of their near two-hour performance, we were all drinking from the Matt Berninger Soho juice. And it was glorious.
Tonight I’ll be back at Stage AE, checking in with the Icelandic folkers Of Monsters and Men with the conclusion of this three-part THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY digest.
Also, one final note about The National’s opening act, The Dirty Projectors. I know they have their loyal followers, but I don’t get the appeal. Cacophony turned up louder, does not make cacophony sound any better.
The Dirty Projectors make me hemorrhage a little bit. You don’t have to sound like someone is beating a cat.
I Should Live In Salt
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This is the Last Time
(Hard Rock Outro)
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
Again, I will leave you with some music to go. This time, with the song I wished The National had played last night.
Living in Pittsburgh, I have achieved a sort of placid comfort normally reserved for retirement communities and making plans around post-season runs for Cleveland pro sports teams. I don’t mean that I’m hitting the early bird specials, only that when I make plans to do something, in Pittsburgh, I’m rarely inconvenienced. Movies sell out, but generally not the movies I want to see. Concerts sell out, but there’s never a rush to buy tickets to any of the bands about which I wax poetic. I don’t want the secret to get out, but Pittsburgh boasts many of the things that larger cities claim as their own… a stunning cityscape, a thriving arts community, a busy concert calendar (at least lately), three professional sports, a very good symphony with A-list conductors, etc. I don’t want to profess delusion; I daily long to live in Boston again, but for a town of only 400,000, Pittsburgh offers more than your average mid-level metro area for a relatively few number of people.
So imagine my surprise this past Wednesday when I was on my way to the Frankenstein double-feature, and when stopped a light, I tried to buy tickets in advance and the Fandango app told me the show was sold out. Sold out? Surely, Fandango was just full of shit. Of course there are m’f’ing tickets. Nevertheless, I was concerned. On one hand, when I went to see Ghostbusters last year at this same time, the theater still had plenty of seats remaining. On the other, Frankenstein was just one night,Ghostbusters played on at least two consecutive Wednesdays.
After parking the car in a pretty empty parking lot at the Settler’s Ridge Cinemark, I’d again convinced myself that there would still be tickets. I hurry in to the lobby, still with 20 minutes to spare. There’s Frankenstein Double Feature. 7:00. And there’s the flashy flashy SOLD OUT. Dismay. I’d planned my entire week around this event. I’d chosen Frankstenstein and Bride of Frankenstein over the Dinosaur, Jr. and Shearwater show. It was planned. This was my trip out for the week. I’d gleefully thrown the three-year old into my wife’s arms and run out the door with visions of a big ass popcorn bag, a tub of Coke and corpse reanimation.
I stood in the lobby of the theater staring at the movie times. There were plenty of movies I wanted to see but it didn’t matter what I chose, not really. It was all going to be something other than an angry mob hunting a walking hulk of mismatched appendages.
On one hand, I’m thrilled that people in Pittsburgh are supporting these special repertory screenings. (I wish more of them would support the films, not promoted by the TCM muscle, at the Hollywood Theater.) On the other hand, stop going to see my shit and leaving me, stunned, in the lobby while I decide whether to wait an extra 15 minutes to see Argo or go see The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
For those that care, at best maybe three of you. I saw Wallflower because there’s a kind of backwards pride associated with seeing our little town on the big screen — even though it is happening with increasing regularity. I found much to like about the movie, even if the final act seemed a little rushed. Seeing my primary commute through the Ft. Pitt tunnel become a repeated and primary plot point for the film felt a little out-of-body. And speaking of the The Hollywood Theater, the Dormont establishment (less than a mile or so from my house) even makes a brief appearance as the setting for a Rocky Horror Sing-a-long. The movie could have been terrible (it wasn’t, go see it) but I would have enjoyed it for one stupid reason alone. When the high school kids in the movie had nothing better to do, they went to Kings. Facepalm for truth.
I always consider Pittsburgh to be this void of cultural taste. Its possible that having spent so much time in Kings during my high school years has irrevocably tarnished my impression of this city. Honestly it’s like Waffle House, only less happy. My relationship with this town can be a little patronizing. I admit. It only grew more so in the decade we were apart. But maybe it’s time I gave the people here a little more credit. After all, those non-cultured bastards prevented me from seeing Frankenstein on the big screen for the first time.
Anyway, after Wallflower, I went home. Put on the Frankenstein DVD and promised myself the next time I rearrange my schedule to do something, I’ll actually buy the tickets in advance… because there are at least a few hundred people just like myself out there, and goddammit, they’re going to steal my ticket.
More often than not lately I buy tickets to shows just because I want to see the opening act. I went to see Hospitality and stayed for Here We Go Magic. I make the easy agreement with myself that if I’m not enjoying the show, I have my own 100% permission to bail, no guilt. But I don’t bail because more often than not I find something in the live act that I’d not heard previously on the studio recordings. So it went, most recently, with Here We Go Magic. I’d always liked the band, but heavy rotation wasn’t in their past, present or future. Now I have Here We Go Magic’s debut record in the easy-to-access stack of vinyl next to the turntable.
I’ve been following Yellow Ostrich since I heard John Richards spin a track from their EP Fade Cave on KEXP in 2009 (stream the radio station on www.kexp.org). Smitten, I downloaded both the EP and full length Mistress without hesitation.
Side note: listening to KEXP is the always the worst thing for my music budget. On any given day I’ll hear three or four new bands that I buy or toss on my wishlist. It’s a disease. Also, I trust John Richard’s taste in music more than my own. Dude is absolutely infallible. By the way, I’m listening to him now as I write this and just threw the new Exitmusic release in my to-buy list. And now he’s playing the Cure. If I were more awesome, I’d be John Richards. But I digress.
Sunday, Yellow Ostrich opened for Welsh pop-punkers Los Campesinos! (though none of them are originally from Wales), a band I perpetually enjoy but never love. A few tracks have really grabbed me.
Yellow Ostrich did not disappoint. I put up a little write up for the band’s new release on my intermittent 30Hz Recommended posts and wrote the review for Spill Magazine. From that review:
“Strange Land is the intersection of the familiar with the surreal. Frontman Alex Schaaf, a mad musical professor, under the moniker Yellow Ostrich, recorded the Fade Cave EP and The Mistress at his home in Wisconsin. In 2010 he moved to New York, released The Mistress on Barsuk Records and found himself a legitimate full-blown three-piece band, adding multi-instrumentalist Joe Natchez and drummer Michael Tapper. The songs on The Mistress are minimalist, vocal loops and solo instrumentation mixed into something raw and personal. Schaaf’s journey from the familiar (Wisconsin, working solo) to the surreal, the strange (New York, bandmates) influences everything on Strange Land, an album that embodies the schizophrenia of a man caught between two worlds.”
Schaaf and co. didn’t disappoint. Their live orchestration was tight and Schaaf’s performance made it clear that he pours his soul into his music. Every song sapped his energy and only the promise of performing the next one revived him. I’d been most curious how the full band would handle Schaaf’s compositions from his earlier, solo work from Mistress and Fade Cave. Both “Whale” and “Mary” sounded very similar to Schaaf’s solo mad-scientist recordings but with more depth. A live performance with more musicians, inevitably, has that effect. Just hearing the live version of the fragile “Whale,” in particular, made the show worthwhile. That was the song that caused me to buy the small Yellow Ostrich catalog back in 2009 and it still stood out as a unique and brilliant song among the new material.
After the Yellow Ostrich set, as I have made a habit of doing, I hung out by the swag table to buy a record and chat. Schaaf hung around for a few minutes receiving some much deserved fan adulation. I only chatted him up for a few minutes about his abbreviated two week tour with Los Campesinos! that concludes in Miami of all places. He lamented the termination as the band must then spin their van back back down the long road from Florida to New York City while Los Campesinos! hops on a plane back to the UK. He seemed like a genuine guy with an easy sense of humor.
Los Campesinos! bounds on stage. I knew very little about the band’s makeup. Suddenly there’s a flood of musicians on the tiny Brillobox stage. If you’ve been to the Brillobox venue here in Pittsburgh, imagine a cluster of seven musicians on that miniature platform that’s more like a soap box. Led on stage by lead singer Gareth (an apparent well of infinite enthusiasm despite claiming to have been exhausted by taking to a Southside pub for the afternoon football match), the band launches into their opener and the crowd immediately begins fist-pumping and bouncing and screaming lyrics. Easily the most energetic crowd I’ve witnessed at Brillobox and probably the loudest show. Seven bandmembers, seven instruments play loud but the cacophony somehow doesn’t overcome the long, rectangular space. Their brand of indie-pop is raucous with a post-punk twist. Think Built to Spill with Joy Division and a dash of the Clash and Belle & Sebastian.
Between the two- or three-song blocks, Gareth once pauses to berate the crowd for being “so damn nice” (and he follows this by clarifying “And that’s not a good thing”) and mocks the gathered for cheering whenever he says “Pittsburgh.” “It’s such a silly American thing, all this irrational civic pride” he says and from there on refers to Pittsburgh as “the place that shall not be named.” His banter is good-natured and very British, which allows him to get away with saying pretty much anything he likes. He has the shiny, happy hipster crowd of 120 eating out of his hand. By the time the band plays “You! Me! Dancing!” the venue erupts and I’ve got to wonder what the show sounds like to those gathered in the bar downstairs. The floor bounces and the united patrons scream the chorus in perfect synchronicity.
“You! Me! Dancing!” off Hold On Now, Youngster (2008) is just pure joy. I couldn’t find a live version with decent audio. A shame.
It’s one of those live music moments you’ll want to bottle and remember every time the song plays. The band milks the live show for everything they’ve got. It’s no wonder they’ve built such a positive reputation for their shows.
Every time I hear Los Campesinos! I’ll still have that live performance informing all of those studio recordings. And now the previously flat music has a life and vigor that didn’t exist previously. If this tour happens to stop in your town, just go. Hang out, have a drink and enjoy some great music the way it was meant to be heard.
If you’re at a bar noted for its selection of microbrews and craft beer do not stride confidently up to the bar and order “the cheapest, shittiest beer you’ve got.” When a great beer, on tap, costs $5, it’s just weird. I really wish I had a picture of the guy that hopped up on the bar stool, made this request and then sat there sipping a can of Modelo (which, btw, was the cheapest, shittiest beer they had).
If you go to these shows in Pittsburgh and you see some asshole standing by himself using Twitter as company before a show, it’s probably me. Feel free to say hello, unless you just hopped up on the bar stool next to me and ordered something “cheap and shitty” because I’m probably Tweeting about you.
I paraphrase everything. Don’t think that just because I’m using quotation marks around a phrase spoken by the lead singer that I’m repeating anything verbatim. Because 1) I’ve been drinking. 2) I’m not recording the show because I see the guy that stands there recording everything on his phone and he always looks like an asshole. Just enjoy the show, dude.
Yellow Ostrich frontman Alex Schaaf recorded a re-imagining of Radiohead’s Kid A using two pianos, two violins and two cellos. It’s pretty fantastic. Listen and download here: Schaaf’s Kid A
Also, for reference, a picture of the Brillobox stage.
As much as I like to be spontaneous (I’m really not) and as much as I like to make last-minute, spur-of-the-moment plans (I generally won’t) and as much as I can make split decisions… meh. You get the picture. I often look at a perfect opportunity, last night for example, to escape from the daily grind. Everyone’s got a daily grind, be it a 70-hour-per-week job, a litter of kids at home, a work-from-home situation that feels like the end of sanity. If you’ve read a sizable portion of this bl-g you’ve probably read a few posts that encourage active participation. It’s just so much easier not to do things. To not go see that movie. To not attend a band’s show because I just don’t have the energy. Staying home is almost always easier. But do you make memories, entertain new experiences?
A few weeks ago, I Shazammed a song by a band called Dry the River. I finally had the opportunity to listen to the full record sometime last week. From the very first spin, I was hooked. Full-on, hooks through the gills. I’ve been pushing the band on Twitter (@drytheriver) whenever possible. They remind me vaguely of Shearwater (probably because I’ve been listening to Shearwater a ton lately) if Shearwater were enamored with some Scandinavian folkies like First Aid Kit. They’ve mentioned the influences of Leonard Cohen and At the Drive-In, a comparison I quite like. So yesterday I received one of those concert announcement emails from one of the local promoters. I don’t always skim these things because I’m usually aware of a show before it arrives in my inbox. Well, there at the bottom of the page was a small blurb mentioning Dry the River playing at the Club Cafe, that night. Ugh. Overlooked, likely because they just recently became a name on my radar.
I wanted to go, of course. The rules of Interweb hyperbole permit me to claim that Dry the River’s Shallow Bed is the OMG best m’f’in album of 2012. But I just couldn’t muster the gumption to go last night. A night in which I had nothing doing, nowhere to be, no immediate responsibilities to undertake. And I make these grand speeches about making the effort on this bl-g. I’m a hypocrite.
It takes energy and time to go out into the world. It seems silly but it’s true, especially when days are filled with other responsibilities. Work. Kids. Wife. Coffee consumption. Fiction writing in between all of that. I build myself up for going out. I look forward to my dates with live music for weeks in advance. Could I talk myself up in one day? Ehhh, not so much. All I wanted to do was get the kids to bed, do my workout and catch up on some Sherlock, some baseball watching and maybe paint the attic stairs. Some nights you’ve talked yourself up for a night of nothing whatsoever. And when you’ve talked yourself up for nothing whatsoever that something that comes along, even something as fated as a Dry the River show the moment after discovering the band, just needs to take a night off.
To be fair, I almost talked myself up. The wife even told me to go. After all, I could have written a spectacular bl-g proclaiming my love for this soon-to-be buzzband, touting their brilliant mishmash of folk and rock. I could have marked off another venue on my Pittsburgh concert-going to-do list. Somehow I’ve never been to (or don’t remember) the Club Cafe. It would have been glorious, I assure you. But on the other hand, I’m writing this instead. And while it’s not as glorious as a night out with live music, some contemplative time about choosing to squander opportunities can almost be as valuable. I’ll go out there and get ’em next time. I promise. I might just need someone to remind me about this post, three years from now when I’m complaining about how I didn’t go to that Dry the River show on some arbitrary, ho-hum Tuesday back in Oh-12.
A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick