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.
For example, this track from Hello Sadness made my Best of 2011 list.
“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.
Whale (recorded live at KEXP in 2011):
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.