Some nights turn out shit. It’s an inescapable law of the world. “The best laid plans of mice and men” resonates for a reason. Still, I had a feeling about last night before it even began. I hadn’t been to a show in ages, yet I was looking for reasons to stay home. Not that I had anything particular to do. Maybe laundry. Killing flies for my wife… as this is apparently how she spent her evening of solitude… with a rolled magazine and white hot rage.
The great Mr. Smalls Funhouse venue is located in an old church in the Pittsburgh hamlet of Millvale. Millvale is a sleepy little enclave, going completely dark by 8pm… except when there’s a show at Mr. Smalls… and/or when the entire planet seems to converge on the town under the name of festivities called “Millvalle Days.” Millvale Days are a three-day festival where people prone to being drunk wander the streets, eat kettle corn and listen to Skynard cover bands. Someone ultimately stumbles on the uneven pavement and requires medical attention. It’s a scene, man. And every year I seem to attend a concert at Mr. Smalls during Millvale Days.
Combine Millvale Days with a sold out concert and you’ve shaken the powder keg. The main street is blocked off, thereby rendering half of the town’s parking inaccessible. Far away side streets, shady back alleys next to dumpsters and cars on blocks and illegal parking become the primary alternatives. After circling the illogical streets of Millvale for more than twenty minutes I settled on a 1/3rd legal parking spot, a spot that was far more legal than at least a dozen other parking jobs I’d already passed. I calculated the odds of a police person having enough time to rip tickets for the more egregious offenders before hitting the secondary offenders before the end of the show. I felt good about my chances.
So. Echo and the Bunnymen. I arrived just in time to grab a DogfishHead 60 Minute IPA and sidle up in a spot toward the rear center of the venue. Don’t get trapped under the new balcony, by the way, Mr. Smalls attendees. Echo opened with “Crocodiles” — the title track from their debut record. This introduced a block of songs that an average listener probably didn’t recognize. The earliest and the latest tracks — speaking of which, apparently Echo released a record last year. Who knew? And if you knew, why didn’t you tell me? Anyway. These were the tracks for the fans, tracks made us all anticipate the anthemic moments that were still yet to come. As much as I enjoy these early Echo tracks, they’re not the huge crowdpleasers. They’re not the tracks that incite spontaneous sing-a-longs and fuck yeah fist pumps. They’re welcome headnodders.
Ian McCulloch’s voice rang true as he hovered stoically at the center of the stage. A little more gravelly and aged, a weathered gate worthy of his 56 years. After shaking the rust, he sounded shockingly similar to the recorded tracks that by now feel etched into the stone tablets of our minds. But it wasn’t McCulloch that ultimately brought the crowd fully into the fold. Will Sergeant’s instantly recognizable guitar riffs catapulted the sold-out throng to life during the first moments of “Rescue” and then later when Echo launched into that string of mega hits, beginning first with “Seven Seas.”
McCulloch rarely opened up the proceedings for levity. He remained the angsty twenty-something raging against the dawn, a rare treat for fans of classic bands that have long since put aside the angst for a more age-appropriate level of placidity. He stood at the front of the stage, always in sunglasses and often cloaked by the shadows of the rear-lighting. He’d sing a block of songs before pausing to introduce another, his Liverpudlian accent and microphone reverb rendering all such words unintelligible.
For what reason has Echo and the Bunnymen fallen into relative anonymity? This is the question that began rattling around in my brain. They’re often compared to a band like The Psychedelic Furs. Post-rock. Jangly guitars. Brooding frontmen. Is it because the Furs contributed a song to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack? Their legacy endures because of the synesthesia nostalgia associated with Molly Ringwold and Ducky? If you type “Pretty in Pink” into Google, it will suggest an autofill of “Pretty in Pink song” above the autofill for just the name of the movie. In my mind, Echo looms large over the 1980’s. Am I wrong? Have I been misled? If Duran Duran and The Cure are like the A-list of sometimes brooding, influential post-punk bands of the era, Echo feels like an A-/B+. Though I came around to Echo shortly after their peak, I vividly recall a time as recent as the late 90’s where everyone who knew music knew Echo and the Bunnymen.
When Echo announced this show at Mr. Smalls, I hopped online, day one, and bought a ticket. I figured this would be a hot ticket, a much ado about something in Millvale on September 17th. After all, when the hell had Echo last played Pittsburgh? Not during the 13 on-and-off years I’ve lived here.
A college kid that did some housepainting for me over a couple of days this summer really knew indie music. We engaged in many conversations. He asked about any upcoming shows I had on my docket. I mentioned Delta Spirit. I then added, with much enthusiasm, that I’d snagged a ticket to see Echo and the Bunnymen! Cool, right? Echo and the f’ing Bunnymen!
He stared at me blankly. The same guy who’d browsed my record collection, calling other 80’s-born records with admiration. Though we listened to the exact same music, followed the same modern bands, he had no idea about the Bunnymen. I never blame anyone for not knowing a band. Unlike some maniacal music fans, I do not take offense when someone’s frame of reference does not overlap my own. I was just confused. I knew… well, I thought I knew that Echo and the Bunnymen still resonated. You can’t turn on more than 20 minutes of college radio without hearing the influence of Echo and the Bunnymen laced throughout that amorphous genre known as “indie-rock.”
It’s time to start a public service movement. Introduce someone you love, someone you want to grow as a human, to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine or perhaps Ocean Rain. These are the gateway drugs. Once they proclaim their affection, keep going back to their debut, Crocodiles. Standing in Mr. Smalls on Thursday, seeing this mass of sold-out humanity moved once again by these songs reminded me just how essential Echo remains. Spread the word, Echo never really went anywhere; they just don’t remind anyone of Andrew McCarthy’s bitchin’ hair.
Lucky for me these epiphanies occurred during the show. Appreciation. Admiration for a band continuing on despite waning popularity due to time and distance. Remember when I said that some nights turn out to be kinda shit? Well, I skipped out of Smalls, on a nice post-show buzz, hopped it my car and headed home only to find out that the city of Pittsburgh closed the southbound tunnel. After 80 minutes of stop-and-go traffic around the damn mountain, I finally arrived home. Carnivals and closed tunnels. Semi-legal parking and ambient Skynard covers. A 4-hour round trip for 90 minutes of Echo.
So worth it.
photo by Justin Gill. This image pretty much sums up Ian McCulloch.
I’ve never seen such a bizarre and bountiful collection of facial hair at one show. Is odd or distinctive facial hair the new midlife crisis? I saw Rollie Fingerses, Magnum, P.I.s, Johnny Fevers, Goose Gossages. I saw beards of all widths, girths and ineptness. I saw handlebars and fu manchus, braids and mutton chops. Instead of documenting the show I felt compelled to document the litany of notable facial coifs. A truly notable assemblage. Hence, the noting.
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.
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.
Long time lurker, first time poster. Or at least it seems that way. With #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media project going on, I’ve allowed my blog to collect cobwebs, doing a half-assed job of upkeep by posting the James Bond essays. It’s still something, right?
But now that we’re back in full-blown concert season I’ll do my best to throw some thoughts up here to keep the wheels turning, juices flowing, reverb blowing you’re f’ing mind.
I’ve dubbed this week THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY. Last night our normally musically-deprived city hosted the Local Natives and Alt-J and I found myself at Mr. Smalls for the Alt-J show. They released one of my Top 3 records of 2012. So despite my affection for Local Natives, I couldn’t pass up Alt-J. Had to be there. Plus I’d been hearing about their live shows ages from some UK Twatter acquaintances. If I had some 30Hz Correspondents like Jon Stewart has for the Daily Show I could cover everything. Sadly, they’d be the most under-worked and under-appreciated staff in the history of staffs. And I temped at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, so I know how low the bar can be set.
Nondescript Alt-J blobs playing the intro to “Tesselate.”
Regarding the picture above, I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I do not stand there at a show and take videos and dozens of pictures of the band I’m seeing. I may Tweet a ton before the act get on stage but once they’re up there, I’m locked in. Unless they play some slow jam filler, in which case I might check the baseball box scores, Twitter, etc. Point is, that for these shots of bands on stage, I take one picture. Just one. Whatever happens, happens. I do it out of obligation to you, reader. Proof that I have some reason to talk about the things I do. Now moving on.
Alt-J didn’t disappoint. They’re a tight band that skirted metronomic precision. What you hear on the record is what you heard in the show. I noticed a few minor variations, including an ever-so-slightly extended conclusion to “Fitzpleasure.” So minute was the adjustment that I only recognized it because I played the hell out of that song last year. Maybe adjustment is overselling it; it’s actually more like adding a few Cheerios to your bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats, just to go crazy one morning at breakfast.
I will say that there’s a sonic schism between their music from An Awesome Wave and everything else. And this is made more apparently live. Everything other than Wave felt, for lack of a better term, languorous in direct comparison. Even certain tracks from Wave, rearranged, became the filler they are on the album, due to the absence of of the album’s careful construction. The crowd visibly sank at times during the show. Perhaps because some of these tracks just weren’t as well known. I could have done without the few interruptions. Play other stuff in the encore and dispatch the “Real Hero” a cappella cover, which is a sagging repetitive commercial jingle taken out of the context of the movie Drive anyway.
I cherish the album construction on An Awesome Wave perhaps more than I care for the individual songs. The tracks comprise a single entity rather than individual bits to be “singles” or components of an arbitrary playlist. While “Tesselate,” “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure” are more than willing to stand on their own, they are all emboldened by their placement on the record. Part of me hoped Alt-J would suddenly change their entire live set just for Pittsburgh, just to play An Awesome Wave uninterrupted. But, alas, they did not bow to my subliminal demands. Instead they threw their entire (albeit small) catalog into a bingo wheel. The shizophrenic show never really gained much momentum in any one direction, to my ears anyway. I appreciated the craftsmanship of a band surely destined to play bigger venues in front of larger crowds, but felt some disconnection. Was it me? Was it them? I longed to feel some visceral emotion here, the same I feel when listening to An Awesome Wave. The crowd rallied around the three aforementioned tracks, especially “Breezeblocks” but their enthusiasm never seemed to met by the band. After their relatively short set I was merely granted an early evening and a greater conscious appreciation for their musicianship but no post-concert buzz, no desire to run off into the night spouting the lyrics from my favorite Alt-J songs. There just wasn’t any gut punch. Contemplative, a little weary from lack of sleep (fatherhood, #amiright?) I got back in my car. Royal Teeth’s “Wild” came on XMU (see them Friday for $10 at Stage AE!). So I rolled down my windows, cranked it up and headed off towards the Pittsburgh skyline.
I’ll wrap up my brief Alt-J conversation with a self-proclaimed *gold* tweet I shared with my twatterverse last night.
I consider myself pretty fluent in garbled microphone Brit-speak but I have no f’ing clue what this guy from Alt-J is saying.
Now it’s time to turn my attention to the rest of the week’s schedule for THE, LIKE OHMIGOD, MOST AMAZING CONCERT WEEK IN PITTSBURGH INDIE-ROCK HISTORY. This was actually the term I was using when The Gaslight Anthem still planned to play two dates at Mr. Smalls. It’s not quite as amazing any more, but I’d rather stick with the grand hyperbole AND be able to see Gaslight when they come back to play that canceled show in September.
Tonight: THE NATIONAL (w. Dirty Projectors) tonight at Stage AE.
Wednesday: OF MONSTERS AND MEN at Stage AE.
Friday: WILD TEETH at Stage AE.
And if you’re lucky I might check back in tomorrow after seeing The National for the third time. Three wildly different venues. Maybe I’ll even rank the shows. Everybody loves arbitrary lists of things.
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.
Ghostland Observatory, photo by Ben Rowland (www.benrowlandphotography.com)
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.