Alt-J @ Mr. Smalls 6/10

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.

Alt-J at Mr. Smalls 6/10/13

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.

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.

Take some music to go. Alt-J, “Fitzpleasure”

ALT-J “Fitzpleasure” from COSA on Vimeo.

Passion Pit @ Stage AE 11/6

Passion Pit

This is my first concert writeup in what feels like forever. I had a long break between shows and I neglected to write up the two shows prior to that. I feel refreshed, like I could spill words all over this page like my 3yo spills, well, everything. And they might make just as much sense. Or maybe I’m just here to let my bl-g know I’m still alive.

Champion Fist Pumper

Imagine this dude, the fist pump champion, in the first row at Passion Pit. And then multiply him by five dozen.

Passion Pit last night at Stage AE. As always my preoccupation with the chemical makeup of the crowd became a foremost concern. An oddity last night even as “dudes” fist-pumped gleefully to Passion Pit’s breed of bubbly-electro-pop ear candy. And by “dudes” I mean guys I would have placed more readily at an Arena Football League game. Stage AE crowds, in my experience, have been the most energetic of concert goers. By and large, they are barely old enough to drink and therefore hammered as a direct result. Hence the energy. This portion of the crowd mingled with the teetotaler portion of the crowd whose eyes shared time with the TVs above the bar, eagerly awaiting election results to come pouring in. It was a house divided. There was also a guy in grey suit wearing a massive cardboard Romney head. He appeared without a bighead Obama for equal representation. This solo appearance just made him seem desperate.  And then I, instead of tweeting about the show I was watching (at the time Youngblood Hawke), per my normal concert routine, became far too concerned about the Massachusetts Senate results and scrolling twitter for confirmation of the false confirmation results which then lead to confirmation of the official results. Or something. You know how Twitter goes.

Political map tapping set to Passion Pit just can’t be beat.

But I digress politico. And that’s not why anyone’s reading this shit.

I’ll skip discussing Youngblood Hawke in depth, except to mention that if I had been Tweeting last night I’d have gone overboard describing the lead singer’s plaid track suit. I couldn’t figure it out. Regarding the music, the set sounded disjointed. Their “radio hit” felt gleefully manufactured next to the freeform nonsense of the rest of their jams. In a word, frenetic and forgettable. They reminded me of The Format, without the fun. But not like the band fun. Because I don’t find fun. much fun at all. (Format’s lead singer is now the lead singer of fun. if you didn’t catch why I became obsessed with that nonsense just now.)

Youngblood Hawke’s “We Come Running”

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH1caVBApj4&feature=relmfu[/tube]

But Passion Pit surprised me. I have been wary of electro-based live acts for some time. I don’t want to denigrate electronic bands’ talent as musicians but something is often lost in translation. The artifice of the music undermines the guise of spontaneous creation. M83 dominated his/their show earlier this year. Yeasayer’s more-electro tracks from their latest album underwhelmed compared to their early jams. Michael Angelakos turned the stage into his own personal treadmill. And while he engaged in the typical histrionics of most voice-only frontmen, his particular and dynamic vocal range played like an instrument. The band had a live presence, driven by a tight band — perhaps most notable was the metronomic precision of Nate Donmoyer on drums that occasionally played cadence that was drum machine on the record. The instrumental accomplishment, perhaps, shouldn’t have been a surprise considering the Cambridge-born band (with the exception of Angelakos) attended the Berklee School of Music in Cambridge, MA.

The set began with the tub-thumper and current hit single “Take A Walk.” The near capacity crowd salivated, perhaps a Pavlov’s dog response, craving Taco Bell. (You know, because “Take A Walk” is featured prominently in a Taco Bell commercial.) Really, you know you’ve made it when your single’s selling grade-D taco beef on a Dorito shell. A true American success story. I thought it was an odd choice to lead with the song on everyone’s brain.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euDlcNQDUYw[/tube]

The setlist choice paid off, however, in spades. I waited, perhaps too impatiently for “Sleepyhead” as we navigated a number of humdrum also-rans from the new record Gossamer . “Sleepyhead” is the beginning and end of the conversation about “Best Passion Pit track.” If you have another opinion, you’re probably wrong. I’m not being facetious. As the synth from the penultimate track bled into the immediately recognizable “Sleepyhead” synth, the members of both opening acts joined Passion Pit on stage. I hadn’t seen an on-stage clusterfuck as impressive since a Wu-Tang Clan show in 1997. When the beat dropped, on-stage performers showered streamers and confetti out over the crowd. The paper fireworks remained, suspended, overhead as the cacophony of performers burst to life. Many beating drums, some just dancing or singing along with Angelokos. On a night stepped with bi-partisan politics, the swollen collection of performers writhing among confetti created a hopeful parallel. It’s not really a reasonable connection to make. A bunch of like-minded musicians joining together on stage to play one killer song. …but consider this. Passion Pit shared the stage with Hollerado and Youngblood Hawke for the song everyone wanted to hear. It’s pretty common for bands to share the stage with other acts on the bill, but I can’t remember the last time I saw this brand of camaraderie during a band’s biggest song. The idealist in me wants to see this as something greater. I’m a writer. I like to draw parallels. So I choose to draw them here for a lack of anything else to discuss.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkBdJ728Sa8[/tube]

The act of sharing in the spotlight, fostering joy, just for the sake of it — is inspiring. It makes me want to believe that we can find inspiration in greater quantities moving forward. Even if it’s just a five-man band from Boston and their barely-known opening acts, there’s something to take away here. Music can and always will inspire hope. It is good. And it is natural, even if it’s largely false and misguided… and maybe, just maybe, we’ll have an NHL season this year if those bastards learn to share, like Passion Pit. Hrm? What’s that? Did you think I was talking about the deadlock in government caused by bi-partisan shenanigans and Republican held House of Reps? Pfft. I could see why you’d think I was going there with the whole election thread, but there’s no hope for any reconciliation there. Don’t be ridiculous.

NHL Lockout

Childish Gambino @ Stage AE 6/18

Childish Gambino, Donald GloverThe rap concert is an unnatural phenomenon. Rap is a Frankenstein genre, cobbled together from samples and beats and lyrics culled from life, other songs, other genres. Beats are made. Rhymes are written. And then all is combined and mixed in a studio. The system is not unlike any other style of music; however, rap differs because the subsequent components of a rap record are rarely organic. Rap has more in common with the electronic- and DJ-fueled genres, yet rappers perform in traditional concert venues because they are unshackled, unpredictable and the beating heart of the Frankenstein monster. For all its posturing, rap music is less a spontaneous creation than a practice of restraint and calculated excess. Rap concerts have a tendency to take on a life of their own, for better and for worse. The Wu-Tang Clan created the most influential rap album of the last twenty years, yet I attended a concert of theirs in 1997 that I recall as perhaps the worst exhibition of “music” I’ve ever seen. The phrase herding cats might as well have been “herding stray Wu-Tang Clan members.” ODB just didn’t show up. Method Man was late and the rest treated the performance like a freestyle battle gone horribly wrong.

Shaq Diesel

1 million sold, m’f’ers.

To further confuse the balance of spontaneous art and beats/production, the platform supports vanity entertainers with regularity. This introduces that final silent component of rap music, reputation and swagger. How else can you explain Shaq Diesel going Platinum? That’s one million copies sold. Allan Iverson, Chris Webber, Ron Artest, Roy Jones, Jr. have also all tested the rap game with lesser success. Therefore, at face value, it’s easy to be skeptical when Donald Glover, a comedian and notable TV actor and writer (for 30 Rock), releases a record. A quick sample of his Camp LP dispels any questions you may have had about his intentions (even more so when you learn that he’s been creating beats and writing music for more than six years, having already released three independent records prior to Camp). Glover is a capable beatsmith and MC (even if he borrows much of his style from the Kanye-school of swagger) but where he excels is his creative wordplay and rhymes. He alternates brash with hyper-sensitivity. His songs are laced with pop-culture references and cynicism regarding the genre’s predictable tropes. Personal themes of childhood bullying, alcoholism and failed relationships are littered throughout. As Childish Gambino, Glover is a self-aware artist that refuses to break the “Fourth Wall” – to borrow a term from film theory. Despite being an excellent stand-up comedian, the Renaissance man in Glover refuses the audience a campy wink-wink of acknowledgment. What he’s doing is serious business and he’s doing his damnedest to ensure that he’s accepted as an artist who excels according to the rules of each of his endeavors. He does not succeed as a rapper because he is an actor. He does not excel as an actor because he is a comedian. Each talent exists in a separate vacuum, a truly remarkable feat of career management.

The Fourth Wall

Danny Brown opened. While I’m warming to Brown’s lyrical style (which seems to be a mish-mash of Das Racist and Shabazz Palaces), his strength is also his creative use of humor. The performance, however, lacked energy. Other than the moment when he pulled a fan up on stage (a hipster Chris Elliott), Brown and his DJ seemed oblivious to the crowd. Hipster Chris Elliott rapped along the entire time and Brown lent him the microphone to punctuate particular phrases. Still, the unusually attentive crowd (for an opening act) ate it up.

Childish Gambino Stage, Stage AE

When the very first beat from “Outside” dropped, Glover turned the attentive but lax sold-out crowd at Stage AE into a fist-pumping party. His stage act is frantic and high-energy. “First time in Pittsburgh. We gotta do this right,” he proclaimed early on, and throughout the show Glover beckoned the audience to keep the pace. Backed by a full band, the music filled the space with more than just an obligatory distorted bassline. Two drummers, guitar, keyboards and the occasional violin. The musicianship transcended a standard hip-hop show.

I’d always wondered about the identity of the Childish Gambino fan demographic. These are things about which only those who write about music wonder. And as I nodded along with the beat appreciatively, I couldn’t help but take an unofficial and superficial survey of the demographics. Those most enraptured by the performance were A) Young; B) Twenty-something; C) Caucasian; and D) Female. Not what I had anticipated. If I’d taken a picture of the crowd you’d never have guessed the act. It was a cross-section of Pittsburgh youth culture. Glover requested a roll call of minority females in the crowd before “You See Me (UCLA)” and had to search to locate a few of them, including the one Indian girl who Glover called out for hiding from him. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Donald Glover.

Anyway, back on track. Surprised as I was by the overwhelming reception for the Childish Gambino act (as I mentioned, a large, sold-out venue), I was more surprised by the knowledge of his back catalog, all independently released. Chalk it up to an Internet-savvy generation with too much time on their hands. I don’t particularly have an excuse other than having mild OCD. Also I don’t sleep much. While Camp favorites “Bonfire” and “Heartbeat” received raucous welcomes, it was tracks from his older releases that lit a fire with the audience. Much of the crowd knew the words “Freaks and Geeks” and “Culdesac” and sang right along, prompting Glover to offer the microphone to the crowd to jump in during the chorus on a number of occasions.

While I should have just been proud of Pittsburgh for coming out and actively supporting a quality artist, hip-hop or otherwise, I was still just a little confused. Who are these people? The last notable hip-hop act to come through Pittsburgh was Shabazz Palaces and I doubt more than a handful of this crowd knew Shabazz at all. I don’t intend this as a knock on Glover or the fans of his music, just that Childish Gambino has attained a crossover appeal that’s difficult to label. Is it because Glover is unintimidating? Small in stature? That he’s “hard,” but not too “hard?” That he raps about universal human conditions rather than drug abuse, objectification of women and violence? Or is it merely that he tells jokes and plays Troy Barnes on Community?

Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) on CommunityAnd though the comparison lacks realistic connectivity, I couldn’t help lament that fact that if all of these people watched Community the show wouldn’t be on such tenuous ground. But, again, I digress. The only explanation for his widespread appeal is that despite Glover’s ability to maintain separation of music and television stardom, he is incapable of escaping (nor does he necessarily want to) the connectivity to the global idea of “fame.” Music and image, after all, go hand-in-hand, like beats and rhymes. And fame can be wielded in many different ways. The only way for Glover to continue to succeed independently in TV, music and comedy is to continue pretend that he is three different people, each operating freely, without the baggage of his alter egos. Fans will continue to be drawn in by the idea of his fame as long as he pretends to recognize that it doesn’t exist. But however it is you’re doing all that you’re doing, Troy Barnes/Donald Glover/Childish Gambino, don’t stop doing it because you are a true entertainer.

The Life in Live Music

The Life in Live Music

Guster is GOOD FOR YOU

Did I mention that Stage AE has 16 oz Guinness drafts for $5?

This rumble has nothing to do with records or vinyl or a new and recommended purchase. It might actually seem to be against recorded music. That, however, couldn’t be further from my point. Without recorded music, live music wouldn’t have impromptu sing-a-longs, organic ping pong ball tosses or a following greater than that of your popular local band. (Here in Pittsburgh I’m thinking of the Clarks’ level of fame). Sometimes, however, it seems we’re too busy managing our iTunes libraries to bother with live music anymore. I think about going to five or six shows for every one that I attend. Life gets in the way; we’re in too many places at once. It’s just easier to pick up the City Paper, note all the cool shows and never see any of them. That’s not to say that every show is worth the effort. Really, honestly, when was the last time you saw a memorable amphitheater show? I’d have to point to a Red Hot Chili Peppers show in Atlanta after the release of Californication. Memorable, that is, in the ways in which that show killed my appreciation for the record. Lifeless. Workman-like. I was glad when it was over. And they tragically played very little from Blood Sugar Sex Magic. (more…)