July 14, 2014

Baritones for the Painfully Alone

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds/Mark Lanegan
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
July 5
"It's very dark up here," said a squinting Nick Cave after his first song. While the black-clad transgressor was referring to the lack of stage lighting in that moment, it seemed natural to take it in reference to the Cave and Bad Seeds gestalt. But "dark" is far too facile, it does no justice to the wide-ranging, pysche-bashing storm of music this septet gathers up and throws at their audience. From the pulsing, flute-accented opener "We Real Cool" to actual pin-drop whispering (the faith-satirizing "God is in the House") to the jagged, bullet-ridden trauma of "Stagger Lee," Cave was a sinister minister, a piano bar romantic, a lanky scarecrow being electrocuted. It was like witnessing a pagan ceremony, bar brawl, and chamber music recital all mashed together; a post-punk tent revival with howls of desolation going unanswered.

Considering Cave himself, they just don't build them like this anymore. With the exception of Leonard Cohen, one is hard-pressed to identify another living music figure armed with such a varied, literary, and gallows humor-flecked body of work that can meet the challenge of his best songs on the concert stage, with charisma to spare. Cave was especially masterful at achieving oneness with his congregation: Not only did he use three small, jutting platforms to step out and immerse himself among his faithful (he was surrounded by, and occasionally leaning on, outstretched arms), he startled the room by wading deep into the orchestra section, corded microphone be damned, and planted himself to sing the jolting "Tupelo" and later, the brooding "Push the Sky Away."

Push the Sky Away (Photo by Eric Layton)

This rare, direct mingling of artist and audience served as a reminder that there's a complete lack of danger and unpredictability in the rock pantheon anymore; if Cave was a stalking, emotional Quasimodo ringing bells on this night, this in-your-face convergence with his worshipful fans was the toll that rung loudest. While all this might be taken as a stunt akin to stage-diving, it felt more like he was kicking against the strictures of live rock n' roll. Roger Waters once dreamt up a "wall" at the apotheosis of his rock star alienation; in Cave's world, that barrier needn't exist, and it's rather silly, anyway. The conspicuous absence of security guards anywhere near the stage was refreshing, and suggested that this Antipodean poet would rather throw caution to the wind and trust his ticket-buying public. It was a move that paid off exponentially.

On the road in support of his latest album Push the Sky Away, Cave disturbed the Schnitz quite handily, but he was aided and abetted by the Bad Seeds (violinist/string-mauler Warren Ellis; drummer Jim Sclavunos; pianist/organist Conway Savage; bassist Martyn P. Casey; multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson; and guitarist George Vjestica), a murder of crows that mostly stood in place and emitted atmosphere like a warm arterial spray, while their leader defiled, debriefed, and descended. Cave raised goosebumps with "Red Right Hand," reached back 30 years to his debut with the turbulent "From Her to Eternity," and invited opening act Mark Lanegan out for a shivering duet on "The Weeping Song." The setlist was satisfyingly career-spanning, and after the galloping death march "Papa Won't Leave You Henry," it featured the deep cut "The Lyre of Orpheus," an ominous recasting of a Greek myth. But on this night, recanting such fables seemed redundant as this rock n' roll outlier continued to build on his own myth, unleashing a performance that should be rightfully talked about in Portland for years to come.

Setting the table for Cave's musical "Red Wedding" was Lanegan, armed with only a guitar player and his stark baritone. Having fashioned a respectable solo career for himself after years in the Seattle rock trenches with the Screaming Trees, the stoic singer held listeners rapt with his signature voice. Bleak tales ensued, complete with lyrics of blades upon wrists, gravediggers, and one way streets. His cover of Bertold Brecht's "Mack the Knife" was unsettling, and under dusky stage lights, Lanegan established the right mood for what was to transpire next.

June 9, 2014

Leg-Kick Out the Jams

Guided by Voices
Wonder Ballroom - Portland, OR
June 7, 2014
You wanna hear something old school? How does a 56-year-old fronting a 31-year-old band sound? To anyone in the know, and to those at the Wonder Ballroom, it sounded mighty fine indeed. Dayton, Ohio's unsinkable Guided by Voices, now grayer and possibly a tad more moderate than during their 90s/early 2000s campaigns of Miller Lite stockpile destruction, came, saw, and leg-kicked out the jams.

If they had stopped writing new music 10 years ago, GBV would already be wielding a staggering song inventory, but no chance. Ceaselessly creative, mic-twirling dynamo Robert Pollard and his classic-formula GBV (from circa 1992-1996, guitarists Tobin Sprout/Mitch Mitchell, and bassist Greg Demos, along with later-period drummer Kevin March) arrived in town with not one but two new 2014 records, May's Cool Planet and February's Motivational Jumpsuit. If these worthwhile releases demonstrate anything, it's that the state of the GBV union is strong, and fans really ought to be grateful they live in a world where the unstoppable, avuncular Bob still holds court in their local nightclub.

Perhaps GBV never broke big, but the level of fame and adoration they currently enjoy seems ideal. Given the band's working-class-hero fervor at the Wonder Ballroom, their constituents could simply not want it any other way. This strange world of inscrutable song titles and transcendent rock and roll glory belongs to them, after all. Imagine a private club where beer bottles are hoisted in triumph, and nearly 50 songs are dropped in two hours. Presiding over it all is Captain Bob, damning torpedoes of power chords and melody that could lay waste to even the most jaded hipster mind, leaving pretension and PBR cans bobbing on the surface, like so much flotsam and jetsam.

In Portland, catering to every generation of fan like an indie rock Rolling Stones, the quintet broke out vintage tunes (Propeller's hard-charging "Exit Flagger"); fresh material ("Authoritarian Zoo," "Alex and the Omegas," the cleverly self-referential "Littlest League Possible"); Tobin Sprout-sung delicacies ("Awful Bliss"); and, in the "Shocker in Stumptown" given it was conceived by an entirely different membership of GBV, the very welcome mid-period jangler "Fair Touching" from 2001's Isolation Drills.

Pollard noted from the stage that it was the 20th anniversary of Bee Thousand, a peerless GBV classic, and the one with the anthems the crowd was hungriest for. Nine selections from the album were aired, and "Gold Star for Robot Boy" and the riffing, zigzagging gem "Echos Myron" even inspired mosh pits that were not so much violent as they were refreshing, cynicism-free moments of communal joy.

It's telling that so many goods were delivered by GBV, yet so many of their stellar works weren't even played; "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "The Official Ironmen Rally Song," and "Watch Me Jumpstart" were all conspicuous in their absence. It seems a grown-up, get-it-done efficiency and a slight sense of holding back is the new approach of this enterprise, and it's most glaringly obvious in Pollard's reduced alcohol consumption on stage (well, relatively speaking). Rather than continuing to exult in the shambolic, beer-hoisting Bacchanalia like he did in the 90s and 2000s, the frontman has chosen to hand lightly-used bottles of Jose Cuervo and Crown Royal over to the front rows (sheesh, someone's getting mono, bro...), and he even handed over several unopened Miller Lites at the end of the night. It's a bit like throwing a party in your forties. You buy way too much beer, and send the surplus home with your friends.

Has GBV grown up slightly? Gotten older and wiser? Perhaps necessarily so. But to call this evening anything less than a celebratory slice of underdog indie rock heaven would be inaccurate.

March 21, 2014

Mike Check

                                                                                 Photos by Eric Layton
Mike Gordon
Wonder Ballroom
Portland, OR
March 19, 2014
Portland is Phish-starved. It's been 15 years since the band performed in these parts (no, the Gorge, five hours away, does not count), so an appearance by one of the principals is bound to sell out. Sure enough, the Wonder Ballroom Mike Gordon show was just that, packed with grooving throngs quite thrilled to get even a taste of the Vermont jam rock kings.

And that's what this show was, for better and worse: a sample of Phish. By any standard, Gordon is a monster bassist, and really likable. But he's not a terribly ambitious songwriter, nor is he reinventing the improvisational rock music wheel by any stretch of the imagination. But he did bring a road-tested posse of players (guitarist Scott Murawski, keyboardist Tom Cleary, drummer Todd Isler, percussionist and electronic noisemaker Craig Myers) and some fresh tunes.

Sonically, very little transpired at the Wonder Ballroom that was unfamiliar to anyone in attendance. To be fair, Gordon served up six palatable new pieces from his new album Overstep, including the folky, falsetto-accented "Jumping" and the mid-tempo, spiraling "Surface." With 21 songs performed, that's under a third of the music. Covers and other solo material, such as "Green Sparrow," which morphed into one of the night's choicest jams, filled out the set. Quite notably, only two Phish songs were offered (and oddball choices at that: "Meat" and the rarity "Spock's Beard"), a miserly decision that could nearly be construed as a slap in the face to Phishheads, particularly in the scope of a lengthy, two-set concert. Would one more Phish song, heaven forbid even one of his signature favorites ("Mike's Song" or "Weigh" for instance), detracted from the fact that this was Gordon striking out on his own? Unlikely. Would it have sent the night's already high audience energy into ecstatic overdrive? Absolutely.

While a spirited, patchouli-scented debate could emerge about Gordon establishing his own brand and identity outside the leviathan that is Phish, the glaring reality is, the guy's been in Phish for three decades and he's dyed to the marrow, irrevocably shaped by that band's idiom. Not a single note played at this gig (outside of Myers' synth accents) would have been out of place at a Phish show. That said, the entire affair might have been exactly what Gordon intended all along: a casual, fun outing for a musician would be bored silly at home otherwise, waiting for the giant machine of his primary gig to fire up again this summer.

Indeed, several moments at the Wonder Ballroom felt like Gordon had wandered down to his local watering hole and sat in with the Saturday night cover band. Perhaps that's the vibe he was after, and sometimes it worked well (a sharp reading of The Beatles' "She Said She Said" was a nice surprise), and at other junctures, it was totally head-scratching, i.e. the Murawski-sung cover of Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket." 

That's not to say this night was a loss by any means; people danced, laughed, and one young woman even rocked a huge disco wig, apropos of nothing. It was a nifty, positive outing for the Portland Society of Neglected Phishheads, and Gordon was undeniably engaged and sharing his vastly impressive bass skills. Boiled down to its essence, though, this seemed a mere diversion, a tasty appetizer to the larger Phish meal that is rumored to be hitting the West Coast this fall. (Don't despair, phans... Portland and Seattle are both being whispered about as destinations on the upcoming tour.)


Set 1: Jumping, Radar Blip, Jones, Spiral, Spock's Brain, Twists and Bends, Angatta, She Said She Said, Tiny Little World

Set 2: Surface, Meat, Long Black Line, Peel, Another Door, Mississippi, Morphing Again, Hand in My Pocket, Soulfood Man

Encore: Yarmouth Road, Skin It Back

February 10, 2014

The Zappa Never Stops...

Zappa Plays Zappa
Roseland - Portland, Oregon
January 31, 2014
Sometimes, you have to slim down to maximize your power. In the case of Zappa Plays Zappa, guitarist Dweezil Zappa's labor of love honoring his dad Frank, where there were once nine musicians onstage, there are now six (and only one founding ZPZ member apart from Dweezil, multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez). Given the complexity and details of the music being presented, this headcount reduction might have spelled trouble. As evidenced at Roseland, however, less is more: Zappa Plays Zappa is now leaner, sharper, and still confident enough to dive into a dangerous, mudshark-infested catalog that, by any performance standard, is a total "adult swim."

Zappa's a fortunate son. Like his late father, who had a notorious ear for only the finest musicians, he's managed to locate five skilled players game, spirited, and possessed of the needed sense of humor to present Frank's virtuosic, satire-laden music: Gonzales (sax, flute, keyboards, vocals); the easy-to-underestimate Ben Thomas (vocals, percussion, bad dancing); Chris Norton (keyboards); Kurt Morgan (bass); and Ryan Brown (drums). This is a fresh, relatively youthful band, and the momentum and vivaciousness on display at the Roseland was undeniable.

Zappa Plays Zappa, on the road in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1974 Frank Zappa & The Mothers album Roxy & Elsewhere (played in sequence and in its entirety at every tour stop) christened this voyage with the instrumental "Filthy Habits," a track from the minor 1979 record Sleep Dirt. It was an exploration of an especially remote corner of the Zappa universe, but that's so Dweezil. After all, this is a man who has dug up such exquisite truffles as "Latex Solar Beef" and "Chrissy Puked Twice" on past jaunts.

Dweezil and the gang were clearly on a mission to win anew the hearts of hardcore Zappa fans (is there any other kind?). They unspooled the knotty Roxy album deliberately and with seeming ease, from the clowning oddity "Penguin in Bondage" (with Thomas chewing the lyrical scenery and mugging) to "Cheepnis," and all the way to "Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)," which featured an impromptu audience member dance-off onstage.

Fans dancing onstage? What is this, a Flaming Lips show? Careful, Dweezil, some might even slap the label "fun" on all this. Past tours have found D-Zap running through the sets with cool efficiency if not always with apparent enjoyment; on this evening, he seemed to be loose, relaxed, and yet still, crucially, on point. Eight years in, what some dismiss as merely a tribute act has evolved into a pleasantly merciless, shape-shifting venture through difficult compositions, all expressly for a knowing island of misfit fans.

Dweezil's guitar prowess was most strikingly demonstrated at two junctures of the night, first on what was a knockout version of the downward-spiraling phantasmagoria "The Torture Never Stops" and then on "Florentine Pogen," where his soloing was astral and nothing short of commanding. Also deserving extra note is drummer Brown, who pushed through the material with a snappy, flexible energy and held everything together. Gonzales also continues to be a marvel, a quadruple-threat so gifted and in on the joke that she's enlisted to carry the purposefully off-key singing of "I Come from Nowhere" from 1982's Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. And if the faithful weren't into that obscurity, well, there were the perverse pleasures of Sheik Yerbouti's "Flakes" (Gonzales dropping a nice Eric Cartman impression on this one) and "Broken Hearts are for Assholes," boasting what has to be popular music's one and only usage of the phrase "wristwatch Crisco."

Sparkling wordplay, a representative haul of the Zappa repertoire, and most of all, a scholarly son whose ongoing creative self-actualization, compelled by birthright, has given a global fellowship of outsider music fans a most satisfying refuge. The Zappa never stops.

Filthy Habits

"Roxy & Elsewhere":
Penguin in Bondage
Pygmy Twylyte
Dummy Up
Village of the Sun
Echidna's Arf (Of You)
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?
Son of Orange County
More Trouble Every Day
Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church)

The Torture Never Stops
Teen-Age Wind
Teenage Prostitute
The Black Page #1
The Black Page #2
What's New in Baltimore?
Florentine Pogen
Broken Hearts Are for Assholes
I Come From Nowhere
Cosmik Debris

Don't Eat the Yellow Snow
Zomby Woof

January 23, 2014

Spring(steen)-ing Eternal

Bruce Springsteen 
and the E Street Band
High Hopes
Columbia Records
Times are always tough for someone, and Bruce Springsteen, as durable a lighthouse in rock as has ever existed, is always there to address the struggle and provide reassurance. And when belts are tightened, a "waste not, want not" mentality is adopted. It's this intent behind High Hopes, an album made up of years of outtakes, covers, and live Boss staples refashioned and shined up. This is a refurbished muscle car of sorts, with lightning stripes on the sides slapped on by guitar alchemist/fellow Woody Guthrie and social justice enthusiast Tom Morello. And it's a mostly thrilling and memorable ride, but it can also break down once in awhile.

Two shrill guitar notes are sent out like distress flares at the outset the title track, a cry for help that sums up the thesis statement of the record, as well as the thought behind this widescreen folk rave-up that is the strongest work here. "High Hopes" is a cover from Tim Scott McConnell of the now-defunct Los Angeles-based act The Havalinas, and it's a welcome development that the time-constrained Springsteen is loosening up his controlling tendencies and featuring works by others on a studio album; there are three tunes by outsiders here, including Aussie punk band The Saints' "Just Like Fire Would" and Suicide's meditative "Dream Baby Dream."

Leaning on others is key to hope, and it's also something that happens all over Springsteen's 18th studio release. In a "young man, help me across the street"-type way, the 64-year-old is leaning at practically a 45-degree angle on fretboard pyrotechnician Morello (Rage Against the Machine, The Nightwatchman), featured on no less than eight of the 12 tracks here. It's a good thing that Morello is a mercenary creative force and confident enough to hang with the Boss. He torches, he scorches, he mimics vinyl scratching, he scuffs and squeals, and is given so much leeway in the volcanic, devastating poverty tale "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that Springsteen lets him sing half the verses (to the unsurprising chagrin of some Bruce purists). No matter; this is a torrid bromance forged in the mud of humanism.

Elsewhere, Springsteen lightens the mood, churning out out some let-out-the-slack, "Come on STEVE!" party rock with "Frankie Fell in Love," which could not exist without the shared history and harmonies of his longtime blood brother, mugging TV star/E Streeter Steven Van Zandt. The number is a direct descendant of "Ramrod" and they'd pair exceedingly well together live, just as Bruce and Steve do.

High Hopes demonstrates that Springsteen can still surprise in this late career hour. The pulsating criminal tale "Harry's Place" is a noirish gambit that would have been a terrific theme song to "The Sopranos." Furthermore, it's as Leonard Cohen-esque in lyrics and vibe as Springsteen has ever gotten. Speak-singing like it was a lost track from Cohen's coolly apocalyptic 1993 album The Future, the Boss rasps jaded-wisdom lines like "You need a little shot of something to improve your health/A taste of that one little weakness you allow yourself."

But alas, if only all the material was up to the level of "High Hopes" and "Harry's Place." Buried deep in the middle lies "This is Your Sword," which, for all its encouraging intentions, comes off trite and fit for a singalong children's album, or even better, relegated to a second edition of Bruce's song clearinghouse anthology Tracks

The larger disappointment here is "American Skin (41 Shots)" which fails not in its content but in its execution on record. A condemning, quiet song written in response to New York City police shooting Amadou Diallo in 1999, and finding modern relevance with the Trayvon Martin case, this contemplation of injustice suffers because it's backwards engineered. Debuted live in 2000 and brought out again this past year on the Springsteen concert stage, it breathes best in the live moment, charged with immediacy and distinguished by the experience of others hearing it alongside of you. In interviews for this album, Springsteen has said he wanted certain unrecorded live songs to have more authority by being on an official album, but the opposite has occurred; "American Skin (41 Shots)" needn't have been polished and formalized in this way, as a well-produced recent live version of it would have sufficed and been authoritative enough. Springsteen has deliberated about "selling that which can't be bought" in regards to his booming concert business and what brings people back night after night; it's unfortunate he didn't think through that same ethos in this instance. Past emotions are vibrant and real, but they resist being distilled for longevity.

Springsteen's missteps seem to be forgivable overall, particularly when he drops an evocative work like "Hunter of Invisible Game," a weary, cinematic ballad referencing "empty cities," "burning plains," and "empires of dust." Through it all, his voice is resolute. High hopes, for him, spring eternal.