Archive for the ‘The Execution of All Things’ Category

Throwback Review: Starfucker @ Bottom of the Hill. 6.23.09

September 17, 2009

starfucker_liveIt started in drag and it ended in a dance contest. Admittedly, not the most surprising sequence of events notoriously shock-retardant San Francisco’s ever witnessed. But consider that we are not talking about a club in the Castro but Potrero’s beloved Bottom of the Hill and you might have a different image in your mind. Clad in semi-ironic women’s wear complete with costume jewelry, the Portland, Oregon foursome turned up the beat and the heat as they shook and shimmied their way through Tuesday’s show with electropop beats, poise, and unparalleled panache. If you had thought that electronica was all nerds adept at Mac-made arrangements and/or DJ’s with a tendency to torture with trance, think again. These kids were the antithesis of the type of genre typically dominated by losers with laptops, breaking out a full setup of guitars, turntables, dual drum kits, and keys.

Opening with “Boy Toy” and closing with a purely instrumental number, the indie house band swept through almost all of the material off both LPs (their eponymous debut in 2008 and 2009’s Jupiter) like a hurricane, and, in so doing, brought a hefty dose of humanity to their oft-discriminated niche. Their cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” worked shockingly well—not least of all because they dressed the part—and “Medicine” proved an effective exercise in sad lyrics layered over a synth-driven sound while remaining undeniably danceable. But beyond dancing, these guys were equally fun to just watch, from the androgyny straight through to their never-ending energy.

When it comes to pure stage presence, however, all band members are not created equal. Though Josh Hodges sings and serves as Starfucker’s chief songwriter, under the bright lights it’s Ryan Biorstad that steals the show, and not only because of his puppy-dog eyes. Wearing a white wife beater and jeans over his wiry frame, his clothing would have been standard enough concert fare—if he hadn’t added a hair net, rhinestone earrings each the size of unshelled macadamias, and hot pink lipstick to his ensemble. Manning various instruments and his own vocal cords, he drew us voyeurs’ gazes to him like flies to honey, and when finally his long tousled locks shook free of his lunch lady’s trademark cap, he could easily have passed for the doppelganger of latter-day like-maned musicians Peter Frampton or Leif Garrett. Let’s just say, the outfit seemed to fit with his falsetto.

As for the onlookers, the entire front section seemed reserved for those practicing their interpretive dance routines, but even the most enthusiastic rumpshaker couldn’t compete with Biornstad. If it seemed as though the boys had been giving an electric performance, we didn’t know what Biornstad had in store for as a final farewell: namely, an all-out audition for So You Think You Can Dance. Based on those moves, you’d think he wasn’t a skinny white guy from the Pacific Northwest. (I wonder if he’s friends with JT.) Then, in lieu of an encore, he cued up Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Push It” somewhere in his bag of tricks and sashayed into the slightly dazed crowd, who might still have been expecting additional tunes if they hadn’t been so sated from the night’s performance—and then went over to man the merch table. The sheer accessibility of the band is no less than refreshing in an industry full of stuck-up pricks.

Before you say all bands are nice before they make it big, know that Starfucker is to public radio as Voldemort is to Harry Potter because they planned it that way. To avoid “success” as they used to define it. But if the name they chose succeeded in being mainstream-repellant, the fans that flocked to the show in spite of—or on account of—their refusal to be radio-friendly were all the more ardent in their adoration. At least we know they aren’t likely to sell out anytime soon, since they specifically chose their name as a roadblock to making it to the music major league.

For all of their artistic integrity, I’m not sure how long—or how much—their “improper” moniker will hold them back. As Puritanical as our country’s roots may be, remember, it’s not like Nirvana’s “Rape Me” and NIN’s “I Want to Fuck You Like an Animal” didn’t get any airtime. If they simply want to have fun making music while not worrying about the future, fine—but good luck keeping the fans at bay along the way with shows like that.

The Virgins @ Great American Music Hall. 5.20.09.

June 12, 2009

thevirginsThere is a reason they are called The Virgins. The obvious one. That they are, indeed, virgins. This should come as no surprise based on the fact that they appear to have barely obtained driver’s licenses, and therefore must resort to bribing older brothers or strangers to buy them porn, beer, and scratch tickets. I know the faux-precocious group sings of coke and promiscuity, claiming to be entrenched in the NYC clubbing scene—but based on that performance, I’m not buying it.

For one, no one was there. Sadly undersold at the Great American, knowing that they provided the soundtrack for an entire episode of Gossip Girl unfortunately didn’t lend them the self-assurance they needed to feign even a semblance of stage presence. It did, however, explain the mostly high school demographic. I think that if they were actually having sex, they might not look so awkward, and therefore would draw a bigger crowd. People don’t like insecurity. That’s not why they go to shows. They like confidence! Courage! Poise! Bearing witness to leader singer Donald Cumming was almost like watching Brian Krakow get up on stage and try his hand at singing pop-rock, right down to his stilted, arm-isolating dance moves. (Although I’ll admit they did grow on me after a while, if only because they proved he was alive. Without an instrument, I suppose he had to do something to occupy his idle hands.)

Second, they were pretending to be British. If they were getting laid, they wouldn’t feel they had to charm the chicks into bed by affecting a phony accent. Although Cumming’s gnarled teeth would indicate a telltale UK aversion to braces, they are from New York, for God’s sake. There are other ways to acknowledge the influences of British bands like The Kinks, The Kooks, and The Clash that don’t involve talking like Hugh Grant.

Third, Cumming chose to channel the Grim Reaper. Sexually active men (or boys, in this case) don’t wear long coats with hoods on stage. Period. The only thing missing was the scythe, which I probably would have commandeered and used on myself if it had been present.

As Celina (brave soul) and I drowned in a sea of breathless preteen hipster-bimbos clad in miniskirts entirely inappropriate for the freezing evening, we agreed that these boys would not have been the ones to fuel our fantasies during our youth. Gavin Rossdale served as a much better sex symbol, thank you very much. Sexiness aside, Cumming simply lacked the magnetism that front men generally possess. Not everyone is a born performer, and I don’t want to hate, so hey, perhaps with some practice—they have been touring nonstop—he’ll come up with a little song and dance that won’t put the non-enamored sector of his audience to sleep.

I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by their virtuosity, but I was hoping to dance to what I had considered—and still do consider, oddly enough—an infectious record. Is there a cure for their concert cold? I don’t know. The Virgins could try looking like they want to be there rather than being too cool for their own concert…without actually being cool. Bottom line: the kids can write a hit song, but a catchy hook does not a successful band make. Would I buy the album, even after seeing this teenage train wreck? Yes. And as uncharismatic as they were, I’d be lying through my straight teeth if I said I wasn’t just a wee bit excited to hear “Rich Girls” live. But next time around I’ll hold a dance party in my apartment rather than spending money on a show that could be better spent on porn. Or beer. Or scratch tickets.

The Avett Brothers @ The Fillmore. 5.15.09

May 29, 2009

2008 2009You might have faith in their records, but seeing The Avett Brothers live will make you a true believer—and this has less to do with their religious allusions than it does with their almighty energy. My friend and roommate, Orlena Scoville, falls into this burgeoning cult-fan category, having recently tried to coerce me into flying to Portland for a weekend to see them perform there before they (thankfully) added the SF dates to their tour. Upgrading from two nights at Slim’s to The Fillmore in the course of a year, the duo (plus bassist Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon), it seems, is getting its due—and shaking things up a bit. Since last spring the siblings have swapped looks, Seth shaving his latter-day Jim Morrison beard and transferring a pared-down version of it to Scott, only to grow out a mane worthy of Vidal Sasson himself. (Please refer to accompanying photos.) Armed with new styles and a few fresh songs this fateful Friday night, the four stood poised to play. In suits.

Now, sporting old-timey attire would almost seem incongruous for these guys with back-porch personas (you’d expect something a bit less buttoned-up, especially considering how much heat they generate during their performances), but when one thinks of Jude Law’s Cold Mountain clothing, it makes perfect sense for these North Carolina boys to hearken back to the fashion of their home state. Like with their sound, they are taking pieces of the past, integrating them with more modern, unlike elements, and presenting an entirely new product—and, in so doing, paying homage to their roots. If The Avett Brothers were writing a paper, the result would involve less plagiarism than ample researching. Though roots they have many, they have managed to synthesize them into a sound that just can’t be so simply defined.  Nevertheless, Wikipedia will bombard you with terms like “indie roots,” “folk punk,” and “grungegrass” before pointing out that the band eschews such nomenclature, letting the music speak for itself free of the confines of labels. And they were free on Friday night, navigating seamlessly between home-grown bluegrass to folksy ballads to punk-inspired raps, digging deep into their past, pulling out parts of their repertoire I didn’t even know. Intentionally ignoring Emotionalism in favor of older records, Seth (the Avett spokesbrother) repeatedly informed us “this one’s from Mignonette,” “this one’s from The Second Gleam,” etc. Yeah, we get it. You have 10 records. And one more on the way. Lest we forget.

Despite the difference in height, the way Seth and Scott play off each other it’s clear they share something more than agreeable tonality, which is especially fortunate given how much two-part harmonizing they do. Music runs in their blood. As multi-instrumentalists, Scott was equally as comfortable on the drum kit as he was on the bad-ass banjo, and Seth simultaneously strummed his guitar and tapped out time on the hi-hat, which his hips seamlessly incorporated into his dance moves. But it didn’t stop there. Channeling his inner Mozart, Seth tenderly took the keys by storm—most notably in the ending to “Salina,” one of the highlights of the evening augmented by Kwon’s (the Avetts’ own Yo-Yo Ma) graceful cello—following the brothers’ brief but raucous foray into homesickness after life on the road. One look at their wedding bands and you can see why. Ostensibly players with a Southern drawl and a penchant for pretty women, it looks like they may have forsaken their philandering ways for their wives. During an acoustic solo set that set a spell of silence over the audience, Scott sang “Murder in the City,” whose lyrics, contrary to what one might think, stress the importance of family: “Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing / Like the love that let us share our name.”

But make no mistake: these bourbon brothers haven’t conquered all their vices. If they’ve stopped cheating, they haven’t stopped drinking. Scott’s solo was followed by Seth’s ode to (and cautionary tale for) drunk driving, “In the Curve,” in which he admits “I’m loose but my steering wheel’s tight”—but it’s when he confesses “Well my bottle of bourbon is gone / See it flew away all by itself” that the audience really went wild. He got the same impassioned reaction when he implored with a shout, “I’d give up the drinking, just tell me how!” in “Please Pardon Yourself.” But then, like their outfits and a song about killing your girlfriend’s boyfriend (“I Killed Sally’s Lover”), it’s hard to tell if their lyrics are truly autobiographical, or if they’re pulling a Dylan and just writing the words that people want to hear. In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter, because whatever the case, they do it damn well.

The Outside Lands lineup might not light a candle to last year’s (how is the sum of Pearl Jam, DMB, and The Black-Eyed Peas a fair trade for Radiohead?), but having them there might make it worth your while, if only for one day.  I’ll be bringing my flask.

Chris Pureka @ Slim’s. 4.20.09

May 12, 2009

chrispurekaIt was 4.20 in San Francisco, and this all-female audience was far too busy undressing Chris Pureka with its eyes to celebrate the miracle of marijuana. Can’t say I blame them. Years had passed since the Northampton-hailing folk singer first caught me in her web of deep, emotive vocals, well-penned lyrics, and deft guitar skills—and no, I don’t mean just for a girl. Pureka can play, goddamn it—and her picking patterns prove it. Pulling heavily from “Dryland,” “Driving North,” “Chimera” (her new EP), and a wealth of fresh material intended for the new album, Pureka presented the perfect recipe for heartbreak pie.

Although one can’t help but appreciate the lone guitar that stars on her two full-lengths, for this tour she augmented that stark sound with a pair of highly competent ladies who lent their lungs to harmonies and their hands to the bass and fiddle. Both women engaged in an eerie duel of strings during a tune I assume was titled “Hangman” based on the repeated invocation of the word, and one of the highlights of the night. Stripped to bare bones but full of minor chords, this sinister descent into the depths of the human soul was a song I can’t wait to get my paws on once it’s recorded.

But let’s discuss Pureka’s existing repertoire. While in the spring of 2007 I was forced to archive “Dryland” after I played it like a broken record to get through a breakup (misery loves company, right?), I was recently able to resurrect it sans association with my former lover. Let me tell you, nothing is as indulgently sympathetic to love lost as this album, and seeing Pureka perform a good portion of it provided a sort of closure for me. “31 and Falling” began as it always does on the record, steeped in sadness, timidly reflecting on a relationship that isn’t quite over: “You call again, as if I don’t know what you’re going to say.” But this time it built even more dramatically until culminating in the most majestic crescendo of a chorus you could dream of, made even more spine-tingling with the lush backing harmonies. When the refrain came around for the second time, regret washed like a wave over the room, leaving only sorrow in its wake. From there, Pureka launched right into “Momentary Thief,” my personal favorite, the fiddle expertly executing the deliciously chaotic downward spiral that precedes the chorus.

She sure knew how to cater to her Bay Area fans, closing the set with “Swann’s Song,” bound to be a crowd pleaser with a mention of “the shores of San Francisco town,” along with the song “California.” Both elicited the expected applause, but make no mistake—this crew didn’t come for a laugh. We came to wallow. Which is why when she covered “Wagon Wheel” I didn’t shed tears of joy like I did back when I saw Old Crow perform it back at Bonnaroo 2007. She has mastered the art of melancholy—why mess with it? Although I’ll admit her anecdote about the CVS casino in Reno left us all in stitches, and it was refreshing to learn that as a person she reeked of humility—despite being the most lusted-after woman in the room.

Which brings me to my next point. Although my friend and I were clearly the only straight females in attendance, when she half begged, half remarked “I wish you would stay” during “These Pages,” I kind of hoped she was talking about me. Chris, if you’re reading this, I’d like to offer you a beer and my body next time you’re in town.

The Black Keys @ The Fox Theater. 4.18.09

April 21, 2009

theblackkeysI could have sung their praises ‘til the cows came home. I could have raved about that blues-rock resurgence no one else seems to be doing these days. I could have admitted that, even though I’d already seen them twice, I’m still amazed so much sound can be created by just two guys. And how a show of theirs is, in the words of Meatloaf, like nothing you’ve ever seen before or will again. I could even have commented on Auerbach’s shirt, an embroidered blue number worthy of a Western, the mournful eyes that mirror his raspy “done me wrong” vocals, the beard that could make most men retire their razors.

I could have. If I hadn’t missed half the show. And before you berate me for not being on time, know this: I have been to my fair share of shows, and I abide by the same standard to which most loyal concertgoers subscribe. An equally astonished audience told me that even if we had arrived at 8 p.m. sharp, we still wouldn’t have been satisfied. I caught about five songs before Auerbach said “thanks a lot, see you next time,” my jaw dropped, and incredulity set in. At first I entertained the illusion they would award their adoring fans with a ludicrously long encore, a la MMJ’s legendary fall ‘08 performance at the Greek, whose seven-song addendum clocked in at a whopping 43 minutes. Instead, they played the requisite two songs and peaced out. Was it the venue? Perhaps the Fox Theater adheres to an unrelenting timetable that musicians are unable to overturn? Or are The Black Keys getting too big for their britches? Did Auerbach need to rush back to work on some more solo material, which I enjoy immensely but which sounds suspiciously not so different from what he does with drummer Patrick Carney? Was it merely an ill-fated ploy to keep fans wanting more, like waiting the obligatory three days before calling a girl?

I can tell you what I know, which isn’t much. Since it’s hard to see clearly through the haze of my rage right now, I will focus on the one fault I could find: “Psychotic Girl.” That’s right, I said it. Granted, it was the only song that sounded better on the recording. As much as the pair purports to scorn big studios and stay true to a live, stripped-down sound, what additional work that went into this track—the trademark banjo, haunting piano riff, and choir of ghosts you hear on the record—added a certain je ne sais quoi to the tune, and without these elements something was lost. Of course, they got it right back as soon as they launched into the final song of the too-short set, “Till I Get My Way,” but that’s a story for another day—and for a less disgruntled writer.

Yeah, they rocked the shit out of that half hour. But if I am going to venture from SF to Oakland on a Saturday night to see one of my favorite bands of all time, I sure as hell don’t want to be back before midnight, forced to finish the concert I didn’t hear in the car by playing “Attack and Release” on the stereo, closing my eyes, and picturing the stage in my mind…then drown my sorrows in Pliny the Elder at The Page when all I really wanted to do was see that Akron duo play a full set.

Dr. Dog @ The Fillmore. 4.16.09

April 17, 2009

dr.dogI can’t say what impressed me more about Dr. Dog last night: that they executed mellifluous harmonies with startling precision in a live setting, or that they actually attempt such feats at all—and manage to do it without coming off sounding like an all-male collegiate a cappella group trying to form a band. Or too much like the Beach Boys. Being the first time I’d seen them perform, I will admit that I did not know what to expect—and they surpassed my unformed expectations anyway.

Upon initial inspection, I suspected they had stolen Rachael Yamagata’s Spring Fling ensemble from Slim’s a couple weeks ago: branches swathed in strands of blossoms wrapped with twinkling lights, faux vines creeping over all the mikes, even a keyboard disguised in fresh pine in an effort to approximate a nascent wood. Why all of this feminine flair for a five-piece man band? The answer lies in the dual nature of Dr. Dog.

What makes this band so compelling is the mix of seemingly disparate components they bring together to make a sound that’s truly unique (which also might be the definition of a paradox). Take the two lead vocalists, for example: Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken. While Leaman belts, growls, and wails the darker songs with a pain so potent it’s almost physical, McMicken intones an innocence affirmed not only by his higher, almost child-like vocals but by his youthful visage as well. Leaman provides catharsis while McMicken gives us relief from all that emotional purging.

Watching these two trade off songs, I couldn’t help but draw the obvious allusion to Cain and Abel. In the simplest of terms, Leaman embodies evil as much McMicken goads what is good. Hard-bodied Leaman certainly looks like he’s trying harder to win the audience’s admiration, sweating and straining through his songs (like “The Beach”, as evidenced by his soaked-through T-shirt), while the slight, endearingly young-looking McMicken literally breezes through his numbers, cool as a cucumber in his blue button-down and shades. And the audience sure goes wild for McMicken’s cheerful tunes.

Despite this duality, there is a marked cohesion to the band that brought this show from good to great. These guys exerted raw energy from the get-go, hopping and skipping nonstop, adding a welcome effervescence to songs that, apparently, the studio somehow domesticated. Anything but tame, Leaman dropped dramatically to the ground before launching into “Die Die Die,” and McMicken played so hard he busted a string during the second song of the encore, “My Old Ways.” But this show was not just a testament to Dr. Dog’s pure theatricality; the band also proved their technical chops. Not a single jaunt across the stage affected the accuracy of their playing, although it certainly added to the quality of the performance.

Much of Dr. Dog’s appeal lies in their ability to temper the syrupy sweetness of their lush harmonies with harsher elements, like heavy guitar or a driving drum beat. Similarly, you wonder if McMicken’s more pop-based ballads would be quite as fulfilling without the juxtaposition of Leaman’s bluesy laments. I think not. In the end, you’re convinced they are having so much fun up there that Cain is not going to kill Abel after all.