NOTE: Because this review is so long, I’ve split it into two posts. This is Part 2. Part 1 is available here.
Where was I? Oh yeah, lots of memorable concerts this year…
Rogue Wave – August 6 @ Hard Rock Café, Chicago
“Hi. We’re Rogue Wave and this is the strangest show we’ve ever done.”
So began the free Friday 10:30 AM parking lot show from indie rockers, Rogue Wave. The show –a free promotion from Ray Ban and Time Out Chicago — kicked off my Lollapalooza weekend spectacularly. With only a few people in the crowd (eight by my count at 10:30, a few dozen by the end of the show) I was able to move right up to the front and catch a full hour and half set from a band I love while right on the rail. Despite the slight turnout, these guys performed like it was a full house and I got a lot of great photos and even a movie of the guitarist’s sweet dance moves.
The Chemical Brothers – September 4 @ North Coast Music Festival, Chicago
There are only a few electronica groups that can headline fests or sell out arenas. The Chemical Brothers are definitely one of them and I’d heard nothing but praise for their shows leading up to their spot at the North Coast Music Festival. Despite this, though, I’d never explored much of their catalog, so other than the most popular of their tracks, I had a pretty blank slate for expectations.
In a nutshell, this ended up being a quasi-religious experience. It was probably a combination of being just squished enough by people to be part of the crowd, but not so much that it felt cramped and maybe I just took in the right amount of the ambient drug haze… but I moved and grooved the whole set as it flowed from one tight piece to another. The group’s amazing visuals included a trippy flight through a series of medieval cathedrals for “Believe,” marching robots and a brilliant series of videos following Caroline through The Brothers’ newest album Further. I was entranced from start to finish.
Massive Attack – October 15, 2010 @ The Riviera, Chicago
When I first heard Massive Attack late in my undergraduate years (let’s say 2005 or 2006), the group’s rocky interpersonal relationships had put the band on indefinite hiatus and there appeared to be no plans for future releases, let alone touring. I had resigned myself to the grim outlook until 2009 when the album Heligoland was announced (seemingly out of the blue). I was ecstatic over the news (as the several bybe posts mentioning the group will attest), but that ecstasy began to ebb as the group toured the U.S. once and then again with no Chicago date. It was not until the third leg (and actually until a week or two after the initial announcement) that a Chicago date finally appeared and I could cross off one of my dream bands from the list.
All this preamble meant that the bar was set pretty high for the concert, but luckily, my boys from Bristol did not disappoint. Massive Attack is known as one of the founders of trip-hop, an electronica and hip-hop mashup that fits well within the larger genre of chill. However, playing live Massive leans much more towards a heavy and dark sound and the show was high energy and sexy. The aggressive stage presence was augmented with simple, but effective visuals in the form of scrolling marquees displaying politically charged stats and quotes. The duo was joined by a bevy of guest vocalists in the form of Martina Topley-Bird, regaee crooner Horace Andy and surprise guest Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and Blur). We got two encores (a rare treat if other setlists are to be believed) and I was on a high for several days afterward.
Phantogram – October 24, 2010 @ Lincoln Hall, Chicago
I played the track “Mouthful of Diamonds” for a friend at a party and he responded by declaring that I seem to listen to a lot of “midtempo electropop.” I was initially angered, – How dare he pigeonhole me like that! – but I now realize he was right, and I’m OK with that. Phantogram is a young duo with just one album and I’ve been able to watch a bit of their evolution through the year. The group opened for The Antlers at Lincoln Hall in April and played a fairly straightforward set from the album with some minimalist visuals. In early September, the group snagged an early afternoon spot at the North Coast Music Festival that showcased a broader selection of tunes and a new track. They were confident and the show was very enjoyable, but not necessarily revolutionary. Finally, for this last show, the group took up the headliner mantle and rocked it, finally coming into their own.
First, I must give a shout out to these two for looking good. Sarah is sexy, straight-up, with no other adjectives necessary, and Josh grew a grizzled beard between North Coast and this show, which, as a beard aficionado myself, I highly approved of. The duo replaced the drum machine with a live drummer — always a good move – which added depth to the tracks and allowed the two (manning keyboard and guitar) a bit more latitude on their own parts. What really elevated this set, however, was that the group did an extensive reworking on several tracks, especially the encore closer “Futuristic Casket.” The song was ramped up to a dance number fervor with a driving syncopated drum beat — just as it is on record – but then ramped down to nearly a whisper with Sarah’s vocals repeating softly over just light keyboard quarter notes. I don’t realistically think I was close to crying, but the emotional move over the course of the song was striking and affective.
Mumford & Sons – October 31, 2010 @ The Riviera, Chicago
I may have just championed Phantogram for growing up in front of my eyes, but Mumford & Sons really is the group that deserves the accolades for best live show for a band with one album. Besides selling out The Riviera – something the five-albumed, 15 year old Massive Attack couldn’t do — in preposterously short order, these guys performed like they had been touring their entire lives. Their brand of music is folksy, bordering on ho-down, so I expected them to be upbeat and lively, but their stage presence far exceeded my hopes. The big ensemble was totally professional, playing tight works and highlighting different players and parts as the melodies spun quickly through the band, but overall you got the impression that they were just having an absolute ball up there. Besides hearing nearly all of Sigh No More, the group debuted new songs they had been working on, some as recent as only a few tour stops ago and also joked and bantered about. The band apologized for not realizing how big a deal Halloween was (they’re British), and promised to dress up next year, but they made up for it later when they threw a dozen bags full of candy into the crowd during the encore.
And speaking of the encore, that was a ho-down. Bringing out openers King Charles and Cadillac Sky (the latter of which I enjoyed so much that I’d like to see again), the now gigantic band played the Avett Brothers tune “Go to Sleep.” The raucous jam was great and a lot of fun, but what really sealed it was that by the end of the track, everyone on stage (including the drummer and upright bass players) were playing the instruments softly while lying down on the stage, having “gone to sleep.” If these guys show off like this on their first major tour, I can’t wait to see what they do with more music under their belt.
A Perfect Circle – November 20 and 21, 2010 @ The Pearl at the Palms Casino, Las Vegas
A Perfect Circle is an alternative rock band fronted by Tool lead singer Maynard James Keenan and driven by guitarist Billy Howerdel that released three albums in the early 2000’s before fading away. I never thought they’d return, what with each member busy with their own projects, but in late 2010, a few Twitter messages granted my silent prayer that APC would be “shaking off the dust.” A short tour was announced for the West Coast and, with a few assurances from friends that I was only mildly crazy, I picked up tickets to see two back-to-back shows in Las Vegas.
On the first night, APC played their technically best album, Mer De Noms. It is a brilliant and gorgeous work that has a dynamic range, from soft cooing over lovely and delicate backdrops as in the album closer “Over”, to the searing cuts of “Fuck your God,” in “Judith.” On the second night, we were treated to Thirteenth Step, a more aggressive work dealing with drug abuse and rehabilitation and a work that has a lot of personal importance for me as it was on heavy rotation during my undergraduate time at Ohio University. This night featured the gorgeous building beast which is “The Noose,” a song rich with symbolism and which grows in intensity, reaches an explosive climax, then backs up to almost nothing as the crowd echoes the final damning lyric, “Your halo’s slipping down to choke you now.
I realize that my concertgoing might be considered out of hand if I’m spending several hundred dollars for shows on the other side of the country, but I was happy to run into a lot of other like-minded folks on this trip. On the first evening, I sat next to a couple from Westlake, Ohio (15 minutes from where I grew up) who had met Keenan when he passed through Cleveland on the Puscifer tour and on night two I chatted with another person who called traveling to shows “liberating.” (She had me beat, flying in from Calgary.) Even the following day I had a great conversation with a very jealous bartender at Carnevino who had seen APC years ago on their last tour who shared stories in between suggestions for vermouths. This whole escapade was a fantastically fun and unique experience.
Andrew Bird: Gezelligheid – December 16, 2010 @ Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago
Fourth Presbyterian Church sits directly across the street from the John Hancock Center on Michigan Avenue. Maybe it is only by comparison that it looks so small from the outside, but once inside, the place is immense and gorgeously attired. We sat in the front pews looking upon the vast organ pipes sneaking up the sides of the chancel and the large stained glass motif on the rear wall with other curious onlookers peaking out from side and back balconies. Snow lightly fell outside and I let the various translations of the Dutch term “Gezelligheid” seep in: coziness, belonging, welcome, atmosphere. Overall, it conspired to provide a deep urge to drink hot cocoa. When Bird came on to the stage wearing a scarf, the transcendent feeling reached a high.
Andrew Bird’s lush and full layering of sound is elevated further by such surroundings. Encircled by elegant horn amplifiers, Bird plucked, bowed and strummed his violin while whistling, singing and playing xylophone. The looped sounds built up to make a warming texture and his rhythmic motions as he slowly, but carefully whirled from pedal to instrument to mic all seemed unconscious extensions of his own body. Between song banter was witty and comfortable, the musings of a man well at ease, doing what he loved; he himself called these Gezelligheid shows a chance to “stretch out” and “relax.” The set drew heavily from his instrumental album Useless Creatures, but featured a few stand-outs from his other albums and a healthy dose of new material. The curious piece “Why?” is a near theatrical production with mostly spoken/mumbled lyrics and an emotional bit of hand waving, yelling and head-holding over a sparse backdrop. Several of new tracks were especially engrossing and I was particularly drawn in by the positively gorgeous tracks “The Lazy Projector” and “I on I.” (Or “Eye on Eye?” There’s a crafty pun in there, I think.)
For the final few numbers, Bird brought back opener Jeff Parker (of Tortoise) to provide semi-improvisational, Fennesz-esque jazz-noise texture to tracks like the pure soundscape “The Barn Tapes.” Here we saw the power of the silence between notes when Bird struck just three spaced out soft tones on the bells and looped them back, hanging precariously in the back air like little jazz grace notes. It was perhaps the best trick of the night and one that I’m forced to admit is hard to convey in words. Like so much of this show, it was part of a cumulative effect that left one thinking more in terms of feels instead of tangibles, nebulous and deep just like the word Gezelligheid itself.
Here’s hoping for a great slate of concerts in 2011 and thanks again to all my friends who made 2010 a great year for live music!