Fleet Foxes, Portishead, Mogwai, STRFKR, Vetiver, Little Dragon, They Might Be Giants, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave, Cave Singers, Shabazz Palaces, PS I love You, Ray LaMontagne, Creole Choir of Cuba, Wet Ink Ensemble, Despot, Danny Brown, Das Racist, Carmina Burana and the Nutcracker. For the 3rd straight year I again skipped a show to climb a peak with Skye, but I still clocked a lot of live music time with the acts above. So I present my annual summary/analysis of the year in concerts (see 2010 here, 2009 here). Highlights for 2011 were Fleet Foxes, Portishead, Mogwai, and Das Racist. Here’s the full summary for 2011 in chronological order:
Katie Soper’s Wet Ink Ensemble. The Loft, UCSD, January. A crew of modern classical musicians and Katie, the composer, were in town to record an album, and put on a few shows in the process. Here’s the last show piece-by-piece. Piece one: Bass sax and drums making sounds to sound like each other.
Piece two: The best, Katie singing and flutist talking through flute to mimic each other’s sounds- text is a poem.
Piece three: A comical romantic spoken word piece with intentionally out of tune instruments that somehow worked well.
Piece four: Noise piece with visual clips from movies. started strong flashing between with classical music, nature and industry all making similar sounds- droning. But downhill from there.
Piece five: German spoken word piece with lots of animation and delivery from Katie.
Piece six: Seven-piece Anthony Braxton composition. No Katie. Braxton ostensibly the best composer presented tonight but I didn’t really like this one.
Fleet Foxes, May, Spreckles Theatre. This was a notable one. Aside from it being the number one concert on my to-see list for two years now, we had 10th row seats in Spreckles Theatre. The show sold out almost immediately. I tried to get four tickets online the very minute they went on sale. I was only able to get two–for me and my friend Matt, a fellow Fleet Foxes zealot. To say the least, anticipation was high.
The openers, the Cave Singers, were an incredible indie rock meets Appalachian music band, complete with washboard. Definitely setting the stage for the rootsy but more-refined Fleet Foxes.
The show, which was sit-down the whole time, was an anomaly. It was not a rock show. Maybe bourgeois folk is a better descriptor, but the connotation behind that term is very misleading. The band was very unassuming, humble and funny — almost awkward in their interactions with the audience.
The music is so gentle, of course melodic and rhythmic, but almost ethereal in feeling. Many shows are easy to define: they excite you, fire you up, etc. The focus is the performance. For the Fleet Foxes, it was a profound experience, though I can’t even say the music was at the highest echelon, yet somehow the feeling, which I cannot describe any better than saying it was peaceful and it made me want to embrace peace, to feel the inner sanctity more frequently. It was almost like a revelation to feel that sense of positivity. The sound, while sometimes said to evoke the melodies of the Beach Boys, had more the feeling and sound of Crosby Stills Nash and Young: yes melodic, but epic rather than trite.
While these details aren’t what’s important, I should at least mention a little bit of the technical elements of the show. The band seemed much more interested in playing their new songs than their old songs, appearing almost uninterested and even rushed in such hits from their first album as white winter hymnal. They seemed dedicated to making the second album not just a repeat of the first, adding different instrumentation including sax and stringed instruments brought that message home. And indeed it was well done, musically very tight. The standout song, probably because it’s also my favorite, was Blue Ridge mountains. It seemed at first like it was their closer and was highly anticipated, judging by the calls of several audience members. The only major drawback of the show was that they played an encore, which seemed to almost de-punctuate the blue ridge mountains, which really felt like a finale. For the record, the lyric as sung live is “i love you, _older_ brother of mine.” As in other live shows, but different from the CD.Go and experience it for yourself the next time they come!
Mogwai, May, Belly Up. May. Mogwai is usually grouped with bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky; post-rock. Indeed Mogwai has few vocals and long songs but live at least they’re very much rock and roll — metal even. No, there are no guitar solos, no screaming vocalists and no theatrics, but the sound is pure metal. I missed Mogwai when they came to town two years ago. I had bought tickets but decided to bail on the show to climb Mt. Rainier with Skye. This time I made it a priority to see the show. By serendipity, a bunch of my other friends (Pat, Melissa, Shauna and Dallas) had also planned to go, so we were able to make an event out of it without any pre-planning.
Though they didn’t play their masterpiece My Father, My King, instead focusing on newer material, the show was still epic. Interesting throughout-no small task for an instrumental band with very few shenanigans on stage. I arrived sleepy and the show went till midnight. But I was not wishing to go home, I was into the whole show.
Mogwai is famous for its songs slowly developing, building and climaxing, but there’s also some strong moments of abrupt sound shifts. Luckily I had ear plugs, it was a metal show after all. Some of my friends were not so lucky. The first three songs featured an organ, but after that it was no holds barred, straight for the jugular, Neurosis-style metal that seemed to be droning and pulsing simultaneously.
Very professional, very tight, and yet not overly somber, Mogwai is a role model band. They even did the curtain call properly, coming back with more energy and intensity, and ending in just the right length of show. It’s not post-rock. It’s the future of rock.
Bumbershoot. Seattle Space Needle and vicinity, September. The Northwest’s version of Coachella, this is a huge festival, but held in the center of town. Skye won free VIP tix for the whole weekend, so we ate like kings in the VIP lounge and other similar perks that people apparently pay big bucks for.
Well, we only went 1 day of 3. For the third straight year, I had tickets in hand for a show that I skipped to go climbing with Skye. Previously missing shows of Mogwai (for Rainier) and Alice in Chains (for Prusik in the fall), this year it was two days of Bumbershoot for Forbidden Peak and Early Winters Spire in the North Cascades. While it’s always the right call to climb instead of listen, it still hurts to miss good music. But let’s focus on the positive: we got one packed day at Bumbershoot and tons of acts—a short synopsis of each we saw:
PS I Love You- this duo has a big sound. But a varied one. One song would be awesome metal or rock, the next would be some cliche pop. I couldn’t figure it out. Definitely not gonna win pop market appeal with their image. Which, in a town that produced Tad, shouldn’t be a problem.
Shabazz Palaces– interesting hip hop. 3rd rate MC, but live ethnic drumming and cool samples save the act. They’re really hyped, and brought a few cool guest performers, and I got into it in some stretches when the flow was on.
Vetiver – Though acclaimed in the indie scene, I found them to be lame alt country, CSNY wanna bes. Maybe if this is your preferred sound you’d be more forgiving, but for me I didn’t find enough originality for it to be more than background music.
Little Dragon. Funny singer, nice voice. We heard her from the stage Vetiver was on and meandered over, and it entranced us. Odd, arty and with enough personality to capture us till Skye ushered us on, mentioning each act was successively better, and he was right all night about that.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave. Basically a horns group, they covered In Bloom (we were in Seattle after all so it was appreciated) in an instrumental rendition. Was much better when the horns played instead of him singing. In fact, he was terrible singing. But a fun group.
STRFKR- A very good act. Just kids, they are what MGMT would be if they had genuine inspiration in addition to creative sound. The first 4 star act of the festival. Was sad to leave this one early to catch…
Ray LaMontagne – legit real rock/ old school country. One of the headliners, a man in a sea of kids. At his high points, he was the pest performer there. And they came pretty frequently. Not really compelling, but really competent.
And then we went to bed to head for the mountains the next day. Missing Das Racist and Anti-flag, among others, in the days to come. But Forbidden Peak (like Prusik Peak that I skipped Alice in Chains for last year) turned out to be one of my favorite mountains ever, see this post.
Portishead, The Shrine, Los Angeles, October.In short, incredible performance of art and faithfully competent musicians. Worth reading the full report I posted earlier methinks. An excerpt: Portishead is drugs, sex and…art. Not romanticizing anything, the tragedy is on full display. It’s what would happen to ravers if they got mature and/or a modicum of soul. Portishead are the darkest and most highly esteemed of so-called Trip Hop groups but in the past 10 years they had only one US show. This tour, they scheduled seven, which meant the drive to LA had to be made. They delivered in an almost unfathomably coherent and surgically tight performance.
Portishead is every critic’s love. Why?– Well, it’s because they are perfect. Arty, but not pretentious. Musical, but not indulgent. Melodic, but not poppy or overdone. A downbeat breakbeat that’s compellingly danceable but not overbearing. Accessible but not commercial–and even purposely media-shy. Famous and highly regarded but not pompous. Heart-rending, but not miserable. Ok you get it. Those weren’t just empty adjectives though, all those are true. The rest is here.
Creole Choir of Cuba, UCSD Mandeville Auditorium, November. This heralded group of 10 played the first half sad, traditional creole songs. The music was excellent, and the dancing sometimes interesting, especially when with scarves. Only one set of skinned (not steel) drums and a few other percussion instruments, the sound wasn’t Caribbean, nor was it wasn’t too South African sounding. I can assume Est Africa was the biggest influence? The fake laughing and crying was a little annoying, but I think that’s just the theater being unusual cross-culturally. the second half was more pandering to the audience, with the creole language being abandoned for traditional Caribbean music, Spanish songs and even a rendition of Unforgettable. The whole show was fum though, and they really got into it with the audience, even letting dozens up on stage with them to dance.
Das Racist, with Despot and Danny Brown, November, Porters Pub. Missed Das Racist at Bumbershoot two months before to go climb (see above). But this made up for it, it was a great show. Real hip hop in a tight venue. Das Racist is divisive because some consider them joke rap. But they are not–they just aren’t thugs. They are goofy, and be themselves, with funny rhymes and sometimes obscure lyrical references (like Captain Beefheart! and also prolific Wu Tang).
And they have skillz and excellent stage presence. They also announced their original hit, the extremely annoying combination pizza hut taco bell. But they jumped immediately to another song thankfully. The best line of the night: “Das Racist is the first PRG: positive rap group. We have a government grant.” The only downside is that Porters closes up at 12, so their set got cut short. Still, they made up with packing the energy and hilarious antics throughout. A good hip hop show is rare, but so worth the price of admission.
Luckily the opening acts were also solid. Despot, perhaps the best white rapper beside Eminem, might have been the best MC of the show. Heralded as the “best suburban MC”, he definitely does the Das Racist be yourself thing–and people hate on him a lot as well. Rapping in a ski sweater, he’s not winning any cool points.But anyone who listens to his flow has to give him respect. And he was funny between songs as well.
Danny Brown likewise gets a lot of flack for being different. But his lyrical content is shock rap, over the top lyrically. For me it’s too much, the misogyny in rap can be tolerated only so far, when it’s turned up to 11, it’s not my thing. He had quite a few excellent moments, but that’s not enough in my mind to justify. I don’t hate on him for his bizarre-ODB wanna-be style, it’s just his lack of creativity in worldview.
They Might Be Giants, Belly Up, November. I was never really into They might be giants; I never owned an album. But my brothers, roommates and friends did, so I got well exposed and really enjoy their live shows. Not sure if I thought they were too geeky or what (probably they just played too many songs in major key) but somehow I just saw them as a fun novelty. Nevertheless this was my 3rd time seeing them, a little odd I guess considering my flagging level of fanhood, but like I said, they put on a great live show.
No confetti this time, but they used the spotlight and played people vs apes. They bought the crowd a keg (their last show of the tour) and did the sock puppet thing, including a rendition of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid sung by puppets. It was actually awesome.
The band rocked pretty hard, especially early on in the show, something I was not expecting. Really decent musicianship. And of course tons of personality. I really enjoyed the talking as mush as the music, good banter. The piano/ accordion John was seemingly a bit tired, guitar John more than overcompensated.
The 3 encores were annoying. They didn’t play Whistling in the Dark, but we heard The Guitar and Istanbul at least because of the encores. A unique band, a fun time.
Nutcracker, Budapest Opera House, December. Tchaikovsky’s most famous piece, I was jetlagged enough to stay only half coherent. The costumes were vibrant and the music well done, though the ballet lacked the excessive jumping that makes it interesting for me. Still the setting was superb; post on the trip here.
O Fortuna, Porgy and Bess, others, Spanish Synagogue, Prague, December. More amazing than the ballet earlier in the week, a quintet plus an on-and-off singer made this synagogue into an intimate opera house. O Fortuna was my favorite, but it was chock full of other good pieces as well. Even with only one voice, it still sounded full. The smaller the better is the rule in classical as well as indie rock. and hip hop. Post on the city of Prague as a whole is here.