Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jeff Mangum - Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC (1/30/12)

Jeff Mangum stopped in Chapel Hill last night to play an acoustic set at UNC’s Memorial Hall. This was one of as handful of dates of the much anticipated return the stage of the (until recently) reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel front-man. The opener was Andrew, Scott, & Laura (Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter of Elf Power with Scott Spillane of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Gerbils). These Elephant 6 compatriots of Mangum’s played a ragged, roosty set of Elf Power and Gerbils songs, along with a few covers. The opener, the Gerbils’ White Sky, showed off Scott’s sweet, strong voice (and stayed quiet, despite the original’s Sonic Youth-y wall of distortion). Their cover of Randy Newman’s In Germany Before the War was another standout. Their somber take on It Was a Very Good Year (made famous by Frank Sinatra), was reminiscent of some of the sadder songs on the Gerbils’ The Battle of Electricity, and a perfect lead-in to Mangum’s set (as was the intermission soundtrack of some very old-school Arabic and Hindi music).

So out comes Jeff, to a small chair, on a wide stage, in the large -- and acoustically wonderful -- venue. Surrounded by four guitars, from way up in the balcony, he looked rather small for the tall (& unassuming for the influential) figure that he is. He wore what is pretty much his typical flannel shirt and engineer hat. With Mangum touring, I’m sure we’ll start seeing a lot more of that hat crowning the heads of hipsters everywhere, perhaps along with the ultra-long pageboy haircut (um, but Jeff doesn’t sport a beard… are you paying attention, hipsters?!?)

As recording of any kind was not allowed, here’s a photo from earlier in the fall which pretty much captures the scene… (photo courtesy Will Deitz and Pitchfork)

After whoops and hollers from an excited crowd, and a quick welcome from Jeff, he began with Two-headed Boy, Pt. 2 from the classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Most of the songs would come from this album, much to the delight of the audience. His voice was crystal clear and strong as ever, piercing through the wide open space of Memorial Hall like a knife.


Just… chills.

I think he opens with this song on purpose. He has on other tour stops so far. It’s the final song from Aeroplane, which ended with him singing “But don't hate her when she gets up to leave”, and audibly putting down his guitar. That was the last we heard of these songs, and Neutral Milk Hotel, until now, when he’s picking up his guitar again. It almost felt like an apology, not that he has anything for which to apologize.

He followed by launching into the relative rocker, Holland, 1945, prodding the crowd to sing along with a knowing “You sing these at home!” A few sang… not that you could tell through the strength of Mangum’s voice dominating the theater. Some feet started tapping, and the normally sedate atmosphere of Memorial Hall began to pick up. Dragonhead / Leave Me Alone, the first of four songs he would play from the NMH debut, On Avery Island, followed. Again, Jeff prodded the crowd to participate, recalling punk rock days of yore, when crowds would even spit on the performers! “Don’t be so nice!” After a handful of shows in the past few months, he seems to be in the process of getting used to such large venues. Face it, the last time NMH toured (~13 years ago), it was mostly small to mid-sized clubs. Not long before that, it was coffee shops and house parties. But he’s adjusting.

The banter continued between songs, which was a surprise given the intimate, dark nature of most of his music. His mention that the guitar he was playing was his Grandpa’s guitar, and that it had cracked earlier that day, led to a chorus of “AWWW!” from the crowd. Cracked guitar and all, he then played the cover Engine, and resumed his insistence that we were being “too polite”. He jokingly demanded, to much laughter, “Spit on me! They spit on D. Boon!” He was referencing the late lead singer of the Minutemen, a huge influence on Jeff (and not coincidentally, hardly “punk” in musical style, but more in their approach and attitude towards music and the world).

After Engine, Mangum casually introduced the next song as “one of the last songs I wrote before I snapped”. Again, the audience laughed (this time somewhat uncomfortably). But he insisted “It was okay… it could’ve been worse!”, then imitated the crowd with a mocking “Yeah, HA HA! He snapped!”, upon which one genuine voice loudly yelled a warm “Welcome back!”

He of course was (again, surprisingly casually) referencing his much-publicized breakdown in the late ‘90s, when he mostly dropped out of the music scene for years. The song was Little Birds. With lyrics like “So I took a hammer and I nearly beat his brains in” and “I would like to leave my body and start again”, one might have been able to see the break coming. Maybe he, in a sense, did leave his body, and now has started again. (On a side note, I wonder if this song was meant as some strange counterpoint to Bob Marley’s optimistic Three Little Birds.)

We all whooped when he lept into King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1, and even began to sing along a little more. Then he unexpectedly (but really, unavoidably) segued into King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3. Now, this song starts with what has always been one of the more unusual NMH lyrics – likely one of the more unusual lyrics in all of rock and roll history. Indie-rockers around the world never quite knew what to make of it (nor did Hank Hill). Certainly a hallowed indie band wasn’t preaching the Gospel! He has since expressed in interviews that while he does love Jesus Christ for his philosophy, it was meant to be more spiritual than religious, and not meant to be preachy at all.

Whatever the meaning, the power was, and still is, undeniable. After almost astonished claps and yells that the song was even about to be sung (it quickly becomes a raucous, fuzz-laden noise-fest on the album), the crowd eagerly sang along that they, too, loved Jesus Christ! The house was reaching as cathartic pitch. Between songs, applause and whoops and hollers echoed with a volume I’ve seldom, if ever, heard at a live show.

Then he launched into Ghost, with Laura sitting in on clarinet -- a hint of things to come. Naomi, also from On Avery Island, followed. At the end of Naomi, a band began to form, Andrew, Laura and Scott stepping out as they did with a bevy of horns, holding a long note that segued into April 8th… just as on Avery Island. The audience howled in appreciation. But when the long, dark, and beautiful Oh Comely began, they were as quiet as, oh, about 1,500 mice.

Two-headed Boy, Pt. 1 kicked in, and the sing-along began in earnest. When the “band” re-appeared (with a few extra “members” and instruments) and moved into the instrumental The Fool, all of us were clapping and stomping along. We were all, if for a moment, IN Neutral Milk Hotel… which is sort of the Elephant 6 mindset anyway. “Come! You’re all welcome!”

When Jeff left the stage, there was a huge, and I mean HUGE, standing ovation. For the encore, he played Song Against Sex, and the crowd began to move down in droves, turning the staid atmosphere of the large theater a bit more punk rock. The closer, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, brought the house down… especially when Scott appeared to reprise his horn solo from the album.

Despite the level of anticipation built up over a decade plus, Jeff Mangum’s set more than lived up to it. There was nothing I would have changed. My daughter described it as “spiritual”, and I couldn’t put it any better. I would hope Mangum begins to record more music. But if he doesn’t, these songs are more than enough.

Two-headed Boy, Pt. 2
Holland 1945
Dragonhead / Leave Me Alone
Little Birds
King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2 and 3
April 8th
Oh, Comely
Two-headed Boy, Pt. 1
The Fool

Song Against Sex
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

PS: Regarding my blog title (a lyric from In the Aeroplane), Julian Koster (also of NMH) has told me that he’s sure Jeff wouldn’t mind me using the quote for my blog. Do you think I can take Jeff’s “Spit on me!” as his implicit permission to at least use his lyrics? ;)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Local Radio Benefit (Cat's Cradle, Carrboro, 1/21/12)

I went to see the second half of the Local Radio Benefit Weekend at the Cat's Cradle last Saturday. The 2-night concert was to benefit local stations WXYC (Chapel Hill) and WCOM (Carrboro). This is a cause near to my heart, as I cut my teeth doing local radion (KLSU Baton Rouge), and mostly the local radio show ("Saturated Neighborhood") back in the 90s. I remember listening to WXYC on the web down in FL when there barely was an internet. Local radio, and local bands, are where it all starts.

The line-up Saturday featured, in this order, New Town Drunks, Lizzy Ross, John Howie, Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff, Wylie Hunter and the Cazadores, and Free Electric State. I had already seen (and liked) New Town Drunks, but showed up too late to catch them again on this night. So let's start with Lizzy Ross. I've heard nothing but good about her, and she backed it up. Standing all alone on the big Cradle stage with but her guitar to keep her company, the singer kept the audience enraptured with a big voice belying her diminutive stature. She played a kind of heartfelt country blues... dark at times, poppy and jazzy at others. While much of her solo show was kind of soft and twangy, you can tell she's got a lot of soul and could really belt it out if she wanted... and she apparently does with her band, the Lizzy Ross Band (who I'll have to check out soon).

Lizzy Ross...

The next band delved even deeper into twang-a-liciousness. John Howie, Jr., has been doing this quite awhile (June, Two Dollar Pistols, John Howie, Jr. and the Sweethearts...). But as I'm a relative newcomer to the region, I hadn't yet seen him play. Well, his latest band, he and the Rosewood Bluff, have all the requisite parts -- two-pronged country geetar attack (three counting the slide), slappin' standup bass, and drums -- and they most definitely rock them well! John looked and sang the total cowboy, the music being a bit more cowpunk. Really, he looks and sounds not unlike John Doe. In fact, the live show was a bit reminiscent of "Fourth of July"-era X. That might not have been most X fans' favorite album (it was the "poppy" one), but it was always one of mine. Now, the Rosewood Bluff are definitely more country & western, but the punk underpinnings were there.

John Howie, Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff...
Then there was the bass player, Billie Feather. She's smaller than the standup bass she was playing, but really grabbed it by the reins. She's been in a number of local bands as well, and the experience shows. I could have sworn at one point she was perched, bird-like, atop it while playing... wait... yep, she was (as evidenced by other pictures... I just missed capturing it). She and John, and the whole band, play off each other like the pros they are.

Great slide guitar lurked and swelled in the back, filling in the sound. Having seen a few slide players recently, they seem to be onstage to country bands what the bass player was to 70s rock bands... always working quietly in the back, the underappreciated soul of the band, or something). Well, he was appreciated at the Cradle.

If you're lookin' for a shot of GREAT country-western-cowpunk, check out John Howie Jr. and the Rosewood Bluff. "The Last Great Guitar Slinger" was one highlight (of many).

Up next was Wylie Hunter and the Cazadores. They played sincere, more straight-ahead rock. At first, it didn't stand out quite as much as Howie's band (a hard act to follow), but when they got a little twangy themselves -- more befitting their name -- they found their groove. Hunter has a stong, clean voice, and later in their show, he even approximated Bruce... also to good effect. They got downright anthemic at times, like they were bucking for arena shows, and with their sound, they might be pretty good at it. So overall, I'd say a slow start, but a strong finish. A band with a future.

Wylie Hunter and the Cazadores...
Closing the night was Free Electric State. I've written about them before here, too. Suffice it to say, they worship at the altar of the indie rock gods... and the gods are pleased. Their two-pronged guitar attack (David Koslowski, Nick Williams) is reminiscent of Swervedriver and Versus. Singer/bassist Shirlé Hale at times reminded me of Heidi Ore of Mercy Rule vocally, and Kim Coletta of Jawbox on bass. And that drummer (Tony Stiglitz) is tight! Hell, the whole band is tight.

Free Electric State...

And then there's the lost, great art of feedback as an instrument. It's kinda making a comeback, and Free Electric State are probably the best local practitioners of it.

Listening to Free Electric State, it's easy to get lost in the hypnotic wash of treble and rhythm -- if you can be this loud and still be hypnotic. But as you immerse yourself in it, you find there's a surprising amount of complexity and composition going on amid the din.

Free Electric State doing "Six Is One"...

The show raised $1000 for local radio, and that's apt. The diversity of a show featuring three rather twangy, country-influenced acts, bracketed by the indefinable quirkiness of New Town Drunks and the guitar crescendo of Free Electric State, says it all about the choices and diversity college radio provides.

Support local radio (and local bands)!

New Town Drunks
Lizzy Ross Band
John Howie, Jr., and the Rosewood Bluff
Wylie Hunter and the Cazadores
Free Electric State

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shirlette & the Dynamite Brothers, The Beast (Local Beer Local Bands, Tir Na Nog, Raleigh, 1/19/12)

Shirlette & the Dynamite Brothers played Local Beer Local Bands night Thursday. Shirlette Ammons is a Durham poet who has brought her words to the musical stage in a number incarnations, most notably with Mosadi Music, as well as collaborations with a veritable Who's Who of local indie rockers. But as of late, she's been gigging with the Dynamite Brothers, and together, they're about the funkiest thing going in the triangle.

Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers...

Shirlette rarely sings; she mostly raps. But like the best of early rap (which was basically poetry set to beats), her timing and rhythm are so tight, it's more than simply a recitation. Her staccato rap is in your face... musically, rhythmically, and lyrically. She raps about race, sexuality, and other topics in an unapologetic way that demonstrates how music is perhaps the last effective form of free speech left in the U.S. Sad, if a bit obvious, but musical accompaniment often allows artists to more easily get away with their most contentious words, or at least allows them to speak them to a larger audience.

The first time I saw them, I thought the Dynamite Bros. were more of a rock band backing her. Upon a second listen, though, really, they're a great blues band. The tight interplay of their funk and blues with the words -- they match her cadence perfectly, and vice versa -- make a perfect vehicle for Shirlette's voice, and the entire venture a "band" in the true sense of the word. The guitarist even got all Barry White one one number, called "Chains" (or "Change"?), singing along with Shirlette.

The Beast, a self-described "indie hip hop and progressive jazz" group, headlined. Their rap was a more modern style, and definitely with more of a more rock-pop backing sound... complete with keyboards, guitar solos, and singing as well as rapping. Emcee Pierce Freelon (yes, he's related) name-dropped everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Earth, Wind, & Fire, to Corey and Topanga from Boy Meets World. But it wasn't all fun and pop-culture games. Singing "We don't want no trouble now", they told the age-old tale of having to lay low if you're black -- or "weird", or just different -- and get stuck in some backwoods Southern town.

Pierce Freelon of The Beast...

While The Beast had more of a rocking sound (even a little "Rage Against the Machine"-ey at times), they showed their chops by dipping into a jazzy excursion here and there, and even a little into salsa and other latin styles. Midway through the show, before Shirlette had to go, she and Freelon sang a duet ("Strangelove") that was pure 70s soul!

Overall, this LBLB night was kind of a visit to the best of the old-school, and then the new. While Shirlette and the Dynamite Bros. are still the funkiest of the two, The Beast is taking the genre into new territory.

As a postscript, The Beast did a song about going to Brooklyn, "but every time I try, I've got Carolina on my mind". Great to hear that, and it about says it all about bands relocating... to Brooklyn, or Portland (in the 90s it was Seattle, in the 80s it was Austin and Athens). Props to them. Stay at home, especially now, when you can make and promote your music from anywhere. Besides, we've got a pretty burgeoning little scene here.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Little Break, A New Chapter

The blog's been out of commission for awhile. It's been an eventful month or so. My wife had a complicated and painful neurosurgical procedure in mid-December. Then just before Christmas, she told me she's moving out. After Christmas, I took the kids (for an already-planned trip) to NOLA to visit family and friends, including my Dad. He has Alzheimer's, and barely remembered me (if at all). We came back to a less full house, and I spent much time with Jennifer (our 21 year-old) and Colin (11, who is autistic), working, and lining up childcare options for the weeks Colin will be spending here. So the holidays were bittersweet, to say the least.

But a new chapter begins, and hopefully everyone will come out of this healthy and happy.

While I mostly stayed close to home (here or in NOLA), I did see a couple of shows in that time. Let's just say that seeing Soul Rebels Brass Band at their home base (and my old hangout, Le Bons Temps) in New Orleans is a COMPLETELY different experience than seeing them at Papa Mojo's up here in the Triangle. Props to Mel Melton for bringing them up here, but Le Bons Temps was packed. I mean Bourbon-Street-on-Mardi-Gras-Day, sardine-can, packed. It was good to see the city so booming with tourists and music fans alike, showing it is well on its way to recovery. I did note, however, this interesting reminder just a block from my brother's house in Lakeview.

Visit NOLA if you can. We almost lost her. She needs you, and you need her... whether you know it or not.

Here and there, music, and life, goes on.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands / Dirty Bourbon River Show (Motorco Garage Bar, Durham, 1/13/12)

I love it when you go to see a band -- this time, my hometown compatriots Dirty Bourbon River Show -- and in the process discover something entirely new and unexpected. In this case, as is often the case, it was the opening band. But it's more than just the musical excitement that comes with finding a new band. It's the more general revelation, yet again, that there are... simply... still... entirely new and unexpected things to discover in the world. Even after, personally speaking, a rough year or two. Even after a jaded life of way too many live shows and bands.

I enjoyed DBRS immensely, and there's more on them below. But I had listened to and read a good bit about them already. However, I had only just heard of the opener, reading about the show earlier in the day. Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands are from Greensboro, NC, and led by (again, as I had just read) "multi-instrumentalist" and "ethnomusicologist" Crystal Bright. So I expected something rather interesting, maybe a little staid, a pleasant warm-up to the raucousness that is DBRS.

Crystal started by teaching the crowd, then asking us to join in singing, a simple, falling, melody. It was the opening melody for "Especially Your Mother" (from the upcoming release, "Muses and Bones"), which the band promptly kicked into as everyone sang. So we were literally made a part of the performance from the very beginning. What a wonderful way to engage the audience! This instantly set the tone for a friendly, comfortable, fun night.

Her bio rattled off a plethora of instruments to be expected -- accordion, musical saw, a Ugandan harp called an adungu, piano, various percussive instruments -- with the concomitant international influences. But what was unexpected was her main instrument: her voice. And WHAT a voice!

After the show, she told me she was just finding, or had only recently found, her voice. Are you kidding me? Despite all of the interesting, complex, novel things going on with this band, Crystal's voice was clearly the focus. Think Kate Bush with an earthier, less artsy, and more worldly bent. Like Bush, she has range and demonstrates it. Also like Bush (but unlike many female vocalists with range), she uses it creatively in ways that don't sound like she's just showing off. Crystal's voice is captivating and mysterious.

Meanwhile, she was usually cranking on the accordion, or bowing the saw, to danceable Eastern European, cabaret, or Spanish-flavored melodies, or to dark fairy/folk tales. Also meanwhile, the "Silver Hands" were being just that. Diego Diaz playsed electric slide and an excellent guitar, notably on the long Spanish traditional song, "Malagueña Salerosa". On other songs, such as "Toy Hammer" (see video below, tuba player from DBRS sitting in), he played the slide like a theremin, and its eerie sound harmonized with Crystal's vocals, adding to the effect. The standup bass and percussion were great as well. I've seldom heard a bass make so many different sounds, from high "electric" tinklings to tuba-lows.

Crystal Bright and the Silver Hands' show was a warm, welcoming, circus-like atmosphere, with a bit of a dark edge. Which could just as easily describe Dirty Bourbon River Show's performance immediately following... after adding a lot of brass (and a little drunken debauchery) to the mix.

Both bands had the circus/cabaret thing going, with DBRS sounding perhaps a bit more vaudevillian. Both bands reminded me at times of Paris Combo -- who, like Crystal Bright, also mix Eastern and Western European sounds in the blender. But DBRS brought that down-home jazzy soul that I miss so much from my home. They mixed older styles with New Orleans funk, soul, and brass to get the crowd on their feet.

The multiple singers' vocals ranged from downright operatic to a soulful sound remininding me of Tom Waits or NOLA's Alex McMurray (ex-Royal Fingerbowl, now Tin Men). A full brass contingent complemented sometimes multiple guitars, turning the night into more of a "rock/revival" show, not unlike those of NC's Holy Ghost Tent Revival, with whom they have been known share a stage or two (and, I'm sure, a tailor).

Their songs were often of women, and drink, and deals with the Devil... subjects so intertwined in that any one can, of course, lead to the other two. Late in the show, they encouraged a little audience participation of their own (though in a way more befitting their style). They quickly stomped out, then asked the audience to stomp along, to the thunderous intro beat to "Train Is Gone" (see video). We all happily complied. Near the end, their version of "Iko Iko" had me back home again.

That's what both of these bands did for me, and the crowd... they took us to other times and other places, some real and some surreal. It was a great, somewhat unexpected, show to start the new year. While each band has released excellent CDs, you're really not getting the full experience unless you see them live. I'm not sure when DBRS will be up in these parts next, but Crystal Bright will be performing with dancers (a performance art piece of some sort) in early March, at FlowJo in Carrboro.