Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mac McCaughan & Ted Leo, Duke Coffeehouse (2/18/12)

One of the great things about the Triangle is the number of venues -- venues that bring in quality local and national acts, not just a handful of the same mediocre locals and open mic nights. There's always somewhere new to go to see good live music.

So I'm looking for something low profile to do on a recent Saturday night, and I thought: "I'll check out that little campus coffee house up in Durham that I've never been to yet. See what Duke tuition gets for the kids." Well, this coffee house "open mic night" featured solo sets by a couple of young upstarts, Mac McCaughan and Ted Leo. I've heard these guys have played around some...

For my part, I was there to see Mac, he of Superchunk, Portastatic, & Merge Records. Most of the rather intimate group of a hundred or so, however, were there to see Mr. Ted Leo. Dave and his friend, avowed Tedheads (is there such a thing?) drove from southern Virginia. Katie and Shane, from Nebraska, happened to be in town for one more night and looking for something to do, and being the big Ted Leo fans they are, well, it just kinda worked out.

Another great thing about the Triangle... you can just happen to be here for one night and, by dumb luck, catch your favorite band.

So Mac saunters out and welcomes the little crowd -- just he and his guitar, plugged in -- and breaks into Trash Heap, from the indie rock classic On the Mouth. I loved it. But I was looking to Portastatic, having seen the 'Chunk numerous times, but never the 'Static. He had recently played a set which ended with members of Portastatic coming up to play a few songs as a band, but that was not to be this night. Nevertheless, Mac played a set with as much Portastatic as anything: White Wave and the charming I Wanna Know Girls from Bright Ideas, the very sweet-sounding Paratrooper from Summer of the Shark, and Be Still Please from the album of the same name. A couple from Superchunk's latest, Majesty Shredding, were played (Learned to Surf , Crossed Wires...), and even though they're pretty upbeat rockers, they worked well with just Mac and his guitar.

Highlights were when he trotted out Leo to play melodica on a cover of Prefab Sprout's When Love Breaks Down, and another cover, Can't Fool Me (from hardcore band A Number of Things). Mac said the latter was a band he saw at one of the first shows he had seen at Duke Coffeehouse, back in the heyday of hardcore. He joked that we should start a pit. I'm sure this was a little different from his original experience with that song at the coffeehouse. But thankfully, Mac, and Merge et al, have always taken us to unexpected places musically.

Mac, with Ted Leo backing him up on melodica...
After a brief intermission, Ted Leo came onstage. Again, just he and an electric guitar. And again, the rocking out was more than sufficient despite the minimal instrumentation. Now, I myself am not a "Tedhead", so I didn't know all the songs played. There was Me and Mia and Bleeding Powers from Shake the Sheets (the lone Leo CD in my collection), Sword in the Stone, The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree, The High Party, and the crowd favorite One Polaroid a Day. After trying some whistling on A Bottle of Buckie ("made by monks, drunk by punks"), he joked that he shoulda gotten Mac to play melodica. He asked the crowd to sing along with Bottled In Cork ("Tell the bartender I think I'm falling in love!"), and they obliged.

There were a couple of new songs, and covers of Hazel Dickens' Aragon Mill and the classic Witchita Lineman, the latter of which really suited him vocally, and the former of which showed off his ample guitar chops. This surprised me most seeing Leo live... just how GOOD of a guitar player he is. His CD's, being more energetic, full band affairs, don't make that as obvious. But hearing him alone, in such an intimate setting, really makes that clear.

Then vocally... I never really figured out what was distinct about Ted Leo's vocals, but I knew there was something different there. Not just a maturing punker adding melodic coals to the political fire. Then when he covered, as an encore, the 1970's classic Gimme a Little Sign (by Brenton Wood), I got it. Especially after doing his Glen Campbell. THAT'S what I'm hearing vocally mixed w/ the post-punk edge. A little '70s, pop/R&B melody. This guy probably listened to a lot of Motown and AM Gold growing up. But then, also Television and NY Dolls, as made clear when he broke into another encore, his own Ballad of the Sin Eater ("you didn't think they could HATE ya now, didja?!"). Shades of Jim Carroll. The political edge was there all night, no doubt, with plenty of the anti-war lyrics Leo's known for ("people waiting for an excuse for war", "looking for another shitty war..."). But amidst the fire is the melody, a contrast which makes Leo's music so engaging.

Ted Leo...

So for Duke students and their little coffee house, I'd say tuition is well worth it. I'll have to check out this little venue again.

But the next little hole-in-the-wall club I'm gonna have to visit is the Haw River Ballroom. I think, though, that I've been beaten to the punch.

Oh, and thanks to the above mentioned Shane (Shane Hill) for the photos! I left my camera in the car for this one, bue he was kind enough to oblige, and got some great shots of Mac and Ted.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Birds and Arrows - "San Jacinto" (DBB9, Pour House, 2/3/12)

Here's the promised video of Birds and Arrows doing Peter Gabriel's "San Jacinto", from WKNC's Double Barrel Benefit 9 last Friday. Sorry for the crowd noise drowning out the quiet start (not exactly the best sound recording system on my Nikon), but it gets better.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

WKNC Double Barrel Benefit - Day 2 (2/4/12)

Here's a brief review of Night 2 of the 9th annual WKNC Double Barrel Benefit.

Heads on Sticks: Most easily put, they're a dance band. But they're much darker, weirder, and harder than that implies. Snare-laden electronic drums with assorted other distorted noises (including, I think, the clip-clopping of horses), mix with guitars and David Mueller's Peter Murphy-ish vocals. Sometimes, when they pick up a second guitar in lieu of the electronics, the guitarists overdub each other live, while Mueller overdubs his vocals electronically. The heavy dance beat melding with more typical indie sound and tricks employed by certain collections of fauna (ie Animal, Panda...) make Heads on Sticks one of the more unique, uncategorizable bands around here.

Heads on Sticks...

Naked Gods: From Boone. These guys have a poppy, happy feel you'd expect from an indie band that lives in the mountains. I can hear some 70s in there... maybe in the guitar? Maybe early Doobie Brothers? (pre Michael McDonald, when they were still cool) Yeah, definitely a 70s vibe on one song they said was a brand new one. But they have a more punky edge, and complicated, edgy guitar. One the song "Hoods Up"(?), they said "this is where the the shit gets weird". They were right, kind of a trippy Gerry Rafferty.

Naked Gods...

Gross Ghost: Fast-paced, sharp indie-punk. Descendents of the Descendents, if you will, but maybe that's just because Mike Dillon's vocals sounded kinda like Milo at times. They have a beach-y, retro undercurrent that's more noticeable in their recordings, but definitely was there live. And the bass, Tre Acklen, is great! Gross Ghost had people dancing at the Pour House, too... but doing a very different dance than to Heads on Sticks.

Gross Ghost...

The Kingsbury Manx: They've got a pretty cool old school keyboard set up... a Wurlitzer electronic piano and a Nord Electro 2. This is key to their sound. The Kingsbury Manx had kind of a rolling, jangly, thing going, but the guitars aren't always jangly... they got rather crunchy at times. Overall, their set definitely got heavier towards the end.

The Kingsbury Manx...

The diversity of this 2nd night of DBB9 was as impressive as the first. In fact, not one of these four bands sounded anything like any of the bands on the first night of DBB9, much less like each other.

WKNC Double Barrel Benefit - Day 1 (2/3/12)

It must be that time of year. First, the benefit for WXYC & WCOM in Carrboro a couple of weeks back, then WUNC's offering chances at free trips to everywhere, and now this one, for WKNC. Local radio fundraisers are in full bloom and in need of pollination! A lot of people/bees showed up the first of these two nights of the 9th annual Double Barrel Benefit to oblige. Like I posted recently, support college radio... blah blah blah.

The two night shows are being held at the Pour House, each featuring a 4-band lineup. Night 1 started with MAKE. This 3-piece plays sludgy, mathematical, spacey hard rock. While this genre is not my cup o' tea, they ARE very good at it, and have their own distinctive take on it. For a trio, their tight, bass-heavy sound really filled the room.


MAKE was followed by Durham quintet Organos. While they have two guitars, who were both kind of spacin' out themselves (sliding and tweaking their instruments in unusual ways), they're more bass-driven. But while "spacey and bass-y" just like MAKE, they couldn't have sounded more different. Organos has been described as experimental. That fits, I guess, but only in that they're hard to categorize. Sometimes that means experimental, but sometimes that just means unique; I think the latter is more the case here.

For starters, front-woman Maria Albini plays bass more like a lead guitar, and it's the predominant element in many of the songs. She belts out powerful vocals that are at once in your face and a bit melancholic. Other band members chime in with xylophone, spoons, and various other percussive sounds that counterpoint the melancholy with a bit of whimsy. It all adds up to a sound that's a little hard and a little folky, but again, just different. While mostly plugged in, they asked the audience if they would like to hear one song unplugged. Thankfully, the audience said yes. It was a very sweet number with all five of them coming to the front of the stage singing. I think you have to see Organos live. There's a lot of personality and fun in this band that I hadn't heard listening to their recorded material.


Next came Chapel Hill's Birds and Arrows. They sport pretty minimal instrumentation (acoustic guitar, cello, fairly muffled drums). But strangely, they ROCK out. Part of it is singer Andrea Connolly's strong voice and stage persona. She's a very emotional singer, throwing every ounce of her slender frame into the mic. Birds and Arrows are another band that, while maybe more in the folky/Americana vein, are hard to categorize. They did a great Peter Gabriel cover, "San Jacinto". I'll post a video of that later, but some photos for now.

Birds and Arrows...

I think the painting on drummer Pete Connolly's kick drum -- painted by him -- is as good a description of their sound as any. It's of a small, scrappy dog rising up to take on a big ol' bear...
Last to play on Friday night were Future Kings of Nowhere. They play a smart, punky pop along the lines of Ted Leo, Cake or Ben Folds. Smart, clean lyrics and vocals in songs like "Here Comes 30" and "Thanks Mr. Grodin" are self-deprecating and humorous. The latter is a tribute to the actor Charles Grodin and all of their "friends in the theater who won't make a dime". It ends with the sage advice "There's more to success than just how successful you are". Very true. On "Honestly Anabelle", they slowed it down and got pretty sweet themselves... a stretch for their style, but well worth it.

Future Kings of Nowhere...

So that was Day 1 of the anual Double Barrel Benefit. It ended up being a very diverse and interesting lineup... which is, after all, what college radio is supposed to be all about. I'll post on Day 2 (a day show and market at Tir Na Nog, and another night show at the Pour House) in the next few days, along with the video of Birds and Arrows.