Monday, April 22, 2013

review: the warlocks- subterranean 4.21.13

(photo by Stefanie Goodwin-Ritter)

This tax season has not been kind to me and my wife—we owe a ton of money. Because of this our forays out into the world of live show-going will be severely limited. No Pitchfork for instance (which is fine, actually, as this year’s line-up is the weakest it’s ever been) and I’m going to have to scrimp and save what I can to get us to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on my birthday. There were two shows we’d bought tickets for right when they were announced—one was for the Nick Cave show at the Chicago Theater and the other was this one.

It’s been far too long since the Warlocks came through town. That was back in 2009 right in the midst of all of the Lollapalooza madness that was swallowing the city. They did a two night stint at the Empty Bottle and they brought along the Morning After Girls, the Vandelles and Gliss (the baton was passed during these two nights with the Vandelles heading to the East Coast afterward and Gliss accompanying the Warlocks back to LA). These two nights were definitely the highlight of the year with varied setlists that were a breath away from the two hour mark and filled with gems that the band hadn’t played in years—‘Red Rooster,’ ‘Baby Blue,’ ‘Song for Nico,’ ‘Inside/Outside,’ etc. The Bottle had been packed both nights at the start but as the night wore on the crowd dwindled significantly.

Last night brought the Warlocks to Subterranean, which I figured would be packed to the gills given their lengthy absence. There was a decent turnout when we got there before Secret Colours got started, but by the time the Warlocks took to the stage at midnight the crowd had dropped in size to nearly half. Not sure if it was just because it was a Sunday night, but every time I’ve seen them I’ve noticed a dwindling effect that occurs as their set goes on. I’ve always found this fact maddening as so many of their peers (many of whom aren’t half as brilliant musically or in a live context as the Warlocks) have gone on to greater success packing larger and larger venues. This mini-tour on their way down to Austin for the Psychfest was timed so that they arrived in town two days after the Black Angel’s stop at the Vic. I’ve always thought of the Black Angels as a bit of a Warlocks knock-off band and one of the great annoyances about their continued rise in popularity started in 2008 when I bought tickets to a double bill at Logan Square Auditorium of the Warlocks with the Black Angels opening. At some point during the two months leading up to the event after I’d bought my tickets and started listening to the Black Angels’ excellent second album ‘Directions to See a Ghost’ the bill was flipped and suddenly I had tickets to a show where one of my favourite bands was suddenly and unexpectedly an opener when I’d seen them headline the same venue the previous year. The Warlocks had played a free instore at Permanent Records that day as well where they played a ton of rarities for about 10 people and then turned in a completely different set for their 45 minute opening slot. While sticking around for the Black Angels’ headlining set I became more and more angry as the night wore on—they weren’t half the live band that the Warlocks were and here I was watching them snore their way through the songs on both of their great albums. I got so sick of it I left before the encore.

‘Why is this relevant?’ you ask? It’s just disheartening to watch such a great band that keeps getting better and better with each release, constantly evolving artistically, consistently delivering the goods live time and time again despite every adversity, constant lineup changes, shrinking venues and crowd-sizes soldiering on in these conditions while one of their imitators keeps moving up the ladder of popularity on the back of an album as weak as ‘Indigo Meadow.’ This is the case with so many of Bobby Hecksher’s peers—even the Brian Jonestown Massacre is locked in to a comfortably sustainable business model and their best albums are behind them (as great as ‘Aufheben’ is it’s no ‘Bravery, Repitition and Noise’ or ‘… and This is Our Music’). Watching this show felt like watching one of my own band’s shows—by the end of the night there couldn’t have been more than 50 people who stuck it out to catch the entirety of the band’s 70 minute set. It’s a feeling of frustration that I can sympathize with. Hecksher’s dogged determination to be true to his own musical intentions above all is something I admire so much I believe it’s only right that he be rewarded for his integrity—which has been tested far beyond the pale at this point. I know that this isn’t an ideal world that we’re living in where artistic integrity is always rewarded, but just the once would be nice. Plus I’m tired of seeing the band tear through brilliant live set after brilliant live set, releasing amazing album after amazing album constantly worrying that each will be the last time. Hecksher has already tried to quit the music business at least a few times.

As for last night’s set it was impassioned, massive, droning and entrancing as the band always is. Subterranean is one of those local venues that I’m always a bit leary of—the sound is almost always muddy and unnecessarily loud and/or trebly. There have been isolated incidences where this hasn’t been the case—Sloan, for instance—and fortunately last night was one of them. Since this isn’t the only time I’ve seen the band sound great at a venue with consistently awful sound quality I’m forced to believe that it’s mostly due to the strength of their own live sound as a band. Last night the bass was huge—very present but also clear and hard-hitting. The drums were dynamic if not slightly buried at times. The guitars were mixed perfectly—a nice separation between them which only served to enhance the hypnotic effect of when they were all locked in to the same parts and then branching out from each other. The vocals were a bit buried, but just at the right level.

The band was almost a completely different lineup from four years ago. The absence of longtime drummer Jason Anchondo was a bit of a worry for me at first. Once they got underway, though, all of those worries were quickly put to bed. I can always appreciate a drummer who’s willing to respect the importance of dynamics and restraint over showing off. The only other member besides Hecksher who remained was longtime guitarist JC Rees, who always manages to turn in a solid performance—last night he was in his tornado of feedback summoning mode and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. All in all the entire band seemed to be in great spirits despite the incredibly lame crowd. After the swirling and dense plodding opener, ‘You Make me Wait’ there was brief applause followed by deafening silence. The bassist faced Hecksher, putting his finger to his lips: ‘Shhhhhh…’ he said audibly without the aid of a microphone. Perhaps it could’ve been reverence and respect that kept the crowd so quiet, but this didn’t seem like the case as the night wore on and the presence of talkers became clearer and clearer during songs.

I was really hoping that the band would play at least a few songs from the new record and I was correct. The first new song came after the dark couplet of ‘Red Camera’ and ‘Isolation’ and was incredibly dark. It was probably a bit darker than ‘Moving Mountains’ off of ‘Heavy Deavy Skull Lover’ but also plaintive, beautiful, tortured and loud. They also ended with a new song—it was like hearing one of their many lengthy jams with vocals—completely drone based with the occasional dash of melody. Mostly it just pulsed with a nicely spread ebb-and-flow type of dynamic over 10 minutes with some really nice ghostly feedback effects mixed in. It was fucking awesome, in other words—especially when they’d bring the noise during the loud sections. Besides that the set touched upon pretty much every era of the band—‘Come Save Us’ was nice to hear again as I hadn’t heard them play it in years, ‘Shake the Dope’ out was extended with a brief, inspired jam and ‘The Dope Feels Good’ was particularly fierce and driving last night despite the fact that they’ve played it every time I’ve seen them.

At the end of the night it was inspiring to see a band turn in such a great performance in such conditions. The best shows are always the ones where you see a group give their all for a tiny crowd. I’m regularly accused of being an elitist about obscure bands, but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing the Warlocks amass a bigger following. I’d be happy to follow them into the bigger venues as this happened. There aren’t a lot of bands I would say this about, either. What’s more, they deserve it. Fuck, I wouldn’t even mind it if Pitchfork gave their next album a 9 and put it in their ‘Best New Music’ category for all of their sheep to devour it. At least the Warlocks would deserve it. Plus, that’ll never happen. Just read the archived versions of every Pitchfork review of their previous albums to see what I mean.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

diary 4.6.13- dreamless days

Diary 4.6.13- dreamless days by Shalloboi on Mixcloud

song- artist- album

1. from above- death and vanilla- 'from above' 7"
2. why won't you make up your mind?- tame impala- 'innerspeaker'
3. amanda in the clouds- panda riot- 'amanda in the clouds' flexi
4. to the boy i jumped in the hemlock alley- white fence- 'cyclops reap'
5. puppets dangling- jacco gardner- 'cabinet of curiosities'
6. gondola- the warmth- 'tourniquet'
7. plastic cup- low- 'the invisible way'
8. one drop- acetone- 'york blvd.'
9. backslider/backsliding- speck mountain- 'some sweet relief'
10. finishing jubilee street- nick cave & the bad seeds- 'push the sky away'
11. 'til i die- medicine- 'the buried life' reissue
12. who sees you- my bloody valentine- 'm b v'
13. strawberries 1 + 2- thee oh sees- 'floating coffin'
14. since we have changed- hookworms- 'pearl mystic'
15. dreamless days- the warlocks- 'heavy deavy skull lover'
16. come and close my eyes- jessica bailiff (flying saucer attack)- live at VPRO 7"

Monday, April 1, 2013

ruminations: nick cave & the bad seeds/sharon van etten- the chicago theater- 4.1.13

Since I've spent the last hour and a half or so wondering whether or not I should write about seeing Nick Cave at the Chicago Theater I figured the best way to stop wondering was to just start writing. For one I couldn't possibly review this show with any measure of impartiality. There are a few reasons for this- 1) I've been a longtime fan and find that he's one of those artists who I love nearly everything he does and 2) my wife bought our tickets in the first minutes of the band's presale and we discovered, once we arrived, that we were sitting in the very front row right in the center. Most people would be elated, and I was definitely amazed at the idea of being so close to a band that I've admired very much for many years in such a massive theater, but my predominant feeling ended up being trepidation and nervousness. I'm usually standing towards the back at shows as I find it easier to take the whole experience in and process it. When you're right up front that isn't going to be your experience-- you're right in the thick of things. At most shows you have to fight tooth and nail to get up there and stay there and being in the thick of things has never been a priority of mine at shows. What's more, and I'd somehow pushed this out of my mind even though I knew better, Nick Cave is an incredibly confrontational and dynamic performer who spends a lot of energy connecting with the audience very intensely. He gets in people's faces in the front row-- he points right at you, looks you in the eye and kneels down towards you while he's singing. As if the music weren't intense enough. I'd describe it as thrilling with an air of menace. You feel like you might get kicked in the head (even though you are pretty sure this has never happened at a Nick Cave show).

I seem to be going through some kind of weird life crisis right now as I find myself having worked on my band for over 12 years and still haven't really gotten anywhere. At least not anywhere where I get a lot of outside validation and recognition for my music that I feel so passionately about. I am capable of being a passionate performer-- my focus is usually to get as lost in the storm of sound I'm whipping up and get overwhelmed by the emotions that singing my songs awakens in me. When I started making my own music all those years ago outside validation and recognition weren't my goals-- I mainly figured they'd come about naturally as I got my music and message across at shows and that it would have a bit of a snowball effect. As the years go on, though, I find this hasn't been the case and I often chalk it up to a lack of charisma. I'm a rather meek person and being loved and adored by a ton of people has never been a priority of mine. I'm also not the most social person; even though I've met people who could've helped us out along the way I was always reluctant to call in favors. I didn't like feeling like I was using people who I considered friends to further my own selfish ends. I've always cultivated a lack of pretension that people who believe in the necessity of social networking and such find off-putting. This has all combined into a lack of charisma which is ultimately why I've never attracted legions of fans and believers to my music.

Why did seeing Nick Cave whip up all of this self-evaluation? It didn't on its own-- these things have been on my mind for the past couple of days for a variety of random reasons and circumstances that are mainly unrelated. The thing is that until tonight the concept of charisma has always seemed a bit vague and abstract to me. Being in the front row at a Nick Cave show made the whole idea crystal clear. Based on what I've been talking about I've always cast charisma in a negative light, but there are cases where it is used as a positive force. Cave could easily take on a more sedate performing style-- there was a portion of the evening devoted to the Bad Seeds' more restrained moments which proved a nice relief from all of the unhinged intensity that had been building up over the course of the night. This ended up kind of being the highlight of the show for me-- they played 'Your Funeral, My Trial,' 'People Ain't No Good' and 'Love Letter' while Cave sat at the piano and violinist Warren Ellis sat in a chair with his legs crossed playing some beautifully yearning violin lines where he had been flailing like a madman during the beginning section of the set constructing monumental sculptures of squalling noise. Once this section was over the set ramped back up to its previous height of intensity fairly quickly and they had recharged enough energy that they were able to push it to new heights. My point is that Nick Cave doesn't have to trot out this confrontational performance style every night, but he does and he is terrifyingly great at it. The only other band that comes to mind that is able to whip a crowd into as great of a frenzy is Thee Oh Sees. I was awestruck by the amount of effort he put into connecting with the audience. Most people who adopt this performance style approach it from completely the wrong angle, but it's nice to know that it's still worth doing. He doesn't feel entitled to the adulation he receives-- he works for it. Pretty damned hard, too.

It was just an odd night because here I was enjoying a fantastic show by a band I've loved for years and years and there was this undertone of discomfort to it. I never realized how outside of my comfort zone being at the front row of a show that size was for me. It made me feel a bit old and lame and yet here was this 50-something year old man tearing it up onstage in a way that I could never possibly imagine equalling. It was a sobering example of seeing what it takes and realizing you just don't have it and you never will.

Sharon Van Etten was a wonderful choice for an opener and I considered her set an unexpected surprise as she was announced as an opener after we'd bought our tickets. She played only with a drummer tonight and for only 30 minutes. She did start with 'How We Met' and played most of my favourites from 'Tramp' as well as two excellent new songs. She looked a bit nervous up there. I knew exactly how she felt. It was a pretty far cry from how relaxed and informal she seemed at Lincoln Hall last year, but it was still really wonderful. She came out and sang backup vocals with Nick Cave as well and I found myself focusing my attention on her when what was going on in front of me became too much for me. It was very comforting. There are few shows I've been to in my life with that underlying sense of danger that anything could happen. I could see why people find it alluring in shows, but there's only so much of it that I can take. The next show I'm seeing is at the end of the month-- The Warlocks at Subterranean. It'll probably still be intense, just for different reasons. I'll be at the back for that one, I can assure you.

As for my 'nobody likes my beautiful music boo-hoo, poor me' crisis, I have those more often than I care to admit. That's the type of vanity that I'm prone to. Plus, I'd stop making music and doing my band if I could, but I can't seem to. Believe me, I've tried. Many many times...