Monthly Archives: October 2008

Setting the Stage

“On Stage” piece from today’s Weekend section on Tom Kamm, an architect and set designer who has worked on a number of shows with Robert Wilson, among others. He designed the set for Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Boom, opening next week at Woolly Mammoth.

I feel a little silly saying this, but click on the picture to read the story.

Matthew Sweet and The Bridges at the State

Matthew Sweet, proud owner of the most decadent bird bath in rock and roll. Photo by Henry Diltz; courtesy Shout! Factory.

I’m a bit late weighing in on Matthew Sweet’s show at The State Wednesday night, and really, I don’t have a lot to say about it that my DCist colleague Dave Weigel didn’t cover yesterday. Sweet’s five-piece band sounded great on the new stuff from this year’s Sunshine Lies LP and on the equal number of oldies from 1991’s Girlfriend and 1995’s 100% Fun. Former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd nearly stole the show from the headliner.

But I’d have to call the evening a mixed success at best, because the entire show, including the three encore numbers (and two stage-exits-and-back) was a mere 70 minutes long; a pretty slight workday for a headliner. Sweet only played an hour the last time I saw him, but he was sick that night, and it was 13 years and a half-dozen albums ago. I like to be sold on album cuts I may have overlooked when I hear an artist perform, and Sweet’s catalogue is plenty deep enough to fill out a longer show. (Wouldn’ it have been groovy, Baby, great to hear Ming Tea’s “BBC”?)

“Dandelion” was the one song to which the show introduced me. Sweet seemed almost apologetic about playing it, moving promptly on to the beloved “I’ve Been Waiting” with The Bridges providing harmony support. They were back again a few minutes later to harmonize on the new record’s title track. Between came “Girlfriend,” Sweet’s very own “Satisfaction,” performed, surprisingly in the middle of the set.

Openers The Bridges, whose debut album Limits of the Sky was produced by Mr. Sweet, have a an appealing sunny-70s thing. Unfortunately, their set was defeaningly loud — louder than the death metal act I saw play in Baltimore a few nights ago, and louder than Matthew Sweet. Simply being inside the theatre — not the pit in front of the stage, the theatre — was painful.

The Setlist:

01 Time Machine
02 Room to Rock
03 Byrdgirl
04 Dandelion
05 We’re the Same
06 Feel Fear
07 I’ve Been Waiting (with The Bridges)
08 Girlfriend
09 Sunshine Lies (with The Bridges)
10 Someone to Pull the Trigger
11 ???
12 Flying
13 Sick of Myself

ENCORE:
14 Divine Intervention
15 You Don’t Love Me

ENCORE:
16 Superdeformed

Openers The Bridges. Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media.

Personal Is Political: A Conversation with Henry Rollins

Henry Rollins remembers when this used to be a good neighborhood. Photo by Ben Swinnerton.

Henry Rollins is a lousy songwriter and a mediocre poet, but as a clear-eyed, self-deprecating raconteur, he’s in a class by himself. He’s long been one of my heroes, and it was an honor to interview him for DCist.

Opeth in Baltimore

I’ve managed to enjoy myself at metal shows before. The first concert I ever attended was Iron Maiden with Anthrax opening, in 1991.

Swedish death-metalworkers Opeth traffic in epic, multi-part salvos of sound that combine end-of-days riffage with touchstones of proggy sophistication: Changing time signatures! Spanish guitar interludes! At Ram’s Head Live Sunday night, a healthy crowd was happy to forgive the soft stuff on account of the bodacious plentitude of shock-and-awe. Performing, said frontman Mikael Akerfeldt, the final date of their U.S. tour before they would fly home to Stockholm, the five horsemen seemed neither tired nor exhilarated, but rather utterly professional throughout their 110-minute prophecy of doom.

Akerfeldt’s stage banter was charming and friendly even when it was profane and, well, gross – as when he speculated as to the origins of a stain on the T-shirt he declared he’s played 25 shows in without washing. The singer/songwriter/guitarist is Opeth’s own W. Axl Rose, the sole member who has performed on every album in the group’s 13-year discography. (Opeth vets outnumber active-duty members two-to-one, though Akerfeldt is not yet 35. What is it with heavy metal bands, anyway? Their retention is worse than the Army’s.) Daring to slip a ballad into the set after half an hour without quarter, he pledged to sing “with 350 percent feeling, like Jon Bon Jovi.” The black-shirted (and sometimes shirtless) faithful clapped along during this and other delicate passages, presumably as a show of involvement rather than to sabotage these rhythmically varied interludes, though the effect was the same.

In the moat between the stage and the barriers on the floor, a pair of burly security guys got a good workout catching crowd surfers and sending them gently back to catch another wave. Akerfeldt was clearly moved by our enthusiasm. “I am going to let you touch my private parts,” he announced during the encore. Then, as promised, he gripped his guitar by the neck and extended it into the throng, letting the front row cop a nice, long feel. Party on, Baltimore

A slightly abridged version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Double Shot of DRUID

DRUID’s kiss-me-quick production of two Synge plays, The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World, reviewed for DCist.

Don’t Worry, He Doesn’t Mean It

Behold my Stephin Merritt “MusicMakers” profile, from tomorrow’s Paper of Record.

I can’t even make the Magnetic Fields show Sunday night. I’ve only myself to blame.

Secret Machines at the 9:30 Club


This is a couple days old already. Sorry.

New York-based space rock-trio Secret Machines’ new, self-titled third album is strong evidence that in the studio at least, the group hasn’t lost a step despite the departure of guitarist Ben Curtis. His brother, frontman Brandon Curtis, has soldiered on with new axe man Phil Karnats, continuing to layer shimmering guitars and keyboards atop drummer Josh Garza’s bone-crushing, Bonham-esque rhythms, with a newfound focus on tighter song structures. This is good.

Secret Machines have played stadiums with U2 and been compared to Pink Floyd. Alas, at their funereal set at the 9:30 Club Thursday night, they seemed more like the Iron Butterfly of the iPod Age. And while everybody surely loves to hear all17-plus minutes of “In a Gadda-da-Vida” once a year (preferably in the fortnight before Halloween), the interminable new “The Fire Is Waiting” — the whole show, really — recalled that iconic, goofy tune in all the worst ways. Too often it felt like an unbroken, unbearably pompous 90-minute dirge, the luminous textures of the band’s albums lost in a muddy, drony, roar.

The stage was wrapped in what looked like strips of bandage —appropriate for an act that came off as humorless, hidebound and unable to connect. While a few members of the half-empty (well okay, half-full) 9:30 crowd were psyched enough to leap and wave during the chestnuts “Nowhere Again” and “First Wave Intact,” the audience was mostly a sea (or a pond) of heads nodding in solemn semi-communion as they fiddled with their cell phones. Dude, you should have been there!

Worse, some of the those nodding heads were on stage. Garza is fun to watch, mainly for the uncanny way he resembles Animal from The Muppet Show, but Curits was an inert presence. Before kicking off the encore with a (relatively) spare “Alone, Jealous and Stoned” that painfully exposed his vocal limitations, he murmured, “I’m glad you’re still with us.” It was a performance that must have felt like a rehearsal even to him.

Media Mix XIX: Chesnify

Please explain Kenny Chesney? Sure: Even I didn’t hate his new album at all. No wonder he’s maybe the last stadium-filler left standing. (Even Bruce had some empty seats at stadiums Giants and Foxboro this summer, apparently.)

As for Brett Dennen, I can’t, unless you see him live in a little place like Jammin’ Java.

NEXT: Lou Reed, and a girl named Frida.

Frankie’s Got ‘Stache

“I drink your milkshake! I DRINK! IT! UP!”

It’s the circle of life, or something: Surfer-turned-rocker Donavon Frankenreither was the subject of the very first review I had published in the Paper of Record, way back in June of 2006. And as of tomorrow morning, he is the subject of my second MusicMakers profile for the Weekend section. (I wrote the one for next week, too, but you’ll have to wait a few more days to see who it’s about. But here’s a tuneful, none-too-subtle hint: Washington, D.C. / It’s paradise to me / It’s not because it is the grand old seat / Of precious freedom and democracy, no no no.)

Bet you can’t wait.

Sarah Vowell, My ‘Shipmate’

Sarah Vowell isn’t just one of my favorite nonfiction writers; she’s one of my heroes. There are lots of reasons why, so here’s just one: Her radio essay from Episode 247 of This American Life,What Is This Thing?“, about the romance of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. It aired seven days after Johnny’s death. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music journalism ever.

Anyway, I just got Vowell’s new book, The Wordy Shipmates, and I’m going to hear her read at the Avalon Theatre tomorrow night at an event sponsored by Politcs & Prose.

Check out Bob Thompson’s profile of her in today’s Paper of Record. Particularly this:

In her former life as a music critic, she established a “personal moratorium on what I call inter-rock analogies.” It was boring to compare Soundgarden with Nirvana. She wanted to compare them to “I don’t know what, a pastry, or something that was just more interesting.”

Right. So that makes two reasons.

Oh, I almost forgot: Check out DCist editor Sommer’s interview with Sarah here.

Nick Cave Shares His ‘Stache as the 9:30

I got home from the first of mustache-on-a-wire Nick Cave’s two performances at the 9:30 Club this week to find an e-mail message from a publicist at his label saying the interview we’d booked for the following morning was canceled. (I felt only a little better when I heard he’d canceled on Post Rock‘s David Malitz, too.) The show had put me in a good mood that even that unwelcome news couldn’t spoil. In 250 words or, well, slightly more:

Nick Cave, the Australian punk-turned-literary death-rocker, is among the greatest frontmen in rock and roll. Hyperbole? Nope, check the math: You add the feral swagger of Iggy Pop to the cabaret poise of David Bowie, then factor in the shameless mustache of — that guy from Gogol Bordello, maybe? What about that mustache?

Doubtless it’s important: In his clean-shaven incarnation, Cave was writing tender piano ballads like “Love Letter” and “Into My Arms,” the only two opportunities to relax in his otherwise amphetamine-paced 18-song exorcism at the 9:30 Club Sunday night. But the Primary Source Document of the ‘Stache Era is this year’s Dig!!! Lazurus Dig!!!, one of those rare records that broadens a long-lived artist’s cult while alienating none of the true believers. But mostly, the disc justifies its six titular exclamation point by just rocking like hell — or so you thought, until you heard the seven-piece incarnation of the Bad Seeds up the ante on the songs for the stage, detonating them with sternum-rattling force.

Cave slunk onstage to the doomsday churn of “Night of the Lotus Eaters,” chanting the tracks’s refrain (“Get ready to shield yourself!”) and discarding the verses entirely. A gaunt spectre in gray pinstripes, he strapped on a guitar as the band slammed into Dig!!!’s title track, and the show was off like a cannonball. A string of lightbulbs framed the stage like a dressing-room mirror, emphasizing the theatrical-beyond-any-concern-of-parody nature of Cave’s preening, pointing, hand-squeezing stage manner. He even signed books for fans between songs.

The sold-out crowd welcomed vigorous concert staples like “The Weeping Song” and “Deanna” with fond expectation, and “The Mercy Seat” — already a key track in Cave’s thick songbook when his hero, Johnny Cash, covered it, pushing its stock even higher — was an apocalyptic showstopper, driven by the electric squall of Warren Ellis’s violin.

“It ain’t that great,” Cave demurred when a fan shouted for him to remove his clothes. But we’ll take 110 minutes of his soul over a flash of skin anytime.

A version of this review appears in today’s paper of Record.

NIGHT TWO was marginally less awesome, but still one of the best gigs I’ve seen this year. I’m not sure why Cave couldn’t get through “God Is in the House,” which he stopped and started three times before finally abandoning the tune to reprise “Love Letter” from the prior night. Or why he announced — but did not play — “The Ship Song” during the encore portion of the set both nights. But I was plenty grateful for what we got.

The Setlist – Sunday, October 5, 2008

01 Night of the Lotus Eaters
02 Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
03 Tupelo
04 The Weeping Song
05 Red Right Hand
06 Midnight Man
07 Love Letter
08 Hold on to Yourself
09 Moonland
10 The Mercy Seat
11 Deanna
12 Hard on for Love
13 We Call Upon the Author
14 Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry

    ENCORE

15 Into My Arms
16 Get Ready for Love
17 The Lyre of Orpheus
18 Stagger Lee

The Setlist – Monday, October 6, 2008

01 Hold on to Yourself
02 Dig!!! Lazurus Dig!!!
03 Tupelo
04 The Weeping Song
05 Red Right Hand
06 Midnight Man
07 God Is in the House* (aborted) / Love Letter
08 Today’s Lesson*
09 The Mercy Seat
10 Moonland
11 Deanna
12 Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry
13 More News from Nowhere*

    ENCORE

14 Your Funeral, My Trial*
15 Jesus of the Moon*
16 Get Ready for Love
17 Stagger Lee

*not performed the prior night

Media Mix XVIII: Brotherly Love Edition

I pretty much forgot about Oasis between 1996 and oh, about six weeks ago, when I noticed Los Bros. Gallagher would be releasing a new record on one of the weeks I had a pair of CD reviews due. I liked their first two albums, and it turns out I like their new one, too. If you care about this band at all, you doubtless already know that songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallgher was injured after some guy stormed the stage and shoved him into the audience at the Toronto Virgin Mobile Festival last month. I’m going to check out their show at the Patriot Center with Ryan Adama just a few days before Christmas.
Incidentally, I have a bootleg of Oasis recorded at the Patriot Center in 1996. What moved me to buy this at Salzer’s Records in Ventura a few years back, when I never was an Oasis superfan? Your guess is as good as mine. It never took much arm-twisting to get me to open my wallet at Salzer’s. I also had that CD single of an incredibly profane argument/fistfight the Gallgher brothers got into on (I think) British radio in the mid-90s. Don’t know why the hell I would ever have owned that, either.

Rachel Yamagata’s Elephants . . . Teeth Sinking into Heart is apparently a double CD, though my advance of it collected all 14 of its tracks on a single disc. The two-disc strategy is to emphasize the binary nature of its slow half and fast half, I guess. But the slow half is almost twice as long as the fast half.

Jenny Goes to Synagogue

Like Sarah Palin, Rilo Kiley-leader-cum-alt-country-diva Jenny Lewis had some onstage image-mending to do Thursday night: Her new solo album, Acid Tongue, isn’t quite the musical equivalent of a 3 a.m. phone call, but after Lewis’s prior under-her-own-name effort, 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat, it’s a letdown, mostly discarding her unique millennial introspection in favor of been-there 70s country-rock.

But when Lewis entered the Sixth and I Synagogue from the back, floating stageward in a dazzling floor-length green dress while cooing the a capella “Run Devil Run” with which she routinely opens concerts, she effortlessly commanded this most beautiful and holy of rooms. Even the fact that she kicked off the set proper with “Jack Killed Mom” — a bland, awkward stew of murder ballad and gospel rave-up — couldn’t really derail the momentum of her entrance.

Lewis used her siren-strong alto to better effect on “The Charging Sky” and “Rise Up with Fists!!!,” establishing a pattern for the 70-minute concert: The songs on which Lewis stood and sang (with and without guitar) were always better than the ones on which she sat and played piano. Her paramour, Jonathan Rice — he’s a guitarist in her shaggy-in-sound-and-appearance band when he isn’t making his own records — showed palpable chemistry with the star, dueting with her on the ecstatic “Carpetbaggers.” But all was prologue to when the band huddled around one microphone to harmonize on the new record’s aching, gorgeous title track. (“I wrote this song a while ago, but it kind of hung around,” she said, which was as verbose as she got all night.)

Later, Lewis and Rice convincingly cast themselves as the new Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons, with a haunting cover of “Love Hurts.” The show’s unchallenged pinnacle, it followed a holy-rolling “The Next Messiah.” On disc, the number is overlong and overwrought, but in this setting, it felt visceral — uplifting, even. Maybe you just have to hear it the Messiah’s house.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.

Everything I Need to Know About Economics I Learned from Oscar-winning Screenwriter William Goldman, or Sober Insight into the Financial Crisis (No.)

So I looked at my checking account balance this morning and saw something new and unwelcome: red numbers. Scary. But also wrong — right?
I’ve managed to keep a positive balance in my checking account since I finished college. (The fact that I’m actually sort of proud of this fact probably tells you everything about my comfort level managing money as well as my own assessment of my long-term employability.) On the 15th and 30th of every month, my wages are deposited automatically into my account with wonderful, convenient, benign digital efficiency. On the first of every month, my mortgage payment is withdrawn automatically from my account with cold, brutal, relentless digital efficiency. Except that for a few hours this morning, it was looking like the mortgage had come out without the paycheck going in. And so: Red numbers! Panic in the markets!

Admittedly, I know roughly as much about economics as Sarah Palin does about foreign policy. But everything I’m reading and hearing about the current financial crisis says that the problem is essentially that lenders have stopped lending. They’ve lost faith in the systems they rely on to tell them who is solvent and who is broke, and so they’re afraid to loan money even to companies that until recently were universally regarded as good credit risks. Companies, even stable, well-run, reputable companies, borrow money every day to cover their operating costs — including payroll. I’ve heard several journalists who specialize in all this crazy voodoo say that the “crisis” that for the moment is still an abstraction to most Americans (as evidenced by their refusal to back the bailout) is going to become smack-in-the-face real when employers can’t borrow the cash they need on payday.

So when I looked at my bank balance this morning and saw that the end-of-the-month deposit that until today could claim a perfect attendance record just wasn’t there, I figured the crisis had just hit home for me.

I called my employer’s Human Resources department, which assured me I’d been paid. Then I called my bank. After about five minutes on hold, I reached a customer service guy and explained my predicament. “I’ll try to find what’s going on,” he told me, and back on hold I went for a few more tense moments, until I heard the phone ring again and found myself connected to another customer service agent, a woman this time. Naturally, she knew none of what I’d just explained to the other guy. As I was repeating my story to her, I saw my paycheck suddenly appear in my account. The red numbers preceded by a minus-sign were gone, replaced by a positive sum. Not a big one, mind you, but one presented in a font of reassuring black.

“Unfotunately, we’ve been experiencing some processing delays,” the agent told me, her voice oozing professional empathy.

This before coffee.

When I bought my first home two years ago, my tenuous-at-best grasp of the fundamental workings of real estate, mortgages, interest rates, and all that drove me nuts. I’m embarassed to admit that I was relieved to settle into the groove of simply paying the mortgage every month, which while burdensome, was still preferable to having to think about it. I just don’t understand money, I lamented, cursing myself as unworthy of the wealth-creating, innovation-rewarding, capitalist utopia in which I was privileged to live.

In recent weeks, as bank failures and other portents of fiscal doom have proliferated, what keeps flashing through my head is William Goldman’s maxim from Adventures in the Screen Trade: Nobody knows anything.

I wish that revelation made me feel better. I really do.