Category Archives: boosterism

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.

Old 97’s Rock Obama in Balmer

Real quick — one of my favorite bands, Old 97’s, played a special gig at SONAR in Baltimore last night to benefit the Obama campaign in what was referred to all night as “the crucial swing state of Ohio.” I’d never been to SONAR before, but I liked the club a lot, and its entire staff was working for free last night, along with the talent. The merch and the concessions were all donated, too. Whether you bought one of the $20 T-shirts or the $10 event poster signed by all four 97s or just a beer for $4.50 (the same ones you pay $6 for in D.C.), every penny you pried from your wallet was, we were told, to go straight to Obama’s Ohio machine. 97s frontman Rhett Miller and bassist/second singer Murry Hammond each performed a solo acoustic set in the Talking Head Lounge (SONAR’s equivalent of the Black Cat’s backstage) for people who sprang for the $100 tickets. The tix for just the Old 97s gig in the main room were $25. Two Balmer bands opened the mainstage gig, Desert Boys and Caleb Stine and The Brakemen. Neither of them were bad at all. Stine sounds eerily like Jay Farrar, but Uncle Tupelo-era Farrar, so that was no bad thing.

It was a fun evening, though I wish the club had been more than half-full. The 97s just played a sold-out show at the 9:30 here in the District six weeks ago, so that plus the fact that it was a Monday night might have depressed the turnout a bit. Their set was on the short side for them, at a mere 20 songs, but that was forgiveable given that Murry and Rhett had each performed a solo set beforehand, and anyway, the band’s actual performance absolutely smoked.

For me, though, the evening’s clear highlight was the interview Murry gave me about his fine new solo album, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going but I’m on My Way, and about the origins and history of the 97s. We spoke for about 20 minutes before his solo set, and then he actually came and found me after he and Rhett were finished so I could ask him the rest of my questions. Hell of a nice guy, he. I’ll be posting the interview on DCist probably late next week, in advance of Murry’s solo gig at IOTA on Monday, Sept. 22. I’ll see y’alls there.

Old 97’s at SONAR, Monday, Sept. 8, 2008

The Setlist

01 The Fool

02 Barrier Reef

03 The One

04 Buick City Complex

05 No Baby I

06 Mama Tried

07 Indefinitely

08 Early Morning

09 St. Ignatius Alone So Far

10 Question

11 Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue

12 Dance with Me

13 Hands Off

14 My Two Feet

15 W. Tx Teardrops

16 Rollerskate Skinny

17 The Easy Way

ENCORE:

18 Salome

19 Murder (Or a Heart Attack)

20 Timebomb

The Band

Philip Peeples — drums

Ken Bethea — guitar

Murry Hammond — bass, vocals

Rhett Miller — vocals, guitar

Los Angeles, Detroit, Cairo, Rome

Suzanne Bertish and Andrew Long as the titular star-crossed lovers in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Either because I am remarkably prolific or because I am distressingly lazy, my reviews of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra and of the X/Detroit Cobras double-bill at the 9:30 Club last Wednesday ended up on DCist the same day. The Friday preceeding Memorial Day weekend, in fact. Given that I posted them both after lunchtime, I’m confident that tens and tens of people read both trenchant works of art criticism.

Happy Memorial Day, everybody.

X: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, Jon Doe, and D.J. Bonebrake, pictured sometime well in advance of their current 31st anniversary tour.

Better Half Called Sinuous, Otherworldy in the Washington Times

Milady sees the future in Constellation Theatre Company’s current production of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia. Washington Times theatre critic Jayne Blanchard says she “provides chills . . . as the sinuous and otherworldly oracle Cassandra.”

Way to bring those chills, Baby. Respect!

Lou Reed vs. the 9:30 Club

Lou Reed called his most famous live album “Rock and Roll Animal,” but the title was kind of a joke even then, in 1974. The unofficial poet laureate of New York City is one of the least-pandering rockers ever, and his complete absorption in the music gives him a paradoxical charm: Like all icons of existential cool, he seems truly not to give semi-consensual anonymous back-alley fuck whether you like him or not.

Take Tuesday night’s powerful but frustratingly brief show at the 9:30 Club. The majority of the mere dozen songs performed were mid-80s-and-later album cuts, with only “Sweet Jane” (disposed of early in the set) and “Perfect Day” among Reed’s “hits.” He might have rolled his eyes introducing the Velvet Underground curio “I’m Sticking with You” (“This was in ‘Juno,’ that’s why we’re doing it”) but you just never know with this guy. Reed’s signature speak-singing, as distinct and authoritative as Johnny Cash’s, sometimes seems to veil everything in a protective layer of sarcasm.

Increasingly as he’s aged, Reed, 66, has used this vocal armor to get away with naked, frank introspection that would sound insufferably weak in anybody else’s mouth. (‘Naked’ is not just a metaphor here — few songwriters have addressed sex as Reed has, viscerally but with more revulsion than prurience.) The sole new song he performed, but didn’t identify, was like this, with its refrain, “the power of the heart.” But his tough-guy delivery also makes him out-loud funny sometimes, as in the well-chosen opener, “Mad.” (“I know I shouldn’t have had someone else in our bed, but I was so tired / Who would think you’d find a bobby pin?”)

The sold-out crowd followed Reed through his back pages without hesitation, though it was probably the incendiary chemistry of the band — featuring lead guitarist Steve Hunter, reunited with Reed from the 1973 “Berlin” album, along with longtime members Mike Rathke, Tony “Thunder” Smith, and Rob Wasserman — on numbers like “Ecstacy” and “Video Violence” that moved them. Reed rescued two from his fascinatingly clunky The Raven, adapted from/inspired by Poe: “I Wanna Know” felt unintentionally comic with drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith filling in for the Blind Boys of Alabama (not a task to be wished upon anyone), but “Guardian Angel” had the wrecked beauty of Reed’s best material.

The main-set finale was an apocalyptic “Magic and Loss,” Reed’s title cut from an album that chronicles two of his friends’ slow deaths from cancer. (Rock on, Washington DC!) “There’s a bit magic in everything,” goes one lyric, “then some loss to even things out.” That sounds about right.

A slightly shorter version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.
NPR recorded this show for webcast pending Lou’s approval; they’re still waiting on that as of yesterday. Check their blog for some amusing stuff about how Lou kept them scrambling to find the right gear to capture the show to his exacting specifications.

Lou Reed at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Setlist

01 Mad

02 Sweet Jane

03 I’m Set Free

04 Ecstasy

05 I’m Sticking with You

06 [new one w/ some refrain about “the power of the heart,” Lou said it was new but didn’t give a title]

07 I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum)

08 Halloween Parade

09 Video Violence

10 Guardian Angel

11 Magic and Loss (The Summation)

ENCORE:

12 Perfect Day

The Band

Steve Hunter – lead guitar

Mike Rathke – guitar

Rob Wasserman – upright bass

Kevin Hearn – keyboards, vocals

Tony “Thunder” Smith – percussion, vocals

Seth Calhoun – “live electronics”

Lou – lead vocals, guitar

UPDATE: Excepted from the April 29 edition of WashPo pop critic J. Freedom du Lac’s “Freedom Rock” webchat:

Mt. Pleasant, D.C.: Please, please tell Post writers and all the critics you know to stop using phrases like “the unofficial poet laureate of New York City” to describe Lou Reed, because he apparently reads these reviews, takes them to heart and then decides 75 minutes of rambling, mid-tempo pretense constitutes a good show. Sure “naked, frank introspection” is a good thing, but it’s not enough to make up for high school literary magazine-quality lyrics and a kind of ostentatious lack of enthusiasm from the guy. I disagree with your colleague Chris Klimek the words sounded “insufferably weak” even from the mouth of The Great Man. I mean, he’s a legend, he can do what he wants, and no one needs to hear “Walk on the Wild Side”� again. But a little energy and a little wit to balance the ballads would have made for a show that was actually worth watching.

J. Freedom du Lac: Duly noted — and possibly/probably something Chris will respond to if he’s reading in real-time, or something close to it.

Everybody knows (or should know) that rock’s real poet laureate of NYC is actually Patti Smith.

But I thought the show was pretty solid. Not great, but absolutely worth watching, even if he did half-arse his way through some of the material, “Sweet Jane” especially. Maybe he was just tired after his weekend wedding.

Why Do You Talk? (Being a Short Conversation with Lou Reed.)

Tomorrow’s Paper of Record features my “Conversations” interview with the great Lou Reed. I’ll also be covering his 9:30 next week. I saw him play there in, I think, August of 1998, and it stands out in my memory as one of the ten or so most exciting concert experiences of my life. I remember that he opened with “Dorita,” that short instrumental prologue to the Magic & Loss album, then went straight into “Sweet Jane” from that. The first encore number was “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”

And that’s, um, pretty much all I remember about the setlist. But I was there with Mac and Shark, and a good time was had by all.

Media Mix V: The Final Frontier

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IN THIS ISSUE: My pithy assessments of the B-52s first album of new material since 1992, plus the Waco Bros.’s long-overdue live album.  Wish they’d come play ’round these parts.

Media, Mix’d, Red’x with a Vengeance

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Presidents of the United States of America founding frontman/songwriter Chris Ballew is in his 40s now and out to prove the joke is still funny. Dave Insley lives on the road but hangs his hat in Austin. Reviewed in today’s Paper of Record!

They’re Bringing Waxy Back!

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Huh. I’ve actually spent time trying to hear the difference among 256-kbps AAC files vs. 128-kbps AAC vs. 200-ish kbps LAME-encoded MP3. Meanwhile, those vinyl-loving luddites are fortifying their positions. Or so I hear.

My review of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s marvelous Friday-night show at the Birchmere with the Whites got held for a day, but it’s in today’s Paper of Record.

Santa’s Big Olde Bag, opened

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

Prologue: This is Christmas music! The first voice you hear is that of De’voreaux White as Argyle, the poontang-loving young limo driver who spent a memorable late-80s Christmas Eve locked in the parking garage beneath “Nakatomi Plaza” (actually the 20th Century Fox building) in Los Angeles. They made a movie about it, and that film is universally hailed as the greatest Christmas movie of all time. It’s called Under Siege. No, wait, it was Passenger 57. Um, Sudden Death? No, no, only kidding, merry-makers. It’s Die Hard, the once and future king of action pics.Once can only hope that IMDB is not an accurate reflection of De’voreaux’s recent career: His last screen credit is from eight years ago, in Shadow Hours. In the role of “Second Tranvestite.” Hey, remember when Ray Charles shot at a very young De’voreaux when he tried to pinch a guitar from Ray’s music shop in The Blues Brothers? That was awesome.

Santa’s Got a Big Old Bag. (The Bellrays, 2005) – Yep, Lisa Kekaula, that mic is on.

Ding! Dong! Death! (May Be Your Santa Claus!) (Sufjan Stevens, 2003; preacher recording found by Andy Cirzan, origin unknown) – A mash-up, albeit a very primitive one, of my own design. I started out with like, half-a-dozen pieces culled from Sufjan’s remarkable set of five Christmas EPs recorded each December from 2001 through 2005, and in June 2006. The latter is the one that includes “Christmas in July,” as well as “Jupiter Winter,” “Sister Winter,” and “The Winter Solstice,” most of each stand out as notably depressing even among this, whose five volumes comprise one of the most muted Christmas albums ever. Thanks for bringing us all down, Sufjan.

Save the Overtime (For Me). (Dees, Gallo, Knight, Knight, Schwarzenegger, 1983) – Surely the best of the Governator’s collaborations with Gladys Knight and the Pips. Squats are an excellent exercise.

I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You. (Margo Guryan, date unknown) – She’s a creepy broad, ain’t she? But tuneful.

Brian Wilson Reveals All. Behold the startingly revelatory, probingly incisive, revealingly probing, piercingly insightful secrets of Wilson’s creative process explicated here. Josh du Lac got some good stuff out of Wilson a few weeks back, like the fact that Phil Spector is “Zany!”

Melekalikimaka. (Al Jardine, Mike Love, 1974) – “’Melekalikimaka’ is ‘Merry Christmas’ in Hawaii talk-a.’” This kind of thing, really, is what this compilation is all about. A powerful argument that Jardine and Love were the real brain trust behind the Beach Boys.

Pearl Harbor Didn’t Work Out, So . . . (Steven E. DeSouza & Jeb Stuart, 1987) – I had a film studies textbook in college that claimed Die Hard was subtly, or perhaps unsubtly, racist, sexist, xenophobic and every other damn thing, just because it’s about a heroic white Reagan-voter who takes down a crew of slumming Royal Shakespeare Company types, including ballerina Alexander Gudanov and some American guy who looks eerily like Huey Lewis. The film supposedly espouses contempt for invading Japanese conglomerates, professional women who eschew their spouses’ last names (lots of stuff about that Rolex on Holly McClane/Gennaro’s wrist that Hans Gruber is hanging on at the end of the movie) and relegates not one but two black actors to sidekick roles. What an awesome movie.

Daddy Won’t Be Home Again for Christmas. (Merle Haggard, 1973) – This just in: Hag’s a shitty father. No clue here what’s keeping him away. Not prison, since he can write that “little check” that he’s hoping, puzzlingly, “will fit.” Is “forget” a really hard word to rhyme?

Sleazy Con Men in Red Suits. (Randy Kornfield) – Jingle All the Way is remembered as an epic, cautionary failure, but which I submit to you is not even among the five worst films released in 1996. Freed from its distracting visuals, the film’s audio, tastefully excerpted here, reveals a surprising profundity and even grace. Well played, Randy Kornfield, well played.

Christmas Present Blues. (Jimmy Webb, ?) – My prose is not worthy.

Snokenstein. (?) – The first of many, many treasures here that I appropriated from Andy Cirzan’s bizarro Christmas compilations as featured each year on Sound Opinions. Andy is on the show again this weekend, and I fully expect him to bring plenty of obscure wonders and oddities that you can bet will show up on my compilation next year.

A Great Big Sled. (Brandon Flowers, 2006) – Nobody will ever accuse Flowers of being a great lyricist, but I would have been delighted to have penned the line “little boys have action toys for brains” myself. I’m living proof it can last a long time. Way better than anything on Sam’s Town, the lyrically-impaired Killers album released a couple months prior to this.

The Ultimate Stretch. (Journey feat. Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger) – I just love hearing The Terminator talk over that opening vamp of “Don’t Stop Believing.” I guess we’ll never know whether Tony Soprano finished all 30 of the pushups.

Reindeer Roll Call. (Kornfield) – Listen to how Arnold is just mercilessly taunting Sinbad as he outruns him. “I’m having a good time now,’bye!” If you’ve seen Pumping Iron, then you know that workaholic salesman Howard Langston is probably the role truest to Arnold’s real-life personality, especially once his competitive juices get flowing. Jingle All the Way really does require repeat viewings to fully absorb its many insights into the Gubernatorial mind.

. . . and many, many more!

Reviews a-plenty!

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Washington Social Club with the Dance Party, Laura Burehnn, and Jukebox the Ghost at 9:30 Club last Saturday, reviewed for the Paper of Record.

Aimee Mann’s 2nd Annual Christmas Show at the Birchmere Monday night, reviewed for DCist.

It’s Irish Genius Week in my Clip File!

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po-faced [poh-feyst] – adjective, Chiefly British. having an overly serious demeanor or attitude; humorless.

And U2 Week in the Style section at the Paper of Record, apparently, what with yesterday’s gushing front-page profile of Bono, my review of the 20th Anniversary reissue of The Joshua Tree in today’s paper. Maybe I’ll post a longer version of that review here. Or maybe I’ll just say “enough is enough” and get on with my life, too much of which has already gone to cutting that thing down to the not-ungenerous length at which it ran. Verily, writing about your sacred cows can be a tricky business.

The other Irish genius of whom I speak would be Samuel Beckett. The National Theatre of Great Britain Production of his 1961 Happy Days starring Fiona Shaw is at the Kennedy Center’s Terrance Theatre for a short run of concluding the day after tomorrow. I reviewed it for DCist. Not exactly light entertainment — for that, there’s A Christmas Carol 1941 at Arena, which I took my parents to the following night; DCist review forthcoming — but, you know, thought-provoking, imaginative, ballsy. Beckettian, I guess.

This Just in: Dude Likes Chick, Chick Music, Ireland

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When the Swell Season — essentially Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Markéta Irglová— played U Street’s beautiful Lincoln Theatre last December, they nearly upstaged headliner Damien Rice. But returning to the Lincoln Sunday night, the Swell Season were deservedly the main attraction, riding a wave from the sleeper hit movie Once, wherein Hansard and Irglová basically play less famous versions of themselves, falling in love (kind of) as they wander Dublin composing songs together.

The movie and the duo’s songs share a bittersweet hue, but Sunday’s concert was purely celebratory. Performing in various configurations — Hansard solo, Hansard/ Irglová duo, and as a five-piece with cellist Bertrand Galen, violinist Marja Tuhkanan, and Frames fiddler Colm MacConlomaire — the ensemble conjured up forceful-yet-intimate readings of songs from the Swell Season’s sole album and the Once soundtrack, Frames favorites, and well-chosen covers of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and, um, Michelle Shocked. (Don’t snicker. The rave-up of Shocked’s “Fogtown” that closed the main set was one of the evening’s highlights.)

But the lovesick ballads featured prominently in Once — “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the title track —drew the biggest cheers from a rapt audience that mostly stayed quiet enough during the performances let these haunting, fragile compositions resonate.

Onstage as onscreen, Hansard and Irglová’s chemistry is palpable. He’s a furry-faced motormouth who can’t introduce a song without revising himself three times; she’s a no-nonsense siren whose voice ends all debate. But whenever Hansard indulged his cutesy tendencies — joining, for example, the already treacly Frames number “Star Star” with “Pure Imagination” from that deathless “Willy Wonka” movie — you knew the 19-year-old Irglová would have the next song, using her “If You Want Me” to pull the 37-year-old Hansard back from the twee abyss.

Truly, theirs is a match made in Heaven. Okay, Ireland. On this night, it was close enough.

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

Go!, Team, Go!

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Filed under “superheroes” because of the guy at Tuesday night’s Go! Team show (which I reviewed for the Paper of Record) with the excellent Flash costume. A disappointingly small number of concertgoers were costumed overall.

Review springs into unmolested action immediamente!

“The time has come for the Go! Team to find out what you Americans are all about!” declared a not-at-all-out-of-breath Ninja, sinewy MC of the Go! Team, late in the (mostly) British hip-pop collective’s 70-minute workout at the 9:30 club Tuesday night. She had already achieved the rare feat of inciting a 9:30 crowd to dance; what more could she want? A: More, faster, wilder dancing. Many in attendance seemed to have flowed over from the High Heeled Race on 17th Street, contributing to the gig’s carnivalesque atmosphere.

But the surreal vibe came mostly from the music, an ever-accelerating aural motion blur that piled sextuple-dutch loops of playground chants atop 70s cop-movie horns (played on keyboards), and layered that over traditional rock-combo instrumentation, with the odd recorder or banjo thrown into the mix.

The Go-mandatory-exclaimaition-point-Team’s six-strong, multi-national touring lineup must be exactly what founder Ian Parton was imagining as he Pro-Tooled together their debut album, “Thunder Lightning Strike,” in his Brighton bedroom a few years ago: Two drummers, two guitarists, a bassist, all swapping instruments periodically just, you know, because. He couldn’t have banked on finding a frontwoman like Ninja — essentially Angela Bassett-as-Tina Turner-as-high school gym coach. (Bassett, we say, because she can’t sing like Tina, but she sure can shout.) Parton seems to relish his man-behind-the-curtain role: Onstage, he ceded the spotlight to Ninja and Japanese guitarist-vocalist Kaori Tsuchida, surely for the best.

As with the group’s two albums, the show offered up the musical equivalent of Pixy Stix, sweet but insubstantial. By the closing one-two punch of “Doing It Right” and “Titantic Vandalism,” Halloween had arrived, granting us all license to make a meal of the candy we’d been served. Fun, sticky stuff, but once a year is plenty.

The Rhetorical Conquests of Josh Ritter

josh-studio1-5x7.jpgJosh Ritter went to Oberlin,so he knows he’s wearing Tom Wolfe’s suit in this photo by Ray Gordon.

Here’s my complete interview with Josh Ritter, an abridged version of which appears on DCist today. This version includes the bit referenced in the intro vis-a-vis “shooting your colleague in the face, Dick Cheney-style,” which is gone from the DCist version though the intro reference remains. I’ll have a review of his performance at the 9:30 Club tonight in Thursday’s Paper of Record.

Versatile instrument, the piano. The primarily guitar-based P.J. Harvey turns to it to help her write an album of sober, somber chamber music, while the Idaho-bred, Oberlin-educated, equally guitar-centric Josh Ritter uses it to help him loosen up. At least that was the way he made The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, his fifth album since 2000, but his first since 2006’s The Animal Years elevated him from being just another huge-in-Ireland singer-songwriter to someone critics could compare to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen without anyone laughing at them. (Horrormeister and weekend rock-critic Stephen King called The Animal Years the best album of 2006, for whatever that’s worth.)

To help him shake off what he felt was the air of studied precision that made The Animal Years a near-masterpiece, Ritter completely upended his compositional approach, writing melodies before he wrote lyrics — and writing them on the piano, an instrument he says he could barely play at the start of the sessions. Acclaim for the resulting album has once again been almost unanimous, allowing Ritter to continue his ascendancy despite the hiccup of his former record label, V2, which collapsed earlier this year.

Ritter kicked off a fall tour last week that stops at the 9:30 Club tonight. I caught up with him by phone in Westport, CT over the weekend to talk about comparisons to rock and roll royalty, the delicate work of sequencing an album, work habits, castrato singers, and the inspiration that can come from shooting your colleague in the face, Cheney-style.

Chris Klimek: You’re four shows into the tour now. How’s it going so far?

Josh Ritter: Everything is great. We really hit our stride in the last couple of days. You always have to put your foot in the water and try it out, and then you jump in. Last night [in Somverville, Mass.] was phenomenal. I had a great time. It was one of those ones where you play and you can sleep like the dead for about ten hours afterwards. It was fantastic.

CK: The last time you came to town [in January], you played two solo acoustic shows at the Birchmere, a seated venue. Now you’re on the road with a band, and you’re playing the 9:30 Club, which is all-standing. So we should expect a more raucous show?

Josh Ritter: Yeah! I feel lucky to be able to do both. I definitely believe that whatever songs you write should be able to stand on their own without anything else. I think that’s important. That’s how I grew up learning songs: taking them back to the basics. It’s such a pleasure, and I think it reflects the eclectic spirit of the record, to just show up and cut the tethers. I really love that feeling, and I haven’t fully experienced before, of having the songs to work with, and just blast away. I’m loving it. It’s really a terrific time.

CK: You’ve talked about how your approach to writing this album was less studied than the way you made The Animal Years and some of the earlier records. Is that more freewheeling method reflecting in the way you’re playing the songs live now?

JR: Yeah! I hope that comes across. Writing this record was such a new experience. I needed to do it the way I did. I think a lot of time you’re casting around for new ways to write about things. I found one this time that really worked well for me for the time and place. I really needed to not make The Animal Years again. That was important to me. I didn’t want to dilute the message of it by, like, restating it. I feel like there are so many people out there just bludgeoning away at the same stuff we already know, and that was starting to annoy me. I wanted to make a record that was totally different. I kind of wrote the songs in the studio. I played piano. I did everything I could to make it as loose and unstudied as possible.

CK: A lot of writers have compared you to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and obviously that’s not meant as an insult. But does it annoy you to be likened so frequently to artists who arguably had their greatest cultural impact 40 and 30 years ago, respectively — even if they are both geniuses?

JR: I never really think about it too much. I guess I got so used to that kind of stuff. If it helps people get into [my music], then it’s fine. I guess what keeps me feeling good about all that stuff is that none of those people wrote my songs, which is cool. I wear my influences on my sleeve. I’m proud of the people whose footsteps I’m in, and my contemporaries are in. Those guys are dinosaurs, and they’re still walking the Earth! It’s amazing. It’s amazing to see somebody who’s like, 65 or 66 [Bob Dylan is 66], making records that are still funny and still have this hop in their step. Springsteen is 58. They furnish an example for making music for your whole life. I think that’s cool. It doesn’t bother me. I get a little bit more peeved being talked about as a mellow folk crooner. That’s the stuff that bugs me!

CK: And this is a lifetime occupation for you, right? You want to be up there at 65.

JR: Definitely. I’ll die onstage if I have to.

CK: Let’s talk about the record a little bit. First of all, that title: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Is that a sly reference to what all this weighty stuff the critics are larding on to you after the last record, about its importance? I know you said that choosing a more freewheeling writing process for this record had a bit to do with shrugging some of that off . . .

JR: Yeah, I wanted a title that was so enormous and heady and egotistical to such a huge degree it couldn’t be taken seriously at all. And people were saying, “Be careful, some people might take this seriously and think you’re just an asshole.” And if anybody does, I think that’s kinda funny, too, because I think that’s the last thing that had to happen to make sure the record was the way it was: sticking to the absolute absurdity of the title. But I think it was fun to try it.2007_1008_joshritteralbum-c.jpg

CK: That cover image of the Roman soldier’s helmet is really funny.

JR: That was the one outtake of a big group of pictures of me in fencing gear. And it all looks so hilarious, but it just didn’t look quite as badass.

CK: This album plays like a vinyl LP in that it has a definite A-side and a B-side. For example, what would be Side B on a vinyl record begins and ends with different versions of “Wait for Love.” I take that was something that you did intentionally?

JR: Yeah. I like records. The two records I’ve done on my own, Golden Age and Historical Conquests, I’ve designed like [vinyl] records. I think track listing is really important. It’s like a show. You want the dynamic range to be there. I don’t trust records where you can go three songs in and that’s pretty much the whole record and the rest is like a long tale. Your should save some surprises for the end, which is why I like to have a little instrumental piece in the middle. Stuff like that is fun. I wasn’t raised on records, I just like the way they fit together like that. It feels like the right amount of time. 44 minutes is the right amount to listen to a record. After that it’s a diminishing margin of return.

CK: We’re in a time when downloading is supplanting CDs as the dominant format for delivering music, but for a while there, at the height of the CD era, it seems like an album was suddenly thought of as an hour or more of music, regardless of whether the artist had an hour of worthy material.

JR: Totally. One of my favorite records I had when I was temp working and just getting started was Either/Or, the Elliot Smith record. That record is, like 35, minutes long. It’s so short you just have to put it on again right afterwards, which I think is really cool.
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CK: So you’ve sort of already answered my question as to why you split off those four tracks into a separate EP that’s packaged with Historical Conquests . . .

JR: Well there’s a lot more of that stuff, too. It takes me about five days of a schedule of a certain to really start writing, for my ideas to really coalesce. And once that five days is up you just have to write; you can’t pick and choose what you write about. You just have to write it all down. So some songs come out and they’re not really what you’re looking for, but you continue writing them because they might lead you to a different song. They might give you a different idea.

Some of [the songs on the EP] just didn’t quite fit so well on the record, or they were good enough to be on the record but they would fit superfluously on it. So I just kinda wanted to add little things. I’m playing them in shows. I feel like you can add an extra 30 seconds and it can be too much, you know? That’s the only part on this record where I feel we got really anal is on making sure the track listing was right. Once you have the stuff you want you put it in a setting and you really want it to show it off. You want it to really shine, you know?

CK: So you wanted it to be as loose as possible when you were writing it but when it came to editing and sequencing the record you were much more disciplined about that.

JR: Definitely. And after you listen to a song 50 times you stop thinking about it like it’s music.

CK: I love that song “Wildfires” that’s on the EP. I thought, “I hope he’s not burying this.”

JR: Thanks! I was really proud of that one. It felt like an Animal Years song to me but it kinda came out. I haven’t played it yet in shows but that’s one that I’m gonna be working on pretty soon.

CK: You’ve already spoken on how you didn’t want to repeat yourself….

JR: Yeah I feel that really adds something to it. I was really proud of that one and in the end. There was that one or “overnight” the only one I was pretty sure wasn’t going to go on the record was a song that not on [th EP]. It’s about a deputy sheriff who helps a bunch of bordello girls escape and they move to San Francisco. It really just didn’t work on the rest of the record. [Laughs.]

CK: Maybe you’ll work that one out in time for the next one.

JR: We had sound effects and everything for that one. It was great. [Laughs.]

CK: It’s gonna be your Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

JR: Totally! Yeah, yeah. While drinking white wine spritzers.

CK: Not to dwell on the EP too much, but I did want to ask you about that little 37 second thing, “Spot in My Heart.” I haven’t been able to figure out who that man is on the recording talking about the actress he met. I don’t know, I always pay attention when that one comes on. Could you tell me the story with that?

JR: Well at the house where we were recording we had a bunch of tape recorders and a lot of little disposable cameras around. Because at certain points there would be 15 or 16 people around all at once, and everybody is kinda messing around. And there’s nothing to do. It’s winter time. We were looking for stuff to do. There’s no internet or anything like that. So lots of people were just recording one another. Walking in and expecting adlib and everybody got really into it. We also recorded people getting shot by bee bee guns. What is in between “Long distance” and “next to the last”, that’s my producer getting shot in the face with a bb gun [Laughs]. So [“Spot in My Heart”] is just somebody coming in while I’m in the shower and saying “Famous actress. Go!” I’d just been reading that story “Heart of a Dog” by [Mikhail] Bulgakov. I was just riffing a little bit. I wish I knew a famous actress from the 70s, but I don’t. I was thinking of a Diane Keaton type.

CK: So if the plane ever goes down the rest of that stuff will all come out on the box set.

JR: Yeah! Hopefully. (Laughs.)

CK: So what are you listening to these days? What’s the last album you bought for yourself?

JR: Well, I just got Magic but I haven’t listened to it yet.

CK: The new Springsteen album?

JR: Yeah. You know, I’m really into this guy Alfred Deller. He has these really early English love songs. Like songs of chivalry. He was I think around in the 40s. I don’t know much about him. But he sang the castrato style. So he has this really high voice, and the songs are just really plain and there’s just a little bit of instrumentation behind. They walk between classical and very old folk music. It’s really beautiful shit. I’m really into the sound. I just got a bit of Nina Simone. It seems like a lot of her stuff is on compilations. So I buy ‘em whenever I find some new songs. I feel like I’m listening to a lot of people’s voices right now and less to the words. More to just the sounds and the empty space. You know, there’s so much empty space in the old English stuff . It’s beautiful.

CK: You played Carnegie Hall back in April at that charity tribute to Bruce [Springsteen], and you chose one of my favorite songs of his, “The River,” to perform. Why did you pick that one, and how did it feel to play it?2007_1009_theriver.jpg

JR: That was one I really wanted to do. I was really sort of torn between so many songs because, I mean, what would you sing? At Carnegie Hall? And Bruce? I asked a friend of mine for help, and he sent me this list of, like, a hundred songs. I picked “The River” because it just seemed like a perfect song about everything in life. I first heard it when I was in high school. And it just made so much sense then. I didn’t know much Bruce, but I had a mix tape with all kinds of stuff on it. So I asked for “Ther River,” and they said, “Look, Jewel’s got it.” Jewel had chosen thirty songs and, she was trying to decide what she wanted to do. I figured I’d just do it anyway. She didn’t show, and I got to it. It was great. I was very proud. It was a bizarre experience: I was sharing a dressing room with The Hold Steady, and I was just about to go on, and Patti Smith was there because she was going on after. And Springsteen shows up backstage, right before I go on, and tells me he likes my record. Everything about that moment was the reason why you play music. I don’t feel like I need to meet my heroes. It’s better if they’re off doing their thing. But that meant a lot to me.

CK: Is the thought of other artists covering your songs something that appeals to you?

JR: Oh yeah! That’s like the ultimate compliment. If somebody likes singing your songs, whether they do it good or bad, I think that’s just really awesome.

CK: You’ve been working at a pretty good clip since you started. [Historical Conquests] is the fifth album in eight years. Especially considering you’re last record label went under just as Animal Years was starting to get a lot of attention. Do you have a work ethic that you’re conscious of or do you just write when you feel inspired?

JR: When something really hits me I write it down. On the road I think of myself as a cup and the experiences, all the stuff and the language that creates a new record gets poured in. And it just sits there but then over time it builds up and starts to overflow and that’s the time when the songs start to come. In terms of work habits on the road I try to stay as healthy as possible. So I can really put it all into the show. I feel like you’re squeezing the same sponge for performing and writing and there’s only so much emotion you can give and mental energy you can expend at a time. I used to beat myself up about not writing on the road but I don’t anymore. I think my idea of what constitutes writing has changed. I feel like the writing is important to do…but just by gathering experiences that will all turn into writing. And then when I’m home and I really start to write I really make it a thing. I get up at 8 and write for a couple of hours and just fiddle around with coffee and stuff and then I go have some lunch and whatever business stuff needs to be done. And then I go out for a run and work it all out. Make dinner, watch a movie and then write some more at night.

CK: Sounds like a pretty debauched rock and roll lifestyle. You never throw a TV out the window or drive a limo into the hotel pool?

JR: The first five days it’s just not fun to be around me. I’m preoccupied and down and wondering why nothing I write is original anymore and all that sort of stuff and then once it starts happening, I’m over the moon.

CK: So when you’re out there playing are you a make a setlist and stick to it kind of guy or do you like to mix it up and see what the crowd is reacting to?

JR: I make setlists but we change it every night. Sometimes there are moments I just want to keep having over and over again. Other times I can feel what the audience or I need and call an audible. But I think Consistency in shows is important. I don’t like watching people fall apart on stage. Some people like that. Seeing someone lose themselves, not in the music, but that just doesn’t appeal to me. So one thing is important is the set-list. Know how you’re gonna start and how you’re going to end. The stuff in the middle you can move around all you want but just have an idea of where you’re going. I know it’s not very rock but that’s me.

CK: But that’s consistent with your having a structured workday. You talked about, and even wrote a song about, your label, V2, going under. You’ve talked about wanting this to be a lifetime career and this being a sort of uncertain time. Any thoughts about longevity and financial survival? This is kind of a shaky time for the record business.

JR: I think it’s important to have something you’re working towards. Those goals are important, family . . . That’s something I want. And I’m not gonna be on the road like this all the time. My goal is to have what everybody else has.

I also feel like chasing around the idea of what a music career has been is also a folly. The music career that somebody like Springsteen has had couldn’t exist now. It’s just not the same for lot’s of reasons but trying to recreate a dream like that is just not possible. It will be different for me than it was for somebody in the 60’s or 70’s and I think that’s something to feel good about but at the same time even with the way the record business is I still feel like I’m the lucky one because I can still write music, I’ve got songs and I can always perform. Who knows what’s happening with record labels. You hear all the time about people who can’t go out on the road because their record label went bust. I feel bad for them but I also feel if you want to do it you’ll do it for yourself. That’s always the way its worked. If you’re born with the fresh water spring on your land then you’re pretty lucky.

CK: I really appreciate you doing this. I’m excited about the show. I actually didn’t get to see you at the Birchmere last winter so I’m really excited about this one.

JR: Oh, it’s gonna be awesome, Man! We’re gonna have horns, so I’m psyched about that.

Catch as Catch-All Can

2007_1001_jonlangford.jpgJon Langford is a much more jovial and approachable cat than he appears in this photo.

Well, once again I’ve done a bang-up job of keeping you, my adoring public, up-to-date on the latest additions to my ever-swelling bibliography.

It’s already been a week since I reviewed that good-but-not-quite great Rilo Kiley show for DCist. I heard night two was better. Jenny Lewis, I am sad to report, while plenty toothsome, is not quite as fetching in real life as she appears in this photo. She sounded great, though

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My interview with original mekon, Waco Brother, Pine Valley Cosmonaut and Waco Brother Jon Langford appeared on Monday. It got cut down a bit from its original, arguably more self-aggrandizing incarnation, so I may post the unabridged version here. The mekons show at Jammin’ Java that night was just swell; 11o or so minutes of mostly-acoustic mekes, including a big batch from the new Natural LP as well as reworked classics like “Hard to Be Human Again,” “The Curse,” a Sally Timms-sung version of “The Letter,” and “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem.” Langford signed my copy of Nashville Radio for me afterwards.

p-j-harvey.jpgMy so-so review of P.J. Harvey’s White Chalk ran Tuesday in the Paper of Record. I seem to be breaking with the critical cognoscenti on this one; nearly everyone else loves it. I think it’s, you know, good for when you’re a certain type of mood. Solitary. Despondent. Sylvia Plath. I try not to spend a lot of my life in that mood.

That afternoon, I got some nice props from a reader (and from J. Freedom du Lac his own bad, bald self) during the Freedom Rock web-chat — about my Elvis Costello review from four-plus months ago! It reads like I planted it myself; check it out. (For the record, I didn’t join the chat until later, to make the case for Tunnel of Love being as strong a Bruce Springsteen album as Born to Run or Nebraska.)
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And my Bat Boy review is up today.

Tomorrow I’m talking to Josh Ritter. Watch this space for out-of-date announcements!

Column Itches

Today’s Paper of Record features my review of nu-Sinatra Michael Bublé’s surprisingly groovy show at the Patriot Center Saturday night. Or, if you’ve got some time on your hands, you can read my original version, which, I am reliably informed, weighed in at a mighty two dozen column inches. Oops.Take it away, Fellas!

Gentlemen, your attention, please: You won’t want to hear this, but it’s okay if you don’t hate Michael Bublé. Yes, your wife and/or girlfriend has had at least one of his CDs on repeat since his self-titled debut became a hit in 2003. Yes, your mother calls every time he shows up on “The Today Show.” But on the evidence of his glitzy revue at the Patriot Center Saturday night, he’s after your vote, too, fellas! And thanks to his self-deprecating, consciously Rat Pack-y stage persona, he probably deserves it.

Case in point: Greeting the people of “Virgin-yah,” he said he knew the correct pronunciation, but would stick with his because it sounded more like “a mystical fantasy country I want to go to.” After a rendition of “Fever” that was, well, feverish, he expressed his “sincere appreciation for you, my fans — you should see the house I just bought!” Badda-bing!

Resplendent in a black suit, tie loosened just-so, the 31-year-old Canuck’s evocation of the Chairman, God rest his blued-eyed soul, stopped just shy of punctuating his sentences with, “And you can take that to the bank, Buster!”

The standards-heavy setlist was mostly a series of big-band valentines to the ladies who squealed every time he narrowed his eyes in their direction. The dude may more resemble “Footloose”-era Chris Penn than “Footloose”-era Kevin Bacon, but with charisma like he’s got, the ladies would melt even if he looked like Tom Petty.

Oh, and he can sing a little, too.

Actually, he can sing a ton. It’s rare in this era of “American Idol” bathos to hear a vocalist whose got the range, the control, the — how you say? — chops to pull off the histrionic flourishes Buble deployed early and often during the 95-minute concert. His Shatneresque closed-fist gesticulating looked silly during his opener, Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” because he hadn’t shown yet that he had the pipes to live up to the hype. By the end of the song, nobody was laughing. Not at him, anyway. He makes it look easy, and makes it sound — oh, how it burns to admit this! — spectacular.

Not that the ladies in the house necessarily noticed. Based on the frequent interruptions of “We love you, Michael!,” they appeared to have come more to bask in the star wattage than to listen to him sing.

He didn’t discourage this behavior: When he asked a pair of girls in the front row their ages, and they responded seven and ten, he shot back, “There are pictures of me on the Internet I hope you never see!” Sensing that his hearts and minds campaign was in need of emergency course-correction, he leapt into the audience to pose for snapshots with the girls. Camera-wielding fans immediately surrounded him. He’d broken away when a fortyish woman fairly attacked him, throwing her arms — and other limbs — around his body while her husband (?) clicked away. A beefy security man hovered nearby, but apparently never got the kill sign. When Bublé finally crawled back to the microphone, he quipped, “Virgin-yah my ass.”

At $68 and $88, tickets weren’t cheap, but you could see where the money went. A 13-piece band backed the star, and the raked stage used four vertical projection panels to achive the impossible, turning the charmless, acoustically-frigid bunker that is the Patriot Center into something approximating the Sands Hotel.

About that band: Marvelous! Early on, Bublé turned the spotlight over to them. Feigning jealousy at the rapturous response their hot-jazz instrumental got, he sulked offstage. Trombonist Nick Vayenas leapt up for a hilarious monologue about what an insecure diva his boss is, complete with a too-brief impression of Buble’s jerky dance style. Only when Vayenas began to howl “Try a Little Tenderness” did Buble return.

Further hilarity ensued when the star, pledging to “take this to a manlier level,” gave a quick-but-great unplugged version of Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” with the moves Ed Sullivan wouldn’t broadcast. Buble called for the men in the house to asset their authority (“She might have dragged you here, but you are nobody’s bitch!”) just as the band kicked into “YMCA.” He struggled through a few choruses before admitting, “I’m glad I don’t know all the words to this.”

The only lull came when Bublé interrupted the parade of lounge favorites for a pair of tunes he co-wrote with pianist Alan Chang, “Home” and “Everything.” Both sounded ersatz amid all the warhorses, despite (or probably because of) the fact both were No. 1 Adult Contemporary hits.

“That’s Life,” featuring a ten-voice gospel choir, closed the set proper. For his encore, Buble ripped through “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and repeated his seemingly-heartfelt thanks, minus the Krusty-the-Klown-styled line about the new house, before saying goodnight with Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.”

It was a classy, brassy finish to stylish and supremely entertaining evening. The only tacky note was the “MB” logo on the video screens, in lights, and on the back of the music stands. Yo, Mikey! You don’t need to put your name all over the stage. You already showed us who owns it.

My 15 minutes have arrived.

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Dig this. I’m famous.

Well, no. But it’s nice to get some props from the esteemed Mr. J. Freedom du Lac. Even if he doesn’t understand my enduring love for The Avengers, the greatest television show of all time.

Can’t talk. Writing.

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Been busy this week covering the Capital Fringe Festival, which closes tonight. Miss Crooks’s show, Love & War with the Bard’s Broads and Dames, was an unqualified success, I’d have to say, even though the sound cues were way off in the choreography-heavy “The Juliet Letters” half of the show on the night that the City Paper’s Glen Wheldon happened to be there. (His review was mixed-positive — and Miss Crooks is complimented by name on her acting — but shoulda-coulda-woulda been a home run.)

My posts about various Fringe haps are here, here, and here. But I’m most pleased by this one.

Heathens!

You can ask for only so much of a single night, but sometimes it’ll give you more all the same: Last night Miss Crooks’s Love & War opened at Touchstone Gallery. It was a great house with lots of friends and lots of friendly strangers present, and for all Miss Crooks’s angst, the show came off splendidly despite a few minor opening-night technical gaffes.

I hopped in a cab right after to get to the 9:30 Club, arriving in time to find my friends and grab a Stella before Drive-by Truckers took the stage at around 10:40 p.m. My DCist review is here, oh Gentle Reader.

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“Stroker Ace” Mike Cooley, Rock and Roll Star

THE DIRT UNDERNEATH (sit-down, acoustic)

1 Heathens
2 Love Like This
3 Nine Bullets
4 (Mike Cooley song I didn’t recognize; probably new)
5 (Patterson Hood song; ditto)
6 Space City
7 The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town
8 Lisa’s Birthday (a new Cooley — I think he said that’s the title)

INTERMISSION

THE ROCK SHOW

9 Puttin’ People on the Moon
10 (Unknown Cooley song)
11 The Living Bubba
12 Gravity’s Gone
13 Road Cases
14 Where the Devil Don’t Stay
15 Ronnie and Neil
16 Guitar Man Upstairs
17 Lookout Mountain
18 Checkout Time in Vegas (new Mike Cooley ballad)
19 (Patterson Hood song)
20 Women without Whiskey
21 Let There Be Rock

ENCORE

22 A World of Hurt
23 Zip City
24 Buttholeville / State Trooper (Springsteen cover!)
25 People Who Died