Embarrassing Concert Story number 1:
The only permanent bruise I have from a most pit I got at one of my first general admission shows. I don’t brag about it more often because it was a Mighty Mighty Bostones/Less Than Jake double bill.
Embarrassing Concert Story number 2:
Before my second Weakerthans concert I saw John K Samson sitting outside the knitting factory. I sheepishly (read: voice cracking with each syllable) asked him if he wanted to go get Indian food before the set. When he politely said no, all I could think of to say, was “good luck.” I can’t tell which of the two of us was more embarrassed.
Embarassing Concert Story number 3:
I saw a band called The Metal Heart open up for Langhorne Slim and Murder By Death last year, and then, when I got outside, proceded to call them the mental farts in ears reach of their drummer who, thankfully, cracked up and didn’t realize I was actually trying to insult his band.
With those three pieces of context, here’s my best concerts of ’07 list. Next up are biggest dissapointments of ’07, best albums of ’07, and, if I have time, musical discoveries of ’07.
Jennifer O’Connor (Maxwells, Hoboken, January 5th)
Jennifer O’Connor’s music is twenty five kinds of waiting. Waiting for loved ones to say lovely words to brighten days, Waiting for the dead to send back messages, waiting for highway exits to get to zero so you can mark another state off on wherever you keep a list of of such things. So much waiting that her song “Century Estates” off her album Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars, the song where she actually leaves, gets up and leaves, feels triumphant and almost uncharacteristic. And my winter break of last year had been waiting after waiting after waiting. O’Connor doesn’t have a great voice, it’s almost a speaking voice, and I was really only there because I needed to not be at home and not be thinking about stuff for the few days before I left for Prague. And Jennifer and her great backing band gave me the opposite of an easy escape, they built up all the silence and shitty movies and attempts at finding some kind of old highschool charm in one of the ten diners i went to that had filled the last 3 weeks and made my feet scream GET OUT. She played for about as long as I could take, probably about an hour. I don’t mean it to sounds like a condemnation, but the show that night compounded every minute of waiting I had done in the previous weeks. And then, I left.
Alejandro Escovedo/Vetiver (Mercury Lounge, New York, August 3rd)
I went to this show with my father, the only person in my family who connects with music as intensely as I do. The show was great, Escovedo packs more energy than someone with his health history should be able to, but mostly what I remember was the smile on my dad’s face.
31 Knots (Klub 007, Prague, May 21st)
Every year I try to make it to at least one show where these is a reasonable chance I could get my least two favorite teeth knocked out of my mouth. This year, it was more of a drunken accident that I ended up at Klub 007, being stuck around Prague after all my friends had left, and already sick of the same kind of newfound hostel kid I had been just 5 months prior. And so I wandered up to strahov and, after getting lost in the absurd shadow of the second biggest arena in the world, and eventually found a basement with ceilings so low it was like they were trying to keep adults out, and a bar that only served warm beer. And 31 knots were already playing, and the crowd, shoved in between the ceiling and floor couldn’t get enough. Neither could I. The band isn’t punk; they’re just too calculated and precise for that, and they’re not math rock ‘cause they seem to be playing for a better reason than shred in 34/12 time. Each of their songs were both absolutely forceful and still tethered in. When they came back for their one song encore, announced it was the last date of the tour and it was the only show they’d played where they had come back for another song, and then lurched into something which had a dance beat and whistles straight out of a 1991 hip hop song, I wasn’t surprised. I was entirely overjoyed.
Neko Case (Summerstage, New York, July 20th)
That day I walked out of my office job because I was just a little bit nauseous with time slips and dreamweaver, and started drinking, an awful lot, almost in every borough of new york. By the time Neko came out on stage, it was mostly night sky around and I felt like the cheap wicker lawnchair that sits behind the recycling and rusts all winter and then finally makes it out for the fourth of july parade. Case came with an extraordinary band, and everything she played from Fox Confessor came out like water in a hot pan. “Star Witness” was a lullaby sung for each person who could hear it, and when she covered “Buckets of Rain,” it didn’t even matter that blood on the tracks should be roped off with caution tape for 99 percent of the artists in the world. Case not only earned the cover she played, she actually made the song her own.
Grizzly Bear/Beach House (Wexner Center, Columbus, October 11th)
I hated Grizzly Bear the same way I hate Radiohead or Roxy Music or Dan Deacon. All of the above are bands who have fans who take it upon themselves to inform you that if you don’t “get it” then you’re either too dumb, too close minded, or hate fun. I understand being passionate about an act, but sometimes shit gets ridiculous. And for me, Grizzly Bear were, more or less, one of those hundred dollar nature sound machines you bought at the Sharper Image. They were too atmospheric, almost bordering on polite sound collage to get me really interested. And seeing them at Pitchfork this summer did nothing but confirm this. Their songs faded into air and not even special guests (oh, there’s another band to add to the list: Deerhunter), could keep me interested.
Shows how much four walls, a floor, and a ceiling can do. The Wexner Center is one of my favorite venues, not because it’s beautiful (it is), or because they consistently book good shows (they do), but because I have never heard a bad sounding show there, and with a band like Grizzly Bear, this is so important to fully enjoying their live show. Not only did I enjoy the show, I finally saw Grizzly Bear as more than a quiet buncha guys from Williamsburg: they came together masterfully as a real rock band. Phenomenal drumming, precise, beautiful strings, and, I swear to god, the best flute I’ve ever heard in rock songs (never was much of a Jethro Tull fan, though), replaced any audience chatter any closing of doors, creaking of stage, or any other noise. I felt absolutely surrounded by sound at the end of their set.
The National/St Vincent (Madison Theater, Covington, September 23rd)
The last time I saw the National, it was at Maxwell’s, and they were opening for Longwave. I wrote the following sentence. “But y’all should check out The National if you want to know what nick cave fronting Interpol playing a new york city version of Americana sounds like.” Lest to say, I was probably in a rush that day, because I remember their set, and it was amazing. Matt Beringer owned the stage. Already about two feet too tall, his voice went from a foreboding worry to a full on throat ripping scream. And the band were right their behind him, exploding and then reforming so many times I wondered how they had the energy to walk off the stage.
But this fall in Kentucky, the National had changed. I won’t say “outgrown,” but maybe even outgrown because the sustained rage they had in that first show destroys. And, in fact, Boxer, the National’s newest album, sounds absolutely decimated. But here the band sounded like they were waking up in the rubble. Sure, Padma Newsome played his violin like he was chipping ice off a windshield, and Beringer couldn’t stand still or look the audience in the eyes for more than a second, but this hometown gig of sorts for the band had them recasting even the saddest song they’ve ever written (“about today” one of the devastating highlights of the Cherrry Tree EP) in a lens of hope. In the original, the drums were hushed and the violin cried out single notes until the bass pulse just took over. When they played it as their encore on a cold night in Northern Kentucky, it was still a song, largely, about walking away. But the way the band played it, it wasn’t about escape. It was about being happy that you were still standing.
Bat For Lashes (Maxwells, Hoboken, July 24th)
I went to this show for just about every bad reason I can think of (Natasha Kahn fawned over by British Music Press. Cheap beer at Maxwell’s on nights I still have to DRIVE HOME. I think they had just canceled The Bridge on NYCTV. I had money to throw away on random shows.) Man, am I glad those bad reasons worked. I walked into the backroom of Maxwell’s and into a haze of opium smoke. A murder had just been committed: a dignitary had gotten too close to a recently completed portrait they had commissioned, and the paint had been poisoned. There was crime sniffing dogs, constables, and lone shoremen crowding a witness box. There were chandeliers and exotic silk from the orient. And then I realized the house band was four absolutely stunning women from England, whose every melody recalled what I think Saturday morning cartoons taught me about London fog, whose half awake but possessed stage presence made them the stuff of demigods. Even when they covered “I’m On Fire” it sounded like something mysterious out of old fleamarket 45s without labels or timestamps. Since then, some of my best moments have been set to harpsichord.
The Thermals (McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn, August 17th)
Absolutely and totally the most fun show I went to this year. Just based on the head banging, arms flailing, ass-out-of-self-making, built to spill covering, three overpriced beers in unrelenting late summer sun heat-ing factors, this thing not only topped the fun scale, it took the fun scale out for graters ice cream and then bought it tickets to a 3D imax movie. Seeing how well the furious punk of their early stuff translated to such a large outdoor audience was at least a little bit astonishing, but more also dance-move-inducing. Ted leo was alright, too.
The Mekons (Lafayette Brewing Company, Lafayette, October 13th)
Sometimes life turns into the scene of the really intense cop drama in its second to last season, when they realize they’ve never given their lead character any family, or even a hometown, and they send him home for a thanksgiving special, and he walks into the bar he used to sneak into as a highschooler, he meets a friend from back then who went on to become the art historian for that part of the state, and another friend who went on to become the local police chief, and the two exchange cop lingo in the background as they cut to the mid show commercial break. So much more than just getting the feeling I got seeing the mekons, the description actually fits the show itself, the most high energy “acoustic” concert I’ve ever borne witness to, the only show I can think of where Bonnie Prince Billy showed up as much of a fan as anyone sitting in the audience, and when he went up to do guest vocals, he stared at the ground in reverence. The band sauntered through their best songs like they were teaching their children to sing. Sally Timms’ voice has never sounded stronger. John Langford is the Keith Richards that Keith Richards is too decomposed to pull off nowadays. I don’t think I will see many more bands in my life as professional and loose as the Mekons were when they played the top floor of a bar in West Lafayette. If they band is doing this wonderfully at 30 years, I can’t wait to see how good they’ll be at 50.
Joe Lally/Zu/Dalek (Premiere Pression, Toulouse, March 27th)
I had spent the entire day prior to this concert worrying my laptop had broken, pleading with a shirtless man behind the counter of the sketchiest money exchange place this side of anywhere to cash my travelers cheques so I could eat something, and being convinced I was going to end up sleeping in a park that night because every hotel in the city was booked for some convention. And not understanding any French.
I went to the show expecting comfort, something that reminded me of home. Like, y’know, listening to Repeater over and over on busrides to school (one of the bands I was in did a pretty enviable version of Merchandise). And I got Joe Lally being a dick, starting songs over two or three times, insulting the crowd and assuming they didn’t speak English (sorry Joe, they did), and playing some of the most boring a-melodic music ever.
I was about to dismiss the night as a bust and head back to the mattress I was overpaying to sleep on when Zu quickly came on. And then I couldn’t hear a thing. Or, more precisely, I couldn’t hear the voices in my head telling me to get out while the ringing was still temporary. Zu played some of the singularly most challenging, raw music I have ever had the pleasure to hear, and they played it with bass, saxophone and drums and nothing else. They only rarely addressed the crowd and their songs had no lyrics (they’re Italian so I wouldn’t’ve gotten them if they had), but Zu had, miraculously for such chaotic music, such harmony with eachother, and such little regard for the taste of the audience. If it sounds like I’m being dismissive, I’m not. I’m sure seeing Dillinger Escape Plan provokes a similar reaction, that they’re pushing you to the point where you walk out the door, but you can’t bring yourself to do it, because there is something both unsettling and beautiful about what you’re being assaulted with. Just when I thought my night was over, they brought on Dalek, who I assumed I would never get to see live, for an encore, and as I crawled back to sleep that night, the entire day had been erased. Along with every single sound I had heard. Yikes.