I keep finding confetti in the strangest of places.
When I undressed last night after the explosion of my first Arcade Fire show, it was a sparkly colorful shower of loosened confetti, festive on my bedroom floor. I suppose this is wont to happen when you are standing right next to a confetti cannon. I had never stood that close to a confetti cannon before, and that overflow of joy was the perfect ending to a perfect show.
When I think of the music of Arcade Fire as an opus, they occupy this vivid and fully-fleshed out scenario in my mind: I see a grey behemoth of a city, unforgiving and unflinching, and their music a silvery-red calescent geyser cracking the cement boulevards and impassive architecture wide open. It’s music that is subversive in its imagination, relentless in its insistence on a measured and salvific whimsy.
The one word that rang out almost audibly for me as I watched them perform (with all the instruments and a blissful overdose of percussion) was that theirs is this music of hope, as overused of a word as that is. A friend of mine is working on creating an invented language based on connotative, metaphorical meanings, and I wish he could take a crack at a word better than “hope,” but that’s all I could think of, in its purest form.
I kept wondering — how have they been doing this live show thing for over a decade and still vibrate that sentiment? It was a dazzlingly cinematic show that for all the deliberate intention never seemed contrived. My finely-honed joy radar was picking up a genuine excitement in their songs, despite Win having been “deathly ill” for the three days prior to the show. I was worried that I’d missed that early window where amazing bands are still amazing live, and I was floored how much that wasn’t the case.
In related news, I am also now thoroughly taken with Régine, as I imagine every sentient human being who has ever seen her perform is. She owns the air all around her, so competently and confidently playing every instrument in a ten yard radius. I love her, I loved last night, I loved singing along to those songs that have meant so much to me with thousands of other people around me. I had a big goofy grin on my face the whole snowy drive home.
There is a skittish, soft part of me that was actually scared to go see The National under a full moon at Red Rocks on Tuesday night.
One of my most charming relational characteristics (#sarcasm) is the way I sometimes slither-sidestep away like a silvery fish from things that are too emotionally intense. Sometimes I dive in; lots of times I dive right in. But when it really, truly disarms me and strikes at my heart in a way I can’t defend against, I will go away and need to be coaxed to come back. I love The National — love them probably more than any other band right now, and have for the last seven years. Their nuanced, elegant, intelligent songwriting has soundtracked my brutally bloody / tragically doomed / completely beautiful first relationship after my divorce, and has been insidiously inside my head like a brain tapeworm ever since, needling and gnawing at nerves and receptors, helping me make sense of the mess. It’s so bizarre, in a way, to feel like you know someone simply because of their artistic output. It’s ridiculously beautiful, actually.
So I was scared to see them Tuesday for these reasons. I wanted to be there, so much, and I knew it might temporarily decimate me. I spent much of the concert quite content in my own untouchable zone; the huge gusts of fresh Indian-summer wind kept lifting my hair up off my neck, and drying the relentless water that just kept streaming down from my eyes. I vacillated between floating mental-miles away and being completely enmeshed in the magnificent and powerful performance of the songs I love. The experience of the music was so enhanced by the massive LED light screen flashing these perfect, complicated images behind them. The visual component was new in this elaborate presentation for all the times I have seen them, and it felt like an extraction of my thoughts and the band’s thoughts and all the dark dreams that populate our subconscious flashing up there for all to see. It was exquisite and disarming. I also kept tilting my head up to look at that bold moon rising over the red rocks with a shining corona around it for the first hour of its ascent.
My friend (and talented photographer) Brittney Bollay saw them play last night in Seattle, and she expressed how I feel, exactly, when I connect with the words of these songs:
“It’s like [Matt] crawls inside my head and my chest and finds all my thoughts and feelings. When I see him perform it’s like I inhabit him and he inhabits me, just for a little while. It’s this feeling of partial displacement and symbiosis. I’ve never had that experience with any other band.”
Take that video above of “About Today”: something as simple as the juxtaposition of the song (drums like a heartbeat keeping you awake) along with the visuals of those stark tree branches in winter + the thickly-billowing black smoke that won’t relent, and then — the blue note saturated darkness when he whispers the lines, “Hey, are you awake…” and that ridiculous crescendo crash of the song careening away — that’s it. I’m done for. I wish you could have been there.
I walked around backstage a bit tongue-tied and gobsmacked after the show, meeting The National deep in the veins of Red Rocks, and it was an out-of-body experience for the reasons that Brittney explains. As thoughtful and appreciative as I am of the complicated and sublime nature of their music, it can be next to impossible to sum that up in a way that means anything. I didn’t figure out what I really wanted to say until the next day driving home (which is regretful because, you know …none of the band members were there then), but in addition to the conversations we actually had, I wanted to say a version of this:
One time an author friend and I were talking, and he told me that the first time he picked up an Anne Tyler novel, he knew he wanted to be an author. Calling it “a straightforward chemical connection,” he explained to me that: “I think we have sockets in our backs, really complicated, like, thirty-five pin sockets, and sometimes something or somebody plugs right in and there’s no real explanation. Or rather, there is, but it would be memoir-length.”
I think about 35-pin sockets ALL the time because of this conversation, as it pertains to human relationships, my connections to art, music, foreign cities — everything around me (as some of my favorite friends can attest to). What I wanted to try to explain to Matt was that The National fits all 35 of my pins, and plugs right in.
They fit the pin that loves a carefully-crafted sentence which achingly frames words perfectly around that fleeting feeling that is gone before you even really notice that it’s fully there.
They fit the pin that loves a bit of dissonance in my pleasure, whether melodic or existential.
And the pin that wants to blissfully numb out my voraciously-moving brain with narcotic percussion.
Also the pin that (as I wrote about in my review of Trouble Will Find Me) likes to prod at that simultaneous engagement with the sentimental and the fatalistic, things that we traditionally think of as being at odds with each other.
It’s kind of terrifying to love any musicians as much as I find myself still loving this band. I am so grateful for that, for the fear and the 35 pins.
THE NATIONAL – RED ROCKS SETLIST
I Should Live in Salt
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Sea of Love
Afraid of Everyone
I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Abel (!!!) Lucky You (gahhhh, seriously?) Slow Show
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks*
ALL MY PICS FROM TUESDAY ARE OVER AT THE FUEL/FRIENDS FACEBOOK, including those ones with openers Frightened Rabbit and The Local Natives. Photo credit for the last picture above goes to Instagrammer @renae9502.
On Saturday night, Seattle’s Pickwicktore through Denver on a short tour, and the energy in the Hi-Dive was palpable. Their music leans towards the toe-tapping, hip-shaking soul variety, but when they burned their way into this Damien Jurado cover and then “The Ostrich” by Lou Reed’s The Primitives as their penultimate song, they showed that they can also rage like a proper punk band. Holy mackerel, being in the front row for this just about killed me (in the best possible way).
This band keeps surprising me, and from the looks of the packed club on Saturday night, they keep surprising and converting increasingly large circles of fans. I predict good things coming with their debut full-length that they’ve almost finished. Watch out.
On August 7th, the night after they opened for My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses in Kansas City, Blind Pilot hauled ass across some state lines in their sweet blue schoolbus and arrived at my place just in time for dinner. That night they played a living room show for about fifty of us, and I am so pleased to find out that it was recorded so I can share such a special night with you.
Ever since I first heard the richly colorful music of Blind Pilot back in 2009, I’ve wanted to get them in to do an intimate Fuel/Friends show. That Tuesday, as you will hear, was totally worth the wait. The thing that really stands out in this entirely acoustic setting is their voices: the velvety, resplendent way they all knit together. At several points during the night you can hear us just hoot out our zenith of joy, like someone was poking us with a giant electric prod of musical fantasticness.
Here are also two videos from the night, including one of Tyler Lyle, who flew out from California to open the show. The song he performs (“Ditch Digger”) was partially written at my house back in March, so it was a deep treat to hear it performed there again.
And a final farewell on their bus (which is so very cool inside, Partridge Family-style):
When Seattle folk songwriter Noah Gundersen decided to cover Vic Chesnutt’s “Flirted With You All My Life” very late one night at this year’s Doe Bay Fest, it felt surreal. A bunch of us had gathered for a secret show after midnight on the field, lit by a few torches stuck in the grass. Noah sat next to Daniel Blue (Motopony), John Roderick (The Long Winters), and Bobby Bare Jr., and each songwriter took turns singing songs out into the darkness. Daniel stood up and sang one completely a cappella, his vibrato piercing the night like an unearthly arrow.
The Perseid meteor shower was showing off in earnest overhead, and I was sitting with a musician whose work I deeply appreciate, our heads craned back to see the flashes and streaks of dying stars above. We were there on an island accessible only by boat. The ocean stretched black and blending with the sky around us.
I was ambushed, then, as he sang.
Flirted with you all my life
even kissed you once or twice
even though I thought it was nice
I know, I’m not ready
When you touched a friend of mine
I thought I would lose my mind
though I found out with time
indeed, I was not ready
oh death, oh death, oh death
really, I’m not ready
when my mom was cancer-sick
she fought but then succumbed to it
but you made her beg for it
lord Jesus, I’m not ready
oh death, oh death, oh death
really, I’m not ready
It’s hard to write about the incongruous force I felt in that moment of wanting to stave off death like the song says, without sounding maudlin. But saturated as we were in late-summer-night happiness, feeling so damn young and so damn alive — this song was like a small plea out to the gaping universe. What is it about August that fools us sometimes into thinking that we’re untouchable? If ever there was a setting for believing in lies, it was this one.
The rueful smile on Noah’s face in this video as he sang, well it just hits me in the center. We know what’s waiting; while we flirt with each other and open-mouth kiss this life, we know. All of us wished, I think, that maybe the nastiness of death would just forget about us all there on that speck of land in the sea for another day, another summer. Another year.
I’m not ready.
You can listen to Noah Gundersen’s EP here; he blew all of us away during his regular sets at the fest as well, when not covering amazing songs on a firelit field. A solid (“highly-touted“) talent, with clever sharp phrasing and a commanding voice that makes you stop what you are doing and listen:
I haven’t been able to string together a review of the weekend yet; I think it will come out in trickles. Megan from the Music vs Misery blog and Adam from the Songs For The Day blog also came as part of our group this year, and their reviews are much more cogent and compelling than I am capable of assembling right now. I also agree with everything they wrote, so let’s just pretend they’re mine. Easy.
I woke up this morning still glowing and reeling from last night. Justin Townes Earle captivated the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, the way I have a feeling he does every single time he brandishes that guitar and opens his mouth to sing. I see hundreds of shows, and this man sparkles with charisma of the real deal. I had a strong sense that I was watching greatness. I don’t say that lightly.
Justin is Steve Earle’s son, sure. Justin is named partly after his dad’s friend Townes Van Zandt, sure. Both musical legends swim in his blood, alongside all the bits of experience and struggle he’s accumulated. But there is a whole other kind of self-impelled magic that he owns and possesses that is solely his and, whoa — that is unmistakeable when you see him for yourself.
You should add him immediately to the very top of your “must-see live” list. Justin is a consummate storyteller, in the vein of the traveling salesman that rolls into your town with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that twitches with a deep, unseen pleasure that’s unfolding in his brain and he tells stories through his songs. He’s watching worlds that we can’t see. It’s riveting to watch his process from four feet away, as I did. As I said the last time I saw him, “I wouldn’t mess with him, but I’d believe him and let him buy me a drink so he could tell me a story.”
This is a song from his newest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now (out now on Bloodshot Records), and when he sang it last night by himself under those blue lights, it hung out there in the air and pressed down on me as one of the loveliest, saddest, most perfect songs I’ve heard in a very long time. It’s a simple song about a girl named Anna, and about that longing we’ve been trying to name and wrestle down for a long time. The way he weaves it is breathtaking and timeless — somehow completely young and entirely his own, and also belonging to the ages. Like all of his songs.
See those little dots waaay down there? Yep, that’s The Head and The Heart
Last week I had the distinct joy of seeing my pals The Head and The Heart play at the legendary Red Rocks, sandwiched between Blind Pilot and The Shins (oh what a night!). It’s transitioning towards being a normal thing for them to play huge venues like this one, but for this gal, it still made me smile goofily like a kid on Christmas — seeing their same explosive live performance that first made me notice them two years ago light up those steep rows carved into the rocks, watching 10,000 people dancing along.
Highlights of the set for me included the jubilant “Sounds Like Hallelujah,” which couldn’t help but resonate strongly in that setting (I mean, Red Rocks is where they start each concertgoing season annually with an Easter sunrise service, after all) and a full-band version of the long-favorite unreleased “Gone,” with a stirringly intricate outro (listen: from about 4 minutes onward) that shows a growing depth and continuing intuition to their full-band arrangements. Also, Josiah sang a brand new song from the band that I had never heard before, a bright and big tune called “What’s The Point” that wended its way past ballad and straight towards anthem. It’s exciting to continue to see them as a band and as individuals, finding their voices as songwriters and consistently delivering that goodness to the ears of their fans with passion.
The other night I headed up to the Hi-Dive to see (what was, of course) a completely fantastic Damien Jurado show. This, I expected. I am never disappointed by his astounding talent. But somehow up until 10:00pm that night I had sidestepped the music of Peter Wolf Crier. By about 10:02pm, I was blindsided by its taut magnificence and colossal, confusing heft.
Peter was riveting; he confused me in a sense where a scan of my brain in those moments would have been lighting up all sorts of conflicting colors like a holographic palette, fiery hot and thoroughly happy. With just Peter and his drummer Brian Moen on stage, they looped together these hauntingly tumultuous, soaringly vibrant sonic pictures. Their songs live are completely different than the thoughtful beauty on the album – they breathe fire and become chimera-like mythical beasts, life injected confidently. Peter reminded me very much of live videos of my beloved Jeff Buckley.
There was a tightly-strung tension and magnificent improvisational quality to Peter’s performance that glued my eyes to him and Brian (brilliant on drums) for the entire performance. This song in particular feels like a struggle, like one of those dreams that you fight to untangle yourself from all night long, but keeps looping and pressing into your head with images of birds and old family home movies and the gravitational pull of the shoreline.
Peter’s second record is Garden of Arms, and it is out now on the fine Jagjaguwar label (Bon Iver, Sharon Van Etten, Cave Singers).
Listen to the whole thing over on Bandcamp; and, more importantly, find a way to see him live as soon as possible.
[photo by Kevin Ihle, who was at the show, and when I saw him I said, “oh good, I can put away my camera.” You can see why]
The first band I saw this year, marching along at 6th and San Jacinto at midnight
SXSW is the world’s best music festival if only for the sheer volume of superb choice. On any given day/night/early morning, I was staring at a ridiculously, totally stupidly embarrassing list of terrific musical choices. I was very cognizant that this spring break for grownups is one of the richest weeks of the year for me. I survived this, my “senior” (fourth) year, and came back bone-crushingly exhausted but smiling widely (and bruised without remembering precisely how I obtained my battle scars).
My stated primary objective for SXSW this year was to kick ass as a panelist, speaking during the Interactive segment on “Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery” on Tuesday morning. There was a write-up of the morning here from the Austin Statesman (the two pull quotes they used from me are hilarious and kind of sum up all of Fuel/Friends). It was a fascinating discussion that I strongly enjoyed taking part in, because ruminating on larger musical questions is one of my favorite pastimes, at any time of day (generally better with whiskey but I will take what I am offered, even if it is green room coffee).
The panel was pitched intentionally as a somewhat false dichotomy, since we all know that both the human recommendation and the technological algorithm can lead to a rad discovery — I suggested we just cage-match fight but no other panelists took me up on that at 8:45 in the morning.
My points eventually crystallized around the fact that I believe the nature of music discovery has changed: where you used to need a friend in the know to play you that punk 7″ they got in London in 1976 because humans helped to counteract musical scarcity, nowadays you need humans for almost the opposite reason – to place songs into some sort of a meaningful context, and to genuinely curate good music in a neverending flood of songs. An audience member asked the question of what the role of context is when it comes to music, and it was so useful for me to articulate this mission of what I do that I’ve added it over there on my sidebar: that I’ve been “Giving context to the torrent since 2005.” I think is a solid summation of what this site tries to be about, and why it is so fun for me, still. I want the context, the color, the personal framework around my music. Even if I then go ahead and create my own around that song as I weave it into my own musical life, I never forget the context in which it first came to me.
Panel completed and supernap under my belt, I moved on to the MUSIC. You can read in scintillating detail about my Austin adventures below, but everyone always asks when I come back which bands blew me away this year. I’ll tell ya without skipping a beat: Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. Those two bands are going to take all good music lovers by hurricane-level-5-storm this year.
Alabama Shakes @ Hype Hotel
Alabama Shakes @ KCRW Showcase
Alabama Shakes were absolutely, completely incendiary when I saw them early in the week at the KCRW daytime showcase. At 4pm. In the CONVENTION CENTER. Even at that hour in that business-like of a setting, I was wordlessly riveted to the spectacle before me, with shivers all over and some sort of weird lump forming in my throat through my smile.
It’s rare for me to see a band with a female frontwoman who I 100% want to be when I grow up. Brittney Howard is magnificent: ravagingly fearless in her command of the stage and her malleable play of the audience. She can shred on her red guitar and makes all of the hairs on every part of you stand on end, and she yowls out lyrics like, “I wanna take you out, I wanna meet your kid / I wanna take you home, baby tell me where you live.” Man, I love those lines, and I love even more that they are sung by a woman. I mean come ON. Even though in real life she couldn’t be sweeter, their music feels like she could rip you apart with her teeth and she is not ashamed. And that rocks. By day two of the music festival, everyone was talking about them on every street corner, and for good reason. Ho-ly hell.
Of Monsters And Men @ FILTER’s Showdown at Cedar Street
Secondly, seeing Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men at the FILTER party left me beaming. Best I can describe, this band has the loping dream-like qualities of Sigur Ros, the expansive exploding joy of Typhoon, and brightly compelling vocals from one of the singers that reminds me of Bjork. How’s that for a combo? Listen to their full debut album here.
This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore…
They had a shimmering assortment of instruments, a drummer who controlled every songs with his primal percussion, and songs that just soared off that patio. It totally and completely works for this band. GO SEE THEM if you can, they are on a sizeable US tour right now. I was exhilarated by them. Also, one of the singers is kinda a girl who looks like Skrillex.
Frank Turner @ Latitude 30
Frank Turner live at Latitude 30 was so combustible that I had to go back twice in two days to hear the crowd yell along to his anthems of belief and burning. I was converted, and not just by the tattoo on his right bicep that says, “I STILL BELIEVE.” He even sang his song about Prufrock, upon my sheepishly instantaneous request when he asked what he was playing next. That man has an astounding power in what he does (even after not having slept for 36 hours), as well as an electric way of engaging his fans.
Delta Spirit was so good to see after a few years away, tightly weaving the songs from their upcoming self-titled album when I stumbled upon them at the Hype Hotel very late one night. Maybe it’s just because that party was curated by my best blogger friends (who we all know are wonderful), or because there were free drinks AND free Taco Bell (sorry, body), but I spent many hours at that Hype Hotel and saw several of my favorite shows in that warehouse.
Michael Kiwanuka @ KCRW Showcase
At the KCRW showcase on Wednesday afternoon, British singer Michael Kiwanuka radiated this warm, lapping voice that I just wanted to curl up inside of. His album seems like one I would love to put on my turntable and let play, on repeat, in its entirety on a springtime Saturday afternoon.
Man, oh man – Sharon Van Etten‘s new album Tramp is definitely one of my favorites of this year already, all excoriating elegance and lush melodies. Her performance at Stubb’s on Wednesday night was delicate and strong, fearless and smart all at once — just like the record.
Nick Waterhouse @ Hype Hotel (it’s morning but you wouldn’t know it)
The Allah-Las at Valhalla
The retro cool of Nick Waterhouse and The Allah-Las were both SO. MUCH. FUN. Musical comrades, these two were some of the most invigorating shows I saw during the week, with their squalling, dirty jams equally influenced by surf-rock and a sharper underlying punk current.
Nada Surf acoustic at the Red Eyed Fly
Thursday night’s last-minute decision to cross the street after the Allah-Las at Valhalla to see an acoustic set from Nada Surf at the Red Eyed Fly was a superb one. It was a set-up strongly reminiscent of that gorgeous show I saw a few years back in the jewelbox of SF’s Swedish American Hall, a night I was happy to revisit. On Thursday night in Austin, this Bruce fella was playing across town at the ACL Theatre, doing things like bringing Arcade Fire and Tom Morello onstage, so I was getting text after text of those happy pictures after my badge was not selected to attend that show, but hearing the golden dulcet tones of Nada Surf was a deeply wonderful salve.
I told Matthew Caws afterwards that I hope he never stops doing what he does — their music is still as sharply incisive and lyrically poetic as ever, plus they seem to be having fun still. They played several songs from this year’s superb The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, as well as a few older ones:
Seun Kuti on fire @ the African showcase
I ended Thursday night with a tasty steak street taco that I thankfully ingested for sustenance before heading into Copa to see Seun Kuti, Fela’s son, from Nigeria. With absolutely no sense of urgency (and a band of about a dozen folks and singers to soundcheck), they ended up starting their set an hour late, around 1:30am, on languid equatorial time. They blew up that place.
Pickwick at the SXSeattle party
On Friday morning I limped across town (cowboy boots, day four yo) for an explosive set from Pickwick at the SXSeattle party. Pickwick came all the way to Austin to play just a few sets in one single day, but they used it to showcase not only the formidable pipes of frontman Galen Disston, but also to show off a substantial amount of their new material. It is intricate, and darker, and not as easy to classify in a specific soul genre, which I think is a right move.
After an amazing meal at La Condesa that I can’t stop talking about (they have FLIGHTS of GUACAMOLE, people), I headed to Auditorium Shores to give an attempt at a Counting Crows show which unfortunately suffered from the stretching grass fields full of loudly-talking aged frat boys, ditching after a handful of songs for the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merrit and Co were heartbreaking, every weird and resonant song, beautifully constructed. I felt like I shattered and spidered apart, unexpectedly, when he did a humble performance of “The Book Of Love.” It was very much like this:
I love it when you sing to me / and you can sing me anything.
Spank Rock @ that 1100 Warehouse place
Next, a life lesson: when a friend asks if you want to go see a hip hop show in a warehouse under the highway, the correct answer is always yes. I packed myself up front (with room for some questionable dancing on my part) for the Spank Rock and Hollywood Holt show, and it was a tremendous amount of fun, and a good palette cleanser from all the mopey shit which, left to my own devices, I will drown myself in.
I then paid a random couple stopped at a light with their window down $20 to drive me to Antone’s for the Cold Specks show. I hope my mother is not reading this fine example of what makes SXSW so awesome. Cold Specks was one of my most anticipated sets of the week and she did not disappoint. Her music from her debut album gorgeous gospel – slow-burning and evocative, yet vulnerable within the lyrical excavations. I definitely think Al Spx, the frontwoman, is one to continue watch in 2012 as she tours in support of her treasure of an album.
Cold Specks @ Antone’s
Saturday I decided to focus on the food one more time, and walked clear + gone to the far side of town for an inspiring culinary adventure at Hillside Farmacy, before catching my final show of SXSW: You Won’t on an outdoor stage with crawfish tails and parts littering the dirt around me. Creepy little fuckers (the crawfish, not the band).
You Won’t @ Banger’s (yes huh)
You Won’t was this young, fun band who scowled in the same timbre as Deer Tick’s John McCauley and played the drums sometimes with kitchen utensils. Their songs were classically-constructed pop perfection, singable and not at all overly sweet. As I walked out past the stage, the singer saluted me with “have a good flight!” (we’d talked before the set). Yep, they were that kind of endearing, perfect band to end my festival.
I hopped exhaustedly on my $1 Airport Flyer (BEST KEPT SECRET IN AUSTIN) and as my bus lumbered towards the airport, I sat back and smiled. I find SXSW exceedingly capable of sating me. In retrospect, to sum it all up tidily: last week I got to shake the hands of legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen, NPR’s Bob Boilen, and the singer from Seven Mary Three. I mean, that pretty much hits me on most of my important levels. I’d say all my cylinders were well-fired.
Ryan Adams’ music has been woven taut and wooly through so many parts of my life in the last seven years, and writing objectively about his jaw-droppingly good show last night at Denver’s Temple Buell Theater is tough. For me it was a parade of ventricle-punching, flushed-cheek-inducing song after song, and it felt like it was just for me. I was off in my own stratosphere.
The show for me was intensely personal, hearing these passionately executed, pure renditions of songs I never really thought I’d get to hear live, and especially not with that much potency and perfection. “Wonderwall”? “Please Do Not Let Me Go” (oh my heart), right into “English Girls Approximately”? He started with “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and encored with a cover of Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell”? It was almost too much for this one girl to take. Just like my mix I posted on Friday night, this was a personal thing for me — no detachment, just marveling. Hoping for the best, and –for once– getting it.
I’ve seen Ryan Adams a handful of other times, in 2006 and 2007, chasing after the magic I heard in all his records that I learned about and then started gorging myself on. When I saw him during those years, he was alternately in a very scattered, rambly place the one time I heard him play acoustic (at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts) and long-form electric jammy, the three times with the Cardinals. Every time I’ve seen him has been worth it, in its own way, but I have never been as satisfied as I was last night. This was something else entirely.
Ryan was focused and amiable, sang passionately with a voice that is sounding the best I’ve ever heard it, and lavished well-crafted songs on the spoiled crowd for two hours. All told, he sang 24 songs — well, 28 if you count fantastic on-the-spot creations like:
-”Climbing a Tree In My Yellow Pants (What Kind Of Cake Will I Have?)” (a brilliant example of the kind of song he would have written if Prozac had been around when he was a kid)
-”Mr. Cat You Are Soft As Fuck” (a somber piano ballad about his pet he misses at home)
-”Mr. Heckles” (a sweetly soaring, apologetic guitar tune for the man near me who yelled “play the good one!”):
-a final “Thank You” ditty to us all, before launching into “Come Pick Me Up” with harmonica that felt like it stopped hearts in that room. Even his fake songs sounded really good, showcasing just how amazingly effortless it seems for him to write solid songs, even on the fly. Last night he played almost twice as many songs as the only other acoustic set of his I’d seen, in SF.
After the 2006 San Francisco show, I lamented. I worried that I would never get to see my favorite, favorite gorgeous songs live and delivered well from Ryan, since he seemed to be teetering and veering off in another direction. I worried I’d missed the catharsis, the beauty I first fell so hard for. Therefore last night was deeply rewarding, to see him pull all his skill and eloquence together, to wow the (mostly) silent crowd with a cherry-picked setlist of new and old, to make my heart beat so hard I could hear it in my eardrums.
SETLIST, RYAN ADAMS IN DENVER (2/4/12)
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Ashes & Fire
If I Am A Stranger
Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)
Everybody Knows Firecracker
Let it Ride
Please Do Not Let Me Go
English Girls Approximately
Chains of Love
Avenues (!!) (Whiskeytown)
New York, New York
16 Days (Whiskeytown)
Come Pick Me Up
Nutshell (Alice in Chains)
When Will You Come Back Home
Ryan rivals Jeff Tweedy for my favorite in the stage banter category. He was relaxed, funny, constantly talking to the audience (in that silent hall some people really ran with that privilege, yelling every blessed thing that flitted into their minds). But the night felt totally unvarnished — reminding me of the very best things about the house concerts we put together (the atmosphere of this one, in particular).
Ryan’s voice shone in this setting — the Temple Buell Theater has impeccable acoustics (we could even hear him shifting in his chair) and oozed quiet dignity. As I listened to him hold the whole crowd transfixed, singing these songs that he’s sang hundreds and thousands of times, I marveled at how nothing seemed trite. When the song started, he was fully present in the moment and giving it his all. His face scrunched, that slightly pouty lower lip wailed. Even when he took to the piano with his back to me, I could see his face reflected back in the glossy black instrument, brow furrowed. This wasn’t a mechanical night.
The warm feeling spreading over me during the show felt closest to the night my friend Andrew and I laid around on the floor of my living room and listened to Heartbreaker on vinyl. You appreciate the space and the sanctuary created to just sit and listen. There was nothing catchy or flashy about last night’s show. But it riveted me to my seat and took me off somewhere else completely. It felt like course after course of the perfect-sized small plates kept arriving at the table, each so rich and delicious. I left totally satisfied, glowing, and sated. Everyone around me had huge smiles on their faces, and there was a crackle of ebullience in the air. If I never see Ryan Adams live again, I will be happy after last night.
[photo by my friend Andrew, who was with me and has more megapixels in his phone camera than my retro-mazing Nokia. If you’re a visual learner, there’s a spot-on drawing here, down to the labels on Ryan’s shoes]
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.
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