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]
There is something exceedingly uplifting and near-transcendent about a Band of Horses show, especially if you can wedge yourself down in the front where the waves of sound crash over you and your feet vibrate throughout the entire show from the bass.
After Kings of Leon canceled the tour where BOH was opening, dates were rescheduled with just the Seattle quintet in smaller venues. I found myself grateful to get to see them in that dark, small Fox Theatre on Monday night instead of the Comfort Dental Amphitheatre or wherever they were scheduled to play before.
It’s been years since I have seen BOH live, and since then they’ve released the newest album, Infinite Arms, and further perfected their excoriating live show. It was a holistic music-enjoyment experience for me, as they project an endless stream of images on the large screen behind them throughout the night.
My brain soared all over the place, as the images of wheatfields and old barns and crowded parties and starry nights swirled and spun into their songs. I loved the way the show tied together the visual with the auditory, because that’s how I hear music. This was especially potent on “Ode to LRC” where the crowd sang along with the line, “The world is such a wonderful place,” as scenes flashed rapid-fire behind the band, or as “Is There a Ghost” was sung in front of stars and a crescent moon. Yes.
Their songs are all universally bigger on-stage, with a greater energy; I found it to be way more Neil Young/expansive-70s-country-rock than I expected. Every song was dazzling, and even the loping dreamy ones on the records took on an urgent, dynamic air.
It’s also clear from watching this band that they all genuinely like each other, and that chemistry crackles back and forth between their music while they are on-stage. This was especially apparent during the encore performance of “Evening Kitchen” (one of my favorite songs on the new album), performed with just Ben Bridwell and guitarist Tyler Ramsey, who wrote the song.
The evening was one of those rare concert experiences where everything comes a little unsewn inside you, and for two blissful hours you are redeemed.
Also: a note about the opener. After recording a Chapel Session with me on Saturday afternoon, BOH guitarist Tyler Ramsey opened the show with his intricately haunting solo material. Watching his fingers fly over the strings again was spell-binding. His new solo album The Valley Wind comes out on Fat Possum later this month, and I can’t wait to share that chapel session with you guys.
My friend Nick Hornby once wrote something very true and marvelous about a central challenge of human-ness: “Keeping in touch with the things that help us feel alive – music, books, movies, even the theatre, if, mysteriously, you are that way inclined – becomes a battle, and one that many of us lose, as we get older.”
We won that battle this past weekend, all weekend long, at the Doe Bay Fest 2011: The Full Moon Festival. With a few hundred other folks for 4 days on Orcas Island in the San Juans, I felt deeply, vibrantly alive. It was like summer camp for adults (and many kiddos) who wanted to touch that thrumming coil of deep goodness that crackles and bursts in live music, if you know where to look and are ready to be stunned by what you find.
I found music around every bend in the road. I ascended a dirt trail at midnight and found Damien Jurado and John Vanderslice playing to a silent circle of folks lit only by the flickering fire of tiki torches. I ducked into a humid nighttime yoga studio and found myself linking arms with Kelli Schaefer and her band and The Head and The Heart, singing a rousing golden version of “Stand By Me.” I wandered through an alder grove to a black-pebbled beach under a full rising moon and watched Ravenna Woods pound out a primal set that made all my blood course hot and pure. I sang a gospel chorus of assurance (“know it’s gonna be alright”) on a crisp Saturday morning on a rocky bluff with Elk & Boar and a crowd of hundreds. I walked away saying, “Did that really happen?!”
I got no problem with massive, whirling, impressive music festivals in all shapes and sizes. I have partaken in my fair share. But the difference here was something quieter and more profound.
As my friends and I looked past the sea spray of the wake left by our ferry as we departed Doe Bay, I think we all felt transformed by music. That is not a common universal sentiment, I find, at many music festivals. I think Doe Bay Fest is onto something here, now in its fourth year as a very organic, do-it-yourself community of musicians and music-lovers, getting together to create something beautiful in this world that is all too often hard and cold.
I think we should be finding and creating and pouring ourselves into hundreds of petite music festivals all over the world that feel like this one. As we challenge the norm, maybe there’s something in there that will save us.
FOR THE EYES: My pictures are over on the Fuel/Friends Facebook Page. The stunningly gorgeous pictures (that capture all the little things of the festival far better than I had patience for) of Sarah Jurado are here.
Rather than start this post about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with a picture of an amazing headliner like Mumford & Sons, or the surprise stellar guests like Patty Griffin, I’m going to share that view up above instead: a cell phone snap taken while I sat inside my tent and looked out the zippered door. I think it captures something about this festival that you need to know, as foundation. As enticement to come next year.
I pitched my tent on slanty ground, deciding to sleep on river rocks just so that I could hear that powerfully rushing roar of water as I was falling asleep at night, and first thing when I woke up in the morning. When I rambled through the darkness at 2am each night to my waiting cocoon of nylon and synthetic down, I’d sit for a good half hour on the banks, just watching the water that came from far away and was heading who-knows-where, as the moon glinted off the fast-moving surface. I felt a deep peace, and a happiness.
After ogling the lineup of performers and arriving into the stunning natural beauty of the town (last year was my virgin year), the first thing you notice about Telluride Bluegrass Festival is that it is inherently different. People at this one are nicer. Strangers stop to both secure your unattended tent when it’s about to succumb to the ferocious winds and blow into the river (happened to me), and also when you are struggling to lug all your stuff out to where the carpool is going to meet (ditto). The staffers might not only watch your gear, but move it under a tarp when the skies open up and the rains begin. The bus driver loops back around once he’s off duty in the wee hours of the morning, because he hears on his radio that a gal needed a ride. Things like this strike me as exceedingly rare in this world of music festivals, and deeply appreciated.
I tell you all these things not to brag about what a goddamn nice weekend I just had, but to set the stage for the sorts of musical chemistry that spark effortlessly and burn glowing-orange within this fertile laboratory of music. All weekend long you’ll see musicians peppering each others’ sets, stepping off the stage to perform in the round, and just smiling a whole lot. Although my friends who bring in the acts have a keen ear for what works (old standards and new exciting acts), I think I would come no matter who was playing.
…So who did play?
These guys: Matthew & The Atlas
Matthew & The Atlas was the best new artist I saw at the festival. I’d written about their song “I Will Remain” many months ago, and listened to it probably a hundred times since then. I have these days where I just park on their MySpace, and blearily stumble out of it three hours (and the same four songs on repeat) later.
Rising out of the same Communion folk scene in London as their peers Mumford and Sons (who attended both Matthew & The Atlas shows I saw), Matt Hegarty’s smoky dark voice is wonderfully evocative, like it knows of sorrows that I haven’t met yet – and I’ve met me a few. It quavers with some echo of ancient wisdom, if that makes sense — like a wizened wizard lives inside this young man. Weird/magic. Plus there are banjo and handclaps and accordion, and prominent female harmonies and countermelodies. I promptly bought all three of the EPs they had for sale after the show. It’s been too long since I’ve let myself do that. Take me back to when the night was young, and another song was sung. I Will Remain – Matthew & The Atlas
Worth waking up for
Two morning sets blew the early-riser Telluride crowd away, and both happen to be two of my personal favorites. The Head and The Heart were the first act I saw at Telluride this year, a fresh and crisp noontime set on Thursday, while Joe Pug played even earlier the next day, while the dew was still on the lawn. There may be nothing nicer in this world than hearing Joe Pug’s harmonica ringing out at 10am on a clean and bracing mountain morning, or watching THATH stomp and laugh and echo those three-part harmonies back off the rocky mountains all around us. Both acts did a fantastic job of converting the audience all around me with their smart songwriting and contagious passion for music. Previously unknown to most of the seasoned bluegrass crowd, I heard both names on everyone’s lips for the duration of the festival.
Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (how do you not have this song yet?! get it)
Looks like he would win a knife fight
This was my first experience seeing Steve Earle live. I deeply respect his music and songwriting, but had never before witnessed his live set. He performed with his wife Allison Moorer (“did I marry out of my league, or what?!” he asked), and I was surprised at the soft incisiveness of his performance. He looks hardened, but life seems to have worn off the painful edges and left this rich and gorgeous beauty in his music. I foresee myself entering a large Steve Earle period.
Amazing ladies unite
And YEAH, I got to see some of the most amazing women in my musical lexicon all in one weekend. I was mesmerized by Emmylou Harris (as I stood next to Marcus Mumford for it, both of us just beaming at her folksinging glory), then Patty Griffin just dropped on in unannounced for the Sunday morning gospel hour. Griffin has written some of my absolute favorite songs, including “Mary” (which KILLS me, EVERY single time) and “Top of the World.” She performed “Heavenly Day” — and it was.
Hearing the silvery-voiced Sarah McLachlan both made me feel very, very fifteen again, but also reminded me how many songs she has written that I’ve loved and not listened to in forever: “Path of Thorns (Terms),” “Good Enough,” “Hold On” — I surprised myself with the quantity of singing along I was doing. Her performance was strong and vibrant, and induced at least one of my 20-something year old male friends to go home and download her greatest hits album at 3:00am. But I won’t name names.
I would study vocab cards every night for you, Colin
Let’s just set this straight. Even though I know that frontman Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is happily married to a talented lady and has a kiddo, I could stand all day blossoming under the quenching rain of his perfect vocabulary. I’m a sucker for smarts and wit. It leads to marvelous music, and their show was a delight. Surveying the Telluride crowd, he praised us: “each man more rugged than the next, each woman more sundressed and sunkissed than the next.”
All the songs from The King Is Dead (one of the best albums of 2011 thus far for me) seemed custom-penned to be performed in a setting like Telluride. It is the rootsiest of the Decemberists albums for a while, maybe ever, and the harmonica and fiddle felt right at home. Bela Fleck joined Colin for a (fake) dueling banjos challenge (to “win Telluride”), while Benmont Tench and Jerry Douglas also came out for the final song, a cover of “When U Love Somebody” by The Fruit Bats.
I don’t know why I thought that Mumford and Sons was not going to impress me again. So I’m figuring: I first saw them at SXSW 2009, at a small but hyper-potent daytime set at Maggie Mae’s outdoor stage. Having already been smitten by their songs, I fell instantly for their live show: “I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.” I named that set one of my favorite concerts of SXSW and the entire year. Last year at Telluride, they completely blew me away again – their very first show on Colorado soil, and everyone in the Sheridan Theater was singing at the top of their lungs, stomping so hard the floorboards shook. It felt like a secret exploding. I still get chills to think of it.
I was blind to my jadedness that assumed since they are huge on the radio now, since everyone seems to know their songs, that somehow their live show would have changed, becoming more diluted and sterilized. I could NOT have been more wrong, or more arrogant perhaps, to think so. They were completely incredible, playing in the pouring rain on Sunday night. It was the last show I saw (sorry, Robert, we had to get home ahead of the snow), and one of the most memorable. As the Punch Brothers played their set before the Mumfords (and covered Josh Ritter!), a frigid, steadily-increasing rain fell without ceasing, running in rivulets between my shoulder blades and dripping off the ends of my sweater sleeves. All the smart people pulled out their ponchos (me: not smart) and the audience turned into a sea of plastic primary colors. We shivered and were absolutely miserable.
But when Mumford & Sons took the stage, the crowd galvanized into one teeth-chattering supernova, singing with our heads back (“and Iiiiiiiii will hold on hope, and Iiiiiiii won’t let you choke / …and Iiiiiiiiii’ll find strength in pain and Iiiiii……”), dancing our frozen asses off. Not only was their set terrific (including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn coming out to play along), but they still retain all the passion that made me love them in the first place.
For someone who has played as many shows as these guys have, it was truly something exceptional. I saw our rain-soaked joy reflecting back off their faces, and it was a wonderful way to end Telluride 2011.
Bryan John Appleby crafts thoughtful, melodic music about complicated relationships and desires, from his home in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The singer-songwriter path is well-trod in every city, and Seattle is no different, but Bryan sets his music on a higher plane with the incisively intelligent way that he can wrap words around a tenuous moment. He said in an interview, “I write my best when I’m reading lots of books and listening to lots of bands and songwriters.” I think that comes through in his music, with a variety of historical, literary, spiritual, and relational groundings. It’s no wonder I fell for him.
My first listens of this song reminded me of the best, most achingly open parts of Blind Pilot songs. This is a song about the tension and the gulf between wanting someone and actually having them. There is SO much raw vulnerability in the way Bryan sings “not one good reason left to keep me / but please don’t let me go.” I am reminded of the old adage about how we need love the most when we deserve it the least.
Every line in this song seems to strip something in me bare, like when he sings, “I am roaming through the darkness, I am rambling through the night / I will find you soon my darling, be sure and hold the light.” Have you read No Country for Old Men? If so, this reminds me of the last page.
Fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold…. Cliffs Along The Sea – Bryan John Appleby
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Bryan perform live last Friday night at the High Dive in Seattle, with a full backing band. The words I used afterwards were: “decimatingly muscular.” KEXP’s Hannah Levin called him “One To Watch” in the Seattle Weekly last summer, and finally getting to see him live myself, I completely agree. As well-crafted and piercing as the EP is, hearing the new material and seeing how his songs catalyze and explode in the live setting got me very excited for his upcoming full-length release, Fire On The Vine.
Bryan just launched a Kickstarter campaign yesterday to help fund the final steps of this new album. The songs are done being recorded, and he just needs advance commitment from folks who want to have it when it is released (on vinyl too!). As a refresher: Kickstarter is a rad way for lovers of music to commit in advance to the album that is yet to come, and in doing so get some sweet perks (a mixtape from Bryan! a handwritten letter! a personalized cover!).
Sasquatch Music Festival tromped into The Gorge last weekend for its tenth anniversary (my maiden voyage), and rocked for four days solid. As I told the Twitter on Monday morning, “day four of any music festival should really be subtitled in small elegant script: good god are we still doing this?” But even when we were feeling a bit road-weary and dusty (camping compounded matters), we were still acutely aware of being thoroughly spoiled by music, in one of the best festival lineups this summer. And that sublime natural setting really leaves nothing to be desired. Except maybe a hot tub.
Fresh-faced LA band Foster The People was the single largest-attended shitshow of a third-stage act I’ve ever seen. You know, where they book a band nine months ago and by the time they play the festival they’ve outgrown the stage a few times over? (see: M.I.A. at Coachella 2008) Not that I minded; there is something electric about being pressed in so tightly dancing with your neighbors that you half-fear a riot, and people climb onto the rooftops to express their dancing selves. Foster The People’s new album, the fittingly-named Torches, is out now and they have completely sold out almost every stop on this U.S. tour. Quoting from the MGMT playbook with dancey hooks and shimmery vocals, they beefed up their set with a dizzying array of instruments, percussive and otherwise. They just looked like they were having a darn huge amount of fun, despite their deer-in-the-headlights expressions at times.
Seattle’s Macklemorewas one of my favorite unforeseen stage-stealers of the festival for me. His smart hip hop was ebulliently performed and full of terrific flow, kinda reminding me of Eminem except minus the part where he bitterly hates women. The reception from the Seattle-heavy crowd at the Bigfoot Stage was completely deafening, and I walked away wordlessly shaking my head, wondering “what just happened?!” He was a supernova of awesome. If I ever get a chance to see him again (I know, he was just in Denver, I don’t want to talk about it) I absolutely will, and you should too. Plus, he had a sweeeet denim jacket with fringe glued on the sleeves and David Bowie (circa Labyrinth, even better) that he painted by hand on the back.
Several members of The Head and the Heart came to Sasquatch last year as attendees, and I might have been briefly reminded of the line from Princess Bride about “she was once a commoner, like yourselves …perhaps you will not find her so common, now.” (oooh sorry, nerd alert). This year the band was ushered in to play the mainstage to a hefty, passionate crowd who sang along to all the words. I’d never seen them play to a home-state crowd before, and the swell of emotion was really nothing short of impressive and almost feverish. This was the largest show THATH has ever played, and a year ago they were just in the crowd, wearing their handmade band t-shirts, waiting for things to happen. And happen they did.
During their tight and melodic set, Josiah motioned several Seattle musician friends out to jubilantly sing and clap on “Lost In My Mind” – so much happiness. Then during the penultimate song of their set, “Down In The Valley,” I turned to look behind me at the crowd. Wow — lining the whole front ridge of the lawn, 150+ people were standing arm-in-arm, forming a human chain that swayed back and forth. Strangers and strangers. Scoff if you will about the unbridled unjadedness that a move like that entails, but I loved it. I’d never seen anything like it. I’m glad that sort of uncool joy is still fostered somewhere in life.
Like the all-encompassing hurricane their name suggests, Typhoon was everything I had hoped for, and I’ve been hoping for a lot. Theirs was the first set of the day on Sunday, at a balmy bright noontime slot on the second stage. Crowding the stage with a dozen people playing everything from trumpets to cello to bells, they radiated a conviction and a deep joy. It was the best kind of catharsis; the dude next to me appeared to be having a full-on religious exorcism of some sort, but of the life-affirming variety where you just throw your head back and sing your guts out. I sang right along, as loudly as I could. Watch for an interview with frontman Kyle Morton soon, we talked about real good stuff after their set.
Speaking of life-affirming, my first time seeing Guided By Voices was the punk rock version of that, soaked in tequila and lit on fire with a few dozen jump kicks and windmill-arms. It’s probably been said by dozens of other folks before, but how is Bob Pollard still alive? The man was chugging Jose Cuervo at 3pm in the afternoon and not even flinching, while guitarist Mitch Mitchell chain smoked the entire show. No, seriously, he had a guy sidestage that would run out and hold his cigarette when he had a particularly amazing solo, and then put it back in his pre-cancerous maw. BAD. ASS.
You know what that is right there in the picture? That’s what Aloe Blacc looks like just before he takes away your woman.
Speaking as a representative of the female sex, I can say that man is smooooth, there in his purple shirt and fitted grey vest, hat tilted just so. His music fused old-R&B sensibilities with swaggering brass and those clean beats, for one of the festival’s absolute most fun sets. The crowd (and, um, me) ate it up.
The first thing you might notice when you walk up to a Basia Bulat set is that yes, she is very petite, and the guitar she is wielding threatens to overtake her. The second thing you notice is that her voice is massively huge, seeming to belong to a woman three times her stature. It has an honest and open timbre, and is honey rich and soulful. I first heard Basia’s music in a short little song someone recommended for my Stomp/Clap Mix – she seems to love the hand/foot percussion as much as I do, and I was thrilled when she ended her set with this old gospel song rendition:
I had never seen Sam Beam and Iron & Wine live before, but I’ve imagined the moment many times as I’ve laid in bed with his music filtering into my headphones on repeat. On Saturday evening, I finally got my chance and was pretty blown away. Following the lead of his more robust recent material, his live show has unfurled and bloomed into something that is multi-instrumental, and incredible.
I wound up backstage later that night, and was sitting next to Sam as he ate his dinner and held a baby. It somehow struck me as oddly incongruous, this quotidian existence, even though I largely see musicians as humans just like anyone else. I realized why it seemed odd to me: Sam seems like some sort of otherwordly locust-eating prophet, who is untouchable by mere humans. His songs are just that good, that monumental. His set did not let me down, in fact when he launched into this song, I dissolved into a temporary hot mess, totally unexpectedly, and I couldn’t tell you why. I think it kicked in at the swell of the background singers, and the feeling in the lyrics of finding a center so far from the familiar.
Speaking of unexpected tears, the other artist that evoked a reaction in me was Sharon Van Etten, just from the devastating power in her voice and the sharpness in her words. I’ve heard a handful of her songs and decided then and there at her Saturday set that hers is some music for me.
SASQUATCH 2011: TAKEAWAY LESSONS LEARNED *The Gorge really is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful music venues I’ve ever been in; almost every performer commented on it in some way. Lucky for me, the other two winners are in Colorado (Telluride mainstage and Red Rocks) to hear me tell it.
*There are certain things that should never, ever be bumped at high decibel levels in the Premium Campground at 2:00am, and 25-minute long remixes of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is undeniably one of them. Fuckers in the RV.
*It is apparently THE festival to attend if you wish to dress as an fruit, monsters, and/or yetis (or…this??) Or maybe that was just the Flaming Lips anticipation.
*You haven’t really lived until you’ve broken a toenail in the riot that is a Sleigh Bells tent show at midnight.
*The beers really truly do cost $12. I was warned; I scoffed. But they were soooo gooood: I may have even made up a theme song/homage to Color Me Badd, called “Shocktop, Ya Don’t Stop.” It was fantastic.
On Wednesday night, as we braced ourselves for the marvelous musical onslaught that was churning ready to release onto the streets of Austin, somebody told me that the SXSW Festival was 40% larger this year than last. I have no idea if that is true because I am terrible at estimating numbers of anything, but I can certainly believe it, as SXSW continues to grow and draw so many acts down to Texas that I always leave feeling like I’ve been through a musical washing machine. Or maybe I feel like that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ where she is trying to eat the chocolates that just keep coming so fast, and more, and more, and more. No one can keep up with all that deliciousness, but I was game to try. I’m always game.
After a splendid opening reception for media at Austin City Hall with some excellent local talent and gift bags with bottles of Tito’s (uh oh), I headed as quickly as I could over to Bat Bar for Walk The Moon, to start my SXSW 2011 off right. You know I was mightily excited. With the crowd packed close and the bar walls open to Sixth Street passersby stopping to watch, their set was crackling with the kind of kinetic confidence that comes easiest in youth. Their energetic, dancey set can best be illustrated by two texts I sent to a friend while I was trying to convince him to come over.
9:24pm: “These guys are adorable. And twenty.”
9:26pm: “And wearing facepaint.”
It was everything I had hoped for. The first show of my SXSW was also the feel-good winner. I had to stop filming a video clip because I decided I had to dance instead.
Walk The Moon
I want to join Wild Flag. I want them to adopt me as egg-shaker rocker girl (since I couldn’t depose the formidable Janet Weiss, of Sleater-Kinney, as their drummer) and take me on tour with them, so I could bask in their rock glory every night. Fronted by Carrie Brownstein, this new band of Pacific Northwest badasses were phenomenal at the NPR party, playing their squalling guitars held behind their heads. Their songs had strong driving melodies and basslines, with that singsong female voice that sounds even better with the right heft behind it.
Their MySpace helpfully says “Apt adjectives for describing the band’s music: wild. Also: flaggy.” To that I would add: really damn good. Cannot wait to get their (Britt Daniel-produced) first 7″ on Record Store Day.
After lunch on Thursday I started out from the house I was staying at, and walked past the Auditorium Shores where The Strokes were due to play that night. There was already an amazingly long line of kids standing waiting in line for the free set. Even if it hadn’t been for the multitude of Strokes shirts in incarnations from the last decade on every other person, it would have been fun (and easy) to try and tell which band they were waiting for just based on the fashion.
That night was my first time seeing The Strokes, and it was long overdue. I was giddy with anticipation. For a band that saw its comeuppance in small NYC clubs and the sweaty intensity of raucous tiny shows, I was acutely aware that something was missing from the way I was experiencing them for the first time, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, and to me they sounded absolutely terrific. With the Austin skyline silhouetting them, their set peppered with new songs, Julian brought his lackadaisical drawl (I’ve always said it sounds as if he can’t be arsed to get up off the couch), but there was that underlying edge, the guitars and drums tight and spot-on.
On most days, this is my favorite Strokes song, and I just stood there with a big stupid grin on my face to get to see it from so close.
The set ended with a massive bombardment of surprise fireworks that started exploding during the opening drumbeat of “Last Nite.” I am a sucker for fireworks. I also thought fleetingly about some sort of metaphor in there for a band that used to cause all the fireworks themselves in small dark clubs, now playing such massive stages that they can light off pyrotechnics into the night air.
After a quick beer with my drummer friend Robby from These United States (who looks awesomely like Jesus these days, and whose sets I totally missed in Austin this year, sadly) I headed off – to church.
The rootsy new G. Love album, produced by the Avett Brothers, feels very much like the album he was always meant to make, and since it was recorded in a church, this seemed also like the setting I was absolutely meant to see it performed live in for the first time. Joined by Luther Dickinson from the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars for a few songs, he wailed and howled and stomped his way through his very solid and compelling set.
Lord Huron from Los Angeles were more potent and feisty live than their warm and woolly EP suggests. Instead of bringing that Fleet Foxes meets Edward Sharpe vibe, they cranked up the percussion (dude was wearing a washboard on his chest and I wanted to run away with him immediately into the Texas night) and were entirely danceable, in a near-tropical way.
My night ended on Thursday watching all dozen+ members of Gayngs (with Justin Vernon, and a dude in a white cape) cover George Michael’s “One More Try” to a packed Mohawk crowd. I just looked around a little confused and tried my best not to enjoy it (longstanding hatred of GM). And then sang it all the way home, dammit.
Friday’s mercury climbed into the sticky-uncomfortable range, and became the day I decided to start a new photoblog called hipstersinhotweather.com. It is going to be completely amazing. From the moment I left the house, the sweat beads formed and were unrelenting, and I saw a large number of skinny jeans pulled up into man-capris, and plenty of dark clothing and impractical scarves sweat through. I was grateful for my dress.
To escape the heat, and because there is a fantastically vibrant scene there right now, our first stop of the day parties on Friday was the SXSeattle showcase at Copa, where we caught Ravenna Woods, Young Evils (harmonic, well-crafted pop with a kickass girl drummer named Faustine), and a hip-hop artist named Sol that we danced our asses off to, to spite the heat. I also had the WINNING moment of Damien Jurado showing me his driver’s license so I would believe who he was. Ummmm, the heat was scrambling my brain? Sigh. Sorry Damien. You are awesome and I know it.
Later that afternoon, I caught one of the most high energy sets with Middle Brother playing to a packed Barbarella backyard porch. This is the supernova collaboration between three excellent bands: Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit. There was a genuine affinity between the three frontmen (see kiss below) and lots of interaction with / dancing in / throwing beer on the crowd to complement their crunchy riffs and early-’60s garage rock feel. [VIDEO:Me, Me, Me]
I also, not surprisingly, kept finding myself at The Head and The Heart shows – I think three in 2 days, by my count. The buzz on the street for them was thrilling. After SPIN Magazine hyped them as their #2 band to watch at SXSW 2011, it seemed that everywhere I went (photographers pit, radio lunches, that welcome reception) people were asking each other if they’d seen them yet. I had a few friends to drag to see them, so I happily went along spreading the gospel.
They played a wickedly hot midday show at Lustre Pearl for the Dickies/FILTER party on Thursday afternoon (their first “real” one, they said, meaning to a bunch of sweaty kids instead of to industry folks). Then on Friday, both the legendary Antone’s as well as headlining the Sub Pop showcase at 1am, before heading to the airport for their European tour with The Low Anthem. They left vapor trails in their wake, from an explosive week for them.
The Head and The Heart
In between Head and The Heart sets on Friday night, I popped into the Ale House for my favorite Australian from last year’s SXSW, Andy Clockwise. Completely dousing the audience with charisma like gasoline, Clockwise commands you watch him, and commands you enjoy. He brought the girl next to me up onto stage to play electric guitar and I couldn’t help but be jealous of her badassery.
Josh Ritter played the St. David’s Church sanctuary at 10:30pm, and I got in only for the last few songs. It was quite a shift after Andy Clockwise, but it was utterly spellbinding, and –as you can imagine– transcendent. If there is a more poignant moment than Ritter performing “In The Dark” in a church, in the dark, with the crowd singing softly and spontaneously along, I don’t think I can handle it.
Saturday morning I hopped right on up out of bed (ouch, cowboy boot blisters, ouch) ready to tackle the final full day of SXSW. By that day, everyone is feeling it and you best be talking quiet. Denver’s soiree of the music year at the Reverb Party was happening at Parkside, and it was on the lovely rooftop patio overlooking Sixth Street. Since I forgot to have a breakfast taco back home, my day started gently with Great Divide’s Wild Raspberry Ale (I mean, this is Colorado, so we do up our free beer at day parties RIGHT).
Port Au Princeis the new project of some good friends from the now-defunct band Astrophagus, back with a completely different sound. They are more accessible but still smart, with call-and-response melodies that made me happy when they rang down over Sixth Street.
Port Au Prince
I headed over to the Ryan’s Smashing Life blog party at Rusty Spurs, where Adam Duritz did a cameo appearance with the rapper NOTAR that he has signed to his T Recs label. I definitely gushed on a little too much when I met him about what his music has meant to me over the years. But then again, let’s be honest I am not known for hiding my feelings, and Duritz has been a major force in my musical development over the years. It was a great moment for me.
Also at that same party I got to check out the super talented Ivan & Alyosha from Seattle who were having quite a bit of fun up there. They’ve named their band after brothers from Dostoyevsky who struggle with faith and family ties, and chats with them before their set belie a depth of intelligence that is palpable in their smart, substantial songwriting. One of my favorite unexpected discoveries of the festival.
Then I went and decided to Mess With Texas at their free outdoors day party on the other side of the highway, and in a shocking role reversal it ended up just completely messing with me instead. I was sending texts about !!! and people thought I was so excited that I was forgetting a word in there, but really I was just totally wowed by their live set. For a man wearing (very) short blue shorts and a purple striped polo shirt, the lead singer of !!! had charisma in droves. Despite my weepingly aching feet, I found myself dancing harder than I have in a very long time, there on the dusty field.
I’ve been googling lead singer Nic Offer today (since I’ve decided to abduct him for a dance party, after that show – and that Prince outtake they covered!), and this quote from the A.V. Club profile on him pretty much sums it up in the very best possible way:
“A few years back, I perfected ‘The Prance,’ where you’re almost skipping in place and you have a look on your face that says “Nobody’s business, ain’t nobody’s business if I do!”
I do so adore a man who isn’t afraid to dance. As one of the best songs on their new album says, my intentions with him are unabashedly bass.
I packed into the giant sweaty tent for the ass-shaking extravaganza that was a Big Freedia show that I was promised would change my life (I never thought I would see a black man with a pompadour that impressive also have those sort of limber hips) and then almost died during Odd Future (no seriously) and evacuated the premises.
The last show I saw at SXSW 2011 was Rural Alberta Advantage at the Central Presbyterian Church late Saturday night. I have an affinity for the resonance of churches, and the simple quietude that is found in the shows that happen there. I am someone who is familiar with the interiors of churches, and lately shows like the RAA are the most deeply resounding and peaceful of the connections I make. Their set sounded fantastic: affecting, urgent, and honest. There was a simple joy, and words that needed to burn their way out. Their latest album Departing has been on non-stop repeat even before their set, but so much moreso after.
For their final song, they unplugged and walked down the red velvet aisle to stand among us and perform a stripped and perfect version of “Good Night.”
rush into the woods where we first felt god
ripple through our veins from the moment when we touched
When Nils threw his head back and the veins popped out on the side of his neck and he howled, “someday if you get it together in your heart / maybe we might get back together but good night….” I started crying and wasn’t even sure why, except for identifying with the longing permeating each syllable. It wasn’t a specific loss, rather a cumulative one.
I wandered alone through loud and colorful streets for about another hour, watching the expansive Laurel-Canyon sounds of Dawes for a few minutes from the street outside the crowded Lustre Pearl, but ultimately took my iPod, cued up Departing, and started the long walk home. The air was heavy and warm, and the as I crossed the river the almost-full moon was reflecting off the ripples. And of course, with so many songs ringing in my head, I was happy. There is no festival like this one.
The Decemberists were absolutely perfect last night in Boulder, in my first time seeing them live. I wrote of their new album that it is clear Colin Meloy and I are MFEO, and now I amend that to say TMFEO (totally made for each other). He is as engaging a frontman as my other favorite, Jeff Tweedy, and every single song they played, even the ones I didn’t know, were intricate, shimmering, smart, and galvanized us from the stage. The crowd participation (“Mariners Revenge Song,” anyone?) is truly amazing. I sang and screamed and swayed along as best I could.
This gem of “January Hymn” came halfway through the set and set me off into bliss. “What were the words I meant to say before you left?” So bittersweet.
The set closed with the bookend of “June Hymn,” and it was almost too sublime to breathe or say anything. It was exactly as I hoped it would be — a panoply of song.
Superb, superb show. Go see them live on this tour and get tix in advance — they are selling out many of the shows. And they just announced a second leg which starts in… Colorado Springs?! Uh, okay. Yes please.
DECEMBERISTS WINTER TOUR # with Mountain Man
+ with Justin Townes Earle
February 12, The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA#
February 13, House of Blues-San Diego, San Diego, CA#
February 14, Fox Theater, Oakland, CA#
February 18, Paramount Ballroom, Seattle, WA#
February 19, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR#
March 4, Vicar Street, Dublin, Ireland
March 5, ABC, Glasgow, UK
March 7, Birmingham Institute, Birmingham, UK
March 8, Bristol Academy, Bristol, UK
March 10, Manchester Academy, Manchester, UK
March 11, Leeds Academy, Leeds, UK
March 12, De la Warr Pavillion, Bexhill, UK
March 13, Trix, Antwerp, Belgium
March 14, Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands
March 16, Hammersmith Apollo, London, UK
April 16, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, CO+
April 17, Holland Performing Arts Center, Omaha, NE+
April 18, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA+
April 19, Overture Hall, Madison, WI
April 21, Benedum Center, Pittsburgh, PA+
April 22, Royal Oak Music Theatre, Royal Oak, MI
April 23, The LC Pavilion, Columbus, OH+
April 25, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI+
April 26, Iroquois Amphitheater, Louisville, KY+
April 27, The Pageant, St. Louis, MO+
April 29, House of Blues, Dallas, TX
April 30, Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheatre, Austin, TX
May 1, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, LA
May 2, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, Atlanta, GA+
So when your dayjob hands you lemons (uhh, Indianapolis in February?), I say you make a lemonade and whiskey mix, with a drive down to see a best friend in Nashville and an uncle along the way in Kentucky. And if it turns out that The Head and The Heart is playing at the Cannery Ballroom that night with Dr Dog, well heck that’s even better.
So this past weekend I rented a zippy car, drove across rivers, through snow, and past Elizabethtown — and found myself in Nashville for less than 48 hours. After a stop at the Flying Saucer, Bethany and I headed straight to the Cannery Ballroom, which was buzzing with excitement (and a long line outside by 7pm). First thing to delight me was that The Head and The Heart has proper merch now (they only had a suitcase of CDs last time I saw them at my house show): white vinyl 7″ singles of “Down In The Valley” b/w “Ghosts,” two sweet tshirt designs (I got the brownish one with raindrops) and posters, as well as download cards for their albums in advance of the Sub Pop physical re-release coming up on Record Store Day.
Down in the front waiting for The Head and The Heart to take the stage, I smiled to listen to the crowd around me talk about them. The excitement was palpable, and it was a shift to have so many people singing along to their lyrics around me, and so far from home (mine or theirs). This band keeps playing bigger stages –just announced: um, Sasquatch mainstage– and it is a joy for me to get to dance and sing along. And I am glad so many more are dancing along with me – their three part harmonies, their clever rhythms, all the smart lyrical twists continue to delight and convert new audiences.
And then wow, did Dr. Dog completely blow me away live. Their technicolor stained-glass stage and fuzzy-knit everything was the perfect visual metaphor for their music – explosive, bright, and warm.
They’re one of the best live bands I have seen in a long time — they’ve forever been on that list I keep running in my head of “I know I need to see this band, really” but never had until Saturday night. I was negligent in 2010 by not naming Shame, Shame one of my top albums of the year. I’ve been compensating the last few months by just listening to it on repeat and trying my hand at the resplendent harmonies, wishing I could shred a guitar like them.
The night ended just exactly like this video shows, shot two days before the Nashville show I was at (in fact many people appear to be wearing the same exact thing). The Head and The Heart joined Dr Dog on stage for a jubilant closing rendition of “Jackie Wants A Black Eye,” probably one of my favorite songs I heard all of last year.
“And we’re swapping little pieces of our broken little hearts….” Absolutely marvelous.
These two bands will pair back up to play the Pearl Street Music and Arts Festival in Boulder in May, and it was announced today that The Head and The Heart have been invited to play at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival June 16-19, one of the very best music festivals this world has to offer you. Telluride organizer Brian Eyster wrote to me last week to tell me that they’d booked the band, and said the opportunity was something that “we rarely if ever give to a young band like this… but we believe in them.”
Me too, Brian. Yay.
The Head and The Heart are playing another Fuel/Friends house show on the night of Saturday, March 12th, on the way down to SXSW. Follow Fuel/Friends on Facebook to be notified when I post all the details!
Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Langhorne Slim rock the gorgeous Boulder Theatre, just around the corner from where we did that excellent photo shoot and long, chatty interview in ’09.
I’ve raved before how marvelously anachronistic his rootsy music is, and how much I enjoy his raw, ragged, intelligent songwriting. He’s now touring with a band billing themselves as “Langhorne Slim and The Law” (with this rad hoodie I wanted). They shredded the banjo, the standup bass, and the drums, Avett Brothers-style. In fact, Langhorne is now working with Dolph Ramseur (who started the Avetts career) in a pairing that was a long time coming, but according to Slim, just feels right.
Someday I would really really like to see Langhorne backed by a full gospel choir. Can we make that happen, please? Langhorne also told me that they’re working on a new album for 2011 and I, for one, can’t wait.
He closed his set with this Leonard Cohen cover:
you kept right on loving, I went on a fast,
now I am too thin and your love is too vast…
…and she’s moving her body so brave and so free.
If I’ve got to remember that’s a fine memory.
LANGHORNE SLIM TOUR DATES # with the Avett Brothers March 21 @ Visulite Theatre – Charlotte, NC
March 22 – The Pour House – Charleston, SC
March 23 – Jack Rabbits – Jacksonville, FL
March 25 – Ruth Eckerd Hall – Clearwater, FL #
March 26 – McRaney’s Tavern – Winter Park, FL
March 27 – Bell Auditorium/Augusta Ent. Ctr – Augusta, GA #
March 28 – The Bottle Tree – Birmingham, AL –headlining March 29 – Classic Center – Athens, GA #
March 30 – Mercy Lounge – Nashville, TN
March 31 – Proud Larry’s – Oxford, MS
April 14 – Verizon Wireless Theatre – Houston, TX #
April 15 – Old Settler’s Festival – Austin, TX
April 16 – Palladium Ballroom – Dallas, TX #
June 4 – Wakarusa – Ozark, AR
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
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