November 11, 2010

to believe in this living is just a hard way to go

So, this happened last night…

Josh Ritter Hold Steady eTown 094

Josh Ritter and his talented Royal City Band played the final song, “Angel From Montgomery” with The Hold Steady. Never in a million years would I peg this pairing as one that would work, but it absolutely did. Listen for the eTown show in 6-8 weeks (like the secret decoder ring you sent away for in the mail).

During the eTown interview process last night, Josh spoke of how this current album So Runs The World Away feels for the first time like this is his party, a statement of his permanency, and that he’ll be making music for a long time. He headlines Denver’s Ogden Theater tonight, and I can’t wait.

November 7, 2010

carry us over the finish line / we can see the end but our feet are so tired

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On Friday morning I woke up dazed and residually sparkling from the previous two nights of music. It was as if you had dipped me into a vat of iridescence and it was still clinging all over me the next day, and still.

Wednesday night I finally saw Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives at the Larimer Lounge up in Denver (ooh! listen here!), a show and a band I have been looking forward to experiencing live ever since I became addicted to their album in August. The next night they came down to have dinner and play a show at my house, along with the breathtaking Kelli Schaefer.

It was my first experience putting together a house show, and it was every bit as gratifying as I had hoped. I see shows in venues by the scads all throughout the year and have the routine down pat: ID, wristband, stamp, bar, angle by the stage, small talk, lights go down, earplugs come out, rockrockrock, cheer. [end scene]. The things I love most about music are the connective, adhesive, lightning bolts of electricity that sometimes (if you are lucky) come out and zap you as you listen. I don’t know what you’re in it for, but that is what I am in it for. And a house show is the most undiluted way I’ve seen to get there.

On Friday morning I sent DGPW on their way with coffee and dragged myself to work, and tried to string together a few coherent words to friends by email about the musical earthquake I’d just experienced, including Sara Brickner who wrote the first review that caught my attention in the first place. I told her that I was speechless, and then revised that no, I was just reeling. “in the last song, when i was singing along to ‘it all comes right‘ with everything in me and we were all harmonizing with no mics and bending at the waist to get down deep in our souls and stomping our feet and whoa whoa whoaaaaa ing– …i was just happy. ‘frigatebirds, acme anvils, holy fucking shit.’ yes.”

I didn’t know that Drew has been making music for years, and the depths of his songwriting make a bit more sense given that he’s been honing his craft and his words for a while. All of the depth and musical diversity that’s present on the album floored the crowd both nights. I still am not any better at categorizing what it was like, though, what kind of music he makes. All songs share a penchant for incisive, thoughtful lyricism, but those words may be screamed over rowdy feedback in “Bootstraps,” catcalled in a dirty falsetto on bluesy tracks like “Company,” or nearly whispered in the communal pouring-out of spirit on “It All Comes Right.” You’re just gonna have to go see him live to figure him out. Trust me.



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But rewinding to Kelli Schaefer, who opened the set with just herself, her voice, and her bluesy sorrowful electric guitar. One local blogger likened the vibe in that room to Jeff Buckley and Grace, and I was pretty surprised to sit there for a moment and then agree with her. Every song had some bitingly sharp, beautifully conflicted, blindingly rich lyric and chord.

She closed her spellbinding set with a song from her 2008 Lasso The Moon EP, her and her guitar in a big open room:

Carry Us Over – Kelli Schaefer

Something about the first lines gut-punched me with the surprise of identification: “jesus, turn this wine back into water, so we can quench our poor thirsty souls.” It hit me as a rejection of the miraculous in favor of the necessary, a request for a little less magic and, perhaps, a little less grace. It caught my attention immediately and transfixed me into her songs for the hundredth time during her set.

I sat on the floor by the staircase, with Drew and several Pastors’ Wives scattered around me and behind me on the stairs. When she got to the chorus, “so carry us over the finish line, we can see the end but our feet are so tired / it’s obvious we’re useless on our own…” all of their voices picked up easily on the harmonies as if the walls were beginning to seep melody. It was the best kind of surround sound, and it made my heart split wide open. It was a moment I desperately needed, one of those moments of musical communion, redemption, and surprise. I need to be carried through on those waves, often.

Kelli has a voice that needs to be heard, broadly. She is one of the most immediately arresting, intelligent women I have seen perform in a very long time. Sharing the same Amigo/Amiga label with Drew Grow & The Pastors’ Wives, she is endeavoring to fund her debut full-length through the Kickstarter project, just as Crooked Fingers and many other worthy artists have. She is trying to raise the requisite $4000 by November 18th. Please check it out if you would like to pledge to her full album by buying it in advance (with some super cool extra perks). I just did.

It is true, as the Sound on the Sound blog says, that “this woman right here, she’s a hurricane.”

The Doe Bay Sessions – Kelli Schaefer

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[all photos from both shows at the Fuel/Friends Facebook Page]

October 28, 2010

so hold my hand, consign me not to darkness

Mumford & Sons played two new songs last night to a fervently enthusiastic crowd at their sold-out Denver show. One song, tentatively titled “Broken Crown,” was just written yesterday at soundcheck here in Colorado. You know, I was probably doing something like eating an apple at my desk at the same time they were out composing potent new songs like these — just, you know, at soundcheck.

The other new one, “Below My Feet,” is a slow-building piano-based shot of redemption, and was written in Melbourne this summer during their Australian tour. Both are compelling.

apologies for the few spots of fuzzy loud audio

Everything I wrote after I saw them in Telluride in June still holds true about their live show last night. What supernovas.

Setlist from last night posted over at Fuel/Friends Facebook page.

October 19, 2010

all the very best of us string ourselves up for love

The National ended their set just like this last night in Denver, and I was in the front row five feet away. I don’t think I can explain it more than to say that I stood there with tears running down my face. That show was one of the most amazing and deeply cathartic I’ve seen.

Leave your home, change your name
Live alone, eat your cake

Vanderlyle, crybaby, cry
oh the waters are risin’, still no surprisin’ you
Vanderlyle, crybaby, cry
Man its all been forgiven, swans are a swimmin’
I’ll explain everything to the geeks

All the very best of us
string ourselves up for love
All the very best of us
string ourselves up for love

Hangin’ from chandeliers
Same small world at your heels

All the very best of us
string ourselves up for love…

Setlist and photos from last night at Fuel/Friends Facebook.

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[this photo from last night by my friend Kate Z. who was standing next to me]

August 16, 2010

Adam Haworth Stephens is phenomenal live

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Five months ago, my friend Katie went to see Adam Haworth Stephens (of the San Francisco band Two Gallants) open for Rocky Votolato in Denver. I wasn’t at the show, but was on my computer later that night when an email popped in from her, raving about how amazing the opening act was. I could almost feel her glowing through the internet wires from excitement at this young man and his piercing music.

With her permission, I turned that email into a post about Adam. He’s been tearing up the touring circuit, wearing down the asphalt all across the US in the last few months, and last Thursday he finally came back through Denver, and I was there waiting with ready ears.

He was, in a word, phenomenally kinetic live. His well-crafted songs from an older acoustic EP sprouted muscles and all sorts of complex shading with the full band backing. The drummer was fantastic, and I pounded my hand against my thigh for almost the whole set. Their badass female bassist threw down solid basslines to anchor the melodies, and Adam sang with howl and conviction. The songs were riveting.

My charming British friend Paul asked me after the set what I was going to write about the show, why I couldn’t stop smiling, why I loved it so much. I told him I felt like I was watching a special artist. NME wrote that Adam “shares the same spirit as a young, reckless Johnny Cash, or a pre-electric Bob Dylan.” To that I would add a most obvious comparison to a twenty-something Neil Young, and of course the youthful intelligence of Conor Oberst (whose Nebraska label Saddle Creek is releasing Adam’s debut solo album). Those are all lofty comparisons. I felt he merited them.

lbj-153You can download the first song off his new album We Live On Cliffs (out 9/28) for free on his website in exchange for an email address:

STREAM: The Cities That You’ve Burned

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He announced at the end of his set, “I’m Adam Haworth Stephens, and, uh, we don’t have any music for sale tonight.” You could hear a groan ripple through the audience. If you’ve seen him live and were won over like we all were, perhaps this out-of-print Vile Affections EP can help tide you over until Sept 28th when the full-length is released. I’ve been listening to this EP a lot lately. If these songs show up on the debut album, it will be so interesting to see how they’ve filled out.

VILE AFFECTIONS EP
Lead In Our Lungs
The Heights of Diamond
Bitter Angel
The Miles We’ve Marched
Your Weight
Going To Germany
Twitch and Tremble in the Breeze (bonus)

ZIP: VILE AFFECTIONS EP



I also hope the new album has this song is on it — it was one of my favorites live:

Second Mind (live at The Independent in SF) – Adam H. Stephens



Adam just announced a tour with The Felice Brothers (“Frankie’s Gun” is still a song of theirs I never ever tire of, and this duet with Conor Oberst makes me deeply happy), which is a superb pairing. I adore The Felice Brothers. GO SEE ONE OF THESE SHOWS.

ADAM H. STEPHENS FALL TOUR

*w/ Blitzen Trapper*
Aug 17 – Spaceland, Los Angeles, CA
Aug 18 – Crepe Place, Santa Cruz, CA

*Headlining show*
Oct 2 – The Independent, San Francisco, CA

*w/ The Felice Brothers*
Oct 5 – Doug Fir, Portland, OR
Oct 6 – Tractor, Seattle, WA
Oct 7 – Media Club, Vancouver, BC
Oct 9 – State Room, Salt Lake City, UT
Oct 10 – Larimer Lounge, Denver, CO
Oct 12 – Waiting Room, Omaha, NE
Oct 13 – Triple Rock, Minneapolis, MN
Oct 14 – Turner Hall, Milwaukee, WI
Oct 15 – Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
Oct 16 – Magic Stick, Detroit, MI
Oct 18 – Mr. Smalls, Pittsburgh, PA
Oct 19 – 123 Pleasant Street, Morgantown, WV
Oct 21 – Capitol Theatre, York, PA
Oct 22 – Rock and Roll Hotel, Washington, DC
Oct 23 – Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA
Oct 28 – Harper’s Ferry, Boston, MA
Oct 29 – Met Café, Providence, RI
Oct 30 – The Chance, Poughkeepsie, NY
Oct 31 – MHOW, Brooklyn, NY
Nov 1 – Daniel Street, Milford, CT
Nov 3 – Jefferson Theatre, Charlottesville, VA
Nov 4 – King’s Barcade, Raleigh, NC
Nov 5 – The Handlebar, Greenville, SC
Nov 6 – The Earl, Atlanta, GA
Nov 8 – The Social, Orlando, FL
Nov 9 – Club Downunder, Tallahassee, FL
Nov 10 – One Eyed Jack’s, New Orleans, LA
Nov 12 – Emo’s, Austin, TX
Nov 13 – The Loft, Dallas, TX
Nov 14 – Sticky Fingerz, Little Rock, AR
Nov 15 – Proud Larry’s, Oxford, MS
Nov 17 – Headliners, Louisville, KY
Nov 18 – Southgate House, Newport, KY
Nov 19 – The Rumba Café, Columbus, OH



[other photos from the concert last week are on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page]

August 14, 2010

Lollapalooza 2010 shines

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Lollapalooza took over the massive lakeside green of Grant Park last weekend for its sixth year as a stationary festival in Chicago. I was unable to get myself to The Prairie State, and sent two talented writer-photographers to cover it for Fuel/Friends: Dainon and Kathleen. I ached with jealousy at their text and cell-phone pic updates all weekend long since it sounded like an incredible lineup.

Let them tell you about what rocked at this year’s Lollapalooza.



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Dainon: The sunshine and subsequent sunburn was as inescapable as the flip flop abrasions, the beer tents at every turn and enough music-filled stages to satisfy the most ADHD-addled music listener, but Lollapalooza delivered on its promises. It was about as sold out as festivals come (to the tune of 80,000 happy faces, by some estimates) and every band these eyes saw actually started on time, and everyone who offered, “Hello, Lollapalooza!” into a microphone was cheered and celebrated like crazy. It may as well have been its own hometown city, true enough. That’s the kind of pride that came along with its mention.

Kathleen: Friday dawned steamy and warm, but not overbearingly hot – which was incredible, given the fact that I naturally associate summer music with blinding melanoma-inducing heat. Instead I trekked over to my very first show, which was the Washington D.C based group, These United States. I have seen this band many times before, and yet my dancing feet don’t seem to remember to get tired of them. Their thumping, surging, pedal steel laced rock and roll created an optimism for the rest of the day in the committed crowd (commitment at a festival means getting out of bed before the headliner).

These United States
TUS

I wish I’d caught their whole set, but one of the issues I have with new places is my complete lack of direction. I circumnavigated Grant Park (approximately the size of the Earth) completely before finding my entrance. I actually felt myself perk up when I got to the These United States show, and I’m pretty sure I owe my consciousness and perkiness to those gents and their predilection for expansive, raucous rock.



D: Jeff Tweedy showed up during Mavis Staples’ set on Friday (something I’d sorta banked on possibly happening, considering he’s producing her next album), playing acoustic guitar for a couple songs while she sang lines only she could get away with in that setting, ones like “Only the Lord knows and He ain’t you” and “I’m gettin’ too close to heaven to turn back now.” I think Tweedy grinned wider and more than I’ve seen him do in the three full Wilco concerts.



The Walkmen
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K: The Walkmen seemed like such a throwback to me. Wearing nice slacks and ties, I almost thought they’d launch into some 1950s era doo-wop. Instead, I was met with a howl so full of conviction, I turned to the people next to me to see if anyone else was surprised. Instead, most people seemed to be expecting it, craving it. The Walkmen made a show out of rambling and reverb, out of bare-bones music that the band members seem to get lost in. I felt a mystery in their show, a depth like if they kept playing for five more hours it would end up in a place totally foreign to where it started.



The Strokes
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K: Closing the night Friday with their first show on American soil in four years, The Strokes seemed to be a last vestige of true, epic rock and roll. Julian Casablancas entered, five minutes late, wearing sunglasses and a studded leather jacket. He put his foot possessively on a front speaker and launched into the fiery guitar licks with a coolness that make the Strokes what they are. Their show was incendiary. I actually felt a fire in my belly that held in a tight little ball, expanding to a blaze whenever the poised melodies would break out into all hell, filling the night with revolutionary, explosive sound. The cheering blended right in to each song, people chanting along to Casablancas’ droning voice (myself included). It was anthemic, a show that somehow reflected and validated all the passionate air guitar that I’ve been perfecting since childhood, just for moments like this.

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D: When The Strokes took the stage, Lady Gaga was doing her thing way over on the other end of beautiful Grant Park. While a quick two or three glances in her direction revealed that people were determined to take in her set, even if they were a mile away and stepping on tiptoes to see the big screens, The Strokes forced us to look back fondly at the early 2000s, when their promise was far greater than their outcome. It didn’t rock us as hard as it felt absolutely comfortable to hear song after familiar song. Hearing the line “I want to be forgotten, and I don’t want to be reminded” sounded boozy and smirky and blurry, as it should have. It seems they’ve gotten over the whole buzz-band notion and allowed themselves to settle into their black leather and sunglasses and skin some more. This is a good— and maybe even great—thing.



DAY TWO: SATURDAY

Skybox
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K: Skybox is a boatload of local Chicago fun. It’s like they captured the essence of what makes me dance in front of people and put it in Tim Ellis’ voice. From the very get-go of their early Saturday set, I was smiling and jumping and making a general fool of myself to their complex, rich pop songs. It definitely helped that all four of them were dancing too, bouncing around stage and beaming in the same key as their relentlessly catchy tunes.



Harlem
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D: Once upon a time, I only knew one song by Austin’s Harlem. That song was “Friendly Ghost” and, every time it poked its head out of my shuffling jukebox of a laptop, it pounded itself on the chest like Tarzan and stomped on a bass drum pedal, and forced dancing feet. Their 35-minute set was one of the only ones I lasted all the way through for, partly because I thought I’d see a fistfight break out before it ended (sadly, it didn’t). It was all filled up with raw, short blasts of that unfiltered, unpolished, sweaty energy stuff. I’d venture they put more power into that single show than most bands do in a career. And you can take that nugget of truth to the bank and scrawl it on an album sticker. It’s deserved high praise, too. They may not be able to keep that going and they may burn out quick as they came, but at least they burned bright on that Saturday morning.

K: Harlem does not come from Harlem, I found out. It actually surprised me, what with the gritty, dirty rock they pump out, and their lack of conventional on stage niceties. These guys didn’t bother tuning in the beginning, argued with each other at the end of every final guitar lick, and yet…they were electric. It was a strange, sort of surreal experience to hear this teetering, crazed garage rock, the kind where the drumming sounds manic and the bass thumps unapologetically underneath spontaneous-sounding riffs that take over even a wide open festival ground. They absolutely commanded my attention, and drew me in as I thrummed from song to song with them, painfully aware of how straight-edge I am in the face of real rock and roll attitude. If they had been selling leather jackets anywhere near there, I would have bought one immediately.



Warpaint
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K: I had been waiting see Warpaint since my braggart friends returned with tales of psychedelic girl rock from SXSW this spring. I was not disappointed. Looking like kids playing dress up in Mardi Gras masks and tie dye shirts, these four women launched themselves into their set with a level of commitment that made me feel as though I was sucked into a vortex of melting, earthy music. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman have these liberated vocals that just wrangle audiences. What shocked me was their floating, ethereal sound was still full of sharp edges, spikes, and dips. It was anything but just a pretty face. They also skipped right over their single from their debut album Exquisite Corpse, “Billie Holiday.” You know it’s a great show when they blow by the song everyone knows and no one seems to miss it.



The National
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K: I hadn’t seen The National before Lollapalooza. I hadn’t seen them, but the number of times I’ve listened to, cried to, felt to The National far outstrips almost all other bands for me. So I practically launched myself across Grant Park to be one of the first people in front of the Playstation stage. Matt Berninger already had a green bottle of white wine chilling in a big plastic bowl on the stage, and the setlist taped where my zoom lens could find it. And just like it told me, when the guys strolled out, they launched into “Runaway.” Berninger has a baritone that socks me in the windpipe with its haunted depths every time. Live it was even better. I was rooted to my spot, blown away by the shifting, glowing soundscapes they were able to use to fill the enormous Grant Park.

national wine

Berninger carried himself with the grace of someone from faraway and long ago, like he should have a maroon leather wingback chair and a roaring fire at all times. They completely flattened me with their devastating performance, both tight and yet not the same as listening to the record. It was real and tangible, and offered a jagged edge that made the dangerous, sometimes downright mean, themes of their songs come to living, breathing life. I have to say, as I pulled myself away from the emptied stage, I felt sad and satisfied at the same time – as though I could not have handled more soul stretching, but that I hungered for more, like a musical masochism. Extreme? Possibly. Don’t psychoanalyze me, I didn’t write the music.

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[Dainon's take on The National is here. It was so good he needed an entire post. And this happened to a friend of mine and his kiddo - pretty rad.]



DAY THREE: SUNDAY

The Antlers
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K: It was raining on Sunday morning, but that didn’t stop my determination to see The Antlers perform in muddy Grant Park. So I slapped a plastic bag over my camera and secretly wished the park was connected by a network of Slip ‘N Slides. Though that wish wasn’t granted, I did get to witness the painfully beautiful Antlers set. Antlers deliver the same shiver and ache on stage that they do on their records. Their sparse presence on the massive stage lent itself well to their songs, which talk about death and loneliness and layers in life. Granted, not the usual festival fare, but it was so fitting to be standing in the silver drizzle listening to songs about real things sung with such passion. It was grounding, and a fantastic breath before diving into what would end up being a hot, humid day.



The Ike Reilly Assassination
ike reilly

K: The Ike Reilly Assassination is a band I first heard about through this same blog, and I was so excited to go see the Chicago group tear my socks off and incite me to jump up and down. And sonically, they did just that. Unafraid to be loud, and delighting in having the whole audience sing along to “Valentine’s Day in Juarez,” I felt like the stage was filled with my crazy uncles at Thanksgiving dinner. Not the annoying crazy ones that pinch you, but the fun ones that you know might be a little drug addled from younger days with unforgettable stories that they just might tell you if you keep the brandy coming. The Ike Reilly Assassination put so much energy into their rollicking show, I would be surprised if they could walk afterward. It was the kind of performance where drum sticks crack and guitar strings snap, crackle, pop, and everyone’s smiling about all the fun coming out of it.



Mumford and Sons
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K: I’ve wanted to see Mumford and Sons ever since their release of Sigh No More last year. I’ve yearned to see them. While I was waiting, along with the rest of the people in attendance at Lollapalooza it seemed, I was already getting a little giddy thinking of their joyful harmonies and liberated banjo rolls. A moment after Marcus Mumford (and people who are not, technically, his sons) took the stage, they swept me away immediately with the title track off the aforementioned album.

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Their music builds, it swells, and it takes me along until it all crashes into runaway melodies that seem composed of innocent wildness. Even better was watching their faces, because they mirrored ours. They had a shining newness on stage that showed no hint of the pretension that could come along with such success. Their sound filled me up from the inside instead of sweeping around me; it held me and moved me, and yes, I did get tears in my eyes. There is such a fearlessness in Mumford and Sons. When they perform it is intimate and real and consuming. It left me breathless.



Frightened Rabbit
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frightened rabbit

K: Frightened Rabbit is an eviscerating experience. Hailing from the gray moors of Scotland, Scott Hutchison’s lonely wail can transform into a heartwrenching, cracking scream in a single turn of phrase. Standing amidst a huge crowd of people who knew the words to all their songs, just as I did, was comforting but strange. For such cry-into-your-whiskey music, it seemed I had a lot of comrades who related. I loved when Hutchison would abandon words all together and throw in extra howls and punctuated with guttural “oh”s, like the cracks went too deep to express with simple human language. And yet, people danced. That’s the amazing thing about Frightened Rabbit for me, they revel in the muck of life. They yell and scream about the things that go the deepest, and do so in a way that makes you throw out your limbs and give yourself to the simple act of moving. Not forward, not backward, just moving so you know you’re not a bag of sand.



Arcade Fire
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K: Closing the festival, Arcade Fire was a massive conglomeration of complete mayhem on stage – people switching instruments, lights flashing, sensory overload. And yet it all coalesces into a technicolor sort of sonic boom. I was amid the tens of thousands of people yelling along to the lines as we were all pulled into the strange video projected on the high stage. They were passion personified, their energy never flagging, their voices always threatening to bust at the seams and spill out into chaos. It felt like being part of a rock opera, especially when they moved to songs from their newest release The Suburbs. It was a whirling two hours of exhausting their musical library, satisfying people who came for old and new.

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Everyone in Arcade Fire is a star, which completely surprised me. No one seemed to outshine the other, which made it a white hot spectacle that required a lot of time to let it sink in. I couldn’t help but get a buzz off everyone listening; from right up front to the street people gathered and singing, the music not losing any of its power with distance. There could not have been a better closer. Arcade Fire has never been one of my favorite recorded bands, but after experiencing them in the heavy Chicago night air, I don’t think I can forget the way I felt a part of that celebration onstage and off, a culmination of musical experience and community – with a light show.

arcade fire 4



Dainon: Maybe what I’ll most remember of Lollapalooza this year will be showing up an hour before The National started, while MGMT sang softly at my back. But that’s only the beginning.

When Matt Berninger came out and sang what amount to sad, twisted love songs, holding no emotion back, when he rushed forward to the spot I was and I reached out and touched him on the hand and microphone and looked into what amounted to being very sad, dark eyes, that was the unexpected middle.

As for the end? It came with dragonflies overhead and Arcade Fire singing “No Cars Go” as my legs very nearly buckled and I sat on an offered chair instead of a mound of cool grass. That long moment, the one that lasted for a number of hours, I like that I will never be able to unforget it. What’s more, it’s a movie that comes with a soundtrack, an impossibly, gorgeous summertime one.

Thanks, Chicago. Thanks, Perry. I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to do another one of these, but, as a first and last time, it was a success all over the place.



PS – Best overheard quote during the very crowded xx set: “Whoa! This is like the real version of Facebook! Hey, are you my friend?!”



MORE PICTURES

Grizzly Bear
grizzly bear

The Black Keys
black keys

The Big Pink
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A big, pink fan at The Big Pink
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the xx
the xx

See you in 2011?
Lollapalooza997

[all of Kathleen's pictures from all three days can be seen here]

June 25, 2010

Telluride Bluegrass 2010 (or: two of my favorite shows in two days)

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The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a behemoth of goodness and gorgeousness. Nestled in the crevasse of huge mountains, surrounded by forests and rivers (I kept thinking of the Josh Ritter lyric, “The lake was a diamond in the valley’s hand” all weekend), it definitely wins for musical escapism. I spent last weekend at the 37th annual festival that brings a loosely-defined group of bluegrass musicians together in the mountains of Colorado, far from where the direct roads and highways go. Six or seven hours from the most populated areas of the state, it seemed like a wonderland when we arrived.

I felt like a bit of an interloper, coming to the festival for the less-traditional indie artists with crossover appeal. I was absolutely there for the opportunity to see Josh Ritter and Mumford & Sons, each playing Nightgrass shows in teensy 250-person venues. It was an added bonus for me to see artists like Ben Sollee, Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, and the Court Yard Hounds (2/3 of the Dixie Chicks, who I forgot how damn much I used to like). I’ll admit I was unfamiliar with many of the other musicians, being fairly unsteeped in the bluegrass tradition, but interested to hear whatever I could absorb.

On Thursday, I woke at 5am-something in my comfortable bed, threw my tent and sleeping bag into the trunk, and set off into the mountains. The drive that is quickly becoming one of my favorites in Colorado (tracing the Arkansas River) passed quickly, and I got to the festival minutes before Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band were scheduled to start. I walked down into the breathtaking mainstage area as his opening strums of “Southern Pacifica” were just beginning. Electrified, I hustled to plant myself right in the front of waves of his songs carrying out towards the mountains on all sides. Looking out between songs, Josh mused, “This is as good as it gets.”

Telluride 2010 044

He interspersed songs from his new album (like “Lantern” and “Folk Bloodbath”) along with some of my favorites like “Girl In The War” –I cried at these lines– “Monster Ballads” and “Kathleen.” It was also wonderful to hear a few real old ones like “Harrisburg” and “Me and Jiggs” (we are all half-crazy, and all at least half alright, indeed). I haven’t seen him live since summer ’08, and I can report that his ebullient enthusiasm is still 100% intact. The crowd cheered with as much strength as you can squeeze out of folks at 3pm on a gorgeously sunny Thursday, many hearing him for the first time. Josh looked out at the colorful crowd and laughed: “I had a lot of things to say but . . . I’m speechless.”

MY BRIEF VIDEO OF “LANTERN” @ TELLURIDE

After his set, I went to set up camp and I had gotten a parking ticket and didn’t even care. That’s what Josh Ritter does to me; careless disregard for parking laws and other mundane things of this society.



I missed the Dave Rawlings Machine set while I attended to the necessary work of tent-constructing, but I heard the glorious strains of “Look At Miss Ohio” weaving their way to the campsite as I pounded stakes. As the afternoon turned to evening, I walked over to the Fly Me To The Moon Saloon to interview Josh Ritter. You’ll hear more about this soon, but it was as marvelous as I had hoped. What a gem of a human being, as well as a songwriter and performer.

After our interview and hugs concluded, I caught just a few songs of the heavenly-voiced Alison Krauss’ set back at the main stage (she really does sound that pure and untarnished in real life, and it is amazing). My favorite part of the set was probably “Down To The River To Pray” with Union Station — the bookend to hearing another song from the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in California last summer. There’s something about bluegrass music that just sounds so right amongst the trees on a late summer afternoon.

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Then it was back for my second Josh Ritter show of the same day. I thought that the night concert was even better than the daytime one for me, because a) I like the nightlife and b) it was shoulder to shoulder in a small venue, the energy concentrated in every song. This one was more fiery, more urgent, more sweaty as we danced together in the tiny basement club. Moments that I remember especially clearly:

-getting to hear both “Wolves” and “Snow Is Gone” in the same set, songs that have meant a lot to me in the past year and just rupture beautifully live.

-a completely heartbreaking-in-every-way cover of Springsteen’s “The River” — the room felt so heavy and overwhelmed when he sang those lines, “now I act like I don’t remember, and Mary acts like she don’t care…”

-turning out every light in the house and singing an acoustic version of “In The Dark,” one that we all sang along to in near-reverence, and I cried like a girl with a skinned knee. Or maybe skinned heart.

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Ed Helms from The Office is a huge bluegrass fan, and an Oberlin alum like Josh, so he came up on stage to play banjo during “Next To The Last Romantic” (the kid next to me said to his friend, “WHOA. He looks just like Andy Bernard from The Office!”). Rocking:

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Finally, for the closing encore song, the whole band came out and stood arm-in-arm, next to Josh on acoustic guitar, and we all joined in to sing “Wait For Love (You Know You Will).” It’s the last song on 2007′s The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and those closing minutes just overflowed with warm feelings — a mutual encouragement to us all. I was amazed for some reason at how everyone there seemed to know all the words, even on the verses. He certainly has created a legion of dedicated fans.

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The band left the stage and the crowd started to gather their things, but Josh closed with this, all by himself, hands clasped behind his back. It felt like a benediction.



Friday started quite pleasantly, hearing the strains of Kentucky cellist Ben Sollee from the main stage as I toweled off from my camp shower ($3 in quarters for five minutes of hot water, a very decent trade). With my hair still wet, I meandered over to see him open the day with his plaintive, elegant, curious, articulate music.

Ben had opened for Josh Ritter the night before, but I was so overwhelmed and out of it from the interview that I was glad for the chance to see him again clear-headed. This extremely talented guy does wondrous things with a cello, an instrument I love. The resonance of a cello is swollen with sadness to my ears, like a lugubrious river, but Ben’s voice of clever levity cuts through it like a sharp speckled rock, parting the current.

I have been listening a lot in these past months to his new album Dear Companion (Sub Pop, 2010) with Daniel Martin Moore (produced by Jim James and starring a few of those rakish These United States-ers), as well as his 2008 debut album Learning To Bend. Ben’s songwriting is quick and intelligent, and he continues to grow marvelously as an artist. I highly recommend his music.

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After a few afternoon hours spent putting as much of our bodies as we could stand into the crystalline glacial river, while the bluegrass floated from the stage in the background, we dried off and headed in for the Court Yard Hounds. Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were back at the Telluride festival on the 20th anniversary of them first winning the band competition as teenagers, back before they became Dixie Chicks and ruled country radio.

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I was dazzled by them, their poise and beauty and sparkles, and how they rocked such a wide variety of instruments – fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro. They referred to their new album as being not only a divorce album, but also one about finding love, and covered Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight,” a song Emily said got them through some dark times. The only Dixie Chicks song they played was the bluegrass instrumental, “Little Jack Slade.”

Three little girls stood right in front of me by the stage, all 5 or 6 years old, twirling and dancing in various tutus and wands and tie dyed clothes. I thought about what women they are for those girls to look up to, literally and figuratively. They were strong and confident, and I was drawn to the emotional rawness and feistiness on their new songs. After they finished, and I caught me some Lyle Lovett and his (no kidding) Large Band, it was Friday night, and it was time for the Mumford & Sons show.



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There is something primal and exceedingly honest in the harmonies and vocal melodies of London quartet Mumford & Sons, especially when you’re standing five feet away from their kickdrum that often provides the only percussion, and hits like a mallet to the sternum. I’ve loved them unabashedly since the first time I heard them, and I named their Sigh No More album one of my favorites of 2009. Telluride on Friday night witnessed their very first proper show in Colorado — and I imagine I will never again see a band playing their first show in a state where absolutely everyone sings along to every word, jumping giddily so hard that the floor bounces. The reception in that room blew me away, and led me to predict that this band will soon grow as huge in the States as they are in the UK, with as wide of an audience as their music deserves.

I’ve had a really difficult time trying to figure out how to tell you all about this show. I was talking to my best friend Bethany on the phone yesterday, trying to articulate what it was that so confounded me, satisfied me, and left me speechless and breathless all at once. “There’s a memory in our blood of people singing together the way those guys do,” she mused. “It triggers something bigger and older than us.” I’ve struggled to write about their show because it was so intense and meaningful, and as I wrote earlier in the week, one of the best shows I have absolutely ever seen.

Through a towering wall of power, their songs wrestle with love and grace, redemption and loss, struggling to be a better man — sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing and burning. It’s the most relatable music I know of these days, on an acutely personal level, and seeing them blow the roof off live just about overwhelmed me in the best possible way.

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The basics: 300 people at a very sold-out show in the Sheridan Opera House, built in 1912 and still boasting the old warm globe lights around the stage, hand-painted detail on the balcony front. They started their set long after midnight with their four voices rising together for “Sigh No More,” quickly launching into “Awake My Soul” and an explosive rendition “The Cave,” then a huge new song called “Lover of the Light,” featuring lead singer Marcus Mumford behind an actual drum kit, instead of standing up and playing the bass drum while he strums. There was an ineffable joy and powerful hope rising up from the crowd – watch this video of “Roll Away Your Stone” from a few weeks ago in Los Angeles with the band The Middle East. I think we all felt like that.

After “Timshel” and “Little Lion Man” (crowd went nuts for their big single), they did “After The Storm,” “Dustbowl Dance,” an older song “Sister,” and another new song called “Nothing Is Written.” A tremendous version of “White Blank Page” was their encore. After those lines about “tell me now, where was my fault / in loving you with my whole heart?” at about three minutes into the song, the instruments cut out and that stirring vocal interlude begins — man, you can’t write it, but it’s the “ahhhhh, ahhhhhhhh, ah ah ah….” part (see? words fail me). The whole room started singing, louder and louder, and the walls were soaking in it and vibrating as we sang. Then the band picked up the urgent higher harmonies, and it was the closest to church I’ve been in a while.

Like this, very very much:

(all of this girl’s videos from their Dallas show are very good, and replicate almost exactly my vantage point in the crowd, and the way this show felt to me)

I left their show feeling so thoroughly sated and completely without coherent words, which is rare for me who always has words, and lots of them, for most occasions. I stayed behind to shake each of the band member’s hands, just so I could say “thank you.” Just a simple, heartfelt thank you for what they just put me through, and for the seams they ripped open and then helped mend. All my receptors were vibrant and content.



Walking home from that show at 2am on Friday night still glowing, I passed Ed Helms again, playing banjo on a street corner jam session, then a few blocks closer to the campsite I came across (pretty sure) Peter Rowan calling impromptu square dancing steps while playing the fiddle to a roiling flailing bunch of colorful folks while the cops looked on, bemused with arms crossed.

I tilted my head back at the ten million stars, a sky so dark I could see the bands of the Milky Way, and crossed a footbridge over the singing river to my campsite. Someone had left glow bracelets and glowsticks scattered in the inky blackness to help me find my way home. Welcome to Telluride.

I smiled, and was very very happy.

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May 20, 2010

I grow a diamond in my chest :: The Tallest Man on Earth in concert

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I don’t know much about the principles of electricity, but I do know that there is something ephemeral and hard to contain about the blue-white volts. As I watched Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth, last night at the Bluebird Theatre, I thought of lightning and static, and how I could almost hear the electricity humming in the air around his tightly wound, wiry, small frame.

Matsson writes some of the most intricately plucked, passionately thought-out songs in my ears these days. His voice is insistent and pressing, enunciated and piercing. You can’t detect any accent from his native Sweden; in fact his rough voice actually does sound akin to the troubadour he’s often compared with (Dylan — not hard to see why). Watching him captivate the crowd, I wondered how anyone could think all folk music on an acoustic guitar was sleepy and rosy. Matsson powerfully channels the urgency of the best folk music of a generation past, comfortable in the soundtrack of today.

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For as jovial and talkative as Mattson was, during the songs he was unable to stand still. Each one seemed to be working its way out through his very skin, as he rocked back and forth and locked eyes with folks in the crowd, sitting down for a second only to stand right back up again. It was a kinetic experience. Josh Ritter has a similar undiluted enthusiasm for the crafting of his songs in a live setting, but where Ritter seems to joyfully birth each lyric with a palpable joy, Kristian’s songs feel hard-fought and sharp edged. There is an urgency behind each story he needs to get out. He roils and paces, struggling to let the muse and the melody pass through him authentically to the audience. Standing sometimes like a bird, his skinny legs would tuck and fold one on the other, perching.

The songs were nothing short of gorgeous, even as their words ran me through. Matsson is a master guitar player, inflecting subtle musical variations into the finger-picking patterns of the songs. The bluesy notes seemed to often hang golden and round in the air, practically visible in their radiance. There was a camaraderie there down in front by the stage, like we all knew a secret (while many at the back bar of the sold-out club talked loudly over him, the opener). He played several requests and acknowledged the requesters, hugged two fans pressed up against the stage, and leaned in amongst us every chance he got – dripping sweat.

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His music flows beautifully organic, rife with imagery of levees of stars, rivers and snow, and sparrows and bluebirds. But – there’s a dark and sometimes sinister undercurrent to the way Kristian sees the natural world. He’s not writing about the jasmine because it smells good, he’s writing about how it thrives based on the body buried beneath it. The secrets that we keep. The jealousies we foster.

It hit me as I watched him play just how damn much I have fallen in love with his music. As each song started (The Gardener, Where Do My Bluebird Fly, Love Is All, Pistol Dreams, Drying Of The Lawns, an exquisite King of Spain…) I kept feeling frissons of joy inside, thinking, “ooh! I love this song!” After the seventh time, I realized what I meant to say to myself is that I really just deeply love him , and appreciate his music. When I met him after the show, he gave me one of the tightest hugs I’ve yet gotten, and I swallowed hard and thanked him for making my life richer and my heart fuller. I know – cheeseball. But I’ve never claimed to be otherwise, and his music does do that for me, every time.

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Now you must listen. He closed his set with a fairly unknown new song, a bonus track from his new album The Wild Hunt (one of the best albums of 2010 so far, out now on Dead Oceans). And yes — holy heck, it stripped me bare and held me fixed.

Like The Wheel (bonus track) – The Tallest Man on Earth

…In the forest someone is whispering to a tree now
this is all I am so please don’t follow me
And it’s your brother in the shaft that I’m a-swinging
please let the kindness of forgetting set me free

And he said oh my Lord…
why am I not strong?
like the wheel that keeps travelers traveling on
like the wheel that will take you home

And on this Sunday someone’s sitting down to wonder,
‘Where the hell among these mountains will I be?’
There’s a cloud behind the cloud to which I’m yelling
I could hear you sneak around so easily

And I said oh my Lord…
why am I not strong?
like the branch that keeps hangman hanging on
like the branch that will take me home …



I am loving the album version above, but last night’s closing rendition was acoustic and simple with a guitar instead of the piano, and it possesses a separate kind of beauty:

Like The Wheel (live in Portland 5/11/10) – The Tallest Man On Earth



Other highlights? How about him bringing out his marvelous, wrenching cover of Paul Simon’s Graceland? (which I just learned Simon once said was the best song he’d ever written).

Graceland (Paul Simon) – The Tallest Man On Earth
(as if I didn’t know that…)



…and I still think –especially after seeing him do this one live last night– that the lyrics here remain my favorites of any of his songs:

I Won’t Be Found (Daytrotter version) – The Tallest Man On Earth



The Tallest Man on Earth has something to say. I think we should be listening.

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March 24, 2010

The warm musical embrace of SXSW 2010

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I was walking alone down Sixth Street on Friday night around 1am, listening to the music pouring out through every open window and door into the warm night air. My boots clacked on the asphalt as I tucked away a BBQ sandwich from a street cart to drown some of the Shiner Bock. Everyone I walked past had a smile and sometimes a nice word or even a hug. I felt so in my element, so alive.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2010 South by Southwest Music Festival this year with a sailor who informed me in detail that when reading a compass, south-by-southwest is technically a direction that doesn’t exist. I’d try to recreate the explanation but it’s sailor talk. In any case, I remember thinking how I enjoy that the only place SxSW exists is in a mythical land in Austin. It’s fitting.

A thousand people could go to Austin and have a thousand different experiences, and I love that about the crowded, sweaty, jubilant mess. No one I talked to saw (and loved) the same bands. The endless options for every time slot is simultaneously fantastic and heartbreaking. I surely missed more bands I wanted to see than those I made it to, but I made it to some marvelous shows that invigorated me and reminded me why I do this, why I love music.

Here’s what made this year’s festival for me:



LISSIE
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Lissie was everywhere, delightfully. This girl from Rock Island, Illinois has a voice that is even more potent and chill-inducing in person; it’s as if she has the force of a complete gospel choir of large black women lying in her belly waiting to explode through songs like “Little Lovin’” and “Everywhere I Go.” When she sang the latter at a nighttime show in St David’s Church, I actually got tears in my eyes from the lugubrious power of that sparse song. Later on that weekend I heard her cover Metallica from downstairs in Stubbs while I shook Bill Murray’s hand. Go figure.

Little Lovin – Lissie
[SXSW VIDEO: Here Before]



J RODDY WALSTON & THE BUSINESS
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J Roddy Walston & The Business felt like Jerry Lee Lewis meets Soundgarden, and in a completely insane way, it worked. I wrote about them a long time ago and said I absolutely wanted to see them live, so when they played the Little Radio party, I was there in the front row. I was speechless. All I could do was look at my friends with a glowing smile; “So bizarrely awesome,” Bethany replied. The bass player stood wide-stanced, thrashing his long locks around with a force I’ve not seen since junior high dances and headbanging to Metallica, while J Roddy pounded the piano and kicked over his chair. Whew.

Rock and Roll II – J Roddy Walston & The Business

[SXSW VIDEO]



ANDY CLOCKWISE
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Andy Clockwise from Australia also led me to use breathless descriptors of two artists I would never think of pairing together: Nick Cave and the Eels. Clockwise has 1,000-megawatt star magnetism, all swagger and quirky dance moves that I loved, and his music explodes into a supernova live — so much so that I went to see him twice. The fact that he came down in the audience, danced on the bar, handed me a Lone Star, and knelt and buried his face in my belly while we danced might have also helped things (I’m only human). Holy crap go see him live (and his fantastic band featuring my new favorite drummer, Stella) if you ever have the chance.

Sorry for the sometimes-shady video, but you get the fabulous idea — and know you wanted to be here:



THESE UNITED STATES
And speaking of superb live moments, These United States covered Violent Femmes! I was walking up Trinity Street immediately upon arrival to Austin when I heard this ridiculously catchy drumbeat cascading down from a window above. For some reason my brain flashed to thinking, “I wonder when that day party with These United States is?” After checking the schedule, I was thrilled that I had recognized them from their drummer warming up, and we jostled up the stairs to start our fest right. I saw them two more times at SXSW, their rambunctious, heartfelt country-tinged tunes are right at home in that environment, and I was delighted when they covered this (after some previous discussion on the matter):





JENNIFER KNAPP
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Jennifer Knapp – an artist I had no idea would be at the festival (there are always dozens of such pleasant surprises at SXSW, it seems) but one I loved a lifetime ago and made a point to see. She was a young Christian artist when I was in high school and early college, a warm alto voice full of Melissa-Etheridge-like power and conviction, fierce on the guitar. I knew she’d vanished for years and years and was now resurrecting her art apart from the church, as far as I can tell. Her new work belies years of struggle that I can relate to, and a grasping at what she can still hold. I was completely blown away, one of the top shows for both myself (as an old fan) and the sailor (as a newly-converted one). This song was towards the end, as she played to a riveted and packed St David’s Church, and she said it conjured up her “Bob Dylan side.” Her album Letting Go is out May 11. [SXSW VIDEO]

STREAM: Stone To The River – Jennifer Knapp

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JBM
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The music of JBM (Jesse Marchant) is completely entrancing, with his intricate guitar fingerpicking and pink moon stylings. Walking into the dark quiet of his show felt like a respite from the storm outside. The church hall was rapt and silent, and for good reason. He played this song using loops for the slide guitar part, and something in the timbre of his voice just breaks me. A friend told me a story of seeing Ryan Adams at SXSW ten years ago and if there’s any justice in the world, I feel like JBM could be an artist we look back on to this year and remember when.

From Me To You And You To Me – JBM



FYFE DANGERFIELD
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Guillemots frontman Fyfe Dangerfield was tipped by Mojo Magazine as one of Four To Watch at SXSW (alongside the XX, who I totally failed at seeing despite my best line-waiting efforts) so his 10pm showcase at Lambert’s was quite packed. And for good reason – his new album Fly Yellow Moon has my favorite single of the last forever [SXSW VIDEO], but also is laced through with these heartbreaking piano ballads and tunes like this one that can’t help but make your heart jump on up and cartwheel, if just for a moment:

She Needs Me (Monarchy remix) – Fyfe Dangerfield
(“I am yours, you can do what you like with me…”)



FRIGHTENED RABBIT
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Frightened Rabbit‘s sweltering daytime set at the Paste party was rife with technical difficulties from the start. Keyboards didn’t work at all, monitors went in and out, and finally the band decided on a minimalistic, stripped-down approach. “But you know,” Scott Hutchison said from the stage, “This the way it should be, isn’t it”? I completely agree. I liked hearing the visceral gut punch of the songs from their new album Winter of Mixed Drinks acoustic, and was only sad I missed a live performance of “The Loneliness and the Scream,” my favorite track on there. But since I was actively trying to avoid crying at the festival this year, perhaps that was for the best.

SXSW VIDEO: Keep Yourself Warm



JOE PUG

Chicago songwriter Joe Pug played a day party where people were chatty in the big bar, so he took the refreshing tack of asking the first three rows of us who were sitting down listening closely to join him by the stage. He came in front of the microphone and sang one of the most powerful songs on his new record (“Won’t you bury me far from my uniform, so that God will remember my face?”) with nothing between us to obscure things.



ELECTRIC PRESIDENT
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The final show I saw at SXSW this year was the Electric President set in the wee small hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, at a little venue on the far side of town. It was their first show in three years, and worth walking to in the cold Saturday night air. Their new album The Violent Blue has been on non-stop repeat around here for months. I was so dead beat from the festival that I remember this show as if through a haze, but I was deeply content to hear their intimate songs recreated live. Ben Cooper’s voice is, as he self-effacingly joked, “that of a twelve year old girl,” despite his brawny man appearance, and their songs simply shimmered in the loose, congenial midnight atmosphere.





A few other show impressions:

–I adored seeing The Damnwells live again and hearing a bunch of fresh material, including an announcement of a new album they are working on recording. Alex Dezen walked into the center of the tipsy midnight Paradise crowd to sing “Golden Days,” and for that song it felt so so right.

Jukebox The Ghost brought pleasingly nerdy piano-based rock to the WXPN dayparty, both classic and charmingly awkward.

The Scissor Sisters were highly hyped and I so wanted to enjoy them but I was not turned on by their set at all. Maybe it’s because I was freeeeezing all Saturday, and by their outdoor set at Stubbs I just wanted a hot tub and a hot toddy and other hot things. It felt stilted and not at all fabulous.

Matt Pond PA‘s Galaxy Room showcase set was one of the hardest things to get into all weekend. I hope that means word of his absolutely marvelous new album is spreading. He is a hardworking artist of the best kind, with literate songs that make all my insides happy. (new tour announced!)



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…And a few final favorite moments of SXSW 2010:

–Eating a fantastic Sunday brunch at Moonshine, which I am still full from, carrying on my favorite tradition started in 2009.

–Admiring the Hall & Oates coloring contest at Home Slice Pizza, and then participating in an “Only At South-By” restaurant singalong of “Hey Jude” in the very best possible way, everyone in full voice, with their whole hearts, sitting at their tables.

–Taking a ride from an elderly Austin native named Howard who drove a VW Rabbit with a handicapped placard. Go go renegade taxi services when you need one!

–Riding home on the airplane seated next to Creed Bratton from The Office and the epic ’60s band The Grass Roots. He’s my new favorite flight companion; we cracked each other up the whole two hours.



I missed seeing Hole at the SPIN party, and Warpaint who everyone raved about, and Local Natives, and the XX, and …and …and … but I did have a momentously marvelous time, drenched in the music. Anyone who doesn’t have a good time at SXSW might have their music-thingie irretrievably broken.

See you next year, Austin.



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March 2, 2010

Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug knocked my boots off last weekend

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Today as I drove from Ohio to Indiana and pondered what a Hoosier actually was, I listened to two artists who seemed to embody those snowy midwestern hills and endless highway: Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug. I paired their CDs together as homage to the fantastic concerts I saw last weekend in Denver: one at the Bluebird with the both of them, and then a house concert on Sunday night with just Joe Pug in a breathtakingly intimate living room setting in Boulder.

Relentlessly polite and wholeheartedly earnest, Justin Townes Earle seemed to have landed from another era completely, but his music rang true and struck directly. If I were casting a movie set in 1940s Atlanta, and I was looking for a counterweight to the golden guy that the girl is going to marry, a man who shows up perhaps selling hairbrushes or snake oil with a half smile and the promise of adventure – I’d cast JTE in a heartbeat. His lanky, super-slim frame draped with a classy suit just a fraction too short as he threw himself wholeheartedly into the performance of his songs. The cover art of his 2009 record Midnight At The Movies shows Justin sitting next to a gorgeous starlet in a movie theater, drenched in green light and a flickering glow, and in so many ways that is how his music feels.

Justin fully seems to somehow straddle the world of WWII America and the bluegrass hills and Appalachians, as well as the modern alt-country rock scene – even some intangible nod to the punk aesthetic. 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.

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His music surely feels old-timey, all waltzing rhythms and “yes’m” tips of the lyrical hat, but seeing him live cemented for me that his earnestness makes all the difference in making this still feel like a vital, youthful genre. There is no shtick that I could detect. This is the style of music he makes, and he means it no less than Nirvana or Thao Nguyen or any other number of young folks in passionate bands.

Justin dedicated a bittersweet end-of-the-night rendition of “Midnight At The Movies” to Chris Feinstein (aka Space Wolf), bassist for Ryan Adam’s Cardinals who died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in December. They were apparently NYC neighbors. The slow-wheeling song was one of the sweetest things I’ve heard out in the night air in many months – it was a 3am slow dance, the bartender wiping the tables, the snow falling somewhere very far away from these warm walls. But then lest you forget his range of influences, he also covered both Buck Owens, the Carter Family, and The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (with stand-up bass and fiddle), alongside his own well-crafted tunes.

There’s a part in movie Crazy Heart that I’m probably going to misquote, but when Jeff Bridges is picking at his guitar, writing a song, and he asks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character if she knows the song, and she’s sure she already does. “The best songs are always the ones you think you’ve heard before,” he tells her – and that’s precisely how I felt the first time I heard this song:

Midnight At The Movies – Justin Townes Earle

Justin also recently recorded a Dolly Parton cover with Brooklyn artist Dawn Landes:

Do I Ever Cross Your Mind – Justin Townes Earle & Dawn Landes



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While on-stage, Justin also referred to opener “Joe Fucking Pug” as having put out one of the best albums of the year (an assessment I can get behind), and even though I only caught half his set due to a persistent snowfall, Joe completely blew me away. Again. As always.

Pug is a songwriter of uncommon weight and heft, and rare purity and conviction. If you’ve gotten jaded as to the effect that a simple well-written song can have when howled and emoted from the main stage, under the dust particles swirling in the stage lights, just go see Joe Pug (or Josh Ritter, for that matter) and have those convictions washed off and set aright. His set was an unrelenting cavalcade of identification with so many of the sentiments he elucidates, using only the right number of words and devastating acumen.

jpback4005_poster

Then, two nights later I got to see Joe Pug again, packed shoulder to shoulder with 45 other people, on the couch and in the kitchen and kneeling on the floor in the living room of a home modestly-sized for half that many friends at best. I feverishly noted the setlist, since I had the overwhelming feeling that I was witnessing the best show I might see this year. Maybe ever. Hard to say.

JOE PUG – HOUSE SHOW
Nation Of Heat
I Do My Father’s Drugs
Unsophisticated Heart
Hymn #35
Nobody’s Man
The Door Is Always Open
Speak Plainly Diana
Called By Many Names
(unreleased song)
These Days
Sharpest Crown
Hymn #101

I’ve never been to a house concert before Backforty Presents made this one possible. I was startled by the intimacy, as I think many of us were. I am used to (and prefer) my shows small and earnest, but often with the artificial barrier between performer and audience hedged cleanly by the drop-off of the stage to the sticky floors below. As eager as I was, it felt almost too intimate at times, especially given the songs he performs – sharper at excising things from my heart than any scalpel. It would be akin to kissing a stranger at a loud, smoky nightclub or kissing them on a quiet Sunday morning at the sun-drenched kitchen table. In such close quarters, there is nowhere to hide.

Joe is amiable and has grown, even in the last year, to become a more confident performer (no doubt a byproduct of the sheer insane number of shows he’s played). But again, the intimacy of this show and the immense wall of camaraderie reverberating back to him seemed to also take him a bit by surprise. As the final note from opening song “A Nation Of Heat” died out into the suburban condo living room, the thunderous applause that rained down like a tidal wave might have even made his eyes shine with a bit of extra glossiness as he broke into a wide smile, if my perceptions were correct. And I felt the same way.

“Not So Sure” is a gem of a song from the new album, chronicling a gnawing disillusion, with ennui mushrooming in its lyrics. When Joe stood four feet from me, stared somewhere intensely at the back wall, into space, while he plucked the opening notes and launched into lines like: “I bummed expensive cigarettes, I wrote John Steinbeck’s books / I undressed someone’s daughter, and complained about her looks” – I was done for. Then it happened again and again with his songs piercing us all, peaking at the final “Hymn #101” in front of my nose. That is such an incredible song, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it in an environment like that.

Not So Sure – Joe Pug (from his new album Messenger)

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (from his Nation of Heat EP)



After seeing Joe Pug (twice) and Justin Townes Earle in the same weekend, I woke up Monday morning feeling a radiant, warm glow tingling around me like an aura. Did that really happen? Do shows like that still occur, despite the jadedness of life?

It did, and they do.



[See all of my photos from the show on the Fuel/Friends Facebook fan page; house concert photo credit Todd Roeth]

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Bio Pic 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. If you represent an artist or a label and would prefer that I remove a link to an mp3, please email me at browneheather@gmail.com

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