Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 - The Year in Shows

This wasn't the best year for me and live music. You get older, you have less energy, and you eventually slip off your pace. It happens.

I can't necessarily say that I did my best......In fact, I can't even come up with a list of ten shows worth noting. In 2011 I'll try to improve on that. In the meantime, here are the shows of the year.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros at the 9:30 Club

This show hardly deserves to make the list. But after hearing about their career-making performance at SXSW in 2009, I'd looked forward to seeing Edward Sharpe for about a year before finally catching this show. And I won't lie: they absolutely disappointed.

To start with, the band went on late, announcing to the audience that co-vocalist Jade Castrinos had gone missing prior to the show. Three songs into the set, the chick finally emerges, leaping and bounding onto the stage with an exuberance usually reserved among adults as the result of pharmaceutical enhancement.

Then, the band timidly announced that they would take an unscheduled 25 minute intermission (THREE SONGS IN!) while the people in the crowd milled about and stared at one another, none knowing exactly what the hell had just happened.

The show eventually resumed, but with such a bad start, it was more or less hopeless from there. Castrinos even botched the lyrics to the band's signature song. What on Earth could be said for them at that point?

You could say that I was dismayed by the unprofessionalism, but those words put too fine a point on it: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros didn't have their shit together on the very most basic levels, and that's not acceptable. It's unacceptable when you're playing around the corner at the Velvet Lounge, it's unacceptable when you're playing RFK Stadium with Metallica, and its unacceptable when a record company has scored you a gig at the sold out 9:30 Club.

Free Love at the Black Cat Backstage

With their over-sized ensemble, high-energy performance, infectious positivity, and general hippie-cult sensibilities, it would be reasonable to say that Free Love was aping Edward Sharpe's schtick.

Except they did it a small room, hitting on all of their cues, and actually appearing to enjoy themselves.

Free Love is what Edward Sharpe seems to have been two years ago when I first heard so many great things about them.

Los Campesinos at the 9:30 Club

As intrigued as I'd been with this hyper-pop band from Wales, they were not my first pick this evening. Now when the band of the moment, Frightened Rabbit, was playing a sold out show across the neighborhood at the Black Cat.

I was far from the only person left out of that show, but I didn't pout for long; the fact that Los Campesinos was playing on the same night seemed like a fairly equitable consolation prize. And knowing that most of the city's hipsters would be at the Black Cat, I looked forward to a more intimate evening at a larger venue.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into a nearly packed 9:30 Club!

Now, I'm far from certain how I feel about indie and punk music making to the masses the way that they have in the past five or six years. And I'm even less certain how I feel about Shaw being overrun with the types of frat boys and blond chicks that I spent so many years in the deep, dark city
specifically to avoid.

But I can't deny that this evening - a weeknight evening when independent music drew not one but two full crowds to hear bands that received zero radio play - struck me as less of a turning point and more of a tipping point for Washington as a destination once again for independent UK musicians on tour.

Phosphorescent at the Black Cat Main Stage

As I mentioned earlier on, the older I get, the fewer chances I take on live music. But I have to admit that I was glad to have run out to see Phosphorescent after randomly seeing the video for "It's Hard to Be Humble When You're From Alabama" on

While the set was far more firmly on the side of "real country" than alt-country, it was a very worthwhile divergence from more typical Black Cat fare. Moreover, the bookends of the set - the afore-mentioned "It's Hard to Be Humble..." (a contender for my song of the year, by the way) and a beautiful cover of Willie Nelson's "Reasons to Quit" were outstanding ways to open and close out a weeknight show. Excellent spur-of-the-moment decision.

Roky Erickson at the Black Cat Main Stage

Almost nothing should be appealing about the idea of putting a 60-something schizophrenic recluse (with only a small handful of very obscure hit singles from the 60s) on the road for a club tour. I had reservations; to be honest, the possibility for a disappointment -- or worse, a disaster -- wasn't far from the back of my mind.

Besides all that, I've already gone through that embarrassing phase of seeing old rock stars do reunion tours, and with very few exceptions, it's just hard to get excited about the mythology of it all anymore.

That being said, I guess I didn't know exactly how excited I was to see Roky until he shuffled out on stage and carved out the opening chords to "A Cold Night for Alligators", followed by a sandpaper bellow that has gotten rougher and stronger through the lost years.

It would not be overstating things to say that there was something legitimately awe-inspiring by his performance; having shuddered my way through the excellent documentary on Roky's struggles with the mental health system, its truly heartbreaking to know how much the guy has surrendered over the years. But because of that, it was also inspiring to see him clutching onto the one thing he can still do effortlessly.

I couldn't tell you much of what he played after the second track, an outstanding take on "Two Headed Dog". I didn't really care, either. By that time I had gotten a whole lot more than what I'd come for.

The Joy Formidable at the Black Cat Back Stage

Read the review here.

Washington City Paper review had a line that summed this one up perfectly:

"Every once in a while, a band comes to one of Washington's smaller venues and puts on the sort of performance that ensures everyone present that they will never play in a space that small ever again."

Lamb of God at Star Live (Beijing)

Just like last year's Lamb of God show, I've been promising myself that I'd write a traditional "ticket-stub-and-a-story" entry about this show for nine months now, so I'll try and do the short version here:

In April, I happened to meet Randy Blythe and John Campbell of Lamb of God, while touring the Forbidden City in Beijing. I was on vacation; they were on a tour through Asia, and playing their first concert ever in China that week.

(I should mention in here that despite my generally being down on American metal for being sort of dumb and drunk and violent for a better part of the past fifteen years, LOG is, in fact, my favorite metal band these days. In fact, I'd seen them for the first time at the 9:30 club maybe six months earlier, for an absolutely astounding show, and it was purely a coincidence that we were in China at the same time. I swear.).

Randy and John were unbelievably friendly, posing for photos, asking questions, and generally prolonging the conversation well past the point where I felt (as a fan) that it was time for me to move on. (Best story: Randy informing us that the Chinese government had canceled their date that week in Shanghai, because it was too worrisome to have "a religious band" playing in town during the run-up to the much-ballyhooed World Expo. Awesome.)

They also went out of their way to ensure that my fiancee and I made it onto the guest list for the first of two shows that week.

The show itself was perhaps a step or two behind the complete blitzkrieg they unleashed on Washington the previous winter; Randy had admitted to me that they were only a few dates into the tour, and that the jet lag was still pretty severe. (I's believe it...the first week in Asia, its nearly impossible to stay up past 10:00 PM; mid-afternoon tends to be a little grouchy as well).

But you couldn't tell from watching the crowd. It was clearly a big deal to have an American metal band play Beijing, and the crowd demonstrated that - a mix of shaved-headed Chinese youth up front in the pit; old-skool, stringy-haired metalheads in the middle and to sides; and a whole lot of very curious music fans who seemed to simply be taking advantage of the opportunity to catch an real, live metal show.

It was kind of a big deal to me, too. Show of the year, hands down. Many thanks to Neil Yueng in Shanghai for tipping me off that LOG would be in town, to Randy and John for inviting us out, and to my fiancee for being up for the adventure and picking this as her first metal concert.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ah, the holidays.

A time at which we put aside our petty differences to compulsively stress over meeting the conflicting deadlines of finding the perfect gifts and doing all the bullshit you promised your client by the end of the year. Somewhere in there there's the story of a child being born to humble - in fact, humiliating -- circumstances, who would grow up and literally change the world.

Enough....I was hoping to write about holiday music. In the spirit of full disclosure.....the spirit of this entire blog, I suppose... I'll tell you: I love Christmas music. Almost all of it in fact.

Some cringe when they hear "Sleigh Ride" in the mall for the ten thousandth time. Not me....that song is a goddamned American masterpiece. Particularly the low brass right around the two minute mark.

O Holy Night? Gives me a lump in my throat every time.

Johnny Matthis? Sorry, but that stuff is golden.

Hell, there's a mentally challenged street musician who plays electric guitar across the street from my apartment on most weekends. The guys drives me up the fucking wall because he only knows about nine songs and plays them on a loup for the better part of five hours most nights (Jesus Christ, enough with "All Along the Watchtower". I can't get no relief, neither, Jimi.)

I despise this guy with an uncommon passion, for his insistence on playing at a volume so loud that I can hear it clear as a bell with the windows closed, half a block away, five stories up and across one of the busiest thoroughfares in all of Washington D.C.

And yet, this evening when he busted out "Silent Night", it was the first time I didn't hate him.

But not everyone gets off the hook. No siree....If you want to hear more about the Christmas tunes I love, you can check out the blog from last year. (Proud of that one, in fact).

This year, you get to hear about the Christmas songs I hate.

Baby Its Cold Outside - Ray Charles and Betty Carter

I'm not even sure this is a Christmas song, but I hear it an awful lot this time of year.

People who know me know my feelings about Ray Charles: he was an abusive son of a bitch, never you mind the grinning and swaying Jamie Fox nonsense. You want a nice blind piano player, I can find you one. You want one who gets off on humiliating his drummers, Ray Charles is your man.

Moving our attention back to the song, let's start with Betty Carter's voice. What the fuck is that all about? She sounds like she's been drugged.

Which brings me to my next point: This song seems to be the preface to a date rape.

No means no, Ray.

(Blind motherfucker.)

Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt

There are certain members of my family who love this song, including my mom.

And this has always struck me as a little ironic, because at the time we were growing up, mom usually was teetering on the fine lines between depressed, angry and fucking crazy.

Regardless of how you want to diagnose the state of her mental well-being, an unavoidable fact is that a great deal of her depression and anger manifested itself in some very staunch and vocal opinions that were well into the realm of the puritanical. The fact that she has a soft spot for this completely trashy piece of schlock novelty makes me crazy in its inconsistency with her worldview as we once knew it.

(Think I've got mommy issues? Fine. But I'm willing to bet that an awful lot of the people who find this song to be sexy also like to use the word "daddy" in bed.)

Seriously, Santa is a married man. Try not to give him a blowjob this year, Eartha.

(You ho.)

Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney

Dude. You were in the Beatles. Get it the fuck together.


Happy holidays!