Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Couple of High-profile Concerts

This city can be so delightfully surrealistic sometimes.
Walking from my place up to the Hollywood Bowl R.E.M. show Thursday evening (May 29), the first thing you encounter is Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and the Cookie Monster on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Theatre. Next it's up by the giant elephants in the set reproduction of "Intolerance" in the Hollywood Highland complex and out the back where one is dazzled by the hills of Whitley Heights and beyond toward the Cahuenga Pass. The green trees, the red-tiled roofs on the white houses embedded into the hillside against a deep blue sky form an impossibly beautiful picture sometimes. It was just one of those moments.
Anyway, I made certain to be in my seat by 6:30 since The National opened and they were my first reason for attending. When they began with the first delicate notes of "Start a War" my spirits soared, thinking how often a band I love begins with the song I most want to hear. It's weird. For me, that song is the crowning achievement from their extraordinary CD "The Boxer". Matt Berninger isn't just a lyricist of enormous depth and perception, but when he tumbles out the lines, "Do you really think you can just put it in a safe, behind a painting, lock it up, and leave" followed later by, "You were always weird, but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do, now" in his rich baritone you understand that this is no ordinary band. They played a, roughly, 30 minute set of some of their best songs including "Fake Empire", "Mistaken For Strangers" and "Slow Show" with it's gorgeous piano part that just rolls along. This band's orchestrations are so exceptional they actually remind me of the film score for the 1978 Terence Mallick classic "Days of Heaven" with echoes of Saint-Saens "The Carnival of the Animals" and Ennio Morricone's underscore. Brilliant stuff! This band is so strong musically and lyrically, I didn't think the evening could get any better. Unfortunately, I was right.
It wasn't dark yet when Modest Mouse came on. I don't really know this band very well. I try not to become too enamored of a band that usually only plays stadiums. When there is so much great music you can see up close, why bother. (Exception must be made for a band like Arcade Fire, of course, and maybe for Modest Mouse, too.) I'm familiar with a couple of their very good music videos, but only have their latest CD, which is pretty great. They write tight, catchy, well constructed songs - some of them even habit-forming and their lead singer and founder, Isaac Brock, has the kind of voice one either finds annoying or thinks, like I do, it's a wonderful unique sounding bark/sing style. They played songs from "Before the Ship Even Sank" and unfamiliar material, all of which sounded terrific. So far, so good.
Then came the crowd flooding in for R.E.M., all their cell phones glowing. I'm afraid I became so annoyed by the audience that when R.E.M. took the stage I was not entirely receptive. But they sounded great and performed a blistering version of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth" that was exccptional, But after watching the person next to me furiously text messaging, barely looking up occasionally to bounce her head a few times, and being surrounded by jerks, I fled the Bowl after about 6 songs. And, frankly, I don't regret it. It may be my last trip to the Bowl to see a rock concert. I don't like being a quarter of a mile away from the performers. I did that enough in the '60's and '70's and I don't want to do it again. No offence to R.E.M. They are a very important band in the history of rock and roll but forgive me if I'm not crazy about their fan base.

Friday night was off to the Wiltern again for Beirut. Like I said before, this venue can be troublesome, but I managed to get into the pit again and it was perfect. I may have to reassess my opinion of the Wiltern. It was the complete opposite experience as at the Hollywood Bowl the night before. Even though the crowd was maybe half the age as the Bowl audience they were well-mannered, attentive, and I don't think I saw a single cell phone the whole time. It was an all-ages show, so there were lots of parents with their kids, and it was hard to tell which liked the band most. Opening bands, Devon Williams was fine, and The Brunettes, even better, if a bit too sunny-pop, though they played an impressive range of instruments. Beirut delivered a performance that will definitely place as one of my year's best, just like their show last October at the Avalon was one of last year's best. There seemed to be less members than last time as 8 musicians took the stage. But the sound was that of a full orchestra - well, allright, really like a mariachi band lost in Paris after being stranded in some middle eastern country like Franistan for some time and picking up influences everywhere. Yeah, that's what they sound like. They were on stage less than an hour but gave us a fully satisfying set. Zack Condon directs his band of merry players something like a conductor, but, musical genius that he is, he never neglects his own vocals or trumpet playing. I suspect this band is full of musical prodigies - all members seem to play at least two instruments and sing on top of it. They played through song after song with perfect precision and remarkable discipline. I was overwhelmed! I declare "The Flying Club Cup" one of the best CD's I own and Beirut is one of the best bands on the planet and this is the best of all possible worlds.


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