Wednesday, December 31, 2008

50 Best Concerts, Shows or Sets of 2008

For me, 2008 was another consecutive year of hair-raising, barn-burning, foot-stompin', imaginative, creative and astounding off-earth concert experiences. Of course, I've only been back attending shows for the last three years, but the accumulation is getting overwhelming. Out of 171 concerts this calendar year, I've narrowed it down to 50. Consecutively listed, every one was an experience that made me glad to share this time and space conundrum in which we find ourselves. Here they are...

1. Brian Aubert (solo) at The Echo, Jan. 28. Amazing to hear Silversun Pickups songs done with just one voice and a guitar. Riveting performance. Also on the bill, Everest performed a sterling set.

2. Film School at Spaceland on Feb. 18. This was the first time I got to see a band I had been listening to for about six months and was dying to see live. They did not disappoint. In fact they blew my mind.

3. Grizzly Bear with the L.A. Philharmonic on March 1 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. With it's perfect acoustics, this was ideal for a band that sings in a harmonious, heavenly choir style and yet thrashes the amazing assortment of instruments they play. This one was really special.

4. Mountain Goats at the Troubadour on Mar. 4. Master songwriter/storyteller John Darnielle can do no wrong in concert and this night and Oct. 21, at the Troubadour also, were no exception.

5. Division Day at Spaceland, Mar. 7 played to their usual high standard and then ramped it up and astounded in the heat at the KCRW Pasadena Music Festival on June 21. This band is every bit as stunning live as on record.

6. Amnion and Fol Chen delivered a one, two punch, the likes of which I have rarely seen, on Mar. 18 at Boardner's at Joe Fielder's "Let's Independent!" First Fol Chen stunned with a pitch perfect set of the infectious rock they've become famous for, and this was only their second show. Then Amnion took me on a trip off-earth to a distant planet where there is only beautiful music. I haven't returned yet. This may have been the best concert experience of the year.

7. Le Loup and The Ruby Suns at The Echo, Apr. 5. Le Loup, from New York, charmed me and bowled me over with their inventiveness and the wide range of instruments and objects they played. And The Ruby Suns, whereby Ryan McPhun left southern California and teamed up with some charming New Zealanders to create an hypnotically arresting musical combine that's sweeping movie soundtrack rock. Beautiful music that drew me back to The Echo two weeks later to see them headline on Apr 23.

8. The Eels at the El Rey on Apr. 16 in a concert of personal reflection by Mark Everett. Beginning with a screening of the documentary about his father, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, he then played a concert of such personal intensity you just stood in awe. This experience was heightened by attending the book signing for Everett's autobiography at Book Soup on Oct. 28 and getting to meet him.

9. Elbow at Avalon on May 9. My second time ever seeing them and, like before, the perfection of the performance was astonishing. Guy Garvey is one of rock's best singers and the rest of the band play with passion. The visual presentation is electrifying as well. Another highlight of the year.

10. Everest with Film School at The Viper Room, Check One...Two event on May 12. A great pairing of two great bands made a night to remember.

11. The National at the Hollywood Bowl, opening for R.E.M. and Modest Mouse on May 29. A gorgeous set by this brilliant band was the highlight of my evening that night, especially when they began with "Start A War". Modest Mouse were good and R.E.M. performed a perfunctory set marred by excessive visual technology. But they sounded as good as I thought they should. I left early because their fans were obnoxious.

12. Beirut at The Wiltern were the very next night, May 30, and they completely blew away any competition. This band couldn't have possibly been any better. It put me in a complete trance state, and, along with Amnion, it was the best concert of the year. Zack Condon has talent that just doesn't quit.

13. Swervedriver, Film School, Xu Xu Fang May 31 at the Fonda. Three great bands and three great sets. When the curtains parted and the whole Fonda was enveloped in fog and that lurching, throbbing pulse of Xu Xu Fang began, I was a goner. I've been a rabid fan ever since, I'd been looking forward to seeing Film School in a larger venue, since their sound is so large and they were great. Swervedriver played a really stunning set, too.

14. Everest at Spaceland on June 16. I know, Everest again. But on this night I took a bunch of people from work and their reaction was so positive they all became on-the-spot fans. A wonderful set.

15. Thailand EP release party on June 25 at Silverlake Lounge. This was the one that did it. I'd seen them before, but this show was amazing. And the EP is one of the year's best.

16. Fleet Foxes June 28 at The Echo. I guess they could be considered the band success story of the year (at least in the indie world). Already a huge fan of theirs just because of the CD's, I saw them for the first time and then again at Spaceland the following night, June 29. Both were astonishing shows, The Echo packed and hot and I was at the back, and Spaceland was open and comfortable. I even got to meet Robin Pecknold that night. And they sounded absolutely incredible and I got to be right in front.

17. The Stevenson Ranch Davidians on July 3 at The Echo opening for The Flying Tourillon Orchestra and their sound and songs completely bowled me over. Saw them again on July 23 at the wonderful little Three of Clubs in Hollywood. I can't stop playing their CD over and over, even still, and they recreate their recorded sound perfectly live. I love their Brian Jonestowny sound.

18. The Retribution Gospel Choir at the Troubadour on July 7. Alan Sparhawke's Low offshoot band where he can really rock, wonderfully.

19. Frank Fairfield, A Hawk and A Handsaw at The Echoplex on July 20. Frank Fairfield had opened for Fleet Foxes at Spaceland and I had missed him, but everyone was talking about him. So I saw him here and his mesmerizing set had me in a nostalgic trance as images of the dust bowl and depression-era America swirled around in my head. Perfect recreation of early roots music, passionately performed.

20. Gangi at The Scene on July 31. Another band I know because The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra played with them on a bill. Gangi are New York transplants to the local scene who bring an inventive, imaginative sound to every show they play. I've seen them a number of times this year and I'm always impressed.

21. Amanda Palmer, Vermillion Lies at the Troubadour on Aug. 4. The Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer set out on a solo tour in conjunction with her CD Who Killed Amanda Palmer and proved she's just as astonishing as a solo act. This was a lovely intimate set that included a moving duet with her father on a beautiful Leonard Cohen song. Vermillion Lies completely captivated me with their theatrical antics and great music.

22. Darker My Love, Amnion at the Troubadour on Aug. 7. This was a really great show because Amnion delivered one of their best sets yet, and I didn't know Darker My Love, who really took me by surprise and have even landed on my Ten Best Albums list.

23. Death To Anders at "Let's Independent!" Boardner's show on Aug. 19. Here was an acoustic set by a band I'd seen a few times, but for some reason it all came together for me at this show and I was floored by the talent on display.

24. Menomena at Sunset Junction on Aug. 23. I understand from other people that this was a bit of a fiasco, but it was only my second opportunity to see this great band who had given one of the best concerts I ever saw at the Troubadour in 2007. I was not disappointed by this show at all.

25. Rogue Wave at the Hotel Cafe on Aug. 28. Billed as an acoustic set, it was still the full band who played an amazing set of their beauteous rock in that wonderful intimate setting. Amazing, considering they had played the Nokia around the same time, opening for some band or another.

26. Sons and Daughters at the Troubadour on Sept. 2. This scottish band has facinated me for some time because of their video for"Dance Me In". Seeing them for the first time I was impressed with their tight professionalism and the all-round good time they provide for the audience. Very skilled musicians and singers, too. A kind of punky rock indie sound.

27. Avi Buffalo at The Unknown Theatre on Sept. 11. Thanks again to The Flying Toubillon Orchestra for the chance to see someone I'd been hearing about for a while. The extremely gifted guitarist and singer Avi Buffalo performed with his four-piece band and knocked the whole audience on their asses. The very definition of fine music. Look for him this year!

28. Earlimart at the Troubadour on Sept. 19. Also a chance to turn new people on to this band and they delivered a sharp set that laid the trap and captured new fans with ease. They were opening for The Wedding Present who also performed a terrific and energetic set.

29. Fleet Foxes, Frank Fairfield at the El Rey on Sept 22. Already moving into bigger venues, this was the first of two sold out nights at this theatre for Fleet Foxes who adapted their sound for the larger audience into a huge powerful juggernaut that left no doubters in their wake. A truly inspired performance that was matched two weeks later when I got to see them during a trip to Boston at the Somerville Theatre on Oct. 6. The wonderful Frank Fairfield opened for them on this national tour.

30. Aaron Embry at Tangier on Sept. 24. This was a solo show with just Aaron and his piano and I got to hear the core of the brilliant originality that lies at the heart of every Amnion song that Aaron Embry writes. This concert was a gift.

31. Silver Jews at Echoplex on Sept. 26. My second opportunity to see the reclusive artist out on tour for only the second time in his nearly 20 year career. Dressed nattily in suit and tie, he and his band gave us a set of his masterfully written prose-rock that rocked the house.

32. Manhatten Murder Mystery at the Echo Curio on Sept 27. This was my first time at the delightful Echo Curio and my first exposure to Manhattan Murder Mystery who shocked and appalled me as they inspired and excited me with a powerful display of guerrilla rock. But played so beautifully you wonder how they do it in their atmosphere of chaos. Amazing!

33. Calexico at the Fonda on Sept. 29. Seeing them for the second time only confirmed my contention that Joey Burns is one of the best singers in rock. And the band is such a collection of gifted musicians it picks you up off he floor and leaves you airborne. Their new material is stunning.

34. The Henry Clay People CD release party, The Parson Red Heads at Spaceland on Oct. 3. The Henry Clay People performed valiantly in the face of overwhelming audience enthusiasm that must have made it hard to concentrate. Wonderful songs from the new release, some performed with guest stars from the audience. A great party. The Parson Red Heads opened and performed to their usual high standard. I've seen them a lot this year and they always win over the crowd, every time. This was an unusually wonderful sounding show.

35. The Swell Season, Iron and Wine at the Greek Theatre on Oct. 4. A huge show that resembled a variety show, of sorts. Iron and Wine's Sam Beam performed a set with just one accompanist and it was a chance to hear his vocals shine. The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), played for nearly two hours on their triumphant return to L.A. after winning Academy Awards earlier in the year. A brilliant show with guest appearances by the man who directed them in Once and, of all the people Glen met during the last year, Richard Sherman, who composed the 1964 Mary Poppins score with his brother Robert, and played "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" on the piano for us.

36. Pinback in Boston at the Paradise on Oct. 5. I've had a lot of opportunities to see my favorite band, but this year they just seemed to excel. The singing and playing has become so perfected each concert of theirs is a special experience. They had a large, appreciative audience in Boston, which pleased me, and they responded with an incredibly tight set. Saw them again at the Echoplex on Oct. 20 and, if anything, they sounded even better.

37. Seasons, Fol Chen at Echo Curio on Oct. 24. Two bands I try to see every time they play, this was my first time for Seasons and they were incredible. Got their CD compilation and it's in constant rotation to this day. Fol Chen performed their famous "shirtless" set this night and it was a top-notch set, too.

38. Tommy Santee Klaus, Avi Buffalo on Oct. 30 at Echo Curio. Local band Tommy Santee Klaws came out of nowhere to surprise me with a thoroughly professional set of enchanting music. They play all kinds of instruments and musical devices, very cleverly. Avi Buffalo performed solo and was as impressive as with a band. Amazing again.

39. The Broken West at Spaceland on Nov. 7 performed songs from their newest CD Now or Heaven and I think they are at the top of their game right now. I love these new songs and they played with an electricity I hadn't seen the other five times I've seen them. They've always been good, but this was great.

40. Dead Meadow at the Troubadour on Nov. 8. I'd seen them for the first time last Feb. at Echoplex, but this show was even better and I was swept away by the huge sonic atmosphere they create. Beautiful music played to perfection.

41. Red Cortez at Echoplex on Nov. 11. Good as Earlimart and Afternoons were this night, it was Red Cortez (formerly: The Weather Underground) that took me off-earth. This was a tightly controlled and disciplined set by a band known for raucous concerts, and for my money, it was an astonishingly beautiful set that left me ecstatic.

42. O'Death, Death To Anders at Spaceland on Nov. 22. Here was a show for the ages. Death To Anders performed the finest set I've ever seen from them that lifted the whole audience to a level of enthusiasm only O'Death could match. And match it they did and raised it a notch till the whole of Spaceland was vibrating like I've never seen before. Another of the very best shows of the year.

43. The Monolators at Pehrspace on their Prom-themed Night of Nov. 24. The Monolators had a big year with the release of Don't Dance and culminating with their terrific residency at Pehrspace. This show was a winner and The Monolators sounded superb.

44. The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra at their Thanksgiving eve. show at The Echo on Nov 26 performed in Pilgrim and Indian garb and delivered their best set of the year (out of many). Performing their own material and some delightful covers, they had the crowd eating out of their hands. It was also visually compelling, especially the turkey.

45. Xu Xu Fang at The Echo on Dec. 8. This was my fourth time seeing them and everything came together this night with a perfect sound mix, lots of fog and their usual hypnotic trance-inducement.

46. Radars To the Sky were completely electrifying at their CD release at Spaceland for the Spaceland recording release of a live concert from their residency there last April. I've known this band a long time, having seen their second ever show, but they just get tighter and tighter and their live shows are always a lot of fun. The Spaceland recording is pretty terrific too.

47. Amanda Palmer at the Fonda on Dec. 16. I give this concert it's own space because it was a completely new show from the one I saw at the Troubadour last August and besides, I love Amanda Palmer. This woman is a showman in the tradition of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille as far as size, scale and ambition, but as far as subtlety, artistry and sensitivity go, she's on a different level altogether. Every time I see this performer, it's a complete assault on all the senses, but in a good way. Great art, like a trip to a museum, makes you feel intellectually nourished.

48. Will Sheff of Okkervil River in an acoustic show at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The combination of inspired setting and inspiring music made this a definite best concert contender of the year. Will Sheffs songwriting ability is peerless and his singing full of expression and passion.

49. The Movies, Everest at Spaceland on the final night of The Movies residency on Dec. 29. First Everest gets up a gives maybe the finest set I've ever seen from them (how is this possible) An incredible well-ordered set. And then The Movies perform like I've never seen before. More focus and a really crowd-pleasing stage persona reflect a band that seems content. The songs sounded great and the audience was with them every step of the way. A really fun night.

50. The Henry Clay People, The Pity Party, The Happy Hollows on Dec 31 at Spaceland. Maybe it seems corny, but the New Years Eve. extravaganza at Spaceland was not only a great concert but a wonderful party as well. First The Happy Hollows played better than I've ever heard them. And they're always great, but tonight they were on fire and they never sounded so beautiful. The Pity Party played their prehistoric sounding rock and I got up close to get enveloped in it. Their music requires concentration. The Henry Clay People partied us into the next year with an infectious set, extremely well played. They were then joined by as many musicians as could fit on stage. From Jordan Huddock (Marvelous Toy) to Hunter (Tourbillon) to Evan and Sam from The Parson Red Heads and then too many to mention.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Few Year End Shows

These year end compilations have so monopolized my time I neglected to review three shows from last weekend, starting with Darker My Love at The Echoplex Friday night, December 19, 2008.

This was my third time seeing them recently and each time I've been impressed. There was a good crowd gathered for this hard working band who never seem to stop playing around town or touring. I was anxious to see them again because I knew they were going to be on my Ten Best List and wanted to see again that they are as good live as on record. They are!

I've played their new CD 2 so much the songs are burned into my brain making it fun to hear the subtle differences they bring to the live renditions. Their sound is so forceful and driving, yet with an ethereal beauty delivered through the vocals. It feeds the heart and the soul and the minute they begin you're transported into a dream state. They performed a lot of my favorites from 2, including "Blue Day", with the vocal harmonies slowed down to really appreciate how pretty it sounds, "Talking Words" and "Two Ways Out".

Ran into Kevin Bronson, who was the only other blogger there, most being at Mouse's shindig, Fiend Folio Two, at Echo Curio (which sounds like it was great!). But I had the opportunity to finally meet a couple of Darker My Love band members, Will Canzoneri and Rob Barbato, who actually said they know my blog. They are nice guys and I was flattered. I let them know they'd be on my Ten Best List.

On Saturday, December 20, 2008, I attended one of the year's more remarkable shows at the Masonic Lodge in the historic Hollywood Forever Cemetery. This is where I spend one night each year at the Day of the Dead celebration in a state of hyper-magical realism, so to go there for a concert by Will Sheff (Okkervil River) seemed like a natural extension of that.

Walking into the gorgeous building (another hidden treasure in Los Angeles), located just east of the main entrance, I could tell this would be a very civilized experience. A roaring fire in the main hall upstairs greets you, along with two makeshift bars, and once you enter the concert hall, there are seats. It's a beautiful, high-ceilinged white room with hand-painted ornamental designs on the heavy wooden beams.

The place was nearly filled (I think this sold out almost as soon as it was announced in November), but I got a good seat on the center aisle near the back with a clear view of the stage. Looking around I was surprised to see a display of movie posters of many of the seminal films from my youth. That brief period when the auteur director was suddenly ruling Hollywood and the film industry experienced it's peak as an art form of personal expression.

Beginning with the one-sheets for Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, they wrapped around the room. Posters for The Godfather, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, a superb three-sheet of Richard Amsel's poster for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one-sheets for Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and others and ending with Star Wars, which, good as it was, signaled the beginning of the destruction of the art form, turning American film from art pieces into McDonald's hamburgers. Where film lies now... fairly dormant.

But I was here to hear Will Sheff of Okkervil River deliver a solo acoustic set. I love the literary qualities of his lyrics for Okkervil River and expected much from him as a solo. I should have expected even more, because he astonished all of us with a set of smart, funny, caustic and sad tales told by a master storyteller. This man has a way with words few can touch.

He mostly played songs from the extraordinary 2007 release, The Stage Names, some from The Stand Ins, this year's slightly disappointing sequel. In this setting, Will performed the so appropriate "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe". He excelled on the remarkably sad and moving "Savannah Smiles". It tells of a dad's estrangement from his teen aged daughter in terms so honest and revealing, one wonders how Will can have such wisdom about it, because he can't be old enough to have experienced this. He says his songs are fiction, and if that is true, he is, indeed, a very special writer.

He followed that with "Plus One", another brilliant song! He and Amanda Palmer (at The Fonda) managed to leave me awash in tears, twice this week. It was my honor to be in their audience of admirers. Borrowing the bass player from opening New York band, Bird of Youth, he also had a keyboard artist, so it was Will Sheff and two accompanists. The Tallest Man on Earth was a solo troubadour style singer/songwriter whose set was enjoyable.

I saw Okkervil River last September at the Fonda for the first time and I was impressed, but this show with Will Sheff was even more impressive. He surpassed my expectations and, as he says in the wonderful last line from "Plus Ones"..."No, let's exceed it".

Sunday, December 21, 2008, was the Buddyhead Christmas Party at the Hotel Cafe and it featured way too many performers to mention, or to even get on stage. I'd purchased a ticket way back when and, like Saturday's concert, it looked to be a hot ticket in town. This night was featuring a lot of artists from the previous two decades of rock music and, since I wasn't listening back then, they were mostly strangers to me.

But, touted as a night of heavy rockers courting their softer sides, I was eager to see the newer band I did know that were on the bill. Like Dios Malos, Dead Meadow and Xu Xu Fang. Arriving around seven, when they asked us to show up, we then waited until nearly eight to be let in.

I think the music began around 8:30 and was sporadic throughout the night. I think I was there nearly seven hours and heard a lot of music, but to tell the truth there was so much down time between sets, it tried the patience. Thank god for Dios Malos! I went over and finally introduced myself to Joel Morales, who I've written about, reviewed, corresponded with via myspace, but never met. I sat with him most of the evening and it saved the whole night for me.

That, and the fact that Dios Malos played the set of the night, with energy, passion and sheer talent most other performers had trouble matching. It only proved to me, once again, why they're one of my favorite bands, local or otherwise. They only played four songs, and only one (a cover) had I ever heard before, but each one was special and beautifully performed. All four band members played, brilliantly, as usual, every bit as seriously as if it were a complete concert.

Also Dead Meadow played a set of acoustic versions with Jason Simon performing solo with assist from Steve Kille on bass. Amazing to hear five of their wonderful songs done in this clear, stripped down manner. It was a rare opportunity and I'll always be glad I was there to see that.

I also payed attention to the odd comic poet, Ryan Ritchie, whose diatribe against cell phones was music to my ears. Very talented. And Todd Congelliere of The Underground Railroad To Candyland performed some good songs. I really liked The Underground Railroad To Candyland when I saw them September 1, 2008 at Spaceland, but didn't know Joel Morales plays bass for them. I'm sorry I missed them at Mouse's Fiend event.

Good set by Brandon Intelligator and The Sheriffs distracted me as well, but the parade of '80's and '90's characters made for a pretty interesting, mixed up audience. The night was really long and Xu Xu Fang never got to play, which severely disappointed me, but like I said, thank god for Dios Malos.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

Favorite Local Bands I Followed Around in 2008

I got to know so many bands during 2008 but three really stand out as having helped pull me into this incredible music world. Their remarkable, unyeilding support of all things music in Los Angeles makes them stand out as citizens of the new music culture.

The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra

I've had the chance to watch them change and grow and develop as live performers throughout the year. I've also been able to maintain close contact with most of them and watch their progress first hand. Last January 12, at the Alterknit Lounge, I saw them for only the second time, yet Hunter took the time to remember me and chat a while. They were in the process of rotating female lead singers and Kelli Anne Noftle was the one that stayed. The band had found a solid center with Hunter and Kelli's dueling vocals and moved forward.

They played a really terrific set at the Eagle Rock Bowling and Drinking Club on March 30 on a bill with Amnion, and a couple of dates in April that I caught at Spaceland and The Echo, but I was really noticing how often I was running into them at other shows. Like sometimes more than once a week.

Gradually I came to know Ethan, Adam, and Daniel. Saw them again at the Silverlake Lounge on May 27 and then on July 3rd they released their terrific EP entitled Escapements which showed them off in a highly polished production that sounded like a million bucks. It also features their solid repertory of pop hits and one of my favorite songs of the year, "Audry". That night they hosted a great concert that included superb sets by Fol Chen and The Stevenson Ranch Davidians.

Their July 31st show at The Scene introduced me to Gangi, who became another favorite. The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra have introduced me to so many bands I wouldn't have otherwise known that I'll always be indebted to them. Had fun hanging with Hunter and Ethan all during the Sunset Junction festivities and then sat with Aaron and Megan until 2 in the morning in the balcony of the El Cid.

Their September 11 show at The Unknown Theatre featured a set by Avi Buffalo who amazed me with his extraordinary talent as a guitarist and singer and on November 26th, Thanksgiving eve, dressed as pilgrims and native Americans, they played their last set of the year to a thunderous response from fans and friends at The Echo.

I watched as they grew more self assured as entertainers and more confident in their playing and singing over the course of 2008. Their enthusiasm and high spirits at all their shows rewards their audience with an abundance of good music and good cheer and I look forward to their next move.

Death To Anders

I first met Rob Danson in 2007 at a few shows late in that year. He was one of the first people to come over to talk to me and we found ourselves at a lot of the same shows. I really enjoyed hearing his perspective on the bands I was seeing and I didn't even know he was in a band at that point.

I finally caught up with Death To Anders at Joe Fielder's "Let's Independent!" on January 15th. It was their CD release party for Fictitious Business and I was intrigued by what I heard that night. I have to admit, Rob's gawky/awkward stage manner took some getting used to, but hearing the way he chewed his words, and listening to what he was saying only made me want to hear more. His skewed, sarcastic take on life was music to my ears.

I didn't see them again until July at Spaceland, when they opened for the circus called Mae Shi, but it was the next show at Boardner's in August that really did it for me. They played an acoustic set for the "Let's Independent!" show and they blew my mind with the careful, precise, beautiful playing I heard that night. And the singing was unlike I'd heard from them before. I made a point to meet Nick Ceglio that night to tell him how impressed I was with his songs.

A few shows later and they're at Spaceland opening for O'Death and they played a full band set that didn't sound like anything I'd heard from them before. It was a perfect set where every element came together for the band and it was a star-making turn as far as I was concerned. In fact that whole concert was electrifying.

I've seen them play nine times so far, and gotten to know Pete Dibiasio and John Broeckel as well. It's through Rob that I've met so many others, and, coincidentally, it was Rob I asked if he knew who this "Mouse" was who wrote Classical Geek Theatre, of which I'd become a avid reader. He said, "Actually, he's my room mate".

This band is headed for bigger things, and I saw so much growth in them this year that I can't wait to see how 2009 shapes up for them.

The Parson Red Heads

I spent a couple of years running into this band inadvertently as they opened for other acts I had come out to see. First at The Echo, December 4, 2006, when they opened for Black Pine. I remember liking what I heard and picking up their EP Field Mouse Carnival which was enjoyable. On April 14, 2007 they played with the now amazing sounding bill of The Deadly Syndrome, The Happy Hollows and Tandemoro. Again I liked them.

They played the Echoplex launch event on April 26, 07 with the likes of Earlimart, Sea Wolf and The Watson Twins and at the Sunset Junction festival that summer, I got up the nerve to introduce myself to Erin Way and Evan Way.

I really found myself attracted to their music style and their apparent commitment to the lifestyle, and this year I really got to know them well and find out just what genuine human beings they all are. So here's to Evan, Brett, Sam, Erin, David, Raymond, Jason, Aaron and Charlie. You're the greatest.

This year I've seen no improvement in this band. That's because there is nowhere I can see room for improvement. They are the real deal with all the pieces in their place. I've watched them win over crowd after crowd this year at The Knitting Factory, coinciding with the release of their delightful Owl and Timber EP, at Boardner's, The Echo, Amoeba and Spaceland. Evan Way even performed solo as an opener for Fleet Foxes at Spaceland last summer.

I want this band to get the recognition they deserve and I'll be out there championing them all year long. What I'd love is a CD that captures their live sound and their spirit more accurately.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ten Best Albums of the Year

2008 has been an amazing year for me and I owe it all to music. I went from being outside observer to blogger in an attempt to become a contributing member of the music community. On May 9th I began Feed Your Head.

Three years ago this would have seemed an idiotic pipe dream. I'm not a musician, nor a writer, never even knew a musician and had no interest in rock music for over 20 years. So I entered the scene with virgin ears that had no recent source of reference. Kind of like when I first got into rock and roll in the 1960's. All these new bands' youthful influences are unknown to me, so everything sounds fresh to me. (With few deplorable exceptions) I don't stick around for music I know I don't like. But all this new music has already stretched my musical tastes in directions I could never have anticipated, so that I don't even know what I don't like anymore.

It's also connected me with many, many people I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. You all know who you are. In spike to the age and cultural differences and because of our shared passion for the arts, there is a common bond that's hard to describe, but it's just there. It just feels like a huge gift.

In that spirit, I offer my list of the Ten Best Albums of the Year. (Actually 13, but I wasn't willing to eliminate anything.)

Number One is kind of easy for me. It was the album I played way more than any of the competition.

1. Amnion - Amen Namo (Groove House Records) released: Feb. 26, 2008

This album contains the freshest, most innovative music I heard all year. It grabbed me and wouldn't let go as I played it over and over when I purchased it on March 19th, the day after seeing their extraordinary live show at that month's edition of "Let's Independent!". (Ask anyone who was there!)

Aaron Embry is the mastermind behind their unique style, incorporating influences as diverse as folk music, classic rock, psychedelia, jazz and a healthy dose of funk to create a sound that defies easy categorization. His flexible voice and remarkable piano skills are at the heart of the band's sound. Nikki Embry, Aaron's wife, provides perfect vocal contrast and support to Aaron's acrobatic voice, also becoming the central visual element in their live shows with her sinuous interpretive dancing. Together with their revolving supporting cast of musicians, they make their stage appearances count as performance art. They can sound like everything from The Mama's and The Papa's to Stevie Wonder...all at the same time. And I love hearing a band that can really sing and takes full advantage of it.

Amen Namo captures their sound in sterling recorded versions of their first batch of songs. From the first faint calls of singing whales, to the distant voices and the eerie haunted piano you get pulled right into the swaying beat that a sudden drum brings to the hypnotic spell. Followed by "Aton", "Here Goes Nothing" and "All The Way", each introducing a completely new musical direction, it's hopeless to resist. The first seven songs alone would constitute a perfect run of grade A songs. Few albums can match that!

I've been lucky to have seen them a few times since that first show, and they always mix things up a bit and never play the same song the same way twice. Some of the shows have been better than others, but they never leave me feeling less than elated. One particular treat was the night I got to hear Aaron Embry perform these songs solo at Tangier on Sept. 24. It was then I realized the songwriting is the key to their greatness. Aaron seems able to move into any style comfortably and bring his own unique sensibility with him. What a remarkable artist!

The remainder of this list may or may not represent the ultimate position these albums belong in (I like to keep these things fluid). Actually, I like to think of each one as a runner up to the top position.

2. Earlimart - Hymn and Her (Majordomo Records) released: July 1, 2008

After the major release of Mentor Tormentor in 2007, one could have expected Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray to rest on their laurels for a while. They labored over the post-production of that release for a long time, tweaking it to perfection. Needless to say, it was one of the best releases of 2007.

Instead, they decided to head back into the studio and produce an album on the fly, so to speak. No belaboring over every detail, and the result is one of the most spontaneous, yet fully mature CD's of Earlimart's career.

I love this album and it's been a great resource to help me introduce new fans to one of my very favorite bands. In spite of the cheerful surface of some of the songs, the undercurrent of sadness and melancholy that permeates all their work is what draws me in time after time and gives the music it's weight.

Aaron's worldview seems so comprehensive, yet he can cut to the core emotion of a situation with ease. I can never forget that moving dirge he wrote in which he described, in a calm, cool voice, smashing up his apartment out of despair and frustration. And his sensibility is nicely complimented by Ariana's lovely and truthful songs about self-sufficiency and solitude.

This album has some of my favorite songs of the year, including "Song For", "Face Down In the Right Town", "Before It Gets Better" and "For the Birds". "Cigarettes and Kerosene", "Teeth" and "Time For Yourself" constitute on the the best three-song runs on any CD, ever.

3. Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) released: EP Mar. 19, 2008, CD June 3, 2008

The little band that could. Out of nowhere they dazzled a small gathering at SXSW and came into my radar after the L.A. Weekly wrote about the show in their SXSW coverage. I listened to their myspace selections and couldn't believe my ears. I ran out and picked up their EP Sun Giant and it zoomed right to the top of my listening list.

That ancient medieval sound coupled with a modern folk/rock sensibility reminded me of some of my favorite fusions of rock and classical music. Like whenever Jefferson Airplane went baroque. I ate up that stuff in my youth.

Followed by the full length Fleet Foxes CD in early June, they filled out their repertory and expanded their range to include some of the most glorious vocals heard in many a year. As soon as I saw they'd scheduled two nights in Los Angeles, June 28th at the Echo and June 29th at Spaceland, I picked up a ticket for both nights, predicting they'd get popular so fast it would be the last chance to see them in an intimate setting. That proved to be an understatement. It's hard to get over having Robin Pecknold singing five feet in front of your face.

It seems Fleet Foxes was taking longer than anticipated to produce, so, in order to have something to sell at shows (and demand must have been huge) they quickly turned out Sun Giant and released it first. It was a tantalizing preview of what was to come. Every element sounded just right to me. The singing, the playing, the writing, the whole idea of a choral-heavy rock band appealed to me. Let's just say they fulfilled their early promise, and then some. It also contains "Mykonos", which is the extraordinary song that always ends their live shows.

With the release of Fleet Foxes in June they'd committed just about their entire catalog of music to disc. And there's no filler. Each song is a precious gem. Here were the songs that would help catapult them into the national spotlight; "White Winter Hymnal", "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", "Blue Ridge Mountains" and all the others with their trademark medieval/gregorian/folk/rock amalgam.

I can hardly add any more to the chorus of press these guys are getting, except to say, having met most of them, they deserve it. And try to catch them live because the CD's only hint at their power as live performers.

4. Blitzen Trapper - Furr (Sub Pop) released: Nov. 28, 2008

This band and this album have completely blown me away. I have already played it to death and it is still the first thing I want to hear each morning.

I first heard of them a few weeks ago because they were on a bill with The Parson Red Heads at The Echo. I bought a ticket for the show before picking up the CD, based on their myspace songs, so when I got the CD that day, it was a revelation. Great classic rock which delves into folk, alt-country, scream rock , psychedelic rock and indie rock with equal aplomb.

I was shocked when I listened to all their earlier work and heard a band I thought sounded like they were struggling to find their way. Well, obviously, they found their way! This CD is so filled with great music, I hardly know where to begin.

Furr is so self assured, so musically enticing and lyrically intelligent, I want to know each song inside out. I know they're compatriots of the Northwestern bands like Fleet Foxes or The Parson Red Heads, but they remind me more of Okkervil River or some of the Southwestern bands I like.

They've honed their sound into a tight indie pop machine, anchored by fine lyric writing, similar to Fleet Foxes literary and fantastical qualities. But Eric Earley's lyrics also remind me of Will Sheff (Okkervil River) or Rob Danson of Death To Anders in that he writes simply about turbulent emotions wrapped in evocative settings, and the songs may be autobiographical or just the fictions of a fertile imagination. You decide.

The first four songs, alone, should be enough to convince anybody of the quality of this record. Kicking off with the rocking "Sleepy Time in the Western World" which gets to you with it's insistent beat and strong harmony vocals. "Gold For Bread" is a great road song that travels off into a beautiful reverie of hypnotic sound. Then "Furr" tells the tale of a werewolf in the mood for some self reflection and "God and Suicide" is just one of the best rock and roll songs I've ever heard.

Other highlights are "Stolen Shoes and a Rifle which is alt-country indie rock of a level Calexico would be proud of. "Echo/Always On/EZ con" is a three part piece beginning with a hauntingly beautiful melody, gorgeously orchestrated with a far-off, timeless sound which segues into a jazz riff out of nowhere. The album ends with a simple, medieval sounding "Lady On the Water", which sounds 500 years old and freshly minted at the same time.

In concert at The Echo on November 30 I got to hear them perform most of the CD live and it was a remarkable concert. Their pals The Parson Red Heads opened for them and both bands played sterling sets.

5. The Henry Clay People - For Cheap or For Free (Autumn Tree Records) released: Oct. 3, 2008

Here's a local band poised to break out. With a live show who's exuberance can hardly be contained and a CD that shows off the fine craftsmanship of their songwriting, it seems like a sure thing.

For some reason I hadn't run into this band before late this year, and when I did, I understood what everyone was talking about. With their rambunctious stage shows, I wondered if they would turn out to be just another heavy drinking, hard partying bar band more likely to throw up on stage than play any coherent music.

Just the opposite, they seem really serious about their music, as this album attests. It's a disciplined, comprehensive set of classic sounding rock and roll songs. They have everything going for them; unpretentious, straightforward lyrics that explore honest feelings and reactions to the times we live in, set to some really solid melodies.

A perfect example is the song "This Ain't a Scene", a cynical, clear-eyed view of life as "...just a generation caught in between", with it's great lumbering beat. "Living In Debt" is a terrific piano-driven rock song for the open road. Some of the most expert fast rock and roll I've heard all year, well played on a wider variety of instruments than is usually associated with this genre. They even manage to be moving on "Bulls Through".

Andy Siara and his songwriter brother, Joey, head a band of talented musicians, and on the night of October 3rd at Spaceland they released For Cheap or For Free in front of a crowd of friends and fellow bands and gave us an exultant performance that is the stuff of legend.

6. Seasons - 14-song compilation (self release) released: Oct. 24, 2008

O.K., maybe this is just a home-produced combination of a couple of EP's. Maybe it's a little thrown together feeling, and the artwork hand drawn on each sleeve, but it's still one of the CD's I've played more than any other this year. Maybe it's just those qualities that best capture the carnivalesque nature of their live shows.

It's a collection of songs from home recordings and live shows that really shows off the range of this still evolving band. "Song That You Know" is one I know from their live shows as a highlight and it starts the album off running. With Nic's impassioned vocals, the flowing piano, superb guitar work, tambourines and even ending with bells and xylophone, it's one of my favorite songs. "India" really shows off Nic's balladry with a relaxed easy tune you just sink into.

The band is said to have seven members, but most times I've seen them they can swell to up to 14. However many appear on the recordings I don't know, but the sound is big and dynamic and matches what I've seen them do.

The songs in this collection reach out in all sorts of stylistic directions, but the common thread is the talent on display. I think the songwriting is particularly strong and the vocals some of the best of the year. And they're totally unique, there isn't anyone out there who sounds like them, and that's a gift!

I'd write more but I've covered this band a lot the last few months and don't need to keep saying: "This band is great!"

7. Everest - Ghost Notes (Vapor Records) released: May 6, 2008

I remember how this band just popped up out of nowhere, fully formed and ready to conquer the world. It was a revelation to witness and we early fans had to wait a bit for this album to come out. But the wait was well worth it.

Russell Pollard stepped out from behind the drums of The Watson Twins, strapped on a guitar and assumed lead vocal duties, fronting a band containing some of Silverlake's finest players. From the very first show I saw them play, at Spaceland on April 23, 2007, they had a professional excellence that almost immediately got them noticed. They also had the confidence and talent of a band that had been together for years.

They quickly moved from playing Silverlake Lounge and The Echo to opening for Neil Young and Wilco on national and international tours. None of this would have happened were not the songwriting of such high quality and that's where Ghost Notes comes in.

All we fans had for a while was the 7" record, and good as it was, it was never enough. Particularly because each time I saw them live, they sang "Rebels in the Roses" and "I See It In Your Eyes" and they weren't on the 7". I followed them around so much that I got to know them and found out what nice people they are.

Neil Young's label, Vapor Records signed them an almost immediately put out Ghost Notes in May. It's a big, warm comfort of a record. Solid songs played expertly and beautifully produced made an album that would slide most easily among the records I listened to back in the early '70's. It goes right next to the Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Andrew Gold, James Taylor records of that era and seems as timeless as they have proven to be.

I won't go through all the songs, but have to make special mention of "I See It In Your Eyes" because it's one of the four or five best single songs I heard this year and "Standing By" is a real heart breaker.

Another benefit of liking this band is that they're still Silverlake guys who will play a small show at Spaceland or somewhere anytime, so keep an eye on their schedule.

8. Darker My Love - 2 (Dangerbird Records) released: Aug. 7, 2008

I know this band because of Amnion. They were scheduled to play a show at the Troubadour in August and Darker My Love was the headliner. I got a ticket in order to see Amnion again and listened to some myspace selections for Darker My Love and liked what I heard, but it didn't prepare me for what I heard live.

Standing back by the bar, it was about their third song when I realized I really liked what I was hearing. I was suddenly struck by how beautiful the vocals were and I tried to move closer, but the place was packed. They sounded like two bands had collided in mid air, one a heavy metal outfit and the other, a band singing in a heavenly sound that reminded me of The Beach Boys or The Association. It was a magical collision, and it seemed suspended in space!

It's hard not to become overwhelmed by their sound, it's so rich and dense, it envelopes you in it's solid comfort. Beginning with the first song, "Northern Soul". that's almost an assault of beauty, into the hard driving motor city sound of "Blue Day". "Two Ways Out" reveals a softer side, highlighted by very-Beach Boys harmonies.

"Add One To the Other One" perfectly apes a kind of '60's Carnaby Street sound. Very Blow Up! The album ends on a socko finish with "Talking Words", an intense barrage of sound, followed by the gorgeous, introspective "Immediate Undertaking".

I've been lucky to see this band three times late this year, and had the opportunity to meet some of them and wish them well. It feels like such a privilege to get to do that.

9. The Broken West - Now or Heaven (Merge Records) released: Sep. 9, 2008

I've seen this band a number of times since first hearing of them a couple of years ago and never seen anything less that a solid, professional show. I bought their first CD last year and enjoyed it very much. But when I got Now or Heaven I was immediately struck by the positive musical growth I heard in these new songs. I'm surprised more people haven't taken notice of this album, because I have no hesitation including it on this list.

Like so many of the other albums here, this starts off with an incredible run of great songs, one after another. "Gwen, Now and Then", "Auctioneer", "Ambuscade", another of this year's very best songs, I just found the album addictive.

Ross Flournoy has an easy and accessible vocal style that is comfortable in any setting and he is ably suppported by Brian Whelan on harmony vocals and who steps forward to sing lead on another of the album's highlights, "Got It Bad.

This album tackles weightier subjects and themes than it's predecessor and represents a nice step forward for the band. Seeing the band perform this music live last November 7th at Spaceland was the clincher and showed me how sturdy these new songs are.

The Broken West is so good about getting out on the road and touring, both as headliners or opening for national acts, they can't help but get noticed. They seem to be on an upward trajectory and this album should shoot them forward as well.

10. Thailand - The Remote Controller Absorbs the Place (self release) released: June 25, 2008

I first learned about this band way back in '07 when I had relatives in town who were curious why I had suddenly turned into a music fanatic. I took them to El Cid on February 9 to see a show with Thailand (who already had a buzz behind them) and Radars To the Sky. We got there too late for the Thailand set, but my cousins were impressed with Radars To the Sky, who have since told me that was only their second show.

Not until June 22nd this year did I catch up with them again and they had changed to a three-piece band with a drum machine. It was their EP release party for The Remote Controller Absorbs the Place and I was so impressed with their live show I immediately picked it up and introduced myself to Marc Linquist and Stacey Roark.

Everything seemed normal after that, except I couldn't stop playing that EP over and over and I was desperate to see them live again. This is the model of what a band's first EP should be. Five top notch songs that show variety, intelligence, musical creativity and a probing social responsibility. I've also managed to see then once a month for the remainder of the year.

Starting with "Favorite Sun" with it's insistent beat and rainy wash of guitars and synths, it pulls you in with Marc's conversational vocal style and enticing melody. Stacey's synths and vocals add atmosphere that help create the sound only Thailand produces.

Marc Linquist writes lyrics of a philosophical nature where the meaning is buried deep within and "Down In the Trenches" and "The Chronic Sigh" are so deep I can't quite decipher them. That's why I listen to them so often, to try to understand.

"Heartland Failure" was the song that most drew me to them. Written last year, during the dark days of the Bush administration, when hope seemed useless, this song explores the way war can tear countries and individuals apart. The song is both sad and honest.

"Control Control" finishes the EP on a high note in a thoughtful song about our place in an increasingly mechanized society. To me, it was refreshing to see a new band tackling social issues with intelligence and maturity. And above all, to make it so entertaining.

11. Gangi - A (self release) released: Apr. 29, 2008

This is the second most original CD I heard this year. After Amnion opened my brain to their wild potpouri of influences, Gangi took it a step further, into the realm of electronics. I like having my brain stretched and a lot of music did that his year, but Gangi asked me to accept, what appear to be, wildly disperate elements carefully piled up onto each other, topped off by the slightly strangled sounding vocals of Matt Gangi. Lyle Nesse providing the foundation with his hyperactive drumming and recorded samples.

It was a live show that first introduce me to this band and I found their music immediately intoxicating. I ran up to Matt Gangi, babbled like a fool and bought the CD, A. I wondered if they could ever capture on a recording what I heard live. Well they do!

I've written about this band a bit, but to repeat, I love the way they carefully construct the layers of sound, piling them on top of each other until this incredible musical structure seems to float in front of you. I've also seen them win over a crowd time and again and have the audience rush the stage at the end to try to get a CD.

The variety of styles they master on this short CD are daunting. From the lilting melody of "Commonplace Feathers" that starts things off, you know this is not normal music, it's such a wild assortment of sounds. I particularly love the obscure and plaintive quality of "Ground" with it's dialog samples and circular tune, beautifully sung and sounding like it was created in a junkyard in India.

"Subject Positions" and "Animals" are other stand outs, but there isn't a weak track in the nine that are included here. Their influences seem to come from everywhere, including rock and roll, jazz, classical, International pop, Indian ragas, you name it.

Transplants from the fertile New York City music scene, they are a most welcome addition to the ever exploding Silverlake scene.

12. Calexico - Carried To Dust (Quarterstick Records) released: Sep. 9, 2008

Described as reflections of a cross-country trip through the American Southwest, Carried To Dust is filled with songs that are sun-drenched mood pieces steeped in the atmospheric arrangemants Joey Burns and John Convertino are known for.

Of all the albums I've heard by this band, this is the best, most accomplished and consistent work they've released. It's an instant tension reliever, with it's breezy sound and flowing nature.
As usual, they pull in an impressive collections of guest artists including Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, Doug McCombs of Tortoise, Pieta Brown and Amparo Sanchez.

The songs encompass a variety of styles from Mariachi-influence to alt-country to ballads to political, all highlighted by Joey Burns' wonderful voice. I've been lucky to see this band twice and both times I was convinced I was hearing one of the best voices I've ever heard. Live, his voice seems stronger and more forceful.

My favorite songs from the album are filled with their typical hope and melancholy, like "That Song About William" ,"Two Silver Trees" or "Man Made Lake" and the stunningly gorgeous "Red Blooms", but all the songs are good and show off a band that just keeps getting better.

13. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (Polydor) released: Apr. 26, 2008

This is probably the biggest band on this list, and still, most people I talk to have never heard of them. Elbow is the English band that Earlimart brought into my life. In March 2006 I was just discovering Earlimart in concert and a couple of weeks after my first of their shows, I noticed they were playing at the Avalon, opening for a band with the odd name, Elbow.

When I listened to examples of their music I was amazed. Indeed, it is unabashedly romantic music, but with an honesty of emotion that keeps it from ever being maudlin. It's a sweeping sound of emotions, without fraudulent sentimentality.

I purchased Leaders of the Free World, which came with a DVD of music videos of each song. Seeing the band perform in the video shoots and concert footage made me like them even more. It is also a remarkable CD that I became obsessed with, adding to that wonderful confluence of events. You hear a band, fall in love with their music and within a week or two (while you still have a major band-crush) you get to see them in concert.

On April 6, 2006, in what was only my 15th concert since starting down this musical road I'm on, I stepped back into the Avalon and became a lifelong fan of Elbow. It was a night I will never forget and they did it to me again on May 9th this year at the Avalon, touring in support of The Seldom Seen Kid.

Guy Garvey and his band have been together over 10 years, but have only been releasing music in the new century. Their first album, Asleep In the Back is an experimental album of various styles, never coalescing into anything whole. But with Leaders of the Free World and now The Seldom Seen Kid they have honed their sound into a coherent sound machine.

Guy's lead vocals are perfection, soulful, heartfelt singing that reaches right into your heart. Highlights of this beautifully orchestrated album (maybe the best produced album of the year) are "The Bones of You", "Mirrorball", "Grounds For Divorce", "The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" and, of course, one of the very best songs of the year, "One Day Like This".

Honorable Mention:

Death To Anders - Fictitious Business (self release) released: Jan. 15, 2008
The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra - Escapements EP (self release) released: July 3, 2008
The Gutter Twins - Saturnalia (Sub Pop) released: Feb. 5, 2008
The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion (Sub Pop) released: Apr. 5, 2008
Imaad Wasif and the Two Part Beast - Strange Hexes (self release) released: Jan. 1, 2008
Xu Xu Fang - The Mourning Son EP (self release) released: Jun. 4, 2008

Apologies for glaring omissions, but I haven't heard everything yet.
It's why I'll publish a list of the best non-2008 albums Ive enjoyed this year, next week.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Touched by Amanda

I've seen The Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer enough to know to expect an extravagant theatrical experience, but Tuesday (December 16, 2008) at the Fonda surpassed every other encounter I've had with this musical phenomenon. This was the last night of her current tour in support of her solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and she was in exuberant form.

When I arrived the opening band, The Builders and The Butchers, were well into their set. Their music was pleasant rock and roll, well played and well sung but seemed a little tame when compared with the headliner. I only heard a few songs, but they kept the audience entertained.

The next time the curtain rose an MC of sorts announced, in a somber tone, that Amanda Palmer was dead and would not be appearing tonight. In her place would be assorted artists to pay tribute to the deceased songstress and that it wouldn't do any good to laugh or cry because Amanda Palmer is fucking dead! I'm just quoting him. He then launched into a recitation of the fabulous liner notes from the album, written by Neil Gaiman (who, incidentally, made an unexpected appearance on stage).

Next up was the incredible violin virtuoso, Zoe Keating, who I've seen with Amanda before. Like before, the spell this woman cast was hypnotic and surprisingly moving. She composes deep, reverential tone poems that sound like a score for some non-existent independent film (a period romantic tragedy), often bringing me to the verge of tears.

In the style of Andrew Bird, she records and plays back all parts, building each piece into a multi-layered string arrangement so beautiful she leaves the audience begging for more. She only played three pieces, each about seven minutes long, but when she was finished I felt like my musical appetite had been satiated. Honestly, I could have gone home at that point and felt totally satisfied.

Not so fast. The MC returned to tell us that Amanda Palmer was still dead and that it still wasn't funny. As a couple of musicians assembled on stage (Zoe included) and began a funereal dirge, four actor/pantomime artists came from back stage slowly to assume positions at the edge of the stage, staring down the audience.

At this point I was standing near the center of the Fonda floor, just beyond the packed crowd huddled between me and the stage. Minding my own business, lost in the reverie of the gorgeous music Zoe was playing, I was suddenly aware of a hand gripping my left shoulder. I turned slowly and beheld a ghostly figure, all swathed in lace and veils. I turned away, assuming it's just another Amanda-fanatic going to extremes. But she didn't let go, and I looked again, and I realized, this is Amanda Palmer! We looked each other in the eyes and she was off toward the stage, accompanied by another lace-draped ghost, creeping ever so slowly through the audience until she reached the stage. At this point, the audience had seen what was going on and was screaming with excitement.

Assuming her position behind her keyboard, she launched into "Astronaut" with that great pounding piano, followed by some of her most hushed vocals. The crowd leaned forward and held their breath. It was stunning.

This woman makes a career out of confounding expectations. To begin a concert by whispering reminded me of her busking career as the living statue in Harvard Square, "The Eight Foot Bride". From what I've read, she would dress as a bride, stand on hidden elevations to assume the height and paint her face white. She'd stand motionless for long minutes gathering some observers and at just the right moment begin moving. People reacted as one would expect.

She electrified the audience with "Blake Says", "Strength Through Music", "Guitar Hero" and "Hard To Drive" from Who Killed Amanda Palmer. I found the songs to be much more moving than I remembered and found myself quite caught up emotionally from time to time. She even gave us "Coin Operated Boy" accompanied by some of her groping actors. The theatrics and the lighting and the sound were all terrific.

Loved the number with the four actors holding umbrellas over Amanda's head as they poured water from bottles all over the place. Very dramatic and visually magnificent! This show resembled theatre of the highest order, and it could so easily have gone overboard into the realm of the pretentious. But, dead or alive, Amanda Palmer has the intelligence and the taste to know just how far to go.

She said she'd be back next year on another solo tour and that she and Brian are planning a special tour of The Dresden Dolls, also in 2009. Anytime she appears in Los Angeles, I will be there.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gangi Back in Town

Sunday was a washout, both for me and the city of Los Angeles (weather-wise) and, combined with spending lots of time on the phone trying to diagnose the problem with my computer and having my phone service in and out, I was left housebound. I had been looking forward to seeing Duane from The Stevenson Ranch Davidians perform a solo acoustic set at a place called Cafe Corsa near USC, but had to stay home on the phone. As the weather turned colder and colder and rain threatened I let go of the benefit show with Aaron Espinoza and Tandemoro. Sorry to miss out.

Monday night (December 15, 2008), well rested, I headed out to The Echo to catch Gangi in their first local show in a while. Just back a week or so from their tour across the country with Rainbow Arabia, I was looking forward to seeing them before the end of the year. It was also great to catch up with Matt Gangi and Lyle Nesse after all these months.

Opening band, Voices Voices challenged the audience with hazy, ambient, droning atmospherics. Recording, playing back and looping the many sounds of guitarist, Nico Turner, and singer/keyboard artist, Jenean Farris, I found the whole thing fascinating because I couldn't tell what sound came from where. Particularly with Jenean's vocals, which were so technically altered I couldn't identify her voice in the supersonic soundscape. She layered vocal upon vocal until you ended up with...well, Voices Voices. It reminded me of an airplane taking off.

Next up was Blackblack, who are one girl singer, all done up in white chiffon shroud, backed by two musicians who I think were two guys wearing party dresses. One can't be too sure of gender, but they looked about as feminine as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. The lead singer writes and sings short little songs of oddly twisting and turning melodies that she belts out in a clear, childlike voice. She wore face paint that was black and hid her nose and eyes making her look slightly wolverine. The other two wore ordinary animal masks. It was a pretty charming, albeit odd, routine.

As Gangi sets up, they populate the stage with diamond shaped hangings of multi-colored pastel patterns arranged to give the sense of visual balance. It compliments the aural balance they achieve in their music. I think they approach music as a geometrical or mathematical challenge to be solved. They nearly always do just that, adding what's necessary and subtracting what's superfluous. Just as the auditory dialog samples they use don't clearly define the song, they merely suggest.

Their show Monday night reaffirmed why I'm so taken with this band. Matt and Lyle wowed an appreciative crowd with their magical concoctions. Beginning with "Commonplace Feathers" and then into "Subject Positions" the sound was great. But Matt's mike went out at that point and I feared the worst, but the soundman sprang into action and the band resumed with little delay and a refreshing lack of frustration at the glitch. Nice professionals.

They also sang "Shift" and, of course, "Animals" and a new song which they said they'd only played about five times and never before an audience. It sounded just as polished as the rest of their numbers and it bodes well for their next album.

You feel that these guys enjoy composing just as much as performing. You could see it in the way they played a song only a few days old. I felt privileged just to hear it. Terrific concert.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Top Ten - December 8 - 14

Top listening week of December 8 - 14, 2008

1. Blitzen Trapper - Furr (Sub Pop)
2. The Eels - Electro-shock Blues (Dream Works Records)
3. Seasons - 14-song compilation (self release)
4. Amnion - Amen Namo (Groove House Records)
5. Xu Xu Fang - The Mourning Son EP (self release)
6. The Stevenson Ranch Davidians - Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (self release)
7. Death To Anders - Fictitious Business (self release)
8. The Henry Clay People - For Cheap of For Free (Autumn Tree Records)
9. Gangi - A (self release)
10. Calexico - Carried To Dust (Quarterstick Records)


Radars...and A Sweater Festival

This weekend is such a swirl of activity (December 12, 13, 2008) so far, I'll just do some quick notes. Radars To the Sky threw a super party on Friday (12/12) for the release of their Spaceland recorded concert from their April residency. Unfortunately, I got there a little late and missed what everyone was saying was a really great set by The Hectors. I'm sorry about that, but Swedens Wildbirds and Peacedrums were busy with their Nordic, Euro-throb rock. I barely got to pay attention as this was my first show in a while, and with so many locals there, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Radars To the Sky always seem to assemble a crowd of admirers, and that crowd is growing. They played a nice set with more vocals from the wonderful Kate Spitzer than I'm used to hearing. And together with husband Andrew, they gave one of the strongest dual voiced shows I've ever seen from them.

I was glad to pick up the CD, too, as I've always wanted recordings that captured the raw energy of their live performances. The atmosphere at Spaceland definitely leaned toward 'party', and everyone hung around till the very end after a very pleasant set by a band I didn't know called Archways.

Saturday (December 13, 2008), I had to run to the thrift shop to try to find an ugly Christmas sweater and came away with one that was only mildly distasteful. Of course, when I got to the Echoplex for The Christmas Sweater Festival, the stunning variety of really awful monstrosities, proudly displayed, made me feel inaequate. One of my favorites was Ashley Jex in a creation that looked like a solar panel that had crashed into a late-'50's Cadillac.

It was nice to see the huge audience this great event attracted. The Deadly Syndrome were the driving force behind assembling bands for this mind-boggling display of local talent on one stage. The evening was a benefit for Doctors Without Borders and resembled a TV variety show format with comedic (comedic?) routines between bands.

Damn the buses, which made me late, so I missed most of the set by Amnion. But what I saw left me spellbound, as usual. And with the added attraction of guest artists from Castledoor and the addition of Avi Buffalo on guitar, how could this band ever possibly get better. Aaron Embry sang with passion and joy and Nikki Embry was a vision of beauty in her advanced state, radiating life and contentment. It was great to hear her voice again.

They were singing selections from their great CD Amen Namo when I walked in and then launched into a Christmas song. I could tell by the audience reaction that they had delivered an impressive set. Certainly what I saw was wonderful.

Next up was Castledoor who delivered my favorite set of the night. They are so good, Nate Cole, such a commanding and entertaining front man, and Coury Jane Combs and Lisa Cole adding glorious vocals and keys, they just grabbed me with their first song. Adding in some wonderful new material and, of course, an ironic Christmas song, their set was perfect. Aaron and Nikki Embry and Avi Buffalo even joined them for the first song. What a wonderful collection of voices!

The Echoplex was pretty damned festive at this point so I wandered out to the smoking patio and ran into an ocean of people equal in size to what was inside. So many people, so many ugly sweaters.

The Pity Party took their turn next, dressed in matching knitted creations, each sporting a giant 'P' and, I thought they sounded great, but wondered, which one is 'Pity' and which one is 'Party'. Last time I saw them was during their residency last February at Spaceland when Maurice Robert had just broken his hand (hand?) so they had 3 fill in guest guitarists and Maurice sang. Tonight Maurice was back in tip-top form and sang and played with easy command. Heisenflei wailed away both in voice and on her drums all the while playing keys with her left hand. She provided the glue that holds it all together, always reminding me of standing next to some gigantic generators in a gigantic factory. They play industrial-strength rock.

The Deadly Syndrome is a band I've seen a few times over the years, and I'm always impressed with their proficient and spirited playing, but Saturday they really nailed it for me. They sounded far more mature and assured than I'd heard before, particularly Chris Richards' lead vocals. It's been a long time since I've seen them so it was gratifying it turned out so well.

I was starting to fade at this point, but figured to stay for a few numbers by The Happy Hollows. But once they began, leaving was not an option. Sarah, Charlie and Chris gave their all in a magnificent set that was just the adrenaline rush the hour required. Leaping, dancing, playing hard, singing harder, this was a sterling performance by a band that just keeps getting better.

I had to duck out before Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros came on, but I'd love to know how that went. It was getting really late, it was really cold (for Los Angeles) and I was tired, so I headed home, my Christmas sweater keeping me warm.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Upcoming Shows

Beginning a nice run of shows tonight with a set by The Happy Casualties at The Blu Monkey at 5521 Hollywood Blvd. Don't know the place, but I'll find it. They're on a bill with The Seizures, Stab City and SuperDuperStar, none of whom I have heard. Also wanted badly to catch up with Automatic Drawing and Collisions at Spaceland and the timing would have been just right, but my Internet connection went haywire and I had to spend over an hour with someone in India who fixed it.
later note: Steve Sigl of The Happy Casualties called me just before I left to say they weren't playing so I got the night off.

Friday is a nightmare. I must be at the Radars To the Sky record release party at Spaceland at 11, when they go on. But I've also been invited to Echo Curio to see a night of bands from the label New and Used Records. Local bands, Shiloe and Tigers Can Bite You, along with San Francisco's Kid Mud and Geographer. All make really beautiful music, so I may begin my evening there. Pehrspace has a brilliant show that night, too. Manhattan Murder Mystery, The Transmissions, Policy and Kill Kill Kill are all great bands and I wish I could be there.

Saturday I'm excited to go to this year's Christmas Sweater Festival for which I was happy to pay for an 'A' ticket, since it's a benefit for Doctors Without Borders. It also happens to feature some of my very favorite bands like Amnion, Castledoor, The Happy Hollows, The Pity Party, The Deadly Syndrome and even the orgiastic, carnival that is Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros. It's at The Echoplex and starts early, 7 o'clock. Now I just have to find that hideous red reindeer sweater I remember I have...somewhere.

Sunday, December 14, 2008 offers another marathon. First I got word of a performance by one of my favorite finds this year, The Stevenson Ranch Davidians. They completely seduced me at The Flying Tourbillon Orchestra's wonderful EP release party last July 3rd. I saw them for the second time later that month and, again, they were incredible. Then I heard they'd lost their drummer so I figured they'd be down for a while. Well, here they are, billed as semi-acoustic, so I don't know whether there's a drummer or not, but in any incarnation, they are worth seeing. later note: Just heard it's a solo acoustic show by lead singer/guitarist, Dwayne, so I'll look forward to hearing that. They're playing with bands I don't know, called Quarter After, Sky Parade and Bluniform at a place called Cafe Corsa, near downtown and early. They play at five.

Then The Echoplex announces "a charitable night of music presented by Otik Records and Confessions of a Would-Be Hipster to benefit Midnight Mission and lower-income families in East L.A." featuring Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart and Tandemoro, a couple more of my favorites. I could get here after Stevenson Ranch is done. What a December this is turning out to be!

Monday night, December 15, 2008, Gangi return to the local stage after a brief absence, and I can't wait to hear another band I consider one of the real finds of the year. They're at the Echo with Voices Voices, BlackBlack and Le Coste. And, again, The Movies residency everyone is describing as triumphant is at Spaceland.

Tuesday I have a ticket for the incredible Amanda Palmer at The Fonda. It'll be my sixth time seeing this force of nature and I never get tired of it. Can't wait!
Also, Seasons play at Spaceland that night. Damn!

Can't write more now. Gotta run!


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Xu Xu Fang Haunts The Echo

Monday night (December 8, 2008) was the night of the residency, CD release party for Based On a True Story by The Movies at Spaceland and it was the indie-talk of the town. That, and the fact they were playing with Rademacher and a solo Sarah Negahdari (The Happy Hollows) made it a huge temptation. But I had long ago committed, in my mind (as both shows were free) to see Xu Xu Fang at The Echo.

Since it was my fourth show in a row, I actually considered staying home and sleeping...for about a minute. I could also have sidestepped questions about why one band over another. But the more I thought about Xu Xu Fang, the more certain I became. I've seen The Movies many times, but Xu Xu Fang, not nearly enough.

I figured on staying for only the one band so I didn't even get to The Echo till 10:30, but The Winter Flowers were just getting started. Since the place was filled with hippies eager to see this band I figured they may be worthwhile. They were.

When they began, I realized I'd seen them open for Lavender Diamond at the Troubadour back on June 16, 2007, and I had liked them then. The Winter Flowers are part of an ever-expanding bunch of musicians who seem to owe as much to ancient music forms and folk traditions as to any rock and roll. Their resemblance to bands of roving musicians criss-crossing the European countryside hundreds of years ago is not accidental.

They play guitars and strings and mandolins and sing in gorgeous three-part harmonies that even reference Gregorian chants. It's an intoxicating mix of beautiful sounds matched by creative songwriting abilities. The three players, Christof Certik, Astrid Quay and Gavin Toler play with exceptional skill, and sing in three distinctly different but complimentary voices.

I was glad photographer, Scott Schultz was on hand as he was the only person I knew in the place. It was fun to compare notes with someone who, like me, has just begun a new career that seems to be taking off. It's like jumping on a train, not quite sure where it's going. His photography of the music scene is wonderful and valuable as well. Odd coincidence, we're both originally from Massachusetts, expatriated to the West Coast.

The other person I knew there was Barbara Cohen of Xu Xu Fang, who I met last August at "Let's Independent!" and who gave me a warm welcome. I always look forward to hearing her astonishing voice, and seeing her delightfully ghoulish stage manner.

Beginning with fog filling the stage, shrouding their blue-light festooned gear in a swampy haze, the chugging momentum of the instrumental "Ni Hao" kicked in and lulled you into a back and forth motion, letting the music fill you from the ground up. Xu Xu Fang has seven talented musicians sweeping you up in the lush sound scape created by drummer Bobby Tamlin.

Next was heard the sound of waves breaking on a shore, just as their EP The Mourning Son opens, followed by the thudding beat of "Good Times" as Barbara took the stage, front and center. With her saucer eyes and Cheshire cat smile, she seemed to be both warning us and beckoning us at the same time. They had the band miked superbly and Barbara's vocal came through at the perfect level.

After "The Mourning Son" and the popular "These Days" (thanks to the TV exposure), they launched into my favorite of their songs. The, as yet, unrecorded "Seven Days Now" is just about the most beautiful song I've heard this year.

But I think they topped even that with a song, which I believe, is called "Your Way". This song was the highlight of the set for me, combining great beauty and great power with an hypnotic melody. Stunning song!

This was one of the best sets I've seen from this band. The languid flow of their music made me feel as if I were walking along the ocean floor, underwater and surrounded by wonders too overwhelming to describe. I don't know what they put in their music, but let's just say, it's potent stuff.

I stayed around and met Bobby Tamkin, the mastermind behind this musical mastodon, and even more surprising to talk to a genial, polite and friendly guy who writes these murky horror-songs. Glad to tell him how much I love his band.

The last act was Corridor, which is a one man orchestra. I only could last for one song, but it was very musical and he uses an interesting range of instruments and sounds. The musician goes by the name M. Quinn and I want to hear more. Corridor has gigs coming up at the Echo Curio and at The Unknown Theatre in January which I'll try to check out.

For a night I didn't really want to go out, this turned out to be a sterling evening. Just goes to show you, when in doubt, go out!


Monday, December 8, 2008

First Weekend of December

This past weekend was a flurry of activity beginning with the Friday night show at Mr. T's Bowl. But Saturday, December 6, 2008, was the centerpiece.

First I attended an afternoon screening of Doubt in which Meryl Streep's performance, at times, left me gasping for air. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams are equally fine, but Streep blew the lid right off the top of my head. It's a fine play, beautifully filmed by it's author, John Patrick Shanley.

With that lighting a fire beneath me, I took off for Pehrspace to try to see as much of the Ema and The Ghosts EP release party as I could. Ema had invited the wonderful bands, The Sweet Hurt, Karabel Nightlife and The Monolators to fill the bill. But I also wanted to get downtown to see Death To Anders at the Zero Film Festival. This might take some careful juggling.

A good crowd assembled as The Sweet Hurt serenaded us with their soft, sweet harmonies. Wendy Wang's music is really lovely and beautifully sung.

Next, Ema and The Ghosts played another set of her quirky, improvisational-sounding story/songs in her distinctive voice. I hear influences ranging from Joni Mitchell to Melanie, from Bjork to Joanna Newsom. This girl has her own voice, though, and a wonderful talent, accompanying herself on ukulele and accordion and displaying ability far beyond her years.

I was happy to have the opportunity to chat with her dad for a while, too. Elaine Layabout had come back from delivering the Anders boys downtown, to see her daughter perform, and we were going to go back to see Death To Anders play, but the logistics of the Zero Film Festival got a little muddled and we spent the entire Karabel Nightlife set out in the parking lot trying to figure out when D To A would go on.

They couldn't go on till after midnight so we were able to stay for The Monolators. They provided the usual high-energy tonic for the night and Eli was in great voice as he blazed his way through song after song. Man, can that band play fast, with Mary's extraordinary drumming leading the charge.

That left me primed for running downtown to catch some more music. It had to have been one in the morning when we walked into the bright, white, overly 'designed' building on Main Street. The few Silverlakers already there seemed pleased to see a troupe of familiar faces coming in.

After chatting with Rob, Nick, Pete and John of Death To Anders and Christian of The Transmissions we all headed for the roof, where a band was playing some generic sounding indie-rock under a blustery sky that kept dripping random raindrops onto us.

When they finished, the crowd thinned, it was 1:15 after all. Death To Anders took the stage and began a very promising set. In spite of the late hour, they played with invigorating energy, right up until the cops showed up.

It was 2 AM and the festival permit only went to 2, so they had to shut us down. Being indie-rockers, everyone said, "O.K." and went home.

Actually, the whole night had been one hell of a good time.

Sunday (December 7, 2008), in spite of being beat, I went over to El Cid to catch Oliwa and the Pleasure Circus Band, who promised a festive set. Henry Wolfe opened with his band and I enjoyed what I heard, even though I only saw the second half of his set. It was smart, upbeat indie-rock with horns and keyboards and a nice range of musicians, including Oliver and others from The Pleasure Circus.

I stayed for a few songs by Oliwa and The Pleasure Circus Band, but I was totally tired and had to go home. I enjoyed their whole carnivalesque mystique and the songs are jaunty, instrumental pieces with a heavy gypsy-folk-punk flavor. Sometimes there was just too much going on, but I think these are talented musicians and would love to hear them some more. They play the El Cid again next Sunday, December 14 and I may try to give them a fairer shot.