Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Starlight Mints at The Troubadour

Monday, July 27, 2009, I headed over to The Troubadour to see Starlight Mints (above). For those who don't know, they're the odd, quirky completely original unit out of the Oklahoma dust bowl (maybe the best thing to come out of Oklahoma since "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"). What do they put in their drinking water that they can produce the surrealistic psychedelics of bands like The Flaming Lips and Starlight Mints?

I've seen them twice before, both times at The Troubadour, both highly memorable shows, especially the first time when they had a string section with them (5/7/2006). I spoke briefly to Alan Vest before the set to let him know how much I enjoyed his other shows and that I've been listening to the new CD, Change Remains. He told me it was a real departure for them that he hoped people would like. I said I like it and he seemed pleased. A gracious gentleman who I was very glad to finally meet.

They only had to get on stage and begin playing to captivate me completely. As good as the first time I saw them, this was one of those sets that just flies by in an instant, as they careened from one great song to another. Alan's sly yet strong voice is the band's strongest asset. He is the glue that holds it all together. (shown above)

I believed I wasn't familiar enough with their new material to appreciate it as much as the older songs, which are a part of my consciousness. Oddly enough, it was the new songs that had the most impact. Tightly orchestrated, played with passion and precision and sung to perfection, they are rousing, get-up-and-dance songs that get right under your skin.

Starlight Mints' songwriting has always impressed me, with their twisted, contorted melodies, reminiscent of, but not imitations of The Shins, in the way they make the discordant melodious.
Including many songs from
Change Remains: "Natural", "Paralyzed", "Zoomba", "Black Champagne" and "Power Bleed", they punctuated them with some of their greatest hits.

From Built on Squares they played "Black Cat", the impossibly danceable "Irene" (it takes all my resistance to keep from dancing around the room every time I play this song) and "Pages", that grabs you with so many hooks, that when Alan's strummed guitar comes in it suddenly electrifies your attention.

This band uses a wide range of instruments in a sparing and seemingly random way that creates a lace pattern of sound. From Drowation came the driving beat of "Rhino Stomp", the brilliant opening number, "Pumpkin" and "Eyes of the Night", all accompanied by their stimulating pop-art lightshow.

It was a surprisingly spare crowd, but the enthusiasm level was tremendous and each number was greeted with cheers and whoops and lots of movement, grooving to the music. Sometimes the cheers and applause were so loud, it sounded like a sold out house.

Marion Love Nunez (at left) provides such vital and exuberant keyboard and vocals that I must mention it, all the while dancing and swaying to the beat. The whole band is so seamless, and they are obviously loving what they are doing so it's infectious. Also love the fact that all five band members are miked so they can all add vocals where needed creating some astonishing vocal patterns.

Local heroes, Castledoor opened with a red hot set of their greatest hits, streamlined into a 30 minute set. The band was in great form and the miking of the voices were some of the best I've ever heard for them, with Coury Jane and Lisa perfectly balancing Nate's powerful lead in their vocal gymnastics and pure harmonies.

Really fun to see them at The Troubadour, and I was glad to see them get such a positive response from the audience. Terrific renditions of "Dumpster Diving", "Stepping Stones" and "Burn the Maps" highlighted by some impressive vocals by Nate and a powerful pop performance from the band.

Comic, JP Incorporated (formerly: Pleaseeasaur) was in-between and his amusing send ups of TV advertising (complete with giant video screen) are made more amusing by his stage antics, with costumes and wigs and his winning personality. The satire is funny, and he is an appealing stage presence. What's not to like?


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everest and Red Cortez at Hammer Museum (7/9/09)

I bussed out to the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood to see the July 9th installment of their Thursday night concert series that features great local indie bands in the courtyard under the stars. It's a pleasant setting and worked well for both Red Cortez and Everest.

I was very happy to see these bands again as they've both been out of town on concert tours, opening for heavyweights like Neil Young, in the case of Everest, and Morrissey for Red Cortez, both hand picked by the headliners themselves.

Had a nice catch-up with Harley Prechtel-Cortez and Travis and Kinser of Web In Front. Red Cortez (at right on tour in Athens, GA) will be around town until September, when they hit the road, joining The Airborne Toxic Event and The Henry Clay People for another cross country tour. I was happy to meet up with Russell Pollard of Everest, who I haven't seen in such a long while. He and the band are happy to be home and he told me they'd be introducing a lot of new material tonight.

The band took the stage and played a rousing set of a few favorites and a bunch of new songs I had never heard before. They never play the same set twice, that I've seen. The west side audience bounced along to the music that they delivered with their trademark exuberance. Harley astonished the crowd, as usual, with his passionate and soulful singing, turning his talent for the piano on for the final number.

Everest played a set of mostly unfamiliar material that continues in the strong songwriting style we've come to expect from them. Russell writes classic sounding rock and roll in the folk/country style so prevalent in the '70's music I grew up with. In fact you could listen to any number of great '70's bands and drop Everest numbers in between song and sense no disparity at all. This isn't to say that they sound particularly retro. It's just the parity of quality one would notice.

If anything, extensive touring has honed their live performances into models of economy and precision. Few bands play so well live, or play such rock-solid sets. As I said when I first saw them on April 23, 2007 at Spaceland (there was already buzz about them) playing during The Minor Canon residency, they were born fully formed. And in the subsequent shows I saw, they just reconfirmed the promise they began with and just got better and better. Everest is still on that upward trajectory.

The Hammer has a great series of Thursday night concerts that really help expand the community and are worthy of your support...and they're free. There's another one this Thursday, July 23, with Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros and Eskimohunter. More free music in the city now known as the free music capital of the world.


The Faraway Places at Silver Lake Lounge (7/8/09)

I was anxious to see The Faraway Places at Silver Lake Lounge on Wednesday, July 8, 2009 since I'd seen them open for Avi Buffalo during their residency back in May. I picked up their CD, Out of the Rain, the Thunder & the Lightning, and became a big fan based on the this terrific recording filled with a variety of well written, nicely produced songs.

It always happens when I see a band, cold, knowing nothing more than maybe a myspace sampling, and, live, the band just grabs my full attention. If they have a CD for sale I buy it and quietly go home to digest it. I was very impressed and waited impatiently for their nest gig.

It's always a challenge when I get to know a band this way, because you wonder if they actually sounded as good live as the recording. When they started, the songs sounded different and less focused. But when they got to the third song, which included an extended jam, the whole set suddenly sprang to life. At once the band jelled and the whole bar perked up and everyone was paying attention.

The set turned from fair to excellent in the space of about 30 seconds. The longer the jam went on the more beautiful it became. I could have listened to just that for an hour. Chris Colthart writes intricate indie pop songs that have surprisingly clever lyrics and Donna Cappola (at right) provides solid keyboard work while adding just the right vocal harmony to every song (or tambourine).

Out of the Rain, the Thunder & the Lightning is a CD bound to compete for a spot on my year end best list and they sang most of the best songs from that album. "You Can Cry" and "Still Be There" were given solid renditions, but when they sang "Keep It Alive", dropping a beat from the original structure, the song became something completely different than the recorded version and had an 'edge-of-the-seat' quality leaving you wondering if it would break down. It didn't. It left me breathless.

My favorite song of theirs, so far, is "Run While True", even though it isn't completely typical of their style. It's more moody and contemplative, but dredges up sudden emotion and images with lyrics like "I'm taking down some fences, need to see open spaces, hidden places, that they never told me about" A real sense of longing that's palpable.

The Faraway Places are definitely a band to watch and I will see them again, and often. I was invited by Rebecca Balin to see the headliner, The Monthlies, who were very nice lads who play some very crowd-pleasing dance music. But it was late and I was sinking fast, so I had to leave, but they're back at the Silver Lake Lounge on July 27 with Last American Buffalo, so I can give them more time


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Two Shows - Two Worlds Apart

As I sat on the floor of the Echo Curio on Monday, July 6, 2009, completely enraptured by the range and scale of the talent on display, I couldn't help but reflect back on the startlingly ordinary and by-the-numbers impersonality of the show I'd seen the night before at the Hollywood Bowl. The contrast was enormous and unsettling.

On Sunday, July 5, I'd ventured up to the Hollywood Bowl to see The New Pornographers open for Death Cab For Cutie. Despite the absence of Dan Bejar and Niko Case (the latter, we'd been promised), they delivered a powerhouse set of amazing hit songs, one after another, with Kathryn Calder (I believe) doing a terrific job of filling in for Case. They have such an incredible catalog of songs to choose from, there's no clunkers.

Followed by Tegan and Sara, who sing delightful songs with the sisters sharing back and forth vocal leads in a most ingratiating and winning manner. Problem was, after eight or so songs, they all sound a little too similar. But their unpretentious and warm stage presence counts for a lot.

When Death Cab For Cutie came on, they sang a set of songs before being joined by The Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I was startled by the hyper-energy of Ben Gibbard, whose music and demeanor have always struck me as rather laid back and subdued. But on Sunday the band took on the rock icon attitude and I found it, sadly, at odds with their music and frankly, a little weird.

Their slight, melancholy, introspective compositions are often quite beautiful, but when overplayed, they resemble a mouse trying to give a piggy-back to an elephant. They don't need to pretend they're Bon Jovi.

Perhaps I am spoiled by too many concerts where I'm five feet in front of the band, but, much as I have enjoyed the Bowl experience in the past, the huge gulf between audience and performer is becoming insurmountable to me. It's fine for a band like Arcade Fire, who are so brilliant and dynamic (and so large), they obliterate that gulf by the sheer strength of their performance and their product. R.E.M., last year, showed a knowledge of how to fill this huge venue, although the set was so programmed, it could have been a filmed performance.

By the time the orchestra joined Death Cab For Cutie, I'd been a little put off by the inappropriate athleticism of their show and underwhelmed by the sameness of the songs, which were all pitched at the same level. So when the Philharmonic were added and the whole thing turned to mush, I bolted. I was, frankly, not sorry to leave the majority of the audience, who seemed to respond with a mechanical enthusiam (when not texting), as if trying to convince themselves that they weren't bored.

Flash forward 24 hours, I'm walking into Echo Curio as Elisa Ferrari is on her first number. This venue is so intimate that when you open the door and step inside, you're on stage with the band. I smiled at the performers, they smiled back as they're playing and singing and I slid in sideways to eventually find a spot on the floor. Heavily populated with a smattering of familiar faces I was struck, all at once, that a more inviting atmosphere would be difficult to find. You could fit five Hollywood Bowls in this place and not come close to the level of musical magic I witnessed Monday night.

Elisa Ferrari (below right) is a band from Austin which features the singing and songwriting talents of guitarist Elisa Ferrari, Jen Smull, who seems like a classically trained cello virtuoso with her stunning playing and Ian Dicke with his perfect contribution of bass lines and beats that added gravity to these lovely, original tunes. The drummer and all round 'I'll-play-whatever-is-necessary' presence of Owen Weaver adds dimension and variety to an already impressive array of sounds.

I was immediately drawn in and became a willing passenger to whatever destination Elisa cared to take us, by the style and quality of the music and lyrics. Sounding a bit like folk tunes, mixed with a little Parisian cafe ambience, a taste of jazz and even a hint of Broadway style, the blend comes across as new and original. The mainspring holding it all together is the strong and assured vocal style of Elisa Ferrari. I am a fan, and judging by the reaction of others, who had also never heard them before, I'm not alone.

Between sets, I met the band, and everyone emptied out onto the sidewalk for some air. I enjoyed meeting up with Tommy Santee Klaws and company. Cave Country were there too, and Ryan Fuller of Fort King, so it was like old home week.

Tommy Santee Klaws (below) set up, with a slightly altered line up and led into an hypnotic set of songs that had the audience in mouth-gaping rapture from the first note of music, on that toy piano played by Donna Jo. The beautiful, reflective and intelligent lyrics reveal a desire to look at life honestly, the bad and the good, with a minimum of self-deception. The notion of always being willing to pick up the pieces and move on, no matter what life throws at you, is something I'd like to think I can relate to and is one reason I am so often very moved emotionally by this band.
One great song after another and you could feel the audience's excitement mounting. The extraordinary vocals of Tommy And Sam Seree with assist from Donna Jo, the amazing upright bass by Tom Paige, the mandolin and vocals of Jason Boles and a drummer I'm not sure I met, all added up to another perfect set by this most amazing band. They have a consistency of style that never becomes repetitious... on the contrary, it's thrilling because you've never heard anything like it before.

By now the crowd was kind of loopy from the one, two punch of the first two bands. One almost hoped the third band would be more ordinary so you could come back down to earth. This was not to be.

I may fail in my attempt to describe this band because they are so unique and unusual and they had me in the palm of their hand from the start, so words may fail me. Marshweed is the name of the band and the leader and songwriter is Heather Lockie (below) of Listing Ship, who are a band I have seen and liked in the past, but this is a completely different animal.

It's almost a form of performance art, with the performers sitting on the floor on the Echo Curio's big oriental rug as the whole audience does likewise and sits on the floor as well. Heather begins singing shyly and quietly as her gorgeous viola slowly insinuates itself and as she is joined by the sturdy voice of Shawn Lockie and the contrebass of Laura Steenberg.

Funny, ironic lyrics are aided by some of the most curious instrumentation I have ever heard. It was all highlighted by a song whose name I don't know, but could be named after the famous cartoon Toot, Whistle Plunk and Boom. It bordered on performance art in the way Shawn and Laura removed impliments of noise from two bags set before them, in time to the music and adding (or throwing them down) at the end of a line. I was completely mesmerized by Marshweed.

I can't imagine how this sounds recorded, but I'd be willing to bet, pretty great. The evening ended on a high note and I think everyone was amazed that three such great band could mesh so well yet each be so completely original. This had to be one of the best coordinated nights of music I may have ever attended and I flew home in a state of euphoria that lasted the entire following day.