Saturday, July 24, 2010

Surfing in Babylon Leaves Home: Swell Season! Lightning Bolt! Kid Sister! Urinetown!

In what's surely been a banner period for witnessing live music not performed by myself, I've been to several performances of the stuff in the past week. Whaddo they call 'em? "Shows"? Of course, in two instances I couldn't really see the performers, so the "show" part consisted more of watching my fellow music afficionadi. To wit:

The Swell Season at Ravinia, Wed. 7/14/10

My wife's more of a fan than I am; their albums make me sort of sleepy. The movie Once, which notably starred Swell Seasoners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, was a delight, and Glen is a real charmer live. When we saw them last December at the Auditorium Theatre, Glen kept shouting out to the cheap seats, the area where you could've guessed we were sitting, if you have ANY understanding of my monetary policies. Glen told story after story. Some were moving, some were funny; all showcased his shambling appeal as a performer. We were his. I didn't want the show to end.

This Ravinia show, we were OK with it ending. Ravinia's cheap seats are a lawn with no clear view of the stage; they have a big TV, but it's less compelling. Throughout the concert, wife and I marveled at the people around us who were dining and conversing while giving little attention to the music being piped through the trees. Hadn't they paid good money for these tickets? I could see if you're going to Ravinia for Shostakovich quartets or something and you paid ten bucks, maybe you take a walk and play with the kid while listening to beautiful music in the background. But somehow a pop show demands more of your undivided attention, even if the music doesn't require close listening like a string quartet. The performers interact more with the audience, and the tickets cost more.

Unfortunately, charming Glen seemed to realize that he couldn't see 3/4 of his audience, and he seemed a little cowed by it. The stories were missing, the funny little bits of stage patter gone. A couple Swell Season songs require that the audience sing backup vocals, and Glen had no hope of communicating that to his unseen fans. He and Marketa and their band, the Frames, performed well, but the communal spirit of the Auditorium show was missing. In hopes of beating the rush to the shuttle bus, we left during "Falling Slowly," their big Oscar hit; but we did get to hear my favorite song of theirs, "When Your Mind's Made Up" (got big applause):

Lightning Bolt and the Catacombz at "The Spot," Friday 7/16/10

Against all odds, Lightning Bolt are probably my favorite band of the '00s. They put out four really good albums last decade--who DOES that? (The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin... the list is not long.) Lightning Bolt are a two-piece noise band, with Brian Chippendale on drums and Brian Gibson on bass, and they're ridiculously amplified. I mean, these guys are SO amplified, you feel them in your chest before you hear them. Before the show, everybody starts stuffing their ears with earplugs or ripped-up pieces of paper. It's ominous, like the rippling glass of water in Jurassic Park. (The trick, if you're planning on seeing them, is to find the earplug sweet spot where you can still hear plenty of treble from the bass and the cymbals. If you stuff it in too far, all you can hear is chest vibrations and snare drum thwack.) Lightning Bolt have a sound all their own, and they're slavishly devoted to that sound. In fact, in The Wire, Gibson spoke of the attention they've given their live sound:

"Cause it's so much distortion and bi-amped all this sub-low coming out of the 18s, anything I do has so much force, it's really nice. I do think that's such an important thing, that's the problem with most bands that I see, is actually getting your equipment to sound good live. It just seems like people neglect that, and they think way more about what they're playing and what's happening in the song, in theory, but I think the reality of it is that people are gonna be just hearing something initially that's purely sonic and either sounds when it hits you or it doesn't."

Trust me--when Lightning Bolt plays, IT HITS YOU.

That said, the show was just a little disappointing. Predictable. In '05, Frank Kogan argued on an Ashlee Simpson ILM thread that Lightning Bolt didn't sound like they might "potentially veer out of control." And it's true, they don't. And I think part of the expectation at a Lightning Bolt show--where you've got all this NOISE NOISE NOISE, and you might go deaf, and the band's in the middle of the audience, and hairy people are moshing and crowd-surfing, and everybody's sweaty and touching--is that the band will create, using only their music, a situation that might possibly veer out of control. But no, there's little chance of that. Lightning Bolt are well-rehearsed and they have hooks. You can recognize distinct songs from their CDs, even if I'd be hard pressed to tell you the titles of those songs, apart from "The Faire Folk." They're very polite after showtime, greeting fans with handshakes. And despite all the apparent flailing, all their songs have a basic pulse of either 60, a resting heart rate, or 100, a "Stayin' Alive" beat. They should play Lightning Bolt at CPR seminars!

So what, they never threatened to cut themselves with glass or electrocute the crowd. That's probably for the best. For ten bucks (and even if it'd cost considerably more) they put on a great, energetic show, full of guitar effects you're simply not gonna hear from any other band. See 'em before you die.

And before Lightning Bolt came tha Catacombz! Fairly loud Milwaukee four-piece that combined noise energy with classic-rock and motorik song structures--they were blasting Creedence at their merch table. These guys surprised me in ways that LB didn't, if only because I'd never heard their shtick before. Few have. I believe they've only got cassette releases right now, and their shirts are secondhand tees with the Catacombz logo spraypainted on. Catch 'em while they're hot!

(Special thanks to Chi-town's own Castro, aka Idol Threat, for getting me outta the house!)

Kid Sister at Millennium Park, Mon. 7/19/10

Hometown! Actually, I was more hoping to catch the amplified thumb piano groovez of Konono No. 1, but we missed them, so Chicago rapper Kid Sister had to do, and indeed she did. My four-year-old spent most of her show dancing and running around. The crowd, an assortment of hippies and other-people-who-like-free-live-music, seemed to be into her--they, too, danced and ran around. Sound was good, stage patter a little awkward but genuine, new songs fit right in, and all the rhymes were spot-on. In fact, Castro and I discussed her flow on the way to the LB show, and while I was claiming that, like Ke$ha, Kid Sister's flow came out of L'Trimm and Fannypack, I now think I was mistaken. Kid Sister is squarely in the GILLETTE camp of aggressive syncopation, whereas the other girls are a little cutesier and girlier, with more on-beats. (THE FLOWTATION DEVICE will get on this shit, if we ever stop horsing around.)

Anyhow, here's the lovely "Daydreaming":

Urinetown: the Musical at College of Lake County, Friday 7/23/10


Urinetown is one of that prevalent recent genre, "Musicals That Dwell On The Fact That They're Musicals." Along with The Drowsy Chaperone, this one has a shot at outlasting our cynical era. Ironic? Unlike Chaperone, which is steeped in its love of musicals, Urinetown is relentlessly cynical. Every song is played for laughs, whether a death song or a love song--like the lovely, complex "Follow Your Heart":

There are moments in Urinetown where you start to care about the characters or the plot mechanations, and then the musical simply makes fun of you for caring. In the end, the hero dies, the heroine ruins civilization, and the audience walks out laughing uncertainly, envisioning mankind engulfed in a river of pee. At least I do. I then try to conserve water for a week or so. While I refrain from flushing, I get the feeling that Urinetown is laughing at me even more.

What these live performances have in common, I don't know. I suppose they teach us the lesson that great music can come from anywhere, whether the local community college (which outperformed that link I posted), the big city immediately to the north or south, a different state, or a different country. But we already knew that, didn't we? So probably it's more like this: my synchronicity is your coincidence, my nights on the town are pretty humdrum. Which is fine. My wife just handed me a coconut macaroon that she made (we've been baking all day for the county fair). It's good, and I'm set. But it was nice to get out of the house.

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