Monday, March 23, 2009

Concert Review: Travis Morrison Hellfighters, The Bell House, NYC, March 21

Travis Morrison is a huge dork.

You expect the former lead singer of a beloved indie act to be hip, or detached, or at least to sport a haircut with those attributes. You don't expect his on-stage banter to consist of adopting a faux-Italian accent and saying "What a wonderful night, what a wonderful night. That's-a spicy meatball!" And you certainly don't expect him to vocalize the snare rolls to his own jokes.

"A priest, a pervert and a pedophile walk into a bar," Morrison said between songs. "...and then the second guy comes in! Ba-bum-pish!"

Like I said, huge dork.

That dorkiness, of course--or rather that sense of silly fun and lack of self-consciousness--is part of what made the Dismemberment Plan so special, and it's part of what makes his the Travis Morrison Hellfighters' All Y'all a pretty good record and the band's Brooklyn concert a pretty fun gig. It's just that, with a new set of musicians and with Morrison at a different time in his life, it's manifested differently.

The Plan's "Girl O'Clock" featured Morrison's most instantly memorable opening lyric, the stuttered "If I d-d-d-on't have s-s-s-s-sex before the end of the week, I'm going to die!" Now, on a song like "You Make Me Feel Like a Freak," that sense of nervous urgency is replaced by the awkward sexual misadventures of a thirty-something getting picked up at a bar: "Here we are, we're there, yeah, standing at the bar/She says 'Hey, don't you work for NPR?/You're looking the type, and I think you're all right/And you're looking pretty good in those khakis.'" But shouldn't a 20-something and a 30-something sound different when singing about sex? The matter-of-fact, catchy verses about a girl who likes it "right between the toes" explode into a few dissonant jangling chords, a squeaky chorus of "you make me feel like a freak!" The old energy is there, and the song is as diverse as any of his prior bands' tunes: hilarious, energetic, and fun.

Eight of eleven songs from the band's sole album All Y'all were played, along with some new tracks that indicate a line-up that's getting tighter and more comfortable, highlighted by the propulsive bassline of "Henrietta" and the shuffling triplets of "Cruisin' All Night Long," which Morrison said is about "gay cop sex."

And Morrison also remembers that rock music is supposed to be fun and danceable. The band is muscular and funky, and gives Morrison a chance to be a dynamic frontman again in the way his solo album never seemed to. Any live performer with a little spring in his or her step is called "energetic," but with Morrison you get the sense he is enjoying himself so much that he can't help but show it, whether he breaks into a little two-step while dancing, or thrashes on his guitar while looking at his bandmates. Not that he minds enjoying himself by himself: "I know how you feel," he said after someone in the crowd laughed loudly and alone at one of his jokes. "Sometimes I'm the only one in the room who laughs."

Morrison's complete lack of self-consciousness really popped when compared to the audience, which seemed rooted to the floor. There was a five-foot void between the stage and the first row of fans, like some invisible bubble separating the "fun" zone onstage from the "head bobbing only" zone in the crowd. It's been over a decade since Morrison ridiculed stiff-hipped indie kids with the Plan's "Do the Standing Still," but judging by the Brooklyn crowd he's still on the losing end of that battle.

If there was a lack of corresponding energy in the crowd, it's probably because of the same problems that have contributed to the cool reception to Morrison's post-Plan output. By a new band, All Y'all would be a good debut, but the fans of defunct groups with brilliant output aren't interested in just "good." It's a shame, though, that past expectations have burdened a still-vital musician. Here's hoping the next album can get more than 80 or 90 people out to a Brooklyn gig.

I Do
Saturday Night
Crusin' All Night Long*
As We Proceed
Champion Lover* Champion L.V.A.
You Make Me Feel Like a Freak
Money Town*
East Side of the River
Catch Up
I'm Not Supposed to Like You (But)

*New songs, titles uncertain UPDATE: Travis, sweet guy that he is, responded to an e-mail asking about the song titles:

"Yeah it's called Champion L.V.A. really, not Champion Lover, not sure why I said that.
Thanks man!


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Concert Review: Modest Mouse, Electric Factory, Philadelphia, March 14

When did Modest Mouse turn into seasoned indie rock veterans? More importantly, how did they do it without losing any of their vitality? At their show in Philadelphia on Saturday night, Isaac Brock was in top-form for the entirety of the two-hour-plus show, shouting alongside the original song melodies, hollering into his pick-ups, mixing and matching and vamping on lyrics, and taking songs like "Dramamine" and "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" on noisy ten-minute rides.

Yet Modest Mouse seems comfortable. They seem to be settling in with the idea that they're a band with a rich back catalogue, and able to draw upon many eras of their sound. If you want to count Good News For People Who Love Bad News as the first "new" era Modest Mouse album--which it is, based on style and the fans it attracted--their set did an 11/9 split old/new. And there were some true surprises--"Talking Shit About A Pretty Sunset," and, according to Isaac, the first live performance of "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" in a decade.

The diverse setlist, had at least two tracks from every major Mouse release, aside from, predictably, their shelved would-have-been-debut Sad Sappy Sucker and The Fruit That Ate Itself EP. Yeah, the roll-my-eyes-at-the-new-stuff crowd will whine, but "Fire It Up" aside, the band avoided any relative dud cuts from it's newest effort. "Parting of the Sensory," which it's build, dynamic changes, and overlapping vocal breakdown, is a multi-part Mouse song in the classic style, and all hits like "Float On" and "Dashboard" did was match Isaac' rambling vocals to more straightforward drum beats and slicker production.

Although the bigger band set-up made We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank seem a big bogged down, with Isaac's song-writing getting simplified to hold bigger rock arrangements, a six-piece Modest Mouse served songs old and new alike well in Philly--even the rock-star excess of two full drum kits. It's hard to keep track of who did what, but having a violin on hand can sure sweeten a song, and the classic four-note bassline on "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes" is a lot thicker coming from a stand-up. And the megaphone finally answered my ages-old wonders about where that sound on "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child" came from; you know, the one that sounded like the buzzing of an angry adult from an old Peanuts cartoon.

Judging by setlists over at, the sets on this tour have varied, both in song selection and placement. It's the sign of a band that's bored to repeat themselves every night, and I'm glad to know that not only did I get a great show, but I got a unique one, as well. We got "Jesus Christ," every other city in the world! Take that!

Concert-goer shoutouts:
-To the dude in the "Cowboy Dan" t-shirt who I gave a boost to go crowd-surfing: Sorry you didn't get to hear your song, but I hope you enjoyed the show!
-To the "OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE PEOPLE LIKE DASHBOARD MORE THAN DRAMAMINE" guy: It's not a mystery. "Dashboard" was the lead radio and video single off a No. 1, RIAA Gold-certified record that came out less than two years ago. "Dramamine" was an album cut off an indie-label debut album that's more than a decade old. Also, judging by the back-to-back reactions to "Doin' the Cockroach" and "Float On," your evaluation of the crowd preference to old versus new isn't even accurate.
-To the "first to post how much I hated the show I paid $40 to see" set: You weren't, perchance, the skinny fuckers I saw with pusses on their face not singing along to a single song, were you? You know, the ones who didn't bob their heads or shake their hips, but got indignant whenever someone (me) who was having fun had the gall to try to get past you?
-To the girl I'm pretty sure was pinching my back during "Parting of the Sensory": What the fuck is your problem?

Black Cadillacs
Parting of the Sensory
Interstate 8
Doin' the Cockroach
Float On
Third Planet
The View
Fire It Up
Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset
Here it Comes
Tiny Cities Made of Ashes
Custom Concern (aborted)/Baby Blue Sedan
Spitting Venom

Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
Paper Thin Walls
Night on the Sun
The Good Times Are Killing Me

Monday, March 9, 2009

Concert Review: James Blackshaw, Issue Project Room, NYC, March 7

James Blackshaw is one of those musician that elicits the response "Huh--he's only twenty-seven?" and leaves anyone younger feeling they aren't using a tenth of their potential the way he does. Wielding a 12-string acoustic guitar, Blackshaw's technique already seems fully-formed, and his playing timeless. A decent fingerstyle guitarist quickly learns to pluck out a bassline with the thumb and lay a melody with the fingers, doing two things at once. Blackshaw sometimes seems to do about ten things at once. He knows when to show restrain and let a few notes or a single chord ring out, when to let phrases loll around between the empty silences, and when to dazzle with his speed. His pieces are long and hypnotic, but rely a lot on repetition and variations on short phrases. They're often long--three of the six tracks on his 2008 album Litany of Echoes pass the 11-minute mark--but melodic and accessible.

The same music and performance would be astonishing and worthwhile from a seasoned veteran selling $50 tickets, so it's surprising in concert to drop ten bucks and hear these sounds come out of a skinny kid from London in a t-shirt. And though his recordings feature some embellishments, like strings, they sound just as full and lush, if not moreso, coming from a solo live guitar.

The Issue Project Room was a nice complement for Blackshaw's performance. The venue is awaiting a move to an old theater, but until it works up the money to renovate they're operating out of a mysterious building in Park Slope. It seems like some sort of old factory building. You pass thick doors with huge barn-style latches, and walk up a few flights of concrete steps to get to a narrow concert space on the third floor. The narrow room isn't conducive to getting a great few from far away, but with a capacity of about 100 that's not much of a problem, and the intimate atmosphere is great for focusing attention on the performers.

The openers were adequate, if a bit sleepy. Metal Mountains, a three-piece of vocals/guitar, guitar, and violin, milk the same low-key, low-tempo, low-action sound too long and for too little, and waste the violin on long, atmospheric notes instead of exploring counter melodies or the instrument's range. I can't find much information about them, and their has an astonishing zero listens as I right this review. At least they kept it short, though. Their sleepy feeling carried over to Meg Baird, whose set seemed to be twice as long with half as much happening. Entry-level fingerpicking on basic chord patterns complemented by a faux-Joni Mitchell whine, but sedated and uneventful. A back-up slide guitarist added a lot to the middle portion of the set, but it was too much of the same.

If anything, Metal Mountains and Meg Baird served as a contrast that only pulled the richness of Blackshaw's music into sharper focus. While the warm-ups were content to drift along on one or two music ideas per song, Blackshaw with one guitar explored more ideas in a single phrase than they did in an entire composition. With the Mountains and Meg, the music lulls the audience into closed eyes and threatens to send them to sleep. With Blackshaw, it's fun to let eyes close just to be able to focus on the drift and pull of the music, which mesmerizes and engages, but doesn't let attention flag.

(On that note, however, a special "fuck you" is in order: Despite the intimacy of the venue and Blackshaw's low profile, I still spotted "that girl" at the show: you know, the one who sits through the entirety of two middling opening acts, yet checks her phone during the main set and leaves before the encore. What the hell? You don't end up at a show for a semi-obscure guitarist on accident, and this wasn't some booze-filled club, where the music is a backdrop to socialize with hipster doofuses. Fuck you, that girl.)

Litany of Echoes was one of my favorite albums of last year, and it would have ranked higher had I been able to appreciate Blackshaw in a live setting a bit earlier. For someone so talented, Blackshaw seems pretty mild-mannered and easy going, and the show went along at a nice even pace. He doesn't talk much or take his hand off his guitar except to sip from a drink between each piece, and stops to retune after each composition finishes. After his set ends, the applause continues within flagging, and he admits that he doesn't usually play encores, but offers up a new piece. Unprepared, he has to ask an audience member to hammer out a few notes on the venue piano to help him tune. Although the piano's tuning itself is suspect, the piece he offers up some the greatest dynamic range out of anything he performed, indicating that this bright young talent, who already shines far beyond his years, has a lot of growing and exploration left to do.