Friday, May 20, 2011

writing archive

Howdy all. I just did some major archiving here of all of the music writing I've done over the last few years. I'd like to ensure that it sticks around/is collected in one place. So bear with me as there will be lots of posts cropping up in your rss feeds -- mark all as read to your heart's content.

Cool? Cool.

Review: Thile & Daves - Sleep with One Eye Open



By Jon Stone | @jwstone -  May 12, 2011 

grass|roots ep. 9

When I first started writing the grass|roots column last year, it was with the admission of my limited knowledge in the "genre" and that part of my interest in writing about the genre is the way that one great discovery leads to the next. Though I have learned a lot since then about the tradition (I’ve even begun research for a dissertation that focuses on the rhetoric of traditional American music), this principle remains true. Case in point: A few nights ago, I saw Tony Rice Unit perform. I went, of course, for the opportunity to hear the legendary Mr. Rice play – which was amazing – but I left having witnessed the genius of Rob Ickes’s dobro playing and the charm of Josh Williams who's know for both his work on both guitar and mandolin. Now I have two new artists to get acquainted with.

Chris Thile’s collaboration with Michael Daves on the pair’s new record Sleep with One Eye Open offers the same opportunity. I’m a long-time fan of Thile’s (as you likely know), but Daves is a newcomer both to me and to the bluegrass community at-large. But this is Daves record – it’s his high-and-lonesome voice that props this thing up. Thile is Thile which is to say, he’s fantastic both vocally and mando-ly, but his ego seems checked on Sleep. He gives us plenty of room to get to know Daves a move that seems almost gallant considering the hubris of what it must mean to be Chris Thile. Bravo, Chris.

The record, a collection of bluegrass standards the likes of “20/20 Vision” and “Cry, Cry Darling,” is both a serious and playful update on what Mando Lines over at No Depression calls “your grandfather’s bluegrass” (great review, by the way, Lines). This sums up Sleep, quite well, really. It does its best to be both old and new. We get the old alongside a succinct lesson in traditional music and in Daves high tenor.  The new sneaks its way through in the progressive take on the instrumentation that Thile and Daves so deftly employ.

All in all, this is a great record to start your summer with. It has Dukes-of-Hazard dirt-road chasers to get your blood going (“My Little Girl in Tennessee”) as well as lemonade-sipping instrumentals to enjoy as you porch sit and watch the sunset (“Ookpik Waltz”).  Sleep with One Eye Open is out this week from Nonesuch and, because these dudes mean business, was recorded to tape in Jack White's Third Man Studios in Nashville.

Video/Photos: Strand of Oaks & Joe Pug - Urbana, IL



Wednesday night at Urbana's Canopy Club, Timothy Showalter of Strand of Oaks warmed the crowd for Joe Pug as part of the pair's epic 44-date tour. Though his face was shadowed under the brim of his snug Lionshead cap, his voice and subtle humor charmed. Check out his performance of "Alex Kona" above from the amazing Pope Killdragon.

I snapped some photos of both performers as well. If you're lucky you'll see them tonight at the sold out Chicago show at Lincoln Hall. They'll aslo be at the High Noon Saloon in Madison on May 1st.

Review: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - April 28, 2011

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy

On the self-titled debut by the Fleet Foxes, the band captured wide attention by releasing, arguably, the most well-crafted, vocal harmony-based folk-rock record we've heard since the heyday of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Those harmonies, led by the combination of Robin Pecknold’s striking voice and intensely catchy and singable melodies on songs like “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” and (one of my favorite songs of the last decade) “Blue Ridge Mountains,” secured the band’s spot on the top of critics’ favorite lists, on sold-out tours, and as the headliners at a number of festivals all between its release in early 2008 and late 2009 when they finally packed things in. Two short years and the band went from relative obscurity to becoming one of the biggest acts in indie rock.

I saw the Fleet Foxes at the Newport Folk Festival at the end of summer '09 and was impressed by how well, even in that large, outdoor setting, they recreated the sound and aesthetic of the record. And so, for the last several years I’ve been waiting with trepidation – hoping that the band can do it again. That expectation, as I’ve written before, is probably not fair, but it’s what we do with our darlings – we hold out hope that the years haven’t changed us and that our reunion will be as sweet in spite of the now-fading memories of time spent together. Nevertheless, with a record and love like Fleet Foxes, it’s difficult not to hold the band to a high standard. Admittedly however, reports of delays due to illness, nit-picking perfecting, and at least one back-to-the-drawing-board report caused those expectations to deflate, if just a little.

It’s tough, then, to describe my reaction to Helplessness Blues (out May 3rd on Sub Pop) without sounding heart-struck. The new record is being released at the best possible moment. I started listening to it a few weeks ago just as winter was releasing its unrelenting grip on central Illinois, so the warmth of Helplessness Blues seemed to be responsible for the budding trees and singing birds rather than the rotation of the earth. As summer comes, and judging from the reactions I’m starting to see from folks listening to early streams, others are likely to have the same dissociative experience. The Fleet Foxes will bring sunshine to the masses this year.

The opening track, “Montezuma,” is the perfect example of this. In some sort of animated alternate reality, the song would burst from the clouds as a sunrise, gently casting its rays into cold corners and waking up yawning wildlife. Man, that’s corny, but that may be the secret to this record: It is a musical act of shameless sincerity. When some artists make the attempt, sincerity comes off as disingenuous and cheesy -- like a peck on the cheek of your mother-in-law. But Helplessness Blues is art without irony, which, given the saturated irony market, is an achievement in and of itself.

It just grows from there. Nearly every song is wonderful and positive, but I especially like the second track, “Bedouin Dress,” which shifts from that sunrise into an up-tempo midmorning jaunt toward optimism. “Sim Sala Bim,” which follows, has such a lovely lyric/melody pairing:

He was so kind, such a gentleman, tied to the oceanside
Lighting a match on the suitcase's latch in the fading of night
Ruffled the fur of the collie ‘neath the table
Ran out the door through the dark
Carved out his initials in the bark

Pastoral? To be sure. Try listening more than twice without joining in (and considering the purchase of a collie).

The record’s centerpiece, touchstone, and namesake is “Helplessness Blues.” In addition to being musically anthemic, its message is fascinating. The song argues for a revision of American Dream thinking -- one that deemphasizes the mythic American Individual in favor of useful anonymity. The functioning cog and sore orchard farmer metaphors hint toward a new collective good, “something beyond me,” that still emphasizes hard work and toil, but with different results that mere individual prosperity. Indeed, that song may be a socialist masterpiece.

As you can tell, I could go on, but I’ll just mention a few more details to be listening for: I love the flute on “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” – it’s straight off of an old Nick Drake record (see "The Thoughts of Mary Jane"). “The Shrine /An Argument” is an exercise in contrast: The vocal power of Pecknold’s line “Sunlight over me, no matter what I do” gets me every time and I find the weird horn counterpoint thing at the end (which you’re sure to hear about) utterly cool. There are glimmers of Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends all over this record. Finally, and as a 30-something getting used to the paradoxes of activist ambitions/intensions matched against the temptation of ever-encroaching easy ambivalence, “Someone You’d Admire” seems to speak directly to me as does the hopeful message of “Grown Ocean.” Indeed, among other successes Helplessness Blues has a keen sense of audience.

One fascinating residual effect of the new album’s affect is the shadow that it casts over the debut. Helplessness Blues is so strong from beginning to end, that the first album, despite its undisputed goodness and success, feels like a "Baroque pop" relic. Many of the old songs sound now like mere exercises or warm-ups for the real thing which we now, happily, possess.

Review: Arcade Fire - UIC Pavilion, Chicago



By Jon Stone |@jwstone - April 27, 2011

My relationship with Arcade Fire has, for years, been a conflicted one: The hype. The swagger. The spectacle. The brilliance. All of it has fascinated, confused, and at times chaffed at my music sensibilities. Perhaps it is because if Funeral had come out in 1994 instead of 2004, it would have been precisely the kind of record I would have been hopeless for: room plastered with posters, hand-drawn reproductions of the current "Arcade Fire" font on my notebooks, matching Win Butler haircut. In 2004, though, I was reevaluating my obsessions with bands and artists -- like Win, my older heart had grown colder. So, instead of adulation I hung back, like a cynical, aging, hipster-in-denial. "Mtv, what have you done to me?"

Truth be told, Arcade Fire kind of frighten me. Like many, I find their menacing steampunk appearance and the stark cultural critique on all three records eerily prophetic and often bitingly so. But the critic in me is tempted to downplay prescience and focus instead on posturing. Confidence, especially in a large, mulit-membered band, usually plays publicly as hubris. It's been hard not to see Arcade Fire through that lens.

My perspective, though, is shifting. Since The Suburbs was released last year I've been watching and listening more closely to the band. Somewhere between Win and Will's goofy but upbeat interview on NPR last May when "Month of May" and "The Suburbs" were premiered, Richard Reed Perry's smiley appearance on stage with the National at the pre-Lolla show at the House of Blues, and, most of all, the band's devotion to Haiti through organizations like Kanpe and Partners in Health, I've become convinced that they aren't obsessively self-centered. They may even possess humility, which among arena rock stars, is a rare and precious gem. Humble confidence, it turns out, may be the perfect paradox for summing up a band like Arcade Fire.

Last night, Arcade Fire closed out their three-day residency at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. The National opened the show with a short but intense set (see set list below). And while anyone who is a fan of The National would agree that we'd rather see them with the freedom of the headliner, they were gracious. They kept what could have been a show-stealing performance within respectful bounds. In other words, Matt (sadly) didn't come unglued. Both Richie and Win joined them on stage during their set, the latter for some lovely harmonies on "Start a War."

Without expecting it, Arcade Fire came out and blew me away. It's that simple. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the first three songs of the show in the photo pit two feet away and snapping as many pictures as I could. Those first three songs, "Ready to Start," "Keep the Car Running," and "Haiti" will be seared in my memory. It was one of the most thrilling moments of my concert-going career. Post photo-pit, I had to move out to my more conservative (but still great) seat in the bleachers where I enjoyed the rest of the show. I quite like that perspective. Watching the crowd go all dance-party when "Wake Up" shifts from anthem into "You-can't-hurry-love" sock hop was a priceless thing to witness.

I'm also finding that it's the moments -- the details --  that make a live performance: The white pants and unrelenting energy of Will Butler; the extended phone-off-the-hook piano intro on "We Used to Wait"; the moment when I looked around fruitlessly for the horn section during "No Cars Go" only to realize it was Régine Chassagne's accordion(!). They closed the main set with Funeral's "Rebellion (Lies)" and my favorite moment of the night, perhaps, was when, after the band left the stage, the crowd continued to sing the little violin melody that closes that song. The stage was dark, the band absent, but the audience was unified by a single stirring little melody. Loved it.

The whole show, really, was one of the best in recent memory.

Additional hi-res photos from the show can be found here.

I've been looking at the set lists from all three nights, and while the order shifted around a bit, there were only small deviations. Monday we got "Empty Room" and "Suburban War", Sunday's set included "City With No Children" and "My Body is a Cage" (two of my favorites. darn!), and on Friday they played "Sprawl I (Flatland)", which, I believe, was its live debut.

Arcade Fire's setlist: Ready to Start / Keep the Car Running / Haïti / Rococo / Empty Room / Suburban War / The Suburbs / The Suburbs (Continued) / Month of May / Neighborhood #2 (Laika) / No Cars Go / Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels) / We Used to Wait / Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) / Rebellion (Lies) Encore: Intervention / Wake Up / Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The National's setlist: Anyone's Ghost / Secret Meeting / Bloodbuzz Ohio / Slow Show / Squalor Victoria / Afraid Of Everyone / Conversation 16 / Apartment Story / Driver, Surprise Me / Fake Empire / Start A War / Mr. November/ Terrible Love

Review: Daniel Martin Moore - In the Cool of the Day



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - April 24, 2011

grass|roots ep. 8

I've been writing this review for the last three weeks. Or at least I've been thinking about writing it. It's taken me some time. And while it isn't that Daniel Martin Moore's In the Cool of the Day is earth shattering or game-changing, it is, for me at least, a very important record. In the Cool of the Day, put out by a relatively new artist on a big indie label, is a decidedly religious album. Even though My Morning Morning Jacket's Jim James (the record's producer and contributor) glosses and universalizes the specifics of its unmistakable Christian message (see below), Moore is unapologetic in his mission: curate, update, and re-imagine favorite gospel and "spiritual" standards (and write a few new ones as well).

Here's the blurb from James in the record's press release:
It’s a spiritual record that may have come from growing up in one particular tradition, but is built to speak to the heart of any soul, from any tradition or walk of life, to say that God, while sometimes called by one particular name, is anywhere and everywhere one could ever want “God” to be, present always in the love we give to and receive from those around us.
I find it refreshing that Sub Pop and Jim James understand that endorsing a religious record for its artistic and even spiritual merit does not undermine their credibility. As part of a largely secular audience that buy records from Sub Pop and other indie labels, I also understand their desire to couch the release of such a record in terms that make it accessible to a wide potential audience. They make it clear that In the Cool of the Day is a record that can be enjoyed by believers and non-believers alike as far as the notions of God and Jesus can be understood as metaphors for love, service, and overcoming selfishness. I'm OK with that.

That diplomatic gloss, however, is telling of a moment when tension between the faithful and those who have thoughtfully put faith aside has reached new highs even while secular humanists and Christians (and other religious folks) seem to have much in common (arguments of science and politics usually but not necessarily aside). And while the issues that separate and vex them are often important, a little understanding would go a long way.

Maybe that's what I like so much about Daniel Martin Moore's record. It is a rational declaration of faith. One that, because of its context and company with other Sub Pop releases as well as Moore's activist ethos coming off the Dear Companion project (with Ben Sollee), manages to celebrate the traditional even while it implicitly calls for greater human empathy and progressive, ethical tolerance.

All that said, In the Cool of the Day is a truly lovely record with a Sunday-afternoon sweetness. While the entire record could be described as hymnic, those hymns bounce around between utter solemnity and jazzy, celebratory swing. The album begins with several songs in the latter category including "In the Garden" and "Up Above My Head", both of which remind me of songs folks might want to clap their hands to after a rousing sermon. But it's the solemn songs on the second half that resonate and demand a searching of the soul. "Softly and Tenderly" is an almost whispered plea for spiritual reconciliation: "Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling... calling, 'Oh children, come home!'" "Cool of the Day, "It is Well With My Soul," and "Set Things Aright" all touch on the classic Christian themes of repentance, peace in spite of suffering, and victory over death -- all with soft and smart accompaniment: sometimes just Moore and a piano, but often embellished with fiddle, banjo, and bass.

So, with hopes of acknowledging (and counting myself among) Christians still interested in Jesus' advocacy for compassion, tolerance, equality, and peace, I can't think of a more appropriate record than In the Cool of the Day for Easter.

Hope yours was wonderful.

-Jon

Review: Megafaun - 9:30 Club, Washington D.C.



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - March 28, 2011

I just returned from an epic journey out to the Capitol – my first ever visit to those Eastern States. For a middle-class west-coast guy, exploring the east feels not unlike getting to visit the places that only ever existed in books and movies: Metropolis, Coruscant, The Emerald City. With its rich history, its monuments, museums, and memorials, Washington D.C. especially has this flavor for me. So too, then, does the 9:30 Club, that venue that has been emblazoned upon my mind as the legendary site of so many stellar NPR podcasted shows. Surely these places don’t actually exist.

But they do. I’ve now been there. What’s more, I had the chance to see Megafaun – probably my favorite band right now – on Friday night in that city at that spot. Filling the warm-up slot for the Mountain Goats, the trio played a short set to a sold-out Mountain Goats crowd and rarely have I seen such gracious openers. They came out with beards, banjo, and black Gayngs sweatshirt blazing, and pushed through what seemed to be initial sound issues (faulty guitar connection, touchy vocal mic levels) and into a solid 45 minutes of great songs spanning their five-year, three-release career.

More and more, I find myself drawn to bands like Megafaun -- likely due to my ever-increasing proclivity for acoustic instruments and music. I’m fascinated by the ways that a small group of modern musicians are utilizing old-time traditions in thoughtful and progressive ways. This isn’t just a casual mining for old-time gems easily appropriated for a barn stomp – there are only a few bands that do that well (Old Crow comes to mind). Instead, artists like Megafaun’s Brad and Phil Cook and Joe Westerlund seem more interested in the chemistry and molecular structure of the old-time tradition. Their songs aren’t so much appropriations as they are alchemic deconstructions and re-assemblages of string-band traditions and sounds (see “Darkest Hour” from Gather, Form, & Fly [2009] or the twelve-and-a-half minute tone poem/song “Comprovisation for Connor Pass” on the mini-album Heretofore [2010]). And while an opening slot may not be the best place to experiment sonically like Megafaun does so masterfully on their records, there were glimpses of that genius at Friday night’s show.

They played several of my more-straightforward favorites on Friday including “The Fade,” “Carolina Days” and “Kaufman’s Ballad.” We also were treated to a ‘round-the-mic version of “Worried Mind.” They encouraged and succeeded in getting the audience to sing back-up harmonies on the latter. We were also treated to the Westerland-led spiritual “His Robe” and “Lazy Suicide,” both from their debut Bury the Square (2008) – a song Phil said had been played so many different ways, he'd lost count.

Though the 9:30 Club didn’t blow me away in their treatment of Megafaun’s unique amplification needs (Mountain Goats sounded much more balanced), their set was over too quickly and I’m left pining after my next opportunity to see them and with a renewed desire to practice my clawhammer banjo.

I left the show with both Gather, Form & Fly and Heretofore on vinyl. You should do yourself a favor and check them out as well.

Bright Eyes + Mynabirds - Foellinger Auditorium, Urbana



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - March 19, 2011

Bright Eyes, like a post-postmodern Mary Poppins, has promised to stay a little longer – but only until the wind changes: one last album, one final tour. And judging from the show Wednesday evening at Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus, they intend to make a memorable exit – not unlike floating away on an umbrella. My engagement with Bright Eyes  over the years has been one of passive admiring rather than full fledged fan-hood so the pangs of departing sorrow aren’t very strong for me. Nevertheless, the Bright Eyes persona of the very talented Conor Oberst will be missed if only for its place alongside other moment-defining/now-deceased bands – the closest analog being Jack White and the White Stripes. We can be comforted, I suppose, by the assurance that the artists behind these bands are putting to bed their projects in hopes of ensuring the continuance of a strong, coherent body of work rather than dragging them raw along the asphalt mile after mile and year after year. For both Oberst and White, one avenue in which we can look forward to the continuance of their work as curators and label-heads.

Case in point: The Mynabirds, who are signed to Oberst’s label Saddle Creek and released one of my favorite records last year, are a great example of that continuance. Drawing from the rich tradition of 60s rhythm and blues, the Mynabirds are revivalists in the best senses of that word.  Laura Burhenn, lead singer and songwriter of the group has crafted a group of songs for the band’s debut What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood that feel both old and new – a wrangler of Dusty Springfield’s legacy in a similar vein as Fiona Apple (and I have no problem with that). It bodes well for Obest’s post-Bright Eyes career that I was more excited about the band on his label than I was about his.



The Mynabirds opened the show with a delightful set that didn’t deviate far from the record – an observation that is both praise and my only real critique of their set. As I mention, I love the record and a weak live representation of the songs is something that could have easily slowed momentum for the band. No worries there, though. Burhenn and her five bandmates showed their merit on the piano/keyboards-based songs with cello and brass embellishments as well as lovely two and three-part harmonies. Standouts included the soulful "What We Gained in the Fire" and "The Numbers Don't Lie."  On the other hand, the performance felt safe – I didn’t notice any new songs in the set and very little artistic deviation or embellishment. I would have liked more.  And I guess, technically, I got it. When Oberst and band took stage, Burhenn was with them – in a different dress, but with same great voice lending her harmonies to the majority of the Bright Eyes set.

Much has been written about Oberst as Bright Eyes – about the course of his career, the huge expectations that followed his initial entry into the music scene at the beginning of the last decade and the various ways that Oberst has met or not met those expectations over the years. A record like this year’s The People’s Key and a show like the one Wednesday night is evidence that despite public expectations, that career has been highly successful. Bright Eyes, the Bob-Dylan-meets-Bobcat-Golthwait folk singer that teenagers fell in love with in the early aughts was just barely represented in Wednesday's performance. Some might use that as a point of criticism against the highly-produced, light-show performance we see on this tour, but I see it as a kind of natural evolution vis-à-vis bands who have held similar adolescent-agony mope spaces and then struggled (and succeeded) to push their way into new iterations (The Cure, for example, for whom Bright Eyes share more than just this one similarity).

Taken as a rock band, a genre space that Bright Eyes has moved in and out of over the years, the group of musicians who played Wednesday were excellent. I'm a big fan of Mike Mogis who plays guitar and pedal steel in the band, and the others, a crew that included (in addition to Mogis and Burhenn) two drummers, a multi-instrumentalist (Nate Walcott), and bassist, pushed the songs from the new record as well as a smattering of old tunes into new and interesting sonic spaces. I really like The People’s Key (minus the obnoxious quasi-spiritualist voice-over stuff) and, for me, those songs were the stand outs. Tunes like "Shell Games" and "Jejune Stars" got a sonic boost in the live environment. The band also played "Bowl of Oranges," which, according to my more bonified BE fan/companion was a big deal. My favorite moment of the night was a duet performance of "Lua" from 2005's I'm Wide Awake it's Morning. Walcott accompanied Oberst with beautiful trumpet embellishments giving the song a depth not present on the record. It was perhaps the only time during the twenty-four song set that there was a real emotional connection between Oberst and the audience.  For a guy who's made a career out of heart-on-his-sleeve emotion, emotional detachment from an unflinchingly devoted audience might be one more good reason to move on to the next thing.

Setlist: Firewall / Take It Easy (Love Nothing) / Haile Selassie / Four Winds / Bowl of Oranges / No One Would Riot For Less / Trees Get Wheeled Away / Shell Games / Approximate Sunlight / Arc of Tim / Triple Spiral / Nothing Gets Crossed Out / Something Vague / Hot Knives / Beginner's Mind / Cartoon Blues / Jejune Stars / Poison Oak / The Calendar Hung Itself / Lua

Encore: Gold Mine Gutted / Lover I Don’t Have to Love / Road to Joy / One for You. One for Me.

Review: Middle Brother - The Metro (Chicago)



by Jon Stone@jwstone -- photo: Kyle Matteson | @solace - March 17, 2011

It’s hard to think of the Middle Brother show in Chicago last Saturday night as just a “show.” It was more than a show. It was a spectacle, a barn-burner -- an extravaganza. This is not hyperbole, folks. The Metro hosted an honest-to-goodness, four-hour Concert Spectacular. The three bands, Deer Tick, Dawes, and Middle Brother, also seem like mere place-holders on a bill that instead featured an explosion of musical collaboration far exceeding the boundaries of what we imagine the word “band” to entail. Rarely was a band on stage without an extra member here or a special cover there. The show was, in a word, epic. Oh, and two more words: Jonny Corndawg.

Rather than diminishing the evening with lack-luster play-by-play, let me instead offer a more-or-less chronological highlights reel:
  • Forget the “folk-rock” label, Deer Tick is a heavy, if extremely versatile, band. Their set was LOUD… and then soft. Apply this same genre-busting observation to all three bands and their sets. Each move from folk to soul to country and back to rock, and in the case of Deer Tick, far into heavy territory.
  • After hearing about Deer Tick’s upcoming SXSW Nirvana set, it was hard not to see McCauley as a kind of  re-embodiment of Kurt. His hair – his voice – his Fender Jag. If you're in Austin on Saturday, don't miss that. Report back, please.
  • Along those lines, Matt Vasquez joined Deer Tick mid-set and played a perfect cover of In Utero’s “Scentless Apprentice.”
  • They also covered Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets,” Vasquez at the helm.
  • Deer Tick has a secret weapon in keyboard/sax man Rob Crowell. The dude can wail.
  • Dawes is clearly the next big thing. This is a palpable reality now instead of just a likely prediction. They killed with songs off both North Hills and new songs off of a yet-unnamed forthcoming record.
  • Near the end of their set, Dawes introduced Jonny Corndawg who proceeded to dance (or, more aptly, boot-scoot) his way into the pockets of the whole crowd. You kind of have to see this guy to believe him. As my buddy said, “Corndawg brought the heart and Goldsmith brought the heartbreak” – a perfect foil, it turned out.
  • If Corndawg brought heart, and Goldsmith brought heartbreak, McCauley brought the booze.
  • Dawes closed with “When My Time Comes” with Vasquez, McCauley and Corndawg helping out each taking verses. We could have all gone home happy after a set closer like that – the entire room was singing along at the top of their lungs – but alas, at nearly midnight, we still had yet to experience Middle Brother as Middle Brother.
  • By the time the headliners officially hit the stage, the night had already been ridiculous – but things then shifted into a full-on hootenanny mode. Instruments were passed around, band members came and went, “Me, Me, Me” and “Middle Brother” became anthems to the chaos and friendship of the moment.
  • Middle Brother, if I’m not mistaken, played every song on their record.
  • After heavy doses of McCauley and Goldsmith, Vasquez’s songs were visceral.  The smooth-on-the-record waltz “Theater” became this huge, haunted thing on stage. Matt screamed and then screamed some more and oh how we swooned. Same thing on “Someday.”
  • Goldsmith continued to bring it with “Thanks for Nothing” and the solo “Wilderness” but my favorite song on the record “Blood and Guts” became something entirely different.  The song started softly and built in crescendo until the bridge came and left me emotionally devastated: “I just wanna get my fist through some glass! I just wanna get your arm in a cast!” Man. I’m still reeling more than 48 hours later.
  • Soon after, the heavy mood was displaced when someone dropped a fart bomb. Jonny Corndawg happily claimed it.
  • The show closed at nearly 1am with a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me.” I know this song has been played frequently during Deer Tick’s set, but bringing it to Middle Brother gave everyone in all three bands one more excuse to come on stage and sing a verse/play a solo. It couldn’t have been a better song to go out on. Yeah? Yeah.
A night like Saturday seems a rare privilege. Seeing musicians in this context clearly reveling in the opportunity to let loose a bit and share a musical moment with friends was something not soon to be forgotten. Goldsmith, Vasquez and McCauley are on the verge of something big and I think the Middle Brother album and tour will be remembered by them in the same way it will be by us: A galvanizing moment among friends before the floodgates of life and fame sweep everyone in disparate directions toward the blessings and curses of success.

Review: Ben Kweller - Canopy Club (Urbana)



by Jon Stone | @jwstone - February 28, 2011

"Man, it was a tease!" Ben Kweller told me after his too-short, 30-minute set Saturday night at the Canopy Club. The openers played long, and Kweller was only supposed to play until 10:30, cutting what I thought was going to be a double bill into a night that clearly favored the real headliner, Pete Yorn.

The snub would be less disappointing if BK didn't completely own the room while he was on, which he did. All by himself. With a old Epiphone Texan and a piano. Kweller has a way of making a mid-sized room like Canopy Club's feel like a coffee house. Conversational before playing a single note, Ben explained that he hadn't been feeling so hot, resorting to a puke bucket on stage at the previous night's show in Milwaukee. You'd never have known it, though. He opened with "Walk on Me," and "I Don't Know Why" pausing for a moment after each to chat and joke with fans. From there, Ben offered sonic glimpses of his superb four-LP catalog as the set whizzed by against what turned out to be a swiftly ticking clock. He didn't preview anything from the new album, Go Fly a Kite, out later this year. But it was a sweet, sing-along set regardless. The highlight came when one of my favorites, the ballad "Falling," modulated into the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and again into "Thirteen." Lovely stuff.

One song later, Ben was blowing kisses and apologizing for having to be done, clearly surprised that he was out of time. In our brief chat after the show, he reiterated his disappointment for the hasty exit: "Man! I so wanted to play 'Penny on the Railroad Tracks' or something else for y'all!" And it really was a letdown. I was left wondering who to blame. The cost of the show (over $20) seemed to indicate, as I said before, a double bill, with an up-and-coming opener (The Wellspring) and two headliners. Instead Kweller seemed subjugated to a between-acts crowd warmer. He deserved better.

Review: Justin Townes Earle - Six Strings (Bloomington)



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - February 14, 2011

In our recent interview with Justin Townes Earle, he had this to say about his stage performance:
“There are plenty of people that can write songs as good as I can but the one thing that I hold over a lot of songwriters is that I can burn you up in a solo acoustic performance. I’m very proud of that fact. I want it fucking bullet proof. That’s how you stick in the memory, that’s how you stick in people’s memory, you gotta grab their attention, then they’ll listen to fucking songs.”
Friday’s show in Bloomington, IL wasn’t solo – Bryn Davies and Josh Hedley joined him on stand-up bass and fiddle, respectively – but that “burn you up/bullet proof” mentality carries over regardless. Earle was, in every respect, the tallest man in the room at Bloomington’s Six Strings Club -- and his lank was easily matched by his wit and charisma. Apt, then, that the club is an honest-to-goodness honky-tonk. It’s hard to imagine a regular venue being able to contain that personality.

It was my first time seeing Earle play live, but it’s true what they say: JTE is a natural showman. Over the course of the evening his between-song quips reveal an archetypal narrative for the hard-livin’ traveling singer-songwriter. This arc includes nostalgic tributes (to his namesake Townes Van Zandt, to Woody Guthrie with “I Don’t Care” and his grandfather with “They Killed John Henry”), portraits of both of his parents (“Momma’s Eyes”), and, most of all, tales of his chemical and sexual conquests/defeats (see “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”). Reproducing those asides here would be robbed of both context and color, but it suffices to say that the only thing Justin likes more than booze and cocaine are "fried chicken and the young ladies” (“Ain’t Waitin’”).

Earle has mastered the balance between the old and new. He sings in the traditional tongue of a country gentleman but those same songs bite with modern teeth – and they bite hard. Earle’s live sound is punctuated with an almost-brash acoustic guitar ("Travis") picking style. He startled the audience with the volume of that heavy thumb with his opener, “Move Over Mamma” – a song that moves away from the two-step it appears as on the record and into a steady, plucked out rambler. Most of the songs get a similar deconstruction in their transfer from the Nashville production. Earle often slows down the tempos making sure, as was mentioned above, that the audience is paying attention. This formula also allows him to take full advantage of the instrumentation and harmony vocals of his two companions. The result is measured but unrelenting intensity.  I was also impressed by the crowd at Six Strings. From what I read, JTE shows seem notorious for obnoxious hecklers, but this crowd couldn't have been more respectful -- lots of facial hair and hunting caps and not a single one of them ironic.

My favorite moment of the night hit at around mid-set when JTE invited Hedley and Davies to take a short break and picked up the Gibson J-45 I’d been eyeing on his rack. From there, he started “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a lovely bluesy waltz on the new record with a sweet horn arrangement that keeps a lyrically heavy song (“Why do I try my luck? I should never touch the stuff”) a bit lighter. Bereft of production, though, this song hits hard. Earle followed it up with a cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline" (“Townes always used to say, every set should have blues, so here it is”) and finished out the solo set with a new song that seemed to address his recent stint in rehab with the less-than optimistic but self-aware refrain “It won’t be the last time.” Emotional devastation all around. It clicked for me sometime during those three songs: Justin Townes Earl’s talent as a songwriter is undeniable, but his charm is in his honesty (see the intro to "Slipin' and Slidin' above). Throw in a lovely Springsteen cover ("Racing in the Streets") and it was hard to not want to stick around for the line-dancing after the show.

To sum up, I drove an hour to Bloomington and found myself in a honky-tonk listening to one of the best country music artists in the country. I'm thinking of transferring to ISU.

Review: Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - January 25, 2011

Most of us are familiar with the anticipation and frequent disappointment associated with our favorite artists putting out new material. On rare occasions an artist is able maintain a steady ascent – one great record improving  on or outsmarting the next – year after year. But most of our favorite musicians, in large part, make records that either take our breath away or leave us wanting – perhaps due to some nostalgic expectation that a band can continue to release the same album in different notes and lyrics over and over again. Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean (out today on Warner Bros. records) has been met with critics grappling with this issue in several articles this past week. And while comparing an album with its predecessors isn’t a bad way to go about reviewing a record, I find it rarely does much to communicate anything more than what is already clear to fans: it’s either different or similar.  Such comparisons don’t do much good other than providing an easy platform for judging and end up doing a disservice to great albums like Kiss Each Other Clean.



Sam Beam’s first two releases under the Iron & Wine moniker went a long way in defining him as the soft-voiced, acoustic poet we came to love. Perhaps with those spare and sweet records we imagined Beam as more interested in the basic integrity of a song – it’s melody, and lyrics – than a complicated or (some might say) overwrought presentation and came to admire that in him. In fact, I know some The Creek Drank the Cradle purists who felt betrayed that Beam took his songs to an actual studio for the second release, Our Endless Numbered Days. For most of us, though, it was that second record that cemented Iron & Wine into our minds and hearts. It has since become a classic record, rarely disputed as anything but wonderful and surely quintessential for new Iron & Wine listeners.

So when anticipating the third release, what would eventually become The Shepherd’s Dog, I remember the early, sometimes distressed/frantic buzz that Beam had utilized a full band (the horror!) and much more production for Shepherd’s Dog. Folks were loosing some serious sleep. This gets at the dilemma I was hinting at above – and it’s two-sided. On one side there is the artist whom we’ve blessed with our approval, whom has the privilege now of making music not just an artistic exercise, but also a lucrative one. The artist has the decision, then, to either continue making art, or just sticking to their successful formula, knowing that there will at least be a short run of commercial success to follow. The other side of the coin is related to the audience and our fickle expectations and inevitable critiques. From what I read, what the modern audience wants most from artists like Sam Beam is continuity – less “production,” more “authenticity” -- more of what endeared us to them in the first place, which implicitly means (and I don’t know that this is always clear to some critics) less innovation and art.

To be fair, and ironically, I think most of us think we want our artists to innovate and create art. We perhaps just want that art to meet our expectations. I ran into this problem with the Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz. One of my favorite musicians put out a record that didn’t live up to the expectations I had placed around his previous releases (especially Illinois, another classic). So rather than allowing myself to be challenged by the artist's explorations with new sounds and formats, I threw my nose up a bit. I’ve since realized that this isn’t a fair approach.

All this leads me to my review of the new album from Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean. It is, to be sure, no Age of Adz. It’s not a challenging listen by any means, but it does represent a sonic expansion for Beam. Kiss Each Other Clean is neither an acoustic record, nor is it then aimed solely at that small audience who initially embraced the first two releases. Iron & Wine’s new record is, instead, an artistic work carefully crafted to have, in this case, a stronger mass appeal (read: first major label release) and as one of those masses, I can say that it succeeds.

This is precisely the opposite issue that existed on the newest Sufjan, a record which threw mass appeal to the wind, but it does represent the same principle question (or paradox) of new-music consumption many of us face: it’s different; so how do I deal with that? It’s my hope that we deal with it with the same grace that Sam Beam has gone about his nearly ten-year career in music.

See, Kiss Each Other Clean is a fantastic record and, despite its commercial appeal, its full of surprises. For example, on the second track “Me and Lazarus” which starts with a synthy, drum and bass thing, a jazzy saxophone (and not cool jazz, mind you) cuts through the rumble at around 1:26 and follows a spacey melody that sets a tone for the entire record. The instrumental surprises continue on songs like “Rabbit Will Run” which ends with an extended flute solo over Hammond B3 keys, and then the sax returns, this time with Stevie-Wonder-“Superstition” synths on the strangely spiritual/hymn-like “Big Burned Hand.” Also new here are several songs with sunny and bop-along vocal arrangements like “Tree By the River” (told in a totally different voice than the song’s frequent appearance in solo live shows over the last few years), and “Half Moon” in which female back-up vocalists actually utter the phrase “oooh-bop bop” like they might if this was a song about putting up a parking lot.

There is also a bit of Beam’s trademark darkness. That storm arrives about midway through the record, rains intensely and is then gone leaving things fresh again, just as one might hope. That said, if you were looking for one song that sums up what this record is about, the last track “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me” does it. It burns into life like an early Chicago song that has veered off its elevated tracks (I'm thinking "25 or 6 to 4") and continues to build, electric guitars blazing, for seven minutes pushing Sam Beam and company firmly into rock & roll territory. I think that's what this record is about: ten songs and Iron & Wine becomes a rock band. And as much as I love seeing Beam solo, we can only hope that he books this upcoming tour with that band.

So in case you haven't heard, the new record from Iron & Wine is different than their earlier stuff. So what? "Join me in song; join me in song."

Review: Dolorean - The Unfazed


by Jon Stone | @jwstone -  January 18, 2011

I'm going to chime in with one more great release out today. If you're like me, a few solid records in the first part of the year are essential. The cold all but sentences us to our homes and offices and with that imposed anchor, it is nice to be able to have some music to turn on and make it feel like we are staying put on purpose. The Unfazed, the new record from Dolorean is doing that for me right now. The album is soft and melancholy and seems to drift in from a still-warm autumn recording session.

Though I remember hearing about them after their last release way back in 2007, I missed Dolorean's last record You Can't Win. It's unfortunate because it is also a strong album with a similar well-balanced country/rock mix. Over the last four years, however, the band has seemed to distill that sound even further -- peeling back the songs a bit and letting the melodies and easily singable harmonies tread ahead of the accompaniment. If you listen closely, the lyrics move back and forth from no-end-in-sight devastation (see "Country Clutter") to maybe-the-sun-will-come-out hopeful (see the aptly titled "These Slopes Gave Me Hope") -- and sometimes both in the same song ("How is It"). You know, a little bit like a Midwestern January feels.

I'm also really looking forward to this year and its promise for outstanding new releases. I'm already enjoying the new record from Abigail Washburn (see a review I wrote elsewhere) and the Decemberists (I love that Gillian Welsh is all over that thing -- this is the best Decemberists record in years.). I'm anticipating with excitement records from Iron & Wine and Drive-by Truckers, and have you heard about this guy James Vincent McMorrow? Check out a preview of his record over at his website. It is fantastic.

grass|roots :: four acoustic acts for your consideration



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - November 29, 2010

grass|roots ep. 7

The year is fading quickly. Soon you will be bombarded with lists a plenty, including several here, declaring the top ArcadeKanyeNationalSufjan records of the year. Before that, however, I wanted to throw down a final four records from 2010 that fit somewhere within the wide net I've been calling grass|roots. Each of these bands/artists put out great records this year that, I would guess, have been largely overlooked in mainstream circles. Ease into the first day back from turkey by getting acquainted with some acoustic music from some very talented smiths of the song.

Chatham County Line - Wildwood



First, I direct your attention to Chatham County Line and their record Wildwood. They are a North Carolina quartet that walk a lovely line between traditional bluegrass and indie folk. The first time I heard them, I could have sworn it was Jim James on lead vocals, but no -- that's lead singer/songwriter Dave Wilson who, uncharacteristicly for a bluegrass band, has a soft reverb on the vocal mic that adds a layer or warmth to the songs on Wildwood. The record has a few other non-traditional elements on it that set it apart/make it awesome. The harmonica on "Crop Comes In" (see above) is super sweet and it crops up in several other songs giving them a rustic, bluesy sound. Also, a drum kit often kicks in and kicks things up a notch or two. Add the multi-voice harmonies and great songwriting to the mix and Wildwood is in the top 3 great bluegrass releases of the year.

If you dig into them and like what you hear, these guys are veterans; they have four other amazing records released over the last 10 years you should check out.

+++

The Giving Tree Band - The Joke, the Threat, and the Obvious



Also great is another just-this-side of traditional group,The Giving Tree Band from Chicago. In addition to their laid back bluegrass/string-band sound, they represent a fascinating example of sustainable musical production. These dudes play instruments made from the wood of fallen trees. Seriously. They record their music in buildings powered by solar and wind energy. Their albums are printed and packaged with 100% recycled materials. They plant trees to offset pollution created by the distrabution of those records. They are the real deal, people. In the midst of such greenery, they've also put out a lovely record that deserves your attention. You may have caught them opening for Frontier Ruckus a few weeks back and they will also be playing the Chicago Bluegrass Festival next weekend in Chicago.

+++

Doug Paisley - Constant Companion



The first thing I notice on Doug Paisley's sophomore release Constant Companion is the keys. It's kind a strange thing to stand out on a mostly acoustic record built around the voice and guitar of a great song writer -- but sometimes it's the nuances on an album that make it shine. The Hammond B3 on the opening track (and others) as well as the amazing piano work throughout centers this record and sweetens in in a way that makes it the perfect afternoon chill music. Doug Paisley has been aptly compared to Bonnie "Prince" Billy. What separates the one from the other, though, is that the latter as a moniker for Will Oldham operates as a kind of smoke screen -- you're never sure, even through the ache, when Oldham is being honest and when he is inventing. With Paisley, there's never a question.

+++

John Shade - All You Love is Need



Finally, early in the year a friend introduced me to the solo artist John Shade and his debut record All You Love is Need. We featured John on a podcast back in April. All You Love is Need was recorded in Bon Iver's cabin in Wisconsin by Justin's brother Nate Vernon late last year and is, simply, a charming record that I've listened to again and again throughout the year. I'm just sorry I haven't given the album a more distinctive shout-out earlier. Pick up his record over at bandcamp for whatever you'd like to pay.

Review: Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues


By Jon Stone | @jwstone - November 10, 2010 

On September 20th, just three days after the release of Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues, the artist was arrested in Indianapolis after a performance for battery, public drunkenness, and resisting arrest. The arrest led to the cancelation of his fall tour, and Earle, who has had long history with addiction (much longer than his mere three years as a solo artist), checked into rehab. (You can read about the incident over at Old Kentucky Blog, which includes a long thread of comments from eye-witnesses on both sides of the conflict -- also check out Earle's response.)

These kinds of events are unfortunate on many levels, not the least of which is great concern for JTE's tenuous health/drugs situation.  That Harlem River Blues is brilliant and deserved the kinds of publicity that JTE could have garnered for it by touring directly after its release is another casualty of that public meltdown. I am hard pressed to think of any album or artist that moves so effortlessly between genres. The record starts with the title track, a rousing 50s-era country number, and from there branches out deftly in a variety of threads: from rockabilly to jazzy delta blues, and from Drake-esque folk to straight-out gospel. And with that kind of range -- talent that may or may not be inextricably  conflated with his habits -- surely, JTE should be added to the short list of troubled musical geniuses.

As a student of the history of country music, Earle is a perfect model of modern distillation. It's as if he has been able to wrangle 70 years of tradition and produce something fresh and new from that diversity -- something that his father, the acclaimed Steve Earle, has attempted over his long career -- but perhaps less successfully, as "alt-country" still seems the best designation for Steve even while Justin remains unclassifiable.

Harlem River Blues is one of my favorite records of the year, and it's going to have to tide me over for now. Though JTE's tour will resume at the end of the month, he steers clear of the midwest (no surprise there) and then will be moving things to the UK. Still, make sure you add it to your list of 2010 records to spend some quality time with.

Review: Mandolin Orange - Quiet Little Room



By Jon Stone | @jwstone October 26, 2010

grass|roots ep. 6

I spend a lot of time listening to music just on the left side of what might be called bluegrass. In fact, as I've thought about this series and music that I might want to include, I've often hit a bit of a brick wall because, while I enjoy what might be considered "traditional" bluegrass, very rarely am I blown over by it. Instead, my tastes have an affinity with the progressives (as I've explored in the past), but perhaps are even more grounded in the singer-songwriter crowd where focus moves from the instrumentation to the melody and ethos of songs. Genre-wise, music journalists have a tough time categorizing both of these kinds of groups. They're all a little bit grassy, a little bit country-folk, a little bit something else.

Last year I told whoever would listen how much I loved Sarah Jarosz's debut, Song Up In Her Head. I'll spend what's left of this year (and likely long into next) proclaiming my penchant for Mandolin Orange and their debut, full-length Quiet Little Room. It is a gem of a record mixing folky male/female duets and (mostly) acoustic guitar,  mandolin, and fiddle instrumentation. The music doesn't shy away from using a drumkit when its appropriate, but leans mostly on hauntingly sweet slow tunes with Gillian Welsh/Dave Rawlins-style close harmonies and stringed instrument solos. Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz can be added to the growing list of great acts who employ this formula: Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore come to mind immediately, but, for some reason (and I suspect it's a good one), Nathaniel Rateliff's record this year, which is full of amazing songwriting with really lovely vocal harmonies, hangs nicely in this crowd too.

In any case, I highly recommend your checking out Mandolin Orange's record and seeing them if and when they swing through your town. I hope they make some midwestern touring plans soon!

Check out "Train Song," a non-album track, below, but also click here and listen through to a bunch of great YouTube performances (many off the record) from the band. (And thanks to Anson for the heads up on this and so many other great bands!)

Pygmalion Music Fest: Saturday wrap-up



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - September 28, 2010

The end of Pygmalion is indicated first by the exit of the tour buses parked along Oregon street and the second by the immediate cold-snap that seems to follow every year. I've been in recovery mode this past weekend: sleeping and pulling the sweaters out of storage. I've been thinking a lot about the fest, still -- sad that it's over, but happy, once again, that CU hosts such an amazing musical event and does so in a way that highlights some of the best artistic locals of the city: The Krannert Performing Art Center, The Krannert Art Gallery, the Art Theatre in downtown Champaign, Mike & Mollys' cozy loft performance space, and of course, Canopy Club. What a town (or townS). What a festival.

I went into Saturday without expectations. None of the acts on the bill were bands that I had spent much time with in the past, so everything would be a new experience. It's not a bad place to be when at a festival. I had no loyalties to any bands, no pretenses about who or what I would or wouldn't like -- only the promise that these were the bands scheduled on the final day of a festival: I couldn't easily go wrong.

This proved, mostly, to be the case. Here's my recap:

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: I was a bit out of my element with Ted Leo, who leans so obviously into punk atmospheres. Punk is not generally my thing. I'll admit, that despite the AMAZING drumming, all I got during the first half of their set was a more palatable/modern version of 90s punk bands that I was never really into. There was, however, a moment about 3/4 of the way into the set where things clicked out of Bad Religion/Pennywise mode and into something totally different. The band stayed in that place for the rest of the set and I was glad, because it was really amazing.

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River was next. I've had mixed feelings about this headliner since it was announced. It seemed like an awkward choice, but I was glad to see a full auditorium and a number of people that seemed genuinely enthused about the collaboration. And it was cool. The matchup between Roky and the Okkervil River boys worked -- mostly. Honestly though, it was a bit dry. I listened to the first few songs, got the idea that the whole set would basically be about the same and bailed for this little old-time jazz band I really wanted to see across town. I wasn't sorry I did.

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra: By the time I arrived, I was sure I'd missed them. I dashed out of the Roky show into the rain and hurried over to Mike & Molly's, only to circle for 10 minutes before I found a place to park. When I got up to the show, it so happened that they were having trouble with sound and had not gone on yet. In fact, they went on a whole hour after their scheduled set time. Not so good for the folks that had been waiting for them to start for all that time, but perfect for me, the wet and weary straggler.

I loved this band. I have a soft spot for old-time anything and The Viper played both new compositions and songs from the early 20th century. The Viper and His Famous orchestra emanated classiness, humor, and big talent, with baritone uke, double bass, trombone, suitcase percussion and lap steel. They were charming and I would see them again in a heartbeat. (You should too -- they are based out of Milwaukee, after all.

Cap'n Jazz: I cut out a few minutes early so I would be sure not to miss Cap'n Jazz. I arrived back at Krannert to see a large crowd gathered in the decadent lobby where Cap'n Jazz was playing. Try to imagine the asynchronicity here: decadent lobby, beautiful hardwood, low ceilings, foot-high stage usually occupied by a classical guitarist or pianist ... but instead, Cap'n Jazz: howling, screaming, guitars blazing, sweaty (too-old-to-be) crowd surfers, nervous Krannert ushers pacing around the outskirts, and the unseen administrator reviewing the insurance policy and contract.  It was insane. For a moment, I wanted to be up there, singing along, getting crazy with the fans. Then I remembered I'm thirty-two and this is the first time I've ever heard the Cap'n. Still it was fun. I sat with the other geriatrics in the back, nursing my sore festival back.

Caribou went on at 12:30 am at Canopy Club. Tired, but excited after the great stuff I'd heard about the band, I found a nice place to sit in the balcony and let Caribou's beautiful trancey goodness wash over me. Not a lot of words are required here to say what needs to be said: Caribou was my favorite act of the fest. In fact, the two best acts of Pygmalion were its opener, Janelle Monae, and the closer, Caribou. Daniel Snaith brings a humility to the stage that stands in stark, but lovely, contrast to his genius -- he was a wonderful performer. But Brad Weber, the band's drummer, steals the show. He is incredible and such a privilege to listen to.

It was a festival. I had fun. Thanks to Ryan and Seth and Pygmalion for a fantastic weekend.  I can't wait until next year. I'm holding out for Wilco as the headliner.

Pygmalion Day 3: À la carte



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - September 25, 2010

Tonight Pygmalion wraps up. It's been an interesting and eclectic festival and I've had a great time.

Yesterday, that eclecticism reached its full potential as nearly every act I saw differed significantly from the last. Here's a quick recap:

Colour Revolt - I got to Canopy Club last night right at the tail end of Gold Motel's set. I was sorry to miss them. Colour Revolt was great though -- despite some sound difficulties; I dug their set. They do a decent job moving between heavy and soft, and they have an interesting vocal approach that moves between  close harmonies or doubled melodies and a the fast-talking, speak-singing made popular by bands like the Hold Steady. Colour Revolt was probably my favorite set of the night. I look forward to seeing them again.

Unwed Sailor - Instrumental bands have my respect. It takes a lot of mettle to let the music speak for itself. Unwed Sailor was good -- not amazing. But again, mettle!

OWEN - Mike Kinsella is an interesting guy. He's one of those talented musicians who, when you hear him play, seems -- I don't know -- unhappy to be performing. Maybe it's the result of years and years of playing with only moderate success. I can imagine how frustrating that would be. Mike's style, though, is kind of incredible. Each song is a pithy (if often smug) vignette explicating a moment from his lived experience. What fascinates me about OWEN is Mike's use of open tuning. He seemed to use a different one on every song even though sometimes the songs are only a minute or two long. It was impressive, if a little overwrought.

Finally, I had no idea that Mike was a member of the band Cap'n Jazz. I'll be seeing him tonight in that iteration and I'll let you know how the two projects contrast. Perhaps the better observation will be how and if there is any correlation.

+/- (plus/minus) - These guys were a bit weird if only because I was expecting something completely different. Their songs on MySpace are heavily sequenced -- with canned beats and neatly drawn keyboards. Guitars are present, but they aren't the first thing you're directed toward on the site. Live, plus/minus are a pretty straight-ahead rock band. Guitars are at the forefront and only one song had a prominent sequenced element. I actually quite liked them, but rather than feeling like something new and interesting, they felt instead like an amalgam of other bands (in this case, early Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab). Which is to say, I was entertained, but I didn't buy anything from the merch table.

Cut Chemist - I think I can honestly say that last night's DJ set from Cut Chemist was the very first time I have watched/listened to a DJ spin (oh, wait! I saw Flying Lotus this year too). It was amazing and reminded me a lot of the Books show I saw at last year's Pygmalion. Cut Chemist employ the same visual/sound element that the Books do, except, of course, that while the Books create a soundtrack to their video element, Cut Chemist are manipulating both the audio and the video live while it's happening -- really fun to watch. Exhausted, I had to take off at 1:30 AM after they had been on stage for a little under an hour. Who knows how late the kids kept on dancing.

---

Tonight, Ted Leo, Rokey Ericson with Okkervil River, and Carabou will close things out. I'm hoping to squeeze in a nap before things get going.

Pygmalion Day 2: Those Darlins



by Jon Stone | @jwstone - September 27, 2010

I've been looking forward to seeing Those Darlins play again ever since they (insert music-blogger hyperbole) last year at the Highdive. That night they played way too well for the smallish audience that had gathered to see them. I knew it was just a matter of time before things kicked in and last night it was clear that they have. The crowd at the Independant Media Center was much larger, but that wasn't the only thing that was different. Those Darlins have metamorphosed. They are no longer the FOB (fresh out of the barn) dirty dixie chicks group that I saw (and loved, let's not forget) last year. Carter family covers? Gone. The hits, i.e. "Snaggletooth Mamma" & "The Whole Damn Thing"? Totally absent from last night's set. In fact, I think one of the only songs they played last night off of their 2009 eponymous album (and certainly the only "hit") was "Wild One" (I'm pretty sure I heard "Who's that Knockin' at My Window," too. Hit?).

Instead we got a band that has turned the dial from country-punk to a decidedly punk*/sexy sixties rock. That asterisk constitutes a now-subtle nod to their Tennessee roots which, as they have said themselves, shows up mostly in a not-easily-repressed southern accent. Not that I think they are repressing their roots, but surely the Darlins I heard last night have grown up significantly in the last year of road-weary touring. Part of that growing up included some battle scars, including the unfortunate injury (broken arm) of baritone uke player Nikki Darlin.

But maybe that injury wasn't so unfortunate because it was Nikki Darlin that shined last night. All three girls have swagger, but woah, when Nikki Darlin put down her ukelele and took the mic in front of some of Those Darlins' new material, the band transformed from the tin-roof tanned trio I was familiar with into a different thing all together. Nikki has the strongest voice of the three and when she is singing lead other crazy stuff started to happen: Jessi Darlin (or what you could see of her behind her huge Epiphone hallow-body) started playing these psychedelic rock riffs and solos that I didn't realize she was capable of. Also, at least once during the growing-evermore-frenzied set, every member of the band found their way out into the audience. Over and over, my friend and I turned to each other open-mouthed, both thinking the same thing: Who is this band?

Jarring as this Patsy Cline to Janis Joplin move seemed, the punk germ was always there. I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised. Now that we know that Those Darlins are not just about a single formula, it will be fun to watch what other shapes they can take.
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I also took in sets from the Mean Lids (a great local string band that I feel connected to, if tangentially: Matt Turino, who plays fiddle in the band, is the son of an Ethnomusicology professor on campus that I am currently taking banjo lessons from. woo!), the Duke of Uke and his Novelty Orchestra (also local, these folks do it up as a multi-instrumental 7-piece), and I also caught the first half of the band Psychic Twin, Erin Fein of Headlights' new sequencer-and-keyboards driven band. If you like Headlights, be sure to watch for Psychic Twin -- I think they may be even better.

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I'm off again. Looking forward to sets from Colour Revolt, +/- (plus/minus), and Cut Chemist tonight!

Pygmalion Music Festival: Day 1



By Jon Stone | @jwstone

Pygmalion Day 1

"This is an interaction!" announced the man in the top hat and tux at the opening of Champaign-Urbana's Pygmalion festival. "Get your tweeting and your facebooking out of the way because you will be needing your hands free for this interaction!" The PA system boomed and the crowd screamed and with that as a cue, two gigantic projections of Janelle Monae's head appeared on screen and told us the story -- the legend -- of the ArchAndroid. At the end of this Oz-like encounter, One commandment was levied on the crowd: "you will dance or die."

And we did. And it was good.

Pygmalion kicked off last night at Canopy Club and when I say kicked off, I mean kicked off. Janelle Monae was incredible. Her record ArchAndroid is groundbreaking, but her performance of the material is truly outstanding. The key word there, I think, is performance. There is no shoegazing here, no moments in between songs with awkward banter. From start to finish (and not unlike a theatre performance), Monae and her band perform. It's refreshing and the music is great, so it is also fantastically fun. Part of that fun had to do with the visual projections that accompanied the performance. During "Cold War" images of Muhammad Ali in the ring were projected: punches thrown and paint splattering to the beat which then modulated into a lightsaber fight. Boxing and lightsabers? Yes! I also loved the tune "Locked Down" which manages to mix Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson in a single bundle, and of course "Tightrope" moved the crowd from thrilled into ecstatic. A mid-set cover of the old standard (By Charlie Chaplin, which seems appropriate) "Smile" was also an appropriate and palate cleansing number.

The only moment of her set that sagged for me was her duet with of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. His presence on stage seemd a bit forced and opportunistic and, frankly, his voice is so outstripped my Monae, that it ends up kind of difficult to listen to.

Which is part of the reason I left before of Montreal's set. Watching a band get upstaged is always a little awkward.

My last word here is this: if you have the opportunity to see Janelle Monae, take it. Her show is worth the price of admission and then some.
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From there, I made the short journey over to the Highdive in Champaign to see Built to Spill's set (because as an avid indie-rock fan, I can't live too long without my shoegazing and awkward stage banter).

It was my first time seeing Built to Spill who had, until a year or so ago, flown beneath my radar. And, to tell you the truth, for me their records, while good, leave something to be desired dynamically. They are the kind of band that has me pining after a live performance where I know things like volume and messiness and noise translate so much better and feel so much more authentic.

Built to Spill didn't disappoint in this regard. When the band opened with 1999's "The Plan," I immediately had that "Now I get it" moment and it carried throughout the evening. Their sound strikes me as a distillation of everything I loved about "alternative" rock in the 90s (dichotomous heavy/soft guitars, chunky solos, etc.) with what eventually became the "best" of indie-pop in the 2000s (messiness, complex simplicity [if that makes sense], etc.). I left feeling bad that it's taken me ten years to see them--they seem like a crucial touchstone between the old(ish) and the new.

It's impossible to listen to Built to Spill and not hear their influence on other successful acts. I was especially struck by how much Doug Martsch's vocal style is Ben Gibbard-esque. Maybe Death Cab was the original Owl City. Ruminate on that one for a moment. Boise and Seattle are only a day's car ride away. (Actually, I think that those kind of influences are of the more friendly, apprenticeship variety. Don't they call that the "Northwest Sound" or something?)

Here were a few of the standouts from the night on Built to Spill's setlist: "Randy Described Eternity," "Liar," "Twin Falls" (not just a Ben Folds Five song!), "Time Trap" (maybe my favorite of the night), "Distopian Dream Girl"

And they also covered the Grateful Dead's "Ripple." I had to look that one up, Ryan.

I look forward to seeing them again soon.

---

Tonight I'm looking forward to our local string band, the Mean Lids and, of course, Those Darlins. The later evening will be full of more great bands as well. More tomorrow!

Pygmalion Preview



By Jon Stone | @jwstone - September 13, 2010

I moved to Champaign-Urbana three years ago hoping against hope that the town would have something resembling a music scene. For all I knew, it was going to be quiet cornfields with infrequent trips to Chicago every now and then to get my live music fix. Within weeks of my arrival posters for a festival called Pygmalion showed up plastered around campus with Andrew Bird as the headliner.  It’s become a yearly tradition ever since.

Pygmalion is a gift for our little indie-rock town/s. It happens early in the school year in that moment between the swelter and snow (September 22-25). It spreads out across Champaign and Urbana highlighting the best venues but always moving into unique spaces as well (last year Low played in a church and My Brightest Diamond played in an art gallery). And year after year it is literally packed with amazing acts.

This year is no different. Well, actually it is a little bit different. This year there’s been a bit of drama and confusion about headliners and schedules. The headliner was first announced to be pioneering garage/psychedelic 60s artist Roky Erikson backed by Okkervil River. And, indeed, Erickson will play Saturday night of the fest in the typical headliner location, the beautiful Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. But Roky and Okkervil River have since been trumped on the Pyg concert poster by later festival additions, of Montreal and Built to Spill who will both play Wednesday the 22nd, the opening night of the fest.

In my view, however, too many good headliners is a great problem to have, and is the sign of a healthy festival. Organizer Seth Fein has been very forthcoming about the difficulties of booking a fest like Pyg. At first there were some really difficult-to-swallow scheduling conflicts (Built to Spill/of Montreal)– especially that first night, but Seth and his team have now tweaked the schedule so headliners can all be seen without (too much) overlap. This is also a good thing. Check out the full schedule here.

The best thing about a festival like Pygmalion is the chance to check out a ton of great new bands. I’ve spent the last few weeks going through the line-up, spending time on bands’ MySpace and homepages, paying attention especially to bands I’m less familiar with. So as a preview, I thought that rather than just regurgitating praise for the solid grouping of top-billed artists – the headliners, Caribou, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and Surfer Blood among them – I’d prepare a list of mostly-new-to-me bands that have stood out as I’ve been doing my homework. So here goes:

Those Darlins: I'm cheating on the "less familiar" bit right off. I've seen Those Darlins before but if you haven't, you gotta. When the lineup was announced earlier this year, Those Darlins was the band I was happiest to see on it. I love this band -- I caught them on a whim when they came through town last winter, but the impression they left with their raucous country tunes and insatiable energy has lasted a long time. It will be great to see them again.

Janelle Monae: This one is also a bit of a cheat. Who hasn't heard of Janelle Monae? I realize of Montreal is a big deal -- Ryan here at Muzzle of Bees is a big fan -- but I'm more excited about opener Janelle Monae and I know I'm not alone. Monae's "Tightrope" and her enigmatic debut record The ArchAndroid aren't just good, they are smart, and I look forward to see how she brings it on the opening night of the festival. If there's anyone who can upstage the un-upstagable of Montreal, maybe she can.

The Cults - Speaking of enigmatic, all the internets offer up by way of sampling for this New York boy/girl duo is a bandcamp page. Pitchfork says they're "film students" -- I suspect they are playing up this mystery thing. The three songs you can download on that bandcamp page are great though, and if rocous country shenanigans aren't your cup of whiskey, be sure to check out The Cults who play, tragically, right when Those Darlins do.

Cap'n Jazz: Preeminent emo-before-it-was-cannibalized Chicago natives Cap'n Jazz have reunited. They are amazing. And I've only listened to them on their MySpace page.

+/- {plus/minus}: I have a weak spot for bands who can mix electronic beats and acoustic instruments well. +/- do. I'm less fond of bands who make themselves difficult to write about by their weird band names. So +/- kind of equal themselves out. (Could this be the implicit message in their band name? We'll never know.)  I'm interested, though, in seeing what these dudes can pull off live. I'll be at their show.

Colour Revolt: Jackson, Mississipi gives us Colour Revolt. Their post-Pavement approach is wordy and the lyrics had me going "did they just say...? why yes, yes they did. Wow" on several  tracks. Looking forward to checking these guys out and not only just to find out what that British u is doing in their name.

Gold Motel - There are tons of great female artists playing Pygmalion this year, and the Hush Sound's Greta Morgan's solo project Gold Motel is up there on my list of must-sees. This was one of the few artists who, once I landed on their MySpace page during my little study session, I didn't leave until I'd listened to every song there.

(Speaking of amazing women artists, I should add that I'm also interested in seeing the band Psychic Twins, a new project featuring Erin Fein of Headlights.)

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra - Listen to this band for three seconds and you'll feel the pangs I'm feeling related to their scheduled performance time: right during headliners Roky Ericksen and Okkervil River. I have this hunch that one day (and I hope it's not far), bands with a bit of jazzy flare will get more appreciation in the indie crowd. Until then, I will listen to my Preservation Hall compilations and Bad Plus records and wish The Viper's orchestra was famous enough to not get scheduled right during the festival's headliner. (Let me insert here that I am not one of the out-of-shape-bent folks known to complain on certain CU blogs. I just like tappin' my feet as much as I like bobbin' my head is all.)

Zach May & the Maps - See above. I put together this list before I did things like check schedules. Zach May plays right before the Viper, but I still think he and his Maps have a great thing going. They're a little Beirut-y -- but well within the three-fourths of Beirut that I really like. So, if you don't want to throw down the big bucks for the Saturday night shows at Krannert, head over to Mike & Molly's for the evening. Cover is sure to be cheap, and the music will give those headliners a run for their money.

I haven't mentioned any of the acclaimed DJ acts playing the fest, but if that's your thing, be sure to check out the list of DJs spinning at the fest. I'll definitely be at the Cut Chemist (of Ozomatli/Jurrasic 5) show, but wonder what other acts might help make me less ambivalent towards DJ shows. Any suggestions?

That suggestions question goes for the whole fest. Will you be at Pygmalion this year? Who is on your list of must-sees? Surely there is a great band playing that I don't have on my list (I know because I whittled it down considerably). Educate me. And let's meet up and hang out if you'll be here. Also, let's not forget that some of our favorite local CU bands will be playing too: Common Loon, Elsinore, Santah, Duke of Uke, I'm thinking of ya'll. Support!

See you next week.