The Dandy Warhols — Why Grow Up?

The Dandy Warhols came back to NYC last week, and played 2 sold out shows at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. If you have never caught them live, you are depriving yourself of an existential experience. The Dandy Warhols have lost none of their edge or relevance. The show that I saw was thrilling from start to finish.

Has it really been 20 years since they burst on the scene with huge hit songs like ‘Holiday’, ‘Not If You Were the Last Junkie’, ‘We Used to be Friends’, ‘Bohemian Like You’, ‘Godless’, and ‘You Were The Last High’ to mention just a few of their ubiquitous hits?

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Their songs are still everywhere. You hear them   in movies, TV shows, and commercials. They starred in one of the coolest real time, reality documentaries of all time, ‘Dig’ about the friendship, mutual attempts to make it in the music business, and subsequent falling out between them and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. If you’ve never seen this flick, you really want to.

They have done very well these years for what is essentially an underground, psychedelic rock band.

So, fast-forward 20 years and The Dandy Warhols have never left. They tour the world, where they are way more popular everywhere else than they are here at home in the USA. Sure, they sell out the 400 tickets at the cozy and beautiful Music Hall of Williamsburg, but in Europe, they sell out Madison Square Garden sized arenas. At their excellent show, they do a lot of the old ones, a few of the new ones, and they do them all extremely well. The strategic mix of old and new made the 2 plus hours seem fast and exciting. And they are still true to their original vision. Instead of pandering to what they think people want, they just do what they have always done best, and that is real psychedelic music. They pair their mind blowing sound with a spectacular light show, and dramatic pacing with the totally accessible songs that helped to make them such an enduring world wide institution.

The show was one of the most satisfying concerts in all aspects that I’ve seen in a while.

It must be mentioned, though, that through either the use of psychedelics, healthy living, or their own picture of Dorian Gray in the attic, The Dandy Warhols look and act like they are the Benjamin Buttons of rock; they seem to be aging in reverse.

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Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Zia McCabe look like they have not aged a day. I hope by being at the show, some of it rubbed off on me. Next time they come around, put it on your list. Meanwhile, check out ‘Dig!’

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Photos courtesy of The Dandy Warhols

tUnE-yArDs Roll to a Different Sound

Main photo via Tune-Yards’ Facebook

Tune-Yards, which is actually Merrill Garbus, an outgoing, vivacious women who sings and plays drums, ukulele, and synth, rolled into New York to play two sold out shows on a Sunday and Monday night in the summer—no easy feat when everyone is away or doing other things. Her partner, bass player Nate Brenner also plays synth and co-writes some of the extremely quirky, pretty original material. In this version of their touring group, they enlisted a female drummer and two female backup singer/dancers. So basically, this is a band with two drummers, a bass player, and four singers who sing in harmony and unison, dance up a storm, and make a whole lot of rhythm rivaling an African drum circle. All that was missing was the campfire.

This is, yet another, act that costumes up, but only in the face and body painting mode. Unlike Goat, who played here recently in head-to-toe disguise, you can sort of see what this group looks like. The stage set is cool, with the two drum sets and big hanging eyes watching us, making sure we enjoy ourselves. Few people seemed to be having any problem doing that.

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Merrill Garbus naturally commands attention, and she enlisted the enthusiastic crowd in frequent call and response. When she pulled out the ukulele, what seemed like a gimmick somehow worked. Apparently, even a ukulele when plugged into a distortion, reverb, and delay, can sound dynamic. Does any one remember Tiny Tim? This is your father’s Hawaiian island music, this is super modern weirdness, accented by Merrill’s strange yelp-like singing, the makeup, the eyeballs stage set, the backup singers, and the no guitars.

With Tune-Yards, it’s all beat; looped, driving, accented and different. This is another act that fits in a lot of genres, including World, Indie Pop, Lo-Fi, Folk, Afrobeat, Experimental, R+B, and indie electronic. Whew! Try saying that fast. When all is said and done though, Tune-Yards is simultaneously super entertaining, and with everything they throw at you, exhausting. 

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Only in Sweden: The Scary and Mysterious ‘Goat’ Collective

Image via Sub Pop

The Goat ‘collective’ is not a cute bunch of furry farm animals, although they may be for all I know. This music group from an obscure town in north west Sweden played their concert here in New York with the seven current members dressed in wild, head to toe costumes—each one different, . They are a ‘collective’ in the sense that they have alternated members for over 20 years, but maybe three are the same. Currently, this weird concept has two awesome guitar players, a virtuoso bass, a smoking drummer, a conga drummer, plus two girl singers who dance more strenuously than a spinning class for the entire hour and a half plus show, while singing in unison. Exhausting! Even categorizing the music is hard because it’s got tentacles in many genres. Let’s say it’s psychedelic funky disco jam pop world music, and leave it at that. 

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Funny thing about these groups that play in disguises, is they’re usually are so good at their instruments that you’d think they wouldn’t have to resort to a gimmick. For instance, The Residents, a 20 year old group from Mars [and, on earth, the Bay area] wear different costumes for each tour, which occurs not too often. They are some kick ass musicians, but they are also Freddy Krueger-like scary. 

The story of Goat is that the town they are from in Sweden has a dark history of Voodoo, via a witch doctor that lived there. I always thought they preferred warmer climates. When Christian crusaders came and destroyed their town, the fleeing people put a curse on the town, alas, the costumes? The only thing cute is the story. Well, the music they play is intense, the costumes make them ominous, the show was fun and rewarding, but I had no desire to pet these Goats. 


The Notwist: Not What You Think

Every time you hear about The Notwist, inevitably, they are described as ‘Kraut Rock’. While they do fit that descriptive in some ways, they are so much more than that; it leaves me scratching my head. Sure, there are elements of ‘Kraftwerk’ buried in there, but  just because this is a German group doesn’t mean that they sound like other German groups. They write and sing in English, and speak with minimal or no accent.  It’s weird how everything has to be categorized and then lumped together. They do bleeps and blips; Kraftwerk did also, but here, it’s contextual. The electronica adds to the songs like a riff or a change adds to more conventional music. It drives as well as connects the songs together, rather than acting as the actual piece. 

Seeing The Notwist perform is quite an ethereal experience. At their concert in New York this week, to promote their new record on the great Sub Pop label, Close To The Glass, they transported the audience into another dimension. This is a psychedelic band in the literal sense. Their music actually blasts off and takes you on a trip. I swear one song built to a crescendo and tail off that made me imagine what it would have been like to hear The Beatles do “A Day In The Life” in concert. Think of the way that song builds to a furious, blinding noise drone, and then stops, not short, but into a tail off of sound, and you can imagine how incredible Notwist was on their song. Their actual sound was on par with the best of any sound I’ve heard at any show in many years. Combined with the truly dynamic nature of  The Notwist’s music, we had a near religious experience.

Most groups can manage to have some element of their show, be it proficiency on their instruments, well written songs, dynamics, stage set, light show, harmonies, etc, be good. This group has it all going. While their records are great, they do not prepare you for the impact of the live experience. This is a great group in concert, but not to look at, as much as to hear; to soak up; to be enveloped in. They did most of their show, start to finish, in the shadows and shrouded in a psych light show. What you ‘look’ at is a light and sound experience rather than at people playing. You watch and feel the music.

Everyone in The Notwist is an excellent musician, especially drummer Andi Haberl. I play drums, and let me tell you, this is a great drummer. He also sings otherworldly high harmonies that, for a while, I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. The lead singer, and wordsmith, Markus Acher, his brother Micha, and Martin Gretschmann play all kinds of synths, bass, and guitar. Max Punktezahl plays guitar and keys, but Martin is the sonic genius, showing just how awesome arpeggios, synth bass, and sound effects can really be. The bass sound in this group’s show is the way bass should sound; any sound engineer could study it and keep their act’s bass out of the quicksand it usually sinks in. If there is any weak spot, and everything is relative, it’s that Markus is more of a vocal stylist than a singer. His style, to me, is great, and fits the music, but to others, they might not like his style. He’s not a technically great singer, but he’s not an offensive one. His style blends into the music as just another essential element, but it’s not the feature. It’s an indie rock style, more like Brian Jonestown Massacre than The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.

If you want Kraut on your rock, with The Notwist, you are getting more than you bargained for. Their new album is an excellent blend of psych, introspective pop, and electronica [kraut?], and defies any attempt to categorize it. It’s one that will grow on you over time, like the best kind of music.

CORPORATE GRUNGE: Sound Garden Live in Concert Presented By… CitiBank

Once upon a time, in the mid 1980s, there was a sudden outburst of creativity subsequently called the Grunge Sound, in the unlikely place of Seattle, Washington. As the home of 300 days a year of rain, drizzle, clouds, and gloom, maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. The counter culture aspect was front and center, led by Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, with long hair, beards, plaid shirts, and seriously heavy grungy music to match the look. All of these groups got as big as one can get in the music biz, and, for the most part, are still arena sized big today.

Fast forward to this month, today, this week. The tiny little bank, CITI, that helped to almost bring down our world, is making amends by sponsoring good things like bike sharing and rock concerts. So who is touring under the CITI umbrella logo, but those counter culture grunge rockers, Soundgarden—my, my how the world changes. Truth is, money is what keeps rockers rockin’, and because nobody seems to want to pay for music anymore, even though everyone is jammed into three hundred dollar headphones [made by Apple’s Beats, their new 3 BILLION dollar acquisition] listening to music ALL of the time, someone’s gotta pay. You can’t fault the elder statesmen of grungy counter culture from scooping up some of that corporate dough, can you? Being a rock star beats making a double latte.

If you are into live concerts, then you can only hope to know the thrill of seeing a big time act in a club setting, rather than the usual arena, like Madison Square Garden, or a giant outdoor shed. Instead of sharing an anonymous experience with 20 to 100 thousand other sweaty people, you get to share an intimate experience with 1,400 other sweaty people. The trade off of being a sardine in a small can, however, is actually well worth any drawbacks. This week, I got a hot sample of Soundgarden playing an incredible show at Webster Hall for me and 1,399 friends. We were all very impressed. The primary joy of a super pro act designed to impress huge crowds is how awesome the sound has to be. When you shoe horn a sound so big into a lovely, smallish, old hall, the impact is astonishing.

Soundgarden has been playing together with its current lineup, including the great Matt Cameron on drums, Ben Shepard on bass, and sonic demon Kim Thayil on lead rocket ship guitar since 1990, but the group started back in 1984. Lead singer Chris Cornell was originally a singing drummer, but long since shifted to rhythm guitar and vocals. His voice is actually terrifying. He does things with his pipes that I didn’t think were possible, and that’s aside from the otherworldly screams he unleashes. I really haven’t heard anything like him before. He also must have a painting of himself aging in a closet somewhere, as he looks the same as he did back then. Some people have all the luck!

When the show was over, everyone got a Citi shwag copy of ‘Superunknown’, on the way out, which is their reason for the tour. Soundgarden has released a new, ‘deluxe’ edition of that album, and that’s what they played at the concert; the entire record from start to finish, in order. If you love that album, you really loved this show. If you’ve never heard it, I think you were still blown away, as the scale of what you were hearing and seeing was immense.

Elbow Delivers Something Special in New York

Isn’t it great when you discover something that you immediately love that you’d never even heard of before? That’s getting harder and harder to do in the plugged in world we swim in. So after the 20 year old British band Elbow finished the first song at their sold out concert here in New York, I knew I had discovered something special.

What blew me away was how I’d managed to miss them for all these years. All of their albums have sold a million copies, and they did the BBC theme for the London Olympics! To everybody at the show, they were more than familiar. They were the band they’d loved forever. They knew all of the words, cheering at each opening chord, and singing along on every song, creating an emotional connection that I rarely see at any show. I saw plenty of people crying with joy, napkins in hand, smiles ear to ear.

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The leader of this love fest is a chap named Gus Garvey, who has the voice of an angel, and the gregarious personality of a game show host, or a master of ceremonies. He led the crowd on a musical journey, emoting with heartfelt gestures that never felt forced. It was the proverbial ‘Having Them in the Palm of Your Hand’ performance. The thing is, the music matched that performance. This group does what I coined ‘Beautiful Music’, which is not dissonant, pounding, or abrasive. Instead, it builds into a crescendo, like a symphony. It wells up like a fountain, swelling till it overflows, creating an overwhelming emotional response in the listener. Beautiful Music catches you off guard, and suddenly takes you over, leaving you marveling at the majestic nature of the experience, because of how it creeps up on you unexpectedly. A great example of this is the song “Mirror Ball’.”

Commentators have compared Elbow to Peter Gabriel and Genesis, which I can see, but to me, they are more like two other 90’s groups, House Of Love, and The Verve— two of my favorites. They’re like House of Love in the use of very original, different beats and rhythms, and The Verve in the sonic and emotional sense. In an interview I read, Garvey says that he doesn’t like when an artist sounds the same on every song, that it’s not fair to the listener.

Elbow changes it up through out their recordings and concerts, varying the volume, speed, instruments, and the beat. Each song sounds unique, like it’s own island. For example, the two women who are backup singers also play a violin and a viola, adding even more to the symphonic nature. Therefore, it stays fascinating till the end, and nobody wanted it to stop. It’s interesting to experience real intense longing for encores, not just a desire to not want to go home. You know it when you feel it. No one wanted to leave.

The night of the show, Elbow played The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. They did one of their new songs, “New York Morning.” It’s great.


Dancing It Out With Metronomy at Webster Hall

This week, Metronomy played the excellent Webster Hall, and if you were standing in the balcony, you may have rightly thought that it was going to collapse and go down, crushing the throbbing crowd below. Everyone was dancing, and jumping, and the structure was noticeably shaking. If the group hadn’t been so diverting, everyone may have panicked. The only real alarm was that the show would soon conclude.

Formed by Joseph Mount in Devon, UK, who plays keys and guitar, writes and sings lead on most of the songs, he has assembled a tight band that slaps out his arrangements like a high stung tennis racket. Bass player Gbenga Adelelean plays memorable dance riffs with a trebly crystal clear ring, but somehow achieves a stunning low bottom. Most bass players sound like thudding mud smashing into your chest like a rude cowboy falling off his horse at a rainy rodeo. This bass player reaches bass nirvana, while singing backup. Drummer, and backup singer Anna Prior does some of the most solid drumming this side of Charlie Watts on “Get Off Of My Cloud,” or Mick Avory of the Kinks on “You Really Got Me.” She is really an excellent drummer, and quite a compliment to the riffing bass. Oscar Cash rounds out the group with backing vocals, guitar and synthesizer leads that unify the sound into a cohesive pop structure. It is streamlined music, designed to stick in your head, and make you want to move.

Metronomy has a great stage set, with a stunning psychedelic light show. The inner geeky nerd in them was revealed in the matching white tux-like suits they were wearing, but, you know what, as silly as it may sound, it all gels. It’s nice to see such care taken to put on a show that we all really enjoyed. It’s great to hear music that makes [forces] you to dance, weather you want to, or not.

Metronomy may come out in geeky nerd clothes, but they are playing some fierce wolf beats.

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Wye Oak Change Keys

I find it to be remarkable how many duos have sprung up since The White Stripes showed us  it could be interesting  to watch a whole show with only two performers on stage for over an hour. It’s also never fails to astound how full the sound can be. Of course, we have technology to thank for that, with looping, computer programs, and synthesizers doing the heavy lifting. The Black Keys one of the most popular and famous duos, with only drums and a guitarist / singer. I saw them last year when they toured with a backup keyboard player and bassist, and they actually were not as good. They simply have it so worked out as a duo, that the extra musicians took something away from the sound, rather than adding to it. Other duos making a distinct impression are Japandroids and Sleigh Bells, but there are many more.

One of them, Wye Oak, came back to NYC this week to promote their new record Shriek, after awhile away contemplating the end of the world, or the end of their group.  Instead of quitting, they decided to re-invent. Formerly a guitar centric group along the lines of My Bloody Valentine meets Cocteau Twins, Wye Oak did a 180 and became a drums-synth / bass guitar band. They still do the old stuff from the previous record Civilian, with Jenn Wasner on guitar. The drummer, Andy Stack, still plays with his right hand and two feet, while playing keyboards with his left hand. Really!  Wasner sings lead on all of the songs, but now plays BASS guitar, and occasionally switches to a synth on the new ones. They mixed the songs up 50/50, and the difference is a bit jarring. It became ‘My Bloody Cocteau meets Kraftwerk’. Yikes!

Fortunately, they were very engaging. The set went fast, and didn’t drag at all. Wasner and Stack are accomplished musicians, interesting personalities, and nice to look at.  It seems this duo s very much alive.

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Kissed By Black Lips

Is it possible for a garage punk band to grow up? Black Lips came back to New York this week, and I wanted to find out. This is a group founded on the principles of getting out of control, having the best time with the aid of all available substances, and creating emotional bedlam that incites a crowd to near riot.

I personally witnessed the spontaneity of this a few years ago when Black Lips played one of those legendary free concerts on the waterfront in Williamsburg. It was boiling, stinking hot, and the giant crowd was a steaming, undulating wave stretching from the stage back to the street, seemingly a mile away.  Patience was not a hallmark that day, and the people wanted musical red meat. The stage was built high, so it could be seen from the back, and there was a large, fenced security barrier between the mass and the platform, patrolled by the usual beefy giants. They announced Black Lips, and they bounded out, plugged in, hit a few chords to make sure it was right, and fired up “Oh Katrina.” It was intense. All of a sudden, everyone surged forward all at once, knocking over the barricades, running over the guards, and climbing onto the stage. Complete and total, spontaneous, unrehearsed bedlam. Cool! Music can do this to a crowd. You may never see it happen, but if you do, you won’t forget it.  Black Lips 13 Black Lips mobbed by fans at Brooklyn Waterfront.

Fast forward to Webster Hall, four to five years later. Black Lips have calmed down a bit. They still incite a little moshing , but only in the front, and it was just a little ‘token’ moshing, at that. What we have now is a more mature group of seasoned pros who want to be taken seriously. They deserve it. They’re out promoting a great new record, Under The Rainbow, and it’s produced by big time hit maker Mark Ronson, who has produced everyone from Adele to Paul McCartney. They are also coming off of a big ‘hit’, the recent T-Mobile commercial, with their crazy great song, “Looking for a New Direction.” [You may have wondered who did the song in that commercial. Shazam!] What the haters may call selling out, I call surviving. Playing music is better than pumping gas, right? Congratulations!

At their show, they dispensed with the drunken antics, and stuck to tight three and four  part unison vocals, and occasional harmony singing on every song. The drummer may be the best vocalist and musician in the group. I love singing drummers, and by playing drums, and doing vocals simultaneously, these drummers tend to play the straightest, and most interesting beats.

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Black Lips at Webster Hall

Mostly, the Lips get to the point. All of the songs last a taught 3 minutes or so, long enough for us to get solidly into it, short enough to keep our silly, short attention spans from day trips to our smart phones.

Black Lips do extremely hooky, catchy tunes that are easy to sing along with, stick in your head, and keep you up at night. The words are short, to the point, and are surprisingly, profoundly, topical. If you don’t know this group, they sort of sound like a cross between The Clash, The Ramones, and The Rolling Stones. Maybe that will inspire you to check them out. Can a punk garage rock band grow up? Well, yes they can, but to quote one of their best songs, they’re still “Bad Kids”.

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Black Lips at Webster