Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: Yoko Ono, Wussy, Todd Snider

Three live shows from 2012

Below find a Big Lookback describing three shows I attended inside of a month in 2012--those were the days--in lieu of the soon-come Consumer Guide, which may well coming in late because I'm about to fly to LA where this year's PopCon will take place at USC. Its theme: archives. Also the theme of my presentation.

February 18, 2012 Yoko Ono's 79th birthday at Le Poisson Rouge. Another event I had my doubts about, it was perfectly executed. The cavernously unfriendly club was equipped with a special kaleidoscopic entry tunnel and decorated with trees from an Ono exhibition on which we were all asked to hang one-word messages--mine were EROS and then, in a fit of irresistible whimsy, VELCRO; Carola thought of THINK and then came up with the perfect GO FIGURE. Free bar, nice canapes, cake for all. Saw Jim Rutenberg, Errol from ReMu, Julio Cann who works for Yoko's label, the always lovely Georgia Hubley who complimented my Tuli T-shirt. The guests were older and not that classy, with plenty of younger people for Sean, who told us his mother had told him that what she wanted to do for her birthday was rock the fuck out. And for 35 or so minutes in front of an excellent pickup band of her label's regulars--which had rehearsed, but without Yoko--she did just that, starting with one of her patented vocalese keens, which lasted a while and was quite exciting, and also including an excellent "Walking on Thin Ice," which we'd been playing at dinner and which sounded quite great. Inspiring, I gotta admit.

March 3, 2012 Wussy at the Cake Shop. Preceded by an extraordinarily relaxed and cordial Grand Sichuan dinner with Chuck and Lisa in our dining room--I burned Chuck a Chantels record--and accompanied by some dozen Witnesses [as superfans of my Expert Witness column called themselves], a few of whom were too shy to even say hello but half a dozen or more of whom plus a few female companions gathered in a back room afterwards.

Fearing more of a zoo than materialized--the house was substantial but not sold out--we walked down with Chuck and Lisa and arrived at 8:10. There were two opening acts, so Carola returned home to save her energy. The first was a trio called Choo Choo La Rouge, all in their late twenties or early thirties, one balding and the burly drummer with highly visible temples. Frontman could sing and write--"Horatio Alger fell off the treadmill and died," "I don't believe in progress/I'm getting more and more out of less and less"--and wrote decent melodies too, but they were so clean and undymamic I headed to the back of the room after about five songs. There I amused myself by trying to copy down every band name stickered on the narrow little wall between the two johns: Cheers Elephant, A Fucking Elephant, Ritz Riot!, Me Talk Pretty, Wojcik, SWLF, Mitten, Fidlar, My Pet Dragon, Descendent, Rock Cousteau, Kosha Dillz, Bbigpigg, Winter Sounds, Capital Clip, Sad Adders, Elsinore, Acid Marshmallow, Blood Warrior, Ghastly, Mister Melt, Nightdrive, Thounds, Old Monk, Mothernight, Borracho, Outrageous Claim. Then a much better young Brooklyn quartet called Diehard, great fuzzy song-shaped raveups with m-f frontpeople who looked like twin nerds or a very well-matched couple and undercut the roar with relatively soft albeit also flat vocals, with the woman's rapt whoos completly winning--this male power was hers. One guitar clearly included some sort of keyb effects box. Can it work on record? They were good enough to make me want to find out.

After ushering Carola downstairs, I returned to my coat-saved spot on the side banquette and practiced standing on it. This I did for Wussy's entire set, which began as soon as was practicable after Diehard went off at 9:57 and lasted till 11:07--55 minutes tops, probably under 50, too short, which Jason blamed on the Cake Shop, though one suspects Versus going on after them on a four-band bill didn't help. This meant I was one of the few in the long, too-gently-sloped room who could see the musicians, who are in fact a personable and good-to-look-at bunch, with lots of byplay, at its most amusing when everyone debated the virtues of Wings versus early McCartney, with Lisa doing a chorus of Jet and Cleaver ending the argument as far as I'm concerned by comparing Wings to Utopia. Opener taken slow with the big and intensely physical Klug providing vocal harmonies was the new disintegrating-early-marriage "Waiting Room," followed by a very strong loud raved-up "Pulverized." Already it was clear that as much as they were always into guitar noise, that as I thought Strawberry suggested from the git they were a rock band and a feedback band first and foremost, plus they'd added fifth member, former Ass Pony John Erhardt on steel. At its best this was very exciting, Diehard with songs and vocals to make clearer what a conscious choice this was as well as providing substantial tension against the drone and roar. Then "Little Paper Birds" from s/t. Some discussion of Hawkwind versus Jethro Tull in which Chuck supported Tull. Then "Happiness Bleeds" from s/t. "Pizza King." "Muscle Cars" from s/t. Then "Airborne" and the finale, "Rigor Mortis," which probably lasted nearly 10 minutes.

Jason Gross, who's seen them five times, said this was their best show. I agree, though the one I saw with John Rockwell and Linda Mevorach, which was very different, came close. Everything from the two most recent albums until the end, another signal of their sonic shift post-Klug, which makes a lot of sense in principle but isn't ideal for a club like the Cake Shop, which seems pretty crappy soundwise, too big to hold such a big band--who of course did not quite sell it out. Sonically much better suited now for the Bowery.

March 8, 2012 Todd Snider at Irving Plaza, sitdown show for a mostly male 40-something crowd. I was lucky to be seated upstairs next to Ben Schafer with Carola and Ga; Carola later observed that she wished she'd been closer. With a g-p-v-d band featuring Paul Griffith from New Orleans on d, who really is essential and terrific. I liked the band and like them a lot on record, where things are more distinct, but the lyrics--and also, for that matter, Snider's vocal delivery--are so good that there were definitely times I wish I knew what they were (and also many times I did know what they were). On at 9:12 wearing shoes and his trademark hat. Setlist: "In the Beginning," "Too Soon to Tell" (both from the new record), "The Devil You Know" (that great helicopters and bank robbery song), "Precious Little Miracles" (kid song from new record, great intro about how he drifted away from his young friends after they started writing about their kids), "Lookin' for a Job," and let me point out that this made five straight songs about the class struggle. "Then Play a Train Song" (which I didn't remember though it's on Storyteller and East Nashville Skyline). "Happy New Year," which seems worth seeking out, "Digger Dave's Crazy Woman Blues" with a long good Alaska story attached, the new "In Between Jobs," "Stuck on the Corner" which is on Peace Queer and also Storyteller, "Ballad of Cape Henry" also from Peace Queer, the ancient for him "Alright Guy," "45 Miles" the car crash song from Storyteller, the new Brenda, "Ballad of the Kingsmen" from Storyteller and East Nashville Skyline, "Conservative Xian" ditto. Encore: the new "Big Finish" and "Mission Accomplished" from Peace Queer. Pretty amazing how genuinely he seems to identify with the broke. In the john afterward some clearly old fans were lamenting that he hadn't done any of his old routines, but also understanding. I told them how much I liked the new record. Somebody would buy one downstairs, they were sure, and then the rest of them would burn it. Though of course paying 25 bucks to see him was fine.

And It Don't Stop, March 6, 2024