A Month on the Town
The man who's reviewed 12,000 records reviews 32 shows in 30 days
In the 65th year of my life on this planet, I went out to see live music every night (or day) of June. The main reason I conceived this project, which many considered nuts, was that I wasn't liking enough new guitar bands. So my professional purpose was to encounter young musicians in their natural habitat. But since the idea of going out is to have fun, I wasn't rigid about this. In 30 days I caught all or most of 52 acts and bits of nine others. To start, here are a few things that happened in New York in June--not always the best, but worth remembering.
"'Live Music Is Better' bumper stickers should be issued," joshed Neil Young in 1980's "Union Man," which he has performed in public precisely once. Two visionary musicologists honor this dictum: Charles Keil, adept of participatory discrepancy, and Christopher Small, who believes all music celebrates the intricacy of relationship. For surprise-craving jazz fans, spirit-feeling gospel fans, and house-rocking blues fans, the primacy of the unique, unduplicatable musical event is a truism. The gig is the sacred ritual of indie rock.
Note, however, that all these music lovers like it live for different reasons. Contingency fan Keil treasures the marginal miss, contingency fan Small the magic mesh. Jazz locates inspiration in the mortal musician, gospel in the celestial divine--while blues fans, not unlike indie fans, romanticize the grotty, beer-soaked venue itself. Where blues fans differ from indie fans--and always have, even down at the crossroads--is that they regard musicians as means to a party, and the party as the goal. Indie fans aren't so sure about parties--or anything else, except maybe their favorite band that month. At their best, they're musical adepts combining all of the above. At their worst, they're one-upping self-seekers who wouldn't know a good band if it played their student union for three bucks with proper ID. Either way they regard the venue as the crucible of their developing values and personalities.
This process now has its own theorist: indie kid turned bizzer turned anthropol-ogist Wendy Fonarow, whose Empire of Dirt proved a stimulating 'tween-set read. Fonarow did her formal research in Britain in 1993 and 1994, and some things have changed--moshing has declined, and the guitar relinquished its absolute dominance. But the basic pattern, in which indie is more temporary identity marker than aesthetic commitment, is depressingly stable. The best of Fonarow's many concepts divides venues into three zones. Zone One is the pit, crammed with the youngest, maddest, and most physical fans. Zone Three is the back or the bar, where what the Brits call liggers yap through sets--bizzers, musicians, scenesters, casuals. Also, Fonarow claims, journalists--but not me, or any other rock critic I know. I've been a Zone Two guy since stand-up shows became the norm 30 years ago.
The reason, obviously, is aesthetic. Zone Two is the best place to hear music--and see it, and feel it. Its sensations fill you without overwhelming you. Keil is right about participatory discrepancy--part of live music's excitement is the way it transfigures tiny failures of synchronicity. But this counts for more in the musics Keil loves--jazz, blues, polka--than in rock per se. I go to shows to get a fuller sense of the artist and to augment my experience of the music with other people's cheers and pheromones. And I go to concentrate, focus, immerse. Invariably I find myself registering new details and making new connections. Usually I have a good time, and every once in a while I luck into an epiphany. I'm a record guy, always will be. But records can't match the exhilaration of the best gigs. You walk home prepared to live forever.
Somewhere nearby you'll find a schedule and an order of preference for 32 lead acts (twice I doubled up). The latter is divided great-good-bad, and details of the order will surprise some--they certainly did me. But let me emphasize the numbers: 11 great, 13 good, eight bad. Three-quarters of the time, 24 out of 32, I returned home from my nutty mission feeling better than when I left. My writing suffered the loss of night hours. The two movies I got to were music docs. Toward the end I really began to miss my wife. And I had a ball.
The month began with two bands whose profiles had intrigued me more than their CDs: Afghan Whig prime minister Greg Dulli's white-soul Twilight Singers and the Cherokee-hippie Casady sisters' friends-of-Devendra CocoRosie. The mark of the letch is on Dulli, whose black attire lacks only the waistcoat his ample bay window requires, yet there's fascination in his endangered self-assurance. The ambisexual CocoRosie--prattling model-vocalist Bianca and preening opera-trained harpist Sierra, plus a human beatbox and shifting cast of bit players--are much more original. Slotting them freak folk is cheap. But citing Yma Sumac and the Cocteau Twins won't enlighten young admirers who compare Bianca to Billie Holiday because nobody can stop them. Though it seemed an up when CocoRosie quoted Lil' Kim's "Eat my pussy right," it was really just a relief--my enjoyment dimmed once I imagined how much deeper an actual hip-hop groove would have been.
Saturday I did some true indie-rock spelunking at the Merc with Nick Sylvester pick Stylofone, an entertaining T-shirted g-g-b-d slotted twixt the overweening button-shirted g-g-b-d Isles and the non- descript hoodies-and-tees g-k-b-d Lions & Tigers. Stylofone have one dynamite gimmick: doubled guitar leads on every hook, executed with joyous arena-rock everything-old-is-new. Go see them--but don't expect their DIY EP to shake your sternum or hippocampus. Especially at home volume, records are song-dependent that way, like Tapes 'n Tapes' buzzed-and-bizzed DIY The Loon, a disappointment after I admired how the quartet deployed space and dynamics whilst goofing off and going wild at the Bowery. But sometimes records work the other way. I loved how unironically Beirut blasted Kocani Orkestar's "Siki, Siki Baba"--but not their stiff marches, conservatory violins, or parlor vocals. Then I got the album and Zach Condon's lyricism melted my hard old heart. When next our paths cross, I bet I'll think Beirut are beautiful.
The synth fulminations of Sylvester fave Excepter were why I foolishly skipped Sylvester fave Tokyo Police Club, and the main thing I got from the Liars and Dungen was never again. Hoping to put friendly faces on likable CDs, I was carried--wearied and revolted, respectively--by the drone-prone Black Angels, Brit-hit Futureheads, and lad-mag Morningwood. Still, the Black Angels' alt-trad groove fit alt-trad Southpaw so comfortably they made the win column easily. So did Northsix heroes !!!, whose stop-not-end drum circles are never hypnotic enough on record, and Dismemberer-turned-Hellfire Travis Morrison, who proved that a stupid zero for his solo outing couldn't stop him from doing what he does better than Pitchfork does what it does. And so, certainly, did Nashville teens Be Your Own Pet, who performed the eternal miracle of young people pretending their heads are exploding before a "16-and-older" Knitting Factory crowd utilizing fake PG-17 IDs. But Jonas Stein's twisty chops and Jemima Pearl's flailed blond do didn't make up for their narrow young sonics. So I walked out slightly less sold on an album I'd gone for. The kids walked out flushed, high.
Beirut, !!!, and Be Your Own Pet mounted the kind of hot gigs where the passions of the pit radiate out into Zone Two--the indie ideal, at once communal and exclusive. The Arctic Monkeys started like that three years ago, building word of mouth with free demos, till now there's nothing exclusive about them, nor communal if by communal you mean as small as Northsix. But I got more fellow feeling and a better high out of their big square Roseland crowd. The smart money claims, plausibly, that their Brit provincialism will cost the band Coldplay numbers stateside, but these bridge-and-tunnel concertgoers were bigger than that. Mouthing the lyrics the Arctic Monkeys are one of the few bands to post, they were aesthetes, relating to the songs as songs, with "image" secondary. Just standing there and playing their songs in the classic indie manner--an ethos long since eroded by avant-garde theatrics and populist carnivalesque--the Arctic Monkeys locked down their scrawny sound, pushed the tunes halfway, and got their party started.
Gogol Bordello are less cool about their carnivalesque, for good reason--carnival is the essence of their being. For 90 minutes at Irving Plaza, they kicked out the jams, and the rabble they roused roused me. By last November's Gypsy Festival, where they put on an even bigger and longer show, their drum-surfing encore was legendary. This time, watching two dozen willing hands hold the giant parade drum aloft as Pamela Racine and Eugene Hutz clambered on, I recalled the heyday of the New York Dolls, when I assumed unthinkingly that this gift would always be mine. It should be no surprise to anyone that I loved loved loved their show. But next time they interrupt their perpetual world tour, you go catch it anyway.
I just wish I'd memorized their lyrics.
With their micro labels and long history on the local circuit, Gogol Bordello are indie rock, but they're also the odd band out so far. It isn't that they're mostly immigrants, or that they're not really a guitar band. It's that they're OLD old: graybeard violinist, middle-aged accordionist, haggard human dynamo (Chernobyl survivor Hutz, who I fear could keel over anytime). This also goes for their audience, which while mostly under 30 was strikingly mixed agewise. I'd cherished the simple hope that Be Your Own Pet and some tyros to be named later would give me a new lease on ye olde vitality. But generational details kept butting in as I followed my druthers.
I caught roughly eight old headliners, at least three older than I am. Five of these were tops by me, only one a floppola, and even he offered unique entertainment: saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who summoned 100 tubas to open River to River's free Bang on a Can Marathon and got maybe 65. What a spectacle--shiny and dull, pristine and dented, tarnished and in one case rusted, white and nickel-colored and brassy gold, and if there were two alike they were far apart. But gradually a fascinating piece about timbre and volume, with ambient aircraft comping sharp-pitched against the prevailing rumble, became a minimalist endurance contest. "Couldn't they produce a different type of sound?" asked a young professional woman taking the Financial Center air. "More celebratory--faster, maybe?"
Sixteen years Braxton's senior, Ornette Coleman did just that. By now his alto sax is as dulcet as a French horn, and in a sonic innovation that shamed Excepter's synth foofaraw the night before, he set a bowed bass to stating tenor themes on ballads. His blue silk suit was smooth too. But when the moment came for the new-thing chestnut "Turnaround," he ripped Carnegie Hall up. At the other end of the old scale--only two of them are 50 yet--Sonic Youth sounded equally beautiful playing Rather Ripped in order. You can say it was just that I knew it by heart, but I was critical enough to notice "Turquoise Boy" meandering. The indie-rock godparents encored with Kim singing the 23-year-old "Shaking Hell." That ripped CBGB up.
Take my word, young'uns--age seldom sorts out neatly. "Can you fathom that I do this for a living? Forty-two years," boasted fedora-sporting, braided-bearded National steel whiz Baby Gramps directly after dedicating "Dream a Little Dream of Me" to Cass Eliott and shortly after declaring himself an "honorary teenager" in lieu of actually performing "You Can Throw Me in Jail but You Can't Stop My Face From Breaking Out." Yet Gramps's eccentric virtuosity and old-as-the-hills laugh lines reminded me of no one so much as 21-year-old Nellie McKay. Both even did Dylan imitations. Difference was, McKay had better songs, jokes too--where Gramps is a wonder, she's already a substantial artist. Also in the wonder category is onetime Stones piano man Jim Dickinson, only he's straddled generations since before he produced the Replacements--and proved it by encoring with something from Big Star's Third, also his record. Like Gramps, Dickinson is a songster who knows blues, but where Gramps is a genre crank, Dickinson just shares a lingua franca with his backing band, a/k/a the North Mississippi Allstars--one of his tradder production credits, but hey, they're his sons. Of the few guitar solos I heard (though they're less verboten now than in Fonarow's period), Luther Dickinson's slide work was up there with Lee Ranaldo's avantisms. But when the tireless Peter Stampfel sought a similar injection from 17-year-old Walker Shepard, son of Stampfel's old bandmate Sam, the kid didn't have his parts down, and it hurt. Stampfel's set was never more vital than when the senior partner followed a whispered "I want you" with an intense, high-breaking "so bad" on Dylan's "I Want You."
Although I encountered many accomplished young musicians, includ-ing some I hated (will Rock Kills Kid rock Kills kids?), execution counts for more with artists who are old enough to have learned how--the longer one devotes oneself to music, the larger music per se looms in one's identity quest. Enter the unheralded local Ambassadeurs du Manding at comfortable little Lava Gina, who rather than providing the pleasant evening I anticipated sent me and my wife home prepared to explore Avenue C forever. Led by veteran guitarist Mamady Kouyate, once a cog in Guinea's Orchestra Bembeya National, the four Africans and four non-Africans delighted a small crowd ranging in age from at most 28 to at least 64 by integrating Senegalese and Congolese concepts of continuous flow. They also outplayed the rest of June not counting Ornette and Sonic Youth. The youngish, non-African trap and conga drummers were slightly tentative. An older non-African got his balafon on. Kouyate outshone every guitarist I've named. And the singers were nonpareil: rich-burred old muezzin baritone and then this glorious young tenor in black 'do-rag, gold chain, and white XL tee. One of his jobs, performed with shameless and efficient grace, was to get the banquettes dancing. Guess where I was sitting.
Lest anyone smell world-music exoticism, I'll add that I walked out on be-dreaded beauty Sara Tavares soon after she told us her rain song would end Cape Verde's endless drought. And despite the fat guy who got a bassy thrum out of a milk can and slapped his feet when he danced, I preferred Brooklyn's Beirut to Hungary's Romano Drom.
I wonder whether the Ambassadeurs' tenor raps. I also wonder whether Buck 65 raps, though it would have helped if V2 had released Secret House Against the World------he gave me one after his Summer-Stage set, and now his ambitious new songs make sense. But other alt-rappers kept the faith. The old-school party ethic gets a lot of ribbing, which was justified at the Bowery Ballroom's agonized Def Jux showcase, where the crowd was not only 95 percent white but 90 percent male: Saturday night and nobody getting laid. Then Mr. Lif called them "party people" anyway and sustained the illusion until prolonged prestidigitation by DJ Big Whiz interrupted his flow.
Lif has one of the best left hands in the business--a hand you can imagine caressing a butt cheek--and musically I enjoyed him as much as Ornette first half. At Irving Plaza nine days later, Brother Ali had a crowd. "It's a spiritual thing to party together, like going to church," he told this much more sexually integrated gathering, who obediently shouted "Huh!" whenever he said "Shut this motherfucker down." Atmosphere's Slug, masterful after years on the road he reports have eaten up his soul, took up where Ali left off, the audience as electric as !!!'s or the Arctic Monkeys' only more united. But after 40 minutes he brought on a full band for "God Loves Ugly"--a righteous move, sure, only quickly the crowd deflated, as if the firepower onstage rendered their energy irrelevant. "Live Music Takes Many Forms" bumper stickers should be issued.
Many many. I attended June 24's Arthur Lee benefit at the Beacon out of respect for the uncrowned black king of psychedelic pop and organizer Steve Weitzman. Old artists yes, oldies artists no---if you crave Nils Lofgren's ebullience or Ian Hunter's acerbity, go back to Grin and Mott the Hoople and issue "Recorded Music Is a Blessing" bumper stickers. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah lead guy Alec Ounsworth was fab on Love's "Andmoreagain" and a Dylany original. Gavin DeGraw was cute. Yo La Tengo unearthed a glorious Lee obscurity as I knew they would: an American Four garage rocker called "Lucy Baines." (Sound familiar? Just add "Johnson.") Hunter made "All the Young Dudes" a sing-along. Lofgren's long, flashy solo sounded new again--the Stylofone effect. And talented asshole Ryan Adams, who refused to work with Weitzman's pickup band, explained his choice of material as follows: "Of course I would have liked to play Love songs, but some of you may know that it's not in my repertoire to, um, oh never mind . . ." Play anything you didn't write, oh poet of a zillion songs? Asshole.
But the big-ticket house, which wasn't full, had come for Robert Plant. Plant owns any room he enters. He could have fobbed off three Loves, three Zeps, a solo promo, and "Danny Boy." Instead he spent two days with the pickup band, rehearsing a set that honored Lee personally and culturally. The Zeps were early, the Loves exquisite. "For What It's Worth" led to a Hunter-assisted Everlys tune (the Elderly Brothers, Weitzman called them) and "Can't Help Falling in Love." Highlighted was "Hey Joe"--a perfect Zep-Love link, misogyny and all. And into the middle of a psychedelic fantasia--based on his own 2002 revival, not Love's peppy single or Hendrix's psychodrama--Plant inserted "Nature Boy," an inspired evocation of Arthur Lee the L.A. eccentric even if you didn't know its composer was an L.A. longhair when there were no longhairs and its hit version a turning point for black pop pathfinder Nat Cole. At 57, Plant no longer had his high end. But because the music was new and the occasion felt, he was singing fresh. This wasn't the somewhat automatic mastery of great Springsteen or Stones. It was a lesson in charisma full of near misses and intricate meshes, the most life-affirming thing I witnessed all month. My daughter and I fought through the rain at 1:30 a.m. just as if we weren't exhausted.
Les Ambassadeurs and Robert Plant astonished on successive nights. Then there was a letdown. Dragging myself to Warsaw after a bad car day in Queens was righted by a delicious dinner in Chinatown, all I really wanted to do was stay home, play records, read Fonarow, and make out. One reason my wife attended all of my top five shows except the one our favorite Zeppelin fan grabbed is that Gogol Bordello, Sonic Youth, and Ornette Coleman were sure shots. But I wouldn't have loved Les Ambassadeurs so freely without Carola. I wouldn't have had anyone to dance with, or to watch dancing alone with a song in my heart.
Fonarow believes the indie-rock identity quest is structured to end with marriage. For her, Zone Two represents a period of reflective aestheticism that eases the passage from the adolescent breakout of the pit to the homebound responsibilities of capitalist adulthood, when you find you're not going out at all. For anyone who remains sentient, however, identity quest never ends, and music can always be part of it. It's just that in a good marriage your identity is tied up with another person's. My wife attended eight of the 32 shows all told, quite a few for a 61-year-old nonprofessional. Both of us wanted and needed it.
But that final week I was on my lonesome till June 30 yoked two very alt alt-country bards in their forties: Robbie Fulks, a honky-tonk postmodernist proud to entertain "the world capital of secularism and rationality, all right," and the now Cleveland-based Amy Rigby, one of the best in the world at 47, playing South Street Seaport for free in intermittent rain to 150 people. Maybe I would have liked the Futureheads more if I hadn't skipped "Dancing With Joey Ramone" to see them. Carola stayed downtown. She tells me that the woman who kept feeding her friends in front of us vaulted onstage to sing backup on "All I Want." Her name was Sarah and it was a special birthday. Cheered Rigby: "40 years old and she can still storm a barricade."
Carola got home after I did. She was elated.
Village Voice, Aug. 1, 2006