Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 25 Live Shows of 2014

If nothing else, the concert scene in 2014 shows why it's important to strike while the iron's hot. Two of my top six acts are highly unlikely to tour again in the imminent future, and one of those are headed out on their final tour next year. That said, it was still another great year for live music. Here's the best I saw:

25. Deafheaven

February 18 at The End

Watching Deafheaven on stage isn't like watching a typical metal band.  This was an epic, energy draining set. Their frontman was kind of weird, but in a good way. He practiced lots of exaggerated hand motions, and he liked to scream right in the faces of people that were close. Of course, they were eating it up. His vocals were barely audible, though. I stopped by a Papa John's on the way back to ask for a bottle of water. They were closed, but thankfully they let me have one. 

24. Goat

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Even with all the shows I've seen, there's still few bands like Goat. Their sound is a carefully culled mixture of 60s psych folk rock, but the colorful gypsy costumes they don onstage and their bold sense of creativity makes this a must see. They're a rare act to catch stateside but with any luck a successful new album might bring them around more frequently.

23. Lily & the Parlour Tricks

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Glorious harmonies from this band. They showcase three part girl harmonies backed up by crunchy rock guitar. And if that's not enough, they closed with a cover of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which segued into Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain" before finally morphing into Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." They harmonized their three voices together to replicate the closing piano coda of "Closer." My jaw was on the ground.

22. Samantha Crain

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

Crain is a consummate singer/songwriter, in the sense that she definitely expounds on the motivations and inspirations behind her songs. Onstage, her manner of speaking to an audience causes her to feels very down to earth, and easy to relate to. An example of her loveable, quirky personality: she wrote a song inspired by a movie Convoy about a trucker running away from cops and said if Convoy 2 ever came out she hoped it would make the soundtrack. 

21. Swans

June 30 at Exit/In

They rose from the grime and grit of the early 80s New York art scene, but now Swans have finally arrived and they're here to kick your ass. There is also a strong art house vibe with frontman Michael Gira doing some weird Native American spirit dancing, and rolling his tongue all around the microphone. But more than anything else, it's all about those riffs.  The opening salvo on "Bring the Sun" hit with so much force it felt like the equivalent of being mugged on a street corner.

20. Machine Head

July 21 at Exit/In

Rob Flynn of Machine Head is one of the most well respected voices within metal today, not to mention one of the most thoughtful and insightful. On stage, he will stop at nothing to fire up a crowd. It may have been an odd, between album cycle tour but it marked the band's first headlining gig in Nashville in almost 20 years. The spitfire riffing in "Aesthetics of Hate" and the pounding, old school punishment of "Ten Ton Hammer" were as good of a welcome back present as any.

19. MS MR

June 12 at Bonnaroo

If you know me you know I love my synth pop bands, so the moment I found out that's what they were I had to check 'em out. They're more about vocals/hooks as opposed to electronics/production, which has its pros and cons. On stage though, the band is far too infectious to deny.

Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow ripped their way through most of the cuts from their debut, Secondhand Rapture, and tossed in covers of the Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know" and LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" for good measure. This was the first band of the weekend I saw people seriously getting hype over, and it looked like the band themselves were blown away by the reception they were getting. We were feeding off their energy as much as we were feeding off ours.

18. First Aid Kit

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

The Swedish dual threat of Johanna and Klara Soderberg have emerged as one of the day's most compelling indie folk duos, and the grand glory of their dual vocal harmonies rang forth in fine fashion at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. They also put on display considerable charm that wowed the audience, and left little doubt the only direction they're headed is up.

17. Rodrigo y Gabriela

August 8 at Ryman Auditorium

A duo doing little more than playing guitars on stage might not sound that exciting at first glance, but there's something living, breathing, and vital about Rodrigo y Gabriela onstage. They capture the giddy, whirlwind energy of street performers. Rodrigo works out speed metal inspired guitar leads and Gabriela practices the most insane rhythm playing I've ever witnessed. If that's not enough, they throw in a pretty bitchin' set of covers as well.

16. Cake

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Bahaha, these guys are insane. I knew of Short Skirt Long Jacket and The Distance, but didn't get really turned on to these guys until I started researching the fest lineup and heard their cover of I Will Survive. I had a front row spot for this show, and one of my friends caught a drumstick they tossed into the crowd. It's fun, sing along, breezy feel good music that makes you feel good and doesn't make you think too much.

15. Tune Yards

October 9 at Marathon Music Works

It has been a joy to see Merrill Garbus's band and stage show grow over the years. The band's presence is delightfully bizarre, while never deviating from their brand of exotic rhythm based pop music. They've gotten more diverse and electronic since I first saw them, and seem to be getting into the artier side in terms of dress and presentation as well.

14. Hundred Waters

November 11 at Marathon Music Works

I caught these guys opening for Interpol. I knew very little going in but they turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in a while. What impresses me most is their versatility. They vary from James Blake like downtempo soul vibe but can also get more upbeat and frenetic in their drumwork without losing their aesthetic. They can be more electronic/ambient at times, and sometimes the girl even pulls out a flute and starts wailing away. I found myself wondering if there's anything this band isn't capable of.

13. Janelle Monae

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Her set was significantly shorter than the last time I saw her, but Monae was undeterred as she demonstrated that sparkling, vivacious, electric showmanship that's made her one of today's must see acts. It was mostly an energetic set, only slowing down for rosy cheeked love tune "Primetime," in which Monae urged us all to bring our lover closer together for a slow dance. She closed the set by hopping off stage and mingling with the crowd before being carried off piggyback by one of her crew members.

12. Cloud Nothings

June 12 at Bonnaroo

One of my favorite Bonnaroo moments was raging out with this band. The set was a pure unleashing of energy and emotion.  So cathartic moments: the shrieking of "Psychic Trauma," the colossal build up and release of "Wasted Days", straight up to the eerie parting drone of "No Future No Past." The crowd responded in kind, whipping up some of the most intense moshing of the entire weekend. Apparently it was too much for some, as people were leaving the show in droves.

11. Kvelertak

November 6 at Marathon Music Works

Norwegian heavy metallers Kevelertak come across like viking conquerors onstage, come to smite us with heavy metal. Their frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, knows how to play to a crowd; he came out wearing an owl mask for their opening number "Ă…penbaring," and never let up from there. The gang is very energetic on stage. They hit loud, fast, and hard, and played with the swagger of 70s rock and roll stars.

10. Elton John

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Seeing Elton was a highlight of the year, even if his show didn't quite live up to other headliner caliber sets I've seen. He opened with the 11 minute epic "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," which was among the greatest songs I heard at Bonnaroo. After drawing top billing, many festivalgoers began to wonder how he'd compare to last years #1 billed act, Paul McCartney. He didn't come close to the majesty of that set, but that's not a bad thing. Unlike fellow headliners Kanye West and Jack White, Elton didn't have much to say. He simply kept his head down and powered his way through his hits. It seemed like he was going through the motions to a certain extent, but when your catalog contains "Bennie and the Jets," "Tiny Dancer," and "All the Girls Love Alice," it's not hard to forgive. Not to mention that Ben Folds came out to join him for "Grey Seal." Before hitting the exit gate, I saw a group of people who joined hands together and ran/danced around in a circle, and then brought it in and high fived one another, and I managed to get in on it. It was one of my favorite moments of the weekend for sure.

9. Mastodon

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Mastodon has gained a reputation as one of the best live acts in their field for good reason. I saw them twice this year, and it was tough to decide which performance was better. Ultimately I'm going with their Bonnaroo set for its more varied setlist. They pulled a good amount of traditional metal from fan favorite albums Blood Mountain and Leviathan, but delved into their more noodly, progressive side also. They've got great stage presence, one of the best drummers walking the planet, and a killer light setup. I was also jazzed for Capillarian Crest, one of the best deep cuts they've done.

8. Beck 

July 15 at Ryman Auditorium

Last time Beck hit Nashville, we saw him stealthily slipping into a nearby restaurant to wow patrons with secret set. No such festivities occurred this time, but what we did get was a career retrospective from a stunning artist who observes no rules but his own. He shared the tale of how many cuts from his latest album, Morning Phase, originated from recording sessions in Nashville and wooed us with a handful of those dreamy cuts. The highlight, however, was when Beck rolled out yellow police tape and finished his set with a combination of crazed harmonica playing, 90s hip hop, and a mashup of Rolling Stones' "Miss You."

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

June 14 at Bonnaroo

I only caught the last half of Nick Cave, but even from that it is dead obvious the man was born to be onstage. He cast a sinister shadow as he leered over his crowd and wove his tale of the murderous madman Stagger Lee.  I loved how the drummer clashed his stick against the kit to make it sound like gunshots when Billy Dilly got filled full of lead. But if that wasn't enough, Cave drops a secret verse on us where Stagger Lee straight up kills the Devil! I loved the the chilled out dissonance of his Push the Sky Away material as well as the gothic, Quentin Tarantino vibe, but Stagger Lee was the most badass moment of Bonnaroo for sure!

6. Outkast

July 18 at Forecastle

Forget everything you've heard about that off-kilter Coachella performance. Hip hop's most dynamic duo dominated Forecastle during their Friday night headlining set, delivering spitfire rhymes and hooks tastier than Southern fried steak and gravy. The duo's reunion was one of the inescapable music stories of the year, and with a chance to hear "Ms. Jackson," "So Fresh So Clean," and "The Whole World," among many others, it's no surprise why. The only nagging concern was whether or not Andre was truly on board, and apparently he wasn't. In a post tour interview he talked about how much he disliked the entire experience so it's almost certain we'll never have the chance to see them again.

5. Damon Albarn

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Albarn is pound for pound one of the best pure performers I have ever seen, but the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz had no designs on hogging the stage during this solo set. Along with him came a dazzling cast of guests, paving the way for one of Bonnaroo's most unforgettable main stage acts in recent memory. He belted out hard rockers, hip hop inspired beats, more downtempo fare and even a bit of circus style music as he weaved his way through material from all the various bands and collaborations he has been a part of over his career. But when he brought out De La Soul for "Feel Good Inc." followed by Del the Funky Homosapien for "Clint Eastwood," an uproarious celebration broke out and engulfed the entire field.

4. Neutral Milk Hotel

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Few reunions have been more lauded by fans and critics than that of 90s indie folk darlings Neutral Milk Hotel. After a somewhat disappointing performance at Ryman Auditorium, their set at Bonnaroo showed me exactly why.What is typically a laid back affair became balls to the wall as the normally timid Jeff Mangum unleashed a torrent of buzzsaw guitars. The moshing, pushing and shoving became so intense that several people had to flee the set. But suddenly you got hit with the 8 minute ballad Oh Comely. After all the roughhousing we were all so drained it felt you were dying and that song was the only thing keeping you alive.

3. Darkside

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Navigating Bonnaroo, especially on a Saturday night, can be a trying experience. Fortunately, Dave Harrington's minimalistic, ethereal guitar work coupled with Nicolas Jarr's heavenly, all encompassing synth washes proved to be the perfect healing salve. Jarr's high pitched vocals sneak in to a track and then slip back out like a thief in the night. There was an booming bass beat that keeps kicking you in the chest. And then there was their gigantic mirror, reflecting radiant beams of light throughout the tent.  This was one of those experiences that made me forget where I was -- to just forget about everything for a moment. For that reason, I'll always hold it in the utmost regard.

2. Arcade Fire

May 1 at Bridgestone Arena

Win Butler and crew are some of the brightest, most innovative and forward thinking musicians of our day. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly it is, but everything about their stage show and production is a breath of fresh air. The band's first stadium tour had it all: raging calypso drums, blankets of confetti, Mexican wrestler masks and crystal monsters dancing around. Famed DJ Kid Koala even showed up to jam while the equipment was set up. But Arcade Fire also have the booming catalog to back it up. They could rattle the arena with Springsteen-esque rock or get experimental with more exotic material from their latest album, Reflektor, but it was the giant anthems that carried the night as the entire building was swept away in a riveting rendition of "Wake Up."

1. Jack White

June 14 at Bonnaroo

He may hail from Detroit, for but three hours in a field in Tennessee Jack White did all he could to position himself in the pantheon of all time greatest Southern musicians. He had a particular concept in mind, so I'll let him tell you in his own words:

"All the musicians up here with me now, I think they all mentally decided that the best thing to give to you right now was not a show that would put on a bunch of explosions behind us and give you some sort of pyrotechnics for some festival or something like that. But the kind of show that we show you what kind of music we would play if we were in a room all by ourselves and you were there too."

As simple as it may seem, some performers put too much stock into presentation or focus too much on trying to girls onstage topless with them. With Jack White it was not just about the music; it was a celebration of music. This show was special because everything about his delivery felt very personalized; it was like he was talking directly to you in the crowd no matter where you were.

But you also have to excel in terms of musicianship to make a concept like this work, and in White's case he's capable of doing things that many musicians can't. There are plenty of blues players with amazing instrumental skills, but White combines electrifying charisma with awe-inspiring musical chops, and he can actually write songs too. I found myself mesmerized by his playing. He belts out blues inspired solos but can also jam out quite a bit.

"Seven Nation Army" was the moment the audience had been anticipating all night. When he hopped onto the speaker and belted out that riff it was a full blown coronation. Of all the iconic, instantly recognizable guitar riffs that one is the most recent, and may well be the last for all we know. But what we do know is this: there may not have been any pryo at this show but you're out of luck if you're trying to determine anything else it was lacking.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mastodon shreds Nashville with help from Gojira and Kvelertak

It was one of the most hotly anticipated metal tours Nashville has seen in awhile, and the city's denizens turned out in full force. Atlanta heavy metal act Mastodon is part progressive metal and part sludge, but has been turning heads recently with their ability to make those sounds accessible to the masses. Their latest album, Once More Round the Sun, was recorded in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, and the lines nearly stretched to the end of the street in anticipation of the band's performance.

The set served as a showcase for the band's new found sound. With plenty of catchy, sing-a-longable hooks, it shows just how much they've changed from over the years. Their sound is characterized by an abundance of noodly guitar leads, with a tendency to jam out for sure. Brent Hinds demonstrated his guitar mastery all throughout the night, while drummer Brann Dailor made a rare appearance on lead vocals during one of the night's most propulsive cuts, "The Motherload." There's a significant difference between their earlier material and that of the last two records, but they've maintained their credibility by augmenting their catchy hooks with top notch musicianship.

Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds (left) are proving their place as one of the greatest metal bands of our time.

They started breaking out older stuff later in the set, but make no mistake -- with only two songs from Blood Mountain and three from Leviathan, this was a showcase for the newest album.

"Ol'e Nessie," from their 2002 debut Remission, stood in stark contrast to the rest of the set with its coarse, guttural shouted vocals and slow, crushing riffwork. But it was the older hits that had the fans tearing the place up. None did better than "Blood and Thunder," which tells the tale of a doomed sailing crew attempting to take down a mighty white whale. The gale force intensity coming off the pummeling guitar riff coupled with the devastating impact of Dailor's crash cymbal is enough to make you feel like you're right there with the crew, staving off a pounding rainstorm and aiming your harpoon right at the killer whale. Needless to say, the crowd lost their shit.

On the downside, their sound was kind of muddy -- not exactly the most crisp, clear or sharpest sound by any stretch of the imagination. The vocals in particular were very hard to hear, and has been that way both times I've seen them. Hinds has drawn flak in the past for his live vocals, and he honestly isn't the best pure singer of all time so that's likely a design decision. But when it comes to songs you're less familiar with it's hard to pick them out by their melody. It seems strange since that's what they're focusing on more these days.

Erlend Hjelvik and the guys from Norwegian metal band Kvelertak swipe, slash, and shred the stage to pieces.

They were preceded by French heavy metal act Gojira, whose star has been rising ever since the release of their 2012 album L'Enfant Sauvage. I had previously seen this band when they held down the opening slot on Metallica's Death Magnetic tour in 2009, but all I can remember is some long haired guy frantically running around the stage. This time around, with a much closer view, I can say they are most definitely the most unique metal band I have seen. This is clearly more thinking man's metal. Joe Duplantier's vocals sound like a demon serpent being dragged out of a portal from hell. It's very heavy with a good bottom end. You could mosh to it, but there's much more to it than that. The best way I can describe them is exotic, and I'm always pleased when I get to witness a band like that.

To top things off, we all had the good fortune to see Kvelertak as the opening band. These guys are a blast to watch on stage. They're like viking conquerors, come to smite us with heavy metal. The band really gets into it, rocking out hard and spinning their instruments around. Their frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, and knows how to play to a crowd. He came out wearing an owl mask for their opening number "Ă…penbaring." They hit loud, fast, and hard and played with the swagger of 70s rock and roll stars. The only downside is there's not much variety in their sound as of right now, but they're still a young band and they're getting there. If you get a chance to see any of these three bands anytime soon, I highly recommend you do so.

Joe Duplantier of Gojira conjures odd time signatures and crushing rhythms to forge artistic and forward thinking metal.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Swedish duo First Aid Kit bring wonderful harmonies to life at Ryman

On Wednesday night, the glorious harmonies of Johanna and Klara Soderberg enchanted Ryman Auditorium. The Swedish sister duo, better known as First Aid Kit, mesh modern folk with the sounds of traditional country and do it better than just about anyone out there right now. They show off their playful side with cuts like "King of the World," while "In the Hearts of Men" and "Cedar Lane" show off a more contemplative side. They also demonstrated some serious bite during a cover of Jack White's "Love Interruption," a side of them that hasn't come across on their albums very often but they seem to pull off very well.

They felt right at home at The Ryman, spinning out a cover of The Carter Family's "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone." But perhaps most staggering of all was when the sisters sang side by side during an acoustic version of "Ghost Town" all the way back from their first album. It can't be overstated just how wonderful their voices are when they merge together onstage. They kept their set short and sweet at just around an hour, allowing the audience to head home sated but no doubt leaving eager for more.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Tune Yards branch out into bold pop music collage on Nikki Nack

The opening track on Tune Yard's latest album, Nikki Nack, sees frontwoman Merril Garbus meditating on making changes, both inward and outward, and coming to grips with the difficulty of flipping that switch. It's a fitting opening for an artist who's been ever changing and evolving, and now her third album, Nikki Nack, sees the dynamic singer emerging from the cocoon all set to splatter our world with a palate of brighter colors.

Since the last album, whokill, in 2011, everything has gotten bigger, more complex, and, for the most part, better for the band. The brass and bass, which were huge driving forces on whokill, have been toned down in favor of a more complex, mulittracked electronic approach which at times borders on synthpop.

However, she hasn't ditched her emphasis on rhythm. Along with bassist Nate Brenner, the percussion and syncopation has reached new heights, and it complexity now rivals that of Thom Yorke's electro-precussive side project Atoms For Peace. But the production is also far bigger now than it has been on any of Garbus's previous offerings. The horn section that so wonderfully colored whokill are mostly absent, but in their place are a bevy of glorious electronic synths are present here. "Wait for a Minute" features cool, subtle background washes, while "Time of Dark" is backed by buzzy techno that wouldn't sound out of place on a 2000s era Nine Inch Nails record.

Garbus, as always, comes through with a big and bold personality. She brings plenty of swagger and attitude, her lyrics often bring the sense that she is a survivor, incapable of being held down. She is also the chief percussionist in the band, but this time around she's added another drummer as well.

"Water Fountain" with its playful and innocent nature, sounds like it could be a jump rope rhyme for the kids on the sidewalk.  But Garbus begins to cut loose as the track progresses, and it builds into something much more forceful and intricate. By the time the familiar melody arrives for the final chorus, it's the same but it has altogether changed. The clanging electronic production and much more complex vocal arrangements shows off Garbus's impressive ability to mix various layers together and make a song that is much more than the sum of its parts.

"Wait for a Minute" takes things in an opposite direction, showing off her mastery at slowing down and taking on more serene material, as well as confirming her status as a fantastic singer. She delivers power but also shows she knows how to reel herself in and deliver, sublime, beautiful melodies. The song shows off her stunning range, and the production is bang up as well.  "Wait for a Minute" is one of the best synthpop songs of the year, and one of the best she's ever done. It offers a dramatic contrast to her raw, jackhammer delivery on songs like "Real Life." Her ability to belt it out is impressive, but this song demonstrates that when she keeps it up too long it can become one note and lack variation, and after a while it grates on the nerves.

Meanwhile, "Stop That Man" continues to explore a lyrical theme of violence and crime in her native California, previously examined on "Gangsta" from whokill. It also sounds the most like her old material, as she declares in her ominous lower register that we'll have to be our own policeman. "Left Behind" and "Sink-o" are the most complex tracks rhythmically, but also are the most bass heavy and provide the best opportunities to shake your booty.

Nikki Nack is a strong listen from front to back, but the problems that do come up on on the album tend to result from mixing and arranging the various layers together. This is the most complex album Garbus has put together. There are more musicians, more layers, and just generally more going on here than on either of her two previous albums. Although it happens rarely, in some places things don't come together quite right. Opener "Find a New Way" kicks off with an awkward Vampire Weekend sounding opening and abrasive FIND A NEW WAY refrain. All the layers previously present in the song are reintroduced simultaneously at the end, but instead of meshing well with one another they all clash and conflict with one another.

The biggest offender, however, is "Look Around," which is super surreal but in all the wrong ways. Her dissonant ukulele combines with something in the background that sounds like a demented cuckoo clock, and is paired up with a halfhearted vocal track that doesn't mesh well with the music at all.

The entire album is abound with an African, Caribbean and world tribal influences, as well as playground chants that give the album a playful and inviting feel. It may sound like a lot to wrap your head around, and it is. But what's great is that the entire album operates off a pop sensibilities, so every song is pretty easy to get into without taking too many listens to get into, but the more time you do invest into this record the more layers you peel back that you may never have even noticed in the first place. This is what makes this one of the most refreshing and rewarding albums in recent memory. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Crazed folk band O'Death announce new album Out of Hands We Go

O'Death first caught my attention through an album cover. The art for their 2011 album, Outside, was so well done and thoughtfully illustrated I had to take a listen, and now the band is one of my favorite finds of the last several years. The best way I can describe them is that it's basically like a crazed, fire breathing Southern Baptist preacher fronting a stark raving mad folk band. I tend to think of these guys as the redneck folk version of Gogol Bordello, in large part due to the wild live performances both bands are known for giving. They've released a couple of new cuts from their upcoming album, Out of Hands We Go, which drops Oct. 7. They're not as rambunctious as some of their older material, but certainly not as subdued as Outside. It's good to see that O'Death seem to be reinventing themselves once again.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Metal veterans Machine Head smash Nashville like a wrecking ball

The 90s have never been considered the most fertile time for metal, but I don't agree that the decade was some sort of wasteland for the genre as many experts like to assert. Machine Head is one of the many reasons why.

Their first statement was perhaps their loudest, dropping their debut album Burn My Eyes in in 1994. Combining the frenzied edge of thrash metal with a straight ahead riffing style and an aggressive, take no prisoners attitude, the album is still considered a classic to this day.

Oakland based heavy metal act Machine Head graced Nashville's Exit/In.

It had been far too long since we'd seen the Bay Area heathens properly tear Music City apart, as frontman Rob Flynn declared it had been 19 years since the last headlining tour from Machine Head hit Nashville. The occasion? Dubbed The Killers & Kings tour, the band had booked a small number of dates in support of their latest single of the same name. It seems like more of an excuse to get back out on the road more than anything else, but anything that gets Machine Head to venue near me won't have me complaining.

The setlist pulled almost evenly from the band's seven studio albums, but focused most heavily on their 2007 effort The Blackening. Now, it isn't too often a band releases their best album 13 years into their career, but Machine Head does not concern themselves with the operations of lesser mortals. If the spitfire riffing of "Aesthetics of Hate" or the lighters held high anthem "Halo" doesn't get you going, then buddy you've come to the wrong place.

Their latest album, Unto the Locust, is no slouch either. The technical complexity of the riffing in "Locust" demonstrates heady progress the band has made over the years. The real jaw dropper moment, however, came during "Darkness Within" as the crowd took over and sang the outro all by themselves, even after the band went silent. Chills.

Rob Flynn and Phil Demmel go back to back during a scintillating solo.

Their older material shined, too. The punishing riffs of "Ten Ton Hammer" were impossible, while "Old" and "Davidian" gave us ringing reminders as to why we fell in love with this band in the first place.

I've read several blog posts from frontman Rob Flynn, and he seems like a great guy full of personality. He was a relentless motivator, constantly urging the crowd on and demanding their all. Guitarist Phil Demmel also deployed some great showmanship. He sliced through solos with the greatest of ease while making faces toward the crowd and exuding showmanship that reminds me of the guys from Iron Maiden.

The crowd, for their part, heralded the band's arrival by taking up hearty cries of Machine Fucking Head  Other than that, though, they mostly just stood at respectful attention without really getting too into it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Kishi Bashi - Philosophize In It! Chemacilize With It!

Japanese violinist Kishi Bashi crafts indie pop music that is full of warmth, exuberance, and a misty eyed sense of wonder. Most importantly, it's just plain good fun. The focus track from his latest, Lighght, loops and winds its way through bang up violin playing along with a delightfully delectable chorus that shows off Bashi's killer falsetto. But perhaps my favorite part is when he breaks it all down near the end and throws in an acoustic guitar backing that builds to the final chorus. It doesn't sound like something that should work at all in theory, but he executes it to perfection. See for yourself:

Latin guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela's ringing rhythms rumble Ryman

There's this part during Rodrigo y Gabriela's packed to the rafters show at Ryman Auditorium where the Rodrigo is unmercifully tearing through the climactic final guitar solo from "The Soundmaker," the lead single from their latest album 9 Dead Alive. As Gabriela leaps in excitement beside him, the energy in the room builds to a fever pitch and seems almost enough to take the roof off the place. A brilliant wash of auburn light suddenly illuminates the stage at the precise moment he finishes. And they were just getting started.

Rodrigo y Gabriela dazzles the crowd with carefully crafted melody.

The twosome, consisting of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriella Quintero, hail from Mexico City but had to journey to Ireland before finding success with their self titled album in 2006. Their sound is heavily steeped in the great traditions of Spanish guitar style, but also borrows heavily from Rodrigo's experience as a heavy metal guitarist. For over 90 minutes, they wowed the crowed with almost purely instrumental play. Mini cameras were hooked up onto the head of their guitars so as to capture the insanity of their lightning fast finger movements and relay it to the big screen. 

Just as impressive though, is how varied a repertoire they're able to create with only two acoustic guitars. Cuts like "Fram" and "The Russian Messenger" from 9 Dead Alive are a little more dialed back and atmospheric, gently pulling the listener in with a swirling confection of strings. "Hanuman," on the other hand, hits you in the face like a hand grenade and never lets up. Its breathless spontaneity and in your face nature is highly indicative of the style of traveling street performers, which Gabreila explained they once were.

And what street performers they must have been! As this tune unfolded  it was easy to envision the palm trees, majestic fountains, and palatial resort hotels rising in the distance.  But of course, we couldn't escape without a little heavy metal influence, provided with a cover of Metallica's breathtaking "Orion." They may have lacked the electric amplifiers, but their performance gave you no less of a desire to pump your fist into the air.

Although Rodrigo sizzled with his lead work, Gabriela's rhythm playing was nothing short of nuts. She eschewed a pick in favor of a four finger picking style that looks like something you would see a bass player do. But when you consider she does it with six strings instead of four it's even more insane. She'll also drum a beat on the side of her guitar or over the sound hole and incorporate that into the rhythm parts she plays on guitar. It's one of the most unique styles of playing the instrument I've ever seen, and seems nearly impossible to replicate perfectly.

Coloruful backdrops added a Southwestern flair to the group's set.

Also great was a segment midway through the set where the duo performed a series of cover songs, mostly just pulling a short snippet out of each song. Rodgrio began playing Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush" on guitar, then motioned for the stage hand to bring out a microphone for what Gabriella termed as his karaoke set. He quickly ran through "Breaking the Girl" from The Red Hot Chili Peppers and "Symphony of Destruction" from Megadeth -- which sadly no one seemed to recognize -- before finally ending up with Radiohead's "Creep," which drew massive ovation from the audience. His voice was fine, but afterward did acknowledge that he doesn't sing much. "Don't go upload it to Youtube," he joked.

They had a lot to live up to, as opening act Milow absolutely killed it. The Belgian acoustic guitar duo delivered gorgeous vocal harmonies, while lead man Jonathan Vandenbroeck showed off great presence and a wonderful sense of humor. Near the end he did a song that he wrote as an advance apology to his guitarist for when he becomes famous and forgets all about him. He also made a few cracks about Belgium's soccer win over the U.S. in the World Cup, but after what they did for their final song I think we can forgive him.

For their set closer, they wanted to take advantage of the Ryman acoustics and perform a little closer to the crowd, so they stepped out from behind their mics and edged right up to the front of the stage. The crowd went silent as a pin drop as their unamplified voices and acoustic guitar sliced through the stillness of the Ryman air. It was one of the most beautiful moments I have witnessed in that building. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bombastic Outkast reunion graces Louisville's Forecastle festival

After hitting virtually every festival in existence this year, Oukast's omission from this year's Bonnaroo lineup was a big buzkill. But I would not be denied my chance to see them. Having first heard Ms. Jackson in 8th grade, and having grown up with their Speakerboxx/Love Below era hits, it was fantastic seeing them onstage together once again.

They had a gigantic mesh cube on stage with screens you could see through, so you could see them when they were inside of it and they could also project images onto the screens. They opened the show by projecting the American flag from the Stankonia cover onto the cube screens.

They kicked off with a couple of tunes from that album, getting the crowd properly gelled up with "B.O.B" and "Gasoline Dreams," a pair of ferocious cuts that show off their hip hop prowess while simultaneously working the crowd into a frenzy. From there they began working through a catalog of their early hits, knocking out material from ATLiens and Aquemeni era. Although arguably less known than their later hits, these earlier tunes boast hooks every bit as potent, and its a testament that stacking songs this strong this early into their set helped them avoid the early set lull that many live acts struggle with.

The duo interacted well with one another and seemed like good showmen. Andre had on his white wig and a black jumpsuit that read Obviously Oblivious, along with a price tag hanging off of his suit with a dollar sign on it.

They moved swiftly through a set of greatest hits. Little time was spent delving into their back catalog, but it's a testament to them that they can fill a full set with pretty much nothing but killer hit cuts.

Midway through they did a couple of solo sets to allow them to deliver material from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, a double album which consisted of individual solo discs from both members of the duo. Andre's was much heavier on visual elements. At times his screens looked the command module for the Starship Enterprise. At the end, there was a visual of a woman's legs, with the mesh cube positioned strategically to block out the view directly between her legs, and her panties could be seen gliding off and fluttering down her leg. "Who invented panties anyway?" Andre intoned. "I think they were meant to be taken off."

The best moment was when he invited a gaggle of female fans from the crowd onto stage during "Hey Ya!" One of them gave him a hug and told him this was the best moment of her life. "I disagree," Andre declared. "This is the beginning of the best moment of your life!"

Big Boi's solo spot was more grounded, but no less impressive. He invited Sleepy Brown out onto stage for "The Way You Move," a tune that packs some serious groove, but also proved he could bust some serious amps on the speaker shredder "Ghetto Musik."

They had neat ways of introducing songs. "Let me ask you guys a question. Do you guys know Jesse Jackson? Wanda Jackson?" Then they paused before slyly asking, "What about Ms. Jackson?" before busting into their indomitable breakout single. If they hadn't blown up by the time they launched that single way back in 2001, they certainly did after it hit.

But the night wasn't complete without a run through the group's old school hits. "Crumblin 'Erb" and "Player's Ball" showed off a vastly different and much more grounded sound than later Outkast, drawing heavily from a dirty Southern gangsta rap style, while still featuring heavy helpings of soul.

Though the tour may have started off rocky with that opening Coachella date, Big Boi and Andre have now hit their stride, and are playing magnificently off one another. Only they know what's in store at the conclusion of this tour, but it would be a shame for the group to dissipate right as they're getting their groove back.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Beck plays every style of music imaginable during night two at Ryman

The first night of Beck's two night stand at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium was championed by the subdued, acoustic guitar based folk of his standout 2002 album Sea Change and his most recent work, Morning Phase, released in February. For night two, he had something altogether different in mind.

The bright flashing lights and buzzsaw guitar riffs of set opener "Devil's Haircut" loudly blared to any of last night's holdovers that they weren't in Kansas anymore. Beck's indelible swagger and sing along delivery instantly made a deep impact upon everyone in the room, as he sidled up beside bandmembers and cut a rug all over the stage.

Beck got the ball rolling right off the bat and didn't let up, pummeling the room with crowd pleasing cuts early and often. He broke out the delectable deep cut "The New Pollution" from his defining 1996 album Odelay, tantalizingly merged "I Think I'm In Love" into Donna Summer's disco banger "I Feel Love," and also spun out the smooth, seductive alt/hip hop of "Black Tambourine." It was more than enough to keep all of our tambourines shaking.

He did pepper in a mellower mood periodically throughout the set. The mournful, contemplative mood of "Lost Cause" proved to be the sole Sea Change cut of the evening, while eerie electronics and deep cello swirled through the rafters during "Wave." Beck explained that he had begun work on Morning Phase in Nashville with the idea that he wanted to make a country based record before ultimately finishing up elsewhere. But he played a string of songs that developed from those Nashville sessions, including "Heart is a Drum," "Say Goodbye," and "Waking Light," all of which provided vast aesthetic differences from his early set material but were every bit as sing alongable.

It wasn't just Beck lighting it up; even his band brought raw intensity.

Yet in a testament to the eclecticism of Beck, it wasn't long before the swelling emotional ocean of "Waking Light" gave way to the Gameboy bleeps and bloops that heralded "Girl," one of the singer's most prominent chart smashes after from "Loser." And speaking of "Loser," he got it out of the way early but holy balls did it turn the building upside down. He complemented it with other fun, quirky hip hop cuts "Que Onda Guero" and "Hell Yes."

After closing the main set with the caffeine high of hard rocker E-Pro, Beck's bandmates began mock bumping into each other and eventually collapsed into a gigantic heap on the floor, prompting Beck to roll out yellow police crime scene tape across the front of the stage. Then he put all his chips down for the encore.

After exploring the underbelly of freak funk with the darkly futuristic "Get Real Paid," he broke out two other cuts from Midnite Vultures for his encore. The dramatic bang of "Sexx Laws" led into the inevitable and indomitable strains "Debra," a falsetto soul love song to a girl working at a department store. He illustrated some of the song's scenes in spoken word, sweet talking Debra and then inviting her to take a ride in his Hyundai.

Beck tries to hide all evidence of his crimes.

He could have called it a night right there, but Beck would not be vanquished without a fight. After briefly vanishing, he returned and broke into "Where It's At," before transitioning into the old gospel country stomper "One Foot in the Grave," complete with Beck going nuts on harmonica. He then segued that into a rendition of The Rolling Stone's "Miss You" before finishing it out with the final chorus of "Where It's At."

Those bigger on Beck's mellow side no doubt would have enjoyed the first night more, but speaking as someone who doesn't consider Morning Phase to be the man's best work, the setlist couldn't have been better. Save for the off kilter mellowness of Mutations, virtually every conceivable side of Beck was on display. And personally speaking, three Midnite Vultures cuts was nothing short of astounding. Apologies to those who consider his many deviations mere distractions, but this set represents the Beck you have got to see.

Indie pop violinist Kishi Bashi's live set has you bopping off the walls

Kishi Bashi is one of those silly, zany artists who you can't help but break out in a big goofy smile for, and I got to catch him Friday night at Mercy Lounge. Otherwise known as Kaoru Ishibashi, he's been a touring member with Of Montreal and also in Regina Spektor's band, but it seems he's doing pretty well on his own.

Clad in his pink tuxedo and bowtie, he wowed the crowd by incorporating his vividly realized violin skill into whimsical, dream coated indie pop songs. His new album, Lighght, more heavily favors synthesizers and Phoenix style dance beats.

He was able to touch the ceiling with his soaring upper register, which gave him room to maneuver on cuts like "Bright Whites," which sounds like a gleeful take on The Beatles' White Album era, and played "Neon Genesis for Him and Her," about how the world was created through two people's love for one another.

Kishi Bashi and banjo player Mike Savino, play well off one another.

But the night's most gorgeous moment came from the final song in the main set. The quiet, beautiful magnificence of "Manchester," drifted through the performance chamber as he croons, "My favorite part is when I die/ in your arms like a movie/ tragic, but now the story has its proper end." It gently builds to a powerful final cascade of violin work.

His encore was the standout event of the evening, however. He had us all bouncing around and dancing during "The Ballad of Mr. Steak," a silly synthesizer driven cut about a steak who just wants to spend his life dancing before he is eaten. Then he did a cover of "Live and Let Die," before closing with "It All Began With a Burst," in which he let us sing the zany high pitched parts.

He relied heavily on tape loops, looping the violin parts. He had a banjo player, Mike Savino, but it didn't sound like typical country banjo playing. When I could hear it, it sounded more like Calypso inspired playing. He had flashing red and green Christmas lights inside his banjo that lit up while he played. Bashi would stop to do some random improv here and there between songs. At one point, he and Savino were playing off one another and were totally feeding off each other's energy.

When it comes to songs that rely more heavily on studio effects, however, its clear that he's still working on figuring out how to translate it to live stage. The lack of acoustic guitar in the band clearly effected the timbre of certain cuts, and not for the better. "Q&A" felt much emptier without it, while "Philosophize In It! Chemacilze In It!" required a near re-write for the second half of the song.

This was one of my favorite songs from him, with one of my favorite aspects of it being the acoustic guitar breakdown near the end. But instead of that he broke into a very brief jam session, and then delivered the final lines with a whimper.

That stuck out as the biggest weakness of his set was that certain songs didn't translate as well without guitar. The banjo player was talented and was a great showman, but the instrument itself didn't seem to add much to the performance. It tended to get swallowed up by the rest of the mix.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Totally Unauthorized 2014 Mid Year Recap: Top 25 First Half Albums

The 2014 musical year started off slowly, but has gradually been shaping up into what may be another excellent year. It hasn't been as good as the past two years, although 2013 was a banner year and may not be topped by decade's end. That said, 2014 has still seen some great releases. Here are my favorites from the first half:

25. Mogwai - Rave Tapes

24. Beck - Morning Phase

23. Little Dragon - Nabuma Rubberband

22. Anathema - Distant Satellites

21. Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots

20. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - Pinata

19. Mastodon - Once More Round the Sun

18. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence

17. Animals as Leaders - The Joy of Motion

16. Future Islands - Singles

15. Real Estate - Atlas

14. Lykke Li - I Never Learn

13. War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

12. The Roots - ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin

11. Badbadnotgood - III

10. Jack White - Lazaretto

At this point, Jack White is who he is. You know what to expect from one of his records. The best thing about Lazaretto is that it doesn't waste the audience's time; it gets right down to business by focusing on his greatest strength - rocking hard. White tosses in flourishes of folk and country to supplement his infectious brand of blues rock, weaves in interpersonal lyrics, and mixes it with some of his best guitar playing to date.

9. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

This is a fantastic album to crawl inside of and get lost within. Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor brews up post-rock in the vein of his flagship band, but this mix boasts more of a hard edged, punk rock vibe that is sometimes whimsical and sometimes ominous. Add a sense of child-like wonder and a theme loosely based on the band's home of Montreal, and you have one of the year's most unique and inspiring albums.

8. Tune Yards - Nikki Nack

This is the biggest and boldest sound Merrill Garbus has had yet. Her patchwork pastiche of world music and electronic influences, coupled with her dizzying drum work merge together to create a mix both intoxicating and impossible to ignore. After two fantastic albums I was hoping she'd knock it out of the park here. It ultimately doesn't live up to its predecessor, w h o k i l l, but for your buck, you won't find an album with a louder sense of style than this.

7. Sun Kil Moon - Benji

This may be the most unique entry on the list in the sense that this is more like reading a short story as opposed to a musical experience. Benji takes a look into who Mark Kozalek is, recounted over various ruminations about his family, losing loved ones, and youthful loves. There are also more specific events including discussing the Newtown shootings in an exchange of letters with a fan, or feeling out of touch while seeing his friend Ben Gibbard of The Postal Service in concert. The level of detail Kozalek recalls is stunning, and he complements it with gorgeous finger picking.

6. Kishi Bashi - Lighght

This is simply a splendid, joyous record. The product of Japanese violinist K. Ishi Bashi, known for his work in Athens psychedelic indie rock band of Montreal. He has long stood out with his signature style of guitar playing, and whimsical, feel good songwriting approach, but now he's expanded his sound by giving keyboards a much more prominent place in the mix. With Lighght, he puts forth an album that is like Wonderland in musical form, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

5. First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

Easily the girls' best effort yet. The harmonies are wondrous enough alone to merit this a spot on the list, but there's also an alluring vintage feel to much of this album. Sometimes they sound pensive, at others they sound like they were born to play the Ryman, but mostly their music moves along with a determined grit and heads held high. Their last effort, The Lion's Roar, suffered from consistency issues, but this time there's not a weak track to be found.

4. Swans - To Be Kind

Swans are tough as nails and impenetrable, but they make no apologies about who they are. That said, there is still some great dark art rock here, alongside some of the year's most sweat soaked riffing. Michael Gira's haunting cadence rings out from the shadows. It's oppressive yet fascinating simultaneously. At times there are more straight ahead numbers at and at times it's really esoteric, but it's equally difficult not to find yourself sucked in by swans' sinister vortex.

3. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

If you're looking for a torrent of pure adrenaline, this album's for you. The Ohio indie rockers barrel full speed ahead with a harder hitting sound than ever before, tempered with catchy, effective song writing and strong hooks. And every now and then they show off their ability to launch into an extended post punk rage. For his part, frontman Dylan Baldi alternates between jagged edged screams and passionate clean singing in what is surely one of the most explosive albums of the year.

2. St. Vincent - s/t

This is the album that's been on everyone's list this year, and for good reason. Her rose tinted art pop might color her as a little weird and off kilter, but Annie Clark's fourth album is perhaps her boldest yet. She's wistful and provocative with an intoxicating sense of confidence, and at the end of the day she's irresistible because she's a knockout songsmith crafting a dizzying collection of fragrant rock and roll.

1. Rodrigo y Gabriela - 9 Dead Alive

This has been my go to jam this year. I was initially drawn into the band thanks to their white hot single "Hanuman," which led to me exploring their previous album, 11:11. This one is much more relaxed and low key, but no less breathtaking in terms of aesthetic or technicality. I like this record whenever I'm upset, or agitated or anxious about something; it helps mellow me out. But I also love it for the sheer splendid beauty of its arrangements. I am surprised that no one is paying attention to this one after the success that their previous two albums had. It must not be the type of sound media outlets are looking for, which is a shame. Because to me, it sounds better than any record released this year.