Tim Mcllrath of Rise Against.
Older, More Experienced
Against, Alkaline Trio, Thrice
Avenue Armory, Oct. 9
At 26, I am closer than I ever thought I would be to becoming
old. Not that I talk about plot points and loudly clear my
throat during films at the Spectrum, and not that I tuck in
my shirt and hike up my pants far above my belly button. No,
I feel I’m getting old in a much more frightening manner.
Last Thursday night at the Washington Avenue Armory I encountered
bands I did not understand, bands whose allure completely
went over my head. The sad thing is, I was trying to get it.
I was trying with all my will. I’ve never had to try before—even
with things I didn’t love, I could at least understand their
underlying appeal (except for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones).
But when penultimate act Alkaline Trio took the stage, I became
despondent and numb, and not because of their overwhelming
gothness. Alkaline Trio’s staggeringly average pop-punk songs
were painted with gothic flair by two annoyingly dull lead
singers. Songs blended into each other while the two produced
different takes on the clichéd oh-oh-oh-oh goth-punk vocal
The pre-set music featured Joy Division and some old-school
punk selections, giving an old-school goth like myself hope
of finding some connection with the band’s music. But their
own music had none of the emotion, despondency, or rage contained
in the music that seems to have influenced them. It was like
listening to a set of tunes penned by the Hot Topic house
band. (Sample song title: “Calling All Skeletons.”) The most
popular band on the bill, judging from fan response, Alkaline
Trio have a devoted cult following. But then again, so do
Insane Clown Posse.
Thankfully, headliners Rise Against delivered a gimmick and
a message that I could understand perfectly: Rise Against
are the pop-punk generation’s answer to Rage Against the Machine.
After a quick romp through crowd favorite “Bring It All,”
lead singer Tim Mcllrath told the crowd that the country has
been going in the wrong direction, and reminded them that
“we are the next generation” and have the opportunity to change
things. Seconds later, Mcllrath had the crowd thrusting their
fists into the air chanting “rise, rise, rise,” as if the
energy and vitality in the room could change things right
then and there.
Mcllrath mentioned between songs that, while at a local coffee
shop earlier in the day, he overheard a local couple discussing
the “angry young kids” hanging out in front of the armory.
But he told the audience at the armory that he didn’t think
they were angry, but instead there to have fun. And that’s
what I was missing all night long: Bands in my day didn’t
have much of that fun thing.
Later, a tall, shirtless, sweaty, longhaired teen made his
way onto the stage and grasped Mcllrath. Mcllrath looked at
him curiously and asked if he knew the lyrics to the next
song so he could sing along. The smiling teen indicated he
did not. In my day any self-respecting lead singer would have
punched the kid in the face for such an insult, or at least
pushed him back into the crowd.
Instead, Mcllrath encouraged the kid to stage-dive when the
It’s not clear anyone got the band’s message—it was too hard
to make it out over the poppy sweet choruses and surprisingly
well-harmonized shouting. Damn, they were catchy . . . and
everyone had fun except for old, bitter me.
The Black Crowes, Howlin Rain
Theatre, Oct. 11
When they first broke onto the nat ional rock-music scene
18 years ago, the Robinson brothers and friends were a welcome
(if vaguely familiar) change from the tarted-up hair-metal
bands and teenybopper acts clogging the airwaves of mainstream
radio and MTV. Sure, their Faces-meets-early-Stones aesthetic
brought them scorn from some quarters as rip-off artists,
but what was commendable about the Black Crowes was their
rocking, back-to-basics formula (along with their inadvertent
boost to the legacy of Otis Redding byway of their still-ubiquitous
cover of “Hard to Handle”). After many years in the wilderness
trying and failing to find another melody as seductive as
their best song, “Remedy” (years also marked by a tabloid-fodder
marriage for singer Chris Robinson, and a lengthy dormant
span earlier this decade), the Crowes seemed to have something
to prove with the release of Warpaint earlier this
year—namely, that they were now elder statesman of,
and in some ways forerunners to, the roots-conscious (and
frequently stoner-friendly) type of music that has enjoyed
a period of vogue for much of this decade.
Last Saturday evening’s return to the Palace found the band
in confident if far-from-risk-taking form, kicking things
off with the new tune “Evergreen,” Chris Robinson bouncing
a bit to the beat to intone something akin to “Let me kiss
your rose petals.” Rolling on through the Zep-funk of “Gone”
(from 1994’s Amorica) and the heavy-blues drag of “Walk
Believer Walk,” Chris Robinson generously shared spotlight
time with Luther Dickinson and his supple lead-guitar tones.
A virtuoso rock guitarist on hiatus from his own brother band,
the North Mississippi Allstars, Dickinson was given lots of
room to roam. While possessing a faultless technique and a
soaring sort of solo style, one did miss the rough-around-the-edges
spark of previous guitarist Marc Ford—without it, the Crowes
tended to meander, becoming, in effect, tamer and more than
a tad boring.
There was a curious midsection where the Crowes decided to
give a bit of a musical history lesson: After a well-oiled
homage to Delta blues giant Robert Johnson, guitarist Rich
Robinson did a fair approximation of Richard Manuel for a
version of the Band’s “Rockin’ Chair.” Dylan and Gram Parsons
songs followed soon after, and while the remembrances were
well-played, the Crowes have embraced whole-hog the nostalgia
tag they’ve often bristled against. What I was most impressed
with this evening was the light show, but if it’s just all
about conjuring up some of that Almost Famous vibe
while the world changes in massive ways outside the concert-hall
doors, well, I think we’ve all got more valuable ways we should
be spending our time right now.
I had high hopes for California openers Howlin Rain, and while
I found the energy and breathless bravado of lead howler and
guitar shredder Ethan Miller fascinating (I consider his previous
band, Comets on Fire, to be one of the decade’s best heavy
rock bands), packing your songs full of words that one can’t
even decipher through the napalm and screech mars what could
be a very powerful rock & roll experience.
Andrew Bird, Sandro Perri
Egg, Oct. 9
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which moment during Andrew Bird’s
mind- boggling performance at the Egg on Thursday night was
the Chicago songwriter’s most charming. Maybe it was the moment
a few songs in when Bird kicked off his zippered Beatle boots
to better work a phalanx of effects pedals with his toes,
revealing a pair of orange-striped socks. Or when he introduced
each of his custom-built horn speakers—which towered behind
him like an army of giant mutant gramophones—by name. (“There’s
Spinney,” he said of one speaker that rotated while amplifying
one of Bird’s several violin channels.) When he left the stage
sock-footed after the encore of “Weather Systems,” carrying,
slung over his shoulder, his boots and his toy mascot—a strange
stuffed doll that looked like a cross between a sock monkey
and the Claymation character Wallace from Wallace &
Gromit—that was charming too.
On paper, it all sounds a bit too self- consciously quirky.
But in person, Bird’s sheer musical virtuosity was awe-inspiring,
while the occasional crazy quirk was more like an entertaining
sideshow. Bird’s solo recordings, as clever and melodious
as they are, don’t quite prepare a person for the whirlwind
that is his improvisational one-man-band. The art-pop performer
(and one-time swing-jazz purveyor during his tenure with the
Squirrel Nut Zippers) is also a classically trained violinist
and an uncommonly good whistler.
On “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” he juggled
violin (played with bow and also plucked with his fingers)
and electric guitar, spinning the guitar behind his back when
it got in the way, using his toes to record the various parts
live and then looping them back though the gramophone army
until they formed a wall of multilayered orchestral sound.
He even found time to jerk his head, tic-like, when the lyrics
may have noticed there’s a natural-history theme,” Bird explained
while showcasing songs from an upcoming album, Noble Beast.
“They were heavily influenced by the Planet Earth series.”
A riff about the Texas salamander episode led into a story
about chickens that were devoured by raccoons on his farm
in northern Illinois, the inspiration for a bittersweet new
song “Natural Disaster.” Only on “Action/Adventure,” an older
tune, did Bird let the teeming layers of sound get away from
him. “That started getting too improvisational,” he apologized
before starting over. “I got lost. Under normal circumstances
it might not be a big deal, but I’m feeling a little impaired.”
We didn’t notice.
In Toronto songwriter Sandro Perri, Bird found an opener who
looked and sounded a bit like him. So much so, actually, that
my friend and I were briefly confused as to whether Bird had
started performing early, since we had never seen him live
before. But the less descript Perri, who played quiet, somber
songs mostly on acoustic guitar, turned out to be just the
warmup for Bird’s musical tour de force. Lucky for all of
Doctor Is In
Dr. Dog, Delta Spirit
Hall, Oct. 8
The fact that Dr. Dog have out-grown their early Pitchfork
hype and graduated into a bona fide national-level rock outfit
should come as no surprise. It has become something of a critical
cop-out (albeit an accurate assessment) to talk about the
band’s debt to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but just as
the aforementioned popmasters built hooks to angle mass appeal,
so have Dr. Dog.
This is not to say the band are on course to commercial mediocrity.
Wednesday’s show spoke much to the contrary in both energy
and attendance. The manic performance to the half-full room
proved that the band’s early underground status virtually
precipitated a blowout breakout album (Fate, from which
most of the show’s material was drawn), and that Dr. Dog have
many fans yet to win.
The quintet took the stage in a black-lit cloud, produced
from a perfectly overactive smoke machine. Orange day-glo
tape clashed with wreaths of fake roses and strings of toy
elephants in the kind of aesthetic discontinuity that permeates
the band’s music. This is not a form of dissonance, mind you—the
vocal harmonies on the band’s opening tune “The Old Days”
underscored the fact that they strive to be muisically agreeable.
The song was both eager and upbeat, the kind of mini-anthem
that had guitarist Scott McMicken leaping back and forth across
the stage as much at the mercy of the song as the audience
was. In sunglasses and a fedora, McMicken is a baby-faced
Ferris Bueller who seems at first to be putting everyone on
but soon proves earnest and joyful enough to hijack a parade
with an impromptu rendition of “Twist and Shout.”
It is this approach to performance that has truly pushed Dr.
Dog to the level they’ve achieved. There was jumping, yowling,
flailing headstocks, and all the trappings of a punk show
without irreverence, transgression or nihilistic demolition.
This, paired with bassist Toby Leaman’s uninhibited vocal
leads, begged a comparison to ecclesiastical freak-folkers
Akron/Family in terms of sheer spectacle. It’s a sort of all-encompassing,
post-everything, trans-ironic approach that can pair shooby-do-wops
with Barry White-style spoken-word interludes, and come off
McMicken and Leaman shared center stage with equal ease, but
if an award were to be assigned for “most charismatic,” it
would have gone to Leaman with his mid-set doubleheader of
“100 Years” and “Worst Trip” from 2007’s We All Belong.
It’s songs like these that remind one of pop music’s greatest
strength: to pack pathos into an easily digested pill. Without
ever erupting into brazen instrumentalism, each song included
a tasteful, democratic buildup before resolving to the song’s
melody. “The Ark” paid less-than-subtle homage to the Beatles’
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” but was probably the only time
when the band’s influences came untucked. One could make the
same claim for the following tune, “My Old Ways,” which wouldn’t
have been possible without their having listened to Brian
Wilson, but the song’s so damn catchy that it can’t be taken
as a demerit.
San Diego quintet Delta Spirit opened the show with an equally
agreeable set of nostalgic pop. For them, Bob Dylan, John
Prine, and Bruce Springsteen were the forces to be reckoned
with. Reckon they did, with harmonicas, maracas, a trashcan
lid, and enough instrument-swapping to make Sgt. Dunbar and
the Hobo Banned proud.
Jack Rose, Michael Chapman
House, Oct. 8
Jack Wingate, Albany purveyor of underground music via Flipped
Out Records and his own flipped-out band, Burnt Hills, has
been known to host quite the doozy of a basement show from
time to time, usually on the psychedelic/noise side of the
fence. An altogether gentler but no less intense vibe suffused
the recent visit by hallowed British folkie Michael Chapman
and esteemed Philadelphia-based guitarist Jack Rose to the
surreal confines of the Wingate cavern. What occurred was
an evening of acoustic-guitar playing par excellence that
could not go unreported.
Seated near a grinning, electric pumpkin head, a cup of Maker’s
Mark near at hand, Rose played a mesmerizing set of instrumental
set pieces that melded Eastern and Western musical styles
with a thrilling and virtuosic ease. The 30-something Rose
dove headlong into what could only be described as a raga,
his perpetually moving picking hand creating the swirling
drone of a sitar as he picked out notes seldom heard on a
Western flat-top guitar. Halfway through this first tune,
the melodies wandered westward to Israel, perhaps a reference
that Yom Kippur had started a few hours earlier on in the
evening. Rose followed with a tour de force of fingerpicked
blues that seemed to take up where Mississippi John Hurt and
the ragtime guitar of Blind Blake left off. Rose finished
his set with improvisatory forays that seemed to try and reconcile
the disparate heritages of European and Middle Eastern classical
music—an inspiring and extremely difficult feat.
Michael Chapman, while far from a household name, comes from
the same school of guitar and songcraft as his better-known
peers Bert Jansch and Roy Harper. A wizened but robust raconteur
with a wreath of white hair framing a friendly, grandfatherly
face, Chapman was touring the United States for just the third
time last 30 years. Setting up his songs with backstories
that were simultaneously revealing, poignant and funny, Chapman
gave relaxed and masterful versions of the recent “After All
This Time” and the comparatively ancient “Little Molly’s Dream.”
Recalling a dinner party with the late folk giant John Fahey
and his wife while on a visit to his home in East L.A. (it
involved the host getting completely naked while still at
the dinner table), Chapman followed with a tribute of sorts,
“Fahey’s Flag”—“a pastiche, which is French for a piss-take.”
Like Rose, Chapman looked beyond the borders of the West with
a tempestuous instrumental influenced by Indonesian gamelan
music, before ending on a simply revelatory pass through “Winter
in Memphis,” a bracing account of a dark night’s travel through
the American South.
The intimate nature of a person alone with just their voice
and their instrument is often lost in more open spaces; the
basement setting served each of the performers on this memorable
night by focusing one’s attention on just what a wonder the
melding of mind, body and soul can be, especially with artists
of such dedication and integrity.