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Ten out of Ten

Metroland writers reflect on the music that moved them in the first decade of the new millennium


Photo: Joe Putrock

Spreading The News

At the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed like all eyes were on New York City. For obvious reasons, of course, but also for the rock bands that brought yet another musical Renaissance to the Lower East Side. Bands like the Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would set the tone for what came next—remember, the Strokes were among the first responders in the great garage-rock fire sale of the early oughts. (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, meanwhile, gave us two of the most memorable recordings of the last 10 years: the minimalist art-punk of Fever to Tell, and this year’s post-disco masterpiece It’s Blitz!)

The Capital Region’s music scene started the decade on a different foot. The early 2000s saw the alternative-rock backwash dissipating, with the emergence of a small but active alt-country scene—though the Kamikaze Hearts were about as similar to knotworking as the Strokes were to Interpol (that is, not so much). The Hearts and the Strokes might be more alike than you might think. Both staked their reputations on the sheer confidence of their live performance; both created music that was seemingly effortless but painstakingly crafted and rehearsed. The Hearts work would culminate with 2006’s Oneida Road, one of the best releases to ever come out of the area, an album that defies the word “local.”

My favorite New York band of that long middle part of the decade was a ’90s alt-rock survivor nearly written off in the post-millennial scrum. Brooklyn trio Nada Surf crested, both creatively and commercially, in the mid-’00s with a string of excellent, heartfelt guitar-pop records (Let Go, The Weight Is a Gift, Lucky) and a new lease on life thanks to Seattle indie Barsuk.

Post-’90s power trios reigned supreme here at home, too. The Figgs continued to prove, show after show, album after album, and sweat after sweat why they’re among our greatest exports. The Day Jobs were among the most underappreciated local acts of the decade, matching sterling pop smarts with powerful live chops—the definition of power pop. The Wasted followed in the footsteps of Beef, bringing Stephen Gaylord’s unsavory but too-familiar characters to life on 2004’s indispensable We Are Already in Hell. Super 400 continued to prove why electric guitar, bass, and drums are meant to be together.

Now, the Big Apple music scene is again the subject of national attention, though the focus has moved across the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn, thanks to the Lower East Side being invaded by a series of expensive hi-rises. A crop of art-damaged post-collegiate types have taken the fore: bands like Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, MGMT and the Antlers have made their mark by emphasizing studio craft over raw power. But like so many scenes before, it’s impossible to tie this “scene” to one sound—New York boasts the go-fight-win bedroom-crafted synth-pop of Matt and Kim, but also the wall-of-noise shoegaze of A Place to Bury Strangers. (Which brings us strangely full-circle, back to the 1990s.)

Indeed this was the decade where our local scene—and local scenes everywhere—became part of the national conversation, thanks in no small part to improvements in technology. Though an act as good as beat-heavy duo Phantogram—recently signed to Barsuk, coincidentally—would likely have made their mark regardless of MySpace, it sure didn’t hurt their chances. The Capital Region’s music scene is as diverse and exciting now as it has ever been; just within the B3nson Recording Company’s ever-expanding collective, there are 31-plus flavors of sonic goodness. Most encouraging as we go forward into another new January.

A few quick personal notes: It would be impossible for me to pinpoint a favorite local-music moment from the last 10 years. But I can narrow it down to a few dozen amazing nights in the clubs, celebrating the music of my friends, with my friends. There was the Why Can’t I Be You series, where area songwriters tried on each others’ tunes; those Songs From the Fishbowl shows early in the decade that spawned many an unlikely collaboration; and five-plus years of co-hosting the Lark Tavern open mic, out of which I got to know and jam with people who I now consider my best friends.

On the national stage, the decade was bookended, for me, by a pair of monster singer-songwriters who brought their A-games to downtown Albany: the late Elliott Smith’s cloud-parting summer 2000 performance at the Empire State Plaza, and several hundred feet from there, at the Egg, Ray Davies’ outstanding gig of just a few weeks ago.

—John Brodeur

Moving On Up

Before returning here to my native region in 2001, I lived in Manhattan, mere blocks from concert venues such as the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom. I was also fortunate enough to have a job as a music news editor for a major radio network—a place where one could occasionally see luminaries like Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson strolling the hallways. So when I made the decision to leave my job and move back upstate to raise a growing family, I was pretty sure that there was no longer going to be much great live music in my life—or much music journalism, for that matter. Of course, I was wrong.

This decade has been the richest of all of my music-appreciating and writing years, thanks to a slew of wonderful local acts and a host of venues that have brought topnotch performers to town. 2001 was a great time to begin writing about Capital Region music. In the greater alternative sphere, acts like the Kamikaze Hearts, knotworking, the Coal Palace Kings, and the Suggestions were gathering steam. Later I’d be fortunate enough to catch the concert might of the Sixfifteens and enjoy the creative toilings of DYI auteur Brent Gorton. And of course there were the mainstays: the Figgs returning home for holiday concerts, the unsinkable Erotics, and damned if Blotto didn’t play every so often, linking the QE2 halcyon days to this new-millennial renaissance of local music.

Prodigal son Eddie Angel, of internationally renowned Los Straitjackets, has also returned to town frequently enough to maintain his Albany membership card. For me, his greatest shows were the ones that found him and Johnny Rabb packed into a corner of the Ale House in Troy, radiating rock & roll heat. Rabb and Angel are the godfathers of local rock & roll, and in their universe reside such sterling acts as the Lustre Kings and Rocky Velvet. I’ve lost track of how many incredible rock & roll shows I’ve seen that reconfigured this musical family: Graham Tichy and his dad, John; Mark Gamsjager, Ian Carlton, Angel, Rabb, and others.

In addition, enough national acts have come through the area to make me forget all about New York City. Some of the more memorable shows had to be the Pernice Brothers and the Long Winters at Valentines, Steve Earle at the Egg, and Bruce Springsteen solo at the large arena on Pearl Street with the ever-shifting name. There were other shows that are vividly lodged in memory: Wilco at Union College, a solo Jeff Tweedy at the Egg, and, yes, Bryan Adams putting on a dang fine show at the Palace. And was that really the iconic Alex Chilton with the Box Tops on the Proctor’s stage, or former Replacement Tommy Stinson jamming with the Figgs at Valentines? (Yes.) I’ve got Howard Glassman to thank for booking a lot of my favorite shows. Case in point: The legendary Blasters at Valentine’s.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a host of other concert experiences and local acts that I’ve been moved by during this decade. The truth of the matter is that I’ve seen so many shows and written about so many musicians during my time at this publication that it’s hard to keep track. But even now, with my attention diverted by writing books—and having evolved into someone who, frankly, doesn’t get out much anymore—I still wonder what’s around the corner, a curiosity that is constantly rewarded, for inevitably there’s someone like chamber pop brilliante Eric Margan and the Red Lions sliding into view.

When I was a teenager growing up here in the 1980s, it felt like our region was the center of the universe: Blotto on MTV, William Kennedy writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, that same William Kennedy novel becoming a movie that was filmed in our streets, Mike Tyson knocking people silly in the RPI Fieldhouse. When I returned, it was not with the same feeling. But this decade of music has reignited some of that old awe and excitement. Here’s to the next 10.

—Erik Hage

New York Stories

The discs that topped most critics’ polls in 2000—and again in the best-of-the-decade runnings—were Stankonia or Kid A. Fine. It’s not taking anything away from OutKast’s irresistible hip-hop smorgasbord—hell, “Ms. Jackson” is jumping ’round my brain right now—or Radiohead’s avant-rock experiments, but the album from that year that I go back to again and again, the album that proved to be the best musical defense against the whole miserable decade, is PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.

Harvey was quoted as saying she wanted to make something “beautiful.” And she did. But Stories is more than that. After the fascinating but somewhat distancing art-rock detours she made in the 1990s, Stories was (and still is) hard-wired to the central nervous system of both the artist and the listener.

And God knows that counted for something in this miserable decade. The 1980s had the end of the Cold War. When the ’90s were over, the Internet was going to save the world as a new Millennium began with a rush of optimism: I knew people who went to Australia, for Christ’s sake, to be among the first to usher in the decade. And what did we get? A brutal attack on New York and Washington, D.C.; lying, warmonger governments on both sides of the Atlantic; looming environmental catastrophe; and high-level financial thievery and economic collapse.

Horrible things most of us had no control over.

Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is about the things we can control, and how to deal with the things we can’t. It starts with a frantic (and prophetic) burst of rock & roll: “Look out ahead/I see danger come/I want a pistol/I want a gun.” The song, “Big Exit,” is about love in a time of disaster. “I walk on concrete/I walk on sand/But I can’t find/A safe place to stand.”

Harvey never lets up. “Good Fortune” is infectious and driving, a perfect pop song for an era that doesn’t really value perfect pop songs. “One Line” and “Beautiful Feeling” radiate multileveled romantic wistfulness. “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” is caustic lyrically and fearsome musically. “The Mess We’re In,” a jangly sonic mope, features Harvey dueting with a ghostlike Thom Yorke; this is followed by the tuneful ballad “You Said Something,” the explosive (sorry) “Kamikaze” and the anthemic “This Is Love,” an ode to desperate sex with the memorable lines, “You’re my dirty little secret/Wanna keep you so.”

It all ends—after a brisk 47 minutes—with “We Float,” which suggests that lovers can rise above, even in the midst of misery and doom.

I hope we’re as lucky.

—Shawn Stone

Still Alive

The digital transformation of the past decade may have altered how recorded music is consumed, but the virtues of great live performance remained thankfully the same: heart, sweat and soul poured out on stage, whether in front of hundreds of people or to nearly nobody. Every once in a while, something so unpredictable or so sublime happened onstage that the memory of a performance stuck around for awhile. Looking back on a decade of live shows in the Capital Region and vicinity, there were plenty of those moments. Most local music fans surely have their own list. For me, the following memories survived the decade.

The surreal: a crowd of senior citizens—seated on rows of metal folding chairs thoughtfully provided for them by now-defunct-venue Saratoga Winners—eagerly awaiting a performance by Hank III, who looks and sounds eerily like his famous country singing grandfather Hank Williams, but has a lot more tattoos, a penchant for hardcore punk and a furious potty mouth.

The excessively loud: Motorhead and the Melvins melting faces at Northern Lights on separate occasions.

The nutty: Nashville psychobilly band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, opening up for Reverend Horton Heat, their hyper-spastic singer climbing onto the Saratoga Winners rafters and finding a pair of nunchucks to wave around, nearly provoking a riot.

The rebellious: Kim Deal chain-smoking cigarettes at the Egg, during a rare acoustic Pixies show following their reunion, flagrantly disregarding the state smoking ban of 2003 that left rockers unable to puff away onstage.

The awkward: former Hüsker Dü songwriter Grant Hart, arriving extremely late for a show at Valentine’s, berating the sound guy so viciously over his monitor volume it became downright abusive. (To be fair, a couple other Grant Hart shows at Valentine’s during the decade were stellar and far more positive.)

The tragic: a disoriented and halfhearted performance by Ol’ Dirty Bastard at Pearl Street in Northampton, Mass., mere months before the rapper’s overdose death.

The show stopping: Frank Black’s bass player, during an X-Games gig at Mt. Snow in Vermont that was opened by Saratoga Springs band Dryer (who broke up in the 2000s but plan to reunite in 2010), hurling himself from the stage onto a drunken fan who threw ice in his face, leading to a floor-rolling fight that shut down the show.

The apropos: Guided by Voices, a touchstone of ’90s indie rock, growing increasingly inebriated on a beer-bottle strewn stage at Northampton’s Pearl Street the day before announcing their breakup.

The tradition-making: A decade’s worth of Figgs Christmas shows, bringing holiday cheer via Kinks covers and Lo-Fi at Society High revisitations.

The incendiary: Steve Wynn’s blistering guitar while reconstructing the Dream Syndicate’s seminal Days of Wine and Roses album at Valentine’s, kicking off the decade-long trend of bands replaying famous albums in toto.

The redemptive: a gaunt Mike Watt summoning his own resurrection at Valentine’s by performing a rock opera about the illness that almost killed him, and the Buzzcocks at Valentine’s ably living up to their legends-of-punk status.

And the one I most regret missing: Elliott Smith’s free show at the Empire Plaza before his death.

—Kirsten Ferguson

The Quiet Revolution

While innovation was all the rage this decade, dudes with acoustic guitars continued to make waves. Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson entertained the masses, but some of the most affecting music of the decade was unleashed under the radar by the likes of Sam Beam (aka Iron and Wine), Gillian Welch, M. Ward and the eccentric indie troubadour Will Oldham. Beam’s 2002 release The Creek Drank the Cradle brought the idea of lo-fi to a new level of intimacy—I first picked up the album because of its rumored resemblance to Nick Drake, and Simon and Garfunkel. While there was some resemblance to Drake and early Paul Simon in the hushed and breathy vocal delivery, what really took hold were the deft, interlocking guitar and banjo lines, and the uncannily complex beds of harmony that Beam laid down like so many entwined grapevines, all etched in sepia-hued tones on his vintage 4-track. The lyrics were replete with Southern Gothic images of willow trees, the devil, moaning roosters, and broken rosaries. While I’m not much more than a casual admirer of most of his subsequent work, Sam Beam’s debut will always represent a place of respite in the tumultuous early years of the decade for me.

Will Oldham, a prime influence on Iron and Wine, and his Drag City labelmate David Berman are my favorite poets of the decade. With Oldham, what started as a stark contemplation of the bleakest corners of existence (“I See a Darkness”) gradually warmed into tender and clear-eyed explorations of what it means to love and care for another human on releases like the almost unnervingly intimate Master and Everyone (2003). Berman similarly stared down the darkness, almost succumbed to it, but came back to share what he learned on 2005’s Tanglewood Numbers, and its less profound but more amiable successor Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea in 2008. These albums have provided the living soundtrack to many of the most joyous times of my life—graduating from mere entertainment to valued storehouses of memory, accompanying weddings and honeymoons on foreign beaches. (Listen to “Party Barge” just one time while at a beach in the summer—the experience will stay with you the rest of your life.)

This is not to say that it was only the quiet albums that I valued during this decade – also lodged in my imaginary Top 10 are such bangers as Comets on Fire’s Blue Cathedral and Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album. But in a tumultuous span of years like the ones we’re finally leaving behind, it’s the records of respite and wisdom that seem to shine the brightest at decade’s end.

—Mike Hotter



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