local no more: Phantogram at Northern Lights.
the Bear, Phantogram, Maps and Atlases
Lights, Feb. 5
“critic,” I’ve never much gotten off on panning a recording
or performance, instead regarding basic avoidance as the more
civil and effective way to express personal displeasure. After
all, music is a social medium, but its experience is a fundamentally
subjective one, so one listener’s impressions should never
be taken as definitive. What I’m talking around is a basic
question I found myself asking over and over again during
the well-attended, high-energy Minus the Bear set (after which
beaming kids spilled into the parking lot spouting things
like, “damn good concert, right!?”): How is it that a show,
which according to audience response is a resounding success,
can strike one listener as simultaneously sleepy and overwrought?
can probably be summed up with some statement regarding personal
taste, but, thing is, I really wanted to like Minus the Bear.
There’s absolutely nothing offensive about their records,
which slyly blend skittering indie pop and quirky math rock,
but there’s also nothing especially inventive about
them. It was my hope that the stage would provide that much
needed extra spark, and, at the outset of the evening, it
seemed to have makings of the kind of indie-rock show this
area so badly craves.
time openers Maps and Atlases exited the stage, the bar had
already sold out of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Five years ago (or
so), this fact alone would have rendered the occasion a hipster
scene, but despite the preponderance of mangy beards, bangs,
and photos being snapped on iPhones, there was a loose glee
belying stigmas of guardedness and pretentiousness. The Chicago
band’s sound certainly helped set the tenor. With fleet, major-key
guitar figures, and sunny, lilting polyrhythms, it was evident
that Vampire Weekend hasn’t been the only band in recent memory
influenced by Malian guitarists and West African groove sense.
Never pandering, these guys are taking that approach to new
levels of sophistication.
many in the house had come to see Phantogram, the Saratoga
Springs duo who have forged a national presence in the past
year, and who this week released their debut LP Eyelid
Movies. From the first beat, it was clear that this is
a new and improved band. Drawing largely on new material,
the two pushed their ambient trip-hop into full-blown spacey
dance music. With the help of strobe lights and Sarah Barthel’s
increasingly commanding stage presence, the set was surprisingly
high- energy for a band that works primarily from keyboards
and electronics consoles. Over seismic sub-bass and heavy
J Dilla-style hip-hop beats, the two stacked atmospheric vocals
and effects-drenched guitar parts, the sound swelling toward
something much larger than the sum of its parts. If only they’d
been allowed an extra hour and a half.. . .
it was the fact that Minus the Bear guitarist Dave Knudson
compulsively mopped his sweaty hair into dramatic tufts after
every song, or that a squirrelly stagehand constantly darted
back and forth to protect pedal boards at the front of the
stage, or that singer Jake Snider admonished the crowd for
not dancing enough, or that, after all this, a couple kids
were actually inclined to attempt crowd surfing, but something
seemed disingenuous about the whole affair. The set was flawless—the
band delivered hits like “Throwing Shapes” and “Pachuca Sunrise,”
even flaunting some interesting math-rock stuff on songs like
“The Fix”—but the whole thing was squeaky clean, overacted,
a Red Bull sponsorship away from corporate cock-rock. I don’t
mean to harsh anyone’s mellow with this assessment, it’s just
that the band seemed unclear as to whether they wanted to
be, well, harsh or mellow.
Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Feb. 4
a quarter century ago, there were a couple of guys forming
bands: Both of them wrote songs, and both had melodic skill
that would set them apart from the 50 or 60 million other
post-punk-inspired bands of the ’80s. They each became, first,
cultish faves for the fanzine crowd; then, in the ’90s were
migrated into mags for more general audiences and toward the
front of the book, becoming cover boys. And, of course, they
each developed well-publicized drug problems.
quite broke out of the category of fan-and-critic’s darling/heartthrob;
while the other became an unlikely and resistant Voice of
a Generation type.
which one of them made it out of the ’90s alive.
yeah, duh—the one I saw play in Northampton, Mass., last Thursday.
But while watching Evan Dando perform at the Iron Horse I
couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic—and to recall that
other “slacker” icon of my youth. And I couldn’t help but
think that the mantle hung ’round Kurt Cobain’s neck, that
of spokesman, which he so publicly loathed, was an ill fit.
Dando was so much more the representative Gen-X type. Cobain’s
ethos was working-class, principled, and anarchic. Dando came
from a comparatively privileged background. Cobain seemed
to dare you to like him; Dando knew you would. Cobain wanted
to be one of the Melvins; Dando could have been one of the
some of my peers revered Cobain in a way that bordered on
the evangelical, most, I think, would have found it uncomfortable
to hang out with him. (And he, certainly, would have hated
all of us.) Dando, on the other hand, would have been right
at home: the prettiest one among us, surely, but at ease bogarting
the weed, rooting through the fridge for the last Sierra Nevada
and arguing till the girlfriends fell asleep whether the Byrds
really deserved Parsons.
show brought that all back. Dando opened on solo electric
guitar, with a trio of songs from his early Lemonheads days:
the magnificently infectious slack-anthem “My Drug Buddy”
first up. And songs from the ’92-’93 one-two punch of It’s
a Shame About Ray and Come on Feel the Lemonheads
constituted the bulk of the night’s Lemonheads material: “Bit
Part,” “Confetti,” “Hannah & Gabi,” “Big Gay Heart,” “Favorite
T,” “Style.” “Clang Bang Clang” from way back in ’87 turned
up, and “Circle of One” from ’89’s Lick.
like a Greatest Hits show, and the aforementioned tracks did
light the fanboy pleasure centers. Later joined by second
guitarist Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine), though, Dando also
performed a handful of co-written tracks and covers that really
revealed his eclectic, erractic approach to music-making and
performing: tunes from frequent Dando collaborators Tom Morgan
(“No Backbone”) and Ben Lee (“All My Life”); tracks co- written
with wunderkind Jon Brion (“It Looks Like You”), as well as
far-flung covers, from Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” Victoria
Williams’ “Fryin’ Pan,” to Fred Neil’s “Ba Di Da.” Dando covered
the guy next to him with “My Idea,” written by Brokaw and
Morgan; and guys who are god-knows-where with “New Mexico”
by the FuckEmos.
wasn’t paticularly intense, rather loose and easy. The singer
didn’t seem particularly driven, rather comfortable and familiar.
You could call the vibe “slack.” There wasn’t reason to think
much of passion or principles—just to enjoy the show, order
another beer, and wonder if the 42-year-old Dando would cover
the many friends I told I was seeing Brandi Carlile, exactly
one knew anything about her. Until recently, I’d only seen
her name here and there, and for some reason assumed she was
one of these Disney cookie-cutter “pop stars” that fall out
of the television every week or so. Then I caught her on a
rerun of a 2008 Jools Holland show. She started quietly playing
her signature song “The Story.” First, I thought, “Wow, good
song.” Then, “Geez, great voice.” Then, three bars into the
second verse, her band just lands with a grunge hammer, and
Carlile jumps an octave and starts wailing over the top. I
was totally in the tank.
last week was a tour de force, starting with Carlile and her
four band members singing the Beatlesque lullaby “Oh Dear”
around one microphone center stage, and continuing for 90
minutes of brilliantly crafted and stylistically diverse songs,
wrapped around Carlile’s huge and rangy and majestic voice
and her absolutely deadly band. Most of the material came
from her two most recent albums, 2007’s The Story (produced
by T Bone Burnett) and last year’s Give Up the Ghost
(produced by Rick Rubin).
a tiny little thing—I can’t imagine she weighs more than 100
pounds—but she effortlessly commands attention, even while
she’s bookended by long-time collaborators, the tall and lanky
identical twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who play guitar and
bass and who themselves have a matching repertoire of rock-star
moves. Yeah, the band is something to see, too.
was as goofy and talent show-y as the main body of the show
was tight and galvanizing, hysterically hitting on Johnny
Cash’s “Jackson” and “Folsom County Blues,” and Tammy Wynette’s
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand By Your Man.” The twins came out
and sang “Sounds of Silence” with their identical voices,
prompting Carlile to quip “Have you ever heard anything so
wonderful and weird and creepy in your whole life?” Then the
band blazed through the elegant “Pride and Joy” and then it
a testament to the fracturing of any kind of shared musical
experience and the fall of radio as a mass taste-maker that
someone so hugely talented and so immensely satisfying could
evade the purview of me and virtually everybody I know for
so long. This was a show that will haunt me for a long time.