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Thursday, Mar 5, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

It was one of those nights when the headliner legitimately got outplayed and outperformed. Which isn’t to say that Blitzen Trapper put on a bad show. It was a solid performance with their sound and set well balanced, along with all the other trimmings that one comes to expect from a band coming off their most successful year and most lauded album to date, Furr (8.5/10 on Pitchfork; #13 album of 2008 on Rolling Stone; #4 single of 2008 on Rolling Stone, if you’re keeping tally).


But the Montreal trio, Plants and Animals, was in it to win it. They played one of the most broadly satisfying sets I’ve heard from anyone in months. Its scope was large enough for each song to feel new and captivating, but consistent enough with their natural idiosyncrasies to know that it flowed from the same spring.  So post punk numbers ended up sounding like jam-band musings and vice-versa. 


Though no battle of the bands, they played with a feverish reckless abandon yet compelling earnestness and epic, carefully constructed, songs became filled with intuitive improvisations.  Drummer Matthew Woodley was prolific and at once contemporary and old school with his traditional grip. On “Faerie Dance”, his hard beat evoked the laissez-faire groove of Sublime, as did the harmonic “la-la-la’s” in the fading chorus. Singer Warren Spicer was an amalgamation of Kurt Cobain’s dissonant melodies and blonde hair and Freddy Mercury’s flamboyant exuberance and epic vocals. The latter was particularly true because I was convinced that their song “Bye Bye Bye” was a Queen cover. It was not. But its contrapuntal chorus (“Bye bye bye”) and main lyrics (“What’s gonna happen to you”) over piano power chords was a total characterization.


With each member perspiring out of sheer intensity, they still had their heads on right and seemed genuinely unpretentious. At one point Spicer even asked, “You guys are feeling this, right?” 


His question put the pressure of pleasing ephemeral tastes in perspective immediately, and the source of their uncertainty became obvious: Everyone was talking, seemingly not paying attention. But after their finale, “Bye Bye Bye”, the crowds’ roaring delight assured Plants and Animals that they, in fact, were heard and well liked.


All this made Blitzen Trapper’s task, for me, nearly impossible. The scattered sextet simply could not match the drive and flowing harmonies of Plants and Animals. Despite having twice as many band members on stage, their sound seemed empty and flat, with singer Eric Earley dominating the workload. He even took over completely for a two-song solipsism, playing “his grandma’s favorite song,” “Cocaine Blues”. Cute. 


Furr’s best songs, “Black River Killer” and the title-track, were also the best received. But they were also played more or less verbatim on the album. The set was reserved and controlled in exactly the ways that Plants and Animals’ wasn’t. Instead of an exhilarating live experience, it was a reprise of their album. That album was pretty great, but when an Allman Brother’s-esque band comes up short live, it’s always a let down.


 


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Thursday, Mar 5, 2009
Words and Pictures by Kevin Pearson

During “by:Larm”, Scandinavia’s premier music festival, there’s probably more music per capita going on anywhere in the world. Sure, CMJ and SXSW boast myriad venues within blocks of each other, but where else can you watch shows in a tent, on the 11th floor of an office building, in an auditorium (that suggests you should be attending a college lecture), or in a tightly packed and sweaty bar all in the space of one city block? Oslo, the capital city of Norway and the host of by:Larm (pronounced “bee larm” by the locals) boasts all of these venues around Youngstorget, as well as dozens of other venues that are within walking distance. This is all well and good, especially when there’s a few feet of snow on the ground and sporadic blizzards throughout the three-day festival, which ran from February 19th through 21st. Music, it seems, is as popular here as skiing (seriously, the amount of people walking around with skis slung over their shoulders was more than I expected). With so many bands on show, as well as countries providing them (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all sent groups and solo acts), it’s understandable that the music on display was hit and miss. The one consistent factor, though, was the friendly nature of the locals, who not only hit me up with tips on where to eat and drink, but also which bands to check out. Best of all were Swedish sisters First Aid Kit, whose folksy take on country music produced breathtaking harmonies that belied their young age. Rockettothesky’s amped-up take on the Cocteau Twins and all things shoegazey certainly impressed, as did Fjorden Baby! and their mish mash of styles, which propositioned them as a more rock influenced Happy Mondays. And what would a trip to a Scandinavian music festival be without some metal? Monolithic were technically awesome, but Merlin, despite bringing a Theremin out on stage lacked the wizardry their name implies.


A feature is forthcoming, but here are some photos to tide you over…


Thursday Night's Line Outside the Dagbladet Tent

Thursday Night’s Line Outside the Dagbladet Tent


Norma Sass

Norma Sass


Einar Stray

Einar Stray


Freddy & The Casuals

Freddy & The Casuals


Fjorden Baby!

Fjorden Baby!


Captain Credible

Captain Credible


Tor Konstalij

Tor Konstalij


Rockettothesky

Rockettothesky


The Captain & Me

The Captain & Me


Nils Bech

Nils Bech


Men Among Animals

Men Among Animals


The Shitsez

The Shitsez


First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit


 


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Wednesday, Mar 4, 2009
Words by Christian John Wikane and Pictures by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

The Pointer Sisters gave New Yorkers a Valentine’s Day treat with a powerhouse performance at The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. All of the hits of the group’s four-decade career were revisited in the 80-minute set. Ruth Pointer’s gospel-inflected pipes opened the show offstage with “Happiness”. With sister Anita and daughter Issa in tow, Ruth sauntered out onto the stage as the band transitioned to the strutting funk of the song’s second half. Ruth’s voice has only gotten more nuanced and rich over the years, as her take on Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” amply illustrated.


Anita Pointer, who co-authored many Pointer Sisters classics, brought a little country into the mix with “Fairytale”, a song that earned the group their first Grammy Award in 1975 for – get ready – Best Country Performance by a Duo of Group. “Slow Hand”, a number-two pop hit from 1981, was also given a slight country makeover with an arresting lead by Anita. A highlight of the show was Anita’s rap introducing a medley of “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” and “Yes We Can Can”. The segment was prefaced by some exotic vocalese reminiscent of “Chainey Do” from The Pointer Sisters’ Steppin’ (1975) album.


Issa Pointer took center stage for “Dare Me”, a song that June Pointer originally fronted. (Issa replaced June when she passed away in 2006.) Issa made the song her own, injecting sass and spunk into every note. Her aunt would be proud.


The Pointer Sisters closed with a four-song explosion of hits: “Fire”, “I’m So Excited”, “Neutron Dance”, and “Jump (For My Love)”. Their ability to shake, stir, and summon an audience to their feet is nearly unparalleled by performers half Anita and Ruth Pointer’s age. After more than 35 years of entertaining audience, The Pointer Sisters prove how flavors-of-the-moment come and go but legends remain.


(Note: to celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Pointer Sisters’ debut album, PopMatters sat down with Ruth Pointer at her home in Massachusetts to discuss the group’s legacy. Look for the complete interview soon!)


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Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

That Toad the Wet Sprocket ended their show singing, “Just memories to hold / That grow sweeter each season / As we slowly grow old” was fitting given the circumstances. They’re playing yet another reunion tour and the nostalgia of early ‘90s alternative pop stardom lingered closely, both for them and their fans. Front man Glen Phillips is the only member with a compelling or successful solo career. But it also wasn’t the catalyst for their seminal break up so hitting the road with Toad—as they’re affectionately referred to—was for pleasure, not business.


Webster Hall—which underwent a “renovation” recently, meaning converting its ambiguously ancient Egypt/Aztec theme into an ambiguously ancient Rome/Medieval theme—was relatively packed with only 35 year-olds. One could still feel the pumping bass of remixes playing in the basement bar. But as this was a trip down memory lane, including trying to reenact past make-out sessions and substance abuses, nothing could deter them. 


It also made me consider a notion I once heard that musical tastes are cemented by age 25. Looking around me it seemed perfectly true.


Finally taking the stage, the band made a few quips about it being great to see everyone “again” and launched into “P.S.”, a song with steady strumming with a beat to match. Supposedly one of the band’s first compositions ever (1986?), it was an appropriate nod to their history together and the first of many during their set.


Classics like “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Whatever I Fear” wallowed in the flannel-cloaked angst of their ‘90s heyday, but the mood was memorializing. Guitarist Todd Nichols’ guitar echoed a brilliant reverb through his Vox, and in tandem with Phillips’ acoustic guitar reproduced their prototypical guitar-drenched sound.


Before “Butterflies” Phillips asked, “who knows the hidden spoken words on Butterflies?” A worthy winner was chosen, Karen, who then got to go perform the song onstage with the band. Though undoubtedly excited, she played it super cool.


“Good Intentions” received some of the loudest cheers during the night, to the point that the show could have been mistaken for a “Friends” cast party.


Phillips complimented how beautifully the crowd aged, then proceeded to mock the very same thing, offering up their mandolin and lap steel player Johnny Hawthorn for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs—and dates added bass player Dean Dinning. The band’s self-deprecating handling of its reunion played well with the equally aging crowd, leaving a night of reminiscing and old-fashioned alternative rock.


 


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
Words and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

The Watson Twins and Ben Kweller. Both equal parts Nashville and hipster. Both singers and songwriters of heavy harmonies and simplified melodies. But only Kweller, however, came away from Town Hall with a commanding and energetic performance, aided towards the end by a dancing infant.


Starting off with poor sound didn’t help the Watson Twins. What sounded muddled with overwhelming bass drones in the balcony sounded more balanced in the orchestra. But the twins’ vocals got lost in the shuddering bass.


During “Only You”, keyboard played the high-pitched guitar strums that appear during each chorus. But it failed to emulate the electric guitar’s other quavering and haunting holds. Instead a nylon-string guitar was innocuously thrummed. This same guitar didn’t suffice for their popular “How Am I to Be”—during which they suggested shoulder dipping as a substitute for actually dancing; be careful what you wish for.


All this begs the question: Where was the strikingly bright guitar that provides such a pivotal counterweight to the twins’ soaring harmonies?


They floated through the Bill Withers standard “Ain’t No Sunshine”, but as people they’re too sanguine to seem heartbroken or lonely. (Maybe because they always have each other around?) In general their vocals were soft and beautiful, but too light. They exuded no energy in their 45 minutes, leaving behind a pretty banal set.


In contrast, Ben Kweller showed up to play his heart out. He prompted the light tech to turn up the houselights so he could size up his excitable crowd and then pursued a relentless setlist covering all the bases. Charging through old favorites like “Walk On Me” and “Falling” Kweller was urbane and sincere, his voice easily seizing the hall’s wide space.


Buttery smooth, his band (drums, bass, pedal-steel guitar) infused Kweller’s country roots into his indie lyricism and punk ethos to form a powerful and cohesive musical synthesis. Whenever Kweller added throwback vocables to a verse it pointed to a past era of pop.


While Kweller sampled material from his latest fare, Changing Horses, its lead track (“Gypsy Rose”) was surprisingly the best song of the night simply because of its delicate balance and Kweller’s sonorous tenor praising love as the saving grace.


His new song “Fight” was a stellar showcase of his band’s three-part chops and unleashed an unshakable melody during the encore.


I found the ending a little awkward, though, as everyone in the crowd decided to get up and dance for the last three minutes of the show. I couldn’t stop thinking, why didn’t they just get up and dance the entire show? Was the setting too intimidating? Too reserved? But what really stole the show was Kweller’s toddler son, Dorian, upstage, rocking out to his daddy’s big finale at the end.


 


 


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