Not long ago I read an article by New York producer and DJ extraordinaire DJ/Rupture expounding on the nature of auto-tune. Essentially, he considered the phenomenon an exemplary synthesis between man and machine. While listening to the rising producer/songwriter Annabel Alpers at Brooklyn’s Union Hall Tuesday night—performing under her Bachelorette moniker—I was thinking the same thing. As an electronica nerd who’s best friend it seems is her laptop, Bachelorette calmly elicited longing, sorrow, and deep introspection in between melodies of shimmery synths and the occasional disco beat. Instead of an unrelenting dance cadence, her songs pulsated with feeling and sentiment. Her awkwardness and self-deprecating quips about her New Zealand origins only further emphasized her strangely sensitive electronic sound. The small crowd and space gave the performance a living-room vibe. While songs like “Doo Wop” and recent single “Mindwarp” were expressive and danceable, Bachelorette’s chipper unease left a cloud of tension in the room—despite her LED bedazzled dress. Listening to Alpers’ latest album, My Electric Family, at home just might suffice next time.
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At their best, Pink Mountaintops is reminiscent of a more feminine Jesus and Mary Chain with a distorted sense of psych rock in songs like “The Gayest of Sunbeams”, which sounded increasingly raw and energetic live in comparison to the album recording. There was a rougher rasp to Stephen McBean’s vocals tonight, with less added reverb, and backing vocals that complimented him each step of the way. The evening often returned to a distorted melancholic folk style, though, with “Closer to Heaven”, a song full of bittersweet romantic lyrics and a building instrumental part, intensifying as it progressed.
Vancouver’s Stephen McBean is no stranger to the Canadian psychedelic rock scene. He’s a pivotal member of the awe inspiring Black Mountain and, as a special treat, this tour finds him playing with vocalist/violinist Sophie Trudeau, who also plays with Montreal’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band. While McBean is certainly productive—he has put out three full-length albums with Pink Mountaintops and released two full lengths and 3 EPs with Black Mountain—it’s interesting to see how both bands have developed separately with only some similarities. This can be partially attributed to the involvement of different band members in both groups, though Pink Mountaintops’ members seem to differ more. One key element is Amber Webber, who doesn’t join McBean on stage as she does in Black Mountain, allowing her to pursue her own side project, the more feminine and abstract sounding Lightning Dust.
Though it contained moments of catchy rock, the set seemed full of the band’s more sentimental folk songs, with the violin heightening the sentiment in the title track “Outside Love”, for example. They ended the main set appropriately with “And I Thank You”, and during the encore McBean brought out perhaps their most engaging rocker of the night, “Single Life” from the out of print seven inch bearing the same name. “Tourist in Your Town”, an old crowd favorite from their first 2004 self-titled release, did not serve up the same high as “Single Life”, but provided a great ending nonetheless.
The Parks Foundation knew they wanted Josh Ritter for the SummerStage season, but booking him opening night created an incentive for panache, so organizers told us. Thus the New York Pops were called upon to accompany the plainly eloquent singer-songwriter for his park debut. Ritter—backed by Zack Hickman, bass, Sam Kassirer, piano, Austin Nevins, lead, and Liam Hurley, drums—pulled out some older tunes over the course of his one-and-a-half-hour set (“Other Side”, “Bone of Song”, “Kathleen”), though most were saved for the end. Mostly the set stuck to his Animal Years and Historical Conquests repertoire. The latter record was also full of orchestrations and arrangements, setting up hopeful recreations. Unfortunately from the opening notes of the Pops’ overture it was abundantly clear that they would be the one blight of the evening. Even by community orchestra standards they were plagued by intonation issues—and technical ones beyond their control. They were able to scrap together competent accompaniments for a few numbers, though (“Kathleen”, “Empty Hearts”).
Salvation came in Ritter himself. He was unabashedly excited about his Summerstage gig, repeatedly doling out thank yous. In other words, he was his usual sympathetic, earnest and boyish self, practically speechless from the enthusiastic crowd and setting. His voice sounded strong throughout, particularly on “Girl in the War” and “Temptation of Adam”, as it either ached for a wronged lover or spun tall tales. His gorgeous melodies resonated with both equanimity and passion, and occasionally picked up the tempo as well (“To the Dogs or Whoever”). Two special guests also appeared, usurping the Pops in substance and style. Violinist Hilary Hahn joined Ritter for a duet of “Thin Blue Flame”, imbuing Ritter’s sound with warmth and feeling. And for his encore Ritter invited Glen Hansard to sing a duet on “Come and Find Me”. Hansard ended up running back onstage for the finale, “Empty Hearts”. It was a satisfying end to a dreary week of rain and an ideal start to the SummerStage season.
As Bonnaroo came to a close, it’s obvious this is an operation that sets the bar for the entire modern festival circuit. With supreme organization, arguably the most diverse festival line-up in America, and an atmosphere conducive to all walks of life, Bonnaroo births its own little civilization for a short period of time each June. While my body is moving like Jell-O and my legs have reached a level of pain I had once deemed unthinkable, there is a certain energy that carries you through the weekend. Another big advancement for the festival was the decreasing dependency on drugs, which can really change the experience (or maybe this was because I didn’t make my way to either Phish show). People seemed to truly embrace the music this year, allowing bands like Passion Pit and Portugal, The Man to play to the biggest audiences they have probably ever seen.
Bonnaroo 2009 also gave bands in differing genres—metal for example—a chance to expose their music to a completely different audience. The tent was pouring with love for Dillinger Escape Plan, who played the absolute craziest show I’ve ever witnessed at Bonnaroo. With a moshpit that took over half the tent, this festival, for a brief time at least, became less about peace and love, and more about angst and brutality. The band’s members were taking nose-dives into the audience and flying off the top of PA speakers, making sure the crowd didn’t lose interest for a second, and they did their job right. The highlight was their revered cover of Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”, which doesn’t make its way on to just any set list. With all that peace and love, I guess you have to release your pent up anger somewhere. Bring on the metal, Bonnaroo.
While I said earlier that drugs seemed to be less prevalent this year, the stench of weed hung in the air long before stoner-metal legends High on Fire took the stage. The sound guys at Bonnaroo were adamant about the low-end, and thank god for this. The sludge from the depths of hell shook my guts in every direction humanly possible and the crowd’s faces looked like they had never seen anything so damn heavy in their lives—and I’m sure they haven’t. Frontman Matt Pike was in his element, roaring to a new generation of stoner metal junkies.
By the end of the day, the only remedy was a little bit of Neko Case. As I walked into the tent, I came across Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog ragging on Case. He claimed, “These people are so high, they’ve probably seen four talking dogs today.” Shortly after, Case and Triumph did a duet of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to a crowd of befuddled and amused Case fans. Needless to say, she was hitting the notes just slightly better than ol’ Triumph. For the remainder of the set, she was nothing but grateful of her fans. Her voice is so pure and lovely it was the perfect antidote for all the anger that engulfed the earlier part of the day, and it was also the perfect ending to another year at the Bonnaroo Festival.
While a free show at 2 pm on a weekday in the tourist-teeming Rockefeller Center from a multiplatinum musician should draw a huge crowd, Moby’s small acoustic performance at the NBC Café had only been briefly mentioned on his website so people were not packed shoulder to shoulder. Those folks ‘in the know’ and those fortunate enough to be there all witnessed an intimate showcase with Moby as he played a grab bag of songs and humbly chatted in-between.
When not creating music, Moby has made occasional guest appearances at NYC’s comedy venue the Upright Citizen Brigade Theater. At the café, he got to share some of this lighter side. In between songs, Moby jokingly stated that the first goal of showmanship is to interrupt a song as often as possible, or rather during, switching from piano to guitar or when part of a song eluded him. The intimacy even allowed him to offer sandwiches and fruit from the green room to the audience.
Accompanying Moby was Kelli Scarr, his friend and former lead singer of Moonraker. She has lent her talents to his forthcoming release, Wait for Me and in return he is producing her debut release Piece. Scarr’s warm voice substituted for the old gospel very well on “Natural Blues” and “Honey”. She also sang the title track from his new album and “Southside”.
Moby also sang a couple of covers for which he requested help from the audience. People eagerly sang “doo doo” in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and vocalized the trumpet within Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. Finally, despite requests to play all day, Moby ended his brief show with a Neil Young cover. Clocking in at around 45 minutes, the show was a great way to spend a lunch break. Seeing an artist in a venue where the sound of a blender can overpower the singing makes a person feel a part of something special.