Black Francis: 22 March 2013 - San Juan Capistrano, CA

An informal (and often comedic) minimalist live show proves again that for Black Francis’ people, each new musical experiment only serves to make a classic even better.

Black Francis

Black Francis

City: San Juan Capistrano, CA
Date: 2013-03-23

Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV is a man of many stages, names and career chapters. Rising to prominence as the frontman of the post-punk band Pixies under the stage name Black Francis, he broke up the band at the height of their popularity, inverted his pseudonym and embarked on a solo career as Frank Black. While fans expected more music in the Pixies’ vibe, Thompson experimented with folk, Christian rock, pop punk and even country in his band Frank Black and the Catholics. After the Catholics’ dissolution and three more alt-country-infused albums, Thompson reverted to the Black Francis name and reenergized his punk influences. He has experimented ever since.

In spite (or because) of this diverse resume, Black Francis is one of the most proficient and consistently satisfying live acts I’ve ever seen -- and I’ve seen him ten times. From his full sets with the Catholics to his Pixies reunion tour to his minimalist singer/ songwriter shows, Thompson (with this many names, it’s easier to simply call him “Thompson”) never gives the same show twice.

The Coach House Concert Hall in San Juan Capistrano, California looks less like a theatre than a 1970s steakhouse with a balcony Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show would be right at home in. There was little opportunity for heckling this night as three performers took the stage in succession, each with a microphone and a guitar and nothing else.

Local boy Davis Fetter led the lineup. With his pompadour, blue Gibson archtop, motorcycle jacket and spectacles, a rockabilly meets Buddy Holly set seemed imminent. Instead Fetter delivered a dynamic song list with a modern surf punk bend, coupled his steady crooning voice (as comfortable on a driving rock song and a light ballad).

Kim Shattuck (guitarist and vocalist for The Muffs) appeared like a stoned fairy on the stage for the second warm-up show. It was almost as much comedy as it was music. Joking with and even insulting the audience, always followed by a cute “just kidding”, Shattuck took crowd suggestions for what songs to play. Bowing and curtsying during each applause break, Shattuck was an excellent reminder of how much fun rock and roll can be, during her screaming Punk moments as well as her sweet singer-songwriter numbers.

Although billed as a “solo acoustic show”, Black Francis’ set was as plugged as those of his opening acts. He took the sparse stage with a classic Fender Telecaster (and two backup Teles that he never touched). Thompson has a history with this venue having played the Coach House many times over the years, once opening for the now-less popular Graham Parker to celebrate the time he took his first wife to see Parker on that same stage. “Somebody just told me it’s been five years since I’ve been here.” Thompson said, elaborating that he couldn’t believe so much time had passed considering his love for the venue.

The show felt like something of a homecoming for the man called “Black”. As if this “intimate” show could get more so, Thompson treated the crowd like special invited guests with whom he could joke and tell stories in between almost every song. Rarely has the singer/ guitarist seemed quite so relaxed and carefree on stage. Occasionally the song, joke or story lost his own interest. “Nevermind, that’s a terrible anecdote,” he mumbled. “I don’t know why I started to play that song [‘My Favorite Kiss’]. Sorry.”

Never to be underestimated as a guitarist, Thompson kept his experimental hat on, playing through multiple generations of his diverse catalogue in casual, yet deceptively complex renditions. His 1993 hit “Los Angeles” was recognizable as soon as the opening chords were struck but 2001’s “Bullet” was something of an enigma throughout its musical introduction until Thompson’s vocals revealed the lyrics. The words to “The Swimmer” and “California Bound” begin as soon as their music does but Thompson’s playful rearrangement of the notes and progressions put a new spin on these crowd-pleasing favorites. This same creative distortion managed to make “Horrible Day” an even more depressing song, surrendering to the company of “Death”, “Misfortune” and “A Chorus of the Lonely”.

As a singer, Thompson was on the top of his game from the deep tones to the falsettos to the patented Pixies screams. Much as he did on the Pixies demos found on the 2004 release Frank Black Francis Thompson experimented with providing his own backing vocals on “Men in Black”, throwing in the eerie faux-Theremin voice sounds into the chorus. Similarly, his chants of “Repent, Repent!” throughout the Pixies' classic “Caribou” took on a stranger, less uniform scream, no less chilling, much more raw.

Although songs old and new were interchangeable throughout the show, as the set wound down Thompson joked that he needed to win the crowd back by returning to “my comfort zone… my first band… the Pixies.” He went on to assure us that although the next song, “Nimrod’s Son”, contained profanity “I would never say ‘Fuck’ in front of a C-H-I-L-D, so you parents don’t have to worry about that.”

In the prime example of Thompson’s Standup Comedy meets VH1’s Storytellers mood, he “treated” the crowd with an abbreviated reenactment of the first 15 minutes of the Pixies’ premiere show in 1986. This consisted of a series of re-tunings followed by the words “Just one second” and “I think I got it” over and over again.

“See, that’s how long ago that was.” Thompson quipped. “We didn’t even have tuners back then.”

This silly antic (not unlike John Lennon’s very literal “Two Minutes of Silence”) may seem trite in black and white, but in person the audience was laughing all the way. He delivered a fun, minimalist and excellent show in front of his people … why not have some laughs with us?

Gracious to the last, Charles “Black Francis” Thompson ended his set with a smile, walked to every corner of the stage for photographs and bows and even shook a few hands before leaving for the night. By any name, Black Francis always gives a unique and diverse show. If this three-stop tour is indicative of the singer’s current state of mind, he is clearly having fun with his career, now more than ever. These songs are not the “album versions”, but for Black Francis’ people, each new experiment only serves to make a classic even better.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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