Friday, September 6th -- Irving Plaza
The Sea and Cake
Thrill Jockey's artist catalogue ranges from the eccentric to the really eccentric, and the Friday edition of the label's anniversary show was just the pleasantly genre-defying, ear-enriching experience one might expect. Obviously, there is a sizeable percentage of the New York listening audience who are willing to be enriched: Irving Plaza is one of the more sizeable clubs in the area, and enough people purchased $26 tickets to make it feel, while not jam-packed, at least snug.
Unfortunately, I arrived too late to catch Town and Country's set, once again forced to face the fact that starting times for shows bear no constant relationship with the "door" time. By the time I reached the floor, Radian were well into their set. The duo, consisting of a keyboard/sequencer player and a drummer, was locked into a robotic/funky groove that was both intelligent and infectious. This band had clearly practiced to the point of pain; each drum riff and keyboard flourish had the technical proficiency, repeatability, and subtle variation of the hard-wired. As a riff is subtly, quietly altered as it is repeated, the listener's attention is called to its intricacies. Not only was Radian's performance intriguing, but it was an excellent mood-setter for the thoughtful work that was to come.
Next up was, possibly, the highlight of the night. Unfortunately, due to time limits and the difficulty of setting up their extensive instrumental array, the remarkable musicians who comprise 8 Bold Souls were only able to tear through four of their outstanding jazz compositions. The curtain came up on seven men and one woman, mostly clad in dashikis, wielding a tuba, a cello, a drum kit and a shining array of horns. From their opening horn hits, the band had the indie-kid audience jumping around, shimmying and shaking like teenage girls at an 'Nsync concert (Incidentally, this terpsichorean fit offered conclusive proof that, regardless of the brilliance, complexity, or artistry of the music danced to, the average male rock fan will still dance the White Man's Overbite step). The most memorable moment was surely a number based on the Japanese game Pachinko, which recreated the sound of a hall full of the plinking machines via staccato horn hits, falling arpeggios, and enough energy to light up the glitziest gambling den.
Everyone was clearly sad to see the Bold Souls retire so soon, but Eleventh Dream Day soon appeared to keep up the momentum. The band has been around, in one form or another, since 1983, and it seemed at first as if their age was catching up to them tonight. It took a while for all of the components to gel, but eventually (especially on those tracks which featured vocal interplay between drummer Janet Bean and lead singer Rick Rizzo), the band's guitar-driven songs began stirring up the crowd. By the time they left the stage, they had proven that they belonged there.
Mouse On Mars were up next, overseeing a table covered with a mess of electronics, wires and laptops that were reminiscent of the computer that tries to kill Richard Pryor at the end of Superman III. Jan or Andi -- I forget which -- thanked the audience, then sampled and sequenced his thanks into the first of the duo's hard-hitting, cutting-edge compositions of the evening. For a while, the microphone was used as a primary noisemaker, dispensing feedback as Messrs. Toma and St. Werner swung it repeatedly toward a strategically-placed monitor. I've seen quite a bit of feedback in my day, but never so controlled or deliberately manipulated as this. The sound changed so often that it was sometimes hard to get my bearings, though every so often a snatch of familiar, album-track-based sound would cycle through. It was clear that virtually all of this was off-the-cuff, though it seemed nearly impossible that the perpetual motion of the duo's hands, the nuanced tweaking of each of a million different knobs, could possibly work together so flawlessly. Obviously, there was as sizeable portion of the audience for whom this was the main event, and they exploded accordingly. Throughout the more than thirty minute set, most of the audience was in motion. When the last glitch faded away, the roar from the crowd, pent up as it was, was astonishing.
Sue Garner was next up, backed by a band made up of the majority of Tortoise, the evening's headliner. Garner's acoustic guitar held the floor, though, anchored by the array of talent behind her, and her songs' heartfelt intimacy was actually enhanced the more she sounded alone on stage. On a couple of songs, the backing band sounded muddled together on the low end of the tune, obscuring some of Garner's more delicate sentiments. On the song she played solo, the feeling was electric.
Finally, as the time neared 2:00 a.m., Tortoise took the stage for a set of their own. The godfathers of post-rock put on the kind of cool, calm, collected show one would expect. I was pleasantly surprised, actually, by how much I enjoyed hearing the band live; I've never been a fan of their recorded output, and I didn't expect their live show to change my mind. While the experience wasn't earth-shaking, it was far more enlivening than I had suspected. The group's more precious tendencies were reined in, and grooves were emphasized. The audience was one with Tortoise, and the band didn't let them down.
Okay, so I left early. Once again, it was two o'clock in the frigging morning! I do, in retrospect, wish that I could have kept my eyes open to the end of Tortoise's set, as my sense of pleasant surprise had continued throughout their performance. Alas, it was not to be.
Thrill Jockey did themselves proud, putting some lesser-known acts into a compelling mix with its tried-and-true stable of artists and reminding fans why the label's stars are stars.
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Saturday, September 7th -- Bowery Ballroom
As I've always preferred the more melodic, song-based side of Thrill Jockey over the technically impressive but often chilly "post-rock" that Tortoise is known for, I skipped Thursday and Friday's Irving Plaza shows, at which Tortoise headlined, and headed straight to the Bowery Ballroom for dessert -- the always-tasty Sea and Cake, country traditionalists Freakwater and the sad, sweeping Archer Prewitt Band.
I got to the show a few songs into Prewitt's set. The Sof' Boy cartoonist and former Coctails member has an oddly charismatic stage presence -- clean-cut and mild-mannered, he's businesslike in his relationship with the audience but still manages to command attention, like a brilliant professor lacking in public speaking skills. His songs recall Nick Drake and Arthur Lee, with melancholy lyrics, soaring melodies and felicitous directional shifts, but for all their beauty and elegance, they sometimes evince a formalist precision that limits their emotional impact. The songs I caught (most of which were from the recent Three) proved sturdy and effective even without the lush horn and string arrangements accorded to them in their recorded versions.
Next up was Freakwater, a five-piece from Louisville, Kentucky that plays haunted backwoods country in much the same way that Prewitt plays baroque '60s pop -- with a detachment that's usually subtle but sometimes hard to ignore. Dual singer-guitarists Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin pack amazing power into their vocals and harmonize beautifully; maybe it was the abundant between-song banter (about something Irwin saw on a professional wrestling show, Bean's fear that she has ingested some sort of microorganism that will make her belches smell sulfurous, and a McLaughlin Group's worth of other topics) that kept me from fully buying into their act. They made more of an impression visually than musically -- the image of Bean in her cowgirl outfit flanked on one side by the rotund multi-instrumentalist John Spiegel and on the other by Irwin, whose facial contortions while singing looked pained but kind of pleasant, is still stuck in my head.
The room filled to capacity when it was the Sea and Cake's turn to play. The kid next to me was practically convulsing with excitement; I overheard him say with some disgust that his girlfriend was napping in the bar downstairs. "I don't know how she could sleep," he said, unwittingly summing up the two most common reactions towards Thrill Jockey bands. "I wouldn't miss this for the world." Sam Prekop and company set up their gear and waited in the wings while one-man band the Lonesome Organist played a couple of steel drum songs to his own tap-dancing accompaniment. He was good enough to make me feel guilty for missing his set.
Then the moment arrived. The Sea and Cake took their positions on stage and launched into "Mr. F", a song from their upcoming album One Bedroom. It was characteristically lovely, with a bright melody, nimble guitar work from Prewitt and awesome-as-usual drumming from John McEntire. I'd never seen McEntire perform; as often as I've heard him on record, his virtuosity still stunned me live. The man has moves that Neal Peart would envy -- he switches effortlessly from fluid jazz-style drumming to light, funky Afro-pop and Caribbean rhythms to straight ahead rock. The rest of the band deserve credit just for keeping up with him, but of course they manage more than that. Every song was a small wonder of melody and rhythm -- playful, glinting guitar parts, smooth vocals, minimalist keyboard accents and sinuous bass and drums all operating as tightly and effectively as humanly possible. The band played the fan favorites ("Jacking the Ball" and "Parasol" being chief among them) and a few songs from One Bedroom that bode well for that album's quality.
After one hour and a two-song encore, the band called it a night. They were too tired from three days of Thrill Jockey celebration to indulge the audience's fervid cries for more. The excited kid next to me seemed sated, and the night, all in all, seemed a success.
Article by Brett McCallon (Friday) and Scott Jacobson (Saturday). Photos by Scott Jacobson.