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(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Two years ago, David Byrne gave a lecture in Brooklyn titled “Creation in Reverse,” a warm-up for his presentation at TED Talks. His thesis boiled down to the claim that music is determined by context—that is, the venue where music will be played influences and shapes the songwriting process. At the time, as a member of the audience, I was skeptical. Byrne’s argument seemed to have a misguided premise that didn’t sit right with me. I understand music to come from emotional states, rather than careful analytical thought, and Byrne was saying the exact opposite.

Two years later, sitting in the three-tiered, high-ceilinged and ornate Beacon Theatre, it all came together. Byrne and his latest collaborator, Annie Clark, known by the stage name St. Vincent, played each other’s music as well as songs from their excellent new album, Love This Giant. The project features plenty of horns, which serves as a glue and counterpoint to their distinct styles. And in the sprawling theater, the two brought an eight-piece brass section, along with a drummer and keyboardist, which reflected a level of forethought I didn’t think possible: They made and executed the perfect performance for the space.

Every detail of the show seemed planned for a maximal audience experience. Byrne, Clark and their band dressed in slightly varied arrangements of formal black-and-white clothing. They moved together and separately in choreographed patterns. It was visually striking in addition to being sonically engaging. But the greatest pleasure was definitely the sound—towering vocals with Byrne’s signature falsetto and phrasing complemented by Clark’s airy harmonies, her glitchy, menacing guitar solos and huge swells of orchestral horns.

Byrne’s Talking Heads classic “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” had all the charm and original sweetness of the original but with bounciness from the new arrangement. Clark’s recent singles “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” retained their off kilter yet melodic power, but with a largess befitting the night and space: Because this space and this night were special. Although the band could have easily stopped after playing “Burning Down the House” for the first encore, they came back and finished with “Road to Nowhere.” It was emotional to hear the song in the context of the night, capping off such a monumental performance. They finished and took a final bow. Those in the crowd, who had been on their feet since the first encore, roared with applause. It was over, and we knew it. But to finish, they walked out playing a little reappraisal. The band played on.

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Dependability is an underrated virtue for a rock band, almost necessarily so. It’s easy to take for granted when a group consistently performs excellently. There are the notable exceptions—Bruce Springsteen, U2 and, increasingly so, the Flaming Lips—but for the most part, the bands that trot out day by day to entertain with predictable flair are seen as owing something, rather than appreciated for their reliability. Still, every night can feel special in its own way, and last night at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park, Dr. Dog, one of rock’s soon-to-be steady hands, played a strong set of favorites as well as providing some signature moments.

Dr. Dog is Philadelphia’s most notable indie-rock band, comprised of Toby Leaman (bass guitar and lead vocals), Scott McMicken (lead guitar and lead vocals), Frank McElroy (rhythm guitar), Zach Miller (keyboard) and Eric Slick (drums). Over the course of seven albums, most recently Be the Void, they have created and perfected a sound that borrows familiar classic-rock elements, such as the Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ harmonies and pop maximalism, in addition to adding their own unique touch. The vocal interplay between Leaman and McMicken is thrilling: Leaman growls and yells while McMicken exercises his falsetto. And with a growing catalog of favorites, the group is able to play extended crowd-pleasing shows.

On Thursday night, Dr. Dog began with Shame, Shame’s “Shadow People.” They played behind an altered American flag with neon colors and only three stars (the symbolism escaped me). Quickly, they settled into the pattern of slow opening verses leading to huge climactic choruses, with harmonized oohs and aahs. Some cute touches were added to “I Only Wear Blue” and “The Old Days” when an electronic effect such as a horse nay and hand claps were added. But the big and memorable moment came when Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez stumbled onto the stage during “Worst Trip.” With a shaker in hand, he jumped around and eventually made his way atop Leaman’s shoulders for the end of the song. And as the bassist, somewhat startled, explained, the two groups have been touring for a while. Another example of how, even after so long, the expected can produce the expected.

Photo courtesy of JC McIlwaine | jcmcilwaine.com

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Deerhoof makes a ruckus. There is no denying it. If you forgo earplugs (which, come on, you should) it’s inevitable that your ears will start ringing a few songs into their show. On his lonesome, drummer Greg Saunier’s snare hits strike the deepest parts of the inner ear. But together with singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarist John Dieterich and guitarist Ed Rodriguez, the group creates a Street Fighter sonic boom—a full-on assault on the senses. And the energy behind their play is a double-shot espresso on a Monday night: a highly caffeinated treat with enough punch to power you through the week. If they don’t raise your heart rate, you should be checked to see if you have a pulse.

It is New York City’s luck that Deerhoof chose us for the start of their tour behind new album Breakup Song (which is kind of like if Elliott Smith had put out an LP called Fight for Your Right to Party). In one of Saunier’s moments of quirky stage banter, in which he knelt down to speak into Matsuzaki’s microphone, about two feet shorter than him, he mentioned the band’s love for playing here. And if the set list and two encores were any indication, New York City and Deerhoof have a symbiotic relationship: They give heaping spoonfuls of the favorites and we lose our shit.

For the final song, “Basketball Ball Get Your Groove Back,” Matsuzaki jumped, danced and, as much as she could, strutted around the stage, pointing the microphone toward the front row to respond with “OK!” in the chorus. The tune, like the band, is an odd pairing: a tiny Japanese woman doing bunny kicks while evoking a game for strong composed athletes. But Deerhoof is not about deep analysis or symbolic continuity. No, Deerhoof is the sound of a thousand people jumping in the air and shouting for joy. It is a noisy, life-affirming triumph.

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

Headliner Tortoise closed Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary show following a string of performances from the label’s talented stable of artists. After their set, a woman in front of me turned around and said, “I’m not emotionally capable of having Tortoise leave.” I asked her, “How high are you?” She leaned in closer and answered, “I haven’t had anything to smoke and I’ve only had one drink.” She continued, “Fifteen years ago, my friends and I used to get stoned and listen to them in our dorm rooms. Now the friends I listened to them with are all married and some have kids. I’m a godmother to one of my friends’ kids.”

And that, the experience of the woman in front of me, is the closest I can get to an understanding of Tortoise. They’re the indie-rock group of the ’90s that friends listened to and spoke about excitedly. They provided a soundtrack, behind which drugs and ideas were exchanged. They made music feel personal and magical—the way every generation produces and supports its innovative creators. And while I may not have been in that dorm room 15 years ago, I still sensed what it was like, and I felt part of something in hearing Tortoise return to Webster Hall.

It is unusual now to hear instrumental rock in concert. It simply isn’t in vogue to perform on bass, drums and guitar without vocals. There is a collective sense of something missing. But Tortoise overcomes this intrinsic difficulty with songs that dazzle and delight. The five members of the group are musicians’ musicians: They trade instruments, play with physicality and always seem to incorporate something technically impressive into their songs. It is progressive rock in that it is multiple minutes of instrumentals, but it is more. It is indefinable, wholly unique and personally felt.

Photo courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

One day last winter I discovered White Denim’s Last Day of Summer. I took to it immediately. It compelled me toward multiple replays and consumed my ears’ desires. But I felt a strange sense of guilt about only listening to this one band and a single album
for three straight months. What is it that made Last Day of Summerso appealing? Last night, at the second night of White Denim’s back-to-back stint at Brooklyn Bowl, I found myself revisiting this question, but on a broader scale: What is it that makes White Denim, live, so immensely enjoyable?

The facts of the band seem rather unremarkable: four guys from Austin, Texas, whose Wikipedia page reads like a grocery list of genres (dub, progressive rock, jazz). But, just as regional affiliation doesn’t explain much anymore (really, most bands are from the Internet), neither does genre name-checking. So I’ll spare you the use of cognitive shortcuts in the form of one-word musical-style descriptions. Instead, I’ll say that listening to White Denim live, I got the feeling they could do just about anything they want to musically. Not by means of programmed electronic wizardry or weird synthesizers, but by technical instrumentation and cunning. They could burst into an extended jam, as they did on “Drug,” or play close to the studio version, like their rendition of “Tony Fatti.”

Clear proof of their invincibility, for me, came late into the show, during a moment when lead singer and guitarist James Petralli came halfway across the stage to briefly confer with lead guitarist Austin Jenkins. Bassist Steve Terebecki and drummer Joshua Block kept plugging away, staying locked into a groove, punctuated by round bass notes. But at the end of the guitarists’ exchange, after whatever needed to be said was said, they parted and, looking over in separate directions, jumped right back into the rhythm, seamlessly. It was the kind of high-wire act where the audience is rapt by the danger while the performers calmly dazzle with their abilities—a tense moment that makes White Denim not your average jam band or any other kind. They are breathtakingly skilled, melodically sweet and deft to the point of fault. They are indescribably good and you’re lucky to have another chance to see them.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Ross | jeremypross.com

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

The nights are cooler now. After months of record-breaking heat, dusk is finally a time for relief. It makes evening activities tranquil and comfortable. It gives us opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. And if you sit under the cover of trees at the Prospect Park Bandshell, there are few better late-summer events than a Celebrate Brooklyn concert. They create a special environment by pairing live music with a beautiful setting. So last night, at the final ticketed show of the season, we got it all: the perfect scenery, weather and lineup of acts.

M. Ward, the night’s highly anticipated headliner, came on after some prompt stand-up by Wyatt Cenac and a hushed set by Yo La Tengo. Ward, a unique American musician, mixes elements of rock, folk and blues along with his melodic yet gravelly voice and creates something all his own. His guitar work is magnificent too. During “Rollercoaster” he evoked the namesake’s unbalanced feeling with an effective slippery riff. And in other places, he was simply the full package—masterful songwriter and spot-on performer.

“Chinese Translation,” from the album Post-War, is a clever piece of imaginative folklore concerning an inquisitive protagonist and a sagacious elder. It was also made all the better by Ward and his band’s light touch. They knew how to blow the lid off at times, like during “Primitive Girl,” but the quiet moments were my favorites. An encore violin-and-keyboard duo of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist” was beautiful and apropos. Ward slyly dedicated the song to “the artists in Brooklyn.” He surely knew his audience and played perfectly for the moment.

Photo courtesy of Mike Benigno | mikebenigno.wordpress.com

(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)

I’m stuck in fictional 2010, feeling like I just graduated college. I’m still hopeful about the Obama presidency, and my favorite album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I’m like the show Newsroom—I imagine an idealized version of the proximate past where I do everything right. And in my retelling, I didn’t miss Gold Panda open for Four Tet during CMJ. I didn’t underestimate how long it’d take me to get to Webster Hall. I didn’t waste time eating a weak Japanese meal. Instead, I saw both acts and was blown away by each. And now, fast-forward to the present day, when I’m writing this review with an interesting context for the show I just saw: an extension of the great show I’d seen before.

Now, Gold Panda is two years removed from his critically acclaimed album, Lucky Shiner. He’s reached that critical juncture where he will be defined by what he does next. And so far, in 2012, GP is on track for repeat success. His new single, “Mountain,” is heady and spatial, a mental “Dancing with Myself.” It signposts that the producer and performer would bring his unique vision and talent to bare with the wisdom of experience. And, at the onset, it was clear he’d acquired an advanced sense of pacing and the attentiveness to the needs of his audience.

Gold Panda folded songs’ structures onto themselves, revisiting rhythms on top of melodies and jumbling together the two. When, midway through the set, he blended into the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “You,” it gained pace and impressiveness with an extended introduction tapped out on an MPC. It was, like his other robotically talkative pieces, a Peter Frampton–influenced triumph of language over noise; we hear words in the modulated stew of sound. And behind a similarly hazy yet familiar set of images, the performance felt like popular dance music drugged and sped up through a cassette player. There was a sense of nostalgia in the music. I entertained the past and thoroughly enjoyed the present.

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