Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Peace Train Tour - Nokia Theatre, December 14, 2014



How to describe one of the best and most rewarding shows I've ever seen is the dilemma facing me after seeing Cat Stevens for the first time in concert after waiting for over forty years. I had given up on the chance of his returning to the concert stage years ago, after he dropped out of public life for family and religious reasons. He became persona non grata for a lot of bigoted and narrow-minded people after his conversion to Islam in the late 1970s, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. It seemed he would remain a fondly (or not, depending on your politics) remembered pop superstar from a bygone age who we lost to religion, and that was that.

There were occasional noises here and there and a few random appearances beginning in the 1990s, giving hope that he might return to music at some point in the future. He credits his son with bringing a guitar back into the house to pursue his own music, which Yusuf picked up and began playing again. Acknowledging how much he missed making music, and spurred on to keep going, the result was the release of his first new recording of non- and less-religious music in almost thirty years called An Other Cup in 2006. I thought how remarkable his voice still sounded after all those years.


Still, the thought of new concerts seemed remote at best, considering the resentment of all things Muslim in the still raw aftermath of 9/11, and his short-lived (and ludicrous) appearance on our no-fly lists in the mid 00s. So the announcement this fall of a series of shows across the U.S. to mark his return to the land of rock and roll was as surprising as it was welcome. How I scored a ticket was pure luck as the tickets were gone almost as soon as the box office opened.

My own personal history with Cat Stevens goes back to April 1971 when I was 20 and purchased Tea For The Tillerman, because "Wild World" was a hit single, and it became one of the cornerstones of my record collection. When Harold and Maude opened that December, I was already well aware of the music that helped that movie go from overlooked box-office flop to cult film within a few years. It came and went so quickly in it's first release that I didn't even get to see it until it was screened a year later at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass in December 1972, before it became a cult classic. By 1974 it had been rediscovered and was playing year-long engagements in many cities across the U.S.A.

In spite of his disappearance, his music survived decade after decade, never losing a drop of it's emotional power or its relevance. He'd struck a nerve in the popular culture and we were determined not to give it up, even if he never re-emerged. I, and many others, never stopped listening to his records and I always regretted not seeing him on one of his tours through Boston.

By the time Sunday, December 14th rolled around, I had settled into a low grade excitement which only intensified as the time to take the subway downtown approached. Never having been to the Nokia Theatre before, I made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. The buzz of anticipation was palpable among the crowd standing in line to get in, no matter what their age. The range of his appeal was still overwhelming and undeniable.

A glowing crowd filled the lobbies of the Nokia and I wanted to enjoy a beer and take in the whole scene before heading to my seat in the loge section. The stage was set up as a run down railroad station stop with a sign reading "Los Angeles" (interchangeable with the tour stops) and a backdrop that looked like a prairie landscape out of the dream ballet in the movie of Oklahoma!.

Onto this evocative and plainly symbolic set wandered Yusuf/Cat Stevens and members of his touring band and the first notes of "The Wind" hit the audience like a ton of bricks. Cue: squeals of delight! His voice sounded exactly the same. The arrangement, updated but remarkably the same, and the song itself was emotionally perfect for the state of excitement in the crowd, proudly stating the 'journey' theme of the whole show: "I let my music take me where my heart wants to go."

Ordinarily, I would complain about the size of the venue, as I was a quarter of a mile away from the stage but for this, it didn't matter. I was zeroed in on the stage. The next song was "Don't Be Shy" and that started the water works. To think he would perform one of the two songs he wrote specifically for Harold and Maude as the second song was more than I could take, through the tears I could envision Bud Cort hanging himself.










He seemed so at ease and comfortable on stage, and was obviously moved by the love he felt coming from the audience, that he was chatty and chummy, making the huge venue far more intimate. By the time he sang two more of his early hits, it was clear he would be reviewing as many of his most popular songs, along with newer compositions, as he could fit in his 32-plus song set. I think the whole audience relaxed together and realized we were in for a special night.



Surrounded by a powerful flock of musicians, including long-time guitarist Alun Davies, who has been with him since the beginning, and pianists, violinists, horn players, drummers, they made a formidable rock band. The songs stayed close to their original arrangements with only additional augmentation when called for. Passages of almost solo acoustic performances by Yusuf were contrasted with richly orchestrated celebrations, each appropriate to the song being rendered.


He seemed eager to acknowledge the wide range of influences that have affected his own songwriting, including songs by Curtis Mayfield, Edgar Winter, Sam Cook, and, beautifully, Procol Harum ("The Devil Came From Kansas"). His wonderful recent song "Maybe There's A World" proved his songwriting skills are undiminished, which then segued into a version of Lennon's "All You Need Is Love" (which had all us old hippies singing along) and it was was a high point of the first act. As soon as he said the words Harold and Maude the audience erupted into wild applause. (pretty amazing for a movie that could have been forgotten 45 years ago) and he played "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", as the tears flowed copiously leading to an intermission.

The second act was even longer than the first, and continued alternating covers, old classics and new music. An additional thrill was seeing Cat Stevens playing the piano again, which he did on half a dozen numbers. Highlights for me were hearing "Oh Very Young", Where Do The Children Play?", and especially "Father and Son". I think that with all the singing he has been doing on this tour that his voice is showing far more flexibility that it did a few years ago, when he first started singing again. The muscles are oiled and in tip top shape. I can't believe he was ever better, even back 35 years ago. I'm glad we were the last stop on the tour, to enjoy the fruits of all that non-stop singing for the last month since he started this tour in London in November.

He came back for four songs on encore which included the climactic "Peace Train", "Sad Lisa" (on the piano again) and ultimately "Morning Has Broken" resulting in a sequence of standing ovations. I was like putty in his hands by this point, We all were.The love and appreciation he exuded was strong enough to envelope all 7000 plus audience members in the Nokia Theatre. It's a concert experience I will never forget, and here it is, 48 hours later and I'm still in a state of euphoria.

whrabbit

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Horse Feathers at The Satellite - December 6, 2014



I'd be hard pressed to say that there's a better live band around right now than Horse Feathers. This band is just about perfect. I'd seen them twice before, the last time they were in town and played The Echo in May and December of 2012, but when two years went by and I heard nothing from them, I was unprepared for the impact they would have on me this time.

Apparently after the last album, Cynics New Year, and supporting tour in 2012, band leader Justin Ringle felt the need to step back and reassess where the band was headed. Though lauded for their original and committed take on gothic/indie/chamber Americana music, there was a dourness to the material that some critics felt made them less than exciting. I disagree, but it was enough to revitalize Justin and led to the creation of So It Is With Us, perhaps the most accessible of their five albums.

They are another of those bands from the Pacific Northwest who come to the table fully prepared but with a unique sound that sets them apart from all the other bands from that region giving them all specific identities. Think Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, The Parson Red Heads, Mimicking Birds, Sallie Ford, these guys. Though, to me, with the soft-spoken vocals and chamber sound, they most closely resemble Canada's Great Lake Swimmers or North Carolina's Lost In The Trees, both in performance and in style. But the new album adds a bit more rock to their signature laid back appeal, enlivening things considerably, though still keeping their realistic and sombre outlook intact.

Recorded partially in a barn in Oregon (doesn't everybody?), which gives the music an ambiance of being played in a tall, dank, wooden cathedral and infuses the album with a sonic dampness that suits them. But live, the music springs to vibrant life on stage with an immediacy and punch that makes the songs even better. Silky smooth vocals sit atop a first rate chamber orchestra which includes violin, banjos, keys, two drummers, occasional mandolin and harmonica to lay a gorgeous carpet for the superb melodies to rest upon.

Right from the first song, a normally noisy Friday night Satellite crowd was hushed into rapt attentiveness as the seven member band overwhelmed with their cohesive, carefully structured compositions that are so clean that each instrument can be heard and appreciated for their contribution to the entirety of the texture. Justin Ringle's (at right) voice sounds more supple and varied than on record, and his duets with mandolin/guitar player Brad Parsons are even more natural and powerful in person.

By the time they launched into their third song, "Middle Testament", I figured each song was going to be better than the one before it and just had to go with it. I was already approaching that nirvana-like space where the music takes over and you feel alone with the band.

There wasn't a single lag in the entire set list that consisted of plenty of older material as well as a healthy sampling from their latest album, So It Is With Us. Nathan Crockett's virtuoso violin was regularly rewarded with applause after each of his solo highlights during the evening and the presence of two drummers added immeasurably to the new power this band has found. Distinctive keyboards on certain songs and the anchored bass work all lent the perfect balance to the stunning orchestrations.

They seemed very relaxed and happy, saying they'd been looking forward to coming back to L.A. for a long time and it showed. They played an hour set and two encores. The perfect sound mix at The Satellite didn't hurt either (though I could have used some of Rebecca Balin's lights). Even though I've seen them twice before, it couldn't have prepared me for this astonishing performance. Got to greet Justin and Brad outside after the show which put a perfect capper on this memorable night.

whrabbit



Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gruff Rhys presents American Interior at The Echo (11/20/14)


"Walk Into The Wilderness"

I really wanted to get some of these thoughts down on paper (so to speak) so I'm just going to go for it. Even though the Gruff Rhys show at The Echo was weeks ago. I have been a big fan of Super Furry Animals ever since 2005, when they were one of the bands I allowed to pull me back to rock and roll. I picked up Rings Around The World and Phantom Power at that time and devoured them. I'd been listening to rock and roll for the first time in 20 years, with nearly, newly virgin ears, since August 2005, so when I saw they were coming to town in November that year, I decided it was time to take the plunge and go out to a show!

November 29, 2005, was the exact date, at the Avalon on Vine St. I had no idea what to expect, didn't know if I'd get laughed out of the room as 'that old guy in the corner' or what. I knew no one who was into rock music at the time so I had zero expectations. This was the tour where they came on stage wearing space suits (at left). Super Furry Animals took me on a trip that night that launched me off in an entirely new direction in my life.   Music, music videos, CD's, getting into the local indie scene, eventually blogging. I mean, you're reading this aren't you? See what I mean?

Passion for live music exploded like a bomb in me. Within 4 months I was seeing 7 concerts a month, within a year I was seeing 12 a month. Now nine years have gone by, and I have seen Super Furry
Animals three times and Gruff Rhys once before solo on his Candylion tour in 2007 (at right). When I heard about this show on November 20, I didn't know what he was up to until I checked out his new CD, American Interior, and read about this latest solo project, which originated a few years ago.

Apparently, Mr. Rhys took a trip a couple of years ago across a great swath of the American Middle West, touring and performing and in search of any trace of a distant relative from a couple of centuries ago who scoured the Native American territory for evidence of an ancient tribe of Welsh Indians...??? Too bizarre to relate here, suffice to say, I was doubtful. But curious. And I love his music so I wanted to see this show.

I got there really early and saw the entire set by East India Youth. All pre-programmed beats and pre-recorded backing, still the vocals of singer William Doyle are stylized and varied enough to merit attention, all bathed in trippy swirling lights which filled the venue. But it was LOUD LOUD and I was either glad I wasn't tripping, or wished I was.


Gruff Rhys delivered one of the oddest sets of songs and storytelling events I've ever seen. When I first read about his latest project I wasn't sure that he wasn't telling a true story. Welsh Native Americans? How was I to know?

As soon as he took the stage, all doubt was erased. It was all a big fabrication of the devious, mischievous mind of Mr. Rhys. He welcomed the audience with an introduction to the short mockumentary we were about to watch with a series of cue cards he held up. Earnest sarcasm dripped from his lips. It was equal parts Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Mad Magazine.

We then watched the 20 minute film which traced Gruff Rhys' long lost "fictional" relative, "John Evans", who fled Wales to try to find out the history of a lost tribe of Native Americans who spoke Welsh, owing to the fact that they were rumored to have emigrated to America from Wales in the 12th century. One quickly picked up the tone of satire with the outrageous tale told.

Following the film, Rhys took the stage alone with a guitar and it was just him and us as he sang acoustic versions of the songs from the album. The pleasure of hearing his wonderful voice, up close and without adornment, was a treat that kept the audience transfixed. The songs range in style through multiple American folk and country idioms to illustrate the varied tales he had to tell. On the album, the songs are fully orchestrated in the inimitable Rhys style, but here, stripped down to basic acoustic versions, his voice was really given a chance to dominate.

Between songs he presented short stories about the trials and tribulations of "Evans", the adventurous explorer, with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Making his way through the plains states and the American south "John Evans" survived attempted murders, starvation, disease, animal attacks, hostile natives, until he was last heard from in New Spain under the name of "Don Juan Evans". He was never heard from again after the age of twenty-nine.

The whole presentation had a very free-form, almost improvisational, vibe as Gruff would sound like he was making it up on the spot. At various points he would bring out a doll to represent "John Evans" (at right) or invite audience members to join him onstage to pantomime characters he was describing (below).  Overwhelmed by the creativity, startled once again at how wonderful his unique voice is, and impressed by the easy, relaxed and conversational rapport he achieves with his audience, it felt like being invited into his home to watch slides and listen to songs.


I have to say, though, that conditions at The Echo were not optimal for a show that was often intimate and quiet. Whatever was going on downstairs at Echoplex was bleeding sound and beats up through the floor, becoming occasionally distracting. The gracious Mr. Rhys didn't acknowlege that, but when the hand blow-dryer in the ladies room went off, he glanced back over his shoulder and asked, "Is someone using a leaf-blower out back?"

whrabbit

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Owen Pallett, Avi Buffalo and Foxes In Fiction at El Rey - September 13, 2014


Saturday was one of those days that just restores all your faith in this crazy life pursuing rock and roll. First I go to Amoeba and pick up four albums, each one a special purchase in its own right. But my mission was to find the latest album by Owen Pallett (at right), as I was going to see him that night and wanted to acquaint myself with his product. As a huge fan of the violin, not only in its classical context, but particularly of it's use in the world of indie rock, I knew this was an artist I needed to catch up with.

Frankly, before Saturday Owen Pallett was only familiar to me as contributing string arrangements on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Beirut's The Flying Club Cup albums, and his Oscar nomination for the score of Her. Hearing that he employs a looping technique similar to Andrew Bird, I figured he was playing in a genre and a style I was already very fond of.

When I got to El Rey on Saturday, September 13, Foxes in Fiction (at left) were already playing and I slid easily into the hazy, dreamy atmosphere they had created in the theatre. Very much in keeping with the artful line up of the night they sounded like serious students of shoegaze with classical elements. Hatched in the fertile mind of Warren Hildebrand as a solo project he now has a band and they create a hypnotic spell with ethereal vocals and honey-drenched instrumentation. The songs were nicely varied so I offered no resistance and became a fan.


My entire impetus for going to this show was actually to see Avi Buffalo playing at the beautiful El Rey and to hear his new music and to see what kind of band he has put together to represent his second album, At Best Cuckold, which was released last Tuesday and was my fifth album purchase of the week. I've been a friend and supporter of this band since the very beginning in 2008, so as soon as I heard the wonderful new album, I went right out and bought a ticket for the El Rey show, knowing I would regret it if I didn't go.

In the four years since the release of his first Sub Pop album, Avi Buffalo (below) has moved from teenage guitar prodigy to a professional musician in his mid-twenties with a large and dedicated fan base. Some hard luck came with the successful launch of his debut record when the band he had built his early triumphs on broke apart and he had to finish his first tour scrambling to find replacements that wouldn't disappoint fans who were anxious to hear songs from the album played live.

Time has gone by and I don't know why, but I hadn't expected the new album to be so cohesive, so lyrical, so closely related to the first album and so damned powerful. Steadfast drummer, Sheridan Riley (at right), has ridden the wave all this way with Avi, with the advantage that Avi Buffalo has one of the best young drummers around and who also has found a voice to blend with Avi bringing back the curious and strikingly original harmonies that were so instrumental to their early success.

I was glad I ran in to Avi near the back of the theatre before they went on, so I could tell him how much I enjoy the new album, and we got to chat a little while. Now a band of four musicians, with a keyboardist, Anthony Vezirian (below on right) and a bassist, Doug Brown (below below), he was glad I was there to hear the new music and confessed that it's only the tip of the iceberg. He has at least 30 more songs written and ready to record, so there may be another release in the not too distant future. Wouldn't that be great?

Once on the stage, Avi Buffalo launched into "So What" that kicks off the new album and it is a wonderful upbeat, ingratiating song with that familiar curlicue melody structure that keeps you guessing, even after repeated listenings, followed by the next album cut, "Can't Be Too Responsible", which I think we can all relate to.
Dipping back into their catalog they performed "What's In It For?" in newly refreshed edition that came off as striking as the original, with the keyboard part restored and particularly assured vocals by Avi. The band left the stage as Avi soloed on "Summer Cum" which was sung expressively enough to break your heart. Both songs sounded fresh and re-invigorated.

I felt like I was seeing a band reach a peak as a performing ensemble and felt completely vindicated in my devotion to them for so long. Rounding out the 40 minute set were more selections from the new album, so I was super glad I'd purchased it and listened to it so many times that the songs sounded like familiar tunes performed to perfection. I'd say that Avi Buffalo has finally hit it's stride.

The second Owen Pallett stepped on stage alone with only his violin and started playing and looping and playing back the multi-part confection he was sculpting, my jaw dropped open and I don't think I drew breath for an hour. His mastery of the instrument is astonishing enough, but when he open his mouth to sing and this mellifluous, subtle and strong voice comes out I was transfixed. Having only heard the album, In Conflict, a couple of times, the songs were new to me but eerily familiar, which added to the already haunting quality of his music and lyrics.

I think he played mostly from the new album, but every song was its own special movement in what added up to a symphony of strings and piano (yes, he even plays the piano), with a running confessional dialog in the tumble of words. Reminds me of Will Sheff in that regard. The entire set seemed over in ten minutes and I was walking twenty feet in the air as I left the theatre. I may not have known about Owen Pallett before, but I will never miss him again. I swear, I heard hints of Ravel, Debussy, Sondheim, maybe a bit of Beethoven String Quartet AND Andrew Bird. This was art, unadulterated and unpretentious.


By the way the other three albums were: The New Pornographers new album, the brilliant and  completely addictive Brill Bruisers (can't wait to see them at The Wiltern on October 17th), Kan Wakan's amazing debut album Moving On, and Andrew Bird's Bands Of Glory, which highlights his single-microphone ensemble who are set to play at Hollywood Bowl this upcoming Sunday.

text and photos: whrabbit


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Slint at El Rey - August 22, 2014


I can't really say where my anticipation level was for this show, yet I remembered how much I was surprised and pleased at their 2007 concert when Slint went out on a very select tour, reuniting 15 years after originally disbanding in 1992. They played their 'already-classic' 1991 album Spiderland front to back at only a few dates in Europe, America and Canada, landing at The Fonda Theatre on July 23rd, 2007. I learned about them through Pinback, who often sited them as one of their major influences, purchased the Spiderland album and quickly picked up on the similarities. Although Pinback take the style in a more tuneful direction, the references are striking and both explore a dark and the dour melancholy which gives both bands their trademark sad beauty.

When they launched into "Breadcrumb Trail" for their second song, I sensed we were heading in a Spiderland direction. Considering they only ever released two albums, I guess that's understandable, nevertheless, it thrilled all of us. Continuing with "Nosferatu Man" and "Don, Aman", the intense trance state was heightened by the sheer beauty of the music that grips one in a communal bond with other audience members. So beautiful in fact that you could feel waves of ecstasy coming from the crowd. Contrasted with the lyrics that explore dark and troubling realms, the effect is one of introspection and reflection.

Slint fans elevate the activity of head-bobbing to an art form. Looking out over the crowd at the packed El Rey was to observe the full range of head-bobbing styles. I only saw one person engaged in that (to me) odd habit of raising one's had over one's head and jabbing a finger toward the band on the downbeat. That's far too much activity and distraction for the true slo-core, shoe gaze fan, whose full focus is on the music at hand.


Slint has taught me not only lots of back history of early indie rock, they have taught me a lot about fans of this music and the seriousness of their devotion. The intense concentration combined with the euphoria make a palpable environment that is tough to shake, creating a memorable concert experience and a valuable music history lesson as well.


whrabbit

Friday, August 8, 2014

Auditorium at Silver Lake Lounge 7/29/14


It was a lot of fun to see Auditorium again on Tuesday, July 29th, after the hiatus they've been on for a couple of years. Lead singer and writer, Spencer Berger (below,on the right) has hardly been inactive though, playing in a side project teamed with Mike Rademaker and performing a few solo shows, including the one he played for me at Feed Your Head in February at Lot 1. Speaking recently, he confided that he's
been doing a lot of writing and recording lately and he was anxious to get out there and start performing this new material.

Since his band is so much of a family affair (involving two families) it must make reassembling that much easier. His sister, Elizabeth Berger, on harmony vocals and his wife, Daya Berger, on bass, and the other family, Jon Hogan (above, on the left) and Justin Hogan, two brothers on voice and guitar and voice and keys. They have a familiarity that probably helps them fall back into their positions and contributes to the impressive coordination this band displays. I was so happy to see them on stage together again as a band. Chalk up another one for Silver Lake Lounge.

Jon Hogan, Spencer and Elizabeth Berger
Even though there were some unpredicted obstacles, like no drummer, they mustered on, urged forward by a persuasive Spencer, after members voiced some concerns about no percussion. But this band is so powerful vocally they still sound complete even without the drums, which sat unattended during the set. Forced to play a revised set list, they dipped back into their catalog and performed beautiful versions of "Did Your Heart Shake Like This Song", " Karaoke Freight Train" and "Sex Offenders" in addition to a couple of the new songs, one played with full band and another played solo by Spencer when he gave the others a break and did a couple of songs by himself.

Daya Berger and Justin Hogan
It's impossible not to be moved and impressed Auditoium. Even though it took a little time for the vocals to congeal, once they did it was again obvious they could be one of the most harmonically sound bands in the whole local scene. The tricky and clever songs are written to showcase this aspect with all their gloriously soaring voices pitched at the same level inducing wonder in this listener. Add in the coordinated guitar, bass and especially piano and you've got some of the best orchestrated,  lyrically inventive and adventurous indie rock that I've heard. A new album is coming.

This set was followed by old friends of theirs from Brooklyn, Chamber Band (at right), who are currently on an East Coast/West Coast tour, who dropped in to regale us with their splendid psycho/math rock. I was trying to engage in conversation with members of Auditorium and fellow Radio Free Silver Lake writer, Kathryn Pinto, but out attention was consistently interrupted by the blast of machine gun-delivery of Chris Littler and Ellen Winter in a vocal duel.  The songs are odd and original, with a hint of Broadway pizazz, and you must listen closely. We stopped trying to talk and just focused on Chamber Band.

whrabbit
photos too

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wages at Silver Lake Lounge - 7/24/14


What's going on at Silver Lake Lounge? They keep having great line ups with bands I already love teaming up with bands I need to know about. On July 1st I dropped in to catch a set by longtime favorites Seasons, but before they played I heard the set by Psychic Love which entirely bowled over the audience that had filled the venue with obviously devoted fans. And with good reason. This dreamy, shoegaze/neo-punk outfit is not only packed with good musicians, but the songs were all varied and memorable. Lead singer and songwriter Laura Peters is a formidable talent and has a natural and easy charisma on stage. I got lost in the swirl of their set and had to come back down to earth only to be lifted again as Seasons began their hugely orchestral big-band sound. They're new material highlight all aspects of their fully integrated band members with each one having moments to shine. Nik Garcia's smooth vocals still pack a real wallop when he lets loose with a raspy howl that counterpoints the gentle and soothing passages.

Then last week I went over specifically to hear a set by Wages (at left), who have not played in a while. This was absolutely stunning. Nick Campbell has such amazing command of his vocal instrument, knowing exactly what it can and cannot do. Equally as powerful in the mid ranges as in falsetto, he can jump from one to the other with liquid ease. And the songs are constructed to showcase this ability as well as his dexterity on the guitar and his band mates, James DeDakis and Dustin Robles, sterling, and no less important contributions, on bass and drums. This three-man unit can sound like a band of eight or nine. They played a couple of new songs too, which added to the lustre of the evening.

I'm heading back over there tonight to see Auditorium, another band that has been quiet for some time and are ready to emerge again. I can't wait.

whrabbit
photo of Wages too