Monday, June 6, 2011

Arctic Monkeys: Live at the Hollywood Palladium

Last year, in a late-night moment of weakness (OK, on a drunken impulse), I purchased a ticket to see the Arctic Monkeys, knowing there was a very slim chance I would actually attend the show. It was a $20 ticket for small show at a biker bar venue in the middle of Death Valley, 4 hours away from where I live. Though the investment was not large, I woke up the next morning and laughed off the foolish notion that I would drive 8 hours round trip for a single show. I’m a fan, but I’m not that big a fan… of any band.

Still, I love those seclusive Monkeys, and the fact is they schedule very few US tour dates. When the announcement came that they would return to Southern California for a date at the Hollywood Palladium on June 3, I jumped at the chance to see them this time around (not requiring travel to the far corners of the state!) With only 11 shows across the US to promote the release of their new album Suck It and See, I was thrilled to have the chance see them in the small, sold out venue.

One of Arctic Monkeys greatest strengths in the studio is magnified in their live show; they seamlessly shift tempo within songs, providing energetic ebbs and flows. Their audience may be swaying gently in one moment, while eagerly awaiting that upcoming chorus where they will jump in the air, shake their fists, and shout out loud. At the heart of this strength is drummer Matt Helders; holy hell, the force is strong in this one! “Brianstorm,” off of their album Favourite Worst Nightmare is among the most lightning-fast drumming you will ever hear, and to witness that song live is proof that Helders is indeed as quick and precise as the studio version suggests. Throughout the show, I was continually amazed by the puppeteer effect Helders’ playing had over the movement of the crowd.

The enthusiastic crowd did not let up on energetic outpouring throughout the entire set, even when the band played the less familiar songs of their new (unreleased) album. Clearly, I was not the only one who had been live streaming the new material off of the Monkeys’ website. In an hour and a half set that was an even mix of about 4 songs from each album, the band played new songs “Brick by Brick,” “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair,” “She’s Thunderstorms,” “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala,” and “Reckless Serenade” to a crowd that already knew the lyrics. Naturally, the night’s highlights and the songs that stirred the greatest fervor were old favorites “Still Take You Home,” “The View From the Afternoon,” and the especially fun “When the Sun Goes Down.”

The Arctic Monkeys are quite impressive, with all band members playing well off one another’s strengths. The rhythm section is so versatile, and when it slows tempo and allows the lead guitar to weave in bluesy, acid rock riffs, the result is the sexier, more controlled sound that marks their evolution with each new album from angsty townies to world traveling rock stars. The new album has a mellower feel than the earlier albums, a consequence of more thoughtful and diverse arrangements in which the rhythm section and guitar playing trade off and compliment each other well.

As I’ve said before, and it bears repeating, Alex Turner is a smart and witty lyricist. He often writes from an observational viewpoint. In a crowded room of people, he is likely the wallflower, quietly drinking in the interactions of those around him, and taking careful note of appearance and body language. I have yet to scour the lyrics of the new album, but my initial impression is that it does not reflect his best lyrical work. However, I think a move toward lyrical simplicity is intentional here; it fits an early 1960 retro-rock feel that permeates the new album. A song like “Brick by Brick” has predictable wordplay and is lyrically repetitive, but such qualities make it one of the catchiest “throwback” songs on the album.

Members of the Arctic Monkeys, just 19 years old when they wrote their first album and became national treasures in England, demonstrate growth and maturity with each new album release. Some fans may miss the more aggressive sound of early albums, as the band continues to explore psychedelic, blues, and surf rock genres. But if you drop a naysayer into the middle of Friday night’s mosh pit I think they would find that the band has not abandoned their old sound at all. A mix of old and new material flowed seamlessly together to create a satisfying, well-balanced live experience.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Interview: The Silent Comedy

I am particularly fascinated by certain sociological characteristics of rock and roll bands – the nomadic lifestyle, the personal and working relationships behind the creativity, and the inspirations that drive that creativity. There is another pattern of interest- a correlation between a devoted and deeply connected fan base with a band’s ability to use principles of religious congregation in the writing and delivery of their music. I’m not talking about a particular denomination or belief, but rather, a mastery in rallying a community together, inspiring a feeling of belonging, and facilitating that cathartic release of energy at a rock show that parallels the historic use of religion for that function.

Going into my interview with San Diego-based band The Silent Comedy, I knew they had a unique insight into these three themes – a nomadic existence, a sense of broader community, and integration of music and religion – that long preceded their life as a working band. On a sunny day in Santa Barbara, brothers and band founders Joshua and Jeremiah Zimmerman sat with me in the park and shared some of the profound life experiences that shaped their worldview, and now offers layers of depth to their songwriting craft.

Jeremiah and Joshua, sons of a Pentecostal minister, spent their early years in Orange County, California. When Joshua was 12 and Jeremiah was 15, their parents sold all possessions and uprooted the family to South Asia to pursue missionary work and to scout a location to open a holistic medicine clinic. For two years, the brothers and their parents, along with another family, lived out of backpacks, moving from India, Nepal, Thailand, and then on to parts of Europe and the United States. I asked them to talk to me a bit about how those experiences shaped them as songwriters and as traveling performers.

Jeremiah: It was a very strange experience to have at that age, not doing anything in a permanent way, getting rid of everything and just becoming vagabonds for a while. Some places we would roll in and leave the next day, some places we would stay for months. And the bug for touring came from that. I am happiest when on the road.

Joshua: We became completely placeless and we made peace with the fact that we were not going to see any of our friends. You really become kind of anchorless. And that is something that people have said about our music.

When asked whether the musical traditions of the places they visited had an influence on the sound of the Silent Comedy:

Joshua: It wasn’t necessarily the musical traditions of wherever we were, but it was more of a feeling. And also just the dark aspects – our outlook on the world changed drastically when we went on that trip. To go from an affluent upper-class area to having no possessions, being on the streets of Calcutta… I don’t think I had ever seen a dead person before. We went to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying and they were carrying a body out when we arrived. Kids on the street without jawbones (a deformity of malnourishment) would hold on to your clothes, begging for money.

Jeremiah: And there were some situations that felt hostile. We were in Dehradun (India) during elections and people were getting killed on Election Day, and there was just a lot of tension. At a young age to experience that, it changes you fundamentally. The difference between being aware of the things that are going on in other parts of the world when you are in the States, versus experiencing it firsthand – you realize the enormity of problems that exist in places where everyday life is [wondering] “will I make it through today?” So that did influence our sound, I think, just experiencing that that kind of uncertainty in the environment around us.

Joshua: Coming back to Orange County, it was tough to acclimate. We were a bit removed… you know, we’ve always been weird. We see in our music now; we just can’t embrace the norms of subject matter that people write about, like love songs. We can try to write love songs but they come out a little warped.

Part of the “placeless” feel of the songs in the Silent Comedy catalog is that they conjure imagery of migratory characters from a different time in American history, notably late 19th/ early 20th Century – Wild West prospectors, Prohibition-era bootleggers, Vaudeville performers, and traveling preachers. So where does this imagery come from?

Jeremiah: Our dad was a minister in the Assemblies of God, a Southern Pentecostal denomination and so the whole tent-revival-snake-handling stuff – they weren’t as crazy as that - but still in that tradition. So we grew up in that environment.

Joshua: We try to get to deep human issues in songwriting, like the dirtiness of humanity mixed with the desire for redemption. The tent revival thing was huge during the Great Depression. So when we think of the events that evoke those forces in the world, we naturally go back in time because to sing about the grinding pressures of life, its not that you missed your morning latte, it is more about immediate survival.

On writing songs that are imaginative storytelling vs. autobiographical:

Joshua: I always thought it was a really cool thing to write songs that are totally in character. [“Exploitation” from the perspective of a sexual victim] is about the human trafficking trade. My dad is involved in an organization to stop human trafficking and I was interested in the work that they do. I read case studies on their website and that song came out as a way of kind of purging my brain from the horrific details from those case studies.

Some songs, you take what has happened in your life and you put it in a fictional context, because sometimes it’s easier to not be as confessional. Like the song “49” is a real personal situation transposed into a situation that occurs during the Gold Rush.

Jeremiah: I think some vagueness is good. I don’t ever want to be so specific (in autobiographical songwriting) that I am the only one who can relate what I’m talking about.

In addition to Jeremiah (piano) and Joshua (bass), who are the primary vocalists of the band, the Silent Comedy is also comprised of Justin Buchanan (banjo and mandolin), Chad Lee (percussion), and Tim Graves (Guitar and Harmonica). Their live show, probably best described by Joshua as a “whiskey-fueled tent revival,” is a boisterous dancing-stomping-shouting celebration that leaves the crowd feeling like participants, not just spectators. An appreciation for showmanship and inclusiveness, which the brothers acquired from years of attending Pentecostal tent revivals, shines through in the Silent Comedy’s live performance.

Jeremiah: Being raised in that kind of church environment where the crowd is involved and everyone is participating and raising their hands, it was always a pet peeve of mine at rock shows when the cool kids would be standing there with their arms crossed. If you’re going to be there and be into music, just drop the act, get into it, be a little foolish. If people are going to come out to see us, we have got to be worth seeing, and I think that some of those early (tent revival) experiences inspired that. That kind of showmanship, those traveling preacher types are great at that.

Joshua: It’s one thing to see a band whip people into frenzy, it’s even more incredible to watch a single guy, without a band, whip people into frenzy. There is a lot of force behind it. If we had been brought up in a different religious tradition, we would have a different approach to it. In Catholicism or Anglicanism, people come to sit and observe and hear someone talk, but in Pentecostalism people don’t come to observe. It gets chaotic and energetic. People come to have an experience, and that is what we bring to the music.

The Silent Comedy indeed delivers a phenomenal live experience, and I came away from it with an overarching feeling inclusiveness. It was as if their sound was the equivalent of outstretched arms, beckoning the crowd closer so that we could all, collectively, stomp harder and sing louder. Many bands, probably without realizing it, erect a wall between them the audience, a division between performer and spectator. I found the Silent Comedy to be refreshingly accessible, both in conversation and also as performers. They clearly operate under the philosophy that they are part of a greater community that includes the new faces of each town they visit. It is no surprise that they are collecting new loyal and devoted fans with every live show.

I may be a heathen, but I’ll worship in the church of the Silent Comedy any day of the week. And twice on Sunday.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The White Stripes.

Since the White Stripes announced their break up last week, I have struggled to find the words to celebrate what that band has meant to rock and roll over the last decade, and what it has meant to me personally. It feels inappropriate to eulogize a band in which the dominant personality, Jack White, continues to prolifically make music in other bands. Further, in band eulogy it is commonplace to overstate artistic genius. While Jack White is a mad genius of sorts, the White Stripes were flawed, and they purposely strived for imperfection. Fortunately, they came into our lives at a time when a resurgence of dirty imperfection in rock an roll was sorely needed, and that is why they are often credited as modern saviors of rock.

To appreciate fans’ heartsick reaction to word that Jack and Meg White would no longer make music together, one must recall the bleak landscape of rock and roll when the Stripes emerged on the music scene. By the late 1990’s, popular music had become a homogenized mess of boy bands, pop tarts, and whatever awful category of music includes Creed, Limp Bizkit, and Linkin Park. Record labels had seemingly hijacked artistic freedom, and music making was reduced to a formulaic process that left little variation in finished product. Everything new and emerging at the time felt fake, dishonest, and shallow. Fans of grittier guitar and drum-driven rock relied on new releases from old favorites, bands who had emerged in a different time and had managed to hold on to their creative integrity.

Then came along the White Stripes, a duo that shocked every sensibility accustomed to the tidy, glossy, buffed and polished state of music at the turn of the millennium. Meg and Jack - a drummer of basic skill and simplicity, and a guitar master with a raw and grating vocal - were anything but polished. But their calling card of a simple drum beat as the backdrop to killer guitar riff – an obvious formula that had been dormant for too long – was the freshest sound the world of rock music had heard in years. The simplicity of the White Stripes – two people with homegrown style, making heartfelt blues-rock, without back-up singers, dancers, and entourages – offered a stark realization of how so many musical acts had lost focus of what is most important: the music.

In a previous post, I expressed my gratitude for the White Stripes and the pivotal role they played for me as a music fan. Prior to my introduction to them, I was stuck in (mostly) a classic rock rut, listening to the same music I had loved for years, made decades before. I felt hopeless that a band from my generation would come along and live up to the songwriting integrity of the music I was raised on. I have said before that my journey as a music fan thus far can be divided into two eras: before I discovered the White Stripes and after I discovered them (specifically, that line drawn from first listen to the “Elephant” album). They were the bridge that linked my love of classic rock, including Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan, to a new period of music discovery that has come since that first listen to “Elephant.” Simply put, the White Stripes were the first band to come along that made me believe in my own generation of music makers.

It wasn’t just the music that made the White Stripes so intriguing. It was a dichotomy between the brash, honest, in-your-face quality to their sound, and the enigmatic image in which Jack and Meg presented themselves to the world. A divorced couple, claiming to be siblings, they had an on-stage chemistry that was hard to pinpoint as familial, friendly, or outright sexual. Meg’s painfully shy demeanor in interviews, her inability to look up from behind a curtain of hair and a voice so inaudible that she required subtitles, gave the viewer the uncomfortable feeling that she was not a participant by her own free will. Contrast with Jack, part bluesman prodigy, part cunning businessman, driven, eccentric, provocative, perhaps even a bit tyrannical. To witness their public interaction begged the question “What the hell goes on with those two behind closed doors?” Image and interpersonal dynamics are always a component of fan interest in a band, and the White Stripes remain a mystery in that regard.

As Jack and Meg White end their career together, they leave as their legacy a few important lessons and reminders: 1) With imagination and the right equipment, two people are capable of captivating audiences at the world’s largest venues and rocking harder than most bands two or three times their size. 2) Cool is a premium in this industry, and the coolest thing a band can be is enigmatic. There is a fine line between keeping fans interested and sharing too much, and the White Stripes leave current and future fans puzzled by their eccentricity as a duo. 3) Sometimes rock and roll is a dish best served raw, and all of the imperfections in a live experience – a guitar slightly out of tune or a note sung off key – assert that human error is preferable to technological perfection.

And so, the book on the White Stripes is closed and put on the shelf. While Jack continues with a number of projects, the reclusive Meg may slip off into hiding, only coaxed out now and again to appear as a guest in the studio or on stage. But the core philosophies of the White Stripes live on, both through Jack White’s ongoing projects, and in new bands that have and will been inspired by the Stripes. In the history of rock and roll, we can peg their influence on the genre right up there among the greats.