Sunday, September 21, 2008

Street Scene, September 19 & 20 in San Diego

Going to a music festival alone can be a drag. Concerts -- festivals, especially -- should be a shared experience with at least one friend (the more than better) where you can trade favorite bands and discover new ones. My people in San Diego were either busy or broke so I prepared myself to go to Street Scene alone. I've wound up at festivals alone before but I don't begin planning to go that way, it just happens. But the line-up at this year's two-day fest was probably my favorite of any all year and if it had to happen to that I would be doing the show on my own, so be it. I had been to Street Scene before, the year with the Pixies and the Flaming Lips and the Killers and Garbage and Kasbian and Flogging Molly and the Locust and the Von Bondies and Spoon and Autolux and Snoop Dogg, when it was in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium, which was perfectly fine with me, but apparently that was an outrage for the fine concert-goers of San Diego so they moved it back to the downtown area, where it had been originally before it got to be a big deal. Compared to festivals that are out in the middle of nowhere, Street Scene is a breeze to get to: take the Amtrak (from L.A. or the airport or wherever) to downtown, walk a few blocks or get a cab and you're there. San Diego has their act together when it comes to mass-transit so it was easy to get in and out (though I'm sure the trolly was a fright when the show got out each night). The festival was also a fraction of the size of other festivals I've been to, taking up less than a dozen marked-off city blocks and a few streets, and with fewer people, but enough for a crowd and everyone was really mellow. A lot of Radiohead T-shirts. And, to my notice, more smokers than I've ever seen in one place (and nearly as many smoking weed). A lot of younger people. One of the really cool things was, out of five stages, the two biggest ones were across a parking lot from each other and when one act was done, the one on the opposite stage would start up, meaning you could bounce back and forth between both all day and neither overlapped the other (which would have been a nightmare for sound if overlapping had happened so it was even more important that each band stuck tightly to their set-times). This was the plan at Lollapalooza and it seemed revolutionary to me because nothing like that has ever happened at Coachella (as usual, my measuring stick for all other festivals). The place is the size of a closet compared to any other music festival. With fewer people, there were shorter lines for everything, including the restrooms, and since there were fewer people using them, the port-a-potties stayed nearly as clean throughout the day as they started. Festival tip #1: Take your own hand-sanitizer. That stuff seems to be all the rage at festivals these days, so the venue doesn't have to provide running water, and I don't mind it but the stuff they had in the port-a-potties here was more like soap and that's just not acceptable. I got my own bottle of Purell for $1.89, it fit in my pocket, and my hands were as germ-free as they could be under the circumstances. Even if the music hadn't been enough, the weather made for an enjoyable weekend: perfectly clear skies, cool but not cold, sweater or jacket optional after the sun went down, a slight breeze. If you've ever been to San Diego you know how nice it can be and that weekend it was absolutely as nice as it could be. Makes you wonder why people even schedule music festivals in the summer when, if they could just wait a month or two, the weather could be so much nicer and the concert-goers, therefore, much more comfortable.

But the music was as great as could be expected:
The Films are pop-rock trying to be indie. Too inoffensive to be very interesting but a fine way to start my day;
Muslims are kinda a sober, American Libertines crossed with a surf-rock band. Not horrible;
Foals are apparently huge in Europe right now and they came recommended but they didn't do much for me. Maybe they're just not a good band to be introduced to live. Another British that will be around this year and forgotten the next but that's not to say they're bad. I'd pick up their album if I saw it around;
Hot Chip are a bit too post- ironic for me. I know these guys are a big deal right now but their nerdy dance-music just didn't do anything for me. I like rock stars. Most of these guys were wearing glasses and their music left me cold. If they're really that great maybe they're an acquired taste but I just couldn't get into it;
I've heard complaints that there are no protest songs anymore. Well, there are but they don't get on the radio. If Michael Franti (& Spearhead) could get on the radio, he might actually have a shot at changing the world. Imagine a cross between the Clash and Bob Marley and you're pretty close. I didn't recognize anything he was playing, though I have most of his older stuff, so it must have been all new songs but it didn't matter, it was still a great, positive vibe. I have never had my hands in the air more than when Michael Franti was on stage.
If the New Pornographers were better-looking, they would be popular and rich instead of just respected. Or maybe if Neko was with them more. I didn't mind missing the first half of their set, since I had seen them once but I'd never seen Franti before, and I think I like them more on album than live anyway. But they closed with a cover of "Don't Bring Me Down" by ELO and it showed that they actually could rock out, maybe even without irony, if they wanted to;
Since I was seeing the New Pornographers, I also missed most of TV on the Radio's set, showing up for closer "Staring the Sun," which was stunning just after sunset and in such a big, welcoming crowd. It is odd to me that TV on the Radio and their way-weird (but amazing) music can attract a crowd but it's fine that they do. After seeing only part of their set, I promised myself to get tickets once I got back to see one of their full shows (which wouldn't have a scheduling conflict);
It took me a while but lately I've gotten really into Spoon. They're one of the recent indie-bands-gone-big and they got a good crowd. Their stuff would seem odd on the radio, even still, but whatever hits they have they played them, judging from the crowd. A solid set, including a horns section;
This festival marked the third time that I have been able to see only three minutes of Cat Powers' set. At least I'm consistent. Chan Marshall vs. Britt Daniel was my biggest conflict for the weekend, though I think I made the right choice; I know that she plays in L.A. frequently anyway. I've been really into Cat Power lately but it seems that a more intimate setting would be best for her music, not at a festival. And I don't even know what song it was I heard her perform (though it was her last one). But I know it was Mr. Judah Bauer on guitar for Cat Power, and that was enough to go all the way over to that stage, then all the way back to the main ones;
Devotchka are like a mellow Gogol Bordello and what's the point of that? Not much for me there but I've seen their name well-placed at a number of festivals so I assume they're coming up and maybe I'll hear more about and by them later on;
Justice sounds like an updated but less innovative Chemical Brothers to me but I just haven't been into that kind of stuff since the '90s. They're fine but I don't see why they're such a big deal;
Beck is a smart man. Not only is he a genuis songwriter (though the new album isn't his best), he's wise enough to play the popular stuff -- opening with "Loser" -- to keep the crowd going through the obscure stuff, though they ate that up just as well. Even some stuff from Sea Change went down well. His experimental stuff went too far, though, when mid-way through the set the band took a break from their instruments to come to the front of the stage to push buttons on some kind of boxes, that didn't always play reliably, taking Beck's mic with them, but a slight derail didn't kill an otherwise solid set.

On Saturday Brian (who was letting me crash on his floor) had had some rest and decided to go to the show, if he could get a ticket for $40. We got on Craigslist and made a bunch of calls and eventually got ahold of a guy who was willing to let his ticket -- a wristband, no less (less chance of it being a fake) -- for that amount so I had a buddy to share the show with for the day. Festival tip #2: At a multi-day festival, there is always someone who had a ticket for the first day but wants to get rid of the ticket(s) for the other days and, if you can time it right before the show, when they're really desperate to get at least a little bit of money for it, they might let it go really cheap. I didn't drink the first day so we made up for it the second, mostly staying in the beer gardens next to the stages to watch the music:
I wouldn't imagine Spiritualized, with their spacey, psuedo-soul drone-rock, to translate to an audience on American asphalt, and they did have to go on first at the main stage but they were surprisingly good and actually fit (after the all-female strings and back-up singers at Coachella, which would not have gone over well at this place);
I thought I had enough of Cold War Kids at the last festival but at this one, just as we were finishing our beers and moving on to the next act, they opened with "We Used To Vacation," which is the only song I was concerned to hear by them, and it sounded great. The rest of their set might have been pretty good too; they sounded better playing in San Diego sunshine than San Francisco haze;
Del the Funky Homosapien got a good-sized crowd though I couldn't say he's ever had a hit that everyone would know -- and know that he did it. He's a veteran artist so maybe he got people there just because he's been around for so long. I had forgotten his Deltron 3030 project and he did "Virus" from that album early in the set. I've never seen Del in concert before, even years ago when I saw Gorillaz, and I read that he did "Clint Eastwood" at the end of a set at another festival, and that would almost have been worth sticking around to see but I had other bands to get to so I had to leave early;
You may heard that the Hives leveled San Diego during their set. It's true. It might be because I was most excited about seeing them or that I've been playing "Main Offender" on Rock Band a lot but they were my favorite set of the weekend. I've only seen them at festivals so I can't imagine them filling more than 45 minutes but their short, punchy songs are perfect for a shorter set-time;
Tegan and Sara did the set at Street Scene that they should have done at Coachella. Not that either set was much better or much worse, I guess I was just underwhelmed at Coachella and sore that they didn't play "I Wouldn't Like Me" there, which they played this time, though it was first, when I was taking a pee. They also have the distinction of being the band that Brian was most interested in, though never having heard them before, so their set (or the fact they play angtsy, angry-girl rock) was enough to win over at least one first-timer;
X are veterans. They're not fools. They've done more of these festivals than anyone there. They play a tight set of great tunes that even a causal festival-goer will realize they know, then they're done and they make way for the next band. Exene might look like your grandma but she still rocks. X will still be rocking long after we're all old and dead;
If you aren't obsessed with the National then clearly you have never heard them. I really can't say much more beyond that. I'm surprised they got such a good spot at the show (the second-to-last act on the big stages) but it's good that they have as many fans as showed up;
The biggest story from the festival is that the Black Crowes -- Saturday's headliners -- cancelled their appearance four days before the show. As far as I'm concerned, anyone they got to replace them would be an improvement. They were replaced by Devo, and while I like Devo, I'm not sure what kind of crowd they pull anymore. I saw Devo a few years ago at another festival and they played mid-day, before Tears for Fears if I recall. Devo still play all the hits, including "Whip It" early in the set, though they break out the covers and more obscure stuff in the middle of a longer set, and that was a good time for us to leave. Thank God -- no new material. It makes me wonder really how many people were genuinely excited to see Devo or if they stuck around just because they were at the end of the festival and didn't want to go home.

Missed: MGMT (seen them more than enough, even if it was for less than five minutes), Vampire Weekend (it may be the backlash but I find I'm just not in love with them, despite all the hype), the Whigs (who I heard were good but we were too busy having lunch and getting drunk when they went on), Eagles of Death Metal (who I assume were without Josh Homme anyway), Tokyo Police Club (didn't I see them at Coachella and not much care for them?), Does It Offend You, Yeah? (another band that keeps following me at festivals but I just haven't gotten to. I'm sure they're great but they really need to consult with me about their schedule), Ghostland Observatory (a lot of press about them and apparently they have a great stage show but I haven't needed to see them, apparently), Sea Wolf (who apparently canceled before the schedule even came out), Man Man (might be great but I wouldn't know because they don't have their shit together on time so I don't have to stick around).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sterephonics/People in Planes, September 16 at the Fonda

When a band that usually plays arenas plays a club, you ought to consider checking them out, for the spectacle of a big band on a small stage, if nothing else. Not that I would see Stereophonics for the spectacle; I've been a fan of theirs for years. I saw them at Coachella a few years ago, one of the worst performances I've ever seen, as a sound made for a European stadium was packed into a hot, overcrowded tent and since they were touring for their loud album (Language, Sex, Violence, Other?) the sound was horrible and my ears are probably still ringing. The last time through town they played the Hollywood and Anaheim House of Blues and they're continuing to downgrade, now to the Fonda. Not that it stopped them from rocking out or showcasing some great material. At this point they have enough hits (well, in Europe) that they could coast on a greatest-hits show and in this case they're touring for a new album, which makes the fact that they played half of their first album (Words Gets Around) -- the album they made before they went really big with Performance & Cocktails, five albums ago -- completely baffling. The only reason I can come up with is that the new album, Pull the Pin, hasn't been released in the States and they thought people might not know it as well yet. (Though they were selling the new album for $10 in the lobby so maybe that's their idea of promotion.) Hopefully they will play a full tour when the album gets more traction in the U.S., which is doubtful, since they haven't been able to break State-side with any of their previous, far-more-accessible singles, there's no reason to think anything new will do the trick. It's also odd that they don't play more domestic festivals, especially this year (and especially being in L.A. the week between two big festivals in San Francisco and San Diego). Stereophonics have never seemed to make more than a half-assed attempt to break into the States, that they could follow up a good single with a tour but they have never seemed to make any kind of considerable splash here. You could blame the fact that they are consistently panned by critics but that has never stopped them from being big in Europe and it's certainly never stopped scads of other bands. But hey, if they can be the secret of just a few people, what's the harm? The band will keep making records because they make money overseas and if that keeps them going, and tour the States with the hopes of breaking eventually, and we still get to see them in small venues -- well, a few of us will anyway -- then everyone wins. I noticed a number of people around me with accents; it must be an amazing thing to see a band in a (relatively) tiny place who usually play much bigger places in your homeland. Is there any small venue that Radiohead could play nowadays? The Fonda that night was really hot, too, making it baffling that all the members of the band, save for the drummer, all had leather jackets on (and kept them on). Oh, and Kelly, you have to be a bigger name in the States before you can wear sunglasses on-stage.

I have a few friends who go crazy over People in Planes and I got there early enough to see them opening the show. If I had never seen them before I probably would have bought their album, though I probably would have gotten rid of it after a short while. I already have their first album and it's only recently that I've started getting into the second half of it but it might not be long for my collection anyway. They were fine as openers but I probably won't concern myself with their new album. I watched their set from the balcony, and it's nice to sit but that's no way to see a show; I recall that I have sat during some of the most boring shows I've seen (when I could have been on the floor, standing).

Stereophonics' set:*
"The Bartender And The Thief"
"Bank Holiday Monday"
"A Thousand Trees"
"My Friends"
"Have a Nice Day"
"Vegas Two Times"
"Same Size Shoes"
"Bright Red Star"
"Daisy Lane"
"Too Many Sandwiches"
"More Life in a Tramp's Vest"
"Mr. Writer"
"Just Looking"
"Local Boy in the Photograph"

"Maybe Tomorrow" (Kelly solo)

Alternate review:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Nine Inch Nails, September 6 at the Forum

Nine Inch Nails has been a cornerstone of most of my adult life. The music of Trent Reznor has been the soundtrack to many of my adventures and the strength and peace I got from their albums, especially Broken, got me through college. Listening to that music today, it still stands up technically but the rage can seem a little silly (but a lot less silly than the alt-rock/nu-metal dreck that it helped spawn). Luckily, Trent Reznor has grown up with the rest of us and the music he makes nowadays has evolved from rage pointed inward to a focused concentration on targets like politicians, particularly bad ex-girlfriends, George W. Bush, and, as usual, God. The shows have also evolved, though they still involve Reznor trashing instruments, but these days he seems to have better aim at where he throws them. This stage destruction seems a little overdone these days – like, what does he have to be angry about (except for having to play "Closer" again)? -- but maybe it even seemed a little childish back in the day and we related to it so much that we thought it's what we would have done if positions were changed. Since I had to sacrifice NIN for Kanye at Lollapalooza (hey, I wouldn’t go to see Kanye at his own show but I would for NIN), I committed myself to getting tickets for the Forum show but I don’t know why I would have done otherwise, even if I had seen them over the summer. Brian took my extra ticket and we took our time getting there (read: we got lost from Santa Monica to Inglewood). Opening the show with new material, Reznor and company powered through a half-hour set with a full stage, surging through strong tracks from The Slip, along with crowd-favorites "March of the Pigs" and "Closer," the latter being as forced and listless as Tom Petty playing "Freefallin'" for the 13,485th time. The band then played in front of a screen that came down to divide the stage to just a tiny strip to play some slower numbers then played behind the screen some tracks from Ghosts I-IV, which the crowd was patient for, though Reznor was smart enough to put "Piggy" in the middle just to keep them going. Not that they would have revolted because of the instrumental songs -- the mass of goths would follow Reznor to Hell even if he was playing the Nickelback catalog. Also notable was the run-through of "God Given", which sounded more powerful than the album version; I wish it always sounded as good when I play Year Zero. And of course he can wait an hour and a half into the show to even acknowledge the crowd by speaking to them – they’re all self-abusive. They eat that shit up. The show was almost stolen by the stage set-up: a huge screen the width of the stage with projections in front of the band, then another, bigger screen behind them, with various lights and effects between. During "Only," the screen in front of the band was filled with static until Reznor leaned forward to sing and a hole opened and followed him around. For “The Hand that Feeds,” the screen behind displayed a huge picture of Bush that slowly morphed into one of John McCain, which wasn’t terribly clever, but the clarity of the images was remarkable. Reznor has traded paying for broken instruments for a stage set-up so he may not be touring with the same thing for the rest of his life but hopefully a DVD release will show how it was, though it will only capture a fraction of the majesty and innovation shown on a TV screen. Reznor has broken the cycle of record-release-tour-repeat and he's free to do whatever in the world he likes now. No doubt he will continue touring but how he could top this show, as well as continue paying for it all, is its own question. We missed openers Deerhunter, who I became a fan of later, but they're not an extraordinary live band, and probably in the wrong place playing such a big venue, so it was just as well.

Nine Inch Nails' set-list:
"Letting You"
"March of the Pigs"
"Head Down"
"The Frail"
"Gave Up"
"The Warning"
"5 Ghosts I"
"17 Ghosts II"
"19 Ghosts III"
"The Greater Good"
"Terrible Lie"
"The Big Come Down"
"31 Ghosts IV"
"The Hand That Feeds"
"Head Like a Hole"

"God Given"
"In This Twilight"