I’ve gone on and on about my favorite recordings of 2009 here and here, but live music is the backbone of any good scene. Here is a look back my 10 favorite shows of the past 12 months in chronological order, with excerpts from reviews already published in The Bulletin or on Frequency.
(The Ramblers) were terrific. Their arsenal of stringed instruments rang out crisp and clean. The mix was perfect, with percussionist Dale Largent complementing the pickers nicely. Vocally, the harmonies were shipshape, and I was surprised by guitarist Matthew Hyman’s strong voice. I didn’t realize he’s that good of a singer.
As for the set list, the band flitted back and forth between its favorite styles, from Hyman’s twangy ballads to bassist Dan McClung’s jazzgrass instrumentals to mandolinist Joe Schulte’s more rock-influenced numbers.
One highlight was my co-worker Jenny Harada’s song for her brother, Jason, who died last summer, called “Chasing The Sun.” I’m sure there were dry eyes in the house, but they weren’t mine. Another highlight was a new Schulte song built on a weird, ominous groove and featuring a wicked Largent drum solo, like old-time music meets heavy metal. A genre was born just then, I think: doomgrass.
We also got a raucous cover of the old Stealers Wheel hit “Stuck In The Middle,” a perfectly plaintive version of “Restless,” and what may be the Ramblers’ new signature tune, “Let It All Be Good.” In the latter, when Schulte sang “You’re dancing to our music till your toes start to bleed,” I scanned the wiggly bunch up front to get a glimpse of life imitating art.
“… it was the penultimate song that provided my favorite moment of the evening. As the intro to the new album’s title track thudded through the Domino Room, PP’s de facto frontman, KP, became an MC in the traditional sense of the word, thanking the crowd for coming and introducing the band one by one.
And then he said something that drove home what for me was the theme of the night: Local artists. Local art. Local people supporting these efforts, feeling pride in the things being created here.
“We are Person People,” he said, “from Bend, Oregon.”
Honestly, I got the chills right then.
Not from Portland. Not from Seattle. Not from California. Not from anywhere else.
From Bend, Oregon.
When I walked into the PoetHouse Friday night, it was instantly clear we were in for something different. Images of stars and planets were projected on the wall, and a section of the audience was dressed in space garb.
Ambient music floated through the small room as (local writer Jonathan) Ludwig, his face lit by intergalactic photos, read his piece. And when he was done, five men emerged, wearing not only head-to-toe white haz-mat-type suits, but gas masks, metal helmets, and other, well, weird stuff.
(That’s a phrase they teach you in journalism school. “Weird stuff.”)
The haz-mat quintet picked up guitars and drumsticks, and about three minutes after they launched into a frenzied rock riff is when I got that warm and fuzzy feeling.
This was fresh. It was different. It was creative. It was collaborative.
It was cool.
Empty Space’s new stuff is heavier and more varied, ranging from Atari-style bleeps and bloops to bona fide prog-rock to damn near heavy metal. The addition of guitar has moved ESO from an indie-jazz outfit to a muscular rock band in the same vein as Austin, Texas instrumental heroes Explosions In The Sky.
Thomas wrangles terrific noises out of his guitar. O’Dell adds color and texture. Pearsall’s bass rumbles like a fast-moving storm. And Elias is as ferocious a drummer as you’ll see in this town. She’s not only the engine for this ship, she’s also the rudder. Together, the quartet unleashed a flood of creativity, playing stuff that sounded like the soundtrack to space exploration, and other stuff that sounded like the Oompa Loompa song re-written for the year 3000.
It was hard not to keep my jaw off the floor, frankly, as a new song called “Clouds” evolved from droning groove to chugging rock to an airy pop song with a centipede piano melody.
And people love the percussion freakouts, where all four members man drums of some kind. It’s a polyrhythmic spectacle, thudding and tribal. Thomas even banged on a shovel, though the most enduring image of the evening was watching him pound a floor tom, winding up like he was driving a stubborn nail.
When all the noise finally stopped, and the cheering faded out, I couldn’t help feel like I had watched something special. Because watching a band become awesome is special.
A two-hour Fred Eaglesmith concert contains an hour or less of actual music. The rest of the time, the man does a full-blown comedy routine.
I’m not talking about witty banter tossed in to fill space between songs. I’m talking about long, involved stories, and genuine, guy-walks-into-a-whatever jokes.
The tales veer toward the political and the provincial. Occasionally, they get a bit dirty. And very little, it seems, is off-limits. On Monday, Eaglesmith joked about left-wingers and right-wingers, Sarah Palin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, vegan restaurants and hot dogs, hippies and rednecks, dogs and horses, Californians and Texans and, of course, Oregonians.
He feigned disgust when told the property he was on wasn’t a ranch but a “ranchette.” And he worried that his sweating water bottle would leave a ring on — “in a house like this” — a table worth several thousand dollars.
And that was just the first hour.
As for the music, the first hour was also reserved for Eaglesmith’s funnier songs. He did “I Like Trains,” “I Shot Your Dog,” and “Time To Get A Gun,” three upbeat numbers that pretty much spell out the point in the title. And he ended his first set with “Lucille,” a hilarious story song about a 19-year-old man dating a 50-year-old woman that had most of the Biggers’ living room — many of whom were Lucille’s age or older — in stitches.
But he snuck some more sober material in there, too, including “Alcohol & Pills,” a chronicle of the troubled lives of country and rock stars past. When a silent moment in that song revealed the tap, tap, tap of someone’s foot keeping beat on the hardwood floor, it was a split-second of magic.
(Adam) Shearer and his mates loaded their first set with their slower tunes. The singsong melody of “The Devil In Me” and the downcast shuffle of “People Like You” were highlights, even if they did have to compete with a table of loudly giggling women. When Shearer introduced “Sunken Eyes” as “awesome to the max,” it was an odd juxtaposition with the song’s first verse: “A sense of heartbreak all around/ I can see it in this house/ How can I always let you down/ I can taste it in my mouth.”
That’s typical Weinland: melancholy to the max, one might say. But endlessly pretty, too. When the giggling subsided and the band played a murder ballad called “God Here I Come,” Shearer’s pillow-soft voice blended perfectly with the warm sound of his strummed guitar strings. It was a golden moment.
Toure is virtuosic on the electric guitar. All night, his band created foundations of rockabye desert-blues, drawing from both American and African sources for inspiration. Atop those grooves, Toure flashed the kind of lightning-fast fingers that can come from a fortunate combination of good DNA and a lifetime watching Dad, aka Ali Farka Toure, carry the music of Mali to the rest of the planet.
The most impressive thing about watching Vieux play was the ease with which he makes music. When his right hand plucked the guitar strings, it looked like someone nonchalantly drumming their fingers on a tabletop. His left hand flitted up and down the fretboard with such speed and grace, it was sometimes barely visible to the naked eye.
And while Toure’s band stuck to rhythm-driven, chunky blues, funk and rock, the sound of the frontman’s guitar spread across the park like ripples in water. It was beautifully fluid.
A big concert in a big outdoor shed requires a big show, so the band also sprinkled its set with covers of hits by R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Nelly, Bon Jovi (a song Nettles recorded with the band) and the B-52s (complete with disco wigs). Some worked, some didn’t; I thought the B-52s song (“Love Shack”) was silly, but the Pearl Jam one (“Better Man”) came off very well. Sadly, many in the crowd — I’ve never seen so many sundress/big sunglasses/cowboy boot combos, by the way — took these tunes as opportunities to chat with friends or buy more beer.
No matter how many times Sugarland strayed from its own hit parade and lost the crowd, however, Nettles could swoop back in and grab them again. She had us — yes, us — in the palm of her hand. The only misstep, I thought, came in the encore, when Sugarland did the B-52s song plus a new song, “So Long,” that had a horn-fueled rock ‘n’ soul vibe. I didn’t love either.
But by then, the fun had been had. The crowd had been wowed. And Sugarland, after canceling an appearance here two years ago, had made a triumphant debut in Central Oregon, where country is king.
All Snider’s songs are tiny, exquisitely written showcases for a man who can be hilarious, devastatingly sad and cleverly insightful within the same verse. Using his guitar, voice and harmonica, he delivered a set that touched on drug laws, religion, media, politics and a host of other issues on which he most certainly has opinions, though he urged us not to be offended.
“I don’t share (my opinions) with you because I think they’re smart or because I think you need to know them,” he said. “I share them with you because they rhyme.”
The bare-footed Snider drew dozens of big, hearty laughs from the crowd, and no jeers, even when he played “Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” in the middle of rural Oregon. Granted, it’s an artsy town in rural Oregon, but still.
But that’s the way to do it, you know? Tell a joke. Make ’em laugh. Sing a fun song about a baseball player tripping during a game. Then, when they’re on your side, make ’em think.
Wonder aloud why we teach our kids all week that only the strong survive, only to tell them on Sundays that the meek will inherit the Earth. Describe gay marriage as “what worries people that don’t have s–t-all to worry about.” Wrap up your set — a set heavy with the world’s burdens — by leading a singalong version of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
The Autonomics are great at what they do, which is straightforward, rugged rock ‘n’ roll. There were times they were almost punky, but more often they reminded me of Canadian indie superstars Wolf Parade. Live, their songs sound looser and rougher than the versions on their MySpace, and that’s a good thing.
The band did several originals, plus a cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Throughout, Pantenburg spit his vocals as if they were pushing their way out faster than his mouth could move. The twins ably held down the rhythm section as their frontman wailed on the guitar, bouncing up and down like an oil well pump.
The folks at Parrilla ate it up, and even called for an encore. The Autonomics obliged with a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.” Good choice. That is a classic tune.
Tags: Bend Roots Revival, Best of 2009, Crystal Dragons, Empty Space Orchestra, Fred Eaglesmith, Moon Mountain Ramblers, Person People, Sisters Folk Festival, Sugarland, The Autonomics, Todd Snider, Vieux Farka Toure, Weinland