I’ve gone on and on about my favorite recordings of 2010, but live music is the backbone of any good scene. Here is a look back my 13 favorite shows of the past 12 months in chronological order, with excerpts from reviews already published in The Bulletin or on Frequency.
(Jake) Smith’s talents are many, but his voice is obviously his most distinctive quality. It’s a show-stopper. A jaw-dropper. It’s canyon deep and sequoia strong, with a natural resonance that 99 percent of singers would kill to have.
The closest comparison I can come up with is Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, though when he’s at his best, Smith makes Vedder sound like Bobby Brady going through puberty.
He’s just that great of a singer.
Smith showcased that voice on barnburners like “The Madman” and “Carnage,” with their ultra-low notes, as well as meandering, pretty numbers such as “Sleepy Little Town” and “Where Dirt and Water Collide.” And he let it soar during two of his best songs, “Love Song #1” and “Damned.” The ascendant pre-chorus of the former and the roller-coaster verses of the latter were perfect examples of Smith’s skill for writing melodies that are both unconventional and memorable.
Warm Gadget … wasn’t quite as out there as I expected them to be. The songs on their MySpace … are creepy, industrial, electro-fuzz-rock blasts that are, generally speaking, slightly more beat-driven than riff-driven.
Live, those beats and electronic textures are certainly perceptible, but they don’t play as much of a role in the band’s sound as they do on recordings. Live, Warm Gadget is a sludgehammer, pummeling anything in its path with its aural assault.
It’s a four-pronged attack. Drummer Jared Forqueran is a machine behind the kit, of course. Eric Metzger’s bass lines are deep and powerful enough to register on a Richter scale. And Colten Williams spent his evening strangling his guitar for sounds so sharp you could probably trim hedges with ’em.
And then there’s frontman Tim Vester, the former Kronkmen vocalist who wore a priest’s clerical collar for the gig. Vester’s style is equal parts abrasive and magnetic, like the scrape of metal on metal chased with a spoonful of sugar.
He’s fun to watch, but he’ll never win “American Idol,” unless they have “American Idol” in purgatory. Then he has a shot.
Warm Gadget only played for about 45 minutes, blasting their way through one bruising tune after another and filling the space between with programmed samples and sounds. Those breaks seemed to confuse the audience; it’s hard to know when to clap when you’re not sure if the song is over or not.
It was quite a sight watching the good people of Sisters and Central Oregon, ranging in age from 7 to 70, get down – deep, deep down – to the soulful urban sounds of Orleans Avenue. This was truly a melding of cultures, where a 24-year-old black man from a tough neighborhood in New Orleans can coax hundreds of white people from a rural New West town to wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, and not one person in the room feels even a hint of self-consciousness.
This is what happens when a hyper-skilled and high-energy band throws down in front of an adoring audience – folks simply lose control of their body and mind. There was a sense of euphoria in Trombone Shorty’s crowd, and nowhere was it more obvious than on the faces of the young people who packed the open space between the stage and the first row of seats.
It was like watching inspiration – profound, core-reaching inspiration – happen in front of your eyes.
There was a lot of love in the room, going both directions. Carlile repeatedly complimented the audience and Bend, promising a diverse set list over (two) nights and offering to take requests. When a woman called out for Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” Carlile came through with one impromptu verse, wedged between planned songs.
It was a charming moment, one of about a million packed into Carlile’s 90-minute set that showcased all of the Seattle-area native’s considerable talents.
Among those talents, the most impressive is the least tangible: The woman just oozes star quality. Carlile had full command of the room, from the moment she walked on stage — dressed head to toe in black, with a red bandana tied on her arm — to the final bow after a stark cover of the Tears For Fears classic “Mad World.”
The show wasn’t all other folks’ songs. Carlile focused on material from her 2009 album “Give Up the Ghost,” but also dug into her breakout record, 2007’s “The Story,” flanked (as usual) by longtime collaborators and identical twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth. On stage, the three are a soulful study in symmetry, constantly approaching and backing away from their microphones like pistons in a car engine.
They’re also pretty darn tight musically, as proven on a gathered-round-the-mic version of “Oh Dear,” the perfect Hanseroth harmonies on “Looking Out,” and the easygoing, ’70s-inspired chorus of “Late Morning Lullaby.”
But most of all, they proved it with an unamplified take on “Ghost” standout “Dying Day,” played on beat-up guitars at the edge of the stage to take advantage of the Tower’s top-notch acoustics. It was a jaw-dropping performance, a highly skilled jam session transported from some far-away front porch, and unquestionably the highlight of a night full of highlights.
If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the Flask, you owe it to yourself to catch them when you can. What was once a punk-rock quartet is now a six-piece string band that plays Americana and bluegrass at breakneck, hardcore speed. … Long hair and long beards fly in every direction. Sweat soaks shirts from collar to belt buckle. Guitar necks jab into the crowd like bayonets. Unidentified non-band-members hop onstage to sing along.
And that’s just the show. At the Moon, the crowd was a human tidal wave that surged forward (knocking over the drums) and backward (knocking over other humans) and side to side, all night long, as the Flask tore through song after song after song, keeping the pedal to the metal until the very end.
It was, as I said, complete and total chaos.
Musically, older songs such as “Fire on Sixth Street” and “My Name Is Cancer” stood solidly beside newer ones like “Wolves” and “Ready Your Roommates,” but there were no boundaries between the two. All were played with a fervor that you simply do not see from any other band, and all were played with precision.
The highlight of the night, though, came during “Monsters,” when some serendipitous soul let fly with fireworks across the Deschutes River. They first caught the attention of the crowd, and then Bridwell, who was visibly stoked to see them, shouting “Keep doing that, please!” Which they did. For a couple of minutes, the fireworks flashed and boomed and fell glistening to the ground, while “Monsters” loped to its crescendoing chorus and then faded into the night air as (Ben) Bridwell bowed to the east, pressing his hands together in thanks.
The band showed no shortage of energy throughout the set, but it seemed to gain an extra bounce when it closed its main set with a cover of “Am I A Good Man,” an old soul classic by Them Two unearthed a few years ago by the incomparable Numero Group reissue label. After a short break and the song “Detlef Schrempf,” the bounce returned as Band of Horses closed the night with their take on “Sugarcube” by Yo La Tengo.
This was the second time I’ve seen Helio, and my feeling today is the same as it was when I saw them two years ago: The wall of sound these guys make, using drums, guitars, effects and pre-recorded bloops and whooshes, is one of indie-rock’s best-kept secrets.
The band’s records are wonderful, warm baths of electro-indie-pop, equal parts organic and synthetic. (Brandon) Summers’ voice is honeyed, and his melodies float like cotton-candy clouds. And (Benjamin) Weikel is a machine on the drums, not literally, of course — don’t you hate it when people misuse literally? — but his rhythm seems metronomic, and he looks animatronic as he works.
Helio’s set list stuck mostly to the band’s excellent 2008 album “Keep Your Eyes Ahead,” though they sprinkled in the best bits from 2004’s “Love and Distance.” The set was nicely paced, ramping up from a relaxed beginning to a second-half stretch that included some of the band’s very best songs.
Of particular note was “Everyone Knows Everyone,” a buoyant tune about living in a town with a tight-knit music scene, and the title track from “Keep Your Eyes Ahead,” with its needle-sharp, high-pitched guitar licks that would sound quite cozy on just about any Modest Mouse song.
Poison Control Center, July 15, Mountain’s Edge
(Mellencamp) also showed he’s not just a relic of the 1980s, performing a couple of cuts from his new album “No Better Than This,” a stripped-down, rustic folk record that’s been getting rave reviews. The highlight was “Save Some Time To Dream,” with its wise, world-weary message and pretty melody that recalled, at times, Bob Marley’s “Songs of Freedom.” It was expertly delivered, and proof that, as he enters the twilight of his career, Mellencamp the songwriter is as vital as ever.
And Mellencamp the performer can still wow with his energy, an impressive feat for a man who’ll turn 59 this fall. He played with fervor, thanked his fans for their support, and executed an array of jumps, kicks and punches, looking like an amalgam of Bruce Springsteen, Jack Nicholson and Jackie Chan. As he closed with a spirited version of “Authority Song,” he looked like he was genuinely having fun, and I couldn’t help but be drawn in.
Atmosphere, Sept. 21, Midtown Ballroom
I was most struck by Bragg’s strong, distinctive voice, and his way with melody. At best, I’m a casual fan of the man’s recorded work, so many of the songs were new to me. But all were tied together by an easygoing charm that belied whatever their lyrical theme happened to be, whether it was Japanese-American internment during World War II, the power of a union, or the “misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom.” Or, you know … a pretty girl.
Bragg was subdued and soulful on “Farm Boy,” and “Shirley” was a fun little slice of sunny pop. He did a few Woody Guthrie numbers, showed off his guitar skills on “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” and provided the prettiest moment of the night through the entrancing, arpeggiated chords of “Tank Park Salute.”
After a couple hours of alternately hilarious and deadly serious banter, Bragg ended the night with a pep talk, encouraging the audience to battle cynicism and trust in the positive power of the common man, before declaring his own glass-half-full hope for us with “I Keep Faith” and closing with his biggest “hit,” the singalong-ready “A New England.”
It’s that same independent, carefree streak that drives (Doug) Martsch’s setlists, I suppose. Wednesday’s show was heavy with old-school favorites and only a few songs (the mellow “Life’s A Dream,” the punky thrash of “Pat,” the rubber soul of “Hindsight”) from Built to Spill’s most recent record, 2009’s “There Is No Enemy.”
Instead of flogging the record you’d expect him to flog, Martsch showcased several crunchy golden oldies like “In The Morning” and “Stab” (early in the night), and “Car” and “Distopian Dream Girl” (later). He stacked the middle of the set with sweeping, soaring songs like “Untrustable,” “The Plan” and “I Would Hurt A Fly.” In particular, the roiling ending of “Untrustable” was a scorcher that stirred the up-front fans — a funny mix of hippies, frat-looking dudes, hipsters and mountain men — into a mild mosh pit.
Tags: Atmosphere, Band of Horses, Best of 2010, Billy Bragg, Brandi Carlile, Built to Spill, John Mellencamp, Larry and His Flask, Poison Control Center, The Helio Sequence, The White Buffalo, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Tuck And Roll, Warm Gadget