Whew! That was quite the weekend. Hopefully you’re all recovered by now — if you’re not, this should make for pretty solid sick in bed reading. Squeezing everything that happened into one article would be a monumental task (not to mention really, really long), so we’ve split it in two and will be posting our recap of Friday and Saturday’s performances tomorrow. But for now, here’s what went down on the first two nights of the festival. If you’ve got photos, videos or just wanted to share your thoughts on a set you particularly liked/disliked, comment away!
Janelle Monae (Canopy Club, 9:00 p.m.)
It was gratifying to see Janelle Monae on the same stage where I saw Parliament-Funkadelic. Though her music comes to us through a time tunnel from an altogether different millennium, like George Clinton she frames physically persuasive, danceable music with complex, cerebral narrative.
Monae was radiant. She had an electric, formal stage presence — post-Victorian Gibson girl meets Grace Jones — with a dignity and drama worthy of her muse Fritz Lang. Above the stage, her image reproduced in black-and-white on two video screens had a grainy newsreel quality, as if we were in the future watching footage of the historic events of the present.
The acoustic space was filled to bursting by a sharp trio playing guitar, drums, and keyboard. The stage was haunted by costumed extras: wraiths, birds, buccaneers, fallout survivors, jet pilots, and queens. Crowded by these ghosts of her nightmarish imagination, Monae performed a fantastic set.
I have seen the future: it’s a strobe-lit, amplified, dangerous time…but very stylish.
~ William Gillespie
The giant elephant in the room, first and foremost: Janelle Monae owned the stage last Wednesday night. It would be worthless to try to describe her music, stage presence, style or
energy. The magic of internet video can do it much better:
More videos: “Cold War” and “Tightrope“.
Oh, and here’s the collaboration with Barnes of “Make the Bus“. I found Barnes to be subdued in this number. It might be because he’s completely in control of the stage with of Montreal and it was strange to see him in a supporting role. I kept expecting (damn it, wishing) that Monae would take the stage during of Montreal’s set, but it never happened. Although several of her band members took the stage during one of Barnes and Co.’s funkier numbers.
~ Erik Allgood
of Montreal (Canopy Club, 10:30 p.m.)
Speaking of funky.
of Montreal’s changes focus as well as any of the best “indie” bands (indie being a generally
useless term given to describe the explosion of alternative music). They transition between conventional pop to psychedelic jams to ragtime and back again with ease, never abandoning their unique charm. This is good – one of the worst mistakes a band can make is to repeat over and over again what worked initially and/or do the opposite and abandon everything that made them listenable in the first place to pursue a failed musical experiment (example: Interpol).
So, what’s to be taken from that? A pop band continues to be competent? No, far more.
After last week’s show, I’m convinced of Montreal shifts their focus between performances just to methodically screw with whatever perceptions concert-goers might have had of the band going in. Nothing about any of the band’s studio albums could have prepared me for a twenty minute slow jam, but there it was.
It was a surprisingly sexy show. They started the show with a few of their shrill-pop numbers: “Suffer for Fashion” and “Coquet Coquette”, sure, but the meat of the show was devoted to longer, soulful renditions of numbers from their newest album False Priest, as well as the rest of their catalogue.
In particular, their slowed down and stretched out version of “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” seemed to be all about the funk. The packed house ate it up. There was also an Elizabethan dumb show involving silver lobster people and pigs grinding on stage — tangent: the theatrics were consistently odd the whole night. “Ghetto World” — a soul-crushing acoustic piece and the only remotely downbeat song played all night — took place behind an old-timey television set prop. There was a huggable monster that looked like the thing from that one Ed Wood Movie. Totems sprayed feathers on the crowd during the encore. There was a lot of stage sex. It was beautiful, visually; happily, they did not tone down their stage presence because of the (relatively) smaller venue.
The mid-set funk reached a climax when “St. Exquisite’s Confessions” bled into a cover
of “Jump Up in the Air and Stay There”, originally an Erykah Badu and Lil’ Wayne collaboration. Really.
The audience and band alike didn’t lose this boogie-down mentality throughout the second
half of the show, winding down with a loud rendition of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” and the very bubble-gum “For Our Elegant Castle” as an encore to bring the set full circle.
~ Erik Allgood
After a steamy Janelle Monae left the stage, the Canopy Club was a hot and fetid tropical locker room. Few bands could have followed her into that sweatbox and pleased me.
Of Montreal gets credit for using some of the best performance ideas of David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, the Residents, Prince, and Pink Floyd (Alan Parker). While a surplus of eight musicians underlined the beat (or just waved their arms in the air), impressively costumed dancers elbowed their way to the edge of the stage. This unwieldy ensemble made even the generous Canopy stage seem unmanageably cramped, with randomly-attired stage hands (one in white t-shirt, one in shirt and tie) dashing back and forth to maneuver into place various large props.
Some of these apparitions that wandered in from stage right were majestic and terrifying, though the best costume designs of any concert I have seen had apparently been given no script other than contorting sexually with two blonde women in gold bikinis.
It’s good to see a young band try so hard to do something other than play great songs. I admire the effort to add a dimension of spectacle to alt-disco music. Frontman Kevin Barnes tried to push his magnetism, charisma, and beauty past its limits to lead the crowd into a rave atmosphere of unrestrained sexuality. But in the end this felt less liberating than shallow.
I applaud the effort to have a stage show, am impressed by the disturbingly surreal costumes, but found it all undermined by haphazard choreography and question whether the thin foundation of dance music can support the art they try to build on top of it.
Midway through the set was a moving performance of two newer songs, including “Casualty of You.” With a stripped-down instrumentation, disturbing animation, and a biting electric violin solo, this moving ten minutes of the show showed me what the band could accomplish if they did more serious writing.
And then for an encore they did the song about how the singer can “do it.” I clapped loud for another encore. From Janelle Monae.
~ William Gillespie
Built to Spill (Highdive, 11:00 p.m.)
Built to Spill was dubbed the “old folks show,” which was true in relation to the audience at Of Montreal/Janelle Monae. But one thing I learned from this year’s Pygmalion is do not underestimate the old folks: Built to Spill, Roky Erickson, and Ted Leo rocked harder than the “young folks” this year. Doug Martsch, songwriter/frontman of Built to Spill, has been at this indie rock game since the early ’80s, a point that is easy to see when viewing his hairline. The 41-year-old has been playing with much the same backing lineup since his band signed to Warner Bros. in ’95, and they brought the rock on this night while playing all the “hits.” My previous encounter with them was at the Pitchfork Fest a few years ago. Some bands just can’t pull off a huge, outdoor setting. Built to Spill is made for more intimate environs, and so I was pleased to erase the ho-hum impression I had of their live set from my memory. Moreover, it’s great to see a rock band perform in a venue built for rock bands. The band sounded great, both in terms of performance and acoustics. I only wish The Highdive could do more shows of this nature. At any rate, Janelle Monae is a dazzling curiosity with a serious set of pipes and a stage performance to match, but she’s still got a little ways to go in the songwriting department. Sometimes it takes the old folks to remind the young folks of such things. (For a full review of this show, including write-ups on Common Loon and Revolt Revolt, go here)
World’s First Flying Machine (Canopy Club, 7:30 p.m.)
World’s First were reduced on Thursday night, both in time (they got in five songs in a concise thirty minutes) and in number (down to five members from their usual seven). However, that didn’t prevent them from performing excellent versions of the House You’re Living In cuts such as “Inefficient Machines” and “Red is Turning Blue” as well as unreleased songs like “Long Winter” and “Rolling River”. All I can say is that I look forward to seeing them perform a full set in the future, and I certainly hope the hiatus rumors going around aren’t true.
~ Ben Valocchi
Turbo Fruits (Canopy Club, 8:15 p.m.)
If I’d made a list prior to the festival of things I least expected to hear, a note-perfect cover of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” would probably have been at the top. While it was a hilarious way to save face during some nasty technical issues, I’m not entirely sure that it isn’t a standard cover for the group — which brings me to the problem with Turbo Fruits. Much like the concocted backstories behind Die Antwoord and Andrew W.K. (and what the hell, Bon Iver too), it all felt like an act. They’ve probably done the cover and everything else (there was also an in-audience finale and scads of drunken stage banter) at each stop on their tour.
~ Ben Valocchi
Santah (Canopy Club, 9:00 p.m.)
Halfway through Santah’s set, I realized that I’d never really seen them play (two songs at the Common Loon CD release doesn’t count) — which is simply unacceptable considering how engaging they are live. They stuck almost exclusively to material off of the excellent White Noise Bed, and the album’s freewheeling charm came across equally well live. “No Other Women” was colored by some excellent harmonies from Vivian McConnell, and bandmate (and brother) Stan did his best inspirational speaker impression during the bridge to “Neighbors & Cousins”. Overall, they’re a band that I’ll definitely make sure to see more of, and I dare say that they’re ripe for a jump up to a more regional/national level.
~ Ben Valocchi
Cults (Canopy Club, 9:45 p.m.)
This was much, much better than I was expecting — as a general rule, the more buzz on the band, the shittier the show. Despite their oddly short performance (only seven songs and 25 minutes?), Cults made it count (giving Hum a shout-out is never a bad move in my book). Musically, the band was on despite some early technical issues, Madeline Follin’s vocals were charmingly loose, and the energy level remained high throughout their set in the packed Void Room.
~ Ben Valocchi
Fang Island (Canopy Club, 10:45 p.m.)
When I first discovered Massachusetts-based Fang Island in 2007, the “Sounds Like” section on their Myspace profile (remember those?) simply read “everyone high-fiving everyone”, which as it turned out, was an extremely accurate statement for a first time listener. This was a huge 180 from guitarist Nick Sadler’s other band [mathcore/grind outfit] Daughters who, at the time, I worshipped. But no matter what music you are into, it is a fact (proven by scientists!) that it is impossible to frown when listening to Fang Island. So you can imagine how delighted I was to see that the musical equivalent of Prozac was on this year’s Pygmalion lineup. I think most of the attendees of the show at the Canopy on Thursday shared my enthusiasm after the performance.
I was lucky enough to get front and center for the entire performance and it was the perfect place to be. They came right out of the gate with the triple guitar attack in full force. Being a mostly instrumental band they can get away with having 3 guitarists and they do it very well with a lot of fast picking and well used harmonies. Their use of octave effects also added to the abundance of dynamics that they had going. Their live guitar work is by no means “cream your jeans” shreddy — it was much more inventive and took a new approach to technicality. The performance was high energy (possibly the most energetic out of anyone I saw at this year’s festival). Having just put out their debut album this year, the set was mostly filled by that material, and by the time they played the much buzzed about “Daisy”, everyone was into it and singing along to the very few lyrics that the band has to offer
My only beef I had with the performance overall was that all the guitarists have pretty much the same tone, most likely because they were all using the same brand of amps. It takes away from the dynamics of the sound as a whole, but thats just me — and I’m a stickler for guitar tone. As a whole, Fang Island came into a festival where they were definitely the oddball, destroyed, and then left nothing but smiles in their wake and found their own niche in the process. I did overhear some people saying they didn’t like them, but lets face it — not everyone can sound as boring as Grizzly Bear.
~ Nick Brannock
Psychic Twin (Canopy Club, 11:45 p.m.) and Surfer Blood (Canopy Club, 12:30 a.m.)
I only caught the front-end of Psychic Twin, but I heard that sonically, it didn’t differ too greatly from Headlights — not that more Headlights is by any means a bad thing. We’ve heard conflicting reports on Surfer Blood — Music for Ants loved it, and we heard tell of a Guided By Voices cover, but the phrase “shittier Morrisey” got thrown around too by several people. Additionally, their drummer spent half of Fang Island standing in the middle of the crowd, looking for weed and talking over his own opener — not cool.
~ Ben Valocchi
Those Darlins (IMC, 9:30 p.m.)
Back in April of 2009, when we asked about what Those Darlins wanted to offer at their shows, Nikki Darlin responded, “We just want people to have fun, laugh, and dance, you know?”
That still seemed to foot the bill a year and a half later as Those Darlins took the stage to a diverse crowd at the IMC stage on Thursday night. To set the scene, Mean Lids and then the Duke of Uke, plus the famous Novelty Orchestra, graced the room. This was my first time seeing the Duke outside of the Espresso Royale on Goodwin, which I can only presume is his royal duchy, and he closed with some phenomenal harmonies that swept the crowd straight up.
Then the staff started clearing away the chairs, some of the not-as-young folk hit the road, but not all or even necessarily most, and it seemed like a fresh deluge of beer poured into the old post office. (Why didn’t anyone tell me BYOB?! I would’ve brought so much more B!)
So the girls took the stage. I came to this concert pretty fresh, so I was incredibly pleased to judge for myself during the uber-catchy set opener, “Waste Away,” that “modern rockabilly/country-punk fusion” bears pretty much no resemblance to psychobilly. For this set, at least, put the emphasis on “country-punk” and maybe even just flip that around to southern party rock.
The only point of tension in the set came from this: it’s Thursday night at the IMC, cross between Pygmalion and CU Folk & Roots. That makes the crowd more diverse and interesting, but less willing to just abandon all inhibitions and surrender to the bouncy beat. We got more work tomorrow, everybody. Things started off strong, ducked a bit in the middle (but only crowd-wise — the ladies were full-tilt from takeoff to touchdown), and rode high on the saddle through the encore and out the door, at least as per my experience.
Those Darlins had tight harmonies and instrumentation, catchy pop, and an unsurpassed stage presence. Watching them, I thought about what Kevin Barnes from of Montreal told us recently: when you come to a show, check your insecurities and have some fun. He does it by outlandish stage theatrics. Those Darlins, truly wild-eyed (holy CRAP were you WATCHING Jessi up there?), do it by getting into the rhythm and telling you with their looks. Nothing aloof about it. Just ask the Busch empties by Nikki’s feet.
~ Matt Demarco
They kicked me in the ear; I saw stars. This is the honest truth. When Those Darlins plowed onstage and started into wringing the necks on some guitars, slapping a bass, and shaking the teeth out of a ukelele hole, notes were flying. This combo pretty much bootstomped the mud off of one IMC stage. Nikki was recovering from a broken arm and only able to kick 110% ass but I swear to you, reader, that if she had broken that very arm punching this reporter in the face then no way would I ever put makeup on that sweet bruise. Poor thing was in pain: those cans of Busch just collapsed into crumpled tin when she inhaled them. Jessi got that look in her eye. Kelley was playing that electrical guitar like driving a police car through a brick wall. They smoked us and rolled us over like pigs on a spit. They led; the crowd danced. There was nothing between them and us but a couple half-empty bottles and a ton of respect. After they got into it, they even came out into the crowd and did things I can’t tell you. This was no posture, no altar; we were finally getting down to some honest rock and roll, folks. Those Darlins set fire to the place and burned a hole clear through to the sky leaving only a harvest moon and old Jupiter looking down in wonder at the beauty of transience: how the cruel beast of time can now and then be pistol-whipped into the truth of chords. I swear to Elvis and Joan Jett this was the best show I have ever seen. Thanks Darlins. Thanks, C-U.
~ William Gillepsie
Plastician (Highdive, 12:30 a.m.)
Up until this show, I couldn’t say that I “got” dubstep. However, I completely understand it now — the crazy energy, the unspoken dialogue between the performer and the crowd and the bass — this was undoubtedly the loudest bass I have ever heard in my life. Heart arrhythmia loud. Check the audio sample below if you don’t believe me. For 90 minutes, Plastician threw the greatest dance party I’ve ever taken part in, from the first notes up until the encore, when the PA was cut and the crew turned the stage monitors to face the crowd.
~ Ben Valocchi
Photos by Nick Brannock (Fang Island), Justine Fein-Bursoni (of Montreal, Janelle Monae), William Gillespie (of Montreal, Janelle Monae), Annie Weisner (Those Darlins) Cody Bralts (Surfer Blood and crowd photo at top) and Lisa Janes (Built to Spill).
Below is a BUNCH more photos taken by Cody Bralts.
Stay tuned tomorrow for recaps of Friday and Saturday’s shows.