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His Grand Majistery

photo by wild don lewis

MOMUS at Spaceland, August 1

Momus battles with murderous glitches on laptop and theremin while “London 1888” dissolves into a poetry reading. Levels are checked, and he leans into the wind of the slower rhythms, remonstrating with the audience like an incessantly put-upon statue in the town square. “All the little friends of Henry Darger/Living large but dreaming larger” heralds the brilliance of “Pierrot Lunaire,” and, even when his words are vexed by feedback, he approaches the mic stand with the passion of a prizefighter devouring the punching bag.

His experiments betray an undercurrent he sums up thus: “This is a song about being valued for qualities for which one is not very proud” (“Scottish Lips”). He dances like an ape amid his congealing accusations of love and affection, his skittering breakdances and delicate dandyisms not a hindrance but instead symptomatic of an individual adult human being discovering that his “limits” are in fact illusory. Thanking a fan for pornographic DVDs, he launches into “My Sperm Is Not Your Enemy,” which segues fittingly into “Beowulf (I Am Deformed),” a heroic meditation delivered from beneath his windbreaker. The husk of a broken relationship peels away with “Miss X, An Ex-Lover,” and the software warps of his wry observations dedicated to Barry White on “Born To Be Adored” whip his falsetto into epiphanies.

“I’m sorry I fucked your best friend, Lucretia Borgia,” he says, and the pipe-and-jig prowls in electronic mode before a bracing ode to computer-language coders harks musically to the brave souls aboard the HMS Old Spice. Soloing on cracked keyboard now with a powerful conviction before the many encores, he catches the audience hook, line, sinker, rod, reel and the fuckin’ boat to boot.

TED LEO & THE PHARMACISTS, THE ORANGES BAND at the Troubadour, July 29

For all the arena-scale oomph of Ted Leo’s songs — two of his live staples are structured around the rhythmic hook of “The Boys Are Back in Town” — the man himself is hardly your standard-issue showman. Tonight, he answered audience comments with jokes (and apologies) too lame to reproduce, while repeatedly striking the next number’s opening chord, as if afraid he’d forget. These hesitations drained off some momentum, but they’re Leo’s brand of community building, and a link to his D.C. hardcore roots. When the microphone shocked him early on, he borrowed a fan’s sock rather than having the soundman fix the problem, as if he’d be more at home playing an all-ages basement show with a life-threatening PA.

Ultimately, both leader and band placed their confidence where it counts — in the music. The Pharmacists lineup featured on 2002’s Hearts of Oak, now beefed up by guitarist Drew O’Doherty, attacked hard-pop intricacies (“The High Party”) and one-chord groovers (the title track) with equal ahead-of-the-beat fury, and brought older material, iffy on record, up to the level of the new album. Leo’s syllable-packed lyrics (and Dorien Garry’s underused keyboards) may have been lost in the souped-up Celtic breakdown that capped “Timorous Me,” but the double-lead barrage served notice that this band is out of the basement for good, sock or no sock.

Four-fifths of Baltimore’s Oranges Band shared the stage-presence-challenged demeanor of collegiate indie-guys everywhere, but Dan Black’s choppy ax handling displayed enough nervous energy for the lot. The band’s dynamic is sharp and clean, hacking influences from Chuck Berry to Wire into new shapes via dropped beats, extra measures and shifting three-guitar textures. Smartly, they closed with an extended version of their best song to date: “OK Apartment,” a self-interrupting power-pop paean to the resonant wonders of an open G chord, the first that most guitarists learn. (Franklin Bruno)

EL GRAN SILENCIO at House of Blues, July 29

El Gran Silencio assumed the House of Blues stage Tuesday night with a public lashing emanating from the venue’s speakers — the taped scorns that start their latest effort, Super Riddim Internacional, Vol. I, and an ironic acknowledgment to the many fools who froth that El Gran Silencio is too messy an act to warrant serious attention. These were to be the only digressing digs tonight, though, as El Gran Silencio delved into the most rollicking two hours Los Angeles will ever experience outside a Sunday-morning gospel revival.

Beats from across the globe rushed from El Gran Silencio’s well-worn instruments with the escalating speed of a Randy Johnson fastball — the trilingual ragamuffin “Sound System Municipal” to begin, a bit of Algerian ululating with “El Espejo,” and steady streams of percussion and horn ruminations from across the Western Hemisphere. Brothers Tony and Cano Hernández traded off high-pitched rap spurts with the expertise of b-boys but also tweaked their voices with a nice and nasal norteño twang. The stuttering churn of cumbia and vallenato grounded each track with an ass-motivating foundation. But the soul of the show was undoubtedly Campa Valdez, he of the amazing accordion. The chubby chavo fingered his squeezebox’s buttons while alternately jumping and standing sentry, extending his accordion to its limits, then crushing it like an aluminum can, launching an unrelenting wave of trills.

El Gran Silencio hadn’t played Los Angeles in two years, and the sold-out crowd moshed and sang out their pent-up-for-too-long love. By the time the band covered the cumbia standard “Déjame si Estoy Llorando” near the night’s conclusion, there wasn’t a dry eye or shirt in the House. (Gustavo Arellano)

PROCOL HARUM at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, July 28

Two factors made this rare Procol Harum apparition solider than the recently veneered Doors: original singer, new material. The gods of storm also conjured an appropriate atmosphere, releasing celestial flash & splash on our unprotected pates after pianist/vocalist Gary Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher and friends had tiptoed around the normally fierce “Bringing Home the Bacon” and cracked open the creepy “Pandora’s Box.” Following an enforced 40-minute retreat, however, Procol charged into their most bombastic epic, “Whaling Stories” (“Lightning struck out fire and brimstone”), rivaling the Olympians for power and glory.

Then came many demonstrations of the essentialist art and craft that made Procol Harum the best classically influenced rock outfit of the ’60s and ’70s: the kingly pace and Keith Reid poetry of “Homburg”; Brooker’s transcendent wail on the soul-abandoned “A Salty Dog”; the pounding, leaping balladry of “As Strong as Samson,” with a beautifully filigreed guitar solo from bushy beanpole Geoff Whitehorn. “Simple Sister”’s heavy lurch could coalesce only via the possessed scatter-thumping of the late B.J. Wilson, so if drummer Mark Brzezicki didn’t drive it, he need not shroud.

Some of the hottest sparks, though, were struck from Procol’s new The Well’s on Fire. “The VIP Room” boosted Brooker into his rudest-ever R&B belt. If you wondered where this band had been, “Shadow Boxed,” with its hooky changes, slingshot bridge and marimba-synth touches, rocked the story in classic fashion. And the sight of white-haired Brooker and bookworm-bent Fisher trading keyboard passes on Fisher’s swelling, radiant instrumental “Weisselklenzenacht” — well, it made you think dignity might be okay again.

A perfectly splendid “A Whiter Shade of Pale” concluded to the accompaniment of resumed pyrotechnics in the eastern sky, and the band bowed off, anointed by rain spatters as dry leaves swirled around them in a warm rising wind. How’d they do that? (Greg Burk)

THE POLYPHONIC SPREE at El Rey, July 30

It’s a telling irony that the Polyphonic Spree — all two dozen of them — draw religious-cult comparisons in part because of their collective onstage ecstasy. After all, wasn’t having fun the essence of rock & roll before commercial hyperawareness reduced bands to joyless teams in a race? Okay, the robes and Godspell-inspired presentation further the Spree’s fanatical façade, but if leader Tim DeLaughter is the Jim Jones of indie rock, then all he’s putting in the Kool-Aid is, uhh, cool. The Polyphonic Spree serve their ’60s-flavored, gently persuasive anthems — evoking the Beatles, Jellyfish and ELO — with an arms-aloft, hair-flailing rapture that triggers a smiling (re)discovery of music’s cathartic pleasures.

After an ecclesiastical organ intro, the Spree parade down the aisle beneath soothing big-screen images, already high on life as they shimmy into stage positions. A flock of first-class, improv-happy musicians — complete with eight-strong chorus — they muster a mosaic depth of field and complex dynamics well beyond the reach of conventional bands (and which their debut album, The Beginning Stages Of, misses miserably). Amid horns, theremin, flute, violin and harp lurks pulsing pop power; DeLaughter, bassist Mark Pirro and drummer Bryan Wakeland, all alumni of alt-rockers Tripping Daisy, provide a foundation of comfy chemistry.

“Hanging Around the Day” is the Polyphonic Spree in microcosm, with Sgt. Pepper’s horns, breezing fields of keys and DeLaughter’s whiny, mid-Atlantic vocals swamped beneath uplifting chorus cascades. And a shriek-inducing balloon drop is an apt metaphor for their kaleidoscopic message of bliss through togetherness. The Polyphonic Spree’s sound, though endearing, is superficial stimulus; it’s their massed spirit that truly infiltrates and imprints upon our hearts and minds. (Paul Rogers)

THE GOSSIP, SLEETMUTE NIGHTMUTE, PARADISE ISLAND at the Echo, August 3

With a line forming before 9 o’clock, it was hard to believe it was a Sunday night on the Eastside, but that’s the kinda love kids have for the Gossip. Support band Sleetmute Nightmute made us pine for the Sapphic icons all the more; angular skronk has its place, but the unsmiling guitarists gazing poker-faced into each other’s eyes as they wokka-wokka’d in repetitive, unmelodic fashion was a little too CalArts. There was sweet relief in a beguilingly warped acoustic set from Paradise Island, who is the singer from Erase Errata.

While the Gossip’s front woman and all-purpose diva Beth Ditto has been flooring fans for a few years now, she got a whole new test of her mettle when Brace Paine’s guitar string broke. To fill the sudden vacuum, she began a rambling monologue trumpeting her delight at being back on the West Coast, offered up some good ol’ bawdiness, an anecdote or two and a bit of mock-flexing, but was never more endearing than when she uttered, “Um, I don’t have anything to say.” As comically springy as Rosie or Roseanne, she was quick to ask, “Are there clubs for fat people? If not, then we should build them?”

The Gossip’s set was satisfyingly gem-packed, and, more important, they doled out these kuntry-punk blues-bent jeremiads like it was the first time they ever played ’em. Per usual, the smoldering sexuality of Ditto’s preternaturally powerful lungs cut to the bone. Oh, and when the Gossip say, “We have two more songs,” they really mean it, man. There was no encore, despite five minutes of chanting and stomping. The band’s indifference elicited some boos from the yahoos, but those folks are always the first ones to come running back. (Andrew Lentz)

YERBA BUENAat the Century Club, July 25

The silicone wasteland that is Century City’s Century Club is no environment for the sweaty bedlam of New Yorkers Yerba Buena. Yet here they were on a Friday night, a side attraction in a self-congratulatory fest thrown by Latina magazine that attracted most of Latino L.A.’s beautiful people but apparently none of the sonically smart ones.

The nonet started their set as they do every performance, with wailing Santería incantations, bubbling conga smacks, and the seraphim horns of saxophonist Ron Blake and trumpeter Rashawn Ross heralding the twitching entrance of singers Xiomara Laugart, Cucu Diamantes and the bearded Gumby known as El Chino. And then the fun really began: Each Yerba Buena member individually could launch a thousand salsa combos, but together they formed a delicious dialectic. The instrumentalists’ let’s-tumble-across-the-Caribbean jumbles created more than enough fuel to propel Laugart’s, Diamantes’ and Chino’s jiggles — the trio must have danced the equivalent of a 5K run by night’s end. These Supremes of Afro-Cuban fusion sang as if they’d just arrived from Batista-era Cuba, sidestepped in choreographed anarchy, and concluded the clacking “Electric Boogaloo” with Laugart showing the world how fast she could fire her piston hips. Harness Yerba Buena’s energy and California would never suffer a brownout again.

But no one in the oh-so-exclusive audience seemed to give a fuck. Sure, the dance floor became progressively steamier as Yerba Buena delved into their hip-hop/rumba repertoire. But even more people bypassed the band for the chance to read Latina’s sophomoric articles and drink rivers of booze to accompany their complimentary Twix bars. The supreme insult to Yerba Buena, however, came when the curtains inexplicably closed during a hurricane-ish Blake solo — and no one raised a fuss. Canned DJ inanities soon filled the room, and then the chuppies cared. (Gustavo Arellano)


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