CINERAMA at the Troubadour, September 27
U.K. songwriter David Gedge disbanded his semilegendary noisepop group the Wedding Present five years ago, and he's been patiently weaning fans onto Cinerama ever since. No minor task -- where the Weddoes favored layers of frantic guitar, Cinerama mines cosmopolitan atmosphere from strings, horns, flute and keyboards. And guitars, too, but spaghetti-Western guitars -- you know, guitars with style. Meanwhile, Gedge's clever lyrics explore the joys and sorrows of sexual infidelity. With the release of 2000's brilliant Disco Volante and this year's follow-up, Torino, the fans finally got it -- like them, David Gedge had matured; Cinerama was now sophisticated pop music for grownups. So it came as kind of a mindfuck when a stripped-down, four-piece Cinerama took the Troubadour stage and let loose with a solid hour of punk.
Gedge signaled his intention to rock when he kicked off the set with "Bewitched," a 13-year-old Wedding Present number that starts as a quiet seethe but explodes, at intervals, into raging overdrive. The band would tear through half a dozen of the Weddoes' hyperspeed classics before the evening ended. Even the airiest Cinerama material received a noisy make-over -- "Your Time Starts Now" is supposed to be a plaintive acoustic tune with breathy boy-girl vocals going "la-la-la" at the end; on this tour it's become a churning, wailing rocker. It'd be nice to say Cinerama kicked out the jams with effortless precision, but the seams were showing. Gedge, racked with a head cold and fever, shouted songs that begged to be crooned. The usually inventive guitarist Simon Cleave cranked his treble up to Shrill and left it there. And certain Cinerama songs felt threadbare minus the efforts of Sally Murrell, the band's icy-cool singer/keyboardist, who's sitting out this tour back in Britain.
Nevertheless, the packed house ate it up, with many a beer bottle hoisted in salute to the older material, especially. Sure, the band's sounded better, but this was the kind of show that's great not so much for the quality of the sound, but for the quality of the people playing it. Gedge, after all, is 16 years into a career that's never quite managed to lift him out of the big-club circuit, and still he cranks out album after tour of consistently stirring pop, even occasionally ripping into the old stuff with energy and humor. While nursing a fever, for God's sake. "That was amazing!" someone shouted after a welcome rendition of the Weddoes' beloved "Corduroy." "Yes," Gedge smiled, "I could hardly believe it myself."
SASHA at the Palace, September 25
Sasha has been a lightning rod for house fans who've had enough of limo-riding DJs and velvet-rope attitudes. The Mancunian DJ started in 1989 and helped forge a northern English sound that took the euphoric gospel of American house and gave it a British sense of synthetics. The product, progressive house, has become the soundtrack of club culture, but Sasha no longer seems to commandeer the vibe. In step with fellow cover jock Paul Oakenfold, Sasha's latest album, Airdrawndagger, tapped the cold, up-tempo nu-school breakbeat scene, to the dismay of some ("With Oakey's prog-breaks fest Bunnka and now Sasha's, um, even more prog-breakey Airdrawndagger, the scene is wafting with the smell of hot air and cheap cologne," states XLR8R magazine).
Deejaying live, Sasha continues to lose aim, like a Captain Ahab without his Moby-Dick (in this case co-headliner John Digweed) to provide a target. Playing from a balcony, Sasha started Wednesday's show on a bad note by dropping a melodramatic ambient intro that said "Look at me!" And look we did, only to see Sasha ghost-faced and clammy, ironing out crooked mixes and struggling with double beats. Boston DJ John Debo's warm-up set of melodic bass lines had a restrained sense of energy, but Sasha needed a spotlight of dead air. His tracks were predictably crowd-pleasing, with glow-stick-rousing breakdowns that lumped him in more with trance pinup boys Tiesto and Oakenfold than with the American house music he helped integrate into a unique British sound under his and Digweed's exceptional Northern Exposure mix CDs.
To be sure, high harmony, melodic keys and soulful vocals are a salvation from the linear darkness of the tribal sound du jour. Sasha tried to be uplifting without being trancey, but he seems more concerned with getting attention than with nailing the mix. It's why we're more excited by the historical progress of the domestic underground -- Hipp-e & Halo, Saeed & Palash, John Creamer & Stephane K., Natural Rhythm -- than with the history of progressive. (Dennis Romero)
ANENZEPHALIA, CRUELTY CAMPAIGN, DER BLUTHARSCH, DEUTSCH NEPAL at Garfield Bar and Grill, September 20
The gallivanting of Calandrian drums rehearses against a backdrop of Bryan Adams and Chic. Freak out? No, in -- as pool-playing patrons are shocked from their cues to rue the day apocalyptic folk music came to Paramount. Knee-bandaged waitress in red apron hefts hamburgers well-done as musicians seek a medium between the harrowing hinterlands and the beat that brings an avalanche down on a surreal Alpine scene. The atmosphere is similar to the work of Psychic TV and Einstürzende Neubauten throughout the 1980s at clubs like Helter Skelter and Lectisternium -- extreme noises from nowhere in far-flung places, returning unnoticed, directly into a void.
Los Angeles' Cruelty Campaign emit cobweb-rending scree, their accompanying slide show functioning not so much as a condemnation of Condé Nast culture as a ritualistic travelogue through it. Apple laptops mutilate nameless black-clad sound files, each painfully
amplified and cataclysmic. Deutsch Nepal (a.k.a. Lina Baby Doll) follows, a short Swedish man in short pants. Amid camouflage and concern, colored lights somnambulate across the stage as he sits and slowly spins cabaret yarns over an ever-pulsing wall of saturated, sternum-shaking, cough-inducing bass tones, pitchers of beer fueling the muse. It is the essence of rock music -- incessant beat and occluded, indecipherable words -- and any "music" played afterward sounds much more "musical" because of it.
Anenzephalia spits in declamatory Germanic tones with grinding feedback and rumbling winds as the audience crowds 'round. It's the band's first time in Los Angeles (as part of the Tesco label's "God Blast America" tour), and they make the most of the evanescent moments filling the evening. There are two live actions occurring concurrently: the apparent one (which fries synapses from eyelids to ears) and a more nuanced one involving plugged ears and deeper listening. "Newspeak" samples broadcasts as his flanged voice and vast turbine sound carry him through the point at which Der Blutharsch takes the stage, fog enveloping the 50 or so people present. As distorted blasts of choral samples emanate behind a helter-skelter welter of drums, torches are held by boyish-faced Austrian Albin Julius and his rather austere-seeming wife. Fists aloft, they sound the call to vigilance und volk, drums throbbing into a sleeping world passing into the next day without knowing what has come before. (David Cotner)
ELIPHAS HORN at the Knitting Factory, September 26
Imagine the fright that awaited the lingering jazz birds who stuck around after the Brad Mehldau set to encounter the polar opposite of everything they'd just learned. Eliphas Horn: scary. Say what you will about the anachronistic dark-age lore of the Horn -- playing only its second show ever, yet already the subject of a most riveting buzz -- but that late-shift metal shtick sure turns up a fine crop of 100-and-nothing-pound supermodel types. Apparently today's modern gal is down with evil. Most of them were wearing cloaks or boas, and carrying wicker baskets that contained -- what else? -- The Manifesto of Eliphas Horn. Inside the pamphlet, explanations of the B.C. (as in Before Christ) rock outfit known as Eliphas Horn were divulged, explaining the paranormal origins of Mr. Horn himself and his "band of inter-dimensional rogues."
But for all the cryptic buildup, including a 20-minute instrumental intro while the Horn's sexy disciples spread the gospel, Eliphas sure made for good music theater. For starters, Horn's mike stand was a man-made tree stump, and he caressed it disturbingly throughout the set. All four band members (names withheld from the sacred texts) were dressed in black, custom-made Beyond Thunderdome-type villainwear. They played in darkness, save a red stage light and a sparingly used strobe that played on their silhouettes. Calls were made from the audience for a fog effect, but the square Knit doesn't have a fog machine (something to do with safety regulations), so everyone pouted. The Horn's musical scaffolding is composed of Aerosmith, Pantera and Nine Inch Nails, but with the easy-to-read Cliffs Notes of late-'80s vainglory in the plumbing. And singer Horn's lung capacity is remarkable, especially on what turned out to be the band's prized song, "Creepy Crawlin'." In it, he did a hair-raising limbo motion and just let go, and eons of frustration came pouring out.
Sometime around the midnight hour, the set closed out, and off shuffled the dark lords . . . But Eliphas Horn was just milking the teat for an encore. Those busty maidens were going nowhere, and they called out for "one more song." The Horn obliged, performing the most intense tune of the night, "More Is More," in which they turned on some mountainous speed and ended in a flurry! (Chuck Mindenhall)
OPEN HAND at the Troubadour, September 29
There's an unspoken tradeoff in rock & roll between brute power and melody, between complexity and connection. Open Hand are apparently unaware of this time-honored rule: They have it all, all at once, all the time -- perpetually mutating, heretic song structures, spasming testosterone intensity and an unending stream of melodious vocal manna.
Drawing from their two self-released EPs (recently repackaged as a debut album The Dream), this L.A. foursome never took their eyes off the musical ball at the Troubadour, and faithfully reproduced their adventurous recordings. Two years of touring have honed Open Hand into a fearsomely self-assured unit who could play these post-hardcore anthems in their sleep, yet they lashed each one out like it was their last. After an opening salvo they gabbled the gasps and groans of "In Your Eyes" as if speaking in tongues, upper-body convulsions mirroring the call and response of otherworldly angelic crooning and clanking panels of guitar. Like a man of few words, Open Hand use unison bombast only as a final fist on the table, never diluting its impact through overexposure. The lullaby opening of "Life As Is" baits a tranquil trap for what follows: a superhuman tom-tom tattoo beneath tragically optimistic, multipersonality vocals and twinkling trails of lead guitar. Frontman Justin Isham summons a sensitivity from his versatile voice that defies his imposing frame, while longtime collaborator Alex Rodriguez batters out percussive patterns at once unlikely and inevitable. Newer cohorts Sean Rosenthal and Sean Woods have more than made the jobs their own; the joke-cracking, bass-slinging Rosenthal is a show unto himself, while Woods' hillbilly stylings lend a slyly Southern slant to the proceedings -- yet another change-up in an inning's worth of curve balls.
Tonight all of 30 people witnessed this chills-inducing declaration of independence, while any number of East Coast Stooges clones can pack the house. Your loss, suckers. (Paul Rogers)
RUSH at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, September 28
Given that some Rush songs themselves contain up to 400 words, it's tough to sit down at a blank screen with only that amount of space to accurately relate what it's like to see the band perform live -- especially when it was the 10th time seeing them in the last 20 years, especially when the show was in Irvine, where after you get to the venue you still have to hike all over hell's half acre to make it into the vaunted amphitheater itself, and especially if, like I did Saturday night, you make the mistake of mouthing off during the course of the 52-mile drive down to Orange County that there's no way, dude, that they'll go on right at 7:30 p.m. (let alone start the show with "Tom Sawyer") -- only Ian Anderson would be caught dead or alive pulling such a stunt.
As usual, I was wrong. Rush hit the stage right on time, and I missed all but "The Trees," "Free Will" and "Natural Science" of the first set, though that was, oddly enough, more than enough time and space and matter for me to refuel my melancholy bittersweet aqualung of the soul. The second set started with the new one, "One Little Victory," their best number in years, but began to bog down around the first instrumental, which was neither the classic, "La Villa Strangiato," nor the triumph, "YYZ." So I didn't feel guilty about cutting out early -- and not just for the sake of my long-suffering associate, who grew up not in La Cañada listening to bad white rock with the bedroom lights dimmed, but in Crenshaw listening to KDAY, helping his dad install car stereos.
In fact, when I made out the faint opening of what must have been "Strangiato" itself, my not making it there in time to hear "Tom Sawyer" or stay long enough to catch "The Spirit of Radio" didn't seem so bad or as evil anymore. I'd done what I could (shook the hand of a teenager, reassuring him in his argument with an older brother over who was better, Neil Peart or Stephen Perkins). And Rush had done what they will always do for me -- which if I could just stop crying for a minute, I'd tell you what that is. It's tough to concentrate because I can't get that damn Gram Parsons song "One Hundred Years From Now" out of my head, and in 100 years it will only be 10 more until 2112. (Bob Mack)
BRAD MEHLDAU at the Knitting Factory, September 26
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Only an idiot could dismiss Brad Mehldau now. Before, a few sneermongers might have faintly justified downvaluing the pianist because he worked in the arcane jazz-trio format, or his improvisations were too long, or he was too intellectual, or his posture at the keyboard resembled somebody else's. But with the irrepressible new Largo -- a leap in conception and instrumentation upon which, this Knitting Factory performance showed, he can expand in concert -- Mehldau seals off all the escape routes, sits you down and makes you acknowledge him.
Like all resonant artistic choices, Mehldau's revolution occurred naturally. Part of it was seeing Jon Brion, an unusually expressive musician and producer (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright), perform at the Fairfax Avenue club Largo, and recognizing a potential collaborator. Brion brought squishy flourishes as Largo's producer, and at the Knit also provided a great splash of stage color as he squatted on the floor hammering directly on a vibraphone's tubes, or flapped a baton at the two separate four-member horn sections (one brass, one wind) that Warner Bros. Records sprang for.
The music, though, was Mehldau's. Wanting an atmosphere that could be both a mattress and a cloud, he doubled his basses (Larry Grenadier with Darek Oles) and his drums (Jorge Rossy with Matt Chamberlain), a pairing the stickmen especially relished as they delivered an intense groove massage. Mehldau made his vibraphone debut on two songs, using the instrument as an economical hook messenger. At the piano, he plucked heartstrings with melody or stung the ears with dissonances, sometimes selecting a single "off" note, sometimes stringing a whole poisonous garland of them together and defying you to deny the thrill. There were triumphs of arrangement invention, too: A complex piano reharmonization was supplanted WHAM by a full-on group samba; bowed sustains high up on Grenadier's bass strings contrasted with rapid-fire low-register stabs from Mehldau that he somehow made sound electronic.
Every song in a resort-paced 105-minute set was soaked with the subtlety of a master musician and the communication values of the White Album-era Beatles -- an old Mehldau influence whose spirit, both overt and indirect, is especially strong at this moment. Populism isn't condescension when a musician's and listeners' emotions can unite like this. No, that's called lasting art. (Greg Burk)