Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
YEAH YEAH YEAHS
at the Henry Fonda Theater, April 18
By now everyone's aware that Williamsburg has re-defined the map of rock & roll. But Yeah Yeah Yeahs don't just harness the pure energy and smirking cool aesthetic of downtown NYC forebears Patti Smith or Blondie. And their two-year rise to certain stardom doesn't merely mirror the trash-'n'-hipster catwalk of Williamsburg's Bedford Avenue. Are they the new Strokes? Who cares! Does YYYs singer Karen O sport the diva cojones and slippery Souxsie growl to excite a mounting horde of fans? Absolutely.
“You know a band is good when their record hasn't come out yet and they can fill a concert hall.” KCRW's intro to Yeah Yeahs' sold-out stint at the Henry Fonda Theater last Friday night could only hint at the rock theatrics to come. In front of clamoring glamour grrrls and salivating boy toys, the threesome launched into a crazed set of 13 songs and three encores culled from their Master EP and upcoming post-punk sex masterpiece/major-label debut Fever To Tell. Black-clad and downright serious, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase took the band's darkened staccato grind to tighter heights, and disco thumper “Date With the Night” jump-started heaps of joyous indie-ass shaking.
Karen O knew the hype and set out to prove it. A Poly Styrene tease in her Day-Glo green shirt, hot pants and purple fishnets, she colored new come-on “Cold Night” nice and dirty, and saturated EP favorites “Bang” and “Miles Away” with not-so-coy vibrato groans. She shimmied and wailed, pointed and rolled on the ground, held the mic in her mouth midscream during pop-shock number “Art Star,” and still insisted that “L.A.'s gonna party tonight!” at the end of the show. The YYYs are performance art of the best kind: sweat-drenched music with a shit-faced grin.
at the Troubadour, April 19
A sold-out club, a major-label debut just released and stage chops finely road-honed: Here's a band at the height of their powers. Yet somehow Cave In sidestepped the overwhelming audience empathy that seemed like a foregone conclusion tonight.
In emo-regulation T's and sneakers, and with joyous guitar tossing to match, Cave In are defined by articulate rhythmic tattoos, epic riffs and Stephen Brodsky's engagingly warm, falsetto-dipped vocals. “Inspire” personifies Cave In's new Antenna opus: a pulsing, mobile rhythm section behind effected guitar arpeggios, slipping into dreamlike verses that wake to an arch-anthemic chorus. Radio single “Anchor” parades Cave In's timeless Lennon/McCartney melodic instincts, its descending verse progression both toe-tapping and tear-jerking.
Cave In's often-aggressive live show is a reminder of their two albums of jagged, post-hardcore angst that preceded the quartet's more radio-ready recent output. The disjointed, overdriven bass and widdle-and-hang guitar of “Seafrost” show their adventurous spirit's intact, bizarrely recalling the Verve Pipe in brooding atmosphere. But just when they're sounding like ultimate purveyors of tuneful bombast, Cave In slip into self-indulgent, sleep-inducing space-rock feedback segues that soon have the back rows chatting among themselves. Though the change of pace should be welcome, in reality it merely bursts the momentum. Cave In end their set purposefully with the talkative bass, tickled snare and subtly harmonized vocals of the schizophrenic “Stained Silver,” yet the crowd has remained strangely static all night and is notably thinned by the time the band return for an encore.
Though they despise the comparison, Cave In really do resemble a musclebound Radiohead. For all the frustrations of their subprog noodlings, and the ensuing band-audience disconnect, this is an outfit that could've flattened the Troubadour with its substance-before-style, brave and brutal pop, and respect is due for their ignoring the path of least resistance for the sake of expression. (Paul Rogers)
at the Jazz Bakery, April 17
“The first piece will be entirely improvised,” Lee Konitz said. “So don't go away.” And with that, the legendary alto master began his set by producing a gentle, back-and-forth rhythmic pattern on his horn that was taken up by the trio's drummer, Joe La Barbera. With the two of them slowly feeling each other out, bassist Darek Oles entered the fray, staying mostly in the deeper reaches of his instrument, poking his way through the constantly shifting soundscape with quiet, clear notes. It was an impressive bit of unrehearsed, wide-open communication, and though the music rarely rose above a cool murmur, it held even the always-attentive Jazz Bakery audience unusually rapt.
Fifty years into his career, Konitz still likes to play it dangerous. His tone remarkably well-preserved and his intellect razor-sharp, the cerebral altoist, at 75, is still looking for the perfect phrase, the unplayed line, the better path. Though the remainder of the evening's two sets was entirely devoted to standards such as “Cherokee,” “What's New” and “The Song Is You,” they were handled so loosely as to be recognizable through the merest snatch of melody, or Konitz's disarmingly wry commentary. (“Next is 'All the Things You Are,'” Konitz said, introducing the evening's second piece. “Um . . . without the harmony.”)
With the lights low and unchanging, the three musicians moved from one number to the next with no apparent destination in mind, probing, prodding, delicately teasing out the changes, and flashing small, nodding smiles at a corner finely turned, or a spontaneous passage so startlingly right. The highlight of the evening came midway through the second set, in a stunning reading of “Body & Soul,” with Konitz unspooling the melody in long flowing lines against La Barbera's exquisitely tuneful brushwork and Oles sounding superbly controlled. At its end, after trading choruses with La Barbera finally pushed him out of his instrument's perpetual midrange and into its further registers, Konitz lowered his saxophone, took a deep breath and grinned; he seemed almost satisfied with his own contribution. (Brandt Reiter)
THE NOTWIST, THEMSELVES
at the Knitting Factory, April 19
From Berkeley to Bavaria, there's a bit of Anticon in all of us. Tonight, the nation's most bugged-out and multifaceted hip-hop collective showed its game face: Themselves, a splinter of a splinter group featuring Anticon programmer/mixer Subtle and bespectacled brainiac Dose One, ringing the rafters with floor-filling beats that, sad to say, were wasted on trainspotting Knit-wits. As though fueled by the crowd's quizzical looks, Dose pushed his luck with a poetry-slam monologue that dripped with coffeehouse solipsism, plowing through his freestyle diary in spite of churlish boos from above.
It's hard to nail down exactly what the Notwist are onto, other than being the first digital folkies from Germany to be taken seriously. Imagine the Beta Band on an island with only Can and Neu records, or that American roots was now holing up in Munich, or that there was such a thing as the Black Forest Sylphs Orkestra. To see the Bavarian quartet play from their recent Neon Golden — a hash of twangy plucking, Farfisa clouds, Clinic-y jamtronica and Macintosh plug-ins that chatter like crickets — is to see a band that never wants the rain to let up. Toward the end of the set and throughout the encore, however, the band nostalgically defaulted to their long-disavowed arena-metal mode, whipping their hair around and flying over the frets like it was 1986. The band's German professionalism and chops out the wazoo notwithstanding, it's singer Markus Acher's scruffy, soft-spoken mewlings that are the band's center, a trickling font of plain-spoken feeling that quivers like the world's biggest nerve ending. (Andrew Lentz)
at the Troubadour, April 18
On their debut full-length, Cutouts and Castaways, the appeal of Portland's Decemberists is mostly due to front man and sole songwriter Colin Meloy, who displays the vocal mannerisms of They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, the vocabulary of early Natalie Merchant (“pantaloon,” “indolent,” “dram”) and enough melodic melancholy to satisfy anyone impatient for Belle & Sebastian's next disc. A crowd impatient for headliner Mason Jennings is another matter, though; early on, the Decemberists looked like a sacrifice to whatever minor demon controls the fact of unsuitable support acts. First bad sign: their cutesy stage setup, which included a pedal steel hung with a pirate flag.
Wisely, Meloy underplayed the eccentricities, keeping banter to an explanatory minimum. (“This one's about California . . . you'll relate to it.”) His backing quartet are ringers, by shambling indie-pop standards, especially drummer Rachel Blumberg, who rocked her child-scaled kit about as hard as anyone in an embroidered cardigan could. The playing was solid, but the pacing was iffy: An attempt to turn “The Youth & Beauty Brigade” into a noise jam fizzled, and 20 minutes of elaborately structured, uniformly midtempo songs blurred together before the chunky “Odalisque,” powered by Jenny Conlee's organ pads, brought the band's dynamic possibilities into focus.
It was the final three songs that turned the crowd their way. Conlee switched to accordion for album highlights “A Cautionary Song” and “Legionnaire,” which share outlandish lyrical conceits and a bouncy, sober-Pogues vibe. Last, and best: the unreleased “I Was Meant for the Stage,” a majestic, Morriseyesque stardom fantasy (“I was meant for applause/I was meant for the shouting”) that contrasted smartly with Meloy's just-like-you demeanor. The ending, a sloppy Big Rock Climax that had him on his back, whacking at his acoustic with both feet, would have seemed hack from many bands; from this well-behaved crew, it was downright bracing. (Franklin Bruno)
ZWAN, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR
at the Wiltern Theater, April 18
It's unfair to begrudge your favorite artists a little slice of happiness, but let's face it, what made Smashing Pumpkins so compelling wasn't Billy Corgan singing “Today is the greatest day I've ever known” in an endless loop, but the juxtaposition of such optimistic sentiments alongside darker statements like “The world is a vampire.” Unfortunately, with his new band Zwan, it seems Corgan has finally found a permanent place in the sun and left much of his original fan base in the cold.
You have to admire the artistic integrity of any superstar willing to relinquish a multiplatinum moniker and begin anew, but Zwan's lineup — which retained recently sober Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin but dumped quarrelsome bassist D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha — really seems like an effort to purge the Pumpkins of elements the famously dictatorial Corgan found insubordinate. Whatever the case, at the Wiltern it was obvious that Zwan had incubated a cheerful and tension-free environment on songs like “Declarations of Faith,” “Baby, Let's Rock!” and “Sol,” the latter of which celebrated the virtues of “a little sunshine and sympathy.” And though Corgan's jazz-metal overdrive guitar solos have lost none of their bite, the whiny vocal snarl that gave the Pumpkins its fangs was in short supply. In the end, Zwan sounded like the perfect sonic accompaniment to Corgan's Old Navy ensemble of striped rugby shirt and brown cargo pants: comfortable, conventional and dull.
Swedish trio the Children's Hour proved far too aptly named, playing a set of dreary songs with all the professionalism you might expect from a junior high talent show. And though their chipper, goofy demeanor earned them a “get out of jail free” card from the audience, their “Fly Lesbian Seagull” folk had about as much emotional appeal as a saltine cracker. (Liam Gowing)
BILLY JOE SHAVER
at Club Lingerie, April 20
Veteran outlaw country bard Billy Joe Shaver turned up in Hollywood wearing a big black hat, but he sure as hell wasn't playing the villain. While many of his previous shows have been chaotic, rocked-up free-for-alls, this time around Shaver's streamlined, subtle presentation was all about his songs, and with 30 years of raggedy poetics to draw from, he conjured a far-reaching and impressive two hours' worth of them. Fronting a four-piece band anchored by multi-instrumentalist Bobby Brown, Shaver exhibited a casual poise and more professional approach than he's ever had, but remained completely natural. This is a man who has seen his personal life dismantled by a pair of unimaginably painful losses, and while he has perhaps retreated into music as a means of escape, the results of the withdrawal are frequently spectacular.
While his self-professed method of writing is to turn out songs so simple “that the dumbest guy in the world can understand them,” Shaver's works are models of sly metaphor and graphic imagery that manage to achieve greatness about 99 percent of the time. Ranging from such country staples as flag-waving, exultations of motherhood and hardcore drinking songs to his own peculiar brand of cosmological spiritualism, Shaver was alternately tender and thundering, a soul searcher whose ongoing quest for peace of mind and an understanding of life and death extended directly to everyone in the room.
Whether via blunt bumper-sticker style pronouncements (“If you don't love Jesus,” he remarked with a grin, “go to hell!”) or through evocative, delicate songs like “I'm Gonna Live Forever,” Shaver's ability to proselytize without stepping on a sinner's toes is remarkable. The show bristled with high points; “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal” always strike the ear with irresistible effect, but it was Shaver's own dignity and perseverance that impressed above all. (Jonny Whiteside)
“Hey, baby!” That's how Teddy Edwards, saxman for the ages, always answered the phone, no matter who you were. He sounded about 20, and had more energy than most people half his age. He would ramble on about his current projects and gigs (of which he had plenty), laughing, wheedling and milking every drop of life. Or he would tell you anything you wanted to know about the past, tapping a memory that was nothing less than phenomenal. Though he was serious about his saxophone expression, feeling that art deeply experienced and rigorously practiced could change the world, his sound was open and easy — the listener needed to do nothing but soak up the vinegar tang of his blues, float on his waves of bop inspiration or cry along with his ballads. Born in Mississippi, Edwards belonged to the first generation of Los Angeles bebop, partnering with Howard McGhee and Dexter Gordon in the mid-'40s. He was a consummate sideman (Benny Carter, Sarah Vaughan) and a leader of small and large ensembles, playing both standards and his own compositions, and occasionally attaining a profile beyond the world of jazz, as when he teamed with Tom Waits on Waits' '80s recordings and on his own Mississippi Lad (1991). An excellent film/DVD documentary, Don McGlynn's The Legend of Teddy Edwards, arrived in 2001. Edwards looked like a playboy prince and blew like he was your best friend. He was beautiful.