Lit Up and Emotional

Photos by Wild Don Lewis


at the Wiltern, December 9

Opening for a band of Muse’s caliber (and stage equipment) is a challenge. So rather than try to rock harder, New York’s the Exit just turned the Wiltern into their own personal garage; with their amps dwarfed by the technical gizmos of the Muse stage rig, the three Exit lads just bobbed around happily and frenetically, fancy light shows be damned. It’s been a long time since anyone could say that a band sounds like the Police, but these boys are chips off the Synchronicity block. The highlight was an all-out jam with three (count ’em, three) drummers, including Muse front man Matthew Bellamy, that was strangely hard not to love.

Let’s be clear, Muse could come on plenty strong without their fancy lights, too. Live, the diminutive Brit trio blow the Radiohead comparisons out of the water. Not sure if we’re still in the era of deifying Radiohead at all costs; anyway, Muse are at least equal performers. Bellamy seems to appropriate more Jeff Buckley intonations when he bellows out his earnest, heart-wrenching lyrics onstage, and the guitar lines feel straight out of Placebo or early Jane’s Addiction. Throw in the pseudo-classical piano embellishments, and suddenly you have a very complex creature.

The audience mood was high-energy and oddly emotional. Dancing, crying, smoking weed, making out — listeners were inspired any number of ways. By the end, the ritzy hall was reduced to a sweaty, frenzied mass, from goth kids to blond Westside princesses. Although it’s hard to be sure, one could guess that had the band stage-dived, they could have been carried to Santa Monica.

—Tatiana Simonian



at the Knitting Factory, December 5

As long as there’s life left in the chewed-up Boy Toy, there’ll be a queen out there who thinks wearing a headset is cool. Madonna impersonators come in all shapes and sizes, but you won’t find many like Mark Edwards, who looks like he should be on a Harley wearing a T-shirt with "If you can read this, the bitch fell off" printed on the back. But Edwards also happens to be a fantastic singer, and the male tribute band he fronts, San Francisco’s Mandonna, performs everything live.

Edwards — think carnival bearded lady — sauntered onto the stage in Marie Antoinette garb, vogueing his heart out, and worked a set showcasing Madonna’s early material. (Not even an impersonator can stomach rapping, "I drive my mini Cooper/I’m feeling superduper.") When it was time to get "Into the Groove" and take a "Holiday," Edwards — now think Hulk Hogan — slipped into mesh pants and a feather boa (must be hard to do scissor kicks with thighs that could put Hulk in a chokehold); for "Like a Prayer," he donned a priest’s collar. Listening to faux operatic climaxes while an attendee yelled "Free Bird" was a religious experience much like staring at a velvet painting of The Last Supper.

Even funnier was Edwards’ take on his idol’s more infamous songs. He made it through the wilderness in a virginal wedding dress straight out of Aardvark’s. Put a pillow under that dress and voilà — you’ve got pregnant teen Madonna exhorting "Papa Don’t Preach" and even faking labor pains. Would the real Madonna do that? Would the real Madonna walk up to your table and ask you how you’re doing?

Boys may come and boys may go, but there’s a Marriott lounge out there that needs to book these boys for New Year’s.

—Siran Babayan


at the Knitting Factory, December 8

Back in the mid-1970s, before Brian Eno was acknowledged as the Architect of Ambient, helped produce a few rock masterpieces and evolved into a respected art-fueled philosopher of modern life, he made four of the greatest art-pop albums in the canon. Sadly, mainstream rock & roll history has filed these records — Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science — on a top shelf where only industrious seekers reach for them. Of course, those who make the discovery end up pledging eternal allegiance.

Hence this evening’s communion between Enorchestra, a septet of musicians from prominent Bay Area groups realigned as an Eno cover band, and the 100 or so middle-aged fanatics relishing the opportunity to sing along with rarely performed songs. "You guys are nerds!" noted bassist Seth Lorinczi toward the end, a truism applicable to everyone involved.

Certainly bandleader/guitarist Doug Hilsinger, whose Eno-approved song-for-song CD remake of Tiger Mountain with vocalist Caroleen Beatty inspired the venture, got his geek on. Rearranging the synth-heavy pieces for three guitars, two drums and no keyboards, Hilsinger unwound guitar solos that brought classic prog-rock grandiosity to songs whose magic lay in layers of understatement (lyrical, instrumental, melodic). Far more in keeping with the Eno spirit was the orchestra’s nonstop erotic pulse and its gender-bending makeup. Alongside five men, Beatty and guitarist-vocalist Sunshine Haire represented the glam-femme Eno, who struggled against the solipsistic testosterone that built so much big rock, while the staccato guitars and driving percussion created the type of propulsive Kraut-funk (think Neu!) he favored, and allowed for some hilarious Deadhead-style interpretive dancing in the audience. Such a display may have frightened the punk rock out of the few gathered indie kids, but it also served as a reminder that these grooves were pop first and museum pieces last.

—Piotr Orlov



at the Knitting Factory, December 10

The spike-haired underground insurgents were out on the floor in their black stealth outfits: T-shirts, jeans, beat-up Vans, hooded sweatshirts with every imaginable local punk logo sewn on them. First to serve were Against Empire, a straight-up 1-2-3-4 crust-metal/punk band. The lyrics sounded really hard, if you could decipher them in the midst of the fierce pit that welled up. Next, Armistice changed up the look with lead singer-guitarist Norman in a Winnie-the-Pooh outfit and bassist Patricia in her Tigger, too. No Disney tales, though, just Wilmington refinery politics on "Ecocide," and social consciousness on "Mankind" and "Manufactured by the System."

Before Resistant Culture’s tribal grind came a Native American blessing: Ofelia Rivas, an O’odham (Pima) tribal elder, spoke passionately on how the U.S. government is militarizing her people’s Arizona/Sonora land by building a metal barrier "twice the size of the Berlin Wall" — an appropriate introduction to Resistant Culture’s "Land Keeper," a powerful instrumental with lead singer Anthony on indigenous flute. Then the Little Bighorn assault was mounted; on "It’s Not Too Late," Anthony spat, "We’re the past, we’re the future/We’re your nightmare in my dream/Your heroes are my enemies/Your philosophy wants us dead!" The set peaked with the battle cry "Man Against the Machine" as Katina scrubbed her guitar, a sweat-dripping Rafa banged bass, and Ben hurled himself into sick, mathematical double-kick drumming — it was a warrior unit that hit you, bam!, over the head with a tomahawk. The energy was so intense, for an instant it felt like we were all in the Badlands, riding with Crazy Horse.

—Ben Quiñones



at Avalon, December 7

When the roadie walked offstage — after erecting a solitary microphone — and Sam Beam, the unassuming professor of cinematography–cum–Southern folk poet who records as Iron & Wine, later came out all alone with his guitar, I have to admit to being somewhat crestfallen: I would not soon be basking in the goose-bump-inducingly gorgeous, Appalachian-family-style close harmonies that Beam has recorded on two albums and several EPs with his sister, Sarah.

But I was also lucky to hear Iron & Wine in, if one can imagine, an even less adulterated form than heard on Beam’s austere early recordings, which hark back to when he was 14 and teaching himself Joy Division songs in his Columbia, South Carolina, bedroom.

Beam’s voice rose well above his trademark Nick Drake–channeled whisper on a spirited, Americana-ized take on New Order’s dead-soldier lament "Love Vigilantes," which bespoke both his new-wave roots and his mastery of the medium of covers — Beam would also render delicate finger-picked versions of Neil Young’s "Mr. Soul" and the Postal Service’s "Such Great Heights," and Iron & Wine arguably outdo the Flaming Lips on "Waitin’ for a Superman." The rapt packed house was also treated to live reworkings of Beam’s own songs, from alternate keys for some to inventive new arrangements on others, including his lovely maternal paean "Upwards Over the Mountain."

Early in his newfound calling as a troubadour, Beam admitted he felt awkward playing outside of his bedroom, and here he was dwarfed by the Avalon’s stage and enormous backdrop, against which were projected alternating pastoral images that dovetailed nicely with the songwriting. Still, he performed more confidently solo than in earlier shows with his sister and full band at the Knitting Factory, where he was clearly dumbstruck by the audience’s enthused response. Sam Beam now appears genuinely inspired by the growing legion of alt-country acolytes, new folk hipsters and Sub Pop loyalists who have devoured his recordings and come to pay him his due as a performer.

—Mark Hefflinger


It’s not traditional to make much of a fuss when somebody known as "Dimebag" gets killed. Now a fuss is being made, for the wrong reason of course: It’s certain that history will remember Darrell Abbott mostly as the slob who got shot onstage. Musicians and fans, though, will have stronger and better memories. Ask the younger metalheads whom they admired growing up, and a few will say Black Sabbath, many will say Metallica, but almost all will say Slayer, and tied with Slayer will be Pantera. From the ’80s till it closed its gates in 2003, this was a band that played as dark as people felt, that stood for power and pride, and the heart of its sound was the interaction beween the Abbott brothers, guitarist Darrell and drummer Vinnie, who last year formed Damageplan (headliners at the Ohio club where the shooting occurred). If you listened to their rhythms, you quickly became aware that the surface simplicity carried impact because of the way the group dragged and staggered the beat, relaxing with it but taking control of it. This music was a metaphor for handling oppression. And Dimebag’s effortless guitar work — heavy, spontaneous, sensual and marked by the eerie squeals he executed like no one else — always told the story. From the Texan’s peers, who invariably regarded themselves as his friends, he drew huge respect for his art, along with the kind of loving testimonials you can’t fake. Apparently he was a joy to be around.

—Greg Burk


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