Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Isis at Mesa Luna, November 17
The first band was unremarkable. They were thrashy and screamy and knocked mike stands around. I’ll give them an A for being into it and some kudos for getting through their set without anyone losing an eye.

These Arms Are Snakes from Seattle were in the middle slot, playing a spazzy set of whatevercore. The guitarist and bass player both doubled on keyboards—always an entertaining strategy. I heard Smash laugh heartily the first time they swung their guitars aside mid song and started parping away. Their singer had some good moves in the manner of Ian Curtis. I’d like to hear them on record because I couldn’t grasp much of what they were doing live.

Isis provided an elegant contrast to the previous auditory splatter. The fivesome have the patience and courage to explore ideas at a comprehensible pace, resulting in meticulous, relentless music that’s now moved beyond the obvious and overused Neurosis comparisons into Mogwai or Slint territory. That’s the conclusion I drew from their set anyway. They mostly played new songs from Panopticon, and at least one older number (“the beginning and the end“ from Oceanic). The crowd took to the new (and fairly demanding in terms of song length) material quite well, though “the beginning and the end” got a big cheer of recognition a split second after Isis charged into it. Backed by their Stonehenge-like bank of cabinets, they sounded commensurately huge, but having such a massive backline in a small venue overpowered the PA and drowned out Aaron Turner’s vocals. It didn’t detract from the gig though; the shifting musical atmospheres, the important component of Isis’s sound, were fully evident. The bassist was the most valuable player in the band, mainly for the simple yet rare feat of approaching his instrument as a bass in terms of playing and tone. The keyboards suffered the same fate as the vocals, though after hearing how subtly they’re used on Panopticon, it’s no wonder they got lost in the mix.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Gov't Mule at the Commodore Ballroom, November 16, 2004
Last time I saw progressive blues outfit Gov’t Mule, they were promoting their latest album, Dose, opening for Big Sugar at The Rage. We were right up front for their too-brief set and were blown away by the clinic they put on. Bassist Allan Woody died not long afterward, and the band laid low for a while, issuing a series of albums with guest bass players and staying away from Vancouver. They recently gained a new bassist, a keyboard player, and the “jam band” tag, a welcome appellation from my POV, since it gives them a built-in audience and keeps them on the road…all the way up to our sodden city. Willingdon Black, Christian Scum, and I were there to get our long-awaited second dose.

I’d heard rumours of a four-hour set, so I was afraid the gig would be a hard slog. The concert didn’t pan out that way—the rumoured four-hour endurance test turned out to be two tight hour-and-a-quarter sets (we were out of there by 11:30), and instead of endless noodling we were treated to consistently scintillating musicianship and great songs.

The concert opened with “Blind Man in the Dark” and “Thorazine Shuffle”, two songs from Dose that took me right back to the show at The Rage. The band really held back until Haynes’s first solo got everyone’s attention. From then on, the band had the crowd hooked. Drummer Matt Abts seemed to be pacing himself. He’s got a fluid style with a light touch, an economical technique that doesn’t exclude the odd flourish, like two-handed crossovers and fast double-kick workouts. Altogether an amazing player to watch and listen to. The new recruits on bass and keys kept a low profile—the bassist appeared to be in a deep trance most of the night—but were crack players. The keyboardist had a Hammond/Leslie combo and a collection of other instruments that added nice colour. The focus remained on Haynes and Abts, though.

After intermission, the keyboardist struck up a familiar warbly keyboard riff… I didn’t get my hopes up; I guessed it might be a tease. But no, the whole band joined in on “No Quarter.” Aside from the fact that they couldn’t have done a cooler cover version, the choice of song said a lot about Gov’t Mule. They’re a band that can be all things to all people. To Mr. Black, they’re Southern rockers. To Ken Masters, attending his first G. Mule show, they’re like Deep Purple, with Haynes as the Blackmorian guitar hero. In my view, they’re heavy progressive rockers, willing to mess with time signatures and extend standard song structures. Adding the bluesy-heavy-proggy “No Quarter” to the set simply encapsulates and validates all these perceptions.

Having got the Led out, they rocked even harder for the rest of the second set, which included “Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam” (with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style cue cards and crowd participation), drum and bass solos, and an extended version of “Mule.” Apts was a sweaty mess by the end, and their one encore was perfectly sufficient to acknowledge the audience’s appreciation of what went down. Everyone was glad Gov’t Mule came to play.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Wilco, November 9 at the Orpheum Theatre
I had a good feeling about this show beforehand, based mainly on Wilco’s latest album, A Ghost is Born, being one of my favourite albums this year. I’m a pretty recent convert to the Wilco cause, though, and I was worried a set list heavy on the back catalogue would leave me out in the cold. The band ended up playing songs mainly from Ghost… and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album previous, so the set turned out to be ideal for a newcomer like me.

AC Newman opened up, with a six-piece band who looked like they’d be more comfortable squeezed onto the Railway Club’s stage than spread across the Orpheum’s comparatively vast expanse. Their first couple numbers sounded awful, though the songs improved as they (and the soundman) warmed up. Carl Newman mumbled between tunes, the rest of the band smiled at pals they could pick out in the crowd, and they overcame some occasionally flat material to earn a friendly reception from the audience.

Opening with “Less Than You Think“ (minus its 12-minute ambient noise denoument and featuring the refrain “There’s so much less to this than you think”—a pretty self-deprecating way to start a gig!), Wilco impressed me immediately with their ability to put across such subtle, intimate material in a large venue. You need a band of excellent players to pull that off, and that’s what Wilco are. They rocked out at various points, of course, and disassembled certain songs until they became huge squalls of feedback and noise, but the musicianship never flagged—nor did it stifle the passion in their music. Jeff Tweedy, silent during the first few songs, had some witty quips about the seated venue (comparing the event to “a rock symphony”) and Americans immigrating to Canada. He summed up the rest of the show by promising to play some pop songs to compensate for the songs that “made you want to die.” I was up for some of both—the uber-Beatley “Hummingbird,” “Wishful Thinking,” “Muzzle of Bees” (less delicate than on the album, but still superb), “Theologians,” “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Reservations,” and so on.

Tweedy played both acoustic and electric guitars, using a potent combination of Vox amp stack and Gibson SG equipped with whammy bar. When he gets up a head of steam during a solo he reminds me of Neil Young’s instinct-over-technique approach, although instead of Young’s trademark hunching over his instrument, Tweedy stands straight up and tears at the strings as if struck by sudden jolts of electricity. After each song he’d hand the SG to a roadie in trade for an in-tune model.

While certain factions in the audience were hell bent on standing through the show, everyone else was content to enjoy it with bums planted in cushy Orpheum velvet. Tweedy didn’t seem to mind people sitting as much as the people who insisted on standing did. He did point out one guy in the front row who was slouched back in his chair like he was watching TV, but for the sake of amusement, not ridicule. Maybe the crowd was being lame. On the other hand, this wasn’t exactly a full-on kick out the jams rock show (or Deep Purple, the last show I saw at the Orpheum). After the crazy and magnificent “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (on the album, the most blissful 10 minutes of music I’ve heard all year), ended the first set, everyone got to their feet and stayed that way till the lights came up.

The staging was simple, with the bonus of projections on a big screen behind the band showing constantly shifting images of buildings, birds, insects, and flowers, in accordance with the traditional/experimental, rural/urban dynamic of Wilco’s music. At show’s end, after two encores, credits for the visuals came up on the screen, cueing our trip to the exits.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

"This is probably impossible, but who cares?"
Modern-day F1 is rubbish, and I blame the circuits—"facilities," in the current parlance. What a miserable, emasculated assortment of go-kart tracks. How can bravery and heroism occur in such sterile environments?

Regular visitors at e-Tracks feel the same way. They even get their own page to submit designs for fantasy tracks, like New Brands Hatch and the awesome Puget Motor Speedway ("The pride of the facility is the daunting and massive 8-mile (approx), 18-turn Grand Prix circuit"). The whole exercise really takes me back to grade 9 (usually in French class).

The site also has a nice feature article on Westwood. It says you can still make out part of the back straight through the trees. I almost wish I never read that; I'm going to have to make a pilgrimage now.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

PJ Harvey, October 30, Vogue Theatre
PJ Harvey is one of my musical heroes. Has anyone strung together six (seven if you count 4-Track Demos) albums of such consistent, uncompromised quality, on a major label no less? She put on a majestic show last weekend at the Vogue. Last time I saw her she was touring for To Bring You My Love. It was a good concert, but I remember being bugged by the lack of rocking that evening, with Polly Jean slinking around, sans guitar, in a pink bodysuit while her band of gentlemen provided sedate backup. The drummer played like he was in Nana Mouskouri’s band, tapping carefully, lest he startle the audience. Not last Saturday. Polly had a new band, a boy band with a gangly mohawked bassist and a grinning kid who thrashed a guitar or a drum kit, depending on the song. Longtimers Rob Ellis (percussion) and Eric Drew Feldman (occasional keyboards) stayed out of our line of sight most of the evening (we got seats off to the side, about six rows back). The show started with Polly on guitar leading the band through “The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth”—pure bile & bludgeon. She put the guitar down for the next few songs, including “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore” and “Who the Fuck?” which was the set highlight for me—unbelievably intense, with Polly flinging herself around like mad. The rest of the set calmed down a bit, and drew mainly from the last three albums, reaching back to oldies like “Me Jane,” “I Think I’m a Mother,” “Down By the Water” and “Dress,” during which I felt the full force of Fancy’s enthusiasm as she administered “love taps” to my upper arm. Polly’s not a talkative performer. The songs are the thing. She talked more to the guy running monitors than she did to the crowd. The first set lasted just under an hour, then another half hour of encores, heavy on the hits like “Good Fortune” and “50 Foot Queenie.” She returned for the last time to play “Horses In My Dreams,” sending us home on a calm note. We needed some peace of mind out on the crowded Granville sidewalk, with Hallowe’en in full swing. Best concert of the year.