Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Concert Roundup

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I guess this would be Part III of the Concert Trilogy begun in Raina’s The Misses Bennett at the Rock Club and We Deeply Regret the Error posts. (FYI – credit where credit’s due. I have no idea how these things are done, legally speaking, but I’m using photos from the excellent Muzzle of Bees site based out of Madison, I believe. We were lame and didn’t bring a camera to the Okkervil River/New Pornographers show. Should the folks at MoB see our little blog here, I hope there’s no problem with me using them.)

In this installment, we examine the manners and behavioral proclivities of rock fans in the context of two additional environments. To recap, we’ve observed the drunken waddling and MGD spilling that comes with seeing the up-and-coming touring band in a small club (Why? at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee, WI) and the testosterone-on-parade, air-punching that bumbles into town with the right type of national touring act – namely, anthemic bar bands with a penchant for classic guitar rock – in a larger, hall setting (the Hold Steady at Turner Hall, also in Milwaukee). In both scenarios, by no fault of the performer, the concert experience was somewhat compromised by fan interference.

The two new conditions to be examined are as follows:

Even before Juniper Tar had begun its opening set on Saturday night, the differences between this night’s crowd and the attendees of the Why? show the previous weekend at the same venue was tangible – friendly faces populated the bar area (in the sense that we recognized people and also that the crowd was… well… friendly), attitude-free parties mingling with each other, a little extra room to move (but certainly not enough to suggest a weak turnout – quite the contrary, actually), and even some unguarded hugginess.

When the set started, the requisite four-to-five-foot Opening Act Discomfort Chasm closed only after a few songs, as the Decibully audience, initially reluctant to be roped into close communion with a possibly unknown factor, warmed up to their opener’s carefully-composed and atmospheric Americana. I count myself among the converts made that night. Juniper Tar, a six-piece on this night, complete with a dedicated lap steel player, plays the same kind of free-floating cosmic American music (as Gram Parsons might have termed it) that informs both My Morning Jacket and Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia, but in such a way that direct comparisons to either band apply only vaguely. The music makes an impression via a spectacularly dynamic guitar sound that occasionally evokes Crazy Horse or Uncle Tupelo at its noisiest, but more often quietly and langorously only threatens to explode (this quality is even clearer on their album, To the Trees). There’s also a curiously dissonant quality less in line with country, alt or otherwise, than with shoegaze or 90s alt-rock.* Perhaps above all, the vocal harmonies sold me. Incredibly refined and well-executed, but still passionate.

Decibully was, for most, the main attraction here, and they didn’t disappoint, playing a number of songs from their new album, and continuing to make it clear that, in a fair world, they’d be *this close* to breaking out of big-fish-in-a-little-pond status. They’re an Arcade Fire-sized lineup with generally less bombast and a lot of nuance, but the sound is hard to pin down. There’s a swagger in the vocals that suggests blue-eyed soul, but they’re far more likely to step into a strident marching beat, riff-oriented guitar rock, or a British Invasion gallop than anything that approaches r&b. Had it been my first time seeing them, they would have made an enormous impression, but, fully expecting them to be pretty darn great, Juniper Tar really captured my attention this time out.

Throughout both bands’ sets, the crowd was well-behaved, perhaps partly becausethe performances were fairly enthralling, but also possibly because people who are interested enough to see local bands don’t just go to see local bands. They tend to see a lot of shows and while this could engender apathy, more often than not it just seems to inspire cameraderie and empathy. You’ve been the girl who’s had beer spilled on her head by the ex-jock who can’t help but raise his meaty arms in tribute to the glorious chorus. You’ve been the guy next to the sauced girl who keeps swinging her duffel-bag sized purse into your glass.

The theater is quickly becoming my favorite venue type in which to see national touring bands. The sound is almost always pristine, there are almost always balconies or tiers of seating kind to the short of stature, and the seats keep the idiot factor a lot lower.

Seats at rock shows are a double-edged sword. The energy is inevitably lowered with a lack of dancing and movement. This doesn’t bother me much, since I’m not much of a mover, but it does impact the performers, most of whom want interaction. And there’s also something inherently un-rock’n’roll about watching a high-intensity rock band in the same venue that hosted, say, Michael Buble the night before. I concede these points.

But theaters also alienate fans who seem to think a pit of some sort is key to the experience. Good. The first time I saw a pit, such as it was, was at a Pixies show in 1991, and even then, it seemed out of place and weird. I understand these dubious tributes to unchecked aggression at metal and hardcore shows where the music serves as sort of an undifferentiated background miasma, but I paid to see “Wave of Mutilation,” not a bunch of elbows and the bottoms of shoes. In any case, a pit is all but impossible in most theaters. Seats also keep everyone nice and well-behaved and seem to inspire older (generally more polite) music fans to attend. Such was the case at the New Pornographers/Okkervil River double-bill in Madison. In fact, the middle-aged fellow in front of me told the younger people who had seemingly hijacked his life for the evening that he’d never heard one song by the New Pornographers. He also had to ask the name of the opening band at least once. One assumes that this guy, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself, would have passed on the chance to see either band had seats not been in the cards.

The show, itself, was revelatory in both good and bad ways.

I’d seen Okkervil River headline a show last year, and while they were confident and competent, that show didn’t prepare me for this. The slightly shorter format given their default opener status served them well, as they were able to stock the setlist with many of the best songs from last year’s The Stage Names (on which, pretty much every song could be argued as “the best”) and Black Sheep Boy, with a few surprises like “The President’s Dead” from the Overboard and Down EP – an oddly effective show-opener.

But a great setlist is only as good as the band playing it, and Okkervil River more than rose to the task. The songs took on a dramatic fluidity, with tempos and volume being adjusted to flesh out their melodic and lyrical secrets. They’re that odd band in which every member seems to know every aspect of the song, down to drummer, Travis Nelson, shouting nearly every line along with Sheff – it should be noted that he’s the one guy in the band who didn’t have a vocal mic; he knows the lyrics seemingly not because he has to, but because they’re worth knowing. While it wasn’t clear the first time I saw them, this show made a case for Okkervil River as one of the best live bands out there right now.

The New Pornographers, unfortunately, didn’t fare as well. While they may be one of my favorite bands on disc (after all, Okkervil River has one instant classic and one very good album; the New Pornographers have four great ones), the band’s live sets are about as spotty as any I’ve ever seen – they range wildly from epic and spirited to plodding and sloppy. Hamstrung vocally by the recent loss of Neko Case on this tour – she left several days earlier due to injury -, the NPs seemed tired and maybe even a little bored. Kurt Dahle, usually the driving force and most visually engaging performer in the band, only managed a few token stick twirls, didn’t sing any leads (in the past, he’s often subbed for Dan Bejar, who’s not touring with the band this time out), and couldn’t keep the tempos up – though he did manage a seamless switch from acoustic guitar to drums on “Adventures in Solitude,” the Carl Newman/Kathryn Calder duet that provided one of the high points of the set. Another high point came courtesy of the opener, as Will Sheff substituted for Bejar on “Myriad Harbour,” and yet another courtesy of Jeff Lynne, who wrote the first encore in 1979 – ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which was performed with a zeal missing from so much of the performance.

I’m not sure if the lethargy that informed most of the set comes from a hectic touring schedule, a lineup that has to accommodate the comings and goings of two key members (though it should be said that Calder does a fine job of filling in for Case, while maintaining her own signature voice), or the fact that Newman is writing more and more complex songs that sound great in the studio, but are a chore to churn out live (tellingly, the Electric Version and Mass Romantic songs consistently had a spark that was missing from a lot of the Twin Cinema and Challengers songs). But it’s disappointing, regardless.

And so we come to the end of this post, which has become as much concert review as the meditation on manners that my wife began. There are a few other venues and scenarios that could be covered (huge, national touring act in an arena; outlaw country act in a prison; etc.), but they’ll have to wait for a later date.

* And, sure enough, after buying the album that night, I figured out that the frontman, Jason Mohr, used to front a great melodic guitar-pop band called Grovur, with whom my old band really wanted to set up a show, but we never got around to it.


Written by Dave

April 22, 2008 at 7:42 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] pastimes is the constant amassing of secret boyfriends (the newest member of my formidable harem? Will Sheff, of course). They’re mostly musicians (shocking, I know), though there’s a healthy […]

  2. Lovely write-up! I have to stick up for Okkervil, though…why do you say that the band has “one instant classic and one very good album”? Have you listened to Okkervil’s pre-Black Sheep Boy albums? Down the River of Golden Dreams is my favorite Okkervil record. But Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See is also wonderful! If you haven’t checked either of these out (I can’t tell if you already have and didn’t like them…), I highly recommend. Only good can come from delving deeper into the Okkervil catalog.


    April 28, 2008 at 1:07 pm

  3. Thanks!

    No need to stick up for them. I like the early Okkervil records; I just don’t think the band hit their stride until Black Sheep Boy and they improved on that formula with The Stage Names (and the new, original stuff on Overboard and Down). The music has become more varied with each release, and Sheff’s lyrics have become increasingly complex and affecting. They’re a band that keeps getting better, IMO.

    By contrast, I think the New Pornographers hit their stride right out of the gate with Mass Romantic and have managed to mostly keep that level of quality throughout on their albums, if not live. Obviously, they’re two bands with very different emphases, though – Newman’s not half the lyricist that Sheff is, but he’s a master of pop hooks and a brilliant arranger.


    April 28, 2008 at 1:43 pm

  4. […] a bit from the nuance in the quiet moments and the pretty vocal harmonies.  As I mentioned in this earlier post on the band, two obvious comparison points are Uncle Tupelo (mostly in the dynamics – think […]

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