Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Hold Steady @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto (July 16, 2010)

  The Hold Steady's Craig Finn: photo by Michael Ligon

Update: Review/photos now up. Yes, that took a long time.

Originally scheduled for Kool Haus, part of me believed that Brooklyn-based The Hold Steady were capable of filling the venue. In a perfect world, they'd have sold-out the 2,500 capacity Kool Haus, but alas it was not to be. The show was downsized to the Phoenix Concert Theatre, and while the Friday night show had a healthy crowd onhand, it was not even sold out. I missed openers The Whigs but as was the case for me, it was only The Hold Steady I was looking forward to.

The show was in support of the support of the St Alban's Boys and Girls Club. Ex-Toronto Raptor Matt Bonner came out as MC to say a few words even making a joke about having to choose the headliner for the night between The Hold Steady and Justin Bieber, which of course drew some laughs but ultimately hollers for The Hold Steady. Although touring in support of a new album entitled Heaven Is Whenever, publicity for it had been mostly under my radar to the point that I'd forgot that they actually had new product to promote. I can't speak for the new material but I was thankful that the setlist was a sweet mix of new and old.

Although the Phoenix is not the most intimate of venues, especially compared to the originally planned venue Kool Haus, it did illustrate that perhaps The Hold Steady just aren't ready for bigger venues yet. Especially on a Friday night, there was a good-time vibe amongst the crowd, but most the physical enthusiasm was concentrated near the front of the house. As I'd eventually ventured further back in the crowd(after being near the front to take photos), the crowd was decidely mellower further away from the stage, even during some of The Hold Steady's most popular songs like "Chips Ahoy" and "Stuck Between Stations". Do I fault the band for this? Perhaps. On the other hand, such a phenomenom is common at many shows. Yes, they may not yet be ready to play larger venues like Kool Haus with command, but when they start to really live up to the Springsteen comparisons, there's no doubt in my mind they'll blow the roof off of what ever venue they play. Overall, The Hold Steady played an energetic, almost two hour set, proving again that rock n' roll is here to stay, and at the end of the show vocalist Craig Finn bidding us to "Stay Positive".

For more reviews of the show, check out Exclaim and chartattack.

Photos: The Hold Steady @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto (July 16, 2010)
MySpace: The Hold Steady

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Titus Andronicus, Hallelujah The Hills, Yellow Fever @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (July 14, 2010)

  Titus Andronicus: photo by Michael Ligon

What seems more and more like a rare occasion for me, I actually got out to a show on a Wednesday night last week at the Horseshoe Tavern, specifically to see buzz-y Jersey rockers Titus Andronicus and also to see Boston's Hallelujah The Hills who I'd remembered liking when they opened for Silver Jews at Lee's Palace in September 2008. Also on this night's bill were unknown entities Austin duo Yellow Fever, although having read some good things about them on Pitchfork I was intrigued to check them out.

I arrived a little after 9 pm with Austin duo already into their set and a small audience present. The duo, of the guitar-drums variety, played a set of askewed pop music, with a penchant for succinct guitar playing and drumming, and dry vocals. My mind kept wandering to images of early 80's post-punk, or more recently a band like San Francisco's The Aislers Set, minus the reverb. The band was most satisfying on more straight ahead tracks like the more poppy "Culver City". They were comfortable enough on stage, but didn't feel much motivation for banter, although perhaps that'll change as they continue their exhaustive North American summer tour. Catch them in your town.

Next up were Boston's Hallelujah The Hills. Specializing in an amalgam folk-rock influences like cello and working-class roots-rock, the set was occasionally anthemic but otherwise much of it was infused with a sense of urgency. Occasional cello and brass, melded nicely with conventional rock instrumentation and the raucous lead and group vocals. The band's second album entitled Colonial Drones is out now through Misra Records and based on their live set and the favourable response from the crowd, they'd be a band to keep your eye on.

The band I was there to see specifically was New Jersey's Titus Andronicus. With fellow Jersey rockers The Gaslight Anthem also in town that night, Titus Andronicus' frontman Patrick Stickle thanked the crowd for choosing to see them over Gaslight Anthem. Much of my motivation to check them out was based on liking their raucous single "A More Perfect Union", a sublime slab of sloppy rock n' roll. It seemed that I was a little behind the curve as the venue was comfortably packed by the time the band hit the stage, and as the band performed each song, there was many a fan singing along.

Named after the Shakespeare's earliest and bloodiest work, it's the latter description that really was reflected in the Titus Andronicus' visceral rock n' roll attack. It's that attack that took me off guard because the young band didn't quite look like they were capable of it - for example, one look at violinist/guitarist Amy Klein who looks like a high school girl in her knee-length cut-off jeans and I'd never have thought she'd be rocking out as much as she did. Whether intentional or not, the band's sound was like an homage to classic influences likes The Clash, The Replacements, Bruce Springsteen, Sex Pistols and The Pogues, and for the most part doing those influences justice. Perhaps the band utilized the formula on several songs a little too often where they'd start a song with a subdued Pogue-ish / Shane McGown-ish folky vocal before the band dropped like a rock n' roll bomb, but no doubt the formula was used to good effect each and every time. And when the crowd is slam-dancing AND body-surfing, you know the crowd is loving it. As a bonus for the night, the band invited ex-guitarist Liam Betson, who's also recently transplanted to Toronto (for what I don't know), to join them onstage for a surprise rendition, and what turned out to be a sincere version of Weezer's "Undone". It seems there's been such a diversity in music genres lately, I could have almost imagined someone about to declare the death of rock n' roll. But Titus Andronicus prove it isn't that time yet and hopefully it shall never be.

Photos: Titus Adronicus, Hallelujah The Hills, Yellow Fever @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (July 14, 2010) (still to come)
MySpace: Yellow Fever
MySpace: Hallelujah The Hills
MySpace: Titus Andronicus

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Slew, Kid Koala, The Heavy @ Harbourfront Centre, Sirius Stage, Toronto (July 9, 2010)

Update[July 18/2010, 1: 36 pm]: Sorry it took so long for me to post the review. Hey, but I can't stay inside too long when the sun is shining outside.

This year's edition of Beats, Breaks, and Culture festival at Harbourfront Centre went down two Friday nights ago featuring The Slew, a project featuring Kid Koala and described as "6 turntables meets the ex-Wolfmother Rhythm Section", and UK neo-soul-rock hybrid outfit The Heavy.

With daylight setting and about a half full crowd, The Heavy did their best to get the crowd moving, the band's frontman Kelvin Swaby working out his soulful vocals against the band's guitar-laden, soul-rock, sometimes horn-embellished, grooves. "We've got some standers" Swaby exclaimed about half-way into their set, and then later on saying "thank u standers". The band played selections from their two full-lengths, the first half of the set apparently devoted to their more recent album 2009's The House That Dirt Built, then going back to their debut, 2007's Great Vengeance and Furious Fire which was greeted with excitement by some devoted fans in the audience. The band ended their set with Swaby prompting the audience a few times "Do you like me now?", each time the audience roaring with validation, the band then seguing obviously into their single "How You Like Me Now?". With a sustained effort for an encore, the band came back to play a few songs containing lyrics such as "all you got to do is set me free" and "all I know, she got to go, I ain't takin' her shit no more". Had this set been under the blanket of a starry night, I'd have suspected they'd have slayed the audience but otherwise it was a mixed audience of devotees and curious onlookers. Personally, I liked it though I kept on thinking if it were a female vocalist, I'd have liked it more. Maybe I just wanting the next Amy Winehouse album to come out already.

It was by no means empty for The Heavy, but there was plenty of elbow room. That soon changed as the place gradually filled up for headliners, The Slew. First of all, the recognizable face of The Slew, Kid Koala, entertained the crowd with a solo turntablist set of his own material which I always find so intriguing, especially when he played his cut-up version of his mom's favourite song, "Moon River". He kept it brief, so as to not detract from The Slew's upcoming set. Although I had a photo pass for the show, I only got to shoot for three song's for Kid Koala's set, and not for The Slew which doesn't make sense at all since I considered Kid Koala's set and The Slew's set as two separate sets, not one. Otherwise watching from the sidelines, I watched The Slew's set which I'd have to classify in most simplistic terms as turntablist rock, a relatively foregone conclusion of the result of merging the rhythm section of Wolfmother with the turntablist sensibilities of Kid Koala. In actuality, there were dual turntablist duties going on with DJ P-Love also working on the wheels-of-steel. The band released their debut album 100%, described as "a turntablists' take on a bluesy psych rock record" as a free download in September 2009, which is now available on vinyl and CD from label Puget Sound. Although less intriguing overall than Kid Koala's solo material, it was a Friday night, people wanted a party, and that's what they got with The Slew's dj-rock set.

Photos: The Slew, Kid Koala @ Harbourfront Centre, Sirius Stage, Toronto (July 9, 2010)
MySpace: The Heavy
MySpace: Kid Koala
MySpace: The Slew

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Flaming Lips, Spoon, Tokyo Police Club @ Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto (July 8, 2010)

First of all thanks to Live Nation for the two complimentary tickets to last week's Flaming Lips show at the Molson Ampitheatre. Every summer I get that itch to go to a summer music festival and I'd scratched that itch last month with the Toronto Island Concert. While the Molson Ampitheatre as a music venue borders on pure hatred for me, beggars can't be choosers when it means getting to see The Flaming Lips live. Bringing a mini-festival atmosphere with them, in tow with the Lips were Spoon, Tokyo Police Club and Fang Island. Last week's show was the fourth time I've seen The Flaming Lips live, better than their truncated set in 2006 at the Toronto Virgin Festival, but only slightly less euphoric when I saw them at Coachella in 2004 or Sasquatch in 2006. So four years since I last experienced The Flaming Lips live, and I was itching to see them again. My brother came along for the show with me, and having misread our tickets we ended up sitting in row C of section 203 [excellent seats, by the way] although we should have been in row J; as fate would have it, the rightful ticket-holders of our seats did come, and we moved a few seats to our left and never budged, and it was the most perfect view one could have for a show at the Molson Ampitheartre.

  Tokyo Police Club: photo by Michael Ligon

We arrived too late for first openers Fang Island but came partway into locals Tokyo Police Club's set. It was still light out, and it was a sparse crowd and for all the energy the band seemed to exude on stage (and yes, the band were working up a visible sweat), it seemed all for naught. You'd think that at least the crowd on the floors might be more active, but it was more like a sea of stillness. Even the band's 'hit' "Yr English Is Good" failed to get the crowd going.

  Britt Daniel of Spoon: photo by Michael Ligon

It was soon obvious that none of the bands on the bill would even come close to upstaging the headliners - of course, few bands could upstage The Flaming Lips. While Austin's Spoon are amidst there most fervent popularity, having headlined Sound Academy in Toronto back in April of this year, there's also a consensus that they aren't the most interesting band to watch live. Thank God, for the music. Spoon frontman Britt Daniel, dressed summery in white v-neck t-shirt and white slacks got down to business leading the group through a selection of new and old songs, mostly from their last 3 full-lengths, the highlights being "I Saw The Light" from their newest album Transference, a bunch from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga including "Don't Make Me A Target", "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb", "The Underdog", and "Black Like Me", and "I Summon You" and "I Turn My Camera On" from Gimme Fiction. The occasional horn section was used to great effect on several tracks including "Underdog" and "Cherry Bomb", the latter Britt dedicting to their "no. 1 cheerleader", referring to a girl dancing very enthusiastically in the aisle coincidentally in the same section where my brother and I were sitting. It was a no- frills set overall and ultimately an opportunity to hear some good tunes.

  The Flaming Lips: photo by Michael Ligon

Ever since I'd first seen The Flaming Lips live in 2004 at Coachella, their live stage production has remained virtually the same. Confetti cannons, giant confetti-filled balloons, dancing animals, video projection back-drop, and of course frontman Wayne Coyne and his now famous walking over the crowd while in a giant transparent plastic ball are all now standard components of any Lips live show. It never gets old but given that this was my fourth time seeing them live, it is predictable. Having said that, since it had been four years since I last saw them live, this time Wayne's giant ball walk and the show's initial reams of confetti and sudden launch of a mulititude of colorouful giant balloons into the crowd were every bit as impactful as I'd remembered. Every time I experience that I think, this is the happiest place in the world right now and I am here. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world.

As the confetti settled, the show followed suit as The Flaming Lips focused on the musical portion of the evening. I've largely been ignorant of their last two full-lengths, Embryonic and At War With The Mystics, so to hear the former's "I Can Be A Frog"(with the band prompting the audience to mimic the animal sound for every animal mentioned) while a fun, almost child-like tune, didn't motivate to want to listen to the album. At War With The Mystics' "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" is a cool little tune although far from their best. On the other hand, their 1995 'hit' "She Don't Use Jelly", came out the speakers with it's great guitar lick with more impact than I ever remembered. It's a shame the band didn't play anything from their orch-pop classic The Soft Bulletin but the band were simply majestic on the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots cuts including the hazy "In the Morning of the Magicians", their toned down rendition of "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1" and their last-hurrah, confetti-filled encore of "Do You Realize".

While the evening's vibe remained mostly upbeat, Mr. Coyne's also never been shy about injecting a few political statements during a show. He expressed his continued distaste for Bush and his support for Obama, spoke about love and peace, and during one song, in a symbolic gesture wore two giant laser hands holding them up to the heavens. Coyne would be more explicit in his views later on as he told the crowd that the band would perform their rendition of "Taps" (bugle accompanied with dreamy keyboards) every night until the war in Iraq was over - as the first notes of
"Taps" emanated from the bugle that Coyne held up the mic, he prompted the audience to hold up the peace sign with their fingers, as an eery stillness fell over the crowd. The Flaming Lips are at a point in their career that much of what they do during their live shows seems self-indulgent, even schtick. But there's also no doubt in my mind that they are nothing but sincere.

Photos: The Flaming Lips, Spoon, Tokyo Police Club @ Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto (July 8, 2010)
MySpace: Tokyo Police Club
MySpace: Spoon
MySpace: The Flaming Lips

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles @ Mississauga City Centre (July 1, 2010 - Canada Day)

  Gord Downie: photo by Michael Ligon

Yes, my 'hood of Mississauga has been stepping it up these last few years with some decent free concert fare at Mississauga City Centre and for the second year in a row I spent my Canada Day evening there taking in the free show. Last year it was Sloan, and this year it was with Canadian icon, as MC and Mississauga resident Mike Bullard referred to him, Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles entertaining the crowd. With renovations being done to the Mississauga Library Square where past shows have taken place, the stage was moved to the street at an intersection at the back of Mississauga City Hall, bordering the Living Arts Centre and Square One Shopping Centre. Quite a few people were in attendance, mostly for the fireworks later that evening, but there was a good crowd in front of the stage early awaiting Mr. Downie.

Sporting glasses and a bald-shaven head, and decked out black shoes, jeans, t-shirt and sport coat, him and The Country Miracles (featuring The Dinner is Ruined's Dale Morningstar on guitar, John Dave Clark on drums, and I think John Press on keyboards, as well as Julie Doiron on guitar and vocals and The Skydiggers' Josh Finlayson on guitar), the band stepped onto stage to an appreciative response. Gord started almost immediately into what seemed liked stream-of -consciousness poetic verse, perhaps catching some Mississauga residents off-guard who might have been expecting some Hip tunes, but then the band segued into more conventional territory with the band's fantastic first single "The East Wind" off Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles' new album The Grand Bounce. The band played songs off their most recent album including "Yellow Days" (their ode to summer), "The Hard Canadian", and "The Drowning Machine". Although comparisons of his solo work to The Tragically Hip are hard to escape mostly because of Gord's vocals, I guess the main difference for me is that the new solo material feels less focused on the Hip-isms(Downie's somewhat affected vocals at times, guitar-based song arrangements), for a looser band feel, more subtle vocal technique and more straightforward lyrical content. A shame that the band didn't play longer than an hour - I was quite enjoying it - nor did they play an encore, but in any case, the set we got, plus the fantastic fireworks afterwards was a great way to celebrate Canada Day.

Photos: Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles @ Mississauga City Centre (July 1, 2010 - Canada Day)
Video: Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles - "The East Wind" (live @ Mississauga City Centre, July 1 2010)
Video: Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles - "The East Wind" (music video)