Friday, November 30, 2007

13 November 2007: The Walkmen

13 November 2007
The Walkmen
The Independent
628 Divisadero St (btwn Hayes & Grove) [Map]
Drinks consumed: 3 or 4 beers.

I haven't listened to the Walkmen's latest albums—A Hundred Miles Off and the remake of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's Pussy Cats—so that probably excludes me from claiming that I am a "fan." However, I loved the first two full Walkmen albums and their various EPs, and am particularly fond of the music made by organist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon as Jonathan Fire*Eater. Plus, the Walkmen were the first band I ever interviewed for a feature. Honestly, though, I was most excited to see someone tear up the keys of an upright piano like the one my parents bought used for me when I was 12.

Right, the piano. Just because a band has a piano on stage does not mean it's acceptable to compare them to certain other 21st century bands that use pianos. The piano has been a huge element of the Walkmen's music since long before Coldplay was a household name. Although they sound, at times, like a drunk early-90s U2, the Walkmen avoid coming off as a U2 tribute band through their urban barroom lyrics, piano-hammering compositions, and wailing guitar. However, the newer songs—i.e., the ones I didn't recognize—rely more on guitars and reserve the piano for the background. Still, the pianist impressed me, although I can't figure out if it was Walter Martin on the keys or bassist Pete Bauer since they switched instruments for the last album and I can't tell them apart. Even weirder, frontman Hamilton Leithauser sounds so much like a certain famous singer these days that I heard a guy behind me lean over to his friend and say, "I've always really liked Bob Dylan."

The highlight of the show was "Thinking of a Dream" from Bows + Arrows, which seemed louder than every other song they played (and they're all pretty loud live). Leithauser did not sound like Bob Dylan for this one—he sounded like a great crooner. One track notably missing from the set was "The Rat," the single that has been in movies, on TV shows (most notably The OC), and was even featured in a baseball video game. Then again, I probably wouldn't want to play that track either.

I wasn't expecting the show to be packed, which is foolish since the band has been around since 1999 (when the former Fire*Eater members joined forces with Martin's cousin Leithauser and former Recoys bassist, Peter Bauer). I guess because I'd tuned out for a while I assumed everyone else had too. Silly me: the show was packed. It shows what one viral single can do for—or to—your fan base.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

26 October 2007: Blitzen Trapper & Two Gallants

26 October 2007
Two Gallants w/Blitzen Trapper
The Independent
628 Divisadero St (btwn Hayes & Grove) [Map]
Drinks consumed: lost count but thanks for that shot, Jason!

Those who claim rock and roll is dead—or at least not "vibrant" these days—haven't seen Blitzen Trapper or Two Gallants play live to a drunk and rowdy crowd at the Independent. (They also aren't paying attention to music in general, but that's beside the point.) While the Two Gallants are hometown heroes, thinking of them as just another local band undercuts the talent of the duo, whose sound falls somewhere between Guy Clark and the Buzzcocks. Coupled with classic-rock-loving Blitzen Trapper, you have a show which proves that rock and roll is not dead. These two bands are recycling and combining old forms of music to create awesome new sounds.

Identifying what classic rock artist each Blitzen Trapper song sounds most like is an exercise in classic rock appreciation. From Cream to Black Sabbath to the Zombies, Blitzen Trapper is right on the heels of Wolfmother in bringing the sounds of the late 60s and early 70s to indie rock. It's about time—the wannabe Joy Division sound was excruciating from the start. It's great to see a bunch of nerdy guys—one of them in a too-small ski sweater his grandma could have bought him—rock the fuck out to the sounds of their parents' record collections as if Interpol never happened. They played a long set which made the show feel like they were more double headliners than an opening act. I loved it.

Then we have Two Gallants. "Alt-country" is the lamest label you can give these guys. This is a band who, in 2006, found themselves face-to-face with a Houston police officer's taser when the officer responded to a noise complaint from a neighbor and the band continued to rock. Fortunately there were no utterances of "Don't tase me bro" at the Indy. There were, however, plenty of people singing along to every word. The duo's lyrics are old country with a punk twist: "I shot my wife today / dropped her body in the 'Frisco bay / I had no choice it was the only way / Death's coming, I'm still running." And, of course, my friend's personal favorite: "But I guess by the dim light in your eyes / And that to you all things come as a surprise/ I should set the steel trap of your thighs / And dive right in." The place nearly exploded when they played those two songs—"Steady Rollin'" and "Despite What You've Been Told," respectively—thus restoring my faith in San Francisco's ability to rock.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

25 September 2007: Low

25 September 2007
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell Street (btwn Polk & Larkin) [Map]
Drinks Consumed: It was my birthday, I didn't count.
Review at the Owl Mag

Low was originally scheduled to play San Francisco in July, on dates I couldn't make. Then they decided to go on tour with Wilco and postpone part of the tour until the fall. Coincidentally, they rescheduled the Great American Music Hall shows for two days in September, one of which happened to be my birthday. Those who know Low well may not think it the most festive of bands to see on one's birthday, but I disagree. Every chord of their music is hauntingly beautiful and evocative and the show was fantastic.

That's me. That's my birthday rock fist.

After looking at some set lists from other stops on the tour, I didn't expect them to play much, if anything, from their 2005 release, The Great Destroyer, so when they opened with "Cue the Strings" I was pleasantly surprised. Destroyer is their first album working with producer David Fridmann—"the fifth flaming lip"—and was a wildly popular rock 'n' roll departure from their albums. After the opening song they moved into tracks from the 2007 album, Drums and Guns: "Sandinista," "In Silence," and "Take Your Time." Drums and Guns was also produced by Fridmann but is not a natural progression from Destroyer in sound. It's a return to minimal, creeping melodies and crystalline percussion, with a little synth thrown in here and there, but brings with it the lack of restraint and tendency toward experimentation we saw on Destroyer. The next track was something that I sadly couldn't identify but it was old: slow, droning, and, at times, psychedelic. Then "Dragonfly" from 'Guns,' "Silver Rider" from Destroyer, and back to the new album with "Belarus." They pulled out "Point of Disgust" from Trust and closed out the set with "Violent Past," "Murderer," and "Breaker" from Guns.

I have never been the kind of person to yell things out at shows, save the one time I screamed "Fuck yeah!" when Kings of Convenience played the chorus from Pavement's "Range Life." (I thought others would be as excited as me but I was wrong.) But it was my birthday, the whiskey was flowing, and when other people started shouting song titles I couldn't help myself—"WHEN I GO DEAF" just came out. This was followed by a friend shouting, "It's her birthday!" and another friend asking, "Where do I get the dragonfly pills?" a reference to a "Dragonfly" from Drums and Guns (We took our pills / It changed the world / We had our fill / But when we realized / That we were dragonflies). Others shouted a few random requests but the band continued playing the set.

At some point during the first encore after they played "Sunflower," I was at the bar making someone buy me a drink when Alan Sparhawk asked, "Where's the birthday girl? Is it really her birthday?" There was no way for him to see me jumping up and down in the back of the room waving my arms like a moron and yelling, "YES, YES IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!!!" but fortunately Koshi (who takes the pictures for my reviews) was in front of the stage shooting the band and confirmed that it was, in fact, my day of birth. As Sparhawk strummed the first few chords and sang the first line of my requested song, I went to stand in front of the stage. Then I realized that an incredibly wasted man was yelling, "Transmission!" from the balcony, and apparently had been doing so the whole show. Sparhawk stopped playing, turned his attention to the raging fan, and told the audience it was his drunk uncle who follows him around. Some banter and a profession of love from the drunk guy later, Sparhawk realized this guy wouldn't be satisfied until the heard his song so they played it. It's a really amazing cover of Joy Division (and one of my favorite covers of all time). They went right into "When I Go Deaf" which is twice as haunting live as it is on the album. Happy birthday to me! I could have done without the seizure-inducing strobe light during the second encore, though.

Even if they hadn't played "When I Go Deaf" and even if it hadn't been my birthday, this would still be one of my favorite shows of the year. Mimi and Alan sound beautiful together and the mix of old songs and new songs flowed well. Their live performance was so compelling when I found out they'd be playing a small free show at Stanford the following Thursday, I hung around after work and went over to see them again with a friend who goes to school there. There was more banter, and not just because one of the organizers introduced them as "the saddest band in the world." Alan appears much more comfortable in a small room of strangers to their music than in a large room like the Great American Music Hall.