- Wilco’s not usually thought of as a ball of laughs, but they were loose and in fine fettle Tuesday at the 930 Club. The core sextet was joined by a three-piece horn section, and of course the immediate reference point was The Band’s “Rock of Ages.” If the “Mermaid Avenue” albums were as close we can get to channeling “The Basement Tapes,” then once again this is as close as we can get to a great Canadian-American amalgam playing those timeless bits of North American folk while headed by a Midwestern genius who genuinely loves Little Richard.
- Nels Cline was gangly and exhibitionistic when he grabbed the strings in both hands and let loose some fine chaotic skronk, a mix of Robert Fripp and Tom Verlaine, but all in, for a noise-rock virtuoso, he sure seemed comfortable playing in a rock band.
- Tweedy wore one of those LBJ Borsalinos, and seemed just the slightest bit on edge, calling a request for a louder amp “petty,” chiding the crowd — incorrectly as it turned out — for not knowing “SummerTeeth” well enough to sing along. That said, he seems comfortable enough within his full body of work, with just enough — not too much, as in the Jay Bennett days — of a challenge from his bandmates, to settle in for what was both a greatest hits repertoire and some deep dives. How cool was it for the band to play almost the whole first side of “Being There?” And practically in order? Way cool. They even played the Dwight Twilley-esque “End of the Century,” which of course was amazing live. I’d say the only album that got short shrift was “A Ghost Is Born,” but if that’s your craving, all you need to hear is “Handshake Drugs” and you’ve got your fix.
- Wilco is a unique band. Another way they’re comparable to the Dylan-Band collaboration is in terms of their historical perspective. If you think about “Mermaid Avenue,” who else but Wilco (and Billy Bragg) would both have thought to put music to unscored Woody Guthrie lyrics, and then have done so in a fashion so of-the-age-appropriate? They can delve into folk, alt.country, R&B, and yet more than any band other than the Drive By Truckers, play Southern-fried harmony guitar like they’re Wet Willie or something. It’s telling that they would, for example, record Gram Parson’s “One Hundred Years From Now” as pure Bachman-Turner Overdrive (another Yankee/Canuck collaboration); that “Walken” would take a page out of the Lowell George playbook.
- As always, I was offended by the reference to hard drug use. Isn’t there something really wrong about a sing-along to the words, “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm,” followed by, “there’s something in my veins/bloodier than blood”? I realize Tweedy’s in recovery, and singing your old songs, which make reference to drugs, isn’t like Eric Clapton getting sober and going out on a tour sponsored by a beer company. No matter how it’s rationalized, if there was one kid who came to the show who thinks that it might now be cool to shoot up heroin, then something inexcusable has happened.
- I found myself marveling at how much I enjoyed a band that at times can be so bland, so anodyne, and then punctures the moment with something incredibly raw and artful. Live, they’ve always followed the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force. Tuesday night they also played with looseness and occasional delicacy. When they feel like it, they really can truly overpower an audience, and all doubts.
Archive for February, 2008
- Black Mountain is the rare band that is tighter live than in the studio. Last night they came to D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel and had a volcanic eruption.
- Stephen McBean was a surprisingly low-key front man, given how dominant his singing is on both Black Mountain and sister-band Pink Mountaintops records, and he seemed more comfortable playing guitar back by the amps while Amber Webber held the center stage. From the moment they struck up “Stormy High” from their new LP “In The Future,” it was clear that Black Mountain is one highly gelled unit, as tight as the Stones in ’69, more propulsive than Led Zeppelin, with greater psychedelic range than any of the San Francisco bands or even the “Ummagumma”-era Pink Floyd. Yeah, I know the company I’m putting them in. I don’t do it casually.
- Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Matthew Camirand and Joshua Wells were riveted together, the most urgent rhythm section on God’s green Earth, at least since John Bonham slipped away. After all, they’re the heart and soul of Blood Meridian, but that’s an alt-country band, for cryin’ out loud. Camirand finger picks a Gibson bass while Wells wallops his drum kit like John Henry besting the infernal machine. Interestingly, on “Druganaut”– which is a killer in both recorded versions, but last night was played at a looser, ever so slightly slower tempo — Wells plays the beat backwards, they way Charlie Watts plays reggae. It was very subtle, and magnificent.
- Amber Webber sings in a warbly ululation like a Yemeni widow at a funeral procession, but she basically just stands there, cool as a cucumber. For a band so centered on call-and-response vocals — all kidding aside, Webber and McBean are not unlike Sly Stone and his sister going back and forth in “Dance to the Music” — she and McBean are exceptionally easy going.
- McBean looks like he purposely is trying to scare young children, with his thick long hair and black beard, but he plays the guitar like a genie. “That guitarist carried the band,” I heard some kids say on the street as we left the surprisingly Mudd Club-like Rock And Roll Hotel. I disagree — the MVP for this outing, and I suspect others, is clearly Joshua Wells — but McBean’s at least on par with Dave Gilmour in being able to project a band like this into deep space.
- In the review of “In The Future,” Tulip Frenzy earlier chided them for channeling Deep Purple, but Jeremy Schmidt’s keyboards pay as much of a debt to Pere Ubu’s Alan Ravenstine’s analog synth as they do to, say, Keith Emerson.
- The set was a surprisingly fast-paced sonic goo, never bogging down into vanilla fudge, even on the loooong songs. “Stormy High” kicked off the set, and they played most of “In The Future,” before finishing up with a one-two punch of “Druganaut” and “No Satisfaction” from their first album. I’m used to the campfire version of “No Satisfaction,” but this was pure punk rock.
- Under most circumstances, listening to a band invoke the early ’70s sound of pre-heavy metal psychedelia is not my idea of fun. I’m kind of stunned that in 2008, the best real rock’n’roll around is being made by a band just this side of prog. But it’s all true. Black Mountain blew the doors off the Rock and Roll Hotel.
Because they’re friends, the reference point for San Francisco-based pop genius Kelley Stoltz has tended to be Brendan Benson. And I can see that: they’re both incredibly clever pop classicists who can craft bespoke masterpieces out of threads pulled from old Beatles and Kinks records. On “Circular Sounds,” Stoltz’s brand new album, (his fourth) you could easily see him fitting into the Elephant Six Collective, with “Everything Begins” bearing resemblance to something by Beulah, and more than a few other songs invoking the late great Olivia Tremor Control. But I mean this as the highest compliment: Stoltz is the pop Wes Anderson. No, not for anything having to do with preciousness, but because of the way he conjures the greatest small moments from the exceedingly weird 1970s. There’s a Spirit/Randy California-ish ring to the guitar, but Ray Davies and the Kinks — heroes of Wes Anderson — would seem to be the songwriting model invoked most often. Here is a completely realized vision: power pop (lower case ‘p’s) based on beautiful songwriting so removed from current trends and sensibilities that if you told me this was some great lost record from 1973, I’d fall for it completely. Just as I fell for “Circular Sounds.” Doubt me? Go to the iTunes store and listen to “When You Forget.” If you can resist, you’re probably the type that can eat one potato chip.
This is a message to the management of The Duke Spirit: okay, you know you have under contract the single strongest British rock band to emerge since Oasis in 1994. Liela Moss’s vocals are sexier than Kate Moss’s face, and the band packs such a wallop that that once it hammers its hooks into your brain, you’re pinned, completely caught, no place to go but to replay their music over and over and over again. At the same time, guitarists Luke Ford and Dan Higgins can play Buzzcocks rough to Luna soft, and all stops in between. But here’s your challenge as management: you have to resist licensing their music to a car company. Oh yeah, they’re coming, if they haven’t already got there. The band’s perhaps a little too hard rock for Volkswagen, but I can easily see Mitsubishi going for the Zombies-like intro to “The Step and the Walk” from the superb new album “Neptune.” I’m guessing Ford or Dodge might want to show how hip they are by having “Lassoo” power an ad for some jet black SUV, cruising with the club kids through lower Manhattan. And here’s my advice: resist. Sure, the songs are catchy enough for such commercial application, yet at its heart — the Duke Spirit’s spirit, if you will — the band needs to channel Sterling Morrison riffs and Noel Gallagher power chords on the way to making maybe the strongest Brit rock of the modern age. Yeah, they’re that good. Anything else is a sellout. Don’t blow it.