The electronic/disco/pop/rock group MGMT has made a huge splash, earning spots on tours with no less than Paul McCartney and Beck. The wildly catchy “Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel,” and “Kids” (the latter featuring a truly deranged music video) are not out of keeping with the rest of their repertoire in terms of style and instrumentation, but the infectious hooks do stand apart from the forgettable rest. At their Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park on July 1, they debuted a few new songs set for their forthcoming sophomore album that didn’t immediately grab me either.
For a band called “synth-hippies” by Pitchfork, they all looked rather clean-cut to me (but they evidently have a very young and boozy audience – one kid passed out and literally collapsed on our feet only a few songs into the concert). Their sound may be very electronic and a throwback to disco, but their live instrumentation is very rock guitar oriented. The only exception being “Kids,” for which the band put down their analog instruments and let the synthesizers and sequencers take over, even recreating a live fadeout.
Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental post-rock quartet from Texas. Their characteristic formula of a chiming guitar power trio on top of pulsating drums is a bit more palatable than their extremely loud, menacing Scottish peers Mogwai (read our review of their April show in New York). Personally, I hear a kind of homogeneity to much of Explosions’ music that I don’t hear in other post-rock outfits like Mogwai, Sigur Ros, and Tortoise.
To oversimplify their history, the band is primarily known for two factoids. In an unfortunate coincidence, their album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, released a few days before 9/11, featured a cover illustration of a plane and a caption reading “This plane will crash tomorrow.” Long before I actually heard any of their music, I do recall this story helping to feed the 24-hour-a-day broadcast news hysteria that followed. Better bolstering their repute, they composed the popular score to Peter Berg’s 2004 film Friday Night Lights, and they’ve attracted a significant fan base – selling out outdoor Central Park Rumsey Playfield even in the rain.
The band’s designated spokesman Munaf Rayani began the show by announcing it was their 10-year anniversary as a band. They played for about an hour and half without interruption, blending songs together into a continuous flow. From where I stood, the appreciative audience recognized and cheered many tunes. But Rayani apologized at the end of the show for things having “going off the rails,” and they walked off without an encore despite there still being some time before the Central Park curfew. For all I know, that may be their custom, but it was really surprising, and audibly disappointed everyone around me. Awkward.
The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know.
As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers.
As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)
Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite — as proven by the inevitable moment at every Peter Gabriel show where the crowd goes wild as he is introduced — and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers.
Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one.
I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.
Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show.
Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam [update: URL no longer available], along with some of my subjective comments:
Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound engineer Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.
The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):
Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
Soup (or Superconductor?)
Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.
Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe I’m wrong and touring is just hell.
Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) by a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.
Street Sweeper Social Club, the new band formed by Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, opened. Their badass cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” was a highlight.
Nine Inch Nails
It felt wrong somehow to see a band as moody and dark as Nine Inch Nails play while the sun was still up. But clouds soon moved in, obscuring a sunset that would have been impressive over the water, making everything suitably gloomy and very, very cold as NIN chased summer away. This stripped-down four-piece version of the band played a great cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the best song Nine Inch Nails could have but never wrote, and ended with the overwhelmingly sad “Hurt.”
Surprisingly omitted was “Closer,” what I would assume to be a requisite entry in any NIN set list (but the end theme did feature in a short instrumental jam). Speaking of, said jam was one of only two instrumental portions of the set (the other being The Fragile’s ambient interlude “The Frail”). A little disappointing, given that Trent Reznor has been becoming more and more musically experimental and adventurous of late, with whole chunks of The Fragile and the entirety of the massive two-disc Ghosts being instrumental. Personally, when it comes to Nine Inch Nails, the music (not so much the gloomy lyrics) is where the action is for me.
All thanks to Reznor for playing peacekeeper in reuniting the notoriously fractious and unstable Jane’s Addiction, at least for the length of the NIN/JA tour. Basically a funk/prog/metal power-trio fronted by the antics of Perry Farrell, a… unique individual whose ego (he once re-released a raft of Jane’s Addiction songs under just his own name on a solo greatest hits album) has often created conflict with bassist Eric Avery. The full moon peeking out from the clouds probably only added to Farrell’s lunacy.
They opened with their magnum opus “Three Days,” an epic featuring more discrete guitar solos by Dave Navarro than I could count. Honestly, where do you go from there? They kept finding high points to hit, however, including “Ocean Size” and the closer (what else?) “Jane Says.” It only took a few songs for the ageless Navarro’s vest to disappear (he must have one heck of a personal trainer, not to mention a chest hair waxer), and Perry’s shirt followed shortly thereafter.
Reznor has made vague noises about Nine Inch Nails coming to some kind of end following this tour. It remains to be seen whether he means retiring the name in favor of solo work, starting a new band, or simply ceasing to tour for a while. He’s reportedly been clean & sober for some time now, and engaged to be married, so more power to him. If he retreats now, he’d be going out on a high note. I hope the original lineup of Jane’s Addiction manages to keep it together to continue working in some form or another. With only two studio albums to their credit (I’m not counting the awful Strays, written & recorded without Avery’s inimitable bass), the world needs some new songs from them.
Getting There and Back
I had a little unexpected adventure on the long trip from Manhattan all the way out to Jones Beach. Met a few fans on the Long Island Railroad as we debated the various ways of getting there, all of which suck. Thanks to Kim & friend for the impromptu car ride to the venue! But I didn’t have the same luck on the way back, an ordeal that included waiting a full hour for a LIRR train to arrive. Picture dozens of hungry fans, shivering atop an elevated platform in the middle of nowhere.
Blech. Surrounded on three sides by water, Jones Beach sounds nice in theory, but in person it’s cold. Never mind if you’re going to a show there during the summer; dress warmly. Also, for a music lover used to all kinds of venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water for literally miles.
The exorbitant concession prices are, let’s be honest here, graft. Just to keep from dehydrating and getting a migraine from all the second-hand pot smoke, I reluctantly paid $6.50 for a bottled water, which I certainly hope the venue recycled. Also, the sound system is kinda crappy. Jane’s were noticeably louder than NIN, but Farrell’s mike sounded pretty muffled, especially on the first and last songs.
The audience was a weird mixture of goths, metalheads, and graying thirtysomethings like me. Although NIN has remained extremely relevant for some time now, the original Jane’s lineup has been out of action for more than a decade, and both bands date back to the late 80s / early 1990s, when I was in high school. The black-fingernailed loners didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t really expect so many headbangers. I even saw a middle-aged, bearded, fat dude in a skirt, a look I thought fizzled on arrival in the mid-90s.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t really have been surprised, but I come at Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction from a different angle. Listening to NIN is an extension of my appreciation for electronic and progressive rock, and Jane’s viscerally filthy, slightly sleazy rock owes more than a little to Led Zeppelin (who were also arguably a bit prog).
The Scottish instrumental rock outfit Mogwai earned their reputation in part for sheer volume, like My Bloody Valentine and The Who before them. Their music is also notable for exploring the kinds of extreme dynamics you usually only hear in electronica or progressive rock, wholly unlike the fatiguing constant loudness of most pop, punk, and metal.
My teeth are still resonating. This was far and away the most viscerally physical concert I’ve ever attended. In all seriousness, I believe it would be possible for a deaf person to enjoy a Mogwai show. I don’t mean to be offensive to the deaf community here; I felt the waves of sound as much as I could hear them.
This concert, part of a three-night stand at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, was filmed and might appear on a future DVD.