Category Archives: live review

U2 Live at TD Garden: July 14, 2015

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U2 are easy to take for granted.

They’ve been so huge for so many years, it’s easy to dismiss them as mind numbing pablum. Their mawkishness and sentimentality begs for ridicule.  I’m accustomed to hearing musicians deride them and make snarky comments just to get a few easy “likes” on social media. 

The funny thing is that I really like U2.  I always have. 

My wife suggested that we see them and since I hadn’t seen them, I realized I’d missed out on the very phenomenon that has sealed a bond with millions of fans and placed them in the firmament of rock in the first place. 

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And boy, am I glad I did.

U2 are a band who’ve earned the superlatives.  They are the consummate Big Time Rock Band. 

For over two hours, U2 reminded me that love is the healing force of the universe and that maybe, just maybe, we can redeem ourselves through rock music.  Perhaps most significantly, they reminded me that sometimes the most transgressive, punk rock thing you can do as an artist is to write a song about your mother and actually affirm the gift of life and express love. 

In a pop culture world overrun by narcissistic wankers and smug, detached handlebar mustachioed would-be hipsters so consumed by their cynical sneering and ironic, postmodern deconstructions, U2 come across as the real radicals. 

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The music succeeds on so many levels.  It’s got a missionary sense of purpose, but never forgets that rock and roll is a secular church.  It has equal reverence for Motown, Jimi Hendrix, Kraftwerk and Elvis, but never forgets its Dublin roots.

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It’s music that says “All I want is you” and means every word.  They are a band so grounded in the emotional truth of what they’re laying down, it’s really difficult to remain unmoved.

The tour is called the Innocence to Experience Tour and naturally, as the title suggests, the show traces the arc of their development as artists and men. 

Visually, this show was a marvel.  There was a giant rectangular structure which served as a projection surface and an elevated stage.  At various points in the show, the screen showed animated renderings of their neighborhood, star constellations, oceans, nighttime cityscapes, and a virtual Johnny Cash among many other things. 

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Dublin’s favorite sons paid homage to their formative years with several selections from their latest release, “Songs of Innocence”.  I was especially moved by their rendition of “Iris”; Bono’s tribute to his mother. He set up the song with a story about his mother’s death and how it served as an opportunity to deepen his artistry.  “We all find ourselves orphans at some point in life,” he said.  As someone who lost his own mother, this sentiment hit home for me in a big way.  

U2 have never been shy about their political convictions and openly proclaim their desire for peace, justice and love in many songs.  The scars of violence in Ireland were transformed into a plea for justice for victims of terrorism in “Raised by Wolves” and a pared down “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.  Photos of victims of IRA violence were woven into a devastating digital collage while the words JUSTICE FOR THE FORGOTTEN hovered over the images like a command from beyond the grave. 

“We must never give in to fear.  There are people who hate freedom.  Who hate rock music. Who hate women.  We must never give in.  We must send the love that’s present here and radiate it everywhere so that it reaches every community,” exhorted Bono. 

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Right on, man. 

At midpoint of the set, they began to lean more heavily towards the classic canon and the show gathered momentum. 

“Bullet the Blue Sky” revealed U2 at their rockist best and successfully channeled Cream and Band of Gypsys.  Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen churned out a thunderous groove that bored into the center of the earth while Edge’s searing sheets of feedback and noise soared over the top.  A kaleidoscopic mashup of Wall Street trading pits and American iconography served as the visual companion to Bono’s Morrisonesque declamations.  “America is an idea. I want to be part of that idea”. Nice work, guys. 

The highlight was without question their transcendent rendition of “Pride”.  “This song is for peacemakers,” declared Bono. He stepped back and allowed the congregation to carry the wordless vocal phrase; gently goading the crowd to ever increasing intensity culminating in full throated ecstasy with each chorus.  This is the kind of secular devotion that is often attempted but rarely matched. 

For their encore, they delivered a trio of gems; “Beautiful Day”, “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.  By the time the chiming chords of the latter began, the crowd was in the palm of their hands.  Once again, Bono didn’t even sing the first verse and simply allowed the song to be carried by the reverie of the crowd.

They exited the stage one by one until all that remained were the sounds of Edge and Bono. The show ended just as it began. Bono sneaked in a line of Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”.

Message received, gentlemen.  Thank you for bringing it home. 

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Solid Sound Day 3: June 28, 2015

Despite some unseasonably cold summer rain, my wife and I set out to Mass Moca to take in the sights and sounds of the conclusion of Solid Sound 2015. 

As an artist who’s consistently staked out adventurous musical territory over the course of my own career, I’ve sought to support venues, promoters, and events which present ambitious visions which fall outside the common perception of “mainstream” taste and still manage to reach a mass audience.  Solid Sound is a festival that aspires to achieve this goal and by and large, succeeds.  That said, there is a little bit of a stuffy and oppressive air to the whole thing. Needless to say, holding a music and art festival at a museum is going to have a bit of a THIS IS ART vibe to it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such a self-congratulatory atmosphere creates its own aura of stultifying conservatism. I measure the success of any art by how successfully it balances its various ambitions and most importantly, whether it manages to convey some basic humanity and soul. What is this artist saying about life and the human condition fundamentally?

The three acts we saw managed to present music that was simultaneously virtuosic, visionary, and futuristic, but occasionally lapsed into antiseptic and sterile intellectualism.  Some more than others. 

This tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Nels Cline and Norton Wisdom’s Stained Radiance.  Since I was familiar with Mr. Cline’s work, I was looking forward to this set.  Stained Radiance featured Nels doing his solo guitar thing with various looping devices, delays and effects while Norton accompanied with a painting improvisation and three dancers added a movement element.  This certainly had all the ingredients and potential to be a pretentious wank, but ended up having enough of an emotional center to engage.  To my surprise, the real glue of the performance was Mr. Wisdom. He painted on a semi-translucent canvas which was projected on to the main screen in the hall.  It had the effect of being a white board so he could create negative space with a wiping tool and wash away an image with relative ease.  His style had a phantasmagoric quality to it.  The color palette was dark. His opening image appeared to be a surreal impression of Mr. Cline. Strange monstrous humanoids were conjured from amorphous blotches of paint. Anthropomorphic animals and human forms with wings took shape. The surface allowed the paint to run and gave each form a melted quality that was naturally very creepy.

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Mr. Cline churned out subsonic drones, shards of harmony and melody, shrieking spears of noise, ghostly pulsations, and icy riffs at various moments throughout the piece.  The two aesthetics were complementary.

One of the dancers was outfitted with a diaphanous fabric sheath which lent itself to a performance which resembled either an aquatic plant or a flame burning in slow motion.  Another dancer did a passage with a long piece of fabric that was meant to convey imprisonment or a struggle to be free from some kind of bondage.  The physicality of the dancers certainly lent the piece some much needed drama and made it more of a performance, but it still felt a little aimless and pretentious. 

What did they intend to convey with this performance? I’m not entirely sure.  Clearly, they were content to let the process unfold and allow the audience to generate their own experiences and interpretations.  I find that leaving it entirely up to the audience to extract a message from abstract art can be a cop out.  Abstraction for its own sake can be an evasion and a way to avoid risking any real emotions. 

This performance suffered from that pitfall a bit. It felt non-committal. I sensed vague allusions to gender based conflicts.  I sensed some struggle to be free.  I sensed a small appeal to love buried beneath the layers of darkness and abstraction. 

It had a foreboding and ominous atmosphere. It more or less held my attention. It was among the most successful attempts at this kind of performance I’ve personally seen and I’ve actually done gigs that were almost identical conceptually. However, I was not deeply moved. I’m going to seek out one of Mr. Cline’s bands next time. 

One of the great successes and recurring themes of Solid Sound is that Cool is ageless and that making vital art is the pursuit of a lifetime.  The greats may not draw the attention of the pop culture spotlight, but they are always creating and cultivating their own unique language without regard to which direction the winds of popular taste are blowing.  The booking of Richard Thompson, NRBQ and the great Charles Lloyd were testimony to this. 

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Charles Lloyd is one of the last remaining giants of 20th century modern jazz and his CV is indeed impressive

Not only was he backed up by a first rate rhythm section comprised of Gerald Clayton on piano, Kendrick Scott on drums, and Joe Sanders on bass, he was joined by Bill Frisell too!  This more than compensated for the unsatisfying and uninspired pairing with Sam Amidon. 

Mr. Lloyd exuded the ease and confidence of a true master.  His music was equal parts post-bop modernism and blues inflected spiritual exploration. It is big hearted and filled with romanticism but still leaves ample space for experimentation.  Most importantly, it was always swinging.  Frisell’s languid, cubist Americana avant-bop was totally complementary. 

We concluded our afternoon with the sedate bleeps and bloops of Quindar.  Quindar are an electronic music duo comprised of Mikael Jorgensen and James Thomas. 

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Their unique angle is that they’ve been granted access to NASA mission video and audio recordings and their performance is meant to emulate a journey to the moon. 

In theory, I should love these guys. I’ve spent the better part of my career playing music that hews very closely to this artistic territory.  My current band Mission Creep has cosmic ambitions of its own.

The music is very tasteful and the execution is flawless.  There are identifiable melodies and riffs amidst the pulsations, oscillations, and layered beats. It’s just a little too tasteful. 

They were wise to utilize video because they would be insufferably boring to watch without it.  Public Service Broadcasting from the UK are doing the exact same thing conceptually, but are utilizing live instrumentation and subsequently have a more dynamic sound. 

Sadly, King Sunny Ade was held up at the Canadian border and was unable to perform. 

Mass Moca and Wilco are producing a quality festival and I’m genuinely hopeful that it was a financial success. I look forward to next year’s incarnation. 

Solid Sound Day 2: June 27, 2015

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My wife and I decided to check out the Wilco curated Solid Sound festival at Mass Moca this weekend. True their own aesthetic, the common thread unifying all the acts is that each band found different ways to combine American musical tradition and present it in an innovative way.

The festival had a vague feeling of being the East Coast anti-Coachella. In contrast to the image conscious, overpriced West Coast glam of Coachella, Solid Sound was all about reconciling the urbane with the rural. The abstract and adventurous with the gritty and immediate. It was a family oriented festival too, so it wasn’t monopolized by skinny jeans wearing millennials. It managed to be that festival where you were just as likely to find kids playing games on Joe’s Field as you were to find someone who could tell you what their favorite Derek Bailey record was.

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Ryley Walker played a pleasant conjunction of Americana, Krautrock and jazz.  It was occasionally reminiscent of Popul Vuh.  At other times, it devolved into a bland melange which felt facile and uninspired.  Enjoyable enough, but it certainly didn’t set my world on fire.

Luluc were a male/female folk duo who played a low key and melancholy sounding brand of music that seems to lend itself to rainy days and nights of solitude.  The female singer had a voice which vaguely resembled Nico.  Accomplished but meh.

Bill Frisell teamed up with a folk singer/multi-instrumentalist named Sam Amidon. This was perhaps the biggest letdown. Even the brilliance of someone like Frisell could not elevate Amidon’s anemic mewling. He’s talented enough and has a decent voice, but the end result felt detached and academic. Even their excursions into atonal free improvisation were so carefully modulated that they felt more precious than truly exuberant, playful or jarring.

NRBQ injected some much needed life into an afternoon which was a little too heavily weighted towards the soporific.  Their skewed take on R&B was playful and irreverent.  British Invasion style vocal harmonies were mixed with skronk sax solos and swampy New Orleans style funk.  These guys find the common ground between Professor Longhair, Thelonious Monk, and The Beach Boys and make it soar. It manages to be joyous and fun and arty all at once.  Though people often compare Phish with the Dead, it’s apparent to me that they’ve copped a few moves from these guys.

The biggest flop award goes to the insufferably pretentious Jessica Pratt.  Once again, it’s evident that there’s a decent voice and perhaps some songwriting skill that could ripen in time, but the vibe was so fragile and the emotions were too muted. I was reminded of acts like Sharon Van Etten, Waxahatchee, and Marissa Nadler but not as good as any of them. It had a “I’m so consumed by these emotions that I can barely whisper them into this microphone” feeling. And she left the stage without even a “thank you” or an acknowledgement of the audience.  Fuck you too, Jessica.

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The hands down winner of the afternoon was Cibo Matto. Though I believe that Cibo Matto belong to a tradition of NYC punk-funk that traces back to bands like Talking Heads, ESG, and Bush Tetras, their sound incorporates a bedrock of R&B/hip hop and panoply of transcontinental influences which are synthesized so effortlessly, it comes across as its own unique polyglot hybrid.  Their albums have a polished sheen of electronic beats and sounds, but they were backed up by a live rhythm section which brought some welcome brawn to their live sound.  “Blue Train” was one of the most successful marriages of Neu! and Black Sabbath I’ve ever heard.  “Moonchild” revealed them at their R&B sweetest. In “Sunday Part 1” Ms. Hattori and Ms. Honda laid down a flow that stood up against any hip-hop crew you can name. “Bbq” was a blistering punk-funk rave up that gave Primetime a run for their money. They were joyful, innovative and funky; surely the embodiment of everything for which Solid Sound stands.  A+.

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Shabazz Palaces delivered a set of futuristic hip-hop that defied easy comparisons. I was simply at a loss in identifying their antecedents. Their flow was angular but also had harmonized vocals and looped phrases and words.  Without a doubt, one of the most original sounds in the contemporary landscape. Their choreography was cool too.

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I’m just going to admit my loserdom and confess my utter ignorance of Richard Thompson. Yes, I know. What kind of a musician am I to be oblivious to this guy? His set was indeed very good and it’s imminently clear that he’s a prodigious talent. I gave myself a facepalm when I looked up his discography and saw multitude of connections and collaborations with acts I admire. He laid down a raucous set of his unique brand of blues.

Parquet Courts seemed cut from the art punk template that gave rise to the likes of Gang of Four, Pere Ubu and Wire but with a contemporary flair.  It was decent but not original enough to warrant the fanfare. But then again, Spin is apparently in the business of glorifying the mediocre and hackneyed.

And the WTF Award of the day goes to Mac DeMarco. I’ve read the hype. I watched a video once.  I kind of get it, but it’s just not my bag.  He can write a song. He can perform. The program indicates that he’s been compared to John Lennon and Ray Davies, but I’ll be damned if I hear even a fraction of either in him.  There’s a quirky funk/R&B quality to it, but it’s just not something that speaks to me.

Unfortunately, this guy preceded Wilco and since he eroded my patience, we left before their set started.  Sorry, guys.

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Day 3 review coming soon.