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LIVE ACTION: James Blake — Commodore Ballroom, April 25, 2013

22 Oct

James Blake live at Electronic Beats Festival Cologne 2013

Watching James Blake at the Commodore Ballroom was like eating at a gourmet restaurant of sound. Each oaky word, textured piano note, and effervescent synth riff was deployed with deceptive minimalism, so individual sounds could be distinctly enjoyed before melting into a song.

Humbly acknowledging the crowd with a simple, “How ya doin?” Blake launched into “Air & Lack Thereof,” his first single from 2009, and one that creeps up with some seriously heavy bass. This was complimented by the rat-a-tat-tat snare and impressive cymbal crashing of drummer Ben Assiter, to great effect.

As we heard Blake’s tenor chime the first a capella notes of “I never Learnt to Share,” the crowd went mad. Using the incredible vocal control, he sang over loops of his two-line, bluesy melody and layered those over lush keys and Rob McAndrews’ soulful guitar. Add the unique bass drop at the song’s climax, and you’ve got even the most aloof concertgoers dropping low.

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Blake delivered more treats from his 2011 self-titled debut, and created an intimate atmosphere with “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II,” a pair of goosebump-inducing songs that were like a warm, enveloping blanket live. His popular cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love” had audience members singing along as the 24-year-old’s silhouette was bathed in a sensual red glow.

Next came some new songs from Blake’s recent release, Overgrown. “To the Last,” with its minimal melody and fat bass synths, kept the mood mellow. Not one for stagnant emotions, Blake took things up several notches with the frenetic pace of Voyeur. Synthesized cowbells mixed with live drums and the simple phrase “I don’t mind, it was all me” created a tense, almost catastrophic atmosphere that could only be dissipated through dance.

My favourite track of the night (besides “I Never Learnt to Share,” I can’t get enough of that bass drop) was CMYK. Because I only have Blake’s two studio albums, I hadn’t heard this amazing electro-R&B gem from his 2010 EP CMYK. A densely woven fusion of Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” and Kelis’s “Caught Out There,” paired with Blake’s trademark post-dubstep sensibilities, created an insta fave.

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Capping off his encore with “A Case of You,” a Joni Mitchell cover, Blake crooned, “I drew a map of Canada / Oh Canada / With your face sketched on it twice / Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine,” his stunning vocals emulating Michell’s cascading style. In an interview with Collective Concerts, Blake said, “”Joni embodies the things I’m talking about. She was the spark that led to [Overgrown].” His rendition of Joni’s song was so rich, so beautiful, that it created a proud Canadian moment for all of us.

Considering his otherworldly talents, James Blake is a very understated live performer. His unassuming nature paired with deeply introspective vocals and forward-thinking production is reminiscent of a child prodigy. As I left the Commodore I felt satisfied in the way one would after having indulged in a high quality meal. Flavours lingered in my memory, but not on my palate, and I was surprised to find my ears weren’t ringing. In fact, it was hard not to feel like a sound connoisseur, because his concert showcased some of the best fidelity I’d ever heard. If this Pitchfork-crowned “post-dubstep whiz kid” is just starting to mature, I can’t wait for what he’ll serve up next.

Photos courtesy of electronicbeats.net, smallworld.com and www.idealizela.com.

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BRILLIANT EDGY PIXIE: Grimes @ Fortune Sound Club — Feb. 18, 2012

22 Feb

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be from Vancouver this week. It all started with a message:

“Anyone wanna see Grimes with me on Feb. 18 @ Fortune? She’s this wicked dreamy synthpop chick who opened for Lykke Li on her last tour, and she’s from here! Tix are only $13. Think about it! — L”

I rallied the troops to catch this rising star — born and bred of the same mountain air, sandy beaches, underground hippie culture and leagues of outdoor space as myself.

Because this was the first sold-out performance of her Visions tour, which is her first release after signing to epic indie label 4AD (home of so many favourite bands… oh the anticipation!), Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, was quite obviously a very nervous creature.

Plus this gig was in her hometown.

The tiny 23-year-old hopped onstage to face a packed crowd that was already showing signs of restlessness. I missed openers Born Gold so I wasn’t riled up yet, but the tone of people’s conversations was getting growly. Grimes was dressed in a simple v-neck longsleeved, her hair piled in a giant ponytail at the top of her head. Her eyes were awash with enough pink shadow to make Bowie proud. When she took the mic, she flopped her hair to cover one side of her face and said in a trademark, high-pitched register,

“H-h-hey!

…Uh, I’m Grimes.

Hehheh. Thanks. Thanks for coming to my show!”

So awkward! She was like a nervous teen asking for a first date. Adorable. Then she started up the synths and all cuteness evaporated into the ether.

This chick can lay down a beat. She started out with a more experimental sound, stopping at times to ask for more of this, or less of that, from the sound people.

She was joined by the two members of Born Gold who hit up the synths/keys/drum machines behind her as she would “coo,” or “goo,” or “gaa,” or “check” to test the sound at random intervals, which sounded strange — like a baby backed by a synthesizer and a lot of amps.

But what an unhappy baby that would be! Her bass was fucking loud. And her hits were immediately recognizable to the crowd. The chunky beats of Oblivion morphed into the speeding momentum of Vanessa, which melted into the warm and fuzzy haloes of Genesis. And all were matched with throaty catcalls and flailing limbs. The crowd ate her up completely.

The song Be a Body. Oh my god. What a GREAT track! And she absolutely KILLED it live! There was not a body there without arms in the air and feet stomping along to a deliberately simple electropop beat that masks some impressive experimental vocals. You can really hear how she’s inspired by Mariah Carey on this one.

I must say though, Grimes’ voice was obscured by frequent mic feedback and throbbing bass, so her  R&B-influenced soprano did get a bit lost.

And yes, her voice did come across as inconsistent at times, but I expected it to, because that’s how it sounds on the record. It doesn’t matter. Her voice is interesting, and her beats are wickedawesome. Like, The Knife-style wickedawesome. (If you’re a fan of me or my blog, you will know I have a permanent love-on for The Knife — I even wrote them a poem.)

Take a gander at Grimes’ latest video for Vanessa:

Regardless of any criticism of her musical ability, Grimes comes across as real during her performance. And that’s all I really wanted.

This is a tough feat I’d say, given the incredible amount of hype this girl is getting: New York Times, the National Post, the Sun, the Province, the Georgia Straight, Pitchfork, Exclaim!, Spinner, Discorder, etc. are all taking note.

And living in Vancouver myself (I grew up in Metro Van), it’s hard not to notice her popping up everywhere here. The sky’s the limit for this Vancouver girl, though now she calls Montreal home.

So what does it mean to be from Vancouver?

Let’s ask some notables:

“The sea has now changed from it’s natural, to river coloured water, the probable consequence of some streams falling into the bay, or into the ocean to the north of it, through the low land. To describe the beauties of this region will, on some future occasion, be a very grateful task to the pen of a skilled panegyrist.”

–George Vancouver

“It’s a foodie town, a chef town, a multicultural city. A proverbial melting pot where the elements don’t melt too much and lose distinct flavours.”

–Anthony Bourdain

Hm. If you asked me what it meant for an artist to be from New York, or Tokyo, or Paris, or even Cleveland, I’d definitely have a picture in my mind; at least some distinctive imagery to describe the artist’s influence.

So what of Grimes?

I think her music — with its airy melodies and deep pop hooks; tingly synths and jagged beats — shows that being from Vancouver means we’re all a little raw.

You know. Edgy. Unfinished. Beautiful, but hauntingly vague. Like the rain we must endure for so many waking months, we can’t be pinned down.

People are really transient here. Friends come and go. Summer lovers get washed away with the seasons. The perpetually grey sky can make us desperate for light. We don’t talk to each other enough in public places. We’re inside our heads a lot of the time.

As Grimes herself said to the Vancouver Sun, “I don’t have a phone. Everyone I know is always on their fucking phone on the Internet all the time. I just wanted to write a song about being alive in the real world — ‘be a body.’”

With her edgy, experimental beats and enough artistic talent to rival seasoned pop divas like Robyn and La Roux, Grimes is coming out of her head and into yours.

So you better check her while you can.

First photo courtesy of the New York Times; second photo courtesy of Arbutus Records; third photo courtesy of Pitchfork.

LIVE ACTION: Kanye West and Jay-Z @ Rogers Arena in Vancouver — Sunday, Dec. 18

21 Dec

Last weekend, Kanye West and Jay-Z threw down more than two-hours’ worth of stellar material in a pairing that had each of them dropping solo hits as well as impressive, stadium-filling tracks off this year’s “Watch the Throne.”

I won’t ramble on and on about the album title “Watch the Throne” coming from a basis of insecurity when its real message is to warn away the competition, but suffice it to say I don’t think the title works.

Back to the live event: Obviously it was the perfect occasion to wear gold. So I got all metaled up, headed to my friend’s place in Gastown where I ate delicious vegetarian stew and drank tasty Prosecco. It was lovely, golden and sparkling to match my bling! Yes.


The boys had yet to take the stage when we arrived, so we got a few drinks and chatted as we watched the lights go down. Wee!

To begin the show, the New Yorker (Jay-Z) and the Chicagoan (Kanye) faced off on opposing platforms, trading verses from H.A.M. and Who Gon Stop Me, both new tracks from their latest offering. It was a face-off of sorts, as intimidating images of rottweilers, sharks, bears and cheetahs — all with teeth bared — were splashed across several giant screens. It was an obvious warning to all opponents: do not mess with these dudes. For their hit single Otis, the pair joined forces on the main stage with a gargantuan American flag in the background and fireballs bursting out from either side. Epic.

Then it was ‘Ye’s turn. He threw down some solo hits: Flashing Lights, All Falls Down,  Homecoming, and later on, Stronger and All of the Lights. Kanye’s live sound was larger-than-life. And all his tracks were paired with some of the most incredible laser-work I’ve ever seen. Take a look at my laser photos below, though they don’t really do it justice.

Pretty wow-factor, hey?

During Runaway, Kanye rose up on a cube-shaped stage, completely illuminated in red. He crooned into the mic while throwing down some fancy R&B dance moves, which were impressive, though his auto-tuned voice was a little distracting.


Before the tender beats of the duo’s inspirational new track Made in America rang out, Kanye spoke to the crowd about the importance of putting aside your ego and collaborating with your fellow man to achieve your dreams. Jus’ like ‘Ye and Jay! Hundreds of phone screens lit up in appreciation. Though this may have irked any truly “hard” members of the audience (though why anyone’d ever try to be hard is beyond me), it was really uplifting to see this track performed live. It’s not often a rap/hip-hop star will wax emotional, so this felt pretty special. Also, the song was paired with visuals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on the jumbo screens, which really hammered home the song’s themes.

The dudes carried the warm and fuzzy approach forward with a touching rendition of New Day, during which they sat down side-by-side and traded personal verses about fatherhood. This was made even more sentimental by the fact that Jay is expecting. I looked around and saw nothing but grins.

Then, it was Jay’s turn: Dirt off Your Shoulder, Big Pimpin’, 99 Problems… all were delivered with incredible precision, dedication and style. Hova did not miss a single beat. When the first few beats of Empire State of Mind dripped from the speakers, I think I may have gone completely insane. Blissfit! I LOVE this track! As the unofficial anthem for NYC, it was absolutely brilliant to see this performed live. I’m planning to hit NYC for my 30th b-day, so I was extra stoked on this — particularly since Kanye *just* encouraged me to follow my dreams! Anyway, after seeing Jay-Z live tonight for the first time, I can whole-heartedly attest that this guy is at the top of his game.

Moving the set along smoothly, Hova and Yeezy threw down No Church in the Wild. Set against a macabre backdrop of vintage KKK video clips and featuring a slow, ominous bass-line, this track came across with amazing live energy.

Next came Lift Off, though with no surprise appearance by Beyonce (darn!). Unfortunately, the song was cut short to make way for Niggas in Paris. I say “unfortunately” because the bossa nova bit at the end of Lift Off is the best.

As one of the more serious hip-hop-head tracks on “Watch the Throne,” I was definitely expecting to hear Niggas in Paris. I was also expecting to see everyone around me drop it pretty damn low — which they did.

Sweet!

The dudes wrapped up the song and left the stage. When the roar of the crowd brought them back out for the encore, they looked at each other, looked at the audience, and then shouted “AGAIN!”

So we got down to Niggaz in Paris for the second time. Sweet.

And  when it ended, ‘Ye and Jay shouted, “AGAIN!”

Ok… yes… still droppin’ it! Yeah.

And then, four times (“again!”),  five times (“again!”), six times (“again!”), seven times (“again!”), eight times (“again!”)… I should note that there was nothing different about the song each time, it was the exact same beat, same lyrics — over and over again.

Then Kanye started yelling a bunch of crap about setting a “world record for Niggas in Paris,” as though ‘setting a world record for the number of times an artist can play their own song without the audience going berzerk’ is a feat worth bragging about.

Then Jay-Z says, “We set the record at ten times in LA,” and they both shouted, “TEN TIMESSS…!!!… AGAIN!” My friend and I look at each other desperately. “But they’re only at eight!” I cried. “This is ri-DIC-ulous!” So we were subjected to three more renditions of Niggaz in Paris.

Same song, same lyrics — 11 times.

“Well, I’ve certainly never seen an artist do that before,” I said to my friend as a way to justify the last, wasted 35 minutes of our lives. But the more I thought about it, the more pissed I became.

I thought and thought, and I just couldn’t come up with a way for ‘Ye and Jay to justify playing the same song 11 times. Between them, they have a catalogue of several hundred songs. Do you think the audience wanted to hear 11 of those songs? Or Niggas in Paris 11 times in a row?

If you want my honest opinion, (and why else would you be here?) it was the most self-indulgent thing I have ever witnessed at a live performance — ever.

And I hope I never hear that song again — ever.

You know, it’s too bad, because this really overshadowed the rest of an otherwise-great performance. The silverbacks of hip-hop definitely owned tha house on Sunday night. But I wish they’d remembered that their fans were also in the building.


All photos by me.

TWO DAYS AFTER A RIOT: The Mountain Goats gave me love (love love)

23 Jul

North Carolina’s poetic indie-rock outfit The Mountain Goats makes music like bittersweet breakup letters. Like heartache put to 4/4 time.

I love this band and have only seen them once before at Sasquatch 2010. They were great, but admittedly, they’re not a band you can appreciate at a big music festival. Their show at The Biltmore Cabaret on June 17, 2011 was far more intimate, and way more memorable.

And John Darnielle is a great frontman — one of the best I’ve seen, in fact.

He is so intelligent, well spoken, gracious… and funny! He chatted with the audience between every song, speaking about his artistic influences, his personal life, anecdotes from the band and current events. His trademark, witty musings were simultaneously dark and light-hearted — just like his music — and my three friends who were not familiar with the band had no trouble forging a connection.

Darnielle even apologized about the riots that happened in our city two nights before, eloquently lamenting the negative impact of such a pointless event. Having been there for the start of the riots, I was surprised at how emotional I felt as my friend and I fled the downtown core. Everyone we met during the exodus was surprised and angry; opinions were infinite; any feelings of civic pride were dashed.

Though it was sad for me to realize the bands I love will probably talk about the riots before gigs in VanCity for a while to come, it was really nice to belong to a loving, respectful crowd on this night. Truly, this is the Vancouver I am proud to be a part of.

The Mountain Goats played an energetic hour-and-a-half-long set, switching effortlessly between crooning love songs, bitter ballads and upbeat indie dance tracks. Darnielle, with Jon Wurster on drums, Peter Hughes on bass, and touring keyboardist Yuvol Semo, had no shortage of energy as they all wailed on their instruments in the most sincere fashion. This band is known for their sincerity, and their stage presence confirmed it as they all looked like geeky college professors breaking loose from grading papers.

Speaking of stage presence, Darnielle’s is excellent. He is truly a seasoned performer. He had no trouble interacting with the crowd, and at one point pressed his face against the steel enclosure along the side of the stage and crooned through it. After that, he hung himself off the side of the stage and caressed people’s faces as he leaned in for a few intimate moments with fans.

Oh, and he wasn’t wearing any shoes.

Did I mention I love this band?!

Anyway, given that it was an early show with a 10:30 pm curfew, The Mountain Goats played a rich set that included 18 songs (I was too busy swaying to count — thank you Setlist.fm). They started with“Liza Forever Minnelli,” a new, slower track, and worked on building an infectious energy that carried us through “Broom People,” “Damn These Vampires,” and “This Year.” And the energy didn’t peak for a moment. From this secretly emo heart, I was particularly excited to hear “Broom People.” The songwriting makes me feel mushy every time:

’36 Hudson in the garage
All sorts of junk in the unattached spare room.
Dishes in the kitchen sink
New straw for the old broom.
Friends who don’t have a clue
Well meaning teachers
But down in your arms, in your arms
I am a wild creature.

Floor two foot high with newspapers
White carpet thick with cat hair
Half eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer
Fresh fuel for the sodium flares
I write down good reasons to freeze to death
In my spiral-ring notebook
But in the long tresses of your hair
I am a babbling brook

God I love those lyrics! It was very cathartic live.

After this, it was just Darnielle, mic and guitar. When the bare-bones love song “It Froze Me” began, the crowd fell silent, entranced by his wavery vocals and expressive guitar plucking. This song goes all the way back to ’96, and it was amazing to hear Darnielle’s poetry come alive much like it would have on his early demos. Watching him perform this song felt like experiencing a first kiss with someone you really like: soft, electric and infinitely uplifting. I’m a big fan of this band, but I’d never heard this song before and the title described my reaction exactly.

What a beautiful song, and such a pleasure to experience live:

Later in the set, the band played a special song only performed live called “You Were Cool.” Darnielle told the crowd he first performed it in Victoria, B.C., and that it was “really special” to be able to play it for a Vancouver audience. Aw!

To close the set before the encore, the band played the ever-popular “This Year,” which had everybody shouting out:

“I am gonna make it, through this year, if it kills me.”

In a city that is still reverberating from the deep wounds of senseless, violent rioting over nothing, where young people are wearing the blame and everyone is searching their souls to find a way to understand, this felt very apropos.

When the first few chords of “No Children” rang out and I shrieked with glee. This is one of my absolute favourite songs EVER! I quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm: nearly everyone around me was shouting or muttering along with every word, which was awesome, because for this band the words are many.

The words are what it’s all about:

I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over

And I hope you blink before I do
Yeah I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me years down the line
You can’t find one good thing to say
And I’d hope that if I found the strength to walk out
You’d stay the hell out of my way

I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unlovable hand
And I hope you die
I hope we both die

All in all, it was the ideal end to a very un-ideal week in Vancouver. I’m so glad I was there. While falling asleep that night, I thought about how The Mountain Goats are the perfect symbol for how to behave with dignity in the face of negative emotions.

Their music illustrates how anger, when met with intelligence, can inspire beauty.

All of Darnielle’s lyrics are poetry. I could spend hours flipping through the band’s massive catalogue of tracks.

Buy music by The Mountain Goats on iTunes and check out the setlist from the Biltmore show.

Also, check out this sweet poster I bought!

Top photo courtesy of Brooklynvegan.com. Second photo courtesy of Stereogum.com.

COACHELLA 2011: Best New Discoveries – Foals, Sleigh Bells, Trentemoller

11 May

Here are my favourite newly discovered bands from the festival:

Foals


Sleigh Bells

Trentemoller

To conclude my Coachella 2011 coverage, I’ll leave you with this remix of Ellie Goulding’s Under the Sheets that serves as the opening track on a Coachella mixtape I picked up by Las Vegas DJ Silent John.

Thanks SJ! Also, thanks to all the hard-working Coachella organizers! Hope to see you next year.

DON’T GET IT: Empire of the Sun

11 May

Some blogs have suggested that Australia’s Empire of the Sun should have appeared on the main stage at Coachella before Arcade Fire. This would have had them replacing psychedelic prog-rock outfit Animal Collective. The Animal Collective show was visually creative, but the music hit only two notes: monotone and emotionless, and because of this, it made everyone restless. I was surprised by how bored I felt, cus I love Merriweather Post Pavilion. Anyway, though I was glad to have caught those guys, their performance was ultimately a fail. And given I’d already nominated our very dear Robyn for their honoured set-time, upon my return home I thought I’d check out Empire of the Sun to see what all the fuss was about.

So I did:

Ya…

I don’t get it.

All the visual artifice, make up and bug-eyed space camp-y-ness was really distracting. Sure, their show was interesting to watch with all the effort put into their DIY costume esthetic, and the far-too-numerous nods to David Bowie, but as I watched I found myself forming a look of horror on my face.

It just seems so vapid.

And in the music video below, the dudes look like they’re on a pill cocktail.

I will say the Empire of the Sun show at Coachella presented something different than all the other acts. They really went above and beyond in terms of creating a set onstage. And I like the lights on the guitars. But this band reminds me too much of Flight of the Conchords — both musically and aesthetically — only sincere (wait, is this sincere?). Anyway, the music isn’t that great. And, it’s been done.

Another negative is that the band appears to have influenced a buncha guys to sport feather headdresses… and makeup… at the festival. Is this a bad thing? Debatable, but I thought so. I know guys wore eyeliner in the 90s a la Billy Corgan, but the sheer arrogance they gave off this time around seemed like too much.

Perhaps the thing that really horrifies me is that this music is for a new crop of kids that are of a different generation than myself. Maybe marketers will start showcasing young men wearing coloured makeup and headdresses to sell things, and one day I will assimilate and it will become normal for me to see these makeup/headdress men on Coke bottles, cupcake wrappers and the like.

Or maybe I’m just not that cool anymore.

But I’m really not very old…

Download music by Empire of the Sun here. And you really should check out Animal Collective’s vast musical archives here.

Photo courtesy of lastfm.com.

WORST OF COACHELLA 2011: Cee Lo Green is the Slow Machine

11 May

Cee Lo Green was more than half an hour late for his set. And leaving a mass of hipsters cooking in the desert sun with nothing to listen to at the main stage is not a good thing.

Everyone around me was grumbling, “Where’s Cee Lo? He was supposed to start 15/20/25/30 minutes ago.” My friends and I contemplated leaving several times. “Let’s just wait five more minutes,” we said — three times.

By now the grumbling had switched to outspoken rage. “What the fuck Cee Lo?!” shouted a dude behind me.

Then people started pointing at a helicopter hovering overhead… Cee Lo?

It was Cee Lo.

He rushed onstage, sweat already glistening on his brow, and launched into Iron Man (a Black Sabbath cover).

“I’m angry too!” Cee Lo said at the beginning of his short set. “I’ve only got 20 minutes left!” He played a few Gnarls Barkley hits and his famed Fuck You, where audience members got a chance to finger the stage and stick it to Cee Lo a lil’ bit.

Supposedly he was not satisfied with his daytime spot so he made up for it by showing up late and trying to cut into Lauryn Hill’s set. He even threw down the start of a cover of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, but the Coachella organizers cut off his power. So Cee Lo was left shouting at the crowd for a few more minutes while people started to disperse with shaking heads.

You’re angry, Cee Lo?

Well maybe you should have gotten in your personal helicopter a little earlier.

If you’re not angry, you can download Cee Lo’s music here.

Photo courtesy of hollywoodgo.com.