Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Recent Concert Roundup

Kittens, I've been to a number of concerts in the past month that, for one reason or another, I haven't had a chance to tell you about yet. Let me do so now.

Early in August I made the last minute decision, prompted by an invite from work pal MS, to catch the She & Him show at the Park West. I hate to get all backlashy about it, esp. given how much I genuinely like that album, but . . . I'm gonna do it anyway. First off, the audience was ridiculous. It's the same problem I had the two times that I've seen Eddie Izzard perform live--everyone there is just a bit too amped to see the celebrity on stage, which skews the energy in the room all out of whack. The performer isn't required to win anyone in the crowd over, which, unless you're, I dunno, Nick Cave or somebody, means you're probably going to pander a bit. Zooey's got an undeniably fine voice (which comes off even better than expected live, despite the fact that she definitely oversings, a la Adele), but with the audience ready to go into ecstasies over every note out of her mouth, she was able to hide behind her charm a bit more than I would have liked. Give the people what they want, I guess.

That being said, I'm convinced that there is no more generous musician working in the loosely defined realm of indie rock right now than Matt Ward. Seriously, you guys, for as enormously talented as the dude is, there seems to be not a shred of ego in him. Even though he's at least 80 percent of the draw, for me, to this group, he was just hanging back at the side of the stage in a truly supporting, one might even say subordinate, role. It's really a beautiful thing to watch him make so much space for Zooey to shine. It's truly a testament to how much he clearly adores her and believes in her talent. And not just her talent, but the talent of all the musicians he's surrounded himself with. I can't remember what the last song before the encore was ("Sweet Darlin'" maybe?), but he pulled his by now familiar leaving-the-stage-before-the song-is-over move, which allowed the band to jam on the outro and receive all the audience's (well deserved) adulation at the end of the song. From anyone else (like, say, Beyonce), it would feel shrewd and bordline manipulative ("it's my spotlight to give and now I will give it to my underlings"), but it always comes off as completely classy with him.

Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond opened and sang backup for most of She & Him's set. Talk about a fucking dynamo! She was totally gorgeous and endearingly batty. With her old timey songs, upscale thrift shop fashion sense, and aw-shucks stage demeanor that was so painfully earnest it felt like there just had to be some wickedness underneath it all, she came across as nothing so much as a burlesque performer minus the striptease. I'm definitely planning on checking in with her Lavender Diamond material.

Later in the month came my favorite musical one-two punch in recent memory: Joanna Newsom performing Ys with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Friday, then Aesop Rock at the Abbey Pub on Saturday. At first blush, of course, they couldn't seem more opposed, but it didn't take long for me to realize how truly complementary they are--two supremely gifted wordsmiths exploding the boundaries of their chosen genres, making slobbering fanboys and -girls out of diehards and casual listeners alike.

As for Joanna at the Symphony Center--what a treat. I find myself returning to Ys in the oddest moments (such as the early morning prep time of my juice fast earlier this summer), and the brilliance of its through-line as a musical/thematic statement was utterly undeniable in a live setting. I just sobbed and sobbed during personal faves "Sawdust and Diamonds" and "Cosmia." I paid a little bit of extra money for a better seat with some good sight lines, and, boy, was it ever worth it. I've steadily warmed to her unconventional voice over the past few years and will now officially no longer hold truck with anyone who talks smack about it. There's just everything a person could want in a vocalist there: warmth, character, spirit, sensitivity, not to mention killer intonation.

Aside from the overhwhelming brilliance and clarity of the CSO buoying her throughout the performance of Ys, she also brought along four other musicians who contributed to those songs, then accompanied her on a bunch of stuff from The Milk-Eyed Mender, as well as some more recent material, after a brief intermission. Drummer Neal Morgan particularly blew me away for his ability to get more music out of a kick drum, floor tom, and some cymbals than I've seen a lot of jackasses get out of a full guitar rig. Plus, he plays barefoot in a three-piece suit, which is, OMG, like totes adorable in its twee mash-up of high-brow earthiness. I also couldn't help but smile at the thought that this was probably the first time out at Symphony Center for a lot of the greasy haired indie rock kids in attendance, which has to count for something.

Aesop totally lit me on fire the next night. The fact that he performed "Fumes" would have been enough to make the show worthwhile in itself (remember those 27 perfect songs with a five-star rating? yeah, that's one of 'em), but dude is such an amazingly magnetic performer it would be hard to overstate just how enjoyable he is to watch. (Plus also, tall.) The genius of his lyrics, the sly, twisty sophistication of his character sketches and narratives, and the devastating sexiness of the soda-pop fizz in his voice all hardly need to be mentioned, but I just couldn't get over how much fire he puts into his physical performance on stage. (Check out my pictures from the night and hopefully you'll see a bit of what I mean.) On the basis of the crowd's reaction, I was definitely one of the few neophytes there. Everybody was loving the stuff off None Shall Pass, without question, but the place really went bonkers whenever he started spitting rhymes from the previous two albums, with call-and-response all over the place, no matter how intricate the syntax and meter. I've also acquired new artwork for the apartment, which always makes me happy.

Oh. I also went to a wedding. And it was fucking awesome.

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