Saturday, 8 May 2010

Wilco gig [5th May 2010 @ The Forum]

Jeff Tweedy in action
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

American alternative rock band Wilco last played in Australia a few years back, touring for their Sky blue sky album. At the time I had decided to give the gig a miss, a decision which I regretted when some of my other gig mates went along and subsequently raved about their live performance. When I heard recently that not only were Wilco returning to Melbourne, but they were playing at The Forum (easily my favourite musical venue) it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

A few days before the gig my mate Mark informed fellow gig mate Matt and myself that there was going to be even better "bang for the buck" because Liam Finn was supporting Wilco. Regularly observant readers may remember that I named his 2007 debut album I'll be lightning as one of my favourite albums of the 2000s. Needless to say, I was very pleased when I heard that he would be playing support.

While Liam had quite a reputation for rocking out in his live performances, I don't think anyone was expecting the utterly surreal performance of his act that night. While I usually gloss over the support act in my gig reviews, his set almost overshadowed the night for me.

It deserves a review of its own.

Liam Finn

Liam's set opened with a couple of songs from I'll be lightning -- the beautiful ballad Fire in your belly and Better to be. While the former was played in a fairly conventional acoustic fashion, for the latter he used a device which I hadn't seen before. He basically played the rhythm guitar part and then activated a machine to loop the same part continuously. This gave him the rhythmic foundation of the song (necessary since he was playing alone), allowing him to overlay the sound with lead guitar noodling and improvisation.

He had some strange mannerisms while playing guitar, sometimes closing his eyes like he was in pain or having a seizure. There was something a bit David Helfgott about it all.

After playing a couple more songs (On your side and Remember when), the set all got much weirder. He told the audience a story about a man (Connan Hosford) who he has met in New Zealand as a "wandering spirit". Connan had lived with Liam for a while, sleeping in his bed because "it was the only place he could" (although the impression was that their relationship was platonic). Then Liam invited Connan to come on the stage to perform in a few songs, and we were introduced to him as a sleight, youthful and fairly shy man with wavy blonde hair and an almost child-like demeanour.

Liam Finn and Connan Hosford
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Liam told the audience about how Connan and himself had co-written a song in tribute to actor Leonardo DiCaprio called Leo, and they performed this on stage. Liam sung the bizarre song with his normal voice, with Connan singing in a high falsetto, performing some strange vocal tricks by using his finger to vibrate his larynx. It was a bizarre display, with many audience members including me finding it all very amusing. When Connan finally did speak, he appeared to have a fairly normal voice.

Connan stayed on stage for the remainder of the set, providing the high backing vocals for the title track from I'll be lightning. Apparently Connan co-wrote the song with Liam and performed backing vocals on the studio version. It was interesting making the connection between the vocals on the studio version and this man on stage.

When he wasn't singing, Connan was dancing really awkwardly to the music. He appeared to be very nervous, but overall he came across as a bit of a Bez (of Happy Mondays fame). The set list ended with a cover of Devo's song Gut feeling, where Liam Finn went off with the help of a mini joystick-shaped theremin.

It was one of the most memorable supports acts I have ever seen; I wish all support acts were this interesting live. I would definitely see him live again if I had the chance.


Now who was I here to see again? That's right -- Wilco! Shortly after Liam left the stage, an announcement in a semi-computerised voice came over the PA system instructing fans not to take photos or video. Then Wilco took to the stage to the cheers of the already hyped-up crowd.

Wilco (the band) opened with Wilco (The song) from their most recent studio release Wilco (The album). Could there be an any more appropriate opening song? While the song is a bit of a throwaway, they managed to turn it into the perfect signature song to introduce all of the members of the band. They shone a spotlight on each band member in turn, stating their name; at the end it was all capped off with a single word: Wilco. It was an incredibly effective way to open the gig, showing that the band had a great sense of humour and showmanship.

The first half of the gig consisted mostly of songs from their last 4 studio albums, the albums where they moved away from their alt-country roots to embrace more alternative influences (although admittedly their last 2 albums were a return to a more conventional sound). Highlights of this part of the set included the beautiful Muzzle of bees, the dynamic At least that's what you said and the epic Handshake drugs (which worked much better in a live setting for me).

But the climax of the first half was undoubtedly the awesome Impossible Germany, where lead guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and the youthful looking Pat Sansone jammed like it was going out of fashion. It was an incredible display of interplay and duelling guitar, and it rawked the house down.

Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone trading guitar licks during "Impossible Germany"
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

The second half of the gig began when bassist John Stirratt took to the microphone to sing the beautiful country song It's just that simple from their debut A.M. While this is (as far as I know) the only song on any of their studio albums not sung by Jeff Tweedy, I wasn't aware that the singer of that song was still in the band. It was a surprise inclusion in the set list.

The majority of the second half of the gig consisted of material from their albums prior to their breakthrough Yankee hotel foxtrot, and music from this era had a much more of a country feel to it. Their performance of Via chicago from Summerteeth was nothing short of amazing, where the mellow verses suddenly disappeared in blasts of dissonance and feedback while Jeff Tweedy and the backing vocalists continued singing as if it was business as usual. It was a sight (and sound) to behold.

The beautiful ballad Jesus etc. provided a chance for the audience to participate, where Jeff Tweedy encouraged everyone to sing along. The crowd definitely did the song proud, singing most of lyrics correctly and rarely missing a beat. I was actually a little disappointed that I didn't get to hear Jeff sing more of the song; he only came in with his vocals in the last verse.

They finished their set with a duo of rockers from their 2nd (double) album Being there -- Monday and Outtasite (outta mind). When they returned to stage for an encore, they played a duo from their 2004 album A ghost is born -- The late greats and the live favourite rocker I'm a wheel, which concluded the gig on a very positive note.

They played for about 2 1/2 hours, and my overall impression of the band can be summed up by two words: class act. They are such consummate professionals who are masters at what they do, and they do nothing short of rocking your socks off when they play live. It was such a pleasure to see such professional musicians performing; they are true entertainers.

Jeff Tweedy is an incredibly charismatic frontman, coming across as a guy you would like to have a beer and a chat with. He engaged the audience throughout the gig, taking requests for songs, telling stories and joking around; but never forgetting that you were there to rock and/or roll.

There are so many pretenders out there, but Wilco perform like a classic 70s rock act, and are (together with My Morning Jacket) one of the best examples of bands I have seen who are able to capture the spirit of that bygone era.

Bootleg media

I made a mistake of taking my camera out too early, during the Liam Finn set. A security guard tapped me on the shoulder and kindly told me that photography was not permitted. After that, I was too scared to bring the camera out again (figuring that since he had given me a warning, he had a valid reason to kick me out or confiscate my camera if he caught me again).

Since my friend Mark hadn't been warned, he was courageously able to take photos during the remainder of the gig (when the crowds were bigger and there was less chance of being caught). Thank you to Mark for all of the photos throughout the blog post. Here's a few more.

Is that you on the left Nigel Tufnel? No it's just Nels Cline.
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Drummer Glenn Kotche going off
[Photo courtesy of MarkP]

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Spoon gig [30th April 2010 @ Billboard]

Indie band Spoon (who hail from Austin, Texas) are one of my favourite bands from the last decade. Despite getting into them quite late (when I bought their 5th album Gimme fiction in late 2005), I have since purchased most of their albums. It didn't take long for their unique breed of minimal piano-driven rock/pop to get under my skin. With a back catalogue of 7 albums and several EPS, they had a plethora of excellent material to populate a solid set list, and I eagerly awaited the gig.

Taking to the stage with very little fanfare, they opened with the slow burner Before destruction, the opening track from their latest album Transference. Their set covered a vast spectrum of their back catalogue, with bias towards their last album and its predecessor Ga ga ga ga ga (their commercial and arguably artistic peak).

Highlights throughout the set included a groovy rendition of Me and the bean (a cover of a song by Austin band The Sidehackers, included on their Girls can tell album), beautiful ballad I summon you and the Motown pastiche of You got yr. cherry bomb. The crowd seemed to respond best to the Ga ga ga ga ga material; a great cross-section of that album was included, from the anthemic Don't make me a target, atmospheric The ghost of you lingers and groovy numbers Rhthm & soul [sic] and The underdog.

There weren't too many surprises in the song line-up, but front-man Britt Daniel introduced one song as "a Wolf Parade song" before launching into an admirable cover of Modern world from their Apologies to Queen Mary album. Stay don't go (from Kill the moonlight) was also nice to hear, sans the beat-boxing which is integral to the rhythm of the studio version.

Unfortunately Britt Daniel appeared to have a few voice issues, apologising on several occasions and asking the audience if he sounded a bit hoarse. Many of the songs were punctuated with bursts of feedback during the peaks and fade-outs; initially I thought that these were accidents, but my gig mate Matt believed that maybe they were done on purpose to hide his limited vocal range. I certainly didn't think they added anything to the music, so hopefully he was just having an off-night. The sound quality wasn't great in general, but that's probably a criticism directed more at the venue (and possibly sound engineer) than the band.

No songs were played from A series of sneaks (Metal detektor and Metal school would have gone down particular well), and the selection from Girls can tell was also quite lean (the poppy Everything hits at once and down-tempo 1020 AM would have added a bit more variety to the set list). But the biggest disappointment of the night was not getting to hear The way we get by live; not only is it my favourite Spoon song, but it's one of my favourite songs of all time.

Britt Daniel's stage presence at times reminded me of the late Ian Curtis, front-man for the influential post-punk band Joy Division. I'm not sure if it was the almost-robotic way in which he carried himself, but it was especially apparent when he ended the gig after epic finale Written in reverse; he said goodbye to the audience and just dropped the microphone from the height at which he was holding it. It just seemed like something Ian Curtis would have done.

Overall it was a respectable gig, but one marred by technical issues and a (slightly) disappointing set list. Maybe I've just been spoilt by other excellent gigs from recent memory.

Bootleg media

Britt doing his best "Joe Strummer" impersonation.

Britt strumming away.

Performance of I summon you from their Gimme fiction album.