09 April 2008

Review: Stephen Malkmus/John Vanderslice

Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2 April 2008

(go here for link to download a similar show from a few days earlier and listen along!)

Yes, I went out two nights in a row! Wednesday was the highly anticipated Malkmus show in Brooklyn. His recently released "Real Emotional Trash" will certainly be on my year-end list and that last time I saw the Jicks they knocked my socks off, although it's been much too long.

Got there early enough for John Vanderslice who I saw last year briefly and have been enjoying immensely. John is a wonderful live act from top to bottom. His songs are great, his band is perfectly suited to the music, and he's got a fantastic stage presence which carries over into everything else. Wednesday night it was all on display. The crowd was pretty healthy for an opening act and he didn't even give off a "warm up" vibe at all -- asking the crowd right off how they were doing and launching right into his stuff with the authority of a headliner. One of the great things about John is his voice. There's an attitude in the way he sings that segues from his between-song banter in a way that makes you feel like he's either talking to you when he's singing or that he's singing to you when he's talking. And that style is so crystal clear that you catch every lyric and every witty aside he mutters which is good, because most of the words are well-worth hearing. While playing and while chatting, he would play off his bandmates -- a guy on bass or violin, keyboardist and drummer -- that brought out the best in his banter and his music.

The music is one of those pop rock blends that defies tagging and adjectives. What kind of music does John Vanderslice play? John Vanderslice music, of course! While there is a songwriter background to the songs, there is a lot of depth: darker rock and roll and keys-and-bass funkiness that give it more edge than you might be expecting when he starts. They opened with "White Dove" and the band was pitch-perfect from the get-go. Frankly, while I do listen to them, I was surprised at the large percentage of the songs that I knew or recognized. "Exodus Damage," one of my favorites, was early on in the set and didn't disappoint. At one point he mentioned how the previous night (semi-surprise gig @ Piano's) he had been talking about prog-rock and his affinity for the music when he was growing up, which I could certainly relate to. While this was mostly a set up for a joke, it struck me thereafter how this little admission fleshed out a lot of the origins of the Vanderslice sound. His songs don't twist and turn in vast, orchestrated sections like Gabriel-era Genesis, but you can sense how this kind of background guides certain pieces. Weird to think about, but it shone a whole new light on the rest of the set for me. Besides the great music, John Vanderslice just strikes me as a good person: intelligent, kind and witty, the kind of person that you'd love to just hang out with and get to know. Other highlights: "Time Travel Is Lonely," "Tablespoon of Codeine," "Numbered Lithograph" and the fabulously groovy "Underneath the Leaves." The final tune of the set had the band hop down into the crowd unplugged for one of those wonderfully uplifting songs about death... a song I hadn't heard before but somehow balanced great depth with some cheeky humor all while being performed in the middle of the now crowded floor. Anyway, great set and a perfect warm up for the main event.

The show was sold out and by the time Malkmus and the Jicks took the stage, the Music Hall was apparently at capacity. Yet it still was 100% comfortable, not even close to sardines you might have expected. The Music Hall of Williamsburg may very well prove to be the best mid-sized room in the city before too long. I haven't figured out what's wrong with it yet... except for the semi-confusing layout that even Malkmus joked about shortly after arriving on stage.

As was to be expected, the set leaned heavily on the new material and for the most part was better for it. The word that might best describe the 90 minute set would be "ragged." A comfortable pair of jeans that have been worn too many times and are starting to show signs of stringy threads of cotton in undesirable places. Of course, there are all sorts of ways that could be construed. For someone hoping to hear the songs like they exist on the album, in all their glory, that rough-around the edges vibe can be a little awkward. But for the most part, I think the crowd knows what to expect and can roll with the idiosyncrasies of the Jicks without it being an issue.

And idiosyncratic he is! While it was going on, I likened Stephen, the band and the set they were playing to a lovable drunk. The guy who is incoherently babbling in your ear for an hour occasionally hilarious, occasionally making no sense whatsoever, occasionally spilling all over himself and then, every once in a while, spewing forth the most lucid and perfectly formed ideas you have ever heard. Malkmus was in rare form, taking nearly every song break to expound on some of the more ridiculous things you could imagine. That mood permeated into the band and the music giving it a wild energy that was fun from beginning to end, but provided some rough moments as well. But, on several occasions all the blurry weirdness coalesced into some of the most ass-kicking, rollicking, nearly-jamming music you could have imagined.

The highlights really were the "big" songs from the new album: "Real Emotional Trash" was just sublime, stretching off in an hypnotic rage that seemed to go nowhere and yet went there in the most interesting, drawn out way imaginable; "Elmo Delmo" featured some raging rocking out that may have actually gotten some movement out of the couldn't-be-bothered-to-move crowd; "Hopscotch Willie" may have been the absolute highlight -- and quite possibly the song of the year so far for me -- with that sweet tempo shift and real tightness from the whole band; "Baltimore" was the closer of the encore and seemed to sum up the whole night and make sure everyone left with a wide shit-eater on their face.

There is something utterly refreshing about this band, just four musicians who let their thing hang out and rock face. There is no gimmick in there, no multi-instrumentalist distraction, no digitalia interference, no winks at the audience. Just four dudes/dudettes who go out and play their shit. Stephen seems to play as if sneering at the need for all those orchestral trappings and electronic embellishment -- like, why would you need anything more than guitar, drums, bass and a little keyboards? Of course, it helps if your band kicks butt, which the Jicks certainly do. You might think the all-chick rhythm section of Joanne Bolme on bass and Janet Weiss on drums is some sort of gimmick in of itself, but there is lady in these two. Fierce power and a strict adherence to the task at hand. In all honesty, the band begins and ends with this pair as they reigned in the manic energy from Malkmus and drove each tune forward. There is a feeling like the band is jamming in nearly every song and it pulses from the bass and drums entirely. On top of that you've got Mike Clark on both keys and 2nd guitar who plays the ego to the SM id, controlling the chaos from within. The best moments of the night were when he was on guitar and kind of sherpa'd Malkmus' guitar raging with his own, giving it sense and form while allowing it to just go.

The freedom in the music makes the album of the listen-over-and-over again variety. The same quality gives the live show some chili hot spiciness. It's funny how the songs would feel like they were each broaching 10 minutes long or beyond, but in reality even the longest tune probably didn't hit double digits. There is a similar feeling at a My Morning Jacket show. The music is loose and dense and seems to just jam with a purpose. Here we see the difference between jamming and improvising: the freedom doesn't lead to weird discovery, it leads to head-bangin', fist raging rocking out... of course it could if you weren't deep in a cage in the hipster zoo, where you settle for a head bob and occasional yelp of approval. It ain't post-jam, it's post-indie with Malkmus the anti-hipster leading the charge. Well, whatever you wanna call it, just check it out... some of the best shit going right now.

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