Tag Archives: show review

Live: James Blake at the Rock and Roll Hotel

The Rock and Roll Hotel was the most ill-suited venue to host James Blake, as it did on Sunday night. The shoebox-shaped venue isn’t blessed with the best sound system (that would be U Street Music Hall) or even decent sight lines (like the Black Cat). Worst still, the venue is, as the Washington Post’s Chris Richards noted, the place “where 20-somethings pay to be seen (and heard) while the latest Pitchfork-approved talents try to justify their hype onstage.” For an artist like Blake, who makes minimal, down-tempo music, I was apprehensive about the show, to say the least.

Photo © Mike Katzif

Despite the venue’s many faults, the show was nothing less than superb, thanks wholly to Blake and company’s captivating performance. The former funeral home was at its most tomb-like, with a mostly appreciative, respectful crowd. Moments of pin-drop silence punctuated the set; Blake often had to whisper “thank you” before the crowd would reward him with boisterous applause.

As his self-titled album does, the set began with the clicks and pulses of “Unluck,” its discrete pieces seemingly dancing to their own drummers before gracefully fitting together. On “Give Me My Month,” Blake gilded the hymnal with jazzy piano flourishes, and followed it up with the instrumental “Tep and the Logic,” a B-side that features waves of tremolo guitars and not much else.

After a bit of a false start, the amiable Blake launched into “I Never Learnt to Share.” His lilting vocal harmonies resembled weeping more than anything. The song was the night’s first example of what “post-dubstep” might mean: a slowburning melody that gives way to unrelenting sub-bass and synths.

Throughout his set, Blake shifted from moments of sparse simplicity to ones of overwhelming, enveloping sound, and back again. After “I Never Learnt to Share,” the gentle fingerpicking of “Lindesfarne” followed a transcendent moment with a contemplative one.

Transferring Blake’s recorded works from the bedroom to the big room is no small feat, yet Blake and compatriots Rob McAndrews (guitar) and Ben Assister (percussion) handled it deftly. Performing “Klavierwerke” (off the EP of the same name) live was impressive on its on, with its Burial-esque dubstep groove, hi-hat click track, and sped-up, funky breakdown.

The set definitely pushed the limits of Rock and Roll’s sound system. Thankfully, the speakers popped only once, and a brief power outage provided a moment of levity, during “Limit to Your Love.” On that song, with its propeller bass and an beefed-up drum break, Blake has done to Feist’s ballad what Jimi Hendrix did to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (admittedly on a much smaller scale).

Blake demurely closed the set with “Wilhelms Scream,” which had a crisper guitar and punchier sonics than the recorded version. Returning for an encore, Blake played a new, untitled song, solo with synthesizer. The church organ and “we can hope for heartbreak now” lyric ended the night on a poignant note. The Rock and Roll Hotel wasn’t perfect, but James Blake was, living up to the hype (and then some).

What a difference a year makes: Dum Dum Girls in concert

A little less than a year after playing at DC9, Sub Pop all-stars Dum Dum Girls took the stage at the Black Cat. While the only new material the band released between then and now is the stellar He Gets Me High EP, 2011’s performance was head-and-shoulders above 2011’s.

(Photos courtesy Matt Dunn; from 2010 and 2011, respectively)

Fear not: the band’s trademark “blissed-out buzzsaw” is still firmly in place. Dum Dum Girls still look and sound like a time-shifted 60s girl group. But a year of performing as a unit has streamlined their set, tightened their harmonies, and enriched the band’s performance.

Last year’s show was so stoic and reserved that the band seemed uninterested in performing. There is definitely a greater sense of urgency this time around, even as the four piece maintains an air of (ironic?) detachment.

The development of the live show mirrors that of the band, from its impetus as Kristin “Dee Dee” Gundred’s bedroom project to full-fledged touring outfit. Along with their Ramonesque monikers and stylized stagedress, the bandmates share “Dum Dum” tattoos on their fingers; they’ve clearly bought-in to the Dum Dum Girls concept.

On Sunday night, the band hit the touchstones of their early records (“Catholicked,” “Hey Sis”), standouts from I Will Be (“Jail La La,” “Everybody’s Out”), and their newest material, which samples from their entire palette. Off the EP, the rollicking surf-drums of “Wrong Feels Right” places it somewhere between “He Gets Me High” and “Take Care of My Baby.” The former is the musical sequel to “Bhang Bhang, I’m a Burnout,” and the latter is a lovelorn ballad that resembles the slow dance of “Rest of Our Lives.”

The highlight, judging by the crowd reaction, is their version of “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” a spot-on update of the Smith’s classic that surpasses their muted covers of the Stones’ “Play With Fire” and Sonny and Cher’s “Baby Don’t Go.”

[wpaudio url=”/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/dum_dum_girls_light.mp3″ text=”Dum Dum Girls – There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” dl=0]

With a music scene that constantly spits out one-and-done performers, we often forget the treat of watching a band develop over albums, concerts and years. The nostalgia of the Dum Dum Girls isn’t just focused on the music of the past, but on that timeless experience of seeing a band grow and making them your own.

Japandroids @ Rock & Roll Hotel – 3/29/10

Indie rock is defined by trends. Call it revival, tribute, or pastiche, but bands that fall under the generous umbrella of “indie rock” are constantly going back to the well of rockers past for inspiration. A current trend finds many bands aping the sound of shoegaze pioneers like My Bloody Valentine, creating huge walls of fuzz that wash over the listener like waves of static.

Vancouver’s Japandroids get fuzz, but rather than waves, they release blasts of distorted guitars like a fire hose. Playing Rock and Roll Hotel last night, the band captivated a packed house for over an hour with aggressive but fun garage rock.

Guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse split the stage like Solomon’s baby. Like other notable duos, chiefly Death From Above 1979, they compensate for the lack of a bass guitar with a full-frontal sonic assault, all muscular chords and non-stop drumming. Earplugs are necessary, but the sound is clear despite being extremely overdriven. The riffs are familiar and catchy, recalling alternative rock from the mid-90s and early 2000s, be it grunge or emocore. While they share vocal duties, King takes the lead, with a charming blend of mania and Canadian aw-shucks pleasantness. They’re genuinely appreciative but self-deprecating, like when King told the crowd that they didn’t deserve applause after an unsatisfactory (to the band) performance of “Hearts Sweats.”

Japandroids played most of their Pitchfork-approved record Post-Nothing, along with older material, including a cover of Mclusky’s “To Hell with good intentions” and obscure songs like “Body Bag.” After a brief intro, the band kicked into high gear with “The Boys Are Leaving Town,” where Prowse’s extended drum fills mirror the chorus: “will we find our way back home?” On “Rockers East Vancouver,” King took the opportunity to “dance around and play guitar like an asshole,” his favorite part of the set. After a bit of hypnotic sludge that bordered on stoner rock, the band launched into standout “Young Hearts Spark Fire,” with it’s sing-along chorus of “We used to dream / now we worry about dying / I don’t wanna worry about dying / I just wanna worry about those sunshine girls.”

Opener Love is All, a five-piece from Sweden, played a set of bouncy punk and pubhouse rock. Lead singer Josephine Olausson, looking like Steve Zissou in her striped shirt and orange skullcap, sings slightly off-kilter rallying cries, reminiscent of other Scandinavian singers like Ida Maria and Lykke Li. Unfortunately, the band was pushing into the red, and the resulting cacophony sounded unfocused and repetitive. The band could stand to take a cue from Japandroids and perfect the mixing; it’s a shame that the rollicking songs on the recently released Two Thousand and Ten Injuries were lost in a bad mix.

Janelle Monae @ Black Cat, 3/15/10

Janelle Monae is an alien, an outsider, a misfit. Confounding critics and listeners since appearing on the Big Boi- curated Got Purp? Volume 2 back in 2005, she’s also been Exhibit A in one of the music industry’s most persistent and perplexing failings: what to do with black alternative artists. For an industry that hasn’t used the term “race records” since 1958, not a lot has changed, especially for artists that challenge the “hip-hop, R&B or nothing” paradigm. Unlike the census form, there isn’t an “other” box to check. Just ask Saul Williams, K-Os, and Kenna.

But all of that may be changing, with the little-d democratizing of the digital age, especially for an artist like Monae. At the Black Cat on Monday to kick-off her ArchAndroid tour, her performance art-cum-concert even made a few tongue in cheek references to Twitter, Facebook, and God forbid, MySpace. And playing to a sold-out crowd, something must be working. Maybe the wave of (rightly deserved) hype that she’s been riding for nearly half a decade is finally ready to break.

With Monae not taking the stage until two and half hours after doors opened, the audience was anxious, to say the least, as introductory music and video played until around 10:30. But any ill will was quickly forgotten as the performance kicked off. Monae, in trademark throwback trappings, stayed “in character” the entire show, with her herky-jerky dance moves and impressive vocal range. She was joined on stage by an on-spot three piece band and a few other performance artists, throwing balloons and noise makers into the first rows.

The songs of ArchAndroid dominated the set; only “Sincerely, Jane” from her debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite made an appearance, bittersweet for fans hoping to hear favorites like “Violet Stars Happy Hunting” and “Many Moons.” However, the first singles off her debut full length, the smooth, swinging “Tightrope” and the stirring “Cold War,” are in familiar enough territory that fans, old and new alike, will be singing and dancing along in no time.

After a dense 45 minute set that moved between operatic ballads and jams that just drip funk, it was time for Monae to blast off and head for her home planet. But not before fearlessly crowdsurfing the entire crowd, threatening to brain herself on the low ceilings at the Cat. Forgoing an encore for an after party at the Renaissance was an interesting choice, although I don’t know how many restless androids took her up on the offer. ArchAndroid lands on May 18.

VV Brown @ DC9, 2/19/10

Do you guys like rock ‘n’ roll music?” For the crowd at British songstress VV Brown’s sold-out Friday show at DC9, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

The music world is constantly faced with revivals of past styles; everything old is eventually shined into something new. Most of Brown’s debut Travelling Like the Light takes the form of a rock n’ roll & doo wop pastiche that recalls the pioneers of 50s and 60s pop music. It’s not necessarily novel territory (Brian Setzer revived similar sounds in both the 80s and 90s), but Brown does put her own spin on the ball. Her bouncy vocals are strong enough to carry the hook heavy songs, and she cuts an imposing figure on stage: a 5’11” Lady Gaga-meets-Janelle Monae hybrid.

Taking the stage in a Gaga-ish masquerade get-up, Brown and her backing band launched into “Everybody,” a toe-tapper that sounds like “Black Betty” with a disco chorus. Next up was “Game Over,” aided by backing tracks – a disappointing conceit for someone so dedicated to recreating the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs are strong enough to stand on their own without the note-for-note production found on the album.

The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the set, dancing and singing along at the sock hop throwback. A cover of Drake’s hit “Best I Ever Had” was a crowd-pleaser, as was the swinging surf rocker “Crying Blood,” augmented by a reggae remix that let Brown take the crowd “back to the islands.” Closing the set was one of the strongest singles from her album, “Shark in the Water,” a strummer reminiscent of KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”

Another artist on the BBC Sound of 2009 list, VV Brown offers a fresh take on classic sounds – and a fun experience for those who were too young to jump, jive, and wail during the late 90s.

Artist Spotlight: Gills and Wings

Richmond pop-rockers Gills and Wings are all about surprises. While their band name suggests an airy, twee-pop sound, it’s a misnomer: their music is dynamically rich and densely orchestrated, a throwback to a time when Queen ruled arena rock. Not content to simply rehash the songs of Freddie Mercury and Brian May, however, Gills and Wings add to their sound with the progressive electronic streak of Muse and the symphonic sensibility of Jon Brion. Playing on Saturday at DC9, they had no trouble painting the small venue with a major key palette of sounds.

The quintet augments standard rock instrumentation with Korgs and a drum machine, allowing the band to play with melody outside the range of your run-of-the-mill indie band. It also allows them to faithfully recreate the arrangements of their self-titled EP. Guitarist Alex McCallum manipulates his ax into making sounds that are more string quartet than Fender Jaguar (thanks to the trusty eBow, an electronic take on what Jimmy Page tried with the real thing). Santiago de la Fuente’s harmonies complement the impressive vocal range of lead singer Danny Reyes, whose powerful singing voice is unrivaled in modern rock music

The setlist covered their EP, along with a few new songs. Contrasts keep the listeners guessing, as sing-song lyrics over arpeggiated chords turn into full-throated cries, backed by chugging riffage and the pounding drumming of Andrew Hackett. As their songs take dramatic turns, the dynamic ebb and flow lends an operatic feel to the whole performance. Closing the set was standout track “Rebirth of a Nation,” a satirical look at the American Dream, with a chorus that calls for fists-in-the-air rocking out.

Modern pop-rock, or anything that could crossover these days, is usually too paint-by-numbers to really excite anyone, but Gills and Wings have the talent to surprise audiences, and shouldn’t be missed. Catch them tonight at Jammin Java in Vienna. You won’t be disappointed.

Dispatches from Suburbia: Rusko in Miami

As the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end: my nearly two week vacation in South Florida is over. I’ve gone from 70 degrees at the beach to 40 degrees in DC, from a nascent scene to a more developed one. And while the DJ nights, singer-songwriters, and local bands were pleasantly surprising, I’m happy to be home.

But before I left, I trekked down to Miami once more, this time for Rusko: DJ and dubstep producer extraordinaire, and one of the winners of 2009 (a more complete list of things that didn’t suck in 2009 is coming tomorrow – procrastination for life!). The 24-year-old is one of the driving forces in a style that we at TGRI Online think will be huge next year, and while I have seen Rusko rock a room before, I couldn’t miss a stateside gig in my backyard.

Ever since 2 Live Crew decided to be as nasty as they wanted to be, Miami and bass have been forever intertwined, influencing local scenes and styles from Atlanta to Baltimore. So I was interested to see how bassheads in the 305 would react to the distinct wobble crunk that the Leeds-born, LA-based Rusko generates.

Just down the street from the Vagabond in Miami’s Design District is White Room. The venue is basically a warehouse adjoined to a large open-air space that holds canopy lounges that wouldn’t get much use anywhere else this time of year. After a few local dubstep producers and MCs warmed up the crowd, the mullethawked feature DJ took the stage.

Rusko is one of the most active DJs I’ve ever seen. At all times, he’s either jumping up and down or air conducting, convulsing as if his movements control the treble, mids and overwhelming bass pouring out of the speakers. The crowd eats it up, doing their best to dance along to a style that is admittedly not the most dance-centric electronic music. The few kids trying to light show with glow sticks were dismissed out of hand: “Why don’t you wait for fucking Ultra for your twirly little shit?!” However, the pseudo-ravers were hardly the worst audience members: a few couples decided to demonstrate crowdfucking – or something close to it – and it wasn’t pleasant.

Still, we were able to enjoy the dubstep clinic that Rusko put on, much like he did at Hard NYC. From contemporaries Zomby and Doorly, to remixes of Gucci and Kid Sister, the set included everything that demonstrates dubstep’s promise right now. The best part is initially recognizing a song, before it devolves into the glitched out sounds of the apocalypse that have come to define dubstep. And it was good to see it work where bass was born.

Dispatches from Suburbia: Miami’s Design District

While my first night back in South Florida took me to West Palm Beach, my second found me in the opposite direction, deep in Miami’s Design District. The neighborhood is across Biscayne Bay from South Beach, and gentrification has spawned over a hundred galleries, showrooms, boutiques, and eateries in a formerly run-down section of downtown Miami.

The first stop of the night was the Wynwood Social Club, a mixed-use arts venue, for acoustic duo Raffa and Rainer’s album release party. The Wynwood has an open, community room vibe, with local art on the walls and found furniture throughout; I enjoyed the show from a PanAm airplane seat. Opening the show was (not that) Danielle Steele, a singer-songwriter not even out of high school, with a quirky sound that evokes Regina Spektor. Next up was scene veteran (not that) Jesse Jackson, who played a combination of banjo, ukulele, and harmonica in a short set that found him covering both Elton John and James Taylor; standout number “If Wishes Were Horses” was as haunting and bluesy as ever.

Confession time: trying to experience the Miami scene like eating from sample plates at Whole Foods was a mistake; I left the Wynwood way before I had my fill. Still, it was worth it to see a bit of Miami’s burgeoning folk scene. For the brevity, I’ll blame the night’s second destination: the Vagabond, to see Surfer Blood. I’m all about nightlife on a budget, so when I saw “free before 11” and “$1 PBR and Rolling Rock,” I made the fateful decision to leave early and hustle down North Miami Avenue. When neither of these promises was true, I was already inside the venue and pissed off. I hate being nickel and dimed and I hate false advertising, so the Vagabond gets poor marks for both.

ANYWAY, once inside the club and easing my spirits with America’s Best 1893, I was able to objectively judge my surroundings. Unlike Respectable Street, Vagabond is all about the décor and hipster chic; if you want a more upscale clientele, you invest in the look and feel of your club. The bar’s DJ was spinning the usual fare, and the only difference between the crowd and one at say Nouveau Riche was the smoking (something I could have sworn was banned in civilized society, but I digress).

A bit after midnight the crowd migrated to the back room, which was another dance floor with a small stage set up. Tallahassee’s Holiday Shores opened the show and play lo-fi, surf pop. Heavy on the Brian Wilson influence, the band could stand to tighten up their ambitious arrangements. Still, the music was light and danceable, and not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the blaring electro/techno between sets – wasn’t this a rock show? Luckily, Surfer Blood quickly took the stage, and the Palm Beach quintet showed the crowd how it’s done.

Together for less than a year and riding a wave of buzz from their performances at CMJ, the band plays a catchy mix of indie pop and garage rock. The songwriting reminds me of Blue album Weezer and early Shins, without the pretension of Vampire Weekend, or the host of other blog bands that have gone to this well before. The vocals are drenched in reverb, the guitars unleash waves of fuzz, and the percussion even touches on the Afro-pop flavor that is so en vogue right now. Their debut album, Astro Coast, was recorded in a University of Florida dorm room, and drops in January. They’ll be doing a few dates in the US before heading to the UK, and by the time they return, Astro Coast will be the sound of 2010. Mark your calendar for February 24, when Surfer Blood, Holiday Shores, and Turbo Fruits descend on DC9, bringing a little bit of Florida sunshine to the DMV.

Next Dispatch from Suburbia: Rusko at White Room.

Photo of Surfer Blood at the Vagabond by Ian Witlin, Miami New Times.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists @ The Black Cat, 12/3/09

Hometown heroes Ted Leo and the Pharmacists returned to a sold-out Black Cat on Thursday armed with a set heavy on new material from their upcoming record The Brutalist Bricks (their first album on new home Matador Records). Opening the night were DC’s Title Tracks, fronted by scene veteran Jon Davis, and Brooklyn’s Radio 4.

Title Tracks’ set delighted the early crowd with a mix of surf rock and jangly powerpop that would fit in a 60s AM radio playlist. Their Dischord debut It Was Easy drops early next year. Radio 4, with a dual-guitar/dual-vocal attack and danceable rhythms that owe much to Davis’ old band (Q and Not U), got the crowd moving to some serious dance-punk.

Forever DIY punks, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists took the stage and setup their own instruments. Their two hour set, marred by some early technical difficulties, was a treat for the Pharmacist faithful in the audience, even if twenty something songs didn’t allow for one of the frontman’s renowned stories. Still, Ted was engaging as ever (I’ve seen him a half a dozen times, both with the band and solo, so I’m pretty sure that warrants first-name-basis). “Fuck the public option,” he sneered. “I want free health care.” And to the incessant fans who request set staples, “Do you really think we’re not going to play [“Timorous Me”]?” This one garnered a round of applause, although he later remembered that the song was not on the setlist in Philly. Oops.

After kicking off with the raucous punk rockers “Heart Problems” and “Me & Mia,” bass amp problems led to a solo cover of the Pogues’ “Dirty Old Town.” The bittersweet nostalgia of those lyrics was a constant throughout the night, whether on their 2003 Thin Lizzy-riffed tribute to the Specials, “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” or brand new stand-out “Even Heroes Have to Die.”

The band put on a powerpop clinic, with the urgency of punks from a bye-gone era. When singing, Ted looks like every note physically pains him; it isn’t pretty, but from the barked out chorus of “Army Bound” to his trademark falsetto, his singing is spot-on as he nails the tone of each song. Ted is joined by rhythm guitarist James Canty, playing with a ferocity that makes you believe in the power of 16th notes. The locked-in rhythm section of Chris Wilson and Marty Key provide an insistent, driving groove throughout the set. Wilson’s drumming is particularly astounding, as he effortlessly rocks out with speed and precision, so fast at certain points that astute listeners were sure he was using a double bass kick.

And while their technical skills are impressive, the strength of the work is definitely in Ted’s songwriting. New songs like “Where Was My Brain?” rock just as hard (or harder) as anything he’s ever written, returning to the well of DC hardcore from which he sprang. But it’s songs like “One Polaroid A Day,” with its infectious pop hook, where they really shine. Watch Ted play it at CMJ, and try not to sing and dance along. It’s impossible.

Little Dragon @ Liv, 11/22/09

Little Dragon, one of Sweden’s finest imports, returned to Liv on Sunday, after wowing a DC audience on the same stage four months ago. The band, fronted by Swedish-Japanese chanteuse Yukimi Nagano, is touring in support of Machine Dreams, the follow-up to their 2007 self-titled debut, released earlier this month.

A Little Dragon show is essentially a Yukimi show. With all due respect to keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand, bassist Fredrik Kallgren Wallin, and drummer Erik Bodin (all talented musicians), the main attraction is clearly their lead singer. Yukimi, looking particularly nymph-like on Sunday, is a shark on stage: you have to wonder if she’ll expire if she stops moving, as she sings, dances, and contributes additional percussion to the mix. Her vocal performance finds her modulating and contorting her already unique sound, keeping the audience on its toes.

The band’s performance, much like that of the Foreign Exchange, is greatly enhanced by live percussion, supplemented but not supplanted by programmed ones. The hypnotic rhythms are given a greater sense of urgency than on record. And on Liv’s top-notch sound system, the overall sound is vibrant and powerful: you can feel the bass in your soul.

After taking the stage, the band launched right into Machine Dreams opener “A New” and never looked back. For the next 100 minutes, the band captivated the audience with songs from both of their records, seamlessly transitioning between both. The electronic swing of “After the Rain” was accentuated by Yukimi’s intense yelping. The band is tight, whether embarking on a junkyard percussion breakdown on “Test” or speeding up “My Step” for a better dance floor reception.

Yukimi’s stage banter is always at a minimum, but she did ask if the band could play “a song about nightmares:” Machine Dreams standout “Blinking Pigs,” a new wave tour de force with a killer synth bassline. Her crowd engagement is unparalleled, however, as “Looking Glass” finds her dancing through the crowd, tambourine in hand. It’s clear why she’s greeted with cries of “we love you Yukimi!” at all of the band’s shows.

The crowd seemed worn down by the end of the set, as only truly hardcore revelers were still dancing through the extended outro that ended “Runabout.” However, the encore provided the perfect capper, as the sinister bass rumble of “Wink” became a never-ending jam, transitioning to “Constant Surprises” and back to “Wink.” The band took hold of a house groove and didn’t let go. For fans of Little Dragon, a band that seems to have burst onto the scene out of nowhere, it can all be summed up in the refrain: “Constant surprises / Coming my way / Some call it coincidence / But I like to call it fate.”

Still haven’t heard this phenomenal band? Check out the Couch Sessions x DJ Supa Kool DJ Uncle Q mixtape, a Tribute to Yukimi Nagano. You won’t be disappointed.