Tag Archives: show review

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.

Amanda Palmer @ the State Theatre, 11/19/09


(Photo courtesy Don Whiteside)

Sometime during her Thursday performance at the State Theater, Amanda Palmer joked that, “We’ll see where the fucking spirit takes us, yo.” Her tone was facetious, but the sentiment was true. After opening the night with an enlightening music business Q&A before openers Nervous Cabaret took the stage, Amanda Fucking Palmer (as she’s affectionately known to her fans) embarked on an evening of pure Brechtian punk cabaret brilliance. Whether solo or accompanied by the Nervous Cabaret, playing songs off her solo debut (last year’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and crowd-pleasers from the Dresden Dolls catalogue, Amanda Palmer gives the crowd what it wants.

The Nervous Cabaret is a Brooklyn-based band that looks and sounds like they belong in a Bayou blues bar. Their name is misnomer: there is nothing “nervous” about these guys, who are all swagger, in their thrift-store suits and pork pie hats. Bandleader Elyas Khan, somewhere between Lemmy and Johnny Depp, spits and howls without abandon, his vocal runs tinged with Middle Eastern melodies. The band has a keen understanding of dynamics, knowing when a guitar or trumpet riff is enough, and when the entire band should scream like their heads are on fire. They’re also the perfect opening act, hyping the crowd for what for what is sure to be a total bacchanalian affair: what else explains the bassist’s creepy goat mask?

Emerging from the back of the house in a procession resembling either a funeral or a wedding, and decked out like a goth Moulin Rouge performer, Amanda Palmer launched into the dour tale of unrequited (and forbidden) love, “Missed Me,” off the Dresden Dolls eponymous debut. Predictably, the crowd went wild.

While last year’s tour with the Danger Ensemble tended towards performance art, Palmer’s utilization of such a versatile backing band in the form of the Nervous Cabaret pushes the performance into rock show territory. Songs on WKAP that were either stripped down or dropped altogether the last time around benefit from this arrangement, with horns standing in for strings on powerful, rollicking songs like “Astronaut” and “Runs in the Family.”

Fittingly, the band left the stage, as Palmer keyed the intro for “Ampersand,” a song that finds an empowered Palmer soldiering on alone; it’s impossible to not read into the lyrics some of the underlying tensions that led to the dissolution of the Dresden Dolls. After “Ampersand,” it was time for Ask Amanda, where Palmer takes questions from the audience. Palmer is a performer 24/7, and no facet of her life is off-limits or out-of-bound; her engagement with fans, directly and through social networking, serves as a template for other “noncommercial” artists who struggle to push units and stay solvent.

The jazzy swing of “Mandy Goes to Med School” allowed the band introductions to veer into solos by the talented five-piece. Sandwiched between covers of the Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name” and the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was fan-favorite “Coin Operated Boy,” with the lyrics taking the transgressive twist they always do.

A special, DC-metro-area-only treat was Palmer’s duet with her father Jack, doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation, on the haunting Leonard Cohen classic “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” For the second encore, Palmer brought the band back on stage for “Oasis,” the tongue-in-cheek, major key ode to date rape, molestation, and abortion. Replacing the bridge with a rousing cover of “Twist and Shout” reminded the audience what they love about this talented performer: she’s hilarious, she’s inappropriate, she’s Amanda Fucking Palmer.

The xx @ DC9, 11/15/09


Acts that play DC9 usually unload their gear from the backs of their own vans and cars, so the sight of a truly rock-and-roll tour bus outside the club on Sunday meant only one thing: “It” band of the moment The XX had rolled into town on a bus befitting their bloghaus buzz.

Since forming in 2005, the XX has gone from West London high-schoolers to underground sensation on both sides of the pond. And while the majority of the 2009 British invasion has tended towards danceable electropop (Little Boots, La Roux, et al), the XX refocus their pop and R&B influences inward, crafting soulful indie rock that is dark and sexual.

The riptide of hype has already swallowed one member, as guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi recently quit the band after an exhausting slate of CMJ showcases. The XX soldier on a three-piece, as her departure has caused the band to improvise and adapt arrangements, without much margin of error.

Opening the night was Jon Hopkins, an electronic music producer whose songs are glitchy and atmospheric, sounding at times like outtakes from a Clint Mansell score, and at others, instrumentals begging for a female vocalist, a la Zero 7 and Frou Frou. The pulsating drums and sweeping synths rang the gamut from dubstep to drum-n-bass, firmly on the “electronic” side of an electronic/dance music Venn diagram. Unfortunately, watching Hopkins manipulate his gear is not particularly captivating. The crests never broke and he seemed to out stay his welcome. However, it was the perfect music for an opener, leaving enough ambience and mystique in the air for the main attraction.

To rousing applause, the XX took the stage. The band’s youth (they’re all 20!) was on display throughout the night, but not in an unpleasant way. The set list stayed relatively close to the record, with a few covers mixed in: their masterful reworkings of the funky club track “Do you mind?” and the Womack & Womack hit “Teardrops,” a song recorded before the band members were born. Oliver Sim (bass and vocals) seemed genuinely excited by the band’s first trip to Washington; his reference of Ben’s Chili Bowl was earnest and unrehearsed. And while they missed their marks or played the wrong notes a few times, it reminded the audience what they are witnessing: gifted songwriters whose talents belie their age and experience.

In front of a display emblazoned with their stark logo, the goth-attired trio worked through twelve of the fifteen songs they have committed to record (their cover of Florence and the Machines “You’ve Got the Love” was sorely missed). The interplay and counterpoint of Sim’s smoky vocals with the breathy ones of guitarist Romy Madley Croft are just as sorrowful and emotive as on record. Jamie Smith, manning a drum machine, samplers, and the occasional live percussion seems to have picked up the slack after Qureshi’s exit, especially when dropping the otherworldly bass sounds of songs like “Fantasy.”

If not immediately engaged, the sold-out crowd was won over by the time Croft plucked the opening riff of the surprisingly danceable single “Crystalised,” and remained enraptured until the call-and-response crescendo that ended the set on “Stars,” a song that finds the band at its most Chris Isaac-like sound. Here’s hoping the band can survive the further strain that is all but assured as more people hear the record. This is the rare next-big-thing that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, parlaying a high Pitchfork score into no more than hipster namedroppings. If they can survive this rough patch intact, I’ll be front and center when they play the 9:30 Club in April, a venue where their tour bus, buzz, and crowd will all be in sync with their talent.

Brand New @ Sonar, 11/11/09


It is rare that a rock band transcends the musical subculture from which it spawned, simultaneously surpassing its peers and expanding its musical scope. Most acts ride the wave of a certain sound, tying their success to the ebb and flow of ephemeral interests. This is not the case with Brand New, the Long Island band that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the early-aughts emo scene a stronger, more complete band.

Brand New, joined by melodic hardcore acts Crime in Stereo and Thrice, took the stage at Sonar in Baltimore on Wednesday night. The rain soaked, capacity crowd ranged from veterans like myself (first saw Brand New back in 2003) to a new generation of kids with X’ed out hands and body modification.

Since their 2001 debut, Your Favorite Weapon, Brand New has crafted increasingly complex songs, fusing their early pop-punk-emo with elements of acoustic singer-songwriter, prog rock, and post-hardcore music. The compositions require, at times, three guitars, a bass, two drummers, and two vocalists, allowing the band focus on elements lost in the mix and giving older songs a denser sound. Jesse Lacey, lead singer and guitarist, varies the vocals enough to frustrate the sing-along crowd, while adding a new level of screaming that makes you wonder how many more go-rounds the band has.

Lacey has always had a strained relationship with certain elements of his fan base. He’s well aware that his scraggily good looks bring out the teeny-boppers, and this (unwanted?) attention has been a frequent subject of his lyrics; on Deja Entendu’s “I Will Play My Game Beneath The Spin Light,” he muses: “Watch me as I cut myself wide open on this stage / Yes, I am paid to spill my guts … Oh, I would kill for the Atlantic / but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing.”

This tongue-in-cheek, finger-in-eye understanding of the audience manifests itself in the song selection, as the band moves between the pop-punk of their debut album, to the macabre melodies of Deja Entendu, through the layered, bordering-on-progressive jams of The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, ending up in the raucous screeching of their newest effort, Daisy. “I am not your friend / I am just a man who knows how to feel / I’m not your friend / I’m not your lover / I’m not your family,” he belts on “Sowing Season;” Brand New does this for them, and if you happen to share in the catharsis, good for you.

Which doesn’t mean the show was without a fair share of fan service. Breakthrough emo anthem “Jude Law and a Semester Abroad” has returned to setlist after several years in exile. And a bit of a Nirvana medley, along with some sarcastic banter, demonstrated the band’s sense of humor for an appreciative audience.

The highlight of the set was Lacey’s solo interpretation of “Limousine,” only joined by the band for the finale: the crashing, vibrato-heavy outro. The song, based on the real life tragedy of Katie Flynn, takes on a new poignancy and emotional depth; unfortunately, this was lost on members of the audience who kept shouting for “Moshi Moshi” (the emo-punk equivalent of “Free Bird,” I suppose).

Which is basically the main problem facing Brand New: if they have moved beyond the easy accessibility of Your Favorite Weapon, why can’t they move beyond the fans of that album? Instead of growing with them, the audience is perpetually 18 years old, a tiresome fact for a band that has done all it can to move in new musical directions. The irony of their name has come full circle, as a crowd that has come to see Brand New isn’t ready for something that is just that.

Nicole Atkins @ the Rock N Roll Hotel, 11/6/09


I am a believer in the restorative powers of a good rock show. Most nights, some combination of DJ, MC, and whatever samplers or instruments are lying around will suffice, as the pulsing rhythms of electronic music or the flow of a skilled rapper gets a party going. But sometimes, what you really need is the catharsis only provided by tried-and-true rock and roll, a genre that has been declared dead (and subsequently revived) more than hip-hop.

Such was the case this Friday, as Nicole Atkins descended on the Rock N Roll Hotel, headlining a bill of straight-up rock music. Opening the night was Foley, a New York based singer-songwriter who treated the audience to some bluesy coffeehouse rock, including a pleasant cover of the Beatles’ “Something in the Way.” The simplicity of a man and his guitar set the tone for the rest of the show. Scott Liss and the Sixty-Six continued the festivities, engaging the crowd with some psychedelic folk rock, showing the DC audience what’s brewing in the Asbury Park scene.

Of the openers, the standout band was definitely The Hymns. Opening their set without fanfare, they launched right into some jangly, psychedelic rock, with front man Brian Hardings’s vocals drenched in reverb. This decade has been overrun with bands that are determined to re-visit the Beatles in increasingly tiresome ways. The Hymns, however, look instead to the Rolling Stones, mimicking the raw, rollicking sound of the anti-Beatles. At times, the Brooklyn four-piece also owes a lot to the Eagles and the Band, relying on dual riffage and harmonies that evoke a simpler age of rock music. Their set was a slice of Southern-fried blues rock (not surprising, considering their North Carolina and Texas roots), aesthetically and sonically reminiscent of the Kings of Leon, before their GQ makeover and Top 40 success.

As Krisma’s “Black Silk Stocking” played overhead, Nicole Atkins and the Black Sea took the stage. Bathed in thick smoke and green and purple lighting, the ambience was perfect for an evening of “noir pop,” the descriptor that the Jersey-based songstress has given to her melancholy, orchestral stylings.

As a front woman, Atkins is unparalleled in engaging the crowd. She’s a singular force on stage, making every single person feel like she’s singing directly to and only for them. With new backing back The Black Sea, Atkins played a set that introduced the audience to the songs that will appear on the follow-up to her breakout album, 2007’s Neptune City, while hitting the highlights of her early work.

From the walking bassline of “Kill the Headlights” to the Queenesque sing-along “Brooklyn’s On Fire,” the songs of Neptune City take on a new dimension in a live setting. The spaced out riffs are pitch perfect, bending and pulling directly on your heartstrings. Atkins’ voice, a sultry mix of Patsy Cline and Jenny Lewis, is seductive yet vulnerable throughout. New songs like “Civil War” and “Cry Cry Cry” are thematically consistent with her discography, retelling tales of failed relationships and broken hearts in the language of soulful pop songs, equal parts Motown and Nashville.

On “Maybe Tonight,” Atkins sings, “Search the dial for what I need to know / They don’t play those songs on my radio,” which perfectly encapsulates the plight of modern rock music. If you have two ears and a soul, Nicole Atkins should be on your radio.