(Editor’s note: Wow, What the Hell Just Happened Week certainly dragged on, didn’t it? The idea was to recap all the amazing music I saw between 9/21 and 9/25, openers and headliners alike, and though travels prevented me from finishing this last chapter in a timely fashion, they also gave me plenty of time to mull it over. Without further ado, here’s the final installment (complete with eyeball-friendly left justification and paragraphs!).
What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 5 — Wilco
It’s hard to write about your favorite band in the whole wide world, and I can say with conviction that Wilco has earned that distinction for me.
Despite that conviction about my favorite band, I can’t tell you what my favorite song in the world is. The same is true with albums. I think it’s because the answer changes so often. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Songs don’t change. They can be remixed, covered, sampled and chopped up to fit into a 15-second commercial, but the original text stays the same (Can Let It Be Naked be the one exception? Can we all pretend that’s the real one?).
Bands, on the other hand, evolve. Bands venture in new musical directions, add members, find religion, go to rehab, change labels, become political, release concept albums, go back into rehab… they’re as dynamic as the people that comprise them. Such is certainly the case with Wilco, a group that’s undergone a lineup change after almost every record, the exceptions being their latest two efforts. So why is it so easy for me to say that Wilco is my favorite band? Why hasn’t that changed? Their show at Merriweather Post Pavilion on September 25 gave me the perfect opportunity to figure that out, but not for the reason I expected.
Being a floor tom ain’t easy. You labor in the corner of the drum set, the last stop on solos and fills (if the guy with the sticks even gets to you). You watch as song after song is written about your bigger, bassier brother, the kick drum. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Well the times they are a-changin’, thanks to a phenomenon that was on display at September 23rd’s Foster the People show at the National in Richmond, VA. I’m talking about the lead singer floor tom solo. Please tell me you’ve seen this… there’s an extra stand-alone floor tom set up within reach of the frontman, and as the song reaches a crescendo, he or she grabs a set of drum sticks and starts pounding away. Mark Foster of Foster the People did just that at the National during “Helena Beat” (start at the 3-minute mark), and the gents of Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr did the same just two days before at the Southern in Charlottesville. It never fails to get people going, and it’s symbolic of a larger theme that united both shows — how to put on a satisfying live show when your studio music relies heavily on sampling. The lead singer tom solo is fascinating to me, in part because it strikes me as a form of vicarious audience participation. Few people at any given concert can play a full set of drums, but just about everyone, if given the opportunity and some sticks, could wail away on a floor tom. I think that’s where the excitement comes from — people can picture themselves on stage, taking all their energy and aggression out that drum, just as Mark Foster was. Maybe I’m wrong, but either way, it works… and so did Foster the People. They put on one of the highest-energy shows I’ve seen, running around the stage, earning every single clap, whistle and shriek (yes, shriekers were out in full force). I walked away from the National with a great deal of respect for a band that had a meteoric rise to fame, but can back up their notoriety with a hard-working, substantive live show. To see what I mean, check out the video I found of the night’s very last song “Pumped Up Kicks” above (studio version below). Be sure to stick around for the floor tom action at the 4:15 minute mark! If you dig it, buy their album here.
What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 3 — Nick Lowe
Sometimes music feels like a enormous game of connect the dots — one you can play for your entire life and never finish. Nick Lowe’s solo-acoustic opening set before Sunday’s Wilco show at Merriweather Post Pavilion gave me the chance to connect a few dots that I didn’t even know were close to one another, and I’m incredibly glad I was there to see it. Before Wilco released their “I Might” single, the first from their new album The Whole Love, I didn’t know much about Nick Lowe. When I heard the single’s b-side, a cover of Lowe’s “I Love My Label,” I asked my father-in-law about its author and found out about Rockpile, the influential band Lowe fronted alongside Dave Edmunds. I enjoyed what I heard, and was excited when I found out Lowe would be opening for Wilco. But the connection that really blew my mind wasn’t made until halfway though Sunday’s outstanding opening set, when I realized he was playing Elvis Costello’s “Alison.” It was a great “Hey, I know this song!!!” moment. What I didn’t know was that Lowe produced the song, and that he’s credited with writing another tune made famous by Costello, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding,” which we also got to hear on Sunday. Lowe’s Wikipedia page is full of these crazy connections, like how he married (and divorced) Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter, but Lowe and Cash remained friends and recorded together and oh god Wikipedia steals so much of my time. But that’s one of my favorite things about music — the dots are just waiting to be connected, and there’s no right or wrong way to do so. Preview Lowe’s new offering, The Old Magic, below and grab the album from iTunes here.
What the Hell Just Happened?!? Week: Day 2 — Reptar
I’ve written before about how an unfamiliar song can hit you just right, forming an instant connection. It’s a great feeling. Now take that feeling, multiply it by 1,500 people, add a healthy dose of personal space violation and what do you get? Reptar! The Athens, GA four-piece was the first of three bands to perform before a jam-packed, early-arriving, capacity crowd at the National in Richmond, VA on Friday night, but if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought they were headlining. Sure, the attendees were no doubt pumped up to see the night’s main attraction, Foster the People. Nonetheless, Reptar elicited a remarkably strong response for an opener with just one EP to its name. What’s even more remarkable is that, to my knowledge, their set included just one song — the wonderfully layered and bouncy “Phonetics” — of the five featured on their EP. (By the way… the name of this EP? Oblangle Fizz, Y’all. I love it. Doesn’t Oblangle Fizz, Y’allsound like it should be the title of an Outkast album? Can’t you hear someone in a record store saying, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was dope, but Oblangle Fizz, Y’all is my JAM!” And isn’t it a little weird that Reptar hails from Athens, just down the road from Outkast’s Atlanta? Hmmmmmmm…) Testing new material when you’re the first of two opening acts strikes me as ballsy, and that ballsiness was rewarded handsomely, as one new song after another was greeted with cheers, dancing and percussive clapping. In a word, they resonated. It seemed like so many of us were having that rare instant-connection moment, which made for a first impression I will not soon forget. You can preview the first four tracks of Oblangle Fizz, Y’all here, listen to “Phonetics” below, and click here to snag the EP from iTunes.
Wow. What the hell just happened?!? Let’s see… Seven bands. Five days. Three venues. Two states. One blown mind. My head actually exploded, and it’s going to take a full week to put it back together, so I hope you’ll grab a glue stick and join me as I collect the pieces. I already shared my experience from Wednesday’s headlining Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr set, but I haven’t yet mentioned their dynamite opening act, Kyle Andrews. The past five days have been an embarrassment of opening act riches, and I know I’ve said it once, but I’ll keep saying it until the Statue of Liberty is buried in sand and the apes won’t let us use the interweb anymore — heading to concerts early is one of the best ways to discover new music. Fortunately, my wife and I were way early to Wednesday’s show, and we were ready when Mr. Andrews hit the stage with his artful marriage of efficient pop songcraft and upbeat synth. Andrews’ latest album, Robot Learn Love, sets out to explore the relationship people have with the machines that we use on a daily basis, and I enjoyed the results, both in the car on the way to the Southern and in person once we were there. We were even treated to a guest appearance by Dale Jr Jr on Andrews’ “Heart U 4 Ever” — fitting, given that the Detroit duo recently remixed the song. Check out the original and the remix below, buy Robot Learn Love here, and check back for another trip to the awesome opening act buffet!
“Have you seen ‘em live?” is a question that’s getting more and more difficult to answer. On one level, it’s a basic yes or no question about whether you’ve dragged your physical being out to a music venue to see a band perform. Why complicate something so simple? Well, because chances are, if you want to find out what a band’s live performance is like, you can do so right this very second by going to YouTube. Of course YouTube isn’t the same as being there yourself, with the lights a-flashin’, bass a-thumpin’ and that tall guy inevitably swooping in to stand in your line of sight, but the interweb does make it possible to see and hear how the potential energy of studio tracks are transformed into kinetic energy onstage. This transformation is particularly intriguing for bands that use samples in the studio, as Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr does. That’s why I was so excited when I saw this video of “Nothing But Our Love” from their recent set at the Austin City Limits festival. The song bursts out of its studio seams with a spectacular final sequence, adding aggressive dashes of spice to a dish that previously thrived on its sweetness. With this clip in the back of my mind, I gleefully dragged my physical being to the Southern in Charlottesville, VA last night to get the full, lights-bass-tall-guy, Jr Jr experience. It was an incredible show of talent, showmanship, jackets (my enjoyment of their costumes and marketing knows no bounds) and production savvy. It’s no surprise that these two are involved in the remix community — onstage and off they make one smart musical decision after another, carefully managing instrumentation, samples and harmonies to maximize the impact of each song. We were treated to a booming version of “We Almost Lost Detroit,” an extremely catchy new tune and, as I’d hoped, the evolutionary ending to “Nothing But Our Love.” Did already having seen this ending on YouTube spoil the moment? Not even a little. It was glorious. Check out the ACL performance above, the studio version below, and buy their album It’s A Corporate World here.