Joanna Newsom

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Seeing Joanna Newsom perform live brings a nice sense of formality and classic performance grace to a group of kids most likely used to standing around sweatily and being shoved about. Beards and plaid abounded at the excitedly abuzz Town Hall, where the innate classiness of the venue drove in that unique combination of indie/quirky artist and rich, concert-hall show. Her last trip to town — to perform Y’s in its entirety with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM — was similarly classy, and while this setting and feel is indeed appropriate for the music she brings, the crowd’s adulation and formal applause had her sheepish and grinning. As she explained, she never quite got over her nervousness this evening, because “New York is so cool.” The drunken, groping groupies sitting in front of me certainly thought she was cool, bringing elements of your more typical rock concert to this recital setting, and displaying the most amazing, ear-splitting whistles I have ever heard.

Through mostly numbers off the just-released (and fantastic) Have One On Me, Newsom played on harp and piano with accompaniment from a small group of musicians — Ryan Francesconi who’s responsible for the album’s arrangements, and a trombone player, drummer, and two violinist/vocalists. It felt like a special privilege to see the Francesconi/Newsom collaboration in action as he skipped between instruments (tambura, guitar, banjo, recorder, etc.) in order to do justice to his carefully crafted parts. Newsom was enchanting when behind either the dwarfing harp, or the Steinway, beaming and shaking her head to the song’s rhythms in some adorable state of concentration. Her vocal performance was highly notable in that she’s clearly gone through a journey with that voice of hers, training and harnessing it to produce her chosen notes with professional mastery rather than strain. Early recordings charm with their lack of any attempt to hide challenges and hiccups, instead going brazenly through the notes she and the songs wanted to hit; Have One On Me is not without her extreme quirk, but the girl’s much, much more in control of her voice now.

Besides the new songs, Newsom rewarded the audience with a few tracks off Milk-Eyed Mender, and one wonderful morsel from ­Ys, “Emily.” It was re-arranged in order to allow performance by the set of musicians available at the show, but did not come off as any less large. Francesconi delivered, for example, the fatherly banjo parts, while the trombone player pulled out a mouth harp just for those few cricket notes.  While there was a bit of a lean towards the slow-building, quieter parts from Have One On Me, a definite highlight was the titular track, where the vocal play between Newsom and the two backup singers at the end of the song was, to say the least, amazing. Though I do wish she had played a longer set, it was still a wonderful show in a perfectly appropriate setting, and the crowd (that included Lou Reed, I might add) eagerly gulped-up every single note. I think I still have goosebumps.

Setlist

Jackrabbits
Have One On Me
Easy
Soft As Chalk
Inflammatory Writ
Kingfisher
The Book Of right On
Autumn
Emily
Peach, Plum, Pear

Baby Birch

(please excuse the poor quality of these pictures)

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CMJ Day 2 – Cymbals Eat Guitars

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Bursting immediately into the explosive first track “And the Hazy Sea” off their debut album Why There Are Mountains, Cymbals Eat Guitars rocked an entranced Santos Party House last night. The members are talented, tight players that are quite visibly skilled at their instruments and bring what might be called an indie rock sound along with this precision. What makes them stand out, though, are their song structures.  They have all the normal elements that an appealing new band might keep things interesting by flitting between – guiltless pop, hazy wanderings, and screaming catharsis – but they do so with a randomness that is not often seen. The payoffs are not necessarily in the choruses, if the song even has a definable one, and elsewhere what might seem like a wailing, expend-all-the-energy climax transitions suddenly into lullaby. The set’s final song “Wind Phoenix (Proper Name),” for example, spent some time in summery pop bliss before delving into noisy, flailing jam that seemed like the perfect sendoff for a memorable evening. But the song was not over there, as singer/guitarist Joseph D’Agostino innocently began the real fadeout, the album’s catchiest melody that had him crooning as the ribbons of sweat still leapt from him face and onto the stage. Other highlights of the short set included “Some Trees (Merritt Moon),” “Indiana,” and a new song, all of which had CEG proving how refreshing it can be when a band that’s talented at the base leaps from one excellent idea to the next. They have, in fact, something for everyone, especially the easily bored.

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CMJ Day 1 – Laura Marling and The Antlers

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Arriving from the UK, from where it’s apparently a bitch to ship a cello, wise-beyond-her-years musician Laura Marling enraptured a packed house of believers. Tiny and girlish, but with a voice that’s not only lovely but alarmingly wise, Marling did not veer far from the shape of her songs in the live setting, though they were so bone chillingly rendered as to make attendance more than worth the effort. Opening with “Ghosts” and playing only that and “My Manic And I” off debut album “Alas I Cannot Swim,” she mostly presented tracks of her forthcoming follow-up, which she has just decided will be called “Speak Because I Can.”

New songs included one of the same name, as well as “Rambling Man” and “Hope In The Air,” to which the crowd responded enthusiastically. Marling’s draw is that, in addition to her deft guitar playing and fine songwriting skills, she’s got a voice that shocks in its gravity and takes hold with its strength, especially for one so young. Dressing in white and with a similarly colored light shining down upon her, she certainly looked angelic as she strummed, and as her voice cried out she retained a fixed, almost possessed gaze.  If she had played for any longer, the audience might  easily have been commanded to do her bidding.

Next came The Antlers, a band that clothes serious topics in both thoughtful tranquility and big, bright pop. One must be fine with leaping between moods to really enjoy them, which is made all the easier with Peter Silberman’s great voice paving the way, pleasing in that urgent, bratty sort of way and insanely capable of hitting the high notes live (and boy were they high). He and keys/effects guy Darby Cicci each had a tangle of pedals with which they engaged, and that really came to good use during moments of leg-kicking, frantic jamming. The Antlers break into melodies that are easy to latch onto, but just as often they float in thoughtful quietude or noisy experimentation – call them well-rounded, but they’re at their best when they really let loose.

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More CMJ coverage to come…

tUnE-YaRdS

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Merill Garbus, member of the excellent Sister Suvi (who’ve now either disbanded or simply gone on temporary hiatus) performed as her oddly-spelled solo project tUnE-YaRdS last night at Union Hall. Enthusiastic hooters and a few hilariously swaying hippies welcomed her to the low, comfortably livingroomesque space below Brooklyn’s favorite Bocce Ball bar. More than just a girl and her sweet ukulele ditties, Garbus brings a downright amazing vocal prowess, but also distinctive bits of quirk that elevate her above other singer/songwriters – she creates mountains of sound and her own percussive accompaniment with on-the-spot-recorded loops. She was also joined on this particular evening by a bass player and beer bottle tapper, filling the space with as much energy and intriguing sound as any full band could hope for.

Garbus has garnered a good amount of press as of late, and rightly so. Having recently signed to 4AD, she’ll also be touring with a certain critically-buzzed act that you may have heard of, Dirty Projectors. A highlight of the night was the infectiously swayable “Fiya,” on which she leaps from insecure little girl to feminine powerhouse, blasting a wonderful pop vocal melody over looped vocal backing and drum clacks. The light innocence of the ukulele brings a sweetness to her loud, strong wail, two seemingly mismatched strengths that in fact blend quite soothingly. Crowd favorite “Hatari” constructed a cascading flurry of hooting vocal parts, wonderfully strange and unique, before a break that had Garbus shouting from the rooftops, much to the audience’s delight. tUnE-YaRdS is so dang likeable not only because she’s doing things you haven’t heard before, but because even stripped down she’d be an engaging songwriter with a voice that will sink into your brain. Plus, she’s a sweetheart.

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Neko Case

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No pictures this time kiddos! Read on…

Despite being nestled in the bustling chaos of Times Square, contributing to the spectacle with its own flashy signage, the Nokia Theater isn’t actually all that bad. Sure, the lobby may look like the interior of a combination night club/food court with low blue light revealing a lunch counter and cell phone store, but at least the views are decent for the size of the place. Unfortunately, there was a camera situation. They asked me at the door if I had one, which I assumed meant a fancy professional camera, and I watched sadly as they rifled through my bag and pulled out my innocent little point-and-shoot. Then, they had a gentlemen actually escort me down the Space Mountain-esque escalator to the coat check area, where I was told I’d have to pay $3 to check the thing ($3 that could have gone towards a fine shot of Rumple Minze, which was on special for $5). I asked more about this absurd policy and they informed me that the artist had requested there be no cameras at this event. Now, I understand that constant flashing during a performance can be distracting, and even take away from the concert-going experience, but this requirement seems a little much considering how heavily blogs and such benefit the artist. And frankly, is it really the right time to take a stand against the changing nature of the concert experience, due to technology and lack of respect, when the performance is taking place in the corporate monster that is the Nokia Theatre?

That said, I still heart Neko Case, and she put on an excellent show consisting mostly of numbers from her new album, the fantastic Middle Cyclone. She seemed in good spirits, and opened with “Maybe Sparrow,” the climax of which sent the audience into an excited flurry and sent shivers down my spine as she hit the requisite notes without flaw. She was accompanied by a second guitarist, an upright bass, and two female backing vocalists with whom she seemed to have an excellent rapport. Neko’s banter was minimal but sharp as a tack, consisting mostly of silly one-liners that sent the audience into a tizzy each time – they really love her. Highlights included those tracks that allowed her voice to soar, hitting the notes as if it weren’t no thang, and reminding everyone why she’s got one the best voices in music (“The Pharaohs,” “Deep Red Beels”). She noted before “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” that it was a particularly hard song to sing, most likely because it dips between slightly awkward low notes, angelic cooing, and classic Neko belting. The number whizzed by without trouble, complete with awesome girl-group echoes of “Never turn your back.” The slow, Neko-and-her-guitar songs were particularly touching, with some fine slide guitar accompaniment for “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and my personal favorite “Vengeance Is Sleeping” opening the encore. Enjoying Middle Cyclone as much as I do, it being the focus of the evening was just dandy, though really, she’d sound good singing annoying commercial jingles or any bad pop.

Maybe Sparrow
Fever
Hold On
The Pharaohs
Middle Cyclone
Deep Red Bells
I Wish I Was The Moon
I’m An Animal
Prison Girls
The Tigers Have Spoken
Margaret Vs. Pauline
Red Tide
Don’t Forget Me
That Teenage Feeling
This Tornado Loves You

Vengeance Is Sleeping
Favorite
Magpie To The Morning
Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
Knock Loud

Lykke Li

Quickly selling out the Music Hall of Williamsburg (not to mention the Bowery Ballroom – tonight’s show) might not be the greatest thing any musician has ever done, but I’ll be darned if that ain’t pretty good for a 22-year-old newcomer. Swedish darling Lykke Li brought her charming combination of teenage innocence and confident conviction galloping onto the stage. Not still for even a second, she shook her head and shoulders in a possessed sort of acquiescence to the rhythms of her hits, making it difficult indeed for the packed audience not to move around with her. Whether you enjoy her cutesy rasp or not, this girl proved she was meant to be a performer with her endless energy and singular style – around her neck she wore a treasure chest of accessories and toys, mostly notably a shiny silver kazoo used to buzz out the sax solo on “Dance Dance Dance.”

But that little zinger was later upstaged by a megaphone. Though it caused a few deafening rings as she held it up to the mic during “Breaking It Up,” the number was successfully delivered with the authority that such a tool demands. This being possibly the catchiest song on her debut Youth Novels, the song had most of the crowd dancing gleefully as Li megaphoned over the track of kiddie choir vocals pouring off the stage. An unexpected bonus was the beefing up of the set with some fine covers, like Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” which seemed remarkably appropriate for her somehow, and the old soul classic “After Laughter (Come Tears).” She even leap into the audience for some good ‘ol Iggy Pop, though her intrusion caused the crowd to part rather than absorb, leading her to exclam “I’m not Jesus, dance with me!” In yet another show of massive energy, some breaks in songs had her leaping to grab drumsticks so she could click and clack along with her band, a move that did justice nicely to the “anything goes” percussion on the album. Though I may not be able to pronounce her name, this girl is pretty darn engaging.

Fleet Foxes

The Fleet Foxes sure are popular. It can be descried as nothing short of amazing to watch the group go from a humble performance at Union Hall to a shoulder-to-shoulder squish-fest at Webster Hall but a few months later. Humility is key with these guys as throughout their quick ascent to music-world recognition they’ve retained the ultimate laid back, “I only shower sometimes” personas. When singer guitarist Robin Pecknold took the stage he appeared rumpled, sheepish, and in awe of the crowd gaping before him, but as soon as he began to sing his penetrating voice made him seem the most experienced of performers. Indeed, four of the group’s five members are miced during their shows in order to deliver those splendid harmonies found on debut Fleet Foxes and the Sun Giant EP. Each vocal part distinctly clear and displaying a fine talent, opening with “Sun Giant/Sun Rises” set a tone of awesomeness and assured the albums’ many layers would be reproduced live.

The Foxes certainly did justice to their songs performance-wise, but oh the things their banter did for their likeability. Perhaps a bit awkwardly and without thought as to the flow of the set, the boys rattled back and forth as if it were a Saturday night on their back porch. This was all nothing short of endearing as they shared stories of the road and answered audience heckles directly with pleasant wit. The funniest line came when Robin was asked “what did you do today?” to which he replied “I went to your Williamsburg.” As flannel shirts and hideous winter sweaters fly off the thrift store shelves, it’s interesting to consider what a member of our country’s fabled Northwest thinks of his one day on Bedford St. But more importantly, the music was in top form as they played most of the songs off their album and EP, along with a lovely new number “Silver City” and an unplugged version of “Katie Cruel” by Robin solo. I really do wonder where they’ll play the next time they make it to our town.

Photos by Colin Colfer

Review of their Bowery Ballroom show