Tag Archives: Crystal Ballroom

LIVE: The Avalanches, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

The Avalanches

By Hollister Dixon

The Avalanches put out one legendary album, Since I Left You, back in 2000. A kaleidoscopic core sample of half-remembered music, Since I Left You was a tour de force that made guest vocals redundant. But that was 2000, and when they made Wildflower sixteen years later, having a stable of guests was almost a no-brainer. Why not have Danny Brown and MF Doom on a track? Why not have David Berman of Silver Jews deliver his own John Hughes monologue? Why not have Biz Markie talk about eating food loudly? And you know what? That experiment worked. I loved Wildflower – even if I skip “The Noisy Eater” about half the time (misophonia is real, friends!). I played it constantly. I still do – it was my “Album Of The Summer” last year, and it’ll be that again this year. You can count on it. It’s an album fueled by pure joy. It’s also fueled by those guests.

There’s a part of me that wonders if Daft Punk didn’t tour behind Random Access Memories because it would have required the presence of its guests. It would be prohibitively expensive to bring along Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, and Chilly Gonzales on tour, even for a short one. Even if you only do “Get Lucky” – which, let’s be real, would be as mandatory as “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” – you still need Pharrell and Nile, and that’s a mint alone. On the other hand, Gorillaz are equally as big and when touring behind Plastic Beach, they had no trouble having Miho Hatori stop by to do “19-2000”, or bringing De La Soul along to do “Feel Good, Inc.” If you’re going to build your music around the presence of others, it’s all or nothing – you either play pre-recorded vocals, or you bring the real deal out with you.

With that in mind, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Avalanches as a live act, but I can’t pretend to not be a little disappointed. I wanted to love The Avalanches as a live act, because I think The Avalanches are a phenomenal band. Really, the biggest problem is that The Avalanches aren’t a typical “band” at all, much in the same way, say, Girl Talk is not a band – the people onstage may have created the music, but the sounds are not always their own. So, to help them bring this music to life in an engaging way, they brought Spank Rock and Eliza Wolfgramm – and this is where the trouble begins. I’m unfamiliar with Wolfgramm, and only passingly familiar with Spank Rock, who is fine in his own right. The problem is, Spank Rock is not Danny Brown, nor is he Biz Markie. He’s not MF DOOM, which he clearly knew, because he opted to not perform his verse on “Frankie Sinatra”. Danny Brown’s verse on “Frankie Sinatra” works because it’s quintessential Danny Brown, but when performed by anyone else, it becomes pointless, and the same is largely true of Biz Markie’s “The Noisy Eater”, though Spank Rock thankfully rapped his own lyrics for this one. While I understand and appreciate the motivation behind bringing an actual human being along to perform these songs, it ends up detracting from the performance and, in the end, it just feels like the audience has paid to watch a really, really legitimate cover band.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The songs where Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi got to lock into the grooves they built seventeen years ago were the highlights of the 70-minute set (one hour set plus a two-song encore). Wolfgramm’s presence was mostly relegated to bringing to life samples on Since I Left You and Wildflower, chiefly “Since I Left You” and “Subways”, and it felt more natural to have someone singing the hook from these songs rather than attempting to fill the shoes of the distinct performers who took part in the songs of Wildflower. However, these moments were woefully few and far between, and it was hard to believe that Chater and Di Blasi are wholly pleased with the tools they have to bring this music to life for their audiences. But hey, I’m not going to pretend getting to dance to “Frontier Psychiatrist” being performed by The Avalanches wasn’t a treat, no matter how lackluster the rest of the show felt.

There was a time when it was questionable whether or not The Avalanches would ever release their follow-up to Since I Left You, and I still truly feel like Wildflower was the best return we could have gotten from the band in 2016. Despite my biggest hopes and dreams, it would be somewhat impossible to do justice to the material on that album, or at least very difficult to do as a full tour, and that’s the biggest disappointment of them all. The Avalanches may not be Gorillaz or Daft Punk, but their music deserves to be brought to life with the same care that the band put into making the music itself. Bring out the turntables – leave the karaoke out of it.

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Fleet Foxes Announce Tour

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By Hollister Dixon

Do you have any idea how long it has been since Fleet Foxes did a tour? I do: roughly five years, when they were supporting Helplessness Blues, an album now old enough to be in grade school. The band took some time off while frontman Robin Pecknold went back to college, but they’re finally back, at long last, with Crack-Up (working title: Robin Goes to College*), out on June 16th on Nonesuch Records.

They’re going to be going on a tour of much bigger venues later, but Pecknold & Co. are going on a tiny tour of the Northwest in a series of intimate venues, including Spokane’s Knitting Factory (tickets here!) and Portland’s Crystal Ballroom (tickets here!). Their last Portland show was at Edgefield Amphitheater, so this will be a decidedly more cozy show than their last time through.

Below, you can check out their tour dates – which includes an incredibly enticing date at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, and see the lyric video for Crack-Up lead single “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”.

*Not an actual working title

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LIVE REVIEW: Guided By Voices, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

This review is part of a series on MusicFest Northwest Presents: Project Pabst. This includes Digable Planets and both Day One and Day Two of the main festival.

Guided By Voices // Photo Credit: Hollister Dixon

Guided By Voices // Photo Credit: Hollister Dixon

By Hollister Dixon

I started 2014 as a passive fan of Guided By Voices. I’d heard Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes just like the next guy, but they never connected with me in the way they did with some people. I was never into lo-fi recordings, finding them hard to really connect with when you have to wade through muddy production just to hear the good stuff. Then, in June, I discovered the secret: I actually saw Guided By Voices. This show was – and there’s no way around the word – transformative. I walked away from that performance ravenous for everything Robert Pollard had ever done. I obsessed over their music. I alienated people around me with this obsession. In August, just two weeks before getting to end my Summer Of Pollard with another Guided By Voices show, I branded myself with the GBV rune and the word “Incurable”, from the song “I Am A Scientist” (“I am a journalist, I write to you to show you: I am an incurable, and nothing else behaves like me.”)

One week after I got that tattoo, Guided By Voices announced that they were not only cancelling their entire tour, but breaking up entirely. “Guided By Voices has come to an end. With 4 years of great shows and six killer albums, it was a hell of a comeback run. The remaining shows in the next two months are unfortunately canceled.” Even as a new acolyte, it felt less like the band had broken up, and more like Bob Pollard had personally broken up with me. This was short-lived, though: in February, another reunion was announced – though it deviated entirely from the classic lineup entirely. Pollard recruited Bobby Bare Jr. (who opened for GBV at that first show, funnily enough), Kevin March, Nick Mitchell, and Mark Shue. In mid-July, the reunion added former guitarist Doug Gillard to flesh everything out. Sure, it was less a Guided By Voices reunion and more of a “Bob Pollard + Doug Gillard + a few hired guns” tour… but, any chance to hear GBV songs is worth it. Right?

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LIVE REVIEW: Digable Planets, Portland, OR

This review is part of a series on MusicFest Northwest Presents: Project Pabst. This includes Guided By Voices and both Day One and Day Two of the main festival.

By Hollister Dixon

While waiting for Digable Planets to start, my show companion (Colin McLaughlin) and I had a long discussion about truly underrated hip-hop albums. For me, the band’s Blowout Comb – their second and final record, released in 1994 – is a shoe-in for that Top 10. Blowout Comb sounded like it was from the future back in ’94, and listening to it now it’s striking how ahead of its time it still sounds. At times, it feels as though the trio – made up of Butterfly (Ismael Butler, later of Shabazz Palaces), Ladybug Mecca (Mary Ann Vieira), and Doodlebug (Craig Irving) – built a time machine with the sole purpose of seeing what soul and funk sounded like in the 3070’s and bringing those vibes back to the 90s. The band broke up shortly after, though they’ve reunited sporadically in the 20 years since.

There’s always a worry that any reunion is a lazy cash-grab, done “for the money”. Let’s set the record straight, before we go on: if Digable Planets are playing for us again “for the money”, it presents an entirely compelling case for capitalism.

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LIVE: Super Furry Animals, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

By Hollister Dixon // Photos By Yousef Hatlani

If you’re reading this, and you’ve never dived into the work of Super Furry Animals, arguably* the best band to ever come from Cardiff, Wales, you’re part of the problem.

Okay, you aren’t actually part of the problem. In all seriousness, though, Super Furry Animals are probably the best Welsh band to never, ever manage to find a footing in the US. The reasons they’ve never grabbed hold of the US are a mystery, though I have my theories – the thickness of Gruff Rhys’ accent, the fact that one of their best releases (Mwng) is completely in Welsh, the fact that they have names like Dafydd Ieuan and Huw Bunford – but from a sonic perspective this is a band that deserves to be much, much bigger.

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LIVE: Modest Mouse, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

12313650_10153192559870779_4624775635157579718_nModest Mouse // Photo By Hollister Dixon

By Hollister Dixon

One of the most enjoyable things about Modest Mouse as a live entity is that they know they have two audiences: the ones who want to hear the hits (“Float On” and “Dashboard” still get people riled up, after all), and the ones that want to hear deep cuts. The band are in their 21st year with 11 releases under their belt (6 albums and assorted other EPs and compilations), meaning the well that they get to pull from is pretty deep. I started seeing the band perform much later than I probably should have (It took a decade to get around to it), but I’ve since attempted to make up for it by seeing them wherever possible, be it at a festival or at a tiny benefit show in a hole-in-the-wall bar. This weekend, I decided to go whole-hog and see the band’s two-night stint at the Crystal Ballroom, as part of 94.7 KNRK’s “December to Remember” run of shows.

Before we get into those two shows, let’s talk about openers. Saturday night’s opener was a no-brainer, almost to the point of being safe. Mimicking Birds, longtime members of Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace Recordings, played this same stage with Modest Mouse back in ’09 for MusicFest Northwest’s Glacial Pace showcase. In truth, though, the nature of the show meant that Mimicking Birds was almost a little too sonically safe; Nate Lacy’s group trafficks in patient and twinkling folk-rock, the kind designed for small parties and long car rides, rather than as a complement to a band as raucous as Modest Mouse. and though their sound works quite nicely in the Crystal Ballroom, I couldn’t help but find myself yearning for a much, much smaller venue, or at very least with the band as a headliner. Despite their flirtations with grandeur, the crowd seemed to get a little restless around the halfway point, though the band’s performance didn’t suffer in the very least.

The mild restlessness of the crowd during that set was nothing to the following night. So, Mattress. I take a lot of pleasure in seeing a crowd react to a completely mismatched opener – seeing Big Freedia open for The Postal Service in 2013 was worth the price of admission – but there was something funny in the air Sunday night. Rex Marshall’s music is just insane enough to be absolutely brilliant, but from the moment he wandered onstage bedecked in a gold suit, it was clear that the crowd just was not having it. Were Mattress an actual band the crowd might have reacted differently, but as Marshall swayed and bounced on the mic like the half-cousin of Nick Cave and Richard Cheese, the crowd began to lose their patience, fast. It has been a long time since I heard a crowd so loud during an opener, and it felt like such a waste. Somehow, I can’t get over the image of Isaac Brock sitting backstage, laughing to himself, completely happy in the decision he made.

12308560_10153192450215779_6214355496953956434_nMattress // Photo By Hollister Dixon

But, his performance was undoubtedly wonderful. That Nick Cave/Richard Cheese thing is built upon stratified layers of shifty Las Vegas casino crooners and gurgling, queasy synthesizers, and he knows how to work it. There’s an uneasiness to Mattress, where you almost wonder if Marshall, somewhere in his mind, believes himself to be performing these songs at the MGM Grand with an orchestra rather than in whatever room he’s in, accompanied by a small synth array and a silver-painted table. But, just like those Vegas crooners, that’s part of the act. “I never in my life thought I’d sell out the Crystal Ballroom,” Marshall said midway through, poking the bear that was the unhappy crowd. Just like the aforementioned Mimicking Birds, I was left wanting a smaller show from him, though I’d happily take many more sets just like this one, full of squelching bass and confused twentysomethings.

I’ll get the most unfortunate thing about Modest Mouse‘s weekend at the Crystal out of the way first: it felt, by the end of it, that I’d just watched to very unequal halves squished together. Taken as a whole, the band ran the gambit: 36 different songs from each record, with the only three songs played both nights (“Lampshades on Fire” and “Of Course We Know” from this year’s Strangers to Ourselves, as well as fan favorite “Dashboard” from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank). Both nights, Isaac Brock was in fine form, rambling at full force in between songs and seeming genuinely happy to still be playing these songs. However, the first night was the weaker of the two, with the energy of the show coming to a grinding halt between what seemed like every single song – or at least, that’s how it felt – while Brock rambled about the heat, cats, the length of their encore break (roughly 8 minutes both nights). And, while that set got an appearance by the unretired ol’ chestnut “Float On” (which, to its credit, sounded hungrier and more ferocious than it has any right to be) and gems like “Grey Ice Water“, “Shit Luck“, and “Night on the Sun“, the set was a lot like their set at MusicFest Northwest earlier this year: standard in a lot of ways.

Perhaps the biggest issue was that the band seemed to have organized the two nights as though it was one giant show. Ending the first night with the loud, bizarro Lonesome Crowded West cut “Shit Luck” felt like foreshadowing for the deep-cut-heavy, Isaac-Brock-rant-light second show – a show which, if I’m being honest, is the best Modest Mouse show I’ve seen yet. To pick a highlight for this one almost feels impossible: was it the long-dormant gem “Bankrupt on Selling“? (Spoiler: yes, it was, and it reduced me to tears) Was it belting out “Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset” arm-in-arm with a stranger next to me? Was it finally getting to see Good News banger “Bury Me With It“? (Also probably this one, really) Was it the fact that they played standard show-closer “The Good Times Are Killing Me” and then two more songs, including “Never Ending Math Equation? Truly, the only actual dud of the evening was Strangers cut “Pistol“, a song that is truly worse than even the half-baked Dial-A-Songs from rarities collection Sad Sappy Sucker. That can be forgiven, though.

All of this said, the setlists and the amount of rambling was the only place where the sets differed. 20+ years is a long time for a band to maintain momentum, and the gap between We Were Dead and Strangers likely served to keep the band feeling fresh. At this point, Brock and drummer Jeremiah Green are the only remaining founding members of the band, but the strengths of a band’s hired guns (for lack of a better term) is dependent on the strengths of those there from the beginning. It’s a testament to the power of the band as a live act that even the stale “Float On” could be made to sound as ferocious as “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes“, but even after a half-dozen shows in four years, I’m still consistently floored by the live arm of Modest Mouse. They are, at once, one of the most tight, and most unwound, live acts I’ve ever seen. The band is past the days of Brock slicing his arm open or fighting fans or ranting about “Freebird” (okay, maybe they’re still there, but still!), and now what remains is a group of weirdos led by a man who is equal parts affable and curmudgeonly.

While walking out of the Ballroom sunday night, I wondered to myself if I ever really needed to see Modest Mouse again after that two-day stint. And, despite the oversaturation I’ve experienced in the last week while prepping for the shows – an oversaturation I haven’t felt since I was 13 in rural Washington, imagining Isaac Brock feeling like I did just two towns over – I can say, without hesitation, absolutely. Their strengths are great enough that I’ll happily turn out any chance I get, and even if a show feels like a dud, it’s still likely to be a satisfying performance.

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LIVE: Primal Scream, The Cult at Crystal Ballroom / The Good Life at Doug Fir Lounge

By Hollister Dixon // Primal Scream and The Cult photos by Yousef Hatlani

Following the move to cease production of the podcasting arm of Faces on the Radio, I found myself just not going out to shows as much anymore. This is mostly a consequence of paying much less attention to the calendar, a part of my programming that vanished surprisingly fast. At least a couple nights a week, I would find myself looking at my Facebook notifications, and saying, “SHIT! That’s tonight!” about one show or another. To get back into the swing of things, I decided the best way was to throw myself into the deep end and double-book myself: I would see Scottish deities Primal Scream (inexplicably supporting England’s The Cult, rather than the other way around – but that’s neither here nor there) at the Crystal Ballroom, before crossing the Burnside to the Doug Fir where Tim Kasher’s Cursive offshoot The Good Life were making a triumphant return. In the process, I learned and realized a few things.

Primal Scream, The Cult – Crystal Ballroom

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Primal Scream // Photo By Yousef Hatlani

This is an obvious statement, but if you’re the singer in a band that plays a lot of quasi-instrumental music, you’re going to have to do a lot more to exercise the “stage presence” muscle. Stage presence is as much of a muscle as anything in performing, and if you’re in a band like Primal Scream, and you’re someone like Bobby Gillespie, you’re going to have to figure out what to do with your time while the rest of the band is going nuts. Primal Scream are a few year’s past their 30th anniversary as a band at this point, long enough that you’d be able to forgive Gillespie for not bothering to move around as much as he does. At this point, though, he’s got enough energy to make Mick Jagger watch his back: during longer, more instrumentally-driven songs, he bounds across the stage, posing at the edge for fans, preening like an unsung sex icon with his mic stand (note: Bobby Gillespie truly is an unsung sex icon). Joyfully, the rest of the band matched his energy step for step and turn for turn, putting on one of the single best Crystal Ballroom performances I’ve seen since the triumphant and transformative performance by fellow Creation Records stars Slowdive.

Partway through the band’s hour-long performance, Gillespie dropped a minor bomb nobody could quite believe: this was, in fact, the very first Primal Scream show in Portland. This was a source of joy, but also one of annoyance bordering on anger for the people I was with: despite the caliber of the talent onstage this evening, the Crystal Ballroom was – and I’m being generous here – roughly half full by the time the band had finished. It seemed that the band failed to notice this (or noticed and simply didn’t actually care), however, as they sailed on with enough passion and fire that I genuinely felt bad for the evening’s headliner. To be honest, I’m still a little confused as to why this bill wasn’t flipped – I feel like advertising a “first time in Portland!” performance by Primal Scream would have sold out the Ballroom months before the show actually went on.. but, again, that’s a minor trifle. I say this without a drop of hyperbole, but I feel blessed to have gotten the chance to see this band play, even if they only played for an hour.

The Cult // Photo By Yousef Hatlani

The Cult // Photo By Yousef Hatlani

The unfortunate part of my double-booking is that this was a very good opportunity for me to finally get what people enjoyed about The Cult. During a conversation with friend/former guest Shelley Bowers, I tried to figure out what I was missing about The Cult, and in the process realized that I was simply just a little too young to really, truly get the band. Having said that, the songs I did see The Cult perform were fantastic. Just like the aforementioned Bobby Gillespie, Cult frontman Ian Astbury knows how to get a crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, and just like Primal Scream, he’s used the last 30 years to really figure out how to be a terrific performer. Had I stuck out the performance, I feel as though I could have found myself converted. Next time!

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The Good Life // Instagram Photo by Hollister Dixon

Unfortunately for Astbury, I have an unofficial standing order to see Tim Kasher perform whenever I get the opportunity. After a brisk trek across the Willamette, I got to see The Good Life‘s return from hibernation. It has been a jaw-dropping eight years since The Good Life released Help Wanted Nights, and their return with this year’s Everybody’s Coming Down came with a surprisingly nonexistent amount of fanfare. It could simply be because of Kasher’s status as an indie rock lifer – it isn’t as though he himself has been inactive, having released four records since Help Wanted Nights (two with Cursive, two under his own name) – but it was clear by the joy in the crowd that everyone in the room was overjoyed to be able to belt out those songs.

Kasher is at his best when he sings about emotional turmoil (“I’m at my best when I’m at my worst”, he aptly sang on “From the Hips“) and despite his kind and affable stage presence, The Good Life is just a less angular (and sometimes more angsty) version of Cursive. That’s not a knock at all; The Good Life have the benefit of being a more dynamic band, where Kasher is bolstered not only by the standout bass work of Stefanie Drootin (who also performed a stunning and tear-enducing rendition of Album of the Year cut “Inmates”), but by the workmanlike drumming of Roger Lewis, who was damn near impossible to look away from at times. It may simply be the result of working with Kasher (Cursive is, as it happens, a devastating live act), but band maintained a state of constant tightness throughout their hour onstage, even during an Everybody’s Coming Down cut that was prefaced with “Here’s a short one that we’re going to try really hard to not mess up!” and during the band’s more chaotic and expansive tracks (namely the title track from Album of the Year, a song which goes in approximately 20 directions during its five-minute span). Despite the somewhat short set (short by some metrics, I mean), seeing The Good Life perform was a wonderful reminder of why, exactly, I have that standing order to see Tim Kasher perform every chance I get: he’s one of indie rock’s best frontmen, no matter what band he’s playing with.

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LIVE: Patti Smith, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

Patti Smith: Outside of Society
By Jacob Heiteen

In the immortal words of Kim Gordon’s t-shirt, “Girls Invented Punk Rock Not England.” If you need proof, look no further than the great Patti Smith. She is a punk original, and Rotten and Strummer got nothing on her. While Smith’s music may not scream “PUNK” the way some might know it, her style and attitude couldn’t be anything else but punk. It should also be noted that of all the members of the CBGB scene (which is basically the birthplace of punk), she was the first to put out a record. her first single was released in 1974 and her debut LP came a year later, predating the Ramones, Television, and Richard Hell. She was, in a sense, the first voice of the scene and forever shaped the way American punk would sound for the decades to come.

On January 20th, Patti Smith took the stage of a sold out show at the Crystal Ballroom, showing everyone that despite being 68 she has not lost any of her raw power. Honestly, I’m sure that if you were to compare last night show to one of her 70s show, the only difference would be the gray hair, because she hasn’t lost anything. She sung as fiercely as she did 40 years ago, was a sharp witted as ever, and had moments where she full on rocked the fuck out.

While unfortunately there was no “Gloria,” we did get “Dancing Barefoot,” “People Have The Power,” and “Redondo Beach.” Hearing all those songs played together made me realize that Smith and her band could sound like literally anything they wanted to. They could do a strange slowed-down version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (complete with a banjo!), the reggae tinted “Redondo Beach” and loud rockers like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” all while having made total sense. There were even a few song with the lead being taken by her longtime bandmate and garage rock aficionado, Lenny Kaye, who may have coined the phrase “punk rock” in the liner notes to his influential Nuggets compilation. The highlight was undoubtedly “Because The Night,” which she dedicated to her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. That song could pump up any room and when the first chorus hit it seemed like everyone in the audience was singing along.

It was also nice to see a show by such an established artist have such a lack of separation between star and audience. Smith seemed completely open and accessible, telling us in great detail about her day, her beloved old TV, and strangely, a seemingly very intense episode of Little House on The Prairie, saying that she’d rather hear talk about a TV show than some “bullshit political rhetoric”. The stage banter was not at all boring, in fact people encroached on it by shouting out questions about her Vatican performance and reaction to Kim Fowley’s death. Smith even went so far as to invite a random audience member take over for her on guitar while she rocked the mic.

The whole show felt like we were hanging out with her, talking with her, jamming with her. There was no ego with Patti. It felt honest, like we were getting the real woman.

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LIVE: Death From Above 1979, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

Death From Above 1979

Death From Above 1979 // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

 

By Hollister Dixon

Before we get to the festivities, let’s start with a brief history lesson. In 2001, Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger started a band called Death From Above 1979 in Toronto. In 2004, they released an album called You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, which remains one of the greatest examples of dance-punk to ever come from somewhere that was not DFA Records (a label which forced the band to add the ‘1979’ to avoid confusion). In 2006, after a brief but tumultuous career, the duo broke up, citing creative differences (read: they really fucking hated each other). The members did more than a few things following the demise of DFA1979, including Keeler’s MSTRKRFT (formed in 2005, which contributed remixes of “Sexy Results” and “Little Girl” to DFA1979’s Romance Bloody Romance b-sides/rarities collection) and Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains (more on them in just a little bit).

Death From Above 1979 are proof that any band can reunite and face hordes of adoring fans. In 2011, the band announced that they would reunite, complete with a tour and a new album. Both of these things took time and effort to get off the ground, the latter of which finally appearing as this year’s fantastic The Physical WorldYou’re a Woman, I’m a Machine never had the impact on me that it had on a lot of my peers, but even still, it’s hard to ignore how much that band had – and still has – going for them. They were a band that arrived sounding fully-formed, producing music that sounded simultaneously expertly-crafted, and completely unhinged. Because of this, it would be extremely difficult to pass up the opportunity to see what they could accomplish in a live setting.

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LIVE: Julian Casablancas+The Voidz, Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas+The Voidz // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

 

By Jacob Gellman // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

I was skeptical about Julian Casablancas+The Voidz, and perhaps with good reason. Aside from a handful of songs, the Strokes’ side projects have always failed to capture the magic of the original band – two solo albums from Albert Hammond Jr. were underwhelming, while one from Casablancas met critical acclaim but failed to stick with fans.

Here is the golden measuring stick for a famous musician’s side project: in a blind taste test, would you like the music if you didn’t already know the artist’s reputation? Too often have I seen otherwise rational human beings defend a bomb of an album because their favorite musician wrote it.

So in light of the negative reviews for the latest Casablancas album Tyranny, and knowing my own golden rule… I of course refused an invitation to see him live at the Crystal Ballroom. NOT. I nabbed that invite like a dog laps up the food that fell off your plate. Come on, we’re talking about the frontman for the 21st century’s greatest garage rock band.

Connan Mockasin

Connan Mockasin // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

To say that show-opener Connan Mockasin and his backing band were dressed eccentrically is an understatement. All of them wore extremely baggy pants; the backing guitarist was fitted in what looked like pajamas and a fur hat; and Mockasin himself (a.k.a. Connan Tant Hosford) was fully dressed as a farmer. “I know what you’re all thinking,” Hosford drawled to the audience in an American Southern accent, “What’s a farmer like me doing up here?” Bizarre indeed, considering the band hails from New Zealand via London. Knowing nothing about Mockasin, I was completely fooled, until he started to address the audience in his actual Kiwi accent. “Where’s he from?” my companion asked me. “England? Australia?” I replied. Sorry, New Zealanders.

Mockasin is a musician who has made the most of his connections. His music has only once broken charts in New Zealand despite strong reviews for his work, yet he has had the fortune of touring with Radiohead in 2012 and now Julian Casablancas+The Voidz. The band’s confidence is palpable, as Mockasin leads the audience through bird-like call and responses before dropping into smooth psychedelic rock.

Connan Mockasin

Connan Mockasin // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

At the risk of publishing a trite comparison, I can best explain Connan Mockasin’s music as a soulful, funk-folk, modern Pink Floyd. The ingredients are all there: the rhythm guitar picks through psychedelic chords while Mockasin solos high on the neck, choosing either a clean setting or a wah; the synths achieve a vintage organ aesthetic, while the bass explores pentatonic lines.

The band’s control over dynamics is impeccable. Rarely have I seen a group explore quiet space so effectively; songs slow and speed, crescendo and drop to a silence. The anchor is Mockasin’s backing drummer, who often is the last breath in a vacuum of empty space before the band surges to fuller sounds. These songs challenge the audience, but the crowd follows them through these silences, focused in anticipation.

The focal point, of course, is Mockasin’s guitar work. The bulk of the music is devoted to his solos, exploring creative slides and high riffs. The most atmospheric song is their closer, when the rhythm guitarist jumps on keys to deliver an emotive synth part, reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Idioteque” but infused with psychedelia.

If these descriptions sound bizarre, it’s because the music truly is. In a world where bands increasingly call themselves psychedelic, Connan Mockasin stands out as a musician who actually is psychedelic, in the truest sense of the genre.

Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas+The Voidz // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

The secret of the latest Casablancas solo project is that it isn’t a solo project at all. It’s Julian Casablancas+The Voidz. The “backing” band is so important they don’t even put a space between Casablancas, the + sign, and The Voidz. They’re not a touring band; they are the band. And on this night they featured so prominently, I was far more impressed by their musicianship than by Casablancas himself, and you can pin that on their sheer talent as a group. The Voidz’ arrangements on Tyranny form such complex and muddy polyphony, and the music is comprised of such technically difficult instrumental parts, that anything less than perfect would unravel those songs in a heartbeat.

“Father Electricity” is a prime example, a song with little foundation to support the band’s cohesion. Rather than providing a stable drum and bass floor, Jake Bercovici snakes through jazzy bass lines, while Alex Carapetis delivers frantic jungle beats. Add to that two unhinged guitar parts by Amir Yaghmai and Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter, and a band of lesser skill would fall apart a minute in. But not The Voidz. They stop and start on a dime, and even with Beardo’s pained expressions they make it look effortless. While Julian’s voice is a steady baritone presence, the tight and mathematical execution by The Voidz steals the show.

Somehow, I shouldn’t be surprised; Casablancas has never been a frontman that steals the spotlight. On the contrary, the Crystal Ballroom’s lights more prominently featured Beardo and Yaghmai, leaving Casablancas “under cover of darkness” and frustrating our photographer Yousef Hatlani, who faced difficulty snapping images of the singer’s shadowed visage. It didn’t help that Casablancas’s main stage move is to grip the microphone, covering his face with his own fist and his long hair; nor did his tendency to turn away from the audience during musical interludes, flashing his black and red “Houston Basketball” jacket to the crowd.

Julian Casablancas

Julian Casablancas+The Voidz // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

It may not make for a good photo, but that presence is precisely what I love about Casablancas. During music breaks, he does not dance obnoxiously or steal the show; he is himself. He relishes in the music around him. His voice is not necessarily the focal point of the music, but rather a part of it, a texture to blend with the instruments. Only once does he engage the crowd, when a girl cries out, “Julian!” His response: “Yeeees?”

Rarely am I so moved by a concert. The set featured the last-ever performance of “Instant Crush,” the Daft Punk collaboration with Casablancas, as well as a crowd-pleasing cover of the Strokes’ “Ize of the World.” The band deservedly earned two encores, closing with “Human Sadness,” an emotional rock ballad to cap off a flawless night.

So perhaps I had good reason to doubt the latest Strokes side project. But The Voidz (feat. Julian Casablancas) quickly proved that, given the right mix of musicians, a side project can be so much more.

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