The Twilight Sad: Live in SF

IMG_0429

 

It isn’t very often that we get to see 3 different Scottish bands on separate nights all within a week. If it wasn’t for the sunshine, you might think we were in Glasgow. The flurry of shows started at the Independent, made a welcome departure to the Fillmore and ended, rather triumphantly, at the Rickshaw Stop.

As great as it was being at the first North American show for Chvrches at the Independent, what we were really looking forward to the most was seeing the Twilight Sad anywhere else. Each of the three times I have seen them there, I’ve always walked away with the feeling that the venue let everyone down in terms of how they handled the sound. Having the band open for Frightened Rabbit the following night at the Fillmore would finally put this to the test. To be fair, the experiences were also hindered by my own expectations. Watching many of these performances on the internet makes one’s desire to hear the vocals uppermost in the mix self-explanatory. After finding out that this tour would feature a ‘stripped back set’ we were elated. Never before has an empty chair, sitting on the stage of the Fillmore, generated so much anticipation.

The payoff was even better than we could have hoped; two people sitting down providing the music and one person standing, gesturing, at times seemingly having a conversation with the song itself, singing his heart out. This was the kind of Twilight Sad show I’ve been longing to hear these past six years. The beauty of the Fillmore is that it doesn’t really matter where you stand, the acoustics and sight lines are exemplary almost everywhere. On the other hand, since watching James Graham sing is as inherently entertaining as hearing him, we placed ourselves dead center one row back from the guardrail.

There were a few people telling their friends how good and under appreciated the Twilight Sad were, but for the most part I got the sense that people had primarily come to see Frightened Rabbit. The pairing, in addition to not having to suffer through a third local band, was inspired. Without a doubt, this was the best combination of two bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. A few steps above the dynamic of one man and a guitar and miles removed from a full opening band trying to upstage or hold their own against the headline act: it perfectly set the table for the Frightened Rabbit set that followed. By now, generally speaking, most crowds know what they are going to get from a Frightened Rabbit show. The most satisfying part was sensing their positive, at times awed, reaction to what was offered up by the Twilight Sad. They couldn’t have expected how powerful and moving it was; we couldn’t have been happier by how much our own expectations were surpassed. When the Twilight Sad was finished, Pedro and I agreed that we could have walked away and been perfectly content. Hopefully, having played to a sold out crowd at the Fillmore, and the support slot throughout the rest of the tour, this exposure will translate into further North American momentum.

And if that wasn’t enough, I got to do it all over again four days later at the Rickshaw Stop.

IMG_0496

I ended up attending this show alone. The venue’s maximum capacity is less than 200, the sightlines are somewhat difficult, but the sound is surprisingly good. Literally standing at the corner of the stage a foot from the face of it, I was in a position to experience a set that was even better than that of the Fillmore. Andy MacFarlane’s guitar was perfectly pristine, sounding as good as if you were sitting in front of the amp yourself. Mark Devine’s keyboard work was relaxed and much more evident than on the larger and higher stage at the Fillmore. During that set, at times, it seemed that some of the drum loops were more dominant than the keyboards and that gave the overall sound a slight canned effect. This time keyboard, single guitar and voice were perfectly matched and balanced for a much more organic feel. I was actually positioned behind the PA speakers and for the first time, much like this video, I was able to hear James Graham almost as if without  microphone. This was The Twilight Sad in its most essential form. Underneath the layer of noise, the loud volumes and otherwise engaging mayhem this was the band stripped to its heart and core.

IMG_0478

Seeing them twice in a week was far better than I could have hoped. The Fillmore represented an audience size that they more than deserve by now and hopefully the exposure on this tour will help to ensure it for the future. At the same time, the show at the Rickshaw for the Twilight Sad fans, who remained after the local support from the two local opening bands filtered out, were treated to the kind of show they could only have experienced back near the beginning. For myself, it was the perfect squaring of the circle. I will readily admit this though – the next time I see them, I want the volume at 11.

Being at that first ever Twilight Sad show in SF, were only 14 people (one of them being my wife) remained until the end, had an unexpected dividend of good will as well. The second Twilight Sad show this week was on the 15th of March. Since the Rickshaw always goes past midnight, I anticipated spending the first hour or so of my Birthday there as well. I was able to ‘finagle’ a Twilight Sad birthday card before the set began. Much to my surprise partway through the set, at exactly 11:59 no less, the gap between songs was filled by James Graham pointing me out and dedicating the next song. As the other people wished me well, ‘That Birthday Present’ ushered in the first few minutes of my 49th.

IMG_0515

Leaving the venue, about a half a block away, a person leaning against the wall wished me Happy Birthday again as I passed. Happy week and Happy Birthday indeed.

Thor

Advertisements

Frightened Rabbit: Live in SF

 

IMG_0449

As one of those early FR fans I’ve got no problem admitting that “The Winter of Mixed Drinks’ left me uneasy. I distinctly remember the first time I heard ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ previewed at a show and not being sure of the new direction. The last show in town was at the Independent, which their popularity has long since outgrown. When I noticed the listing at the venue 4 months beforehand, it was already sold out. Despite having to pay three times face value, it was decidedly worth it as the set focused heavily on the earlier material. I hadn’t actually listened to ‘Pedestrian Verse’ that often before the show. This was partially due to waiting for the month long delayed LP and also because, despite generally liking the new direction, I still didn’t find it compelling. Going in, I was hoping that the performance would allow me to better understand and appreciate the album.

I think the thing that was most evident the other night was that FR live is where they truly are at their best. The beauty of the show was how seamlessly they integrated the new songs into the live performance, how fresh they sounded and just how well they worked. This time Pedro and I stood second row center; watching them play, figuring out who was doing what and when and truly appreciating how it is all so carefully  balanced  and articulated. This was not only highly enjoyable but somewhat of a revelation.

IMG_0448

Double checking from some clips from the last Fillmore show we attended, I’m confident FR has added another person to the stage. Apologies for only using the pronoun, but he was magnificent in providing accompanying percussion and guitar. I was frequently drawn to his performance when wondering where a new dynamic in the sound was coming from. This happened a lot with the other performers as well. There is a certain musical ‘democracy’ to this band where everyone brings an equal amount to the table. At times, they are almost modular with overlapping chord progressions and even when everyone is doing something else the meticulous care given to the layering of the sound is almost breathtaking. They have become such a well-oiled machine (or an expensive German engineered car if you like) that is a delight to see in motion.

IMG_0445

At this point I should mention that scanning the crowd I was frequently struck with how radiant their smiles and bright their eyes were. I’ve been to many a show (and have seen FR 7 times now) and can truthfully say that the joy expressed on the audience’s collective face is a degree higher than any other. It goes without saying that this enthusiasm is reciprocated by the band themselves. One of the integral components of any FR show are Scott Hutchison’s stories, sense of humour and humility.

There was a point where the warm-up to a song took a little longer than usual and I began wondering how I would answer the question, if asked, what my most and least favourite FR song would be. Just as the question was answered, ‘Backwards Walk’ commenced. My favourite version of this was at the Bottom of the Hill quite a few years back. This review captures that night rather succinctly but they are wrong about the encore. Scott did come back out, in the dark, and began singing ‘Backwards Walk’. It had an almost a cappella like start as he stood at the edge of the stage leaning forward as much as he could. There was some fumbling of guitar and I don’t honestly remember whether he was using an acoustic or an electric, but I do have the beauty of that performance in my heart. The new enhanced version worked but it was a far cry from that memory. This is rather a long build up to tell you something that ends up being contrary to what you might expect. The real achievement of the show was how seamlessly and perfectly the 8 songs played from ‘Pedestrian Verse’ fit in with the other songs in the set. They were the songs that sparkled, had depth, and were fully engaging. It isn’t that the older songs were no longer welcome, but proof of  just how much further the new material has come.

There is something magical about listening to a new record the day after a show. Seconds after the needle was dropped with the opening keyboard lines of ‘Acts of Man’ I was back at the Fillmore. Prior to this, I wasn’t sure I really even liked the song. It ended up being the glorious live ‘ending’ to the regular set. I understand the record much better now. There is a whole new clarity that is hard to describe. Perhaps more importantly I don’t recall this experience with the last record. The distance between recording studio and stage seems shorter. Perhaps this time around the intent was to create something that would more fully and easily translate to the live performance. It worked. Even more, I think it is safe to say no studio recording could ever truly capture the majesty of FR live. Quite frankly, that is how it should be.

The answer to what is my least favourite song would have been ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’. I still remember the unease of hearing it the first time before the album and I’ve never really enjoyed it until now. Last night it just clicked. Admittedly, the first song that came into my head the next morning was a Twilight Sad one, but when I was trying to conjure up a FR song I was rather surprised to be ‘listening’ to my ‘least’ favourite song.. Maybe I’m just slow.

IMG_0459

2 apples, a poster, the Fillmore center 2 rows deep, the 7th FR show, and a stripped down Twilight Sad opener – I so wish that could happen more often with the other bands on our radar. But until then, I can’t wait until the 8th.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the Twilight Sad because we get a rare opportunity to see them twice in one week and will put my thoughts off until then.

Thor

 

 

Chvrches: Live in SF

IMG_0765

When I first heard that Chvrches would be attending this year’s SXSW, the thought of heading down crossed my mind. Every year sets off the hope, usually dashed, that some of the Scottish bands who make it down to Austin might come further north-west. You can imagine how pleased we were to find out that the first North American show would end up being right here in San Francisco.

Nothing illustrates their rapid rise more than the fact that I don’t possess a single EP or album. I did have the 10” single in my cart but just couldn’t justify the 10 pounds shipping. Sadly there wasn’t anything musical to buy from the merchandise table last night. Going into a show only having heard 3 songs on the internet and having watched a few live clips is almost antithetical to an old timer like me. I learned from some of the younger people after the show that this is actually pretty normal for today’s generation. While it was nice to have seen one gentleman with a beard whiter than my gray, for the most part I’m rather out of place.

I’m always fascinated by the totally different crowds at every San Francisco show I attend. I’m a constant, but why is there almost never a familiar face?  I conducted a non-scientific survey of the crowd before and afterward and it was pretty evident people were there because of the ‘internet’ through links and cross recommendations to bands like Grimes, Purity Ring and remixes from people they followed; more of an electronic music slant and all perfectly understandable.

For fun I asked a few people if they had heard of Blue Sky Archives, Unwinding Hours and The Twilight Sad. I didn’t find anyone. Had I brought up Aereogramme (and I am trying to cut back on doing that) the looks would have been even blanker. As it turns out, as I learned from this local press piece, even I had not realized that Martin Doherty was the touring keyboardist there as well. Until yesterday, I thought I had only seen Martin twice at the Independent playing for the Twilight Sad. Clearly my perspective and ‘path’ to the show was different than most of the people who wouldn’t have been allowed in back then even if they were fans. I’m pretty sure it also influenced my decision to stand on the side of the stage with the mighty Iain Cook.

IMG_0773

Predictably the ten song set was bookended by ‘Lies’ and ‘The Mother We Share’. I should have even expected the Prince cover that was offered as an impromptu encore. (as good as it was, I would have loved some Altered Images) My favourite place to be at the Independent is right at the side of the stage. You can feel the air pushed by the drums and hear the guitars from the amps as opposed to the PA. Obviously, I didn’t properly think that through for a Chvrches show. It was quite odd to see the opening act drum kit pulled away and nothing brought back to fill the empty space. Not since Glasvegas, have I been to a show where the main act was so lacking a proper drummer.

chvrchessetlist

I’m really not trying to be dismissive. While the 80s are too far behind me to be swayed by instrumentation alone, it was truly astonishing to see how much was done with so little. I was very intrigued by the use of a Maschine (I broke down and picked up a Mikro myself to play with) to provide the distinctive sampling riffs and some percussion. Not a fan of the online finger dexterity demos, it was nice to see it used to good effect in a serious live setting. I’m actually quite partial to the bass playing keyboard player and was impressed with how much Iain Cook was doing and how fluidly it was executed. Seeing the Fender sitting next to the Moog was encouraging as well.

I can’t pretend it was the most exciting show I’ve been to; although there was never a moment where I lost interest.  Not having heard the bulk of the set before shouldn’t really have mattered but it did dampen my emotional reaction. I did get a sense that some of the songs were still underdeveloped and suffered a little from their essential similarity. As incredible as Lauren Mayberry’s voice was, I really appreciated the song sung by Martin Doherty and some of the backing vocals provided by Iain Cook to change up the dynamics. That I woke up this morning with snippets of music and lyrics running through my head that I can’t place is proof enough that, overall, it worked. The internet personal recording device age is quite fascinating as well and this  clip of ‘Science and Vision is a good sample of the middle of the show set. There is a good deal of potential here and I imagine that the first record will be quite exceptional. Given Iain Cook’s prodigious talents that is almost a given.

In terms of a triumphant ‘return’, it can’t be stressed enough how wonderful it was. The crowd seemed to really enjoy it, the place was sold out and the band was touched by the positive warm reception. There was one young lass who specifically went to Scotland to see them. It made her night when Lauren Mayberry recognized her and pointed out her dedication. It really doesn’t matter that this old curmudgeon was reminiscing about the old days when bands walked in the snow to play to thirty people.

Ironically, the impending arrival of Chvrches prompted the discovery of the local band Churches. I’ve already seen Dominic East (1/3 of Churches) perform his own material and was blown away. For a chuckle, I got to tell him about the Glasgow version and am looking forward to seeing the full band play ‘Lovelife soon.

Tonight? The Twilight Sad opening for Frightened Rabbit.

Why so excited? It is not at the Independent (where the monitor I was standing next to wasn’t turned on until the 6th song) but at the Fillmore. My theory that the Independent sound guys were diminishing my enjoyment of a Twilight Sad show is about to be tested.

Thor

update: Here is the bulk of the show, I must be lurking somewhere in the dark lower left corner of the stage.

Django Django/Cancel The Astronauts

Django Django at the Independent September 25, 2012

An Irishman, an Englishman, and 2 Scots walk into a bar art school…

Fill in a punch line of your choosing as there would be many that would work after seeing the “Edinburgh” bands’ first SF stop on their first US Tour. In the grand tradition of UK art school misfits who followed music as their muse (Keith Richards, Joe Strummer, Malcolm Mclaren, MIA to name a few…) come these 4 creative quirks who fuse collagist aesthetics to their dance band antics.

And dance they did!- for and with the rapt San Francisco audience. Our city has a long history of transcending the live experience between performer and audience through dance. One could argue it was the hippies moving to the electric jugband blues at the Avalon Ballroom in the ‘60s that defined this, that it was the headbangers thrashing about at The Stone in the ‘80s, or perhaps it was the late-nite beboppers at Jimbo’s Waffle Shop in the ‘40s that epitomized music’s ability to set you free…whatever your take is, the San Francisco audience last night reciprocated the Djangos feel good bounce on stage with something they have always done for live music – dancing wholeheartedly.

Of the many sonic reference points Django Django re-interpreted on stage, from their west coast drenched harmonies (“Storm”), and spaghetti western noodling (“Wor”), to the eastern-influenced instrumentals (“Skies Over Cairo”) – all were brought down to earth with a whimsical take on autobahn electronics and 8-bit video game blippery (Mega Man soundtrack for Nintendo anyone?). Sadly, the visual reference points never surfaced at the non-existent merch table (who dropped the ball on that one, fellas!?) But the tasteful “stage outfits” of matching tie-dye t-shirts in subtle off-kilter patterns was a welcome sight to onstage showmanship. Props for tryin’ while not tryin’ too hard, and having fun while tryin’…

Pedro

I was going to write my impressions of the Django Django show but decided there wouldn’t be much point. At best it was a neutral experience – not as bad as it might have been and it didn’t work as well as it could have. We are going to a different format this year. Weekly posts that highlight our Scottish music experience; if something really big comes along we’ll just add another post in between.  My CTA preorder arrived today. It seems we are experiencing a one week delay. I was pleasantly surprised to see a top notch handmade comic with a 2 song pre-order download code. The two songs “Thumb Wars” and “My Father’s Bed” have been on repeated rotation all evening. I’ve a soft spot for the personal reflective CTA songs that seem to find their way to the B sides. Another song about lost love – “I’m going nowhere, I might just get there yet” …. “I’m going nowhere and I’ve traveled pretty far”. A beautiful simple confessional that tugs at anyone who has suffered from self inflicted loss. The second song is a moving and deeply personal reminiscence of illness and an expression of hope for what kind of father the son would want to be. I still need to get my hands on the early demos and my CTA collection will be complete as I caved and  found an ebay copy of the first EP which came today as well.  

Thor

Twilight Sad (and Twin Atlantic) Live

It is early, a day and a half later and I’m listening to some acoustic Twilight Sad while I type this. We managed to get in two shows at two different venues Thursday night. Haven’t had a Scottish band in town since November 11th and they decide to show up on the same night.  Good fortune and our perfectly executed plan allowed us to see both. In some respects, the night was about expectations.

Twilight Sad – at the Independent for the 3rd time – to be honest the first two experiences were not as good as I had hoped they would be. I really wish it would have been at another venue, so that I could remove that factor. To put it most simply, the vocals, more often than not, seemed buried too deep in the mix. Considering how integral these are to Twilight Sad’s overall sound, it just leaves me perplexed as to why this has been the case all three times.

Frustrations aside, I’d go again. I feel that I got a better sense of the band. I’ve always felt that what they are trying to convey in their live sound is a lot more difficult to execute than you might think. I was closer to the stage this time and I noticed that there is a heartfelt and genuine quality, and even a certain charm, to James’s vocal intensity. From afar this is easy to miss. Although I generally prefer my singers with a guitar in their idle hands, it is very clear that the vocals are as much an instrument as any used by the other four people on stage.

 I liked the new keyboard emphasis.  I still wish there was more of a dynamic range in both the synth sounds and the guitar. When it got quieter the vocals soared. The thing is, as anyone that has seen them live can attest to, it doesn’t get quiet very often.  This is, of course, me placing my expectations on what I want my live experience to be on top of what really transpired. I could be wrong, because we had to duck out a little early, no acoustic guitar was brought on stage for a change of pace.  It would be correctly pointed out that this wouldn’t have matched the dynamic of the live show at all. Once again, it is just a fan wrestling with his own expectations.

Waking up the next day, as I got in the car to go to work, there was a Twilight Sad tune in my head before I turned on the radio. For me, that is the proof that I did enjoy the show.

We saw Twin Atlantic at the Rickshaw Stop. It should be noted that the last Scottish act we saw there was Biffy Clyro. I think you can pretty much surmise the overall reaction knowing this. When most of the incredibly short set (not even 40 minutes) was spent reminiscing and marveling how close to Biffy we had been you know we were underwhelmed. Of course, we didn’t expect not to be. Rock and Roll live has a tremendous leveling effect. I did genuinely enjoy listening to ‘You’re turning into John Wayne’ and ‘Yes I was drunk’, the rest was remarkably ordinary. The parts I did like were a little too ‘Biffy-lite’. I don’t think my expectations need changing. We primarily went because we felt that we should. Pulling it off was reward in itself.  And yet this morning there is that Twin Atlantic tune in my head ….

All in all, a good glasGOwest night out; my only regret was that I didn’t buy the poster. I should have. Perhaps waving it at the Twin Atlantic show might even have been satisfying.

T&P

and thanks to Mark for putting up with us at the merch table.