Category Archives: shows

Show report: Takka Takka at the Frequency

Takka Takka makes hushed, spare indie rock with a lot of open spaces. Or so I thought until I saw them last night at Madison’s brand-new downtown venue, The Frequency. Now they are loud. And have two guitarists playing a lot of notes at once instead of one guitarist playing hardly any notes. And frontman Gabe Levine clutches the mike and howls and emotes and smashes a tambourine on the floor at the end of the set.

And it was great! The encore — announced as a Britney Spears cover but presumably not one — was especially strong: the whole song plays as a big slow drony uplift, a la Spacemen 3, but all the detail work was complicated and proggy instead of straightforward and druggy.

Grammar, from Chicago, opened. You know what’s a good look for a band? The look where no two people look like they’re in the same band. Grammar played energetic, not entirely tight, pop with big five-part harmonies that worked most of the time.

The Frequency is small — really small — and despite being small, wasn’t full. Maybe fifteen people were there to see Takka Takka, of whom five were Grammar. A very good place to get very close to a band you want to see. Strangely, if you order “cheese fries” there you get a white pizza. Apparently that’s what “cheese fries” means in the proprietors’ home town of Stevens Point, WI.

Takka Takka home page

Grammar myspace page

The Frequency

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Show report: Jens Lekman

I heard a lot of people say Jens Lekman was the new Stephin Merritt or the new Neil Hannon, but now, having seen him tonight at the Old Music Hall, I’m pretty sure he’s the new Jonathan Richman. Songs about whimsy, songs about nostalgia, songs about unexceptional daily events made big by means of deeply felt singing. Audience participation. Little stories, backed with strumming, between and included within the songs.

Physically he’s very different — part of the Jonathan Richman experience is seeing a guy who looks like a tight end sing like an elf. Lekman actually does look like an elf. His band, too — elves in smocks. Except for the DJ, who is extravagantly tall and ungainly, yet dances so smoothly that he appears to be a Twin Peaks character inserted into the scene at the last minute.

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Five Guys, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman

There are two kinds of hamburgers.

First, you’ve got your… look, I can’t say it any better than does the chief Chowhound, Jim Leff:

It’s important to bear in mind that there are two sorts of objects that are both called “hamburger”. There are big, fat, steaky, coarse-ground gourmet pub/steakhouse-style hamburgers and patty-ish fast food style hamburgers. One isn’t trying to be the other, and IMO one isn’t “better” than the other, but those who prefer the former often express contempt at great versions of the latter. You’ve got to take genre into account.

The latest addition to the State Street “drunk and hungry” corridor is Five Guys, the metro D.C. burger chain that’s metastatically franchising itself all over the country — 250 stores currently open, 200 more opening this year. Their burger is of the second genre.

It’s actually a subtler thing than a thick burger. The thick burger is a piece of meat with some bread wrapped around it as a grip — whether it works depends, finally, on the meat. The patty-style burger, by contrast, is a complicated vertical arrangement of thin layers — bread, meat, sauce, ketchup, tomato, pickle, onion, whatever — which aren’t meant to be experienced separately. Like a hot, greasy tiramisu.

The greatest patty burger I know is the one at Bellaire Broiler Burger in Houston. One bite and I understood, as never before, the grand tradition of which the Big Mac is a crude debasement. Five Guys doesn’t come close to this standard — for me it doesn’t even match the offering at Kopp’s, where the hamburgers are an afterthought to the custard. But it’s a solid effort, satisfying, cheap, and fast, and certainly a much better addition to State Street than the weirdly robotic Za’s and the unspeakably vulgar Love Shack.

Five Guys doesn’t need my endorsement — when I stopped by Thursday night on my way to see Jonathan Richman, the place was packed solid, with twenty people waiting in line to order. (They don’t sell much more than burgers and fries, so the line moves pretty fast.)

The show started at 8:30 — early nights out are one of my favorite things about Madison nightlife, which is pressed up so closely against dinnertime that it might better be called “eveninglife.” Perennial Athens scenester Vic Chesnutt played a short acoustic set of songs with very few notes and very little structure. At first I was doubtful, but he won over the crowd with two songs: “Morally Challenged” by his sometime band brute, a weird string of bluesy couplets separated by Chesnutt pretending to play trumpet with his mouth; and “It’s An Honor To Open The Show For Jonathan.” I really think every opening act should be required to compose and perform a song in praise of the headliner.

Jonathan Richman! Always great. His songs, now, especially the old ones, have turned into backdrops for his particular herky-jerky mode of storytelling — so e.g. we hear about Jonathan’s slow and painful education in the art of the romantic approach, and at every moment in the story at which the teenaged JR must have thought, “This never happened to Pablo Picasso,” we get a piece of the song. There are several such moments.

Has Jonathan Richman been forgotten by America’s youth? I asked four or five members of the math department’s indie rock caucus — all under 30, all very well-educated people who can surely drop the names of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Nick Drake, and other figures of the years shortly before our birth now recognized as Rock Legends — and not only did no one have plans to go, they all, to a person, asked me “Who’s Jonathan Richman?”

In case you are among the unluckies of the Earth who is still asking this question, this magisterial blog post on Flaming Pablum will tell you everything you need to know about Jonathan Richman, his band The Modern Lovers, and in particular, the song “I’m Straight.”

I called this number three times already today
But I, I got scared, I put
It back in place, I put my phone back in place.
I still don’t know if I
should have called up.
Look, just tell me why don’t ya if I’m out of place.
‘Cause here’s your chance to make me feel awkward
And wish that I had
never even called up this place.
I saw you though today walk by with hippie Johnny.
I had to call up and say how I want to take his place.

Which gives only a tiny hint of the greatness that is “I’m Straight.” I can’t find a video of JR performing the song, but here’s the original Modern Lovers track, inexplicably backing a collection of unrelated clips, mostly of snowboarding.

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Magnetic Fields, young and live

The Magnetic Fields used to have a reputation as a really terrible live act, but I can’t remember why — and this 1994 set archived at Captain’s Dead doesn’t provide any clues. Terrific setlist, including the opportunity to hear “100,000 Fireflies” sung by Stephin Merritt instead of Susan Anway, and many of the songs from the first 6ths record sung by Stephin Merritt instead of various other indie rock stars doing impressions of Stephin Merritt. For instance, here’s “San Diego Zoo,” for as long as Captain’s Dead chooses to keep it up:

(hotlink to song removed at the Captain’s request — but seriously, go to his blog and listen to it!)

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Robyn Hitchcock and Daniel Pinkwater

Robyn Hitchcock played the High Noon this weekend. I believe he had on the same shirt, a black flowy number with bright yellow spots, that he was wearing the last time I saw him play. An enjoyable set, but the thing about a guy with a thirty-year-long catalog is that even if you go in with a mental list of ten or twelve songs you’d really like to hear, it’s unlikely you’ll get more than a couple. In my case, I got just one, “Balloon Man,” the closest thing Hitchcock’s ever had to a hit.

I was walking up Sixth Avenue when Balloon Man blew up in my face
There were loads of them on Bryant Park so I didn’t feel out of place
There must have been a plague of them on the TV when I came home late
They were guzzling marshmallows and they’re jumping off the Empire State

I’d never realized how much this song owes to Daniel Pinkwater’s Fat Men From Space, a young-adult novel about an invasion by a plague of rotund aliens intent on consuming the world’s supply of junk food, leaving the Earth a sad yoghurt- and wheat-germy imitation of itself. When I was 15 my ideas about the purpose of literature were founded almost entirely on Pinkwater, especially his strange twin masterpieces Lizard Music and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. Someday I’ll write a long blog post about this, but not today. Today I’ll just key in a quote that made me laugh from the Pinkwater book I’m reading at the moment, Uncle Boris in the Yukon:

Sled dogs look like wolves. They like to pose for pictures standing on some rock, gazing into the distance, looking like Siegfried. What they are thinking at such a moment, when the last rays of the sun are hitting their grizzled and handsome coats, and their intelligent profiles are to be seen at their best, is probably: “Soon I will move my bowels. Yes. That is what I will do.”

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The week in shows: Fiery Furnaces, Bishop Allen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Deerhoof

Some recent shows:

  • The Fiery Furnaces at the Annex: The songs sound very different live, without the orchestra breaks and sound effects that dominate one’s experience listening to them on record. You hear more how they rely on a bass line, and on Eleanor Friedberger’s ability to spit out the same line five or six times in a row and not really sound like she’s repeating herself. They rock more. On the other hand, it’s more visible that the same tricks pop up in song after song. Eleanor F.’s between-song banter comes out throaty and British Invasion (“This one is called My Egyptian Grammuh”) which must be an affectation, right? No “Tropical Ice-land”. But a worthwhile show. Also reviewed by Muzzle of Bees.
  • Bishop Allen on the Union Terrace. Harvard College, for a place with thousands of 20-year-olds distinguished by all-consuming ambition, extra money, and large vocabularies, produces surprisingly few rock bands. About half of the Magnetic Fields went to Harvard, but to the extent the band has a location it’s been in New York for some time. (“Why do we still live here in this repulsive town? All our friends are in New York!” is surely about getting out of Somerville.) There were the Push Kings, medium popular in the Boston indie pop world in the late 90s. And of course Fat Day, the dukes of Cambridge strangecore. Now there is Bishop Allen, a likeable group of class-of-’99ers who used to live in Central Square and have now moved to Brooklyn. They play a kind of strummy rock that is indie only inasmuch as they are not famous or rich — in some sense they are what Counting Crows would sound like if Counting Crows were smart and good instead of dumb and bad.
  • Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! at the Annex. That rarity, a sold-out show in Madison. I kept being told that Alec Ounsworth was the new David Byrne so I was confused by how much he looked like the young Robyn Hitchcock. The band didn’t go on until 11:15 so I ended up spending a lot of time listening to the guy in front of me tell anyone who’d listen how he got fired from Potbelly’s for smoking a cigarette on his break and what bull**** it all was. The show was kind of uplifting but not enough to get me to stay for the whole thing.
  • Deerhoof on the Union Terrace. The great thing about shows on the Terrace is that you can buy ice cream. All places that book rock shows should sell ice cream. Deerhoof reminded me of Yes, in that I kept momentarily hearing something that sounded like a ’70s AOR guitar riff but which was actually part of an art project. I like when Yes does it, and I liked when Deerhoof did it too.

Here’s the Fiery Furnaces’ video for “Tropical Ice-land”:

and the cover of Fat Day’s Live Poultry Fresh Killed:

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Local to global blogroll

Two new blogs for the sidebar:

  • Muzzle of Bees is an indispensable source of music recommendations, interviews with bands, and upcoming concert announcements, focusing on Madison and Milwaukee. The constantly updated list of upcoming shows is especially useful. For instance, I just noticed that Robyn Hitchcock is coming on November 3!
  • Letter from a broad… is the blog of C.L.Hanson, a “friendly American atheist ex-Mormon mom living in France.” Read her takes on city life in France, feminism, atheism, the LDS, and of course her cute kids! She also wrote a novel, which she’s serializing on the blog.

Show report: Andrew Bird at the WUT; ancient civilizations

I, like Em, went to see Andrew Bird last week. I appreciated all the pizzicato shredding and freaky whistling, but found I liked the more traditional songs best — “Fiery Crash,” “Plasticities,” and “Tables and Chairs,” this last a kind of homage to “Don’t Worry About the Government.” Which is good: we are well supplied with homages to the yelpy mid-period Talking Heads and need more homages to talky early-period Talking Heads.

Andrew Bird, though he might be too young to know it, has the exact same stage shtick as the great Steven Wright: a kind of mumbly I’m-saying-something-really-weird-and-pretending-not-to-know-it deadpan. Did not work for me in the rock context.

He played a song called “Scythian Empires,” which made me wonder why it’s so popular to write songs about ancient civilizations. Off the top of my head:

  • “Scythian Empires”
  • They Might Be Giants, “The Mesopotamians”
  • Mountain Goats, “The Anglo-Saxons”

The last of these wins by the virtue of the couplet

They used to paint their bodies blue

Some of them might be distantly related to you!

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The future belongs to the Bangles

I was wondering whether I’d be the youngest person at the Bangles show at the Orpheum Friday night, but it wasn’t so; there were plenty of other people my age. And you know who else goes to see the Bangles? Ten-year-old girls and their moms! Is it because the moms liked the Bangles when they were ten and want to introduce their daughters to the band? Or is there a Bangles song famous enough that current ten-year-old girls know about it? I think the former: my rule of thumb for figuring out what these kids today listen to is to look at playcounts on last.fm, and the Bangles have just 585,000, a bit ahead of Frankie Goes to Hollywood but well behind the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and a-ha.

The Bangles lead off the set with three songs they didn’t write: “Hazy Shade of Winter” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Tear Off Your Own Head” (Elvis Costello), and “Manic Monday” (Prince). The Bangles are masterly interpreters of others’ songs; I think this is an underrated rock virtue. Their recording of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” for example, makes the original sound like a cruddy demo. Friday night’s version was a little too easygoing, but as the night went on the Bangles powered up and played their hits as rock numbers, guitar solos and all. They seemed to be having a good time, and so was I.

The band closed the set with “Walk Like an Egyptian,” another song they didn’t write, but which is impossible to imagine performed by anyone else. (The songwriter, Liam Sternberg, offered it to Toni Basil first! What a revolting alternate history that suggests.) Is this song the best #1 of the ’80s? I think only “Let’s Go Crazy” gives it serious competition.

Things that are great about “Walk Like an Egyptian”:

  • Songs that sit on one chord for almost the whole verse are typically great — e.g. “Spirit in the Sky” (played on the soundsystem before the concert) and “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
  • The way the Bangles trade off the lead vocal on the song; so that when you hear their famous harmony at last (“Way oh way oh, way oh way oh”) you’ve still got the individual pieces fresh in your mind.
  • The part where they whistle (sadly, replaced in concert by a weird mini-cover of “Mrs. Robinson.”)
  • And the lyrics of this song are great, great, great. They convey like nothing else the sense (kind of new at the time, at least to my teenaged self) that from now on we were going to see people all over the world acting in the same strange ways at exactly the same time. “The future belongs to crowds.” If you happen to be writing a book about 1980s culture, happiness, and consumerism, you should probably call it All the Kids in the Marketplace.

For the encore, the Bangles go garage and play a Seeds cover, “Pushin’ Too Hard” (which I learn from my diligent research was always a Bangles live staple) then close with the obligatory “Eternal Flame,” in which they relax and let the audience do most of the singing.

Here’s a 1986 profile of the Bangles to give some sense of how people saw them when they were big.

Here’s what the Bangles sounded and looked like 25 years ago, opening for the English Beat:

And just for fun, here’s a strange video of the Seeds themselves performing “Pushin’ Too Hard” on a sitcom sometime in the late ’60s. Great dancing.

Reader survey: what was your first concert?

Mine was Yes, on the Big Generator tour. Apparently this was December 13, 1987 at the Capitol Center. I went with Steve. As we speak I am listening to “Yours is No Disgrace” in celebration.

What was the first concert you went to?

(To give you some idea of the spectacle Steve and I witnessed, here’s Yes performing “Yours is No Disgrace” in 1985:)

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