Monday, April 25, 2011

The Rural Alberta Advantage at the Beachland Ballroom

Canadian indie rockers The Rural Alberta Advantage rolled into Cleveland on Easter Sunday for the last stop of their U.S. tour in support of their new (and highly recommended) album Departing. They played a great show to a very appreciative audience in the Beachland Ballroom (a step up in venues from their last Cleveland show in the Beachland's smaller room, the Tavern - it's good to see the band's audience expanding). Before I expound on last night's concert, though, I'd like to talk about an experience the previous night.

On April 23rd I went to Columbus to see The Decemberists play at the Lifestyle Communities Pavilion. It was, quite frankly, a disappointing experience. The LC's indoor venue holds 2200 people, and it was sold out. It turned out that it really wasn't my kind of atmosphere for seeing a concert. I can't fault the Decemberists for getting so popular - I certainly think they deserve it - but I can definitely fault all the people at the show who were more interested in getting drunk and talking to their bros than in watching and listening to the band perform. It came close to ruining the show for me. By the end of the night, it was, overall, an enjoyable experience. Especially "The Mariner's Revenge Song," which is just an amazing thing to witness live. Then, at least, being in a crowd of two thousand people all screaming as if we were being devoured by a giant whale added to the experience rather than detracting from it. When the band opened by playing The Tain in its entirety(!!!) and people all around were talking the whole time, on the other hand...

Colin Meloy definitely noticed it, as he made a comment at one point in the concert about how the people toward the back didn't seem to be paying attention. It makes me wonder whether bands might sometimes prefer to play for somewhat smaller crowds who are all paying them rapt attention. It's hard to imagine an artist wishing that less people would listen to their music, but there are tradeoffs to popularity, I suppose - both for artists and for their fans.

Moving forward one night to the show at the Beachland, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. The crowd was at best one-tenth the size of that at the LC, but everyone who was there was there to see music performed.

I very much enjoyed opening act Lord Huron. I had never listened to any of their music before, but after the show I ended up buying both of their EPs. They play a breezy brand of indie folk-rock. At times in the show I was reminded of a folkier Local Natives. I've also seen "a tropical Fleet Foxes" used as a descriptor, which I could see. I've since learned that the EPs were a solo project of the lead singer, and he has now put together a band to play shows and write new music. Lord Huron could work on their consistency, as I found some of their songs to be just decent. Several of the songs they played, on the other hand, were just outstanding, including "The Stranger." I'm pretty sure some of the songs I most enjoyed are as yet unreleased. They really had some killer harmonies, so I'll definitely look forward to the full band's recorded output. This is a band to watch.

The RAA took the stage next, and performed a roughly one-hour-twenty-minute set that covered the large majority of their two album catalog. I recently reviewed their new album, so I would find it redundant to describe their music in great detail, but suffice it to say that they are even better live than on their albums. Each of the three members of the band brings a tremendous passion and enthusiasm to their performances. Nils Edenloff really packs the emotions into his nasal, at times heart-wrenching vocals. Amy Cole's synth parts and pretty backing vocals provide a vital complement, and Paul Banwatt's drumming is just a marvel to behold in person. Here's their setlist (I managed to snag Amy's after the show):

Muscle Relaxants
Don't Haunt This Place
Under the Knife
Rush Apart
Tornado '87
Ballad of the RAA
Two Lovers
The Breakup
Eye of the Tiger (Nils solo)
Four Night Rider
Frank, AB
In The Summertime
Drain the Blood
The Deadroads

North Star
Barnes' Yard
Sleep All Day
The Dethbridge in Lethbridge
Good Night

Some of the highlights to me included "Frank, AB" and "Stamp," but really, the whole set was great. When Nils introduced "Dethbridge" as the last song, I was thinking, "No! Play 'Good Night' too!" ("Good Night" was not on the written setlist.) So when Nils led the band off of the stage and down onto the floor among the crowd as "Dethbridge" came to its close, I was both thrilled and relieved. The band closed, as they had the previous time I saw them, by playing "Good Night" unplugged standing in the middle of the audience. It's really a special thing to experience. I couldn't help but think about how this would never work with the crowd at the previous night's show.

Nils said on stage that this was the last night of their tour, and they couldn't think of a better way to end it. He was obviously very sincere in his gratitude for the great audience response, and it was a really cool thing to see. All three band members were eager to chat with the crowd by the merch table after the show. I absolutely love this poster, which they were happy to autograph:

It was just a fantastic night, and I'm really appreciative of both a great band, and the great venue I got to see them in.

On a related note, the same night that The Decemberists played Columbus, another band I really like, The New Pornographers, played in Cleveland at the House of Blues. I saw them play the Beachland (with Okkervil River opening, truly an amazing show) a few years ago. As reported in Cleveland Scene, during the show Neko Case said, "I like the Beachland about 8000 times fucking more" than the House of Blues. As if I needed any more reason to like Neko Case!

But I guess this goes back to the idea of tradeoffs that I mentioned earlier. For me as a fan, I kind of feel like the RAA are at a near ideal level of popularity - they tour regularly, and I can see them with a good-sized but not overwhelming crowd in an intimate venue for pretty cheap. And of course, they clearly very much enjoy playing such shows as well. But if they grew to a Decemberists level of popularity, they would undoubtedly be able to be more comfortable making a living from music. I wonder what the musicians' feelings on these matters are?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jeff and Cara's Day Off

About two weeks ago, on March 26, we made the drive to Chicago to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor play at the Metro. This was something I never thought I'd get to do, until Godspeed announced these shows last fall. I got into the band some time after they went on hiatus, I love their music, and I'd heard about their legendary live shows. When they came back from hiatus to go on tour, I knew this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had to go. Fortunately, one of the Chicago dates fell on a Saturday, making it a convenient opportunity for a weekend away.

Unlike Cara, I had been to Chicago several times before. I have a lot of memories there. My most recent visit had been for the 2009 Neuroscience conference, when I fell in love with the food in Chinatown. Further back, I had been there for three cross country meets and one indoor track meet.

For the first of the three cross country meets, the men's team actually raced at Notre Dame on Friday, and we then went on to Chicago, where the women's team raced on Saturday. The next two years, both squads raced in Chicago. Also notable is that the indoor track meet, the conference championships, was the last time I competed for my school. I knew going into that race that I was outclassed by the competition, and I intentionally went out at a faster pace than I thought I could handle in the hopes that I was actually in better shape than I knew. Not surprisingly, this wasn't the case, and I came in last (although not by an embarrassing margin), but it was a good effort. The next day's 12-miler along the lakefront was probably one of my favorite runs ever.

I've had a lot of good runs in Chicago, actually, including my fastest 8 kilometer cross country race ever my senior year. So yeah, lots of memories...

I actually really enjoy going to a place like Chicago with Cara and getting to show her things I've seen before but that she's never experienced. Chicago is an awesome city. Our first experience there on this visit, though, was being stuck in horrendous traffic. This was at about 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, and I shudder to think about what it's like during rush hour on weekdays. I could never put myself through that every day.

We made it to our hotel without too much trouble, though, and after unwinding for a bit we headed out to get some of the famous Chicago-style pizza at Giordano's. A big part of visiting any city for us is experiencing the local food, and Chicago is definitely quite a place in that regard! We both agreed the pizza was fantastic.

Next on the agenda was the main attraction on the trip. Cara and I have enjoyed traveling to other cities to see concerts in the past, and it's always been a great experience. It had been quite a while since we had made such a trip, though, since October of 2008, so in a way this was like old times. And as usual when we travel to a concert, this concert was a very memorable one.

We arrived at the Metro to find it, not surprisingly, already very crowded. Fortunately, we were able to make our way to a spot in the balcony with a decent view of the stage. Opener Eric Chenaux was already playing. Neither of us found his music particularly interesting (an opinion we felt was not uncommon in the audience), so we were glad that he didn't play for too long. Then, the waiting...

Godspeed began their set with a long drone number. One by one, the members of the band came on stage, each adding their own touches to the "Hope Drone." Once they were all set, they moved into the next number, the first two movements of "Storm" from the album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. It was so beautiful, I was almost moved to tears.

I love music. Sometimes, on rare occasions, a really great concert can be like a spiritual experience. This was one of those times.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor play powerful instrumental music that I'd describe as an appropriate soundtrack for the end of the world. Some of their compositions could fittingly play as one ascended to heaven. Some would be more appropriate accompaniments for visions of fire and brimstone. And much of their music could track a more mundane conceptualization of the world's demise - decaying cities and landscapes ravaged by industrialization and over-consumption.

To my amazement, the band played for two and a half hours without a break. It was, no question, one of the best concerts I've ever been to. They closed by playing the Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada EP in its entirety, with extended versions of both "Moya" and "Blaise Bailey Finnegan III." Wow. Seriously, it was just spectacular. As the concertgoers slowly filed out of the venue afterwards, there was a palpable sense that we had all just experienced something utterly staggering.

Also, something extremely loud. Godspeed are known for loud shows, and I warned Cara repeatedly to bring earplugs. We both were very thankful we had them; we also noticed that many attendees did not. This, to me, seems like the height of stupidity. The folly of youth, I suppose.

Cara had not listened to GY!BE much before, but was just as blown away by the show as I was. (Incidentally, I'm listening to a bootleg as I write this; I'm always grateful when there are recordings available of memorable shows I've been to. It's nice to relive the experience.) So, for the concert alone, the trip was well worth taking. Luckily, the fun was not over yet, as we had some time to be tourists the next day.

We started with a trip to Montrose Harbor. This is a place which I remember well - it's the site of the aforementioned cross country meet. Going to a place that you've visited before and remember well but haven't seen in years is an interesting experience. Memories rush back at you. In a way, I'm a different person now than I was then, yet there's obviously a very strong connection with my past self.

Even had I never been there before, Montrose Harbor would be well worth visiting for the views of the city alone.

We also took a walk out along the beach there. It was a chilly, windy day, but quite gorgeous.

Next, we went downtown to Millennium Park. It's a really cool place, and the sunny day made for fantastic sightseeing.

Cara got a neat picture there.

More pictures!

We finished up our time in Chicago with a visit to Chinatown, where we ate at Joy Yee Noodles. I'd been there on the Neuroscience trip, and loved it, so I wanted to share the experience with Cara. They have my favorite bubble tea in the world - I go for the coconut. Our food was also wonderful.

This will certainly not be the last time we see Chicago. If we're really lucky, maybe it also won't be the last time we see Godspeed You! Black Emperor.