Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hey Rosetta! at the Beachland Tavern

I seem to be on a lucky streak with concerts recently; the last five or six I've seen have all been very, very good. Canadian indie rock band Hey Rosetta! continued the trend with an energetic set for a fairly small yet enthusiastic crowd at the Beachland Tavern on June 29.

Hailing from Newfoundland, Hey Rosetta! (do I have to include the exclamation mark every time I mention them by name? I'm going to say not) are another up-and-coming band making some great music in the Great White North. A six-person rock band including a violin and cello, their sound is hard to pigeonhole; at times it's rather poppy, there are occasional folk elements, and at other times the heavier and/or more intricate guitar parts sound like something out of the post-rock genre. The vocals are also not what you'd expect from a Canadian indie band. I'd actually say frontman Tim Baker's voice sounds like it would be at home fronting a grunge band, which might sound odd, but it works with the music (and I'm a big fan of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, so I certainly have nothing against grunge vocals).

Overall, as a Canadian indie band making big, anthemic rock songs with prominent string parts, the most obvious comparison is probably Arcade Fire. And while Hey Rosetta are by no means Arcade Fire clones (nor do they rise to the same heights of musical genius, but then, few bands do), I would say it's a useful comparison in that, if you like Arcade Fire, Hey Rosetta are well worth checking out.

This was my first time seeing the band play live. I've greatly enjoyed their 2008 album Into Your Lungs (And Around in Your Heart and on Through Your Blood), as well as this year's Seeds, so I was expecting a good show, but Hey Rosetta blew past my expectations. Seeing them live I got a whole new appreciation for how much goes into each of their songs. Each member of the band contributed excellent musicianship and all the various instruments played off each other beautifully. I was impressed to hear that the bass player was playing only his second show with the band, as the normal bass player is busy getting married. Some of the bass parts are not simple, which is one aspect of Hey Rosetta's music I enjoy a lot, and the fill-in bassist did quite well.

The band's set had about an even share of music from their two most recent albums, along with a couple songs from the earlier release Plan Your Escape. Many of their songs, especially on Into Your Lungs, are characterized by relatively quiet sections followed by dramatic buildups. I've thought at times when listening to Into Your Lungs that they employ this device enough that it risks becoming overly formulaic, but it's not a major complaint, because it's a formula Hey Rosetta use very well. In a live setting, these dynamic shifts definitely added excitement to the performance, with the band executing everything nearly to perfection.

"Red Heart," a catchy number with stirring strings from Into Your Lungs, is my favorite Hey Rosetta song. I was highly anticipating seeing it performed live, but when it did appear in the set, I was taken totally by surprise. The band was playing a down-tempo song with a great, moody guitar part that I did not recognize - then the vocals came in, and it clicked. They totally reworked the beginning of "Red Heart" in a really cool way, and this then transitioned into the familiar, upbeat album version, with Baker belting out lyrics like "Won't you let your red heart show? Don't you let your red heart grow cold-"

"Red Heart" was, for me, the highlight of the evening, but many other songs were not far behind. The whole encore was another high point. After a brief break, the band returned to the stage (which amusingly included the drummer and cellist emerging from the men's room shortly after the rest of the band returned from backstage) and played the closing track from Seeds, "Bandages." It's a very nice song with a toy xylophone adding a whimsical touch. At this point, having taken in more than an hour of music, I certainly would have felt I'd gotten my eight bucks worth, but was thrilled when the band continued on. The final track on Into Your Lungs is a beautiful piano ballad entitled "Psalm." It's immediately preceded by the soaring "A Thousand Suns," but in concert, the band reversed the order, playing "Psalm" and going straight into "A Thousands Suns" to close the show. It was a smart decision; "Psalm" is a better album closer but "A Thousand Suns" was the perfect song to dramatically close out the live performance. It could easily be imagined that the line "We want to thank you so much" was directed from the band to the appreciative audience. And I'm sure that everyone in the crowd would have gladly returned the sentiment.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Concert reviews - Afternoon Naps, Andrew Bird

Last week Cara and I got to attend a couple of fun concerts, one a small show here in Cleveland and the second a much bigger show up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On Tuesday night we had our first date night as a married couple. It started with dinner at Michael Symon's Lolita restaurant, which was outstanding. We will undoubtedly be back. Later that night we headed up to the Grog Shop to catch our favorite local band, the Afternoon Naps.

Now, I've seen the Afternoon Naps more times than any other band; it's approaching double digits. I never tire of their delectable twee pop tunes, but after getting essentially the same set the last three times I had seen them, I was looking for some more variety. And we definitely got it! The Naps opened with a familiar song, "Orange Paw," a cute tune about a stray cat, but then devoted most of the rest of their half-hour set to a bunch of new music. I had previously been told by the band's guitarist/vocalist Tom Dechristofaro that they are working on a new album, so I was hoping to hear some new stuff, and I was thrilled by what I heard. The band is continuing to expand their sound in interesting new directions without straying too far from the charming indie pop mold. As this was the only time I've heard any of the new songs they played, I can't give very detailed descriptions, but I did note that a couple of the songs on which Leia Hohenfeld took lead vocals reminded me a bit of Camera Obscura - which is certainly not a bad thing. All in all, it was a very enjoyable set, and I'm very much looking forward to their new album, which I've heard may come out either this fall or early next year (I'm hoping it will be the former!)

One comment I will make about the Naps' set - more people should dance to their music! Cara and I were dancing to most of the (very danceable, I might add) songs, but few others there were. I know people want to look cool or whatever, but I suspect if they let themselves go a little they'd find it makes the show more fun. Not that it's a major gripe or anything, and not that everyone needs to dance, but I like to see people enjoying themselves, and I know the band members do too.

The Naps were supposed to be opening for the Cave Singers, a band I saw once a few years ago, but the Cave Singers had to cancel due to a band member being hospitalized that night with an illness. Their website reports that he is getting better, thankfully.

And now on to the second show of the week. After seeing my favorite artist, Okkervil River, the night before our wedding, we got to see Cara's favorite artist one week later. That would be one Andrew Bird, the incredibly talented singer/songwriter/violinist/whistler who has really made a name for himself in the world of indie music over the last decade. We saw him at the Power Center at the University of Michigan, and with seats at the center of the balcony, we were in a perfect position to experience a great evening of music. The venue was a far cry from the first time I saw Bird perform, at a very crowded Spot at Case Western Reserve University, standing in a small, packed room. Coincidentally, one of our Ann Arbor friends who we went to the show with was also with me at that Spot show some four or five years ago.

In another coincidence, the most recent previous time Cara and I had seen Andrew Bird play, we were seated right next to Leia from the Afternoon Naps, who we did not yet know at the time but who I recognized from having seen the band play.

And in yet another coincidence, Haley Bonar, the opener on Saturday night, was another artist I had previously seen play at the Spot. I'm sure I enjoyed that previous show, but it didn't leave that big an impression on me. Her performance this time, though, was quite impressive. I wasn't familiar with any of her music, but she and her band had my rapt attention through their whole set. Haley's strong, twangy vocals and the complex, atmospheric guitar parts in her songs are a surprising combination, and one that worked very well for me. I will definitely be checking out her albums.

Andrew Bird took the stage next, and was fantastic as always. If you've never seen him perform live, it's quite a thing to behold, as he loops multiple violin and guitar parts (all done live) to build up intricate, beautiful songs. Add to the instrumentation his quirky vocals and amazing whistling, and it's clear there are few musicians out there as talented as he is. Bird played most of this show solo; this was the first time Cara had seen him perform without a backing band, and she was thrilled with the experience. He did bring a guitarist from Haley Bonar's band (who he had worked with before) out for a few songs, and Haley also joined in with vocals on a couple of songs, which were among the highlights of the set. Another clear highlight was the song "Why," which is always such a treat live. I did not know this before, but Bird explained that the song was inspired by a college roommate, which I found quite interesting - I'd always assumed it was about a romantic relationship.

As with the Afternoon Naps show, Bird devoted a large portion of his set to new music. In this case, I might have preferred to hear a couple more familiar songs, because I don't get to see Andrew Bird nearly as often as the Naps, but I definitely enjoyed the new stuff as well. There were a couple new songs in particular that I really loved. Again, I can't give really detailed descriptions, but there seems to be a renewed focus on the violin in much of Bird's new music. I also enjoyed the lyrics of a song that used a film projector in a metaphor about the questionable reliability of human memory, a topic I find very interesting. Both Haley Bonar's and Andrew Bird's sets made this a truly excellent concert, and Bird's next album will most definitely be another must-have!

Monday, June 20, 2011

A busy wedding weekend

I feel like I'm finally starting to recover from last weekend (yes, more than a week later), and I thought it would be nice, for posterity's sake, to do some writing about it.

The wedding was certainly the biggest highlight of the weekend (I'm obviously biased, but I do feel comfortable saying it was the best wedding I've been to). But in addition to the wedding, lots of other fun stuff happened too! On Friday, Cara and I headed down to Columbus, and stopped at Grandpa's Cheesebarn on the way. It's a really cool place with an incredible assortment of cheeses and other delicious foodstuffs. I'd recommend stopping there at least once to anyone who has to regularly make the drive between Columbus and Cleveland. I discovered a new favorite of mine on this particular trip - wasabi peanuts! While there, we picked up some goodies for the groomsmen in the wedding.

On Friday night, Cara and I went out to eat at the Red Door Tavern, a restaurant I often went to as a kid. Cara and I had been there together once before, and we both love their Italian subs. It was a nice bit of nostalgia.

The excitement ramped up on Saturday, as we had our rehearsal dinner at my aunt's house with catering by Junior's Tacos. Yep, we had a taco truck at our rehearsal dinner. Unfortunately, there were some difficulties, as the truck got lost en route (Cara and I arrived late to the dinner after struggling to get my family's printer to print vows on a 5 x 7 card, but this turned out not to be a problem as the food was more late than we were). Then, minutes into our departure from the rehearsal, we saw that the taco truck was broken down on the side of the road. I hope whatever happened to them wasn't too bad, as they did a fantastic job of catering, and brought a fun atmosphere to the dinner. I would highly recommend Junior's.

After the dinner was my second most anticipated event of the weekend - Okkervil River's concert at the Newport. The band did not disappoint, putting on another amazing show. Cara and I met our friends from Windsor there, who, to our great gratitude, saved spots for us so we had a nice view of the stage. Will Sheff and company went through a great setlist full of not only new songs but also a surprisingly large number of tracks from their 2005 classic Black Sheep Boy. "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" was just as stunning as the first time I saw it performed on that fateful night in October 2006. Other highlights of the show included "For Real," "Westfall," "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe," and the absolutely gorgeous "The Rise" from their new album I Am Very Far. After dropping off Cara at her aunt's and visiting for a bit, I got home at around 1:30, and managed to get more sleep than I might have predicted.

On Sunday morning the weekend of great food continued as I went with some friends to Northstar Cafe. I had a delicious breakfast sandwich with bacon, egg and cheese on a biscuit, accompanied by fresh squeezed orange juice that was the best OJ I've ever had. And soon, it was on to the main event.

The wedding was pretty much perfect. As I said, I'm obviously biased, but I do think we did a lot of things that made our wedding stand out. Probably the biggest one was writing our own vows. We got so many comments about how beautiful that made the ceremony, and it really did; it was the highlight of the whole event in both our opinions. So if anyone is getting married and wants their ceremony to be special, writing your own vows is definitely something to consider. It might not be easy, but I think if you are really ready to marry each other, it's something you should be able to do. What made it even more special was that we did not know each other's vows ahead of time (and yet, as Cara smartly predicted, our vows were rather similar to each other's in many ways). I know we were both very nervous, but it turned out so well! The outdoor setting for the ceremony was also perfect, and we got really lucky with weather that couldn't have been better.

I also feel confident in saying we did a nice job selecting music for the wedding. The Star Wars "Throne Room" music for the groom/groomsmen processional was a big hit, and the Andrew Bird violin pieces for the bridal attendants' and bride's processionals were lovely. For the recessional, we played the beginning part of "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens. Whether or not this made it a "hipster wedding," I have to say, I thought it was absolutely perfect recessional music. Really, I couldn't imagine any other song going better with the moment, as we walked back down the grassy, tree-shaded aisle getting showered with confetti. We also had some fun music for the reception; everyone loved Weird Al's "Eat It" as the cake-cutting song.

Speaking of cake, this was another point in our wedding's favor. We went with Short North Piece of Cake, and it was amazing. We had two types of cake for the different layers. One was a white cake with raspberry and lemon curd fillings, and the other was a vanilla bean cake with almond cream filling. Both were so good that there's no way I could pick a favorite.

I don't want to get excessively mushy, but I shouldn't leave out that the best part of the wedding was marrying an amazing woman who is also my best friend!

Sorry for bragging about our wedding so much (well, not really), but we were just so happy with how everything turned out. It was such a fun time.

After the wedding, Cara and I went, in our wedding attire, to Jeni's in Grandview. Needless to say, this was very fun, and we were certainly the center of attention. We suspected that we might get free ice cream, and we were right!

I should also mention that that night I did catch the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, with the Mavericks taking down the Heat, much to the delight of all Clevelanders. I can honestly say that, before Game 5, I was legitimately a little bit worried that Miami would take the next two games and cause our wedding day to be the same day LeBron won his first title, which, if he had done this in his very first year after leaving the Cavs, would have been another ridiculous gut punch for Cleveland sports fans. I'm glad that the opposite happened!

The day after the wedding, Cara and I met our friends from Windsor again, for breakfast at Northstar (actually, this was after our first choice was closed for unknown reasons). It was very good, and as there was a Jeni's right next door, we decided to go again. One can never have too much Jeni's, especially on wedding weekend!

On the way back to Cleveland, we stopped at Grandpa's Cheesebarn once more. I thought this was a nice bit of symmetry. And then we arrived home, very tired, but also very happy. It was a good weekend.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Let's go see Okkervil River... and get married!

This Saturday, Cara and I will be seeing Okkervil River in Columbus at the Newport Music Hall. They're my favorite band, and I haven't seen them live in more than two and a half years, so I'm definitely looking forward to it. It's not the most exciting thing happening this weekend, though. There's also the little matter of us getting married in Columbus on Sunday.

Going to a rock concert the night before your own wedding might be a little strange by most people's standards, but it would be very hard to convince me to pass up an opportunity to see Okkervil River. There's more, though - in fact, us seeing Okkervil River in Columbus the night before our wedding is wonderfully appropriate! When I saw Okkervil's tour dates and realized what was going on, I actually laughed out loud in amazement and excitement. To understand why requires that we take a journey back to 2006.

I got into Okkervil River at the beginning of that year with Black Sheep Boy, a fantastic album. Not long after, in March, was the first time I met Cara in person after having previously known her from the online word game Psychobabble. We became fast friends. Since I lived in Cleveland and she lived in Columbus, we didn't see each other very often, but talked a lot online and also hung out a few times when I was in Columbus visiting my family. In October, Okkervil River played a show at Little Brother's in Columbus. I was becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the band, and decided I had to make the drive down for the show. I asked Cara if she'd be interested in going with me (we had, in fact, two months earlier, made a trip together all the way to Washington, D.C. to see the band Ozma play a concert) and she said she was. At the time, we were still "just friends," but our friendship had become very strong.

I have some vivid memories of that day. I was feeling very stressed out at the time due to a heavy workload in preparation for the Society for Neuroscience conference for which I traveled to Atlanta a few days after the concert. When Cara got to the concert, I just remember being so happy to see her. Little Brother's was a concert venue I had never been to before, and unfortunately never would again, as it has since closed. I remember it as kind of a long, narrow room that opened up some closer to the elevated stage. Not far from the entrance was the merch table. I recall looking at the shirts, and that Cara asked me if I was going to buy one. I said that I would decide after the concert based on whether the show was good enough to warrant putting down the cash. Spoiler: it certainly was.

Elvis Perkins opened for Okkervil River, and played a very nice set of very sad music which we both enjoyed a lot. Okkervil River came next. I had never seen them before, so I had little idea what I was in for. It turned out to be easily one of the best concerts I've seen in my life. Will Sheff, the band's lead singer, was sick at the time. Because of this, he had to drink a lot of water, and I remember at one point he made a comment about being in the "hydration club." The hydration club would become an inside joke for Cara and me. Despite not feeling well, Sheff put on an amazingly passionate performance, and the rest of the band was right there with him. A definite highlight for me was "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," one of my favorite songs. It's the only time I've seen it performed, and it was stunning. I also remember some of Elvis Perkins' band joining Okkervil River for "So Come Back, I Am Waiting," which was riveting. "The President's Dead" had not been released yet and this concert was the first time I heard it; it was love at first listen. And "Westfall" was, of course, great as always. The whole set just had an incredible energy to it.

Being with Cara, who I by then considered my best friend, made the experience even better. She has since told me that she felt the urge to rest her head on my shoulder during the concert. She didn't, but I might not have minded.

After the show ended, I did buy a shirt. Cara and I then spent a long time just sitting in her car (it was quite cold outside) and talking before we had to head our separate ways. I'm sure we both sensed there was a real connection there. The next time we saw each other in person was a little less than a month later, when she visited me in Cleveland for the first time. That was when we officially started dating. And now, what do you know, we are about to get married!

We've seen Okkervil River a few other times, but it's been a while - too long, by my reckoning. We traveled to Hamilton to see them on Cara's birthday in September 2007, saw them in Columbus in the spring of 2008 at the same venue as this Saturday's show, and then went to Buffalo for a show in October 2008. (This last one was not long after Cara moved to Cleveland.) Each time is a great memory.

And you know how certain pieces of music are strongly tied to certain times or places from your life? One such association that I have is Okkervil River's album Down the River of Golden Dreams with driving down to Columbus to see Cara. Our relationship started as a long-distance one, so I made the trip fairly often. I always listened to CDs in the car, and at the time, that was the album I was listening to more than any other. I now consider it my favorite album of all time. I'd guess that's not entirely coincidental.

So, yeah, seeing Okkervil River on Saturday and getting married on Sunday. Sometimes, things just work out perfectly.