Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ohbijou's Farewell Show

Farewell concerts tend to be memorable occasions. Five years ago Cara and I went to Hamilton, Ontario, to see the final show by A Northern Chorus, and I still consider it the best concert I've ever attended (review here). On Saturday I again made a trip up north, this time to Toronto, to see Ohbijou's farewell concert. Over the past few years, Ohbijou became one of my favorite bands, despite my never having gotten the chance to see them perform live. When they announced they were going on "indefinite hiatus" and playing a single farewell concert on September 7 at Toronto's Great Hall, I knew that I had to go. As I anticipated, it was well worth the trip (a trip in which a period of about five hours spent at the concert venue was sandwiched between two five hour drives!)

I've felt for a while that Canada has a really disproportionate amount of great music coming out of it when you consider that the country has only about one-tenth the U.S.'s population. Many Canadian indie bands (Arcade Fire the most notable example) have gained great popularity here in the States, but at the same time, there's a whole scene of really exciting indie music in Canada that I feel most American indie fans are fairly oblivious toward. I've become familiar with more and more of this music over the past several years, largely through exploring similar artist connections on the website The band that kicked this all off for me was Woodpigeon, but Ohbijou was another key in the discovery process. Other favorites of mine include Forest City Lovers, Evening Hymns, and Bruce Peninsula. What I didn't realize until fairly recently was that many of these bands were and are members of a Toronto music scene with Ohbijou at its center. Ohbijou's frontwoman Casey Mecija lived in a house on Bellwoods Avenue in Toronto where many local musicians would often gather, and this led to the creation of two "Friends in Bellwoods" compilation albums featuring songs by Ohbijou's many friends and collaborators, with proceeds benefiting a local food bank. I recently picked up the second of the two albums, and it's really a fantastic collection; I still need to check out the first album. With Casey Mecija and her band serving as the core of such an exciting community, it was only fitting that the members of Ohbijou were joined at their final concert by probably two dozen plus other musicians, who were both members of the audience and, at times, performers in the show.

The format of the farewell concert was unique. There was no opening band; rather, Ohbijou took the stage first, at 9:30, and played (sublimely, I might add) for about an hour, after which the concert was far from over. In the second portion of the night's proceedings, a number of Ohbijou's friends (mostly groups of two, with occasional solo or trio performances) took turns taking the stage to play Ohbijou covers. Between each song, there was a lot of talking about how the people on stage had come to know Ohbijou, and what Ohbijou meant to them. Admittedly, this section of the concert did drag at points, and I sensed that I was not alone among the audience in feeling this way. Some of the covers were better than others. But looking up toward the balcony and seeing the reactions of Casey and her bandmates made it all worthwhile. One of my favorite performances of this section came from Evening Hymns. Jonas Bonnetta, the lead singer and creative force behind the band, spoke of how his music career had essentially been kickstarted by Ohbijou asking him to open for them at several concerts in a row, and how if it weren't for Ohbijou, he wouldn't be a professional musician. Considering the two stunningly gorgeous albums Jonas has released as Evening Hymns, this is another reason to be very grateful toward Ohbijou! The best cover, I thought, was saved for last, a mesmerizing rendition of "Echo Bay" by Daniela and Dan of Snowblink.

After this interlude, Ohbijou took the stage again to play a second set, which lasted all the way until 1:30 in the morning. Between the two Ohbijou sets, they played a majority of the songs from their three studio albums, and there were memorable moments and marvelous musicianship throughout the night. As I mentioned, I'd never seen Ohbijou live before, so I couldn't help but be struck by what a small woman lead vocalist and guitarist Casey Mecija is - and what power she brings to her performances in spite of it. Her vocals are often sweet and angelic sounding, but when she wants to, she can really pack a punch. Her sister, violinist Jenny Mecija, added some wonderful backing vocals. Their two voices together were heavenly.

I thought that I knew every Ohbijou song, but they actually played two that I wasn't familiar with, and both were stunning. The first I don't remember the title of, but it was from the Zips and Zings EP, a release preceding Ohbijou's first full-length which I was previously unaware existed. (Does anyone know if it's possible to obtain a copy? Google didn't help me.) The second new song to me was a cover of Nathan Lawr's "Barking At Your Door." If you're an Ohbijou fan and don't know the song, check out this video of Ohbijou performing it - really gorgeous stuff. During the farewell concert, Casey and Jenny split the audience into halves and, toward the end of the song, traded off leading each half in singing the chorus.

A highlight from the first set was "Balikbayan," off of Ohbijou's last album, Metal Meets. A balikbayan box is a shipping container used by overseas Filipinos to sent items back home. Casey dedicated the song to her parents, who were at the concert and who she said had brought their children to Canada so they would have a better life. The string section of Jenny Mecija on violin and Anissa Hart on cello really shone on this song.

The numerous special guests from the local musical community were not just there for the set of covers, but also joined Ohbijou in performing many of their songs. This resulted in some really memorable performances. Rolf Klausener of The Acorn shared lead vocals with Casey on "Steep," an Ohbijou song that was also covered by The Acorn on a split EP with Ohbijou. Evening Hymns and Nils Edenloff of The Rural Alberta Advantage provided outstanding guest vocals on other songs. (I wouldn't have guessed that Nils's distinctive, somewhat nasal voice, so familiar to RAA fans, would work so well on an Ohbijou song, but it was a real thrill to hear.)

As the main set neared its conclusion, "Make It Gold" provided another standout song. It's one of my favorites by Ohbijou, and it was fantastic in person. The rich trumpet sound was great live. There's a moment toward the end of the song where Casey just takes her vocals to a totally different place than anywhere else in Ohbijou's catalog. I was anticipating this moment all night, and it was just as intense and thrilling as I'd hoped. "Turquoise Lake" followed as the main set closer, and Casey's guitar playing at the end of this song had even more intensity than her vocals on the previous song. Ohbijou left the stage to thunderous applause. A chant of "OH-BI-JOU! OH-BI-JOU!" soon resounded through the Great Hall, prompting the band to return for their final encore. And although the concert had been great up to that point, I have to say that the encore was what really set it apart. I'm ready to declare it the best encore I've ever seen.

The encore started with "Anser," one of my favorite songs from Metal Meets. Soon after the song began, Casey descended from the stage, carrying her microphone into the crowd. I've seen musicians do this before, but never in quite the same way as this time. As Casey wandered through the crowd, singing, she paused at each person she came to and looked at them with an expression of sheer gratitude in her eyes. She came to me, looked at me and touched my arm, and it was as if she was saying, "Thank you so much for being here and for sharing in this moment with us." As the song continued, she returned to the stage, and standing on its edge, urged the audience to clap in time with the music. "Louder! Louder!" she cried, even as the clapping was about as loud as it could possibly get. She continued to shout as the band continued to play and the audience continued to clap; most of what she said I didn't understand and I'm not quite sure how coherent it all was, but it was one of the most visceral emotional displays I can remember. And then she came back down to the floor, and laid down on her back in the middle of the crowd, singing, and looking like she wanted to capture that moment and bask in it for all eternity. Earlier during the concert she had mentioned that performing was like being in a dream. With her lying there on the floor (and me in the front row of the crowd encircling her), I had a strong sense for what she had meant. It was a staggering moment.

There was one final song after "Anser." Casey said she wanted that last song to feel like a house party, and urged all of the musical guests to come down from the balcony and onto the stage. So there were probably close to thirty people on stage, dancing and singing and banging on various objects, as Ohbijou concluded their final concert with "The Woods" from their first album, Swift Feet for Troubling Times. Although tinged with bittersweet emotions, this final performance was full of exhilaration and joy. It was a true demonstration of the power of community, and the power of music to bring people together. It was an unforgettable night, and I'm very grateful that I could be there.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Father John Misty at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

"If there's a banter hall of fame, I'm available," Father John Misty (performing name of Josh Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer and J. Tillman for his earlier solo work) said at one point during his concert last Wednesday at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I, for one, would vote to induct him. Tillman is quite a talent as a songwriter and vocalist, but I think the biggest thing I'll remember from the concert is that he had the best stage banter I've ever heard. It's the main reason I was inspired to write a review. Tillman said some really hilarious stuff, and I'd like to preserve it for posterity.

The show, part of the Rock Hall's free summer concert series, was unfortunately moved indoors due to the threat of rain, which never materialized. In fact, the weather turned out be perfect for an outdoor concert. (I do wonder how far in advance the decision had to be made. The show started at 7:30, and a look at at 4 pm showed that there was 0% chance of rain through the time that the concert would be ending.) This move was especially problematic for opening band Night Moves, whose set was a fairly miserable experience for me. Nothing against the band, though; it's just that the museum lobby, full of chattering people and too warm from the sun streaming in through the large glass windows, provided a horrible atmosphere for a concert. Fortunately, during Father John Misty's set the crowd was more attentive, the music volume was louder, and once the sun went down, the general atmosphere of the room improved tremendously.

Tillman and his band played a great set of country-tinged folk rock, including either every or almost every (I wasn't keeping track) song from Fear Fun, the sole Father John Misty album thus far. As I said, though, I mainly wanted to write about Tillman's stage banter. I'm fully aware that a lot of this stuff won't come across as funny in writing. Tillman's acerbic delivery, combined with the often out-of-left-field nature of his remarks, really made it all much funnier in person. But I'll do my best at recounting some of his better lines.

Referring to the pictured signs, Tillman inquired, "Who the fuck is Gwen Moby?" (A good question, I might add.)

There's currently a piano set up outside the entrance of the Rock Hall as part of the Play Me, I'm Yours exhibit. Tillman complained about how many times he had to hear people play "that fucking Adele song" when he was outside smoking.

A large banner with a picture of the Rolling Stones hung from the ceiling off to one side of the lobby. In between acts, a spokesman from the museum made some remarks, including references to event sponsors. Early in his set, Tillman said something about wanting to thank another sponsor, the Rolling Stones, who had been so generous in sponsoring events like this over the years. Later, he gestured toward the banner and said, "Look at them. They're such bros." (I use quotation marks here and throughout although these are, of course, paraphrases.)

Tillman occasionally went off on rambling stories that were, quite frankly, fairly bizarre. He told one story about how the show we were attending was, in fact, the beginning of an exhibit about the career of Father John Misty. The exhibit was to show him working his way up to arena shows, then becoming a heroin addict, then going to rehab, then, twenty years later, releasing a "middling comeback album" which would win a Grammy.

In perhaps my favorite bit, Tillman said he liked to imagine the Rock Hall in a post-apocalyptic setting, 300 years in the future. The building, he imagined, would be the home base of a cannibal tribe. In this post-apocalyptic society, the surviving humans would wonder at the significance of all the trinkets in the museum. The leader of the cannibal tribe would wear Michael Jackson's jacket. And one day, someone would pick up Jimmy Page's guitar, and write a really great song, and this would be the beginning of the rebirth of human culture! Tillman remarked that he should make a movie using this concept - I'd go see it.

What else? At one point, Tillman asked the members of the band what item of theirs they'd like to put in their museum exhibit. (He came across as very cynical about the museum, and about a lot of things, for that matter. I wondered whether he genuinely disliked the museum and its corporate nature, whether he was just a bitter person in general, or whether it was simply his stage persona. I don't know, but it was entertaining as hell.) The first band member said he wouldn't want to give up anything to put it in a museum. Tillman said, "How about your attitude? But I don't think it would fit!" (Oh snap!) He continued by saying that his bandmate's "ability to put up with Josh Tillman" was worthy of being displayed in a museum. The response to the question from the second band member was a cheesecake, and Tillman said, "So now our exhibit is a fucking piece of cheesecake in a glass box."

Near the end of one song, Tillman went to the back of the stage and mocked strumming on the huge faux guitar visible in the background of this picture. After the song ended, he complained to the sound guy that his guitar wasn't turned on (at this point, I don't think most people in the audience got the joke). "You know, the giant guitar that I brought especially for this song," he continued. "That guitar back there. Come on. It's called professionalism!"

It's probably worth mentioning that Tillman commented several times on how drunk he was. There was plenty of professionalism on display in the musical performance, though. Fear Fun is a really solid album, and the music and Tillman's voice shone in the live seting. The end of the main set was stunning. After the band finished album closer "Everyman Needs a Companion" and the applause subsided, Tillman tacked on an additional verse to the song, playing alone on an acoustic guitar. This segued directly into the album's lead single and standout track "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," a song with a much heavier rock sound than anything else on the album. The live performance was heavier still, and sounded fantastic - when the bass kicked in, I could feel it, and on top of the flashing lights and crashing guitars, it created a little moment of bliss. The song was a fitting climax for the concert. Incidentally, several times in between songs some people standing near me (one of whom was also fond of loudly exclaiming "Father John!") wondered aloud when Father John Misty would play that one song of his which they knew. When "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" started, one of them said, "Oh, this is the one!"

The concert was capped off with an encore, two new songs sandwiching a cover of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." I had been worried that the move indoors would ruin the evening, and the opening band's set greatly deepened my worries. But it turned out to be a fantastic show. Father John Misty is quite a performer, and I'd highly recommend seeing him live to anyone who has the chance.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The National at the LC Pavilion, 6/15/13

September 19, 2005.  Less than a week ago, I had gone to my first concert at the Beachland Ballroom, a spectacular performance by Sufjan Stevens and his band.  Before then, I hadn't been much of a concertgoer, but now I was eager for more.  A friend, who went to a lot of concerts and who I had run into at the Sufjan show, asked if I wanted to tag along with her and some other people to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Beachland.  CYHSY were the buzz band of the moment, thanks in large part to a glowing review from Pitchfork for their debut album.  I decided that sure, it sounded fun, and I went.  At that night's show, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were opening for another band, The National (before the concert, I didn't know much, if anything, about either band).

Interesting sidenote about the malleability, and fallibility, of human memory: when searching Google to find the date of the concert, I came across a forum post where someone said, in reference to their "biggest Beachland moment," "I went to see Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the opener was The National on what would be their big come up year for Alligator, in 2006. I don't know if they would agree, but it seemed to me they blew up after that. That night, I think they were better than CHYSY."  This is actually the second time that I've come across a reference on the Internet to a past concert that I attended where the person misidentifies which band opened for which (in this case, the year is also off by one, but that's not a big deal). It's really fascinating to me how humans have such a powerful ability to remember things, yet at the same time, can so often hold memories about events in their lives that are at least partly contradictory to the objective history of those events. Okay, so that's my neurobiologist side coming through.  Back to the main point.

That night, the ballroom was pretty packed for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.  After they finished, some people began to filter out of the room.  The size of the crowd continued to diminish during The National's headlining set. Given the band's career trajectory, I think it's almost certainly true that some of the people who left early are now fans of The National.  I wonder if any of those people remember what they did, and now regret it?  To be fair, I also didn't appreciate the performance to nearly the same level I would now, but I did at least stay through, and enjoy, the headlining set.

The National have come a long way since then.  Last Saturday I saw them perform at the LC Pavilion in Columbus, and the outdoor venue, with a capacity of about 5000, was pretty close to full.  It was actually something of a last minute decision for me to attend the show.  Cara didn't want to go to Columbus that night because she was planning to do a bike race the next morning, so I'd be making the drive, both ways, by myself.  I decided I didn't want to miss the concert.  It was a good decision.

The event, dubbed the "Next at Wex Fest," featured three bands.  Openers Mount Moriah played a nice set of twangy alt-country. I enjoyed it, but didn't find it particularly memorable. The next band, Local Natives, was another one which I'd seen previously at the Beachland.

They played a really good hour long set with a nice mix of songs from their two albums. The band's sound is highlighted by strong vocal harmonies and at times exotic-sounding percussion. I expect they'll continue to grow in popularity.

The outdoor setting worked well for this concert. At about the time Local Natives were concluding their set, the sky was gorgeous, which the band remarked on.

Darkness began to fall as the excited crowd waited for The National to arrive on stage. That crowd would not go disappointed. From the start of "I Should Live In Salt," it was clear the band would be providing a thrilling experience both aurally and visually.  There were several cameras set up on stage, and live footage of the band was mixed with an interesting selection of other images and projected on a giant screen behind the stage.  The colorful display, with the band members in stark contrast in front of it, made for quite a sight.

But of course, the main draw at a concert should be the music, not the light show.  In that regard, The National delivered and then some.  They played a set heavy on songs from their two most recent albums, also throwing in a few songs each from their highly acclaimed earlier releases Alligator and Boxer.  This is a band whose members have clearly honed their craft to reach a great level of musicianship.  Matt Berninger's signature baritone vocals and the rest of the band's accompanying music sounded just about as great as you could hope for a band to sound.  In addition to the five normal band members, I have to give special credit to the trumpet player and trombone player the band brought along on tour.  The powerfully brassy notes emanating from these two added so much to the band's live sound.  On some of the songs, the brass created something of a reinterpretation of the original (The National do include some horn sounds on a few album tracks; by contrast, the haunting strings which appear on some of their songs were absent at this concert), and often the live version sounded even better than the album version.  On "The Geese of Beverly Road," the trumpet took the opening notes which are played by a clarinet on the album.  This song, from Alligator, was simply stunning, definitely one of the highlights for me - the guitar sound created such great atmosphere, and Berninger's vocals were really powerful.  Actually, if I could change anything about the concert, I'd ask for more songs from Alligator, an album I've recently realized, after many years of listening to it, is in fact one of my all time favorites.  But I guess getting three songs from an eight-year-old album isn't bad.

Another highlight was main set closer "Fake Empire," perhaps The National's most popular song and for good reason. I just love the piano intro and the trumpet part that comes in near the end, and it all sounded so great live.

The encore started with "Humiliation," a track from the band's latest album, Trouble Will Find Me.  The band tacked on an intense outro that's absent from the album version, with Berninger screaming the vocals.  (He screams more often live than on album - another example would be on "Squalor Victoria." It's a treat to witness.)  When the opening notes of Alligator's closing song "Mr. November" started up next, the crowd went wild.  I had a feeling this song would be something special - I remembered the last time I had seen the band, at the Beachland in '07, and how Berninger had climbed up onto one of the giant speakers next to the Beachland stage, so I wondered what he'd do this time around.  What happened easily surpassed any expectations I might have had!

The LC Pavilion's audience section is mostly a sloped lawn; in between the lawn and the stage is a fairly sizable pit section.  I was standing at the very back of the pit (I have to say that going to concerts is the main time that I really appreciate being tall).  I could see, after Berninger began singing "Mr. November," that he climbed down from the stage into the the audience.  Still belting out the vocals, he made his way through the crowd, his long microphone cord trailing behind him and being held up by audience members.  Soon, I realized that he was just feet away from me!  After that, he changed directions, went toward the side of the pit, and climbed into a beer stand, still singing.

Matt Berninger's journey through the crowd during "Mr. November."

I was definitely laughing at this point.  It was a giddy, exhilarated sort of laugh.  "Mr. November" had to be the biggest highlight of the evening, but it wasn't the last song.  The band followed it with "Terrible Love," which ended at 11:00, which is apparently the venue's curfew because Berninger announced that they had to stop, and said something about the people in condos nearby.  This was greeted with a chorus of boos.  Thankfully, Berninger, after consulting with the rest of the band, said they could play one more song, and it didn't count because it was quiet.  The band gathered at the front of the stage and performed "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," with no plugged-in instruments (acoustic guitars and trumpet and trombone were played, and voices were sung, into the mics).  It was a perfect finale.

 This really ended up being one of the best concerts I've seen in a long time.  It was well worth the trip to Columbus, and it's hard to believe in retrospect that I was uncertain about going.  I realized that live music can really be something special, so if there's a concert you want to see, just go for it!  If you don't, you're throwing away the chance for a wonderful experience and memory.

Even if, over the years, that memory may diverge somewhat from what actually occurred.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lucius and You Won't at the Beachland Tavern

"It doesn't always work that well," Josh Arnoudse, lead singer of indie folk band You Won't, remarked to me as I was chatting with him at the merch table after his band's show on Thursday night at the Beachland Tavern.

We were speaking of the portion of the band's set in which he and Raky Sastri, the other member of the duo, had stepped off of the stage and performed a pair of songs unplugged, on the tavern floor, in the middle of the audience.  Apparently, sometimes when they did this, a noisy audience ruined the experience.  I thought once more of how lucky I was to have such a great place to see concerts.  I've also seen bands like Megafaun and The Rural Alberta Advantage perform songs out on the Beachland floor, and it's always something magical.  You Won't took it to another level by actually bringing a harmonium out to the floor with them.  The first song saw Arnoudse playing the harmonium and Sastri playing the saw; for the second song, Sastri took over harmonium duties while Arnoudse climbed up onto a chair to sing.  And then, partway through the song, he went down to the floor, opened up a bag, and very dramatically (by which I mean, he almost hit a nearby audience member) pulled out a wind chime, of all things.  I'm sure that if a picture of me had been taken at that moment, it would have captured a wide grin on my face.  It's moments like that that make live music such a wonderful thing to experience.

The unplugged section was the top highlight, but You Won't's whole set was great.  I picked up their album Skeptic Goodbye after the show, and I'd highly recommend it (the whole thing is streamable on Bandcamp).  It's a catchy little folk/blues-rock album that, to me, really stands out from the crowd of modern indie folk.  Maybe it has something to do with being performed by just two guys, two guys who are clearly really passionate about their music.  It's an album with an intimate feel, even as there is at times a lot going on (check out the music credits - "Josh Arnoudse: vocals, guitar, piano, bass, mandolin, accordion, FX pedals, stomping feet and clapping hands! Raky Sastri: drums, harmonium, accordion, singing saw, bowed mandolin and mountain dulcimer, modified coffee can, cardboard boxes, washbasin, cellular phone, stolen road sign, stomping feet and clapping hands!").  Arnoudse's lyrics, his somewhat Dylan-esque vocals and the often fuzzy sound lend a nicely nostalgic air to the music.  Their live sound was heavier than the album's, and suited the concert setting well.

Sastri, in particular, was a joy to watch, playing (and switching between on the fly) a large assortment of percussion and keyboard instruments with great deftness and intensity.  Both members of the band brought enormous energy and talent to the show, and by the end of their performance I, having only listened to the band once before going to the show, was completely won over.

It was a great show - but You Won't were just the opening band!  This was a show that I kind of just went to on a whim because I thought the bands sounded interesting and it would probably be a good time.  And I was very right.

Headliners Lucius are starting to attract some buzz.  This is a band that catches your attention before you hear a single note of the five-piece's music.

I'd guess the band is dressing and styling themselves in this distinctive way to try to help them stand out in a crowded music scene.  I can't fault them for it.  Really, it adds to the fun of seeing them perform.  And did I say You Won't brought a lot of energy to their performance?  Lucius easily exceeded the openers' energy level.  On some songs nearly the whole band was engaged in raucous percussion parts.

Lead singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig both have gorgeous voices, especially when they harmonize together, and the drumming, guitar playing, and backing vocals from the three male members of Lucius rounded out the band's sound nicely.  This was really infectious stuff; the audience was clearly eating up every note.  "Turn It Around," which closed out the main part of Lucius's set, is a truly fantastic pop song.

And when I say "the main part" of the set, that's because Lucius, too, stepped out into the audience to perform a couple of songs unplugged.  It's really something that more bands should do when they have the opportunity, which the Beachland often provides.  It brings such a great sense of connection between audience and performers.  One of the two lead singers of Lucius spoke some clearly heartfelt words about what a journey it had been for them, and how grateful they were that we were all there to see them.  I felt equally grateful to be able to see such great performances in such a great setting.

Lucius and You Won't are both bands that I could envision becoming quite popular.  If you have the opportunity to see either live, don't pass it up!