Sunday, July 31, 2016

Concert reviews: Daughter and Lucius

I had quite a busy couple of days early last week, going to two shows in two days in two cities - neither of those cities Cleveland. On Monday I left work early, drove two hours to Pittsburgh to see Daughter play at Mr. Small's, then drove three hours to Columbus and spent the night at my parents' house. On Tuesday I had a very nice visit with my mother-in-law (who I hadn't seen since Christmas!) and in the evening went to see, with my parents, Lucius perform at the Newport Music Hall before driving two and a half hours back home to Cleveland. It was a whirlwind couple of days, and well worth all the driving!

While on the road, it occurred to me that Daughter are, by a wide margin, my favorite music artist that I've discovered since Cara's death. Maybe that's a strange thing to think about, but obviously, that event was a major landmark in my life. It was in January of this year that I first became aware of the UK-based band led by Elena Tonra. One morning as I was driving into my parking garage at work, a song on the radio really caught my attention. Both the music, a haunting guitar melody, and the lyrics - specifically the lines "And if you're still breathing you're the lucky ones, 'cause most of us are heaving through corrupted lungs." Ever since Cara was diagnosed with lung cancer, songs that mention lungs or breathing have always grabbed me. In this case, the actual subject matter of the song "Youth" (the lyrics continue from there "Setting fire to our insides for fun, collecting names of the lovers that went wrong, the lovers that went wrong") wasn't really relatable for me. Nonetheless, I was so taken by the song that I had to listen all the way to the end despite already having found a parking spot, and I bought the album on which it appears, If You Leave, soon after.

The album is full of some of the most beautifully melancholy music I've ever heard, and I fell in love with it. The mood it creates went very well with some emotions I was feeling, and although I couldn't relate personally to lyrics about bitterness over failed relationships, there are lines in some of the songs that I strongly connected with - for instance, from "Human," "Underneath the skin there's a human, buried deep within there's a human, and despite everything I'm still human, but I think I'm dying here."

A few months later I bought Daughter's second album, Not To Disappear, and found it just as great as the first. One day it occurred to me to look up whether the band had any US tour dates, and I happily discovered that they were playing in Pittsburgh - and it was the day before I was already planning to see Lucius (for the second time this year) in Columbus! Instantly I decided I had to go.

Sometimes before going to shows I take some time to check out the opening artist first; sometimes I don't bother. In this case I did not listen to any of Julien Baker's music before I saw her open for Daughter. It's a magical thing when you go to a live musical performance by an artist you have never before listened to, and are instantly captivated from the first notes. That happened to me on Monday. The young (just twenty years old!) singer-songwriter, up there on the stage by herself with just her voice and her guitar, mesmerized me and the the rest of the audience with her powerfully haunting songs. She was a very fitting opener for Daughter; in some ways I might characterize her music as like a very stripped down Daughter, without the wall of sound contained in some of Daughter's songs but with similar emotional impact (Baker played most of the songs solo, and was joined by a minimal percussion accompaniment on a few songs). It's interesting. Both artists at this show played music that seems to come from places of great pain. At the same time, both Baker and Tonra were full of smiles on stage. Both were incredibly appreciative of the great audience. The audience and venue really were great, by the way. I had never before been to Mr. Small's, and the building, formerly a church, provided a beautiful setting. Meanwhile, the crowd wonderfully provided rapt attention with no annoying chatter even for the opening artist.

Baker's debut album is called Sprained Ankle. Another health-related issue that I relate to personally! The lyrics of the title track include the line, "A marathon runner, my ankles are sprained." Her music is so beautiful and I feel very lucky that I got the chance to see her. I bought her album without hesitation and highly recommend it. Check out the song "Rejoice" for an example of her stunning vocals.

Up next, Daughter's performance was something I was highly anticipating, yet it managed to surpass my high expectations and was the highlight of my whole trip. There are those rare artists where just about every song they have is (at a minimum) really good, and for me Daughter have quickly become one such artist. It was such a thrill to see them live. Tonra's vocals, the highly atmospheric guitar, percussion, and synth parts, and a great accompanying light show combined for an unforgettable experience. Most of the set could honestly count as highlights, but a few songs particularly stood out. One was an achingly gorgeous performance of "Shallows," the final track on If You Leave. The aforementioned "Youth" came near the end of the set and was obviously a song everyone was waiting to hear, and did not disappoint. Tonra adorably said something about not being sure she could do it while playing the opening guitar part to the song, with the crowd of course enthusiastically spurring her on. The main set concluded with my very favorite Daughter song, "Fossa," the second-to-last song on Not To Disappear and a song that provides a stunning climax both to the album and to a live performance with an amazing buildup over its six-plus minute length. It's a perfect release of the emotions that build over the course of the album (or show), and I felt totally overcome by the music, my body moving to the beat in a state of ecstasy.

Then, as on the album, after the climax of "Fossa," the encore performance of "Made of Stone" provided a fitting denouement.

Sometimes a musical performance takes me to places that nothing else can. It happened earlier this year when I saw Florence + the Machine. And it happened again Monday night at Mr. Small's. Driving to Columbus, I listened to Julien Baker and Daugher albums to try to relive the wonderful experience I had just had. Despite arriving at 2 am, I was still totally amped up and enjoyed a walk in the balmy night air before settling in at my parents' house.

The following night, Lucius had the unenviable task of trying to live up to that Daughter show, and although to me they did not quite reach the same heights, it was another fantastic performance. Whereas I had never seen Daughter before, this was my fourth time seeing Lucius and second this year alone; I saw them here in Cleveland back in March. That March weekend my parents visited me the day after the Lucius show and my mom, having checked out some of Lucius's music, suggested that perhaps I should have invited them to the show; I reminded her that I had in fact mentioned it to them a few weeks before, and explained that it had subsequently sold out. When I saw that there was going to be a show in Columbus, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my parents to experience Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig's enchanting musical stylings.

This show, in more ways than one, took me back to the wonderful summer of 2011, the best time in my whole life. You see, the last time before this past Tuesday that I was at the Newport Music Hall, it was on June 11, 2011, the night before my wedding, when Cara and I joined our very good friends Jordan and Ruth to see a show by my favorite band Okkervil River. And it just so happened that my parents and I were standing in nearly the exact same spot in the music hall that Jordan, Ruth, Cara, and I occupied over five years ago. Furthermore, the opening act for Lucius was Haley Bonar, and back in 2011, just six days after our wedding, Cara and I joined our very good friends Adam and Jackie to see Cara's favorite artist Andrew Bird perform up in Ann Arbor. And at that Andrew Bird show, Haley Bonar was the opening artist.

After seeing that show, I wrote, "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." The same held true this time. My mom, on the other hand, said she liked Haley's voice but thought it was too lost in the music and would have liked to hear the vocals better. (I was not surprised that my mom reacted this way.)

With Lucius, the dual lead vocals of Jess and Holly come much more to the forefront, and those vocals are such a delight to experience live. The band has come a long way since I first saw them at the Beachland Tavern in March 2013. Back then Jess and Holly were already doing the matching hair and outfits thing, but their budget has clearly expanded in the intervening years. Their show has gotten bigger in every way, and they've really come into their own as performers (and they were already quite good!).

(Above: March 2013. Below: July 2016.)

Lucius's newest album, Good Grief, is one whose title and artwork feel very fitting to me personally.

(A friend once said to me something about it being funny how the cover portrayed someone hugging an invisible person; I replied that I thought of it more as "hugging someone who isn't there anymore.")

This concept of "good grief" isn't really a theme that ties together most of the songs on the album, but the album closer, "Dusty Trails," definitely goes with it. And that song is just amazing live, a real showcase for Holly and Jess's vocal talents, with the two of them standing on opposite sides of a single, old-style microphone, facing each other, their beautiful harmonies filling up the room. Another showcase of their great singing and stage presences came on "Gone Insane," where they again faced each other but this time each clutching her own microphone and dramatically acting out the growing sense of insanity that pervades the music and lyrics.

My one criticism of Lucius's shows - and it's not a huge one, but it's surprising considering they only have two albums - is this. My favorite song from their new album is "My Heart Got Caught On Your Sleeve." They seem to never play it live. My favorite song from their first album is "Hey, Doreen." They seem to never play it live either. I don't really think it's a case of me having unusual favorite songs, so when a concert contains the majority of a band's catalog, it's disappointing for some of the very best songs to be left out (Daughter, as a counterexample, consistently closes out their main sets with the awesome one-two punch of "Youth" and then "Fossa," which I'd consider their two best songs).

Oh well! It was still a really great show. Another standout moment came when, after a mid-set break (with the rest of the band staying on stage to provide instrumentals) for a costume change, Jess and Holly appeared at the side of the pit and proceeded to make their way through it as they sang the next song, thrilling all they came near.

The crowd loved the whole performance, and that included my parents. They were really raving about Lucius afterwards. I think it's wonderful that my parents are still trying and enjoying new music, because not everyone continues to do that - in fact, I was talking to someone at another show very recently who mentioned how one of his friends seems to think music stopped after the 1970s! Nope, great new music has never stopped being produced; you just have to look in the right places, and the great thing is that today it's easier than ever to seek out and find it!

Kudos also to Lucius for donating their merch profits from the show to Stonewall Columbus. Jess and Holly had some very nice things to say about the importance of love and how everyone should be able to love who they want. That's a message we should all heed in these unusual times.

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