Flaming Lips Burn!

The Flaming Lips burned brightly last time I saw them at the Fox Theater, Oakland on October 1, 2010 when they played to a sold-out crowd of initiated followers.  The music of this band is a jarring combination of funk, progressive, noise, and psychedelic music, that may invoke a dreamy state in the listener.  Their most recent release at that time, Embryonic, is a relentless, percussive masterwork that was not particularly featured in the set list at the Fox.  Instead the band pulled more evenly from material released over the last dozen years, probably because this show fell late in the tour.

In general, there is a lot to applaud in a Flaming Lips show:

  • Front man Wayne Coyne climbing inside his clear plastic ball rolling through the audience
  • Tons of confetti delivered via colorful cannons, showering down on the audience along with a multitude of giant balloons
  • A dozen amatuer dancers – boys stage left, girls right – posing and shimmying to the sounds
  • Wayne donning a giant pair of hands containing palm lasers shooting out in all directions
  • Beautiful light pallet with acid-house projections on clever rear video delivery system
  • Talented musicians that improve on the studio recordings with their aggressive live delivery

All of this should add up to an absolutely amazing entertainment spectacle.  And it does.  But somehow this night’s show just fell a bit short for me. Loved the evening, but some minor complaints:

  • Wayne too often extols the crowd to cheer louder
  • Too much time is spent wandering the stage and preparing for the next track, breaking the flow of the show
  • The dancers, hands and bubble are great staples, but new innovations would help the converted

Having said all that, for anyone uninitiated in the ways of the Lips, the show would be an exceptional experience. And make no mistake, once the band gets focused on the delivery of their most forceful, driven work, they are on top of their game as alt-rock pioneers. For this two time attendee, I will be excited to see them again with some additional set pieces and a tighter delivery so as to take the heat a few degrees higher.  Seems after the intervening years, and now with a new EP, the next tour will be the right time.

Crowded House Intrigues

Crowded House came to the Warfield Theater this summer, touring in support of their latest release Intriguer.  I have a long history of patronizing all manner of audio, video, and performances from this band, from Neil Finn and Tim Finn, and from their original band, Split Enz, and so am likely to be a bit biased about their capabilities. But to me, almost anything Neil and/or Tim are involved in will always be special as they are basically the Beatles of New Zealand.  Personal favorites amongst all their projects over the years include “Conflicting Emotions” from Split Enz, Tim Finn’s self titled third release, and the self titled “Finn Brothers” album.  For me, Crowded House’s best work is “Together Alone“, though after a series of listens, the new release “Intriguer” does intrigue – buy it with the DVD which sports the band running through most of the tracks in their home studio live and up close – it’s a wonderful document of a mature, precision band.

At the Warfield, the group was in top form in front of an enthusiastic crowd of fans.  New tracks like “Amsterdam” and “Either Side of the World” were standouts during the set, which was neatly comprised of Crowded House staples going back to their first release.  For the first time in my experience, they did not include a track from the Enz era, though it was not missed amongst so many favorites from their back catalog.  Neil’s voice is remarkable for it’s durability after all these years, and given every group member sings backup, including his wife who lent her voice for one track, the harmonies were lush and heart warming. All in all a great night from a great band fronted by this important artist and entertainer.

Natalie Merchant…Rhymes for Kids

Natalie Merchant took a long break from recording since her 2003 title, “The House Carpenter’s Daughter ” in order to raise her own daughter.  She  just recently released a collection of poetry for children put to song entitled “Leave Your Sleep“.  It’s a wonderful collection of prose from British and American poets clearly inspiring the artist to pen and record a very remarkable set of songs to match.

This month she brought the supporting tour to the Fox Theater in Oakland.  The show was a series of sweet, poignant revelations from this artist as she shared family anecdotes and her love of poetry with the enthusiastic audience.  She has a few slides for each song, showing a photo of the poet, and sometimes some artwork from the published work along with a story, a bit of the poet’s history and why she chose it.  For anyone who purchased the double CD with it’s detailed booklet, this might have been expected and Natalie did not disappoint.

On record, I found it took several spins to begin to appreciate the all acoustic set with it’s varying traditional styles, played at mostly slow tempos.  Performed live the music and imaginative arrangements came alive.  The first set was all from the new recording, after which Natalie returned for a set of standards from her back catalog, including several tracks from her days with the 10,000 Maniacs back to their seminal release “In My Tribe“.  Only complaint was the omission of anything from her 1993 release of traditional folk tunes, a few of which would have complimented the set perfectly.  Nonetheless, a lovely evening.

Muse Just That

Muse, the hard rocking band that has taken the world by storm over these last several years appeared at Oakland Coliseum Wednesday April 14, 2010. Older work by this band focused on rapid-fire metal compositions, but more recently they moved into more of a glam-alternative-stadium rock direction which mixes in elements of progressive and classical music. Put together Queen, Green Day, and Pink Floyd with an occasional disco beat and you get a new unique sound achieved by Muse. Wednesday night the band focused on more recent releases, 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations and last year’s The Resistance to deliver the right mix of these varied styles.

The show was simply spectacular. The staging was unique as each core band member appeared within a set of three huge towers stretching from stage to ceiling, on which live and collected images were projected to stunning effect. The lower sections of these towers were lifts which alternately rose and lowered to embellish the stage below.

The music was equally exceptional, as singer Matthew Bellamy (voice, guitars, keyboards) manages to hit all of his notes and somehow preserve his vocals through long tours, partly due to the band’s deft management of sound dynamics. Outstanding band mates Christopher Wolstenholme (bass), and Dominic Howard (drum) also take leads, but alternately lower and raise the volume during verses and choruses so everything can be heard.

Only complaint would be that Matthew spent too little time at the piano this time around, given he is an excellent pianist obviously influenced by classical composers such as Rachmaninoff . Also at times one could say Muse is almost too perfect live, threatening to lose a bit of the emotional punch of the tracks. Given the staging and performance itself is so expansive and aggressive, these issues are overcome making this spectacle truly amazing and highly recommended.

Air: Fresh at the Fox

Air, is the French duo who have been steadily releasing exceptional recordings since 1995. Best known for the electronica-infused 1998 release “Moon Safari“, which spawned the single “Sexy Boy”, their work has been featured in the films “Virgin Suicides”, and “Lost in Translation” among others. Their brand of electronic music has been inspired by and could be compared to several synthesizer-driven brands of “space rock” and pop including Jean Michael Jarre, Tangerine Dream and even Pink Floyd. Their live shows transcend the studio recordings and emphasize psychedelic jams such as “Don’t be Light” from 2001’s “10 000 HZ Legend“.

After a 3 year hiatus, Air returned to the bay area to back their 2009 release “Love 2“. Now touring as a trio on keyboards, bass, and drum, they delivered another superior live performance for a packed house at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA. From early lounge tracks such as “La Femme d’Argent” to the current vocoder-driven track “Love” they alternated between electronica, space, and pop influences keeping the set tight and powerful and very different from most bands from the last dozen years.

For many who may have heard early recordings by this duo, their more recent albums and live experience would come as a pleasant surprise. Any fears that the show might be too languid or dull would be shattered by the reality that this band stages very compelling concerts. Air is carrying the torch of quality music today and is highly recommended.

Styx was here…

In the rock business, there is a fine line between “rock ’em” and “hokum”.  The 70’s classic rock band Styx always rode that thin line tightly, alternating between melodic, symphonic “prog-ish” flavored tracks alongside more hard rocking southern-rock infused works.  Never striding out as close to the edge as Yes, Genesis, or other English bands, they were more in line with American counterparts Kansas, Boston, Journey and Foreigner.  Singer keyboardist Dennis DeYoung tended towards the softer and sometimes more progressive side, penning hits such as “Babe”, “Lady” and “Come Sail Away” while singer guitarist Tommy Shaw composed the harder edged tracks typified by “Renegade” and “Blue Collar Man”.  Additional guitar player composer James Young fit comfortably in the middle.  In general, the enthusiasm and sincerity of this band sold their theatrical presentation to those skeptical of their hard rocking credentials, many of whom had been drawn in by the band’s 1977 masterwork, “The Grand Illusion“.

I saw the band at their peak in 1978, on the tour supporting “Pieces of Eight“.  They put on an incredible show, with the three main composers sharing center stage, balancing their varied styles and themes.  But by the time of their concept album “Kilroy Was Here” in 1983, the “hokum” arguably outweighed the “rock ’em” and songs such as “Mr. Robato” were widely parodied.  After that release and subsequent tour, Tommy Shaw left the band.  There have been several reformations and versions of Styx since that time, led by Dennis or Tommy but seldom reuniting both.  I did not see the band perform again until this month at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco some, ahem, 30+ years since the first time.

Tommy Shaw
Tommy Shaw

Styx have been back at it led by Tommy Shaw for the last ten years, and performing at a level that in many ways tops their younger incarnation.  Without Dennis, this version of the band is free to focus on their harder rocking side, focusing on Tommy’s aforementioned hits, and well as going deeper into the back catalog to play authentic guitar driven gems from their mid-70’s releases.  They are exuberant, enthusiastic, tight, and all in the great physical shape it takes to deliver such a show.  A bit of that unrestrained theatricality is still there, particularly in the pianist who covers Dennis DeYoung tracks while spinning his keyboard and striking poses worthy of the best rock-disciples.  But with virtuoso level playing, accurate four part harmony’s, and overall delivery, this band is delivering shows absolutely worth checking out.  See them as headliners, rather than packaged for the sheds, and see for yourself!

Devo’s Choice

devoQuick note to say that Devo celebrated their 1980 release “Freedom of Choice” by playing it all to a packed house on November 7, 2009 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. We attended this show rather than that of the prior evening when they played “Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo“. We picked the second show given that “Freedom” was a more popular work, including hits “Whip It”, “Girl U Want” and the title track, all of which would be more familiar to my companions. The show was brief but very tight. The show began a bit oddly as three videos from the album were projected before the band took the stage. This did serve the purpose of reminding many of us about the original days of music video and MTV – I wondered how many of the younger members of the audience had spent any time seeking out videos by their favorite bands these days. After the final track, the band did a quick encore consisting of a few more tracks ending with “Beautiful World.” At this stage you can’t blame the band for losing a bit of it’s edge live in terms of the tight synchronized movements of the past, particularly since the music and vocals are still spot on. Given the number of folky-emo bands out these days, the chance to catch a classic act blasting through three minute power-pop was a welcome respite!  Recommended.

Ear Candy for the Hungry Audiophile