November 24: The Fiery Furnaces

Though my first live experience with The Fiery Furnaces, their reputation for bombastic, frenetic long-jam style shows had preceded them through word of mouth from friends, and the litany of web outlets espousing the virtue (and confusion) of the experience. As a finally to round out a November loaded with excellent rock shows, this one was one that I anticipated the most. I first fell in love with the Friedbergers and their complex compositions, often littered with nonsensical, dreamy lyrics when I heard 2007's Widow City. The fluid, medley-style marking the first half of the album instantly sold me on their greatness. I had heard them before, but that album made a lasting impression. So great that I blogged about the band previously here. And with this year's release of I'm Going Away, easily their most accessible album since Gallowsbird's Bark, showcasing such amazing, pop-driven new Fiery Furnaces tracks, I could not have been more excited to see them live, on stage, in the intimacy of the Bluebird Theater.

But first, opening band Young Coyotes played a strong set of songs focused on death, destruction and fear. Composed of Denver locals Adam Halferty and Zach Tipton, the vocals sound vaguely like Sting during the Police, or just post-Police years, and drum-work is exceptional. The songs are worth picking up, now available in two digital EPs on the band's website. They remind me of Guster, with more power, more reverb, more anger, and less sugar. And they are two truly hilarious guys. The banter, between the two, and with the audience nicely broke up what seemed to be a tense night. There were brief utterances that this was their "last show," but there's no indication of that on the band's various web pages.

Then, comes the long awaited moment. Eleanor and Matthew taking the stage, complex and sudden guitar riffs, speak-sung lyrics, heavy drumbeats and brilliant pedal work as they tear off the first 4 tracks from Widow City (excepting "The Philadelphia Grand Jury"). Technically speaking, they are the best band I've seen all month. Matthew's guitar work is beyond impressive. It's awe-inspiring and jaw dropping. His ability to break beat, tear off a 4 measure, high-speed solo with the pedal on, then tap that pedal back, and bring everything back to a slow pace, quietly filling as rhythm is amazing. The Fiery Furnaces are defined by these difficult, up-pace/down-pace, quick change compositions, but actually seeing them played live gives them a whole new value. Matt's hand literally went into a full blur (to which my drinking beer may also have contributed) numerous times while he shred the strings for only a moment. As someone who plays guitar competently, but not excellently (read: relatively lay-person) that's fucking incredible. Eleanor's ability to keep pace with all these changes, happening live, and hold the lyrics close and sing them strong is equally impressive. She has an incredible presence and a strong, beautiful voice live. There's no question that she's happy performing live, even as low-key as her style appears.

The surprise in this show came in the way the set list went down. It was as straightforward as any show I'd seen all month. Nothing like the chaotic presentation touted by friends and media, the Furnaces simply played their songs brilliantly, with minor changes to only two or three. And, the stage-theatrics were utterly moot. Every song seemed more artistically played then raucously played, as this show lacked the large personalities of Art Brut or the bombast of Dirty Projectors. The Friedbergers came off as elder statesmen of indie rock, playing confidently with a sturdy pride and not an inkling of a need for theatrics. While this changed the energy of the show, and closed my November concert going with a rocking, but mature note, it is also a great testament to a vastly talented, journey band giving its audience exactly what it wants: an epic show.

Side note: As the 3rd 16+ show at 'bird for me this month, this one was the most high school-heavy. Excellent youth showing its love of The Fiery Furnaces; the kids are alright.

Photos courtesy of Stepan Mazurov. Check out his Flickr photostream.
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Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Surfer Blood's debut Astro Coast comes loaded with indelible, dance-friendly, but still excellently punk-raucous hooks and riffs that make it not only a solid first disc from the Florida band, but a window to a promising future. Astro Coast demonstrates Surfer Blood's early songwriting influences, drawing from Doolittle-era Pixies tracks like "Here Comes Your Man" (A comparison drummer TJ Schwarz said, "People don't say it often, but the Pixies are definitely one of our main influences" at the November 22 show in Denver) for a guitar-heavy garage feel that also grabs surf-rock progressions and thoughtful lyrics. There's a bit of Wolf Parade, and perhaps even baroque-pop '60s group The Left Banke. What's clear is that Surfer Blood understand how to write a great pop song. Astro Coast has numerous "single" type tracks that grab your attention and demand replay over and over, but the greatest upside is that for their grasp of pop fascia like riffs and hooks, Surfer Blood present thoughtful lyrics that have an airy, dreamer quality.

The songwriting craftsmanship is most evident in songs like "Harmonix," "Twin Peaks," and "Anchorage." The hook is valuable, but it's the layers of verses and build-up, breakdown bridges and choruses that create a freshness that invites multiple listens without the pretensions that hinder enjoyment. Other tracks have shades of Vampire Weekend on them, but always with the fresh-faced Surfer Blood style. The track listing is well assembled as well. All too common with new, and sophomore releases, the best stuff is thrown upfront and the album tapers off into middling B- and C-sides. Not the case, here, as track one "Floating Vibes" sets the table nicely, but isn't the best song on the album by far. This album is most like a quality baseball line-up. "Swim" (likely the front-runner for early single) and "Take It Easy" dial up the writing, and then "Harmonix" delivers the run-scoring hit. Slow downs come as the album nears its end, but these songs all stand up independently, which is good for an iTunes universe. This is a very promising young band who could very quickly become one of the indie-rock elite.

Check out Surfer Blood on their MySpace page here and then buy Astro Coast upon its release in January of 2010.
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November 22: Japandroids, Surfer Blood

The Larimer Lounge is one of those unique venues; carved out of the dark, dank husk of an old brick building, that makes a show better by its virtue. Intimacy in live performances is always my go-to issue. Massive halls and stadiums never give a good picture of a group playing their instruments and belting out melodies. The Larimer is small enough (and far enough out of the way) that it has an air of big city authenticity, even in the little city of Denver. There's something Chicago-esque about it.

First, Eyes and Ears opens with a punk heavy, very solid show, with nice vocal harmonies between 3 distinct voices. As a young band might, though, Eyes and Ears' style and songwriting is a bit schizophrenic. Each individual composition is mostly on point, but over the course of the set last night we heard 2 different bands: one hardcore punk, and one hook-rock. Certainly, over the course of a career, The Clash filled those two band roles too, so I'm not complaining. They have excellent lead singers, both male and female, but the key will be utilizing both effectively. Eyes and Ears is a local Denver band, you can find them on MySpace.

Surfer Blood (My second show seeing these kids as the middle band. Can we call that band, the one who doesn't headline, but isn't the cold opener, the "Jan band"? Often overlooked, but with a lot of substance and talent. And never hit in the nose with a football.) played another excellent show, this time to a smaller crowd, in a room with a lower ceiling. This band is quickly becoming one of my favorites to see live. They are polished, with perfectly-composed guitar hooks and great lyrics. And, after their set, I spoke with drummer Tyler Schwarz and singer John Paul Pitts at length. This is an affable group of guys with a lot of talent. Influenced by the Pixies, Surfer Blood also has a bit of Wolf Parade and 1960s bands like The Left Banke in them. We discussed the tour, which has covered 6 weeks. Their thoughts on the Bluebird show: Schwarz said, "The problem with the Bluebird is that you can get 100 people in there, but they spread out and it looks empty." I'd strongly suggest picking up their new album Astro Coast upon its official release. Hear them here.

And then, Japandroid's destroyed everything! The wonderful thing about the Larimer is that the bar is set back from the main stage, and when you're that far back you have a drink and avoid the ear-ruining bombardment rattling around those old brick walls. Japandroids were loud, and energized and brutal. Bounding guitarist and lead singer Brian King built a wall of reverb heavy power, while David Prowse hammered the drums with an amazing violent passion. Since Japandroids are not known for "hits" the show was especially appealing. The expectation is that the band will be loud and powerful, but not that hearing "song A" or "song B" is a priority. These are pair of guys that are virtuosic at their instruments in the fast, loudest way. And it's also very clear that they love playing together, as the energetic climbing up on the drum kit and wild flailing dances indicate.
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Tegan & Sara - Sainthood

Over ten years of indie rock/pop/folk activity, twins Tegan and Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara have undergone several changes, taking on new musical personalities for almost every album. While the changes from album to album may be subtle, the dynamic has altered greatly between 1999's Under Feet Like Ours and the newly released Sainthood. Gone entirely are the folksy, acoustic ballads of the early band, now replaced with an 80's-revival style of synth-y pop-rock. Even more interesting is that the nasal whine and self-loathing subplots of 2004's So Jealous and 2007's The Con, respectively, have been replaced with a more dance-heavy, but realistically somber style.

Their first album writing songs together, Sainthood feels more collaborative and more mature. (Not that the previous albums, especially The Con, weren't laden with maturity.) Tegan & Sara let the music operate as the essential provider of dreaminess now, with lyrics more starkly about relationships, devotion and heartbreak. These lyrics are claustrophobic at times, built from constant repetition that feels like being trapped within the weighty existential thoughts of their subject matter. The opening track "Arrow" feels like Camus' The Stranger with it's dichotomy of sensation and question. And the looping verses, at a quick pace, is aurally disorienting in a philosophical way. This is not an album that opens with a perfectly crafted pop single. It opens with a litany of questions and the knowledge that, as an arrow, our lovely protagonists will be flying through those questions at a high speed. And from that opening admission of fear and complication the album unfolds with "Don't Rush" and its simultaneous hope and defensiveness, "Hell," which points out the futility in those cliche words of love (in a vaguely Sartrian way), and the high school romance-gone-real track "On Directing".

And Sainthood stays on course. The breakup anthem "Night Watch" is a direct and power dagger to the heart of one failed love, while "The Ocean" passionately pleads for love's return and that closeness and affection. Tegan & Sara grow more nostalgic for love, and less questioning of it as the album marches, but "Sentimental Song" is a true treat. In this second to last track there is love, but also a clear strike against the sentimentality involved in writing love songs. It's a true burner.

Sainthood may not be as strong or as experimental or as catchy as The Con, but it is vividly clear evidence of Tegan & Sara's growth as a band, as songwriters and now as a song-writing duo. The essences of heartbreak and loss and love gone awry remain, but the voices have matured and seem less focused on how they might have wronged that lost beloved, and more focused on how that lost beloved didn't know how good he had it when that love was there. And all that beautifully accomplished through perspective rather than being a pure "fuck you" album.
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November 8: Dirty Projectors

After a day's rest to recover my hearing from the explosive Art Brut show at the Bluebird, I ventured into the beautiful, small venue to see Dirty Projectors. The Brooklyn band's artsy, experimental rock proved a stark contrast from the raucous, drone heavy, punk-laden experience of Friday night, but it marked a second straight amazing show from start to finish. Seeing Dave Longstreth and the band live, bringing all of the ornate and complex instrumentation of this year's excellent album Bitte Orca to life was truly amazing. The band was tight, the vocals mixed perfectly, and performed perfectly. It's a massive treat to have bands of this caliber land in our cultural oasis between the coasts.

Opening for Dirty Projectors was Merrill Garbus' solo-band tUnE-yArDs. It's a lo-fi musical treat that in its nature creates one of the best live experiences you can find outside of straight, growling power rock. Garbus, alone, began most songs with a string of looped vocals, blasts on the rim or skin of her tom and snare, and plucked bits on her ukulele. It takes a unique confidence to create, on the go, every track for a single song. And then to play a complete 45 minute set doing just that is remarkable. Garbus brings art rock and power-chord heavy melody to the ukulele. She effectively resists the inherent cuteness of the instrument by making it into a pedal-driven mini-monster. This combined with a meek, but haughty vocal style makes tUnE-yArDs special and very deserving of a larger following. Her writing too, both musically and lyrically carries a strong self-awareness and at times felt as though seeing her live was an invitation to a carnival ride than a passive listening experience. Her album, BiRd-BrAiNs, came out earlier this year and completely recommends her performing ability, but doesn't completely capture it. The album is a set of excellent tracks, but even more it is well designed and packaged to feel somewhere between a disc in an old record sleeve and something you might luck upon by talking to the performer outside a show by her an old station wagon with the lift gate up. Check the band out.

And the band we all came to see, and by we all I refer to a near capacity Bluebird theater that was as full as I've seen it this year. To fill a small venue, as a rising, but not massively-followed band, on a Sunday night, in a city that does inevitably "sleep" by 1 or 2am deserves praise. Dirty Projectors brought their best, with excellent versions of "Cannibal Resource," "Useful Chamber" and other great pieces of Bitte Orca. The true high-point was "Two Doves" being so beautifully, tightly and soulfully sung by Angel Deradoorian. Excellent vocals and harmony from Amber Coffman, and the rhythm section of Brian Mcomber and Nat Baldwin were near-album perfect. When a band as experimental and complex as Dirty Projectors translates from album, where the safety of the studio and production and track layering abound, to a live performance it's an indicator of greatness. Bitte Orca is a top album of the year candidate in my mind, and the band did nothing but elevate my opinion and that of a packed house. This was a dedicated fans show, where people grooved and danced and clearly hold a special place for this undefinable music style in their hearts. The Bluebird struck gold twice, and now, the only regret is that the two shows are over.
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November 6: Art Brut

Last night, Jim McTurnan And The Kids That Killed The Man opened a show that may mark the most incredibly energetic, dare I say "epic," music experience of my life. Just two weeks on the heels of an excellent Future of the Left show; the Bluebird hosted Art Brut with Surfer Blood and afore mentioned Jim McTurnan And The Kids That Killed The Man (JMcTATKTKTM for short I assume.). The excellent Bluebird theater was far from packed through the entire evening, which was disappointing, especially considering Art Brut's face-melting awesomeness, but not unexpected. None of these bands are HUGE, or even big really... so the reward for knowing they exist is a great intimate show.

JMcTATKTKTM started the show with the "...only 6 songs [they] have" and did a remarkable job. Only their tenth live show, they lack a bit of presence and polish, but it's clear that there's a lot of song writing talent there with a sound falling somewhere around the Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Weezer style of garage indie rock. Solid lyrics and excellent drumming really made those six songs enjoyable. And seeing a group on the rise like JMcTATKTKTM is now, at least entering into the infancy stages of bandhood was a real treat. Also, when the lead singer for the opening act sticks around to watch the second act, and to study their instrumentation, pedal-schemes, and song structure, it's a good sign that he's serious about making great music.

Surfer Blood, coming into town from South Florida, proved to be an exceptional Round Two. A bunch of young kids who know their shit musically, Surfer Blood utilized broad sound structure by incorporating keys, different modes of percussion (cowbell!) and lots of pedaled-in reverb, drone, and noise. They clearly have more shows under their belt. They've been on the radio, at least, "satellite" radio. But the stage presence was powerful, energetic and clearly confident. Raking picks down the guitar strings and bouncing around with an obvious love for their music, which found a sort of power pop, surfer, Pixies-esque medium and cranked it up as loud as possible, Surfer Blood sold the crowd and brought the show into the adolescence it needed to get raucous. Truly impressive energy. The lyrics were occasionally drowned out by the walls of ear-shattering, looped, guitar howl, but the bulk of the writing sounded excellent via cliche avoidance.

And now the pumps are primed for the greatest rock music from the UK recently. And the ever self-referential Art Brut saunters onto stage appearing as a collective of weary over-traveled rock icons bellying up to a bar. The energy and effort and skill displayed by Eddie Argos and the band plainly kicked the shit out of any show I've attended. Ever. Charismatic and suave, they took control of the audience, grabbed our ears, hearts and minds and blitzed the venue with a solid mix of tracks from It's a Bit Complicated, Art Brut Vs. Satan, and Bang Bang Rock & Roll. Twice, the band halted their set list and asked for requests, and twice we were treated. First "Emily Kane" played to perfection with Argos interjecting how he is now back in touch with the song's subject, and how powerful rock & roll can be. Then "Modern Art" reworded as "DC Comics" came with Argos walking out into the crowd, and telling a long narrative of a time he visited the DC offices in New York. All this done inches from where I was standing. These are the actions that make a show particularly epic. The intimacy is the thing, standing right next to Eddie Argos, face to face. Anyone who says a stadium concert is worth the money, or any better than a small venue show is either a liar, or a lunatic. Art Brut kept the energy high throughout their set, loading theatrics and stories (They had played Salt Lake City the night prior and Argos ruminated on the city's dry policies and how it was impossible to get drunk there.) and great musicianship atop one another. This was the best punk, art wave, blasting rock show ever. Just seeing this show boosted everyone. They empowered their audience, and that means success. Art Brut could kick Satan's ass. That's clear.
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Upcoming Shows and 30 For 30.

November brings three great, and much anticipated, shows to the Bluebird Theater. Tonight, the 6th, Art Brut will grace the stage touring on their new album Art Brut vs. Satan though I will hold out hope that they touch upon 2005's Bang Bang Rock & Roll. It's one of the best albums of that year, and one of the best indie albums to come out of England in the last five years. The Dirty Projectors will blast into the Bluebird on Sunday (8th) pouring fire into their new release Bitte Orca, which just happens to be one of the best albums of this year... combining excellent melodies with rhythmic acrobatics that meld electronica and rock with classic soul. And as if that weren't enough to melt the faces of indie lovers, The Fiery Furnaces (Wink wink... Melt. Fire. Jokes.) will come to town on Thanksgiving week, the 24th, to play selections from I'm Going Away. Though, from what I've heard, read, and known of the Furnaces, they're unlikely to play a "sounds like the record" show. Even with their most accessible album to date as the touring center-piece, I predict a healthy, wonderful aural-fuck to take place. November 2009: Where Blindingly Amazing Music Happens.

On another note, ESPN's 30 For 30 documentary series is proving to be the best and perhaps only example of a network successfully dabbling in a format change. Going from all sports news and live/taped broadcasts to adding inspired sports-centric documentaries is a big leap that has turned out satisfying. No other cable network has done this before. And I'm not counting MTV because what started as an inspired addition of The Real World turned into a disgusting cavalcade of tween-dumbening fashion adds with intentionally shaky camera work. That, and the rampant hot tub fucking. But I digress. 30 For 30 has had five solid episodes, starting with Wayne Gretzky's trade from Edmonton to the LA Kings, and most recently with Len Bias' tragic cocaine overdose just hours after being drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics. The films are thoughtful and loaded with archival footage (which is the best part), but most of all each gives a more intimate look at great/awful sporting events. And as someone who was of less than adult sentience in 1984 during the waning days of the USFL, these films are a powerful look back that capture the nostalgia found so often in the documentaries the History Channel used to air. Specifically the film "Muhammad and Larry" covering the days leading up to and the day of Ali's title fight with Holmes; a fight that tarnished the both men's careers. Seeing Ali, slowing and obviously wrecked from years of blows to the face and head, facing off with a younger, spry, strong fighter like Holmes is tragic enough. But, seeing it after archival footage where Ali seems only confident enough to lie to himself, following the guidance of men around him who are more interested in the attached paychecks than their fighter is heartbreaking. 30 For 30 is excellent so far and should be checked out by any sports fan, history buff or film auteur. Tuesdays at 8pm on ESPN, but check your local listings.
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