Jul 5, 2011

Voldemort can't stop the rock

On their albums, Harry and the Potters make some of the worst music imaginable. They're the leaders of the Wizard Rock genre (It's real--Wikipedia even says so), and that's pretty much all they're good for--miserably catchy songs about Harry Potter--not that that's not enough.

Their sound quality makes you think they record their music on an Apple computer in their garage. Now that I've seen that they actually can play music live, I think that actually is how they record their music.

They were surprisingly good live, both musically and performance-wise. Then again, how could a free rock concert in the lobby of the downtown public library not be awesome?

When we got there 30 minutes early, it looked like we'd be just a few crazy fans watching the disturbance of silence in the library. Within just a few minutes, though, the place was full of a few fanatics, but mostly families enjoying a free Sunday afternoon activity. It was reassuring that there were so many families there so that it wasn't just a bunch of crazy people (not that I don't fit into that category).

That's exactly what the concert ended up being, too, a nice family activity for a Sunday afternoon. Between wizardry songs, they bantered with silly, all-ages-appropriate jokes like:

Where do puppies go to school? (Dogwarts)
Where do those cardboard circles from the 90s go to school? (Pogwarts)
Where do tadpoles go to school? (Pollywogwarts)

"Hagrid is fun to hug, Hagrid is full of love, Just don't get stuck in Hagrid's beard!" (Photo taken during the "full of love" hand motion.)

We're about to go so deep below Hogwarts that we're even below the dungeons! It's so deep we need a special code in the plumbing to enter! Are you ready? Do you know the code? Everyone say it out loud! "SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!" "We've got to save Ginny Weasley from the Basilisk!"

I'm not sure how long this duo of brothers can keep up their annual tour across the country, stopping only to play free library shows, but as long as they do, I'll be there.

"A three-headed dog, a three-headed dog, oh my God, a three headed dog!

Feb 19, 2011

Josh Ritter concert: I never knew folk music could be so fun

When you see someone truly enjoy what they're doing, you'll often enjoy it too. When you see a performer having fun while they're putting on a show, you'll appreciate it all the more.

When we were walking around Lawrence before the Josh Ritter concert last Friday, an older man was sitting on the corner making a rhythm using just drumsticks and a 5-gallon bucket. The rhythm was the most basic possible, usually just a 4-4 beat on the counts, but he had propped against his drum a sign saying "Support the Arts." The first time we walked by him, I internally questioned whether this simple rhythm on a made-up instrument counted as the arts, but the joy this man was emitting won me over and made me want to support "the arts." (I never did, but I wish I would have thrown in a buck for this guy trying to make a living doing something he obviously enjoyed.)

This street performer reminded me of Josh Ritter. Sure, Josh played fancy guitars and keyboards instead of buckets, and he used much more intricate beats. But they had perhaps the most important thing in common: They really enjoyed playing music for people.

I've seen a lot of performers who obviously enjoy what they do, but never have I seen someone walk on stage beaming as much as Josh was last Friday at the Liberty Hall in Lawrence. His smile was absolutely contagious, for both his bandmates and the audience.

He was stoked to play at the Liberty Hall, which he said was a major upgrade in size from the Bottleneck Club, where he usually played when he stopped in Jayhawk-ville. Maybe that's why he was so happy. But I don't think so. I think he just has a great time everywhere he plays.

I must say I was surprised to see this level of performance from him. Josh Ritter is one of the best living songwriters, and my vote for the next generation of Bob Dylan. Dylan is notoriously terrible live, and I totally excuse him for that. When you're an amazing songwriter, we can't expect you to be a great live performer too (Conor Oberst suffers from this syndrome too. While he's put on some great shows, he's hit or miss). Josh Ritter can do both though, and I find that highly impressive.

What impresses me most about Josh though, is that he probably doesn't give a crap that I'm impressed with him. He makes music because he wants to, and that's it. And I have a feeling that as long as he keeps that philosophy, he's going to keep turning out great records and playing fantastic shows.

Plus he gets bonus points because he's from Idaho. How many people come out of Idaho and become artistic icons? Probably not too many.

This was the opener, Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit. He was also excellent.

If you're not completely convinced what a great songwriter Josh Ritter is, check out what a great prose writer he is at his blog: http://www.bookofjubilations.com/. Looks like if he were neither a songwriter nor a performer, he could still be a writer.

Feb 9, 2011

The Decemberists: Keeping Weirdness Cool

Even with their new, fairly mainstream, alt-rock-country album out, the Decemberists are still weird. The theatricality is still there, even when playing only pieces of the rock opera from their last album, The Hazards of Love. The eccentricity is still there, despite singing mostly autobiographical songs instead of from the perspective of eastern European prostitutes. And frontman Colin Meloy still uses mostly four and five-syllable words when communicating with the audience. But throughout throughout it all, they still can put on a great rock show.

On tour for their latest album, The King Is Dead, the Decemberists stopped at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City with a mix of old and new songs. This was my third time seeing them live, and the first time outside of their hometown Portland. There's nothing like seeing them in their own stomping ground, with view of their kids playing ring-around-the-rosie on the side of the stage during the opening act, but they didn't disappoint.

Actually, instead they brought a bit of their home with them, with the album cover (silhouetted douglas fir trees) in the background. And Portland mayor Sam Adams even introduced the band--or at least someone who claimed to be him on recording. I'm confident that I was the only person in the theater who understood the significance of this controversial first-openly-gay-mayor-of-Portland who denied having an affair with a 16-year-old intern in order to get elected.

After having two excellent guest artists (Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavendar Diamond) playing on the album and tour of The Hazards of Love, I wasn't sure how they would replace their parts live. I was hoping that Shara Worden would be on tour with them as she stole the show with her crooning voice on the last tour, but I was happily surprised to see that they had found another fantastic guest--Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. Her fiddling added a great element to the new folksy songs, and she did a wonderful job singing the lead in "Won't Want for Love."

Even though I thought the Decemberists were being more normal than usual, they proved me wrong near the end of the night when Colin Meloy did his tradition of taking over the drumming so that John Moen could sing lead and clown around up front. They were singing "Chimbley Sweep," and they went into a very long bridge that included medleys to completely different songs. John Moen took it away from the "Chimbley Swee" and launched into a jazz song in honor of Kansas City jazz, then he requested that the microphone be passed to guitarist Chris Funk to have a turn.

Now let me explain that the first time I saw the Decemberists (in 2006?), Chris Funk played an astounding guitar, pedal steel, and hurdy gurdy. But he showed next to zero emotion. As one of the best current guitarists, Chris is constantly playing session work for all kinds of other bands and does a great job on the Decemberists' music, but he always seemed so stoic and honestly looked like a serial killer. On the The Hazards of Love tour, he showed more personality than I'd ever seen, but it would be hard to play those killer guitar riffs without it.

This time around, he seemed completely different than my first time seeing the band, when he grabbed the mic off its stand and started into the 80s one-hit-wonder song beginning with "Josie's on a vacation far away.." (you know it). He looked like he was having a ball, so of course the audience did too. Then, my favorite part, at the end of that song, they returned to "The Chimbley Sweep." You couldn't have chosen a more contrasting medley.

This concert was the most fun I've had on a Monday night in a long time. Supposedly Colin Meloy is about ready to publish his first novel (should be good--this guy is way too smart for his own good and graduated with a bachelor's--or maybe masters?--in creative writing), part of a trilogy, so the band may take a backseat in the next few years. Let's hope that it doesn't cause them to take too much of a break though.

Here's what they played (taken from their Facebook page):

The Infanta
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
...Rise to Me
Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
We Both Go Down Together
Won't Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Rake's Song
Don't Carry It All
January Hymn
The Crane Wife 1 & 2
The Crane Wife 3
16 Military Wives
The Chimbley Sweep
Eli, The Barrow Boy
The Mariner's Revenge Song
June Hymn

I didn't take any videos that night, so here's one I found online from the Hazards of Love tour of "The Rake Song." This is such a fun song when they play it live--everyone except for Colin takes up a drum, so the place is rocking:

Jan 10, 2011

Best Concerts of 2010

2010 was a great year for concerts! This summer I had the opportunity to see three legends within three weeks of each other, and no one disappointed (well, one of them did, but oh well). Here’s my review of all the concerts I think I went to this year (with a special shout out to my one and only blog fan Warren G!):

Bad quality video I took at the concert, but still the best...

1. Paul McCartney (July 24): Best concert ever, ever, ever. Enough said. Not only is he one of the best songwriters ever to live, but he can put on a fantastic show. From Beatles to solo to Paul McCartney and Wings, he played it all. With no opener, the show still went on for three hours without a break. Not bad for an almost 70-year-old. Yes, Paul is a complete ham, but it’s refined in a rare way. He knows how to entertain the crowd by telling stories about John and George, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, etc., but also showing that he’s retained a little down-to-earth quality. Highlights besides simply being within a few hundred feet from a Beatle: “Day in the Life,” which Paul played live for the first time just a couple years ago, and “Something,” a George Harrison song that Paul played in honor of him, beginning on ukulele and leading into a true-to-the-original guitar version.

2. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (July 13): This concert played like a greatest hits record, and I have no complaints about it. It’s truly amazing how many classic songs this guy has had in his career. While the crowd preferred the hits, he also did a brilliant job playing the bluesy tracks off of his newly released album Mojo. After playing about ten hits, he said he’d been dying to play us some songs from their new album that he was so proud of. You could hear the excitement in his voice. Forty years into it, he still gets unspeakably excited to play for his fans. Not only that, but he cares about his bandmates. And the Heartbreakers truly are a band, not just Tom Petty and his session musicians (same goes for Paul McCartney’s attitude toward his band). After decades of success and fame, that makes me respect him even more that he still cares about the guys in the background helping him out (not like the Heartbreakers don’t contribute because they do—especially guitarist Mike Campbell who’s actually written a lot of the hits—but they definitely don’t get the credit Tom gets). I’d go see Tom and his Heartbreakers again in a heartbeat.

3. Sufjan Stevens (October 17): As good as Tom was, Sufjan was so incredibly good that I almost had to give him second place instead of third. Give him a few more years practice, and he’ll compete with the legends. Granted this is also one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever been to. For the indie king famous for folksy banjo ballads about Midwestern states, none of us were expecting him to come on stage dancing, wearing a cut-off old school Nike shirt, with flashing lights flooding the theater. Sufjan’s new album is a dramatic departure from the songs that made him famous, and this show was all about that album. Teasing the old-time fans by coming on stage playing “Seven Swans,” he then played nearly every song off of The Age of Adz, including the 25-minute “Impossible Soul,” without interruption. His usual massive orchestra backed him up, but he also had two sequined backup singers that did more dancing (including ribbon dancing at one point!) than singing. Sufjan himself joined in the dance party, which is pretty awesome for a skinny white boy. Most importantly, he cared about his fans and recognized that some people were wildly confused by the almost-rap dance music, and made jokes at his own expense. To win those fans over, he played a wonderful encore of “Chicago” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

4. Guster (October 13): One of my favorite bands of all time that rarely strays away from the east coast when touring, I was so excited to hear they were coming to Kansas City. They were once my favorite concert ever (since replaced by Monsters of Folk then Paul), and they still put on a fantastic live show. The band is coming up on its 20th birthday, and it shows when they’re on stage. The original trio is the same with just one additional musician after two decades. Drummer Brian Rosenworcel still avoids using drumsticks—-instead taping up his hands and mutilating them on the instrument—-much of the time, but they’ve also grown up and adapted their style some too. They haven’t changed their ability to relate to the crowd, though, from the hand-drawn picture of a local bbq sandwich on the chalkboard-piano, to stories about their adventures in Kansas City, Guster is entertaining for anyone to see.

5. Weezer (June 5): This was the first of my Buzz Under the Stars concert-—the local alternative rock radio station puts on several concerts every summer at City Market that usually put together three or four very different bands for one fairly affordable show. I can’t really remember the other bands that played with them, but they’re the emo bands the high schoolers came out to see. While this concert series gets huge names, the downfall is that they get so many bands that nobody gets to play very long. I think Weezer played an hour and a half, but they could have gone on much longer. They played nearly all of the Blue album that’s more than 15 years old, and also some of their terrible new songs. Rivers Cuomo was as nerdy as ever and also as entertaining as ever. I hope they come back when they’ll be able to play for longer.

6. Jack’s Mannequin (February 19): I hardly listen to Jack’s Mannequin anymore, but I’ll always go see them when they come to town. Frontman Andrew McMahon is a fantastic performer that always puts on a great show. Banging and jumping on the piano, screaming into the mic, and having authentic conversations with the audience, he definitely knows how to relate to his fans.

7. Blitzen Trapper (June 22): I don’t remember too much about this concert because it was on a weeknight and didn’t start till 10 p.m. Call me old, but after supervising 20 teenagers in 100 degree direct sun all day, that was too late for me. Blitzen Trapper used to open for lots of concerts I went to in Portland-—since they’re from there—-but now that they’re more well-known they can tour the country as headliners. It was great to see one of my favorite local Portland bands, and it was awesome to hear them play so many new songs from their great new album Destroyers of the Void.

8. Smashing Pumpkins and Cake (September 25): Another Buzz concert, so it was a lot of bands in a short amount of time. I don’t know either of these bands too well, but I left a fan of one (Cake) and disliking the other (Smashing Pumpkins). Cake played a great short set, with tons of energy and passion. Their songs are so fun, and they translated that well live. Smashing Pumpkins was the Billy Corgan show, and he just acted like a pompous rock star. Cake looked like a band—-even though they’ve had a rotating lineup, they were one on stage. Smashing Pumpkins looked like an old guy who played with some hired 20-year-olds, which upon research when I got home, is exactly the case.

9. Ben Folds, Devo (July 23): Another Buzz concert, and this one combined way too many bands in too short of a time. Ben Folds is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen, but you’ve got to give him more than 60 minutes to play. He was good as always, but he played solo, and I prefer him with a band behind him, especially when he gets such a short time to begin with. Devo was awesomely hilarious—-a bunch of 50 and 60 year olds wearing strange outfits and flower-pot hats. Needless to say, they whipped it.

10. Bob Dylan (August 7): Often considered the best living songwriter (and I might say so myself), Dylan wins the prize for the worst concert I saw this year. Four or five songs in the crowd was yelling “Play some Dylan now!” He sang mostly new songs with such a slur that you couldn’t recognize them. I know his new material pretty well, but I still had no idea what songs he was singing. I looked up the set list after the show to see that he also played a few old songs, and no one could even recognize them because he distorted them so much. He did play an encore of “Like a Rolling Stone” that was pretty awesome because it looks like he doesn’t play that all that often. I had heard that Dylan was incredibly spotty in concert, so I figured that for $30, I was happy to be within 100 feet of him.

Stay tuned for my list of favorite albums of the year. And here's to more blog posts in 2011!

Mar 3, 2010

Hard-working pop band vs. big bad major label

Having written a 40-page capstone paper on the future of the music industry amidst all the downloading/Napster/RIAA/iTunes/major record label fiasco, I'm a little bit of a nerd for news of other ways people in the music industry are marketing their music and/or making money with it. Ok Go, a Chicago band that made it big solely because of their friend youtube, is getting a lot of music press this week.

Maybe you haven't heard of OK Go before, but do you remember that music video with the treadmills? That's right, this one:

OK Go - Here It Goes Again from OK Go on Vimeo.

Whether you're a grandparent in the United States or a six-year-old in Thailand, that video probably made it to your computer sometime in the last four years.

Say what you want about these guys having too much time on their hands, but they are creative. And, even more importantly, they're willing to work very, very hard to get the word out there about their happy-go-lucky pop music.

Well, OK Go is at it once again, this time with an incredibly elaborate video involving dominoes, balloons, toy cars, spray paint, marbles, umbrellas, and everything in between, is becoming a viral youtube rage. You'd think that their record label, Capitol, would be excited about all this free advertising. But they're not. The reason? They make a very small amount of money anytime anyone views a music video on youtube, but not when someone views it on a blog where it's embedded (like the video above and the one below).

Capitol only cares about the money (no pun intended). The band, however, just wants people to see their video and hear their music, so they wrote this very interesting letter on their website that I'd like to publish on here too:

To the people of the world, from OK Go:

This week we released a new album, and it’s our best yet. We also released a new video – the second for this record – for a song called This Too Shall Pass, and you can watch it here. We hope you'll like it and comment on it and pass the link along to your friends and do that wonderful thing that that you do when you’re fond of something, share it. We want you to stick it on your web page, post it on your wall, and embed it everywhere you can think of.

Unfortunately, as of now you can’t embed diddlycrap. And depending on where you are in the world, you might not even be able to watch it.

We’ve been flooded with complaints recently because our YouTube videos can't be embedded on websites, and in certain countries can't be seen at all. And we want you to know: we hear you, and we’re sorry. We wish there was something we could do. Believe us, we want you to pass our videos around more than you do, but, crazy as it may seem, it’s now far harder for bands to make videos accessible online than it was four years ago.

See, here’s the deal. The recordings and the videos we make are owned by a record label, EMI. The label fronts the money for us to make recordings – for this album they paid for us to spend a few months with one of the world’s best producers in a converted barn in Amish country wringing our souls and playing tympani and twiddling knobs – and they put up most of the cash that it takes to distribute and promote our albums, including the costs of pressing CDs, advertising, and making videos. We make our videos ourselves, and we keep them dirt cheap, but still, it all adds up, and it adds up to a great deal more than we have in our bank account, which is why we have a record label in the first place.

Fifteen years ago, when the terms of contracts like ours were dreamt up, a major label could record two cats fighting in a bag and three months later they'd have a hit. No more. People of the world, there has been a revolution. You no longer give a shit what major labels want you to listen to (good job, world!), and you no longer spend money actually buying the music you listen to (perhaps not so good job, world). So the money that used to flow through the music business has slowed to a trickle, and every label, large or small, is scrambling to catch every last drop. You can't blame them; they need new shoes, just like everybody else. And musicians need them to survive so we can use them as banks. Even bands like us who do most of our own promotion still need them to write checks every once in a while.

But where are they gonna find money if no one buys music? One target is radio stations (there's lots of articles out there. here's one: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/20...ouse-senate.ars ). And another is our friend The Internutz. As you’ve no doubt noticed, sites like YouTube, MySpace, and Blahzayblahblah.cn run ads on copyrighted content. Back when Young MC's second album (the one that didn't have Bust A Move on it) could go Gold without a second thought, labels would’ve considered these sites primarily promotional partners like they did with MTV, but times have changed. The labels are hurting and they need every penny they can find, so they’ve demanded a piece of the action. They got all huffy a couple years ago and threatened all sorts of legal terror and eventually all four majors struck deals with YouTube which pay them tiny, tiny sums of money every time one of their videos gets played. Seems like a fair enough solution, right? YouTube gets to keep the content, and the labels get some income.

The catch: the software that pays out those tiny sums doesn’t pay if a video is embedded. This means our label doesn’t get their hard-won share of the pie if our video is played on your blog, so (surprise, surprise) they won’t let us be on your blog. And, voilá: four years after we posted our first homemade videos to YouTube and they spread across the globe faster than swine flu, making our bassist’s glasses recognizable to 70-year-olds in Wichita and 5-year-olds in Seoul and eventually turning a tidy little profit for EMI, we’re – unbelievably – stuck in the position of arguing with our own label about the merits of having our videos be easily shared. It’s like the world has gone backwards.

Let’s take a wider view for a second. What we’re really talking about here is the shift in the way we think about music. We’re stuck between two worlds: the world of ten years ago, where music was privately owned in discreet little chunks (CDs), and a new one that seems to be emerging, where music is universally publicly accessible. The thing is, only one of these worlds has a (somewhat) stable system in place for funding music and all of its associated nuts-and-bolts logistics, and, even if it were possible, none of us would willingly return to that world. Aside from the smug assholes who ran labels, who’d want a system where a handful of corporate overlords shove crap down our throats? All the same, if music is going to be more than a hobby, someone, literally, has to pay the piper. So we’ve got this ridiculous situation where the machinery of the old system is frantically trying to contort and reshape and rewire itself to run without actually selling music. It’s like a car trying to figure out how to run without gas, or a fish trying to learn to breath air.

So what’s there to do? On the macro level, well, who the hell knows? There are a lot of interesting ideas out there, but this is not the place to get into them. As for our specific roadblock with the video embedding, the obvious solution is for YouTube to work out its software so it allow labels to monetize their videos, wherever on the Internet or the globe they're being accessed. That'll surely happen before too long because there's plenty of money to be made, but it’s more complicated than it looks at first glance. Advertisers aren’t too keen on paying for ads when they don’t know where the ads will appear (“Dear users of FoxxxyPregnantMILFS.com, try Gerber’s new low-lactose formula!”), so there are a lot of hurdles to get over.

In the meantime, the only thing OK Go can do is to upload our videos to sites that allow for embedding, like MySpace and Vimeo. We do that already, but it stings a little. Not only does it cannibalize our own numbers (it tends to do our business more good to get 40 million hits on one site than 1 million hits on 40 sites), but, as you can imagine, we feel a lot of allegiance to the fine people at YouTube. They’ve been good to us, and what they want is what we want: lots of people to see our videos. When push comes to shove, however, we like our fans more, which is why you can take the code at the bottom of this email and embed the "This Too Shall Pass" video all over the Internet.

With or without this embedding problem, we'll never get 50 zillion views on a YouTube video again. That moment – the dawn of internet video – is gone. The internet isn’t as anarchic as it was then. Now there are Madison Avenue firms that specialize in “viral marketing” and the success of our videos is now taught in business school. But here's a secret: zillions of hits was never the point. We're a rock band, and it’s a great gig. Not just because we get to snort drugs off the Queen of England (we do), but because the only thing we are expected to do is make cool stuff. We chase our craziest ideas for a living, and if sharing those ideas takes 40 websites instead of one, it doesn’t make too big a difference to us.

So, for now, here's the bottom line: EMI won't let us let you embed our YouTube videos. It's a decision that bums us out. We've argued with them a lot about it, but we also understand why they're doing it. They’re aware that their rules make it harder for people to watch and share our videos, but, while our duty is to our music and our fans, theirs is to their shareholders, and they believe they’re doing the right thing.

Here’s the embed code for the Vimeo posting:

OK Go - This Too Shall Pass from OK Go on Vimeo.

Go forth and put it everywhere, please. And buy our album. It’s great.

Yours Truly,

Damian (on behalf of OK Go)

It's long, but quite interesting as for the future of music. The original copy of the letter appeared here on the band's website. Note that the link they posted in the letter turned into the video because I pasted it onto my blog. Most interesting of all, Capitol has succumbed. The official Capitol-posted youtube video is now able to be embedded too. Long live the underdog.

Feb 25, 2010

Happy birthday to my favorite Beatle

Today would have been George Harrison's 67th birthday, so here's a quick post to honor him.

I just got his acclaimed solo album All Things Must Pass from the library and am listening to it. I thought I had most of the album already as I had a few songs, but turns out it's a triple album (the first triple album ever released by a solo artist), and I had such a small percentage.

It's amazing to imagine all of these songs that George had stacked up from Beatles recordings that were overlooked by Lennon/McCartney masterpieces. Sometimes George's overshadow theirs too though. In fact, I think some of the very best songs in the end of the Beatles' career are Harrison songs.

All Things Must Pass has been certified 6x Platinum.

My library copy of the album notes are from the CD reissue of the album in 2001, 30 years after its original release (just a few short months before he succumbed to a long battle with cancer). George writes a couple pages of notes:

It's been thirty years since 'All Things Must Pass' was recorded. I still like the songs on the album and believe they can continue to outlive the style in which they were recording.

I think so too, George.

He sounds like he's name-dropping a who's who of the best musicians of the day when he's acknowledging everyone who contributed. Everyone from Ringo Starr to Eric Clapton to Phil Collins played on the album, and of course Phil Spector produced the "wall of sound" effects.

I'm not going to argue that he's the most talented Beatle because I don't think he is. But I think he's nearly equal to John and Paul, and he has the best personality of all.

To finish my tribute post, I've googled a few George quotes to showcase his quirks as well as his depth:

With our love, we could save the world.

At a Beatles press conference:
Reporter: "What do you call that hairstyle you're wearing?"
George Harrison: "Arthur."
Reporter: "What do you call that collar?"
Ringo Starr: "A collar."

The Beatles saved the world from boredom.

On being stifled as a songwriter in the Beatles:
It was like having diarrhea and not being allowed to go to the toilet. I think a lot of people were surprised to see, 'Oh, he writes songs, too.'

I think people who can truly live a life in music are telling the world, "You can have my love, you can have my smiles. Forget the bad parts, you don't need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because it's the very best, and it's the part I give.

Feb 21, 2010

Jack's Mannequin at the Beaumont Club, Feb. 19, 2010

There's a big difference between being a good musician and a good performer. It's not that you can't be both (Craig Finn of the Hold Steady is a great example or a little-known guitarist named Bruce Springsteen), but they're two different skills.

You're not going to find a review of Jack's Mannequin on most music snob media like Pitchfork or Stereogum. But while Jack's Mannequin may not make the highest quality music out there, they're some of the best performers I've ever seen.

That intro makes them sound like they're dressing up in crazy costumes like Kiss or doing Flaming Lips theatrics, but that's not the story here. Lead singer/songwriter/pianist Andrew McMahon is just a very charismatic person that loves what he does. He's not that old of a guy--just 27--but he's been performing on major stages for a decade now as the frontman of punk rock band Something Corporate and then as his "side project," the more tamed-down Jack's Mannequin. He said on Friday night that he and his bandmates tour some 200 days out of the year. "I've been doing this for a f***ing decade," he said, sounding incredulous at the longevity, then went on to explain that there's absolutely nothing he'd rather do (excuse the explicitness. He has a very...colorful...vocabulary).

Maybe that's what makes a great rock performer: someone who is actually having fun and grateful for his fans.

One more background anecdote, then I promise I'll review the concert. Maybe Andrew is grateful for his fans and his chance to make a career out of music because he almost lost it all. Not just drama within a band or record label--he almost lost a battle with cancer just a few years ago. After two very successful (in the punk rock genre and crossing over into pop) albums with Something Corporate, he took a break to record songs for his new side project Jack's Mannequin. Three months before the first album, Everything In Transit was due out, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Just 22 at the time and the most popular he'd ever been musically, it nearly killed him and kept him off the music scene for nearly a year.

This is the time when a band would be touring on a new album, but Everything In Transit sold itself without those tours. Throughout all of this, Andrew instead became a champion for raising money to cure leukemia (and he still does a ton for the cause with his own nonprofit the Dear Jack Foundation).

So he's more than just a punk rocker. Five minutes into a concert, you can tell that this guy has something to prove and something to live for. He's grateful for his life, music and every single one of his fans. And it shows.

Not to mention, the second and latest Jack's Mannequin album, The Glass Passenger (2008) is thematically nearly entirely about the joy of being alive. In "Swim" he sings:
"You gotta swim,
Swim for your life
Swim for the music that saves you
When you're not so sure you'll survive."

In "Caves," he even sings directly about being deathly ill:
"Beat my body like a rag doll
you stuck the needles in my hip
Said 'we're not gonna lie
Son, you just might die
Get you on that morphine drip, drip.'"

When he's playing these songs live, you can see that he really means these lyrics. I'm honestly amazed that he can get up on a stage in front of a thousand strangers every night and sing about such personal issues, but he knows that he was made to be a musician and to tell his story.

Friday's show was a mix of old songs and new songs. Andrew said that this tour served "to put The Glass Passenger to bed," but he played an equal mix of new and old. I'm partial to the first album, so I was happy about this.

I must say that I think the first time I saw Jack's three years ago, he put on a slightly better show. It could be because I was in the front row last time, or maybe he just likes Portland more than Kansas City (although unlikely because he was raving about this audience), or maybe he was grateful to be on one of his first tours since recovering. In 2007 he played a fantastic mix of Jack's songs, a cover or two, and quite a few Something Corporate songs, which was an anomaly at the time since the band was in a hiatus. He's also brilliant at relating to the audience and honestly telling stories about where the songs came from and any history of the music. There wasn't quite as much banter this time, just high-energy music.

And no Something Corporate tunes, which he explained was because the band will be reuniting for a few shows and a couple days in the studio revamping old songs late this spring. That's all good and well, but I was hoping for another live version of "She Paints Me Blue" transitioning into "Dark Blue" like the 2007 Roseland Theater show.

He still related to the audience so much, even taking a request for "Miss California." He said they're picky about requests, only taking those they want to play, but he was in the mood to play this song about his home state. He also did his traditional stamping on the Baldwin grand and jumping into the crowd--he is a punk rocker after all.

One of the best comments of the night was when Andrew was talking about how he'd been watching the Olympics out in his tour bus before his set. He turned on the tv, excited to see what sport was on, and it was ice dancing, which he wasn't too keen on (I second that one as I turned on the tv tonight to the third night in a row of ice dancing). He talked about how the Russians were getting good scores, so he proceeded to dedicate the next song, "Crashing," to them. Well played.

The crowd was really energetic and into it all night, but they shut up when the band launched into a cover of U2's "New Year's Day." There were quite a few younger kids there, but come on, I wasn't alive when this song came out and I know it. Plus, the audience wasn't that one-sided age-wise. Jack's played a fairly good version of the classic, and Bobby Anderson even kept up with the Edge's crazy guitar licks.

The opening bands also held their own--first Vedera and then Fun. Vedera was alright, nothing too special, but they deserve great thanks because as a Kansas City band, they're probably the reason the Sing for Your Supper Tour (it's formal name) even stopped here instead of Omaha, St. Louis, Tulsa, or the countless other options within a couple hundred miles.

Fun was...wait for it...fun. Cliche, but really that's the best way to describe them. This branch-off from a former Format member put on a very high-energy performance, showcasing their classic pop songs. I'll be looking into them more now that I've seen them live.

I started this post by saying that Andrew McMahon is a great performer and differentiating that from being a great musician, but I don't want to discredit his musical talent. He's not the most talented musician I've seen in concert by any means, but he is quite a pianist. The piano is an instrument frequently ignored or downplayed, so to bring it to the forefront, especially in the punk genre, is admirable. And he does it with great skill. Not to mention, he's also a brilliant writer of pop songs, something easier said than done. I'm not a huge punk fan anymore, but I can still respect his music and definitely his performances. And long live any modern pop pianist (i.e. pretty much just him, Ben Folds, and a few Coldplay songs. Ok, that's harsh, but pianists aren't hit-makers these days).

Here's a bad-quality clip of "Holiday From Real" off of the Everything In Transit album:

And the U2 cover, "New Year's Day":

And while we're a this video-embedding business, here's the preview for the video that Andrew recorded exposéing his battle with cancer. I haven't seen it, looks pretty intense. I admire the guy just for wanting to tell his story though.