Sunday, November 22, 2009

Writer’s Jukebox – The Magic of the Live

What is that awesome looking thing on the wall?Great bands are made on the road.  Balancing the grind of the tour with the quality of the performance isn’t something every group is up for.  Unless you employ some kind of laser-light extravaganza (and sometimes even then), a live show usually reveals the essence of your music.  Gone are the bells and whistles of the label’s fancy studio.  Gone are the helping hands of your producer, manager, agent, best boy, coffee go-fer.  It’s you and 20,000 hopefully more people than are in your band.  Ask for a do-over and you’ll get booed offstage.  It can be cruel.  It can be exhilarating.

Pankin, Gene, and Stephanie join us this week, all with tales of bands on the stage not in the recording booth.  Whether it’s a live album, a concert DVD, or a handful of people dancing in the basement of a bar, a live performance can show you how a band feels about their music, not just how they want you to feel.

Pankin – The Song (Sometimes) Remains the Same

I’ve recently returned to some old standards, as far as my taste in music is concerned, the first of which is Rush’s latest album Snakes & Arrows. I may have a bias towards this album because the only time I saw Rush live was during their 2007 tour in support of it, but I think it’s one of their strongest efforts.

Their second album after a long hiatus, Snakes & Arrows shows a return to the ensemble nature of the band from their early days. Bassist/singer Geddy Lee has really toned down the use of synthesizers allowing Alex Lifeson’s guitar parts to play a more central role. The album has a rousing and upbeat feel, despite drummer Neil Peart’s grim lyrics that don’t skimp on the social commentary. But, as usual, the trio’s unparalleled musicianship, catchy tunes, and thought-provoking subject matter win the day on this one.

I’ve also been listening to a couple of live Led Zeppelin albums (How the West Was Won and The Song Remains the Same). For their studio stuff, guitarist Jimmy Page’s skills as a producer account for a significant part of their sound picture. But it’s interesting to remove that element completely and listen to what these guys can do with just their instruments. Needless to say, Zep rocks the house even without all the overdubs, reverse echo effects, and the like.

They keep the energy up so high by changing things up on stage: altering the structure of their songs to include ripping solos by Page or explosive drum breaks by John Bonham (I don’t think I’ve heard him play the same one twice). This tendency is in marked contrast to Rush, who seem to pride themselves on making their live performances of their songs as close as possible to their studio versions.

GeneWe Only Stop For Tequila Shots

My financial situation hasn’t changed much in the last couple weeks, but I’ve decided not to let that get in the way of spending money on things.   Fearing the prospect of another weekend spent indoors, I got tickets to see Times New Viking and The Axemen at Maxwell’s last night.  My fear that it would be sold out were unfounded as maybe 30 to 35 people showed up by the time TNV started their set.  The Axemen are a punk band that hails from New Zealand, and this is apparently their longest tour since they started back in early 80s.  During their opening set they changed tempos a lot, doing some slower lounge act ballads and jumping right into blistering, straightforward two-minute drills and back again.  Their catalog spans a wide range of styles, a lot like fellow New Zealand indies The Clean, with whom the Axemen share occasional members.  Siltbreeze just reissued their third album Big Cheap Motel on vinyl, which I bought along with a 7” they recorded with Times New Viking for the tour.  The headliner started out in Columbus, OH, and they play super-fuzzed out and L-O-U-D indie pop in the vein of Guided by Voices, both abrasive and saccharine.  They played loud enough that my brain started buzzing pretty early into the set, and they only stopped once or twice to take tequila shots.  They also gave a shout-out to locals Yo La Tengo with a cover of “Nothing to Hide,” which is an easy  way to get a gold star in New Jersey.  Check out this video for “No Time, No Hope” to get an idea of what they are about.

Stephanie – A Musical Surprise Courtesy of Starbucks

A year ago my father brought home the self-titled album Rodrigo y Gabriela after hearing it at a local Starbucks. The price tag for the CD with live concert DVD included was something like $14.00, which turned out to be embarrassingly cheap for the high quality. I was blown away by the footage of this young acoustic-guitar playing duo out of Mexico City, so much so that the album became a staple of my work-day. Recently I picked up their new album 11:11.

I wish I was better at discussing music, because I can’t possibly do this group justice with my uneducated descriptions. The fast-paced, Latin-style, classical acoustic rhythms of this talented young pair are perfect for pumping me up or keeping me awake. Rodrigo Sánchez leads with lightning-quick dexterity that demands respect from even the best pickers out there, and Gabriela Quintero takes the idea of rhythm guitar to a completely new level, providing enough backup beats and tunes for at least three instruments. Some of their main influences are from the thrash metal genre that I so despise including Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, yet I couldn’t help but appreciate their brilliant “Orion” cover, and I had a great time listening to “Stairway to Heaven” from their first CD. Other influences that really shine through in 11:11 include Hendrix, Santana, Pink Floyd, and a host of others from South America to the Middle East.

I appreciate the fusing of the energy and breakneck picking speed of metal with the whole melody thing that the genre sometimes lacks. Fusing in jazz, folk rock and a Latin rock flare gives their sound a unique personality, making 11:11 just as enjoyable of a listen as the first album. I bought the CD on Amazon for about $8:00 (once again with DVD included). I feel like I’ve committed highway robbery.