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A Year Goes By and You Don't Act Any Older
The Frames: Set List
Two nights before my wedding, this summer, Rush is playing in Boston. Add a stretch Hummer and a couple strippers, or vice versa, and you've more or less got a readymade bachelor party. Sadly, not that many of my male friends were ever really Rush fans, and even I wouldn't be particularly inclined to go were it not for the suggestive timing. A Rush show will be a spectacle. It sounds stupid to say that I'm no longer that entertained by spectacles, but in live music, at least, it appears to be basically true. It's been years since I saw anyone other than Tori Amos in an arena-scale venue, and even longer since I was last happy about it.
When I was younger, live music was its own justification. Arena size was irrelevant, because any band worth seeing was worth waiting overnight in ticket lines for (and I haven't done that since a Tori show in 1994), and I never much cared how many people were behind me at a show. When I got old enough for clubs, I still arrived in time for opening acts, and yelled for encores long after the exit music had started playing. I could stand for hours, and not mind the smoke (in the old days there was smoke, it's a long story why) or the mosh pits (a mosh is a tropical fruit people used to eat at concerts, but it's extinct now and mangos never caught on as a replacement) or the relentless noise. If you are still young, and still feel the tug of thrill every time the house lights go off and somebody's shadow crosses in front of a roadie's flashlight shining from the wings, then I envy you what you haven't relinquished.
I am creeping through my late thirties now, which feels young for all sorts of vital purposes, but apparently acceleratingly older for concert-going. I no longer go to much. It's not just laziness, and maybe isn't even mainly laziness. I form intense personal bonds with records, based frequently on aspects of the private listening experience that don't translate well or at all to live performance. Given that I almost always have the option to stay home and listen more closely to the records I already have, or for that matter to watch something from my scattered backlog of DVDs from bands who don't come around here anyway, a real concert has to compensate by offering something else. It has to overcome not only physical distance, but emotional distance, and offer me some kind of engagement with the music that I can't feel on my own, and preferably don't even know to miss.
Maybe for you this is exactly what most live music accomplishes, right down to open-mic nights and blues-club cover bands. Increasingly, for me, I want to see music purified. My favorite live performers, these days, are quiet, or solo, or unplugged, or unhinged, and they play fragments and shadows and impressions of the music they made in their studios, performances that are sometimes more reference than instance. I want to see Tori alone at her piano, stretching measures over her fingers. I want to see Alan and Mimi and Zak rooted to three corners of a stage, notes hanging in the air between them. I want to watch Mark Eitzel blow suspended ninths, and Emm Gryner in the corner of somebody's living room, and Mike Peters with a PowerBook full of pictures of the streets he grew up in.
Some of the bands capable of this kind of intimate rapture in person are also capable of it on record, unsurprisingly, and those are the ones I most often know to want to see. Every once in a very long while, I muster the random initiative to see someone else, some band I don't expect much from, and they turn out to be amazing, and I get a glimpse of how much I must be missing. One of these unexpected revelations, a couple years go, was the Irish band The Frames. Their records suggest an amiable live presence, the kind of band perfectly willing to fill second-stage daylight slots at midsummer fleadhs and make people get up off their blankets and dance.
In concert, their music nearly disappears. Glen Hansard is an imp, and tells coyly oblique stories that claim to be song origins but often seem to have been quite baldly and imprecisely retrofitted to them, in between which bits of music flitter like NPR punctuation. Frames melodies morph into show tunes and classic-rock nostalgia according to what appears to be their own whims, the players keeping up mostly by staying out of the way. There are more musicians on stage, most of the time, than the audible music can readily justify. And if the musicians all play, Hansard is just as likely to stop singing for a while to find out how well the audience knows the words. I've only seen them once, but I'm pretty sure they had the lowest ratio of coherent music to elapsed time of any band in my awareness, and I was rapt throughout.
This experience can't quite be transcribed directly to an audio CD without becoming annoying and unmanageable, but Set List comes a lot closer than I would have bet it could. The mix emphasizes room acoustics and performance variability, and keeps the audience audible even in the middles of songs where conventional concert-album practice retreats to the board leads. Hansard must know he's being recorded, but doesn't let that stop him from derailing anthems and digressing in the intros. He whispers and howls, alternating unsteadily between such extremes that very few words end up getting sung, per se. His bandmates singing backup are barely louder than the crowd in front of him (and not always as in-tune), and guitars and violins defer to each other with elaborate reticence, the band never using five sounds to paint a picture when two can outline its faintest silhouette or three can blast it into gravel. You won't get the feeling of being at a show just from hearing this, and you might not even end up with a clear idea of what these songs are supposed to sound like when they aren't merely invoking themselves. But if you've had the experience you'll remember it, and if you haven't you'll know that some people have.
Ida et al: Angel Hall
Low and Ida may be the only two bands whose shows I won't consciously miss no matter how often they play here. Low you have to witness, a recording is no help. Ida's genius is their harmonies, though, which can be recorded just fine. Or can in theory, at least, were the band not inexplicably averse to live recordings. Their first concert record, a plain-wrapper Insound Tour Support disc, may have the worst sound quality of any audio-thing I own, and is still easily in my live-album top ten. Angel Hall has its own packaging, at least, but came out on Ida's own Last Affair Records, and to get one you'll have to do a little research to figure out which indie distributor has copies left.
This recording is cleaner than the Insound one, but no fancier. The show in question was a New York HIV benefit in the summer of 2000, recorded straight to DAT and then carefully mastered by Warn DeFevr. Ida did eight songs, including my standing favorites "Maybelle", "Down on Your Back", "Honeyslide" and "Capo", and four others that are now my other favorites. The band is elegant and spare, but I could listen to Dan Littleton, Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele sing over air-conditioner hum. Nuances matter. Arguably, in harmony, nuances are everything. So not only could I listen to these three people sing over any accompaniment, I suspect I could happily listen to any number of recordings of them singing the same songs, a devotion that seems incomprehensible to me when it's manifest by Grateful Dead or Pearl Jam fans, but for Ida seems as sensible as wanting to kiss the same girl every day for the rest of my life.
(And although this analogy makes it awkward to explain the notion of bonus tracks, Angel Hall actually accompanies the eight Ida songs with seven more from the other bands who joined them for the benefit. Low do a rousing "Dinosaur Act", but don't change my mind that it's better when you can see them. His Name Is Alive is DeFevr's band, and I confess that I've never liked them. But the disc ends with an enthralling three-song reunion appearance by the Secret Stars, including their own hushed version of the Ida-covered jewel "Shoe-In", and if two rough concert albums don't even begin to exhaust my patience for Ida live, eight minutes of the Secret Stars makes me want to replay a whole lost decade to find more minutes of it that sounded like this.)
Rainer Maria: Anyone in Love With You (Already Knows)
I've seen Rainer Maria once only, too. Listening to their records at home, I lose myself in the doubts and catharses and forget that the music doesn't actually seep out of the tensions of the words the way I hear it. Standing in front of them, I suffered the worst cognitive concert dissonance since discovering that Del Amitri were cheerful. This package includes both a concert DVD and a CD of live recordings, so you can experience this bizarre effect in whichever medium you prefer.
They differ, though. The video captures what baffled me in person: Kyle Fischer appears to have absolutely no idea what kind of band he's in. He spasms around the stage, his body out of sync with the rhythm of what he's playing, muscles bulging out of a sleeveless shirt, a loopy grin on his face. Caithlin De Marrais is singing about quavering hopelessness and the obdurate perseverance of belief, and Kyle looks like he hopes the girl in the front row can lip-read his urgent assertion that that he, himself, is the one who let the dogs out.
The live audio, on the other hand, perplexes me because I know what these songs really sound like, and can't think of any reason why the band would chose to recreate them imperfectly. Novelists don't wander around rewriting particularly good passages of their work with sloppier phrasing on borrowed sheets of paper, so why should a band so capable of finishing their work intentionally undo it as a spectator sport?
(The consolation prize, though, after two kinds of bemusement, is the slow-motion video for "Ears Ring", featuring Kyle and William's deadpan evocations of the eternal enmity between grubby skateboarders and effete Vespa riders.)
Joe Jackson: Two Rainy Nights
Of course, it only seems like my concert tastes have narrowed because I'm going to fewer concerts now. More accurately, my tastes have shifted. To my younger self, and maybe yours, the fact of a concert mattered a lot more than its content. I was primarily there to celebrate the music and to testify, not to have my experience of the artist altered or even necessarily informed.
My older self has other modes of testimony, but every once in a while there's still an occasion that seems to call for the old ways. Sometimes I get a chance to fill in some hole in my youth. I finally got to see Dio front Black Sabbath on the Dehumanizer tour. I finally got to see the Go-Go's promoting Return to the Valley of the Go-Go's. And last year, for my birthday, Belle got us tickets to see Joe Jackson. Not only had I never seen him, due to my fascination being badly belated, but his concert double-album Live 1980/86 is another of my favorite live albums of all time.
Two Rainy Nights is a little belated, itself, as it was actually recorded on the tour before last, in April 2001, in support of Night and Day II, but that was my pick for the best album of 2000 (which I still stand behind three-plus years later, as best I can tell still alone), so this is my opportunity to hear concert versions of songs from both Night and Day albums, which were back out of the repertoire again by the time I saw him. They unify well, in this one band's hands, across eighteen years between the two very-different-sounding records, and Jackson helps link them with a few careful selections from other sources, including yet another distinctively ebullient version of the apparently infinitely malleable "Is She Really Going Out With Him?", and a hilarious hand-percussion-driven clatter through "Got the Time". Not very many pop musicians have the range and ability to not only reinvent themselves repeatedly, but to reinterpret and invent each phase of their work in each subsequent style.
Joe Jackson: Afterlife
Afterlife is the album from the 2003 reunion of the Joe Jackson Band, which is the tour I saw. The four-piece arrangements are necessarily simpler than the seven-piece Night and Day orchestrations, and the bulk of the material comes from the earlier and later albums on which the quartet played, so this set plays to edgy New Wave jump where Two Rainy Nights whirled through airy jazz-pop. Here too, though, letting one band play songs drawn from albums two decades apart brings out the internal commonalities much more vividly than juxtaposing the studio records, and as in person I find myself enjoying new songs for which I couldn't originally hear good motives. There's no "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" here, for once, but somehow "Awkward Age" ends up with some of the same endearing plaintiveness, and maybe twenty years from now we'll have nine great versions of that to compile. No "Real Time" or "Slow Song", either, but "Love at First Light" has more presence than I'd realized. And they have the sense to leave out "Dirty Martini" and "Thugz 'R' Us" entirely, and end the album with a glorious penultimate destruction of "Don't Wanna Be Like That" leading to a full-sprint recapture of the reference-standard for Jackson's definitive punk-pop fit "Got the Time". Not very many pop musicians have the endurance to repeatedly reassert their own mastery of their own modes, either. And even fewer have the ability to show up, after disappointing me with a throwback studio album, and play me some of the same songs so that I walk away sure that they were only regrouping in order to prepare for the masterpiece to follow.
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