Bon Iver’s Seismic Shift

Last year, the northeast coast of Japan was stricken by a huge subduction zone earthquake and tsunami.  It caused an unfathomable amount of death and destruction, killing thousands and affecting the lives of millions of people.  The Japanese are a resilient bunch, and life in the land of the rising sun will eventually return to something resembling normal.  That said, the disasters Japan faced last year would test the will of anyone.

Amid the tragedy, some fascinating physical events occurred.  By some estimates, the main island of Japan moved over two metres closer to North America in a matter of seconds.  A large piece of the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the Japanese sub-plate, which set off the tsunami.  With that much mass moving closer to the centre of the earth, it affected the rate at which our planet rotates.  Thanks to the conservation law of angular momentum, the Earth’s rotation sped up a measurable amount (by something like 1.8 microseconds per day) to compensate.  It was testament to how a single event can trigger an effect on a planetary scale.

The laws of cause & effect also seem to hold in our personal lives.  Everybody has days that stand out, days that subtly nudge the trajectory of their lives in one direction or another.  In my decidedly simple life, those days tend to be music concerts.  It may sound churlish that some of my life-altering events are nothing more than rock ‘n’ roll gigs, but it’s true.  I can still remember how awestruck I felt during Pink Floyd’s show in Winnipeg on 1-Jul-1994, and how emotional I got at Radiohead’s Gorge Amphitheatre gig on 23-Jun-2001, and I remember Wilco’s mind-blowingly intense concert in Edmonton on 18-Aug-2007 like it was yesterday.  Each of those shows, in some small way, deflected the course of my life.

Over time, I think Monday night’s Bon Iver gig in Edmonton might just take its place among my pantheon of great gigs.  Walking out of the show, I somehow felt like a different person, as though life was moving at a slightly different speed.

Based on the sonics of last year’s impressive self-titled release and their restrained performances on Saturday Night Live a few months ago, I expected the Bon Iver live experience to be a low-key affair.  What they delivered live in the flesh was instead at times a visceral rock and roll show, accompanied by an impressionistic audio-visual assault on the senses.  The nine musicians on stage explored every nuance of the songs from Bon Iver and injected new life into cuts from the debut album For Emma, Forever Ago and the Blood Bank EP.

The stage of the Jubilee Auditorium was framed across the top by web-like burlap curtains, with post-modern, multi-coloured LED stalagmites below.  The curtains served as ragged makeshift drive-in movie screens for projected images.  Most of the night the stage was relatively dark, bathed in slowly swirling washes of red or blue light.  But during the punchiest numbers, strobe lights and other effects pierced through the haze to add an extra element to the music.  The result was a workout for the senses – eardrums strained to adapt to varying loudness levels while irises constantly adjusted to the ever-changing lights.  It gave the relatively stoic performers on stage a sense of kinetic energy.

The back line consisted of a bass player and horn player, bookended by dueling drummers.  Up front, leader Justin Vernon was flanked by guitarists, another horn player, and various other instruments.  At times, the guitarists kneeled over their pedal boards in reverence to their musical cousins in Radiohead.  Props to the back line horn player who spent most of the gig playing the biggest goddamn saxophone I’ve ever seen.  It looked like someone ripped the exhaust pipe off a top-fuel dragster, put three bends in it, and jammed in a mouthpiece.  Simply epic.

The set kicked off with the formidable 1-2 punch of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI”.  The same two songs lead off the Bon Iver album, but in a live setting the dynamics of the tunes were much more pronounced.  The drums were thunderous, the guitars squalled, and the horns blared in service to the groove.  And this night was very much about mood and groove and emotion, since so many of the songs lacked a conventional verse-chorus structure.

A personal highlight was the mid-set back-to-back placement of “Holocene” and “Blood Bank”.  “Holocene” was ethereal and gracious as you might expect, while “Blood Bank” was a gut-punch of noise and stomping rhythms.  The sax solo that formed the bridge between the two songs came perilously close to “Jazz Odyssey” territory, but never quite slipped over the edge.

Later on, the unmistakable opening notes of “Skinny Love” and “Calgary” elicited cheers of recognition from the 2500 fans in attendance.  The crowd ranged mostly from university-aged kids to people in their mid thirties.  Bon Iver has virtually no terrestrial radio presence in this town, so the popularity of this quickly sold-out gig spoke volumes about how non-traditional media has changed the music world.  Whether by word of mouth, Facebook, satellite radio, internet radio, iTunes or tastemaker blogs, the kids are discovering groundbreaking music by alternative means.  Make something great and unique, and people will always seek it out.

It was also inspiring to watch a hotly-tipped band come out and juxtapose seemingly incompatible genres like modern rock, soul, 80’s AOR, and chamber folk instead of playing it safe.  Bon Iver fearlessly chose to follow their musical instincts instead of cashing in on their recent Grammy buzz.  Nowhere was this more evident than on the main set closer “Beth/Rest”, where Vernon’s passionate lead vocal revealed a complete, un-ironic conviction in the stirring ideas at the heart of the song.

Perhaps that conviction was the root of the seismic shift I felt in my soul on Monday night.  Bon Iver’s performance, taken as a whole, made it clear that convention doesn’t matter and anything is possible in modern music.  The difference may only be a matter of microseconds, but sometimes that’s enough to rock your world.

The (Approximate) Set List:

Perth
Minnesota, WI
Towers
Michicant
Hinnom, TX
Wash.
Holocene
Blood Bank
Creature Fear
re: Stacks   (JV solo)
Skinny Love
Calgary
Lisbon, OH
Best/Rest

For Emma
The Wolves (Act I and II)

Post-Script: I’m working from memory because the gig was way too dark to take notes.  I’m not sure I got the set list 100% right, but it should be pretty close.  Please submit a comment if you can help me clean it up, especially the bit from “Michicant” to “Creature Fear”.

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Wilco – Live in Vancouver

Wilco just completed a short 16-gig tour of western North America to promote last year’s excellent album The Whole Love.  After today, the band jets across the sea to keep the love going into Scandinavia and all points beyond.  Your intrepid reporter was lucky enough to catch Wilco’s only Canadian show of the tour in Vancouver, British Columbia on 5-February-2012.

It has been fascinating to watch Wilco (the band) evolve over time.  Many things are different about the band since I first saw them at the Edmonton Folk Festival in August of 2000.  Back then, Wilco had just released the album Summerteeth, bookended by the Mermaid Avenue records of Woody Guthrie songs.  Seeing Tweedy & Co sonically assault the chilled-out, folksy, sunset vibe on a grassy hill in Edmonton was a revelation.  I’d always liked their records, but on that day I saw many clues to what a formidable live act they would become.

Fast-forward a dozen years and several roster changes, and Wilco are still in business.  And business is good!  The current six-man lineup has been in place for a few records now, and their shared sense of purpose and power is evident on stage.  Lead singer and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy is still the ringmaster, controlling the tone and tempo of the proceedings with his voice and body english and charming, humble stage banter.  That said, on Sunday night everyone in the band got a chance to shine.

Orpheum Theatre Marquee, Vancouver, BC

Sunday night’s gig was at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Vancouver.  The Orpheum was built in the 1920s during the later stages of vaudeville, and seats around 3000 patrons in opulent comfort.  Red carpets, wall tapestries, crystal chandeliers, intricate carvings and frescoes abound.

Orpheum Theatre Atrium

Not likely to be confused with CBGB’s, then.  Sometimes rock bands can get a little lost in plush surroundings like these, robbing them of their power.  But no such fate awaited the wily veterans of Wilco on this night.  Framed by their stage décor, which looked not unlike several dozen white bed sheets and pillow cases knotted to ropes, Wilco brought the rock to Vancouver.

Wilco Stage Setup, Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver BC

Just like the Folk Festival gig all those years ago, the band took the stage and challenged their audience with a daring triptych of songs right out of the gate.  The twisted beauty of one of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s hidden gems was sandwiched between The Whole Love’s two standout tracks.  Starting the gig with the hushed acoustic epic “One Sunday Morning” was an unexpected treat.  The band then took a hard left-turn into “Poor Places”, with its smouldering intensity and masterful blend of melody and dissonance.  The first of many highlights on this evening came from “Art of Almost”.  The band wrested every pound of force they could from Glenn Kotche’s drums and Nels Cline’s frantic high-wire guitar stylings.  A little over twenty minutes into the gig, and we’d already gotten our money’s worth.

In all, six songs from The Whole Love made it into the setlist.  “I Might” translated well to a live setting, its upbeat rhythms and new-wave melodies all but guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser.  The stage arrangement of “Born Alone” also helped to accentuate the push-and-pull guitar dynamics of the song.  The mid-tempo “Dawned on Me” worked well in concert, but I couldn’t help thinking that “Standing O” would be a better, tongue-in-cheek rocker to leave ringing in the audience’s ears.  The campfire charm of “Whole Love” kicked off the encore, and if audiences continue to sing along to the chorus it should stay in the Wilco repertoire for many years.

Tweedy prefaced the lone Mermaid Avenue song of the evening, “California Stars”, with a brief monologue.  He asked why, if the name of our home and native land is pronounced ka-na-da, then why are we called ka-NAY-dee-unz?  Shouldn’t we be ka-na-DEE-unz, if only to better suit the rhythm and meter of Wilco’s next song?  The grammar nerd in me thinks Jeff has a good point.  At any rate, it was fun to sing along to the first few bars of the newly-christened “Ca-na-DEE-an Stars”.

Tweedy was otherwise economical with his stage banter, goofing around with some yellow penalty flags that were thrown on stage (presumably in honour of SuperBowl Sunday) and congratulating a recently engaged couple near the front.  No forced shout-outs to Springfield or put-downs of North Haverbrook on this night.

Nels Cline got another chance to shine with some inimitable, tasty licks on “Impossible Germany”.  The moment at which the trio of guitars from Cline, Tweedy, and Pat Sansone fuse into a glorious roar at the end of the song may be the most thrilling thing that Wilco will ever do in concert.  Sansone is clearly relishing his opportunity to serve a larger role within the band.  He effortlessly moves from keyboards to guitars, depending on what the song requires, and his Pete Townshend poses are always a crowd pleaser.  Sansone and bassist John Stirratt are also taking on more vocal duties than ever, perhaps leveraging some new-found confidence from their Autumn Defense side project.  Several songs benefitted from having three vocalists in the mix.

A few songs have also undergone some sonic renovations.  “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” has been reinvented as a more acoustic number, replacing its electric quiet/loud bombast with a little more subtlety.  Perhaps some of that bombast was transferred to “Via Chicago”, where the ‘thunderstorm’ sections seem more jaw-droppingly cataclysmic than ever.  The highlight of set closer “A Shot In The Arm” was undoubtedly the fury of sound unleashed by pianist Mikael Jorgensen.  The normally bookish Jorgensen looked so animated and so caught up in the moment that, by the end of the song, I half expected him to kick over his wall of keyboards, scream “I am a golden god!!”, and leap head-first into the crowd.

The band reached way back into the catalogue for three songs from Being There to close out the encore.  “Red-Eyed and Blue” was rocked-up to better match the tone of “I Got You” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”.  While I appreciate hearing some of the rollicking oldies in the home stretch of a gig as much as the next guy, it may be time for the band to reinvent their encore set.  With so many great songs accumulating in the Wilco songbook, there’s only so much room for numbers by the first incarnation of the band.  On this night, tracks like “War on War”, “Kamera”, “At Least That’s What You Said”, “Muzzle of Bees”, and “How To Fight Loneliness” didn’t make the cut.  Unless Wilco start playing three-hour gigs (not likely since Kotche’s hands would probably disintegrate), there’s never going to be enough room for everyone’s favourites.  Such are the travails of having too many classic songs; qué sera sera.

On this night, Wilco faithfully delivered The Whole Love.  By the time the last of the appreciative crowd’s cheers echoed off the ornate walls of the Orpheum, it was obvious that the love was mutual.

Wilco on-stage duing "Walken", Orpheum Theatre

Wilco’s Setlist for 5-Feb-2012:
(from the Hermit’s notes)

  • One Sunday Morning
  • Poor Places
  • Art of Almost
  • I Might
  • I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
  • One Wing
  • Radio Cure
  • Impossible Germany
  • Born Alone
  • Spiders (Kidsmoke)
  • I’ll Fight
  • Handshake Drugs
  • Via Chicago
  • California Stars
  • I Must Be High
  • Pot Kettle Black
  • Dawned on Me
  • A Shot in the Arm

And for an encore:

  • Whole Love
  • Heavy Metal Drummer
  • Walken
  • Red-Eyed and Blue
  • I Got You (At the End of the Century)
  • Outtasite (Outta Mind)

Supporting act:  White Denim

The WHOLE Whole Love

If you’ve been visiting this blog for the past little while, you might have seen my Top Ten Favourite Albums of 2011 countdown.  On New Years Eve, I posted my ode to Wilco’s The Whole Love, which I humbly suggested was the best thing I heard last year.

Wilco is a band that likes to go the extra mile and offer neat things to their fans.  Their merch site is loaded with the usual (t-shirts, CDs, and so on) but they also do some really cool & unusual things, too.  Right now they’re selling a series of custom guitar straps, many different limited-run gig posters, tote bags, ‘middles’ for vinyl 45s, and even a giant unipo.  It’s all part of promoting a community atmosphere with their fans.

One thing that caught my eye in the store was a very cool hand-made box for storing the various vinyl releases for The Whole Love.  To recap, the first release was a 45 for the single “I Might”, which I bought on clear vinyl:

Then, of course, there was the double-vinyl release of the main album:

And then on Black Friday in November, the Speak Into The Rose EP came out, on snazzy red vinyl:

Late last week, the UPS lady arrived at my front door with a package from the USA.  My Whole Love vinyl box had finally arrived!  It’s a very heavy cardboard container, with a slide-out sleeve:


Here’s what it looks like with the vinyl partially tucked into the sleeve:

Then you slide the sleeve into the box shell, and voila!

All put together, it looks great and feels substantial:

I’ll have to find a spot for it next to my turntable, because the treasures inside are sure to get a lot of spins in 2012.

Fond But Not In Love (part three)

And now, part three of our continuing saga of wonderful but not-quite-perfect albums from 2011…

Okkervil River – I Am Very Far

They first caught my attention with The Stage Names in 2007, and followed it up with a fraternal twin of an album, The Stand Ins, in 2008.  Okkervil River has a knack for literate, yet accessible, indie rock; they can simultaneously make you groove and make you think.  I had high expectations for I Am Very Far, and it mostly delivers.  “The Valley” is a great lead-off track; full of insistent beats and nervous energy rarely seen since David Byrne put away his comically oversized suits.  “Rider” sounds like a lost Springsteen song, flavoured with crispy percussion and Wilco’s sense of dynamics.   The awkward but catchy rhythms continue on “Wake and Be Fine”, where herky-jerky verses tumble into twisted chorus waltzes.  “Your Past Life as a Blast” tries on some new electronic textures, and they fit like a glove.  But elsewhere on the album, the new directions that Okkervil River explore tend to be more misses than hits.  An uneven record, but still very enjoyable.

White Denim – D

I picked up this album because of the critical acclaim it received, and because they are opening for Wilco on their upcoming tour.  It’s really hard to explain what D sounds like – imagine the Allman Brothers making a prog rock record with a seamless rhythm section à la Stone Roses and you’re getting close.  “Drug” is a fantastic single, a boogie-rock anthem for the indie rock generation.  Elsewhere, D is a fury of activity – definitely busy, but highly structured and never cluttered.  White Denim seem to be very good at getting out of their own way and putting the song first.  Like a lot of their progressive forebears, this album will likely take a long time to fully get into.  That said, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how it comes across live in Vancouver next month.  Sometimes seeing songs in the flesh is the key to unlocking something great.

Wye Oak – Civilian

Baltimore’s Wye Oak make intimate records of pared-down, indie-rock melancholy.  Sounds like the game plan of a million crappy rock bands, you might say, but Wye Oak are very good at it.  “Holy Holy” resolves the unsettling guitars and rhythms of its verses with hushed introspective choruses, turning the quiet/loud dynamic inside out.  Sonically, “Dogs Eyes” rams a melody not far removed from Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” or Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” (no, seriously) headlong into a mid-70s Neil Young & Crazy Horse rock-out and somehow crawls out of the carnage alive.  Civilian’s title track is one of the best songs released in 2011.  It starts off with the simple stomp of a kick drum and jangling minor-key guitars, but part way through the song explodes into life, as though the pool of gasoline gathering at their feet suddenly caught fire.  A few more songs like “Civilian” and Wye Oak could be massive.

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now

This year R.E.M. decided to call it a career, but not before releasing one last solid, rewarding, late-period album.  The last track (“Blue”) starts off like an update to R.E.M.’s classic “Country Feedback” before devolving into a coda that reprises the first track (“Discoverer”), giving the album of a sense of closure and circularity.  Überlin” is a pretty 21st century ballad; the arpeggio acoustic guitar lines are contrasted by a distorted electric guitar interlude in fine R.E.M. tradition.  “It Happened Today” adopts the tone of their New Adventures in Hi-Fi album and augments it with Eddie Vedder’s unmistakable backing vocals.  “Oh My Heart” and “Walk it Back” revisit the lilting, acoustic motifs of Out of Time and Automatic For The People.  Meanwhile Michael Stipe turns the alliterations up to 11 while Peter Buck and Mike Mills rock out in the style of Accelerate on “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”.

One can’t help imagining that the band foresaw their demise before entering the studio to cut Collapse Into Now.  Maybe that’s why R.E.M. seem to focus their energy on borrowing sounds from their own career highlights, instead of pushing through to something brave and new.  But if this album is indeed their Abbey Road, then they have managed to go out with heads held high.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

TKOL is a tough album to wrap your head around, which was very likely the band’s intention.  The more accessible songs are relegated to the back half of the album, while the first half is more experimental.

“Bloom” kicks things off in unsettling fashion, echoing the way the songs on Kid A blended clicks and beats with claustrophobic melodies.  “Morning Mr. Magpie” is the most digestible song on Side ‘A’, featuring the now-familiar kinetic Radiohead rhythm tracks and a relatively uncluttered, unprocessed Thom Yorke vocal.

“Lotus Flower” kicks off Side ‘B’ with another master class in Radiohead’s stock in trade – grooving, clipped rhythms, acres of mood, and a deceptively catchy melody.  “Codex” is gorgeous in its simplicity, taking a long stroll in the same woods that gave us “Pyramid Song” from Amnesiac.  The band rides a velvety groove into the sunset on “Separator”, finally returning to songwriting with a quasi-traditional verse/chorus structure.

But it’s somewhat telling that in recent years we’ve spent more time talking about Radiohead’s unusual business practices than their musical fearlessness.   The ‘tip jar’ approach used for selling In Rainbows, and the guerrilla-marketing campaign that unleashed TKOL mere days after announcing its existence, are very progressive ideas.  But we originally fell in love with Radiohead because of their music, not their gimmicks.  They should take a page from Wilco’s playbook and come back next time with recordings that try to move the modern rock goal posts.  Instead of merely ‘sounding like Radiohead’, we expect Radiohead to make records that blow our minds all over our faces.

Fond But Not In Love (part two)

Good practice, kids. Now it’s time for the easiest part of any coach’s job.  The cuts.  Although I wasn’t able to cut everyone I wanted to, I have cut a lot of you. Wendell is cut. Rudy is cut. Janey, you’re gone. Steven, I like your hustle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you. Congratulations, the rest of you made the team! Except you, you and you.

– Homer Simpson, pre-eminent football coach (“Bart Star” episode 5F03).

Here’s a few more albums that I really liked in 2011 but didn’t make the final cut:

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!

The band Elbow has become a UK rock institution.  Their previous album, The Seldom Seen Kid, won the Mercury Prize as critic’s choice for album of the year in Britain.  This year, Build A Rocket Boys! was released to similar levels of acclaim.  Elbow has leveraged their talent for crafting ‘everyman’ anthems to maximum effect.  Lead-off track “The Birds” chugs along with electronic precision, while “Lippy Kids” wistfully gives the album its title.  “With Love” is the most engaging single here, using multi-layered vocals to carry the gorgeous melody.  The only problem with Build A Rocket Boys! is that it never quite captures the epic widescreen grandeur of previous works like The Seldom Seen Kid or Cast of Thousands. One or two more memorable tunes would have helped.

Fountains of Wayne – Sky Full of Holes

New England band Fountains of Wayne (the normally reliable power-popsters who creepily brought you the “Stacy’s Mom” video in which 12-year-old boys wanted to get busy with MILF Rachel Hunter) returned in 2011 with a new album of modern life pastiches.  The songs are enjoyable enough, particularly on the first half of the record.  “Richie and Ruben” is a clever mini-documentary about a duo of entrepreneurs without a clue, while “Action Hero” is a wonderful pencil sketch of a prototypical suburban father that’s come face-to-face with the inevitable before his time.  Unfortunately, Sky Full of Holes runs out of steam on Side ‘B’ and the songs become a little too power-pop-by-numbers.

Peter Gabriel – New Blood

The only thing keeping this album off of my Top 10 list was the caveat that the songs had to be new.  New Blood is a contemporary reworking of classic Peter Gabriel songs; this time instead of relying on traditional instrumentation (bass, guitars, keyboards and drum kit) the presentation is symphonic.  Recast in this new environment, “San Jacinto” feels re-inspired, and the lost classic “Wallflower” is injected with new life.  “Mercy Street”, already a tender ballad in its original form, fares well with the orchestral treatment, as does “Red Rain” and Gabriel’s biggest hit, “Solsbury Hill”.  The best re-working here is “In Your Eyes”, which cleverly substitutes cellos for guitar and bass to carry the melody and rhythm.  This album is yet more evidence that great songs will always be great songs regardless of sonic presentation.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This album re-interprets all the best bits of 1980’s synth rock in a modern alternative rock context.  Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is chock full of musical ideas, splashed over two discs.  Thankfully the album is more about looking forward than reveling in nostalgia, and the tunes have more hooks than a tackle box.  Singles like “Midnight City” and “Steve McQueen” are synth-pop masterpieces.  The only thing holding it back is its length; one gets the sense that it would have made a brilliant seventy-minute single album, rather than an overly optimistic double-album.  Mind you, that’s what cranky critics always say about double albums.

My Morning Jacket – Circuital

After going over-the-top urban with previous release Evil Urges, Jim James and co. return with a more groove-oriented album.  Circuital features epic, widescreen rock songs (notably the title track), balanced by pretty acoustic ballads like “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”“Victory Dance” gamely balances the constraints of modern alternative music with the conventions of 20th century Neil Young inspired country rock.  But overall, Circuital seems like a step back from the deliberate, tightly-wound claustrophobia of Evil Urges and the brilliant melodicism of Z.  But at least we were spared the indignity of another song like “Highly Suspicious”.