Live Shows

Little Dragon played a short, but sweet 30 minute set at Doug Fir this morning for the KEXP live broadcast shows from MusicFest NW. With all of the schedule conflicts of the ‘Fest, it was nice to get a chance to see this band (my first time). Morning is a bit of strange time to head into the dark subterranean lair that is Doug Fir, and the time slot seemed like it might have had an effect on the band who experienced a couple of false-starts and timing issues. These were quickly shrugged-off and they sounded great otherwise – the smallish audience was very enthusiastic throughout. I just wish they would have played my favorite song of theirs, Looking Glass. If you want to hear them, you still have a chance tonight at 11:00pm at the Hawthorne Theater.

Last October’s Apples in Stereo show at Portland’s Mississippi Studios brought home two urgent points:  1) not enough bands seem to have fun playing live and 2) more bands should wear uniforms.

In a town where brooding, flannel-clad folkies vie with irony-crippled hipsters for stage space, the Apples’ unabashed spirit of pop confectionery was a welcome relief. As they took the stage, frontman Robert Schneider grinned at the crowd and said, “Cool!” as if he was genuinely amazed by the fact that people come to hear him play. It was a refrain he repeated throughout the night as Schneider led the band through a frenzied, sometimes sloppy, but always rocking set that spanned the Apples’ nearly 20-year history.

Watching the band’s six members schlep their own gear before their set, you had to conclude that they were in this because they loved it—they’re certainly not living the rich rock star lifestyle, despite having released seven albums since 1995. The band was touring in support of their new album, Travellers in Space and Time, a continuation of their ELO-inflected, keyboard-heavy sound that began to emerge on 2007’s New Magnetic Wonder.

Sporting the “new” lineup that took shape in 2006 (after Schneider and longtime drummer Hilarie Sidney got divorced), the band crammed six members onto the tiny stage, including three keyboards (!), and the indispensable vocoder featured in recent songs like “Dance Floor.” The song is silly and fluffy, and therefore brilliant in the way the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” is brilliant—it’s 100% pure pop, with no apologies and no attempt to make a grand point.

In other words, it’s fun.

And that’s not something I can say for one of the opening bands, Fol Chen, which describes itself on its MySpace page as playing “melodramatic popular song.” (Sadly, I missed the opening set by Portland’s own The Minders.) By turns mopey and precious, the band’s 40-minute set couldn’t even be redeemed by the cool matching red uniforms they wore. Nothing like Nehru collars and epaulets to bring a band’s stage presence up a notch, I have to say. I won’t be getting their album, but if I could find one of those jackets, I’d buy one.

And while we’re on point number 2 (i.e., the benefits of band uniforms), I should mention that the Apples came on stage wearing matching sparkly silver uniforms. Schneider, whose outfit was more like a long silver robe than the jackets worn by his bandmates, announced “We’re the Apples in Stereo, and we’re from the future.” (Because what else says “future” like sparkly silver? Except for maybe vocoders.) Again, there was no real point to it, but it was pretty fun.

After a handful of songs from the new album, the band dipped into several of my favorites, including “Strawberryfire,” “I Can’t Believe,” and “Tin Pan Alley,” as well as great newer songs such as “Same Old Drag” and “Energy.”

Drummer John Dufilho (also of The Deathray Davies, a band you should check out if you don’t know them) gave the encore tune “Tidal Wave” (from the band’s first LP, Fun Trick Noisemaker) a whole lot of extra juice, creating a more tribal, pulsing intro than the one on the album and generally adding a lot more Ringo-ness (to coin a term) to the tune than Hilarie Sidney ever could. (No knocks against Sidney, though. Her work with the High Water Marks the last few years is worth a listen, though it’s probably not as fun as the Apples in Stereo.)

I’m hoping the Apples come through town again soon. If anyone knows of a particularly fun band scheduled to play here soon, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for one of those red jackets.

Midwest “neo-soul” shines at Portland venue

What’s the difference between folk music and the sounds that Bon Iver produced at Holocene recently? I pondered that as I reveled in the beautiful soundtrack to an introspective life that the band (whose name is a play off of what Francophiles and others know translates to “good winter”) reproduced.

I am not a big fan of the watered-down stuff that passes as folk (the stuff you hear in Starbucks, generally); Justin Vernon’s music captures the human experience as only recording in isolated places – like his father’s Wisconsin hunting cabin – can. But it is music also informed by modern anxieties. Vernon himself refers to his music as “neo-soul”.

So, it was no surprise to learn mid-set that Vernon has a punk-pop band called Michael Jordan, as well. Hearing the edge of Bon Iver’s music emphasized in their live set reminded me of when I saw Iron & Wine in town and witnessed Sam Beam and Co. growl, and not ironically cover New Order. It’s the stuff of early Dylan, where traditional sounds were often the shell of a more disturbing sonic narrative.

But it’s the heartache in Vernon’s voice which is the difference (which, especially live, reminded of a cross between Jeff Buckley’s falsetto and the aforementioned Beam’s raspy world-weariness). Bon Iver found new dynamics in its already subtle fledgling debut For Emma, Forever Ago. When Vernon asked the Holocene crowd to sing along to the refrain from “The Wolves (Act I and II)“, nervous looks abounded. The song ended up becoming a magic moment that somehow produced harmony from a group often more concerned with appearing to be coolly indifferent.

Though For Emma is not a perfect album, it is an early front-runner for my record of the year. In these troubled times, this album reflects my hope that a talented guy from the Midwest might bring a good winter.

DBD David Bailey Design