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Geoffrey Stueven: December 2, 2015

Minneapolis Shows, September to October

—And one more trip to St. Paul. A much better season for opening acts.

1. Beach House with Jessica Pratt – First Avenue – Wednesday, September 23, 2015

If I’d been a traveler from the past I might have felt I’d landed in a scene from the best of all possible futures, among the crowd at the second of two sold-out Beach House shows in Minneapolis. What’s under the surface of this music? What force brought these strangers here to listen? Of course in reality the popularity of Beach House is something much more quotidian, and the cause of a certain amount of pushback, but I still felt hopeful seeing the audience follow as the band retreats from the massive sound of Bloom to Depression Cherry’s softer variations on a theme. I’ve never imagined a passive audience when I listen to Beach House. But as a live band they haven’t altogether stopped going big, allowing our occasional passivity, and the show ran the line from the sinuous and deathly quiet “Gila” to the all-encompassing noise of the “10 Mile Stereo” encore. Only “Myth” fell awkwardly in the middle, with the drums applying an urgency the guitar’s melody should earn as it ascends.

One would never have known the band’s second album of 2015 was just a few weeks away. They had every appearance of a band continuing to ration itself. Part of that means quality control, three inescapably perfect songs per album (“PPP,” “10:37” and “Sparks,” in this case) to the six or seven others that photocopy their atmosphere but can resolve just as beautifully for the listener already locked in a spell. Compare the band’s appropriation of book titles for imagery, “house made of the dawn” naming the sense of limitless space “10:37” achieves even in silence, while “tender is the night” merely underlines the utter banality of “Space Song.” Still, as live creations, one hardly felt like a knockoff of the other.

Maybe I’m overstating the audience’s attentiveness, above, as it had faltered earlier in the night. Jessica Pratt’s opening set was an invitation to quietness that the crowd declined. Her songs are best heard at the same volume at which they’re played and shouldn’t have to endure excessive amplification, but without it they’re drowned out by the murmur of the crowd and become afterthoughts to our waiting. It couldn’t have been the first night of the tour it played out like this, as someone from the Beach House team announced Pratt and encouraged us (in hindsight I can see she was pleading) to listen closely to Pratt’s “amazing songs.” They are amazing, and Pratt played seven of them in 30 minutes, carrying on undaunted. I stretched forward to hear.

2. Destroyer with Jennifer Castle – Fine Line Music Cafe – Saturday, September 26, 2015

I’d never seen such a large band, eight or nine guys, assembled under the Destroyer name, not even when I dubbed them the All-Stars, but none of them were playing the piano or strings that make this year’s Poison Season such a singular item in the catalog. Instead the focus was on horns, guitars and keyboards, adding up once again to an almost intolerably exciting sound, vibrations accumulating at the threshold of my body’s capacity to hold their shiver. Critics rarely approach the music of Destroyer with a curiosity that isn’t bracketed by the way it serves as a canvas for Dan Bejar’s words or mimics his record collection. Poison Season has its usual share of vocal and lyrical innovations, but the live show had me longing for an instrumental version of the album, the one Bejar hears when he crouches down at the front of the stage and listens.

Jennifer Castle’s opening set was the revelation of the year, the kind of thing I immediately had to tell at least one of my sisters about. Mary Margaret O’Hara and Iris DeMent came to mind, which didn’t make me especially hopeful about the odds of Castle ending up a prolific artist. So the performance is a memory to savor, even as it was so singular I already have trouble remembering what made it tick. Go watch her videos.

3. Ride with The Besnard Lakes – Mill City Nights – Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Some folks had been grumbling online about the band’s use of backing tracks during recent shows. Complaining about a band like Ride employing technology seems a bit beside the point, but I trained my ears on the mix anyway and couldn’t identify an inauthentic sound, save the obvious one. But even the strings that end “Vapour Trail,” piped in from 1990, were a poignant reminder of the often illusory nature of reunion shows. Sometimes the recordings are all we have. But Ride, even better rehearsed than those of their peers who’ve played locally in the past few years (Swervedriver, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine), had no need to fall back on illusion. My eyes went to Laurence Colbert, always one of the great rock drummers in my imagination, confirmed live, with plenty of moments when he foregrounded his contributions and claimed ownership of the music’s emotional suction. “Cool Your Boots” would be a slog, not a time-bending whirl, without his experiments in tempo. Thus confirmed as a quartet of equal players, the band moved into and out of the squalls of “Dreams Burn Down” with pinpoint precision, and turned “Drive Blind” into their own version of a My Bloody Valentine noise initiation, except that Mark Gardener, with a modesty that Kevin Shields still might find obscene, raised his arm and invited the crowd to rejoice in the moment.

The Besnard Lakes could have used a drummer like Colbert when they played “Albatross,” my #1 song of 2010 reimagined for one of the most peculiar live performances I’ve ever heard. The change to its arrangement was single but significant: the band decided on the song’s penultimate movement, a dizzying, bass-heavy interjection on record (separating the line “things got weird for a bit” from the ringing finale) as an opportunity for their own version of an initiation, dragging out an ugly, unvarying passage of music, one minute, two minutes, three minutes, until they might render it hypnotic and beautiful. As a listener I went through all the stages of grief, landing on a kind of entranced acceptance, but kept thinking a little more flexibility in the thud, thud, thud of the drums might have left me in total awe.

4. Big Star’s Third – First Avenue – Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The tribute concert is one of this city’s most enduring and self-reflexive live acts. Last year’s Sonics show at First Avenue became an unlikely celebration of Minneapolis rock ’n’ roll, and with a bunch of local talent on hand, this tribute to a band and an album with an equivalent lack of local affiliation seemed to be going down that path, early on. Chris Stamey alluded to the Nicollet Avenue address that housed “Funkytown”-spawning Sound 80 and later Twin/Tone Records, but soon got swept up by the demands of his role as stage manager, and the local history ceased. Later he found a moment to reflect on his vivid memory of the weird cassette that marked the first arrival of Third/Sister Lovers in his life, but in general the music spoke. Even Jody Stephens, Big Star’s sole surviving member, mentioned Alex Chilton only once, but his vocal turn on “Blue Moon” was heartbreaking in its tenderness.

During a five-song opening set, Stamey’s “Something Came Over Me,” with its lost-in-a-moment imagery and a familiar melody spooling out with a strange unpredictability, seemed to set the stage for a night of unsettled pop songs due for fresh epiphanies. But as the main event got underway and the huge cast continually rotated, the show couldn’t help but start to resemble a kind of all-star karaoke, with distinct highs and lows. Ken Stringfellow was by a wide margin the finest vocalist to take the stage, and he lived inside every “do you wanna dance” of “Stroke It Noel,” his voice overpowering the hand gestures that might have been the most obvious manifestation of a lesser singer’s passion. Dave Pirner was a notch below, inaugurating the event with a rousing “Kizza Me.” But perhaps the biggest thrill was hearing Mike Mills lead “Jesus Christ,” with a voice much changed since his R.E.M. days but still holding all former congeniality and warmth. Later he closed out the month with “September Gurls.”

5. Mew – Triple Rock Social Club – Thursday, October 5, 2015

“Prog” is a word better suited to Mew’s live show than to their albums, but it still seems pejorative, a term that’s supposed to signify lack of restriction but instead gets used to imply the opposite, a band of niche appeal. Like ABBA, the magic of Mew is that they offer so many ways in. A person who responds to ornate arrangements, theatricality and preternaturally high vocals could arrive here via metal, I suppose, and so the Triple Rock was the right venue to corral Mew fans arriving from every direction. It might have seemed the wrong venue in terms of sound, but the band had someone stationed at a console in the audience (just to my right), mixing lavish orchestrations for rock club speakers one second at a time. I’d call him the band’s unofficial fifth member, ensuring the songs suffered no loss of Byzantine detail, but I’d hate to imply the terrific thump of the music wouldn’t have been irresistible regardless.

6. Kraftwerk – Northrop Auditorium – Saturday, October 7, 2015

Bright, immersive, obliquely narrative, and with each scene heralding a unique moment of spectacle, the 150-minute Kraftwerk 3D was the best 3D movie I’ve ever seen, and my balcony view of the action on the stage confirmed that the music wasn’t just a soundtrack. At the leftmost console, Ralf Hütter keyed melodies and sang tenderly into the microphone. Nearly album-length suites corresponded to each major entry in the Kraftwerk catalog, with the opening half-hour of Computer World an obvious starting point. The way a language of ideas settled as faintly imperfect human expression, especially during the exquisitely emotional “Computer Love” (ur-melody of the 1980s), formed an arc running alongside the impeccable 3D effects and programmed beats. Later, when the visuals for “Spacelab” showed a ship orbiting Earth and ultimately guided to land by a Google Maps icon, it was Kraftwerk’s lone acknowledgment of having predicted the future we’re living in, but the evidence of course stretches through all of their work:


7. DIIV with No Joy – Turf Club (St. Paul) – Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I just wanted to spend some time with guitar bands I had little to no history with. By the time I got to the venue I was wondering if I shouldn’t have stayed home instead, but then the P.A. played Merchandise’s “True Monument” and I remembered how it can feel to be emotionally overpowered during a chance encounter with an anonymous band. DIIV has had a fitful relationship with anonymity, but singer/guitarist Zachary Cole Smith’s Kurt Cobain complex seems mostly played out, despite glimpses of Cobain’s likeness and other fragments of rapidly signifying Americana in the video projected behind the band. In 2015 Smith reemerges as an enigmatic goofball, all evident capacity for seriousness burned up during the creation of harmonic guitar interplay. The band’s second album is finally on the way, and they mixed in new material with songs from 2012’s Oshin, with the melodic content per second of “How Long Have You Known?” and the urgency of “Doused” still anchoring the set as yardsticks for success.

It wasn’t until halfway through No Joy’s 40-minute opening set that I could distinguish the guitars from the bass’ distortion, and not until the very end that I realized I’d had an experience. Like an extreme version of those early 90s shoegaze albums that end with a head-clearing jolt (Ferment, Loveless, Nowhere), No Joy followed a trajectory from impenetrable noise to relative clarity, and capped it with a transformative final song, one in which identifiable chords and a voice were a sudden and unexpected life raft.

8. Luna with Diane Coffee – Cedar Cultural Center – Saturday, October 17, 2015

“But you’re the one doing all the work.” A famous writer was talking about how he responds when people give praise to bands that haven’t done the work to earn it. I’m guilty of it myself, but when he named Luna as one such band, I had to object. Here’s a band that so effectively conjures a mood in the opening seconds of “Chinatown” that when Dean Wareham sings “I like this time the most,” the listener immediately understands that his “like” entails a satisfaction that love couldn’t touch. The only work I had to do to enjoy my first Luna show was against the audience, elements of which could have used a lesson in the modesty of Wareham’s pleasures. Between songs, the band seemed half-present, careful not to engage a vocal minority (honest question: were indie rock audiences of the 90s always so obnoxious, or have they grown louder and more entitled as they’ve aged?), but during songs they reclaimed the tiny, tiny hours. Given the band’s disinterest in writing new material, a setlist heavy on Bewitched and Penthouse material (and “Season of the Witch”!) could hardly have been improved.

Like cabaret performers, Rocky Horror shadow casts and actors portraying revelers of the Roaring Twenties, glam rockers in 2015 seem a bit frantic, overdetermined, self-conscious, but I guess I don’t know if it wasn’t always that way. Opener Diane Coffee’s overacting made me anxious, but in a good way: the voice was equal to it.

9. John Grant with Bright Light Bright Light – Cedar Cultural Center – Thursday, October 22, 2015

“I am quite angry, which I barely can conceal,” Grant sang toward the end of his set, a summary of what had come before. The pleasure of his music is in the concealment, and in those moments when that “barely” gives way and his anger, directed at ex-lovers, the world, himself mostly, floods forth, however obliquely. As his set turned to the more abrasive songs from this year’s Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, such moments began to multiply, though the lines that carry them are somewhat artless by his recent standards. A brief timeline of rejoinders: “I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee” (2010); “you think I hate myself but it’s you I hate because you have the nerve to make me feel” (2013); “you and Hitler oughta get together” (2015). But I scarcely noticed a degraded poetry as new mixed with old, as the performances helped most lines land with that old familiar satisfaction and surprise. From The Czars to Midlake, Grant has always relied on support no matter how nakedly self-revealing his songwriting becomes, and his current band, composed of Icelandic and British musicians, played a big part in bringing the new material across and shoring up the strengths of the older stuff. Over-heavy drumming strained the stately “GMF” but the band’s fealty to the minimalism of “Pale Green Ghosts” didn’t preclude tending to each of its sounds as a magnificent effect, and sculptural guitar solos, left to slowly decompose, gave the caustic eruptions of “Queen of Denmark” new weight. Between songs Grant spoke with a genuine graciousness that concealed nothing.

Rod Thomas, who performs as Bright Light Bright Light, proclaimed himself a John Grant fan, but the two could not be less alike as songwriters. Thomas’ songs are perfect in their way, rounded off and non-specific in sentiment but somehow only 20% cliché. I was supposed to review Thomas’ debut album a few years ago but only eked out a few lines about renewed hopefulness for good tunes at the club. The songs I meant, “Love Part II” and “Feel It” in particular, were the highlights of his set even as he recast them as solo piano blueprints for massive dance pop productions. Absent the flashing lights and synth arpeggios he’s used to at his shows, only the sampled vocals that punctuated “Feel It” spoke to that world.

10. Salad Boys with Real Numbers – Hexagon Bar – Thursday, October 22, 2015

From there I followed Cedar to Minnehaha, turned left on 25th, cut through the Skol Liquor parking lot and got myself to the Hexagon, where Salad Boys were the first New Zealand act I’d ever seen live (I think, but how I’ve waited). It’s as if they knew, and were ready to guide me through the experience. When they flubbed the beginning of a song halfway through their set, they called it a “classic Kiwi false start,” even as the riff of “Dream Date” showed that their Kiwi traditionalism is filtered through a few decades of secondhand versions, Pavement et al.

Real Numbers represented another indie pop ideal, one I never imagined I’d missed out on but that I’d perhaps never heard so perfectly expressed in my concertgoing, stripped of all unwanted signifiers and rendered newly anonymous: melodic bass lines, a sheen of guitar, faux-British singing. If Television Personalities had stopped evolving after “Smashing Time,” they might have written some of these songs.

[bonus] Girlpool – Electric Fetus – Thursday, October 15, 2015

“The best new American band since Beat Happening,” I opined on social media. An exaggeration, of course, but not an entirely random one. From a handful of elements (guitar, bass, two voices), Girlpool have already worked out a sound that’s entirely their own. The title of this year’s great Before the World Was Big seemed backwards at first: the world’s biggest during childhood and becomes smaller as we grow up, right? But Harmony and Cleo aren’t talking about scale, they’re talking about an under-populated world, one whose every object, impression and connection can be counted. So their words track those numerable details (“wearing matching dresses”; “swimming in Seattle”) even as the scale of each image is vast. Ensuing revelations arrive with terrific force: “Do you feel restless when you realize you’re alive?” In advance of a club performance later that night, Girlpool played ten songs at the record store for the underage crowd (and worked through their shopping lists: blue hair dye for Harmony; the new Tame Impala LP and a Feelies CD for Cleo). Voices and guitars rang clearly through the store’s sound system, so no need to feel we were missing out on the late show, though after a while any moment spent outside of Girlpool’s music starts to feel a bit hollow. Reticent to perform “Chinatown” because of a tricky half step in the harmony, Harmony finally caved from audience pressure. She pulled it off, of course, but I can always stand to be reminded of the technical demands of something so seemingly effortless.


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