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Geoffrey Stueven: October 30, 2015

Minneapolis Shows, July to September

—And one trip to St. Paul. Not a great season for opening acts.

1. The Weirdos – Triple Rock Social Club – Thursday, July 2, 2015

I don’t know anyone my age who has much use for 70s punk music anymore. We’re more likely to level it with the mainstream culture that surrounded it and say that its value is only a function of how good it sounds. The past decade has heavily eroded my ability to visualize the punk rock era as actual lived history, and I’ve found few solutions. Sometimes I’ll desperately play Alternative TV’s “Alternatives” and try to soak up its atmosphere and to interpret the significance of the moment it records. The Weirdos show at the Triple Rock was a different kind of moment: a scattering of people at a Minneapolis club in 2015 hoping to hear some good sounds. Courtesy the original Denney brothers and a newer rhythm section, the songs had all the textural and melodic interest of the recordings, and a welcome new layer of theatricality, but if the songs drew me toward the past, it was to a time no farther back than college, when I sent out “Helium Bar” on the airwaves from St. Paul and imagined it playing a city away. Ten years later I picked up the signal and closed another loop of personal history, somewhat oblivious to the deeper history in front of my eyes but having a good time all the same. Maybe that’s all this L.A. band ever hoped for.

2. Heems – 7th Street Entry – Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I’m not sure how this show’s fast unraveling started. It seemed well underway by the time someone shouted, “We want to see you dance!” Heems received it as a taunt, first resigning himself to objectification (“I’m just a clown”), then revolting (“I’m not a fucking clown”). A bad show can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The audience wishes for it and increasingly shows its hand and tests the performer; the performer is ready to provide it for a crowd that’s become so openly contemptuous. So I’d say we got what we wanted. We provoked the artist and got a reaction, then feigned ignorance and pretended we weren’t getting the great rap show we had paid for.

It was all about money, after all. “You’re getting paid to be here,” another person shouted after Heems became increasingly distracted, repeatedly abandoning verses from the excellent Eat Pray Thug, drifting over to his laptop, skipping to the next track (sometimes he’d snap back to it and finish most of a song with sudden, to borrow a word, clarity, but that was the exception). So be it. I’ve never believed that the price of my ticket guarantees a particular experience or puts me in a binding contract with the performer. Between song fragments, as the crowd grew more restless, Heems made remarks about losing his “core audience of passionate white men,” eliciting from them only laughter, perhaps because no one wanted to admit his self-consciousness might mean anything. The show deteriorated further. By the end, all that remained was a guy in the corner pulling up songs on a laptop, but the venue maintained the illusion that a show was taking place. It was hard to leave but I finally did.

The next day on Twitter, the other primary place his relationship with his audience plays out, Heems reinforced the idea that he plays shows on his own terms, for better or worse. “My favorite rap show was watching Cormega mad drunk off Henny not rapping at all. He was too drunk. Might explain SOME of my performances.” That was preceded by a question: “do u go to shows to hear the album or to be in the presence of that artist for an hour?” The show he was justifying wasn’t much of a success on either count, but it was a good lesson in the vanity of our expectations when we go to shows.

3. Ex Hex – Triple Rock Social Club – Monday, July 20, 2015

Some sound from the monitors kept making Mary Timony wince, but down among the crowd her guitar work traced only the cleanest lines. I’m in love with guitar sounds almost daily, still, but hadn’t been so much in love with one in a very long time. Thanks to Timony’s playing, songs from Rips, which I’d hummed along to but had mistakenly labeled as genre exercises, buzzed to fully independent life. From a distance it had looked too easy, the way Ex Hex had a hooky debut album and a large following within months of their formation, but I forgot how often that kind of momentum is synonymous with a band’s greatness. Well before Timony perfectly matched the rate of her guitar’s feedback to the thump of Laura Harris’ drums, as “War Paint” bled into a Real Kids cover, I felt lucky to have caught Ex Hex so close to their big bang. For the encore they promised a Johnny Thunders cover; I considered “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” with its loping beat and plaintive vocal completely at odds with the Ex Hex sound, a possibility too good to be true, but it’s the one they played, cementing their ‘70s NYC dream.

4. Lower Dens – 7th Street Entry – Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I always dug this band’s inscrutability and solemnity and figured it was inextricable from their sound, but maybe they were still finding themselves after all. A friend warned me away from their lifeless live show in 2012, so a very engaging Lower Dens show in 2015, with Jana Hunter as charming host, couldn’t help but feel like a long-awaited arrival, even if I ultimately don’t prefer the new material. That would be from this year’s Escape from Evil, which is the sound of a gravitational force, quick on its axis, collecting the diffuse electronic elements of 2012’s Nootropics and revealing synth-pop—mostly fun, only occasionally severe.

The other force at play is Hunter, who keeps singing long, long notes, more at odds with the music’s tempo than ever before, but also lighter, more buoyant. On “To Die in L.A.,” the album’s first single, a mere two to four syllables per line, carefully weighted, suffice to lift a strange glow from what might first appear a stock arrangement. It was the highlight of their setlist, while older favorites “Tea Lights” and “Brains” succeeded according to how much of this newfound lightness they could claim, though both felt a bit like relics. For the former, easy, its pretty guitar figure floating through the set like a familiar visitor. For the latter, impossible, the band unable to fully recreate the song’s massive ripple of guitars, easily their greatest studio achievement, and also not finding a pop song underneath. What was once the sound of a band liberated from genre came across as over-serious, now that they’ve been saved by genre. Later, they intended a set-ending cover of “Maneater” as a surprise, perhaps, but a thread of Hall & Oates-indebted playfulness could already be heard winding its way through the new material, upon close listening.

5. Django Django – First Avenue – Sunday, August 2, 2015

Django Django could be the band holding an audience transfixed in the background of a movie, the music, however groovy, serving only to underline the momentum of the plot as it rushes by. So I felt like David Hemmings wandering through a Yardbirds set in Blow Up, but without a plot of my own to lend tangential significance to the music. I was in limbo, neither lead nor extra, but tried to make observations. The mix was extraordinary, sometimes mimicking “Bad Romance” in the way tiny syncopated clicks survived, in crisp detail, what should have been nuance-smothering bass. The show played out as two versions of a bacchanal coexisting, the stage’s faux-marble columns an ideal setting for both: EDM rave, as delivered by the lights and sound system; some long-ago carnival, as suggested by hand drums and noisemakers.

6. Miguel – State Theatre – Saturday, August 15, 2015

Pop albums, especially weird, messy ones like Miguel’s Wildheart, are better left open to interpretation, but the subsequent tour is a fine time for the artist to lay out his intended thesis. Miguel took a long pause in the middle of his set to stand on a raised platform, messianic in flowing white clothes, and deliver a message about celebrating individuality and living in the moment (it doubled as a request for phones to be put away, but no one took the hint). When he performs, every word, every gesture, every thrust, every parade up the aisle and to the balcony, every long disappearance and sudden, spectacular reappearance, is for the audience, and so his speech felt like one more in a night of gifts. Did he say “fuck normality”? I can’t remember, but he spoke with similar generosity. Candid about the way his mixed race identity made him an outsider growing up, Miguel reminded me of Bob Mould in the way his memory of early pain contrasts with his present muscular self-possession. He’s done tremendous work on himself.

That inspirational digression, longer almost than any song he played, would have been a great prelude to “What’s Normal Anyway?”, the Wildheart centerpiece that touches on many of the same themes, but he saved it for later. The confounding sequencing of the album gave way to an even more unpredictable setlist, with boundaries between songs blurred, sometimes fully erased; “A Beautiful Exit” expanded from overture to recurrent interlude, but never quite realized as a distinct song; verses dropped, inserted, etc. It was disorienting, sure, but where Wildheart feels like a personal encounter with a temperamental artist, the live version restructured the music as a means of addressing and engaging the audience, and always met us more than halfway. “Waves,” not yet a single, sounded like the most obvious single among the new material, a stand-alone triumph.

7. X – Mill City Nights – Saturday, August 29, 2015

And here’s a new wrinkle in my punk rock comments, above: X sounded so good and played so many songs that the effect was fully immersive. They’re the rare punk band whose original lineup has toured with some regularity over the years, and the continuity might explain the momentum of their live show. I got the feeling they never had to relearn their songs and were still playing them with the muscle memory of 1981, so that I might as well have been seeing them at any other point in their history. That said, guitarist Billy Zoom was absent this time, having departed the band’s touring schedule a few weeks previously due to illness. His exceptional replacement Jesse Dayton certainly earned his occasional showboating at the edge of the stage, but sometimes distracted from the rest of the band, just as professional but without signaling it so obviously. There wasn’t a weak element to be found, though I’d probably still cite Exene Cervenka’s voice as the thing that makes X revelatory. Los Angeles, which they played most of, transformed from the disc of slightly tinny songs I always knew it as, to an enveloping and vivid setting for ninety minutes.

8. Colleen Green – Turf Club (St. Paul) – Thursday, September 3, 2015

Green’s excellent I Want to Grow Up bills itself as another tale of a 30-something child striving for adulthood, but ends up revealing a grown-up protagonist fully able to list her problems and visualize solutions. She walks away from her “Wild One” boyfriend rather than try to impose her will, and eight songs later grants herself the same freedom, realizing that most of her ailments are the product of other people’s expectations. And so, one of the most liberating sentiments an album ever concluded with: “I can do whatever I want.” But where the album could almost be considered pop in its development of a crisp persona and in its narrative arc, Green’s live show found her indulging the rock ’n’ roll side of things, the messy living that she already told us about but that the art of record-making tends to formalize. Aided by Diarrhea Planet’s Casey Weissbuch on drums (rather than the drum machine accompaniment that underlines her sense of solitude on some of the recorded versions), she played only her loudest and most energetic songs and let her guitar’s feedback squeal during every pause. It was the real life version of a character that I’d previously considered the product of great songwriting.

9. La Luz – 7th Street Entry – Monday, September 7, 2015

An improbably packed Labor Day show. Word is out that La Luz is a great live band, though I haven’t seen where they’re being talked about. Anything with a faux-60s sound can be popular today, but that sells La Luz short. If surf rock didn’t already exist they’d be inventing it, not just further exploring its hypnotic power. Last year they opened for Ty Segall and their assured, dreamy performance made his look a bit frantic by comparison. Still, they like to have fun. Drummer Marian Li Pino asked for someone to take her place at the kit while she went crowd surfing in the middle of a song, and a member of the audience proved such an impressive substitute that Li Pino might have feared for her job.

10. Thurston Moore – Triple Rock Social Club – Thursday, September 10, 2015

Times are changing. Slowly accumulating an audience half the size of La Luz’s on a much more amenable weeknight (Thursday), Moore played to less than a hundred people on the first night of a one-week tour through the Midwest. No matter, the energy was all on the stage. With (the) Thurston MoOre Baand, whose typographical peculiarities imply Steve Shelley on drums, My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe on bass, and James Sedwards on guitar, he played songs from The Best Day, the album they recorded together last year, along with a few unidentified songs that might appear on a just-completed album due next year. He called it Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness, jokingly perhaps, but whether the title sticks, it’s an apt description of the music’s drive and clarity. I was unfamiliar with the material but didn’t feel lost, as most of it recalled Sonic Youth’s Murray Street/Sonic Nurse era, with a few elements lifted directly: chords from “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” guitar timbre from “Stones.” The difference was in the way the band stretched out songs’ running times to a ten-minute average in a more systematic way than Sonic Youth would have allowed, usually by sustaining a groove (hail the rhythm section), always by returning the song to a restatement of its original premise (a la “The Diamond Sea,” but with more contained tempests in between).

[bonus] Low – Electric Fetus – Saturday, September 12, 2015

The day after the release of Ones and Sixes, Low stripped away the electronics that have lent it to Drums and Guns comparisons and played its songs in familiar arrangements: electric guitar and bass, floor tom and cymbal. The approach, one in which tightly-coiled violence doesn’t preclude occasional surprising warmth, recalled the kind of show they were playing the first time I saw them, when The Great Destroyer was their most recent album. I can’t believe they never wrote a song with the line “house is on fire” back then. I’ve missed more Low shows in the Twin Cities than I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. After a disappointing set opening for Slowdive last year, this record store performance, far from hushing their urgency or limiting their palette, went a long way toward renewing my interest.


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