Saturday, June 6, 2009

Speaking in Acid Tongues

Walking onto the stage at the Mann Center Friday night, clad in a white suit that matched both his bandmates and his hair, David Byrne approached the microphone and took a few moments to chat up the audience. Before a single note was played, he thanked everyone for coming out, acknowledged opening act DeVotchka, and invited the crowd to take photos if they wanted (while kindly pointing out that using a flash was likely futile for those of us in the cheap seats). It was an adorably awkward introduction that seemed like it was better suited for open-mic night at a coffeehouse than an amphitheater show by a post-punk godfather.

The setlist drew from Byrne's collaborations with Brian Eno, including last year's quite good Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the pioneering, sample-heavy LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the albums that Eno produced for the Talking Heads. I'll leave you to guess which of those selections got the biggest response from the audience. (And I certainly don't mean for that to be an indictment of the crowd's collective taste: do you want to argue with songs like "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" or "Life During Wartime"? Didn't think so.) I was happy that Fear of Music, my favorite Talking Heads album, was well-represented by "Wartime," "I Zimbra" and "Heaven." Byrne introduced the latter song by saying that he was attempting to write a song with verses that sounded like Neil Young, a fact that will make it impossible to ever hear that song any other way.

I'll admit that I've never seen Stop Making Sense (cue jeering), so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Byrne as a the performer. The fact that he had a trio of white-clad dancers might have seemed out of place had I not heard about them beforehand. I was amused though, by the extent to which Byrne himself joined in the fun: at one point, one of the dancers slid between his legs, then later, one leaped over his back. Also a cute touch: "Life is Long" is perhaps the only song I've seen performed from a swivel chair.


Less than 72 hours after seeing a fifty-something, white-haired man perform in a large Fairmount Park amphitheater on a rainy, unseasonably chilly night, I was seeing a thirty-something, redheaded woman perform in a small Chinatown club on a hot night. Jenny Lewis was the headliner this time around, but half of her backing band were opening the show under the name Farmer Dave. Have you ever heard the sloppy, impromptu cover songs that Yo La Tengo plays during WFMU pledge drives? Yeah, it was sort of like that.

Deer Tick was more to my liking. Judging by their name, I had assumed that they were some mellow, backwoods country group, the sort of animal that survives by sucking the blood of Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses. In reality, they play straightforward, dirty rock 'n roll that never overstays its welcome. Though they hail from Rhode Island, lead singer John McCauley's gravelly voice reminded me a lot of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The band had enough fans in the audience to entertain some requests at the end of their set (which also included some pretty rockin' John Mellencamp and Ritchie Valens covers).

So, let's get this out of the way first: Jenny Lewis looked very pretty, wearing mom jeans and one of the T-shirts from her merch stand. (Refreshingly, the crowd seemed quite respectful and refrained from shouting out any creepy comments) And her band, for which I had so little affection in their previous incarnation, sounded much more professional this time around. I haven't heard most of Acid Tongue, her most recent album, but I can honestly say that I didn't hear a bad song all night. The highlight for me, though, was when most of her band left the stage and she performed "Trying My Best to Love You" and "Silver Lining," which, stripped of its glossy production, became a showcase for Ms. Lewis's gorgeous voice. [Removed in editing: rambling story about the first time I heard the song "I Never" and how it, like, changed my life.]


So I saw two really good performances by artists that I admire. Ah, but it can never be that simple can it? As usual, there were some circumstances unrelated to the actual music that kept me from fully enjoying the shows.

As I mentioned, I was in the cheap seats for David Byrne. What bothered me was just how empty those seats were. My entire row was pretty much deserted, and there were vast open spaces in the rows in front of and behind me. It's not that I enjoy being crowded, but I felt more like I was in a porno theater than watching a rock show. It's easy to stand up and cheer when everyone around you is doing it; its a bit more awkward when you're practically in a library.

The opposite was true at Jenny Lewis -- that place was fucking packed. No, this one was my fault, as I forgot the golden rule of standing-room-only gigs: once a band is on stage and you've left the bar area, you do not go back! Spreading your drinking out over the evening will result in you watching the show from the back of the room, which is exactly what happened to me. It wasn't that bad, since it was quite a bit cooler the farther you got from the stage (though, on the other hand, the noise from the fans that were providing that breeze could be heard during the quieter moments).

No, the biggest problem here was that I was constantly distracted by the guy in front of me. He did not dance. He did not (from all appearances) sing along. He didn't bob his head, or tap his foot or even so much as applaud during the entire set. What possesses someone to buy a ticket to rock concert and then act as though they observing an art exhibition? Unless you are on rumspringa and this is your fist exposure to the devil's music, there is no excuse for such behavior.

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  • I thought DeVotchka's score for Little Miss Sunshine was one of the best parts of that movie, but I found it hard to care about their opening set. I have to respect them, though, for throwing out a whole lot of stuff that I should have loved, like a sousaphone, a theremin solo, and a cover of "Venus in Furs" that disposed of everything from the Velvet Underground's recording but the lyrics.
  • Introducing one song, Jenny Lewis said that it was about catching the clap from Lindsay Lohan, but then quickly took that back. Those crimson-haired former child actresses gotta look out for each other.
  • I stopped by the afterparty at the Troc balcony in the hopes that Jenny would show up, I would charm her with my wit, and she would immediately invite me to follow her around on tour. That, um, didn't happen. I did regret that I didn't stick with my music lessons, though, when I saw her Napoleon Dynamite lookalike bassist chatting up two of the cuter girls there.

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