Tuesday, July 28, 2009

XPoNential Music Festival - We Knew That We'd Arrived at a Unified Scene

Last year I was underwhelmed by the lineup and skipped the whole thing, but last weekend I was back at Wiggins Park in Camden for WXPN's annual summer festival. As usual, I had both my camera (now with video capability!) and a sack full of devastatingly snarky put-downs. Actually, not so much the second part; as I was watching most of the performers, I realized that my comments could be boiled down to (1) I'm not really familiar with this singer/band, and (2) they are pleasant enough, but not especially memorable. To avoid repeating this point ad nauseum, I'll try to keep things nice and short.
Ah, the first Main Stage set of the day, which seems to always go to a local artist whose name I have heard a thousand times, but couldn't hum one of their tunes to save my life. This year, it was Sharon Little. Her band was well-dressed.
I don't think I'd ever heard of East Hundred before. I thought that they sounded a bit like Interpol, but it's hard to hold that against them since it's not like Interpol is doing a lot with their sound these days.
I was surprised by how early Yeasayer's set was scheduled; I remember "2080" getting some pretty heavy airplay last year. Then again, they did seem to fall off my radar rather quickly. If I had to guess, I'd say that since their sound is sort of reminiscent of TV on the Radio, they were filling a niche that disappeared once Dear Science was released in the fall. Anyway, their set was pretty good, and made me want to check out the rest of All Hour Cymbals. One highlight for me was that one of their two drummers (who was wearing a backpack for some reason) was, as far as I can remember, the only person I've seen play a drum kit while standing up. Judging by the amount of pale skin showing on the lead singer, though, I'd say that this is a band that is not accustomed to playing outdoors in the mid-afternoon.

(This is where I went to watch Illinois, who I missed last time I was here. Apparently, though, I didn't take any pictures of them, so it's pretty much like it never happened at all.)
I first became aware of Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three back in '06 when I heard their superbly catchy "Cindy It Was Always You" (co-written, strangely enough, by crime novelist/The Wire scribe George Pelecanos). I was surprised to see that Wynn himself is a bit older than I pictured him, and some rudimentary Googling reveals that he's had a career that stretches back to the early 80s. Those extra years didn't slow him down, though, as Wynn and his band turned in the most rock'n'roll show I'd seen thus far in the day. His guitarist was especially animated, at one point thrusting his guitar towards one of the amps and playing the feedback like a theremin. Steve was also the first (but not last) performer that I saw use the massive bank of loudspeakers stacked in the pit as an extension of the stage.Hey, are you a moderately talented local band looking to upgrade from the second stage and your crummy time slot? Just invite Kevin Bacon to join your band! It certainly worked for the Bacon Brothers. It's not really like these guys are worthy of great derision, but let's be honest: they wouldn't attract a crowd of nearly the same size if one of the members were not the star of Wild Things and Tremors. Heck, I went to see them in college just to say I was one degree away from the guy. But you've gotta give them credit for gaining the legitimacy that eluded Dogstar or 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. They also brought some Mummers onstage for their final song, which was a nice touch, even if you couldn't really hear them.

(OK, couple things I just learned on Wikipedia: 30 Odd Foot of Grunts changed its name in 2005 to The Ordinary Fear of God, and the Bacon Brothers are also a trio of feared Canadian gangsters.)

Here's the thing about Pete Yorn: I only own his first album, and aside from that I only know one of his songs ("Crystal Village"). And while I wouldn't rank musicforthemorningafter as one of my favorite records, every time I listen to it I find myself surprised by just how strong an album it is. Hearing those songs performed live (along with a great New Order cover), surrounded by some highly devoted fans, may have permanently recalibrated my opinion of him. Who knows, I might even pick up a second CD.

When I was actually at the show, I thought that his bassist (the guy at the right in that photo) looked a lot like Christian Bale, though I may have been wrong.
There's not a whole lot of overlap between stuff I liked when I was 9 and stuff I like today, but my affection for They Might Be Giants has remained a constant. I admit that I haven't paid as much attention to them in recent years, and while I'm probably not going to be picking up any of their children's CDs anytime soon, I certainly can't begrudge them the Grammy awards and (probable) sales figures that those projects have netted them. Judging from their set, their kiddie music is just as hooky and fun as the rest of their catalog, just with more educational lyrics (though even that's not such a big switch; this is, after all, a band that has taught me much about James K. Polk, James Ensor, dead uncle Allotheria, and the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy). As with Pete Yorn, TMBG is one of those performers I tend to undervalue, until I realize that I know almost every song word-for-word, and once the band left, that there were a good half-dozen more songs that I wish they'd had time for. Plus: confetti cannons!Okay, enough of this prelude. The real reason I went to this thing was to see The Hold Steady, one of my favorite contemporary bands and, by all accounts, a group of tremendous performers. I overheard the haters out in force throughout the day, talking about how overrated the band was and that they sucked live, so I was nervously preparing myself to be disappointed. And in the end, I was a fairly let down, but it had nothing to do with the guys onstage.

So how is seeing the Hold Steady live different from listening to their albums? Well, musically, it's pretty much identical (albeit much louder, of course). This isn't a band that opens up their songs with extended solos or lots of vocal ad-libs. Rather, the Hold Steady live experience is defined by other things. First, there's keyboardist Franz Nikolai (above, in the snazzy white suit), he of the trademark mustache and between-songs mugging. On top of that, there's the hilarious vision of lead singer Craig Finn, a man who looks like more like a CPA than a rock frontman, strutting around the stage like Mick Jagger, gesturing and mouthing words at the audience, and singing his lyrics with such passion that you can see the spit flying out of his mouth. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this show, though, was being crowded among hundreds of die-hard fans who know every word to every song, and are not at all shy about belting them out. It's hard not to have a good time when you're surrounded by other people who are having a tremendous time.

So why the disappointment? Well, as the band played, the weather got more and more ominous, with rain starting to fall and the wind starting to blow. This all culminated during Tad Kubler's awesome guitar solo in "Lord, I'm Discouraged," as the wind sent leftover confetti swirling through the air, and the audience members had their hair blown back as though they were cartoon characters facing an extremely loud rock concert. It was an incredible moment. To give you an idea of how wild things were getting, here's a clip of the end of that song, plus the intro to "Hornets! Hornets!" Check out the rippling banner behind the stage, the debris blowing past the camera, the rain streaking across the spotlights, the wind noise, and the insane fervor of the crowd:

Sadly, after that song was over, the show had to be shut down due to some approaching thunderstorms (The storms never materialized, but I certainly don't fault the folks in charge for taking the cautious route). The band had already played for about an hour, and would probably have only had about thirty more minutes before the noise curfew went into effect. Still, it was sad to see a show that great end even a minute early.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Big Tees

Today's theme, around which I will construct a trio of bullet points: T-shirts!
  • Kottke recently wrote about Threadcakes, a website devoted to making cakes based on Threadless T-shirt designs. This achieves that delicate balance between brilliant and ridiculous.
  • And speaking of Threadless, I came across this shirt after I watched George Melies's classic silent film "A Trip to the Moon" on Monday night. I'm not crazy about the execution, but the concept is pretty cool.
  • Anyone looking to make me a late birthday present? I've decided that I want a shirt with a picture of the late founder of the Paris Review with the text "PLIMPTON AIN'T EASY." Alternately, I've always wanted a shirt that says "META IS MURDER," but I'm not sure what an appropriate image I could use with that one (maybe another shirt). I'd do this myself, but I have no idea how to print things on fabric.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

You Simply Cannot Hide From the Ugly Truth

The ads I've been seeing for that upcoming Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler romantic comedy certainly don't make it look like anything special. (Men and women are different in some ways, and may have outlooks that are at odds with one another! Why, it's almost as if these two sexes are engaged in some sort of battle!) They have, however, reminded me that I haven't listened to Altered Beast in a really long time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Oh, I'd Like to Visit the Moon...

OK, so I officially have MOON FEVER. All this business about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission has me geeked like I'm nine years old again and reading about NASA for the first time. Kottke's giant Apollo 11 post is pretty thorough, so I'm just gonna link to that and suggest that you play around over there for a while. As for me, I plan to check out the recently reissued For All Mankind on Turner Classic Movies tonight.

I've been wasting a lot of time recently reading up on the various space missions on Wikipedia, and it's become clear to me that there's a ton of stuff that I had no knowledge of. For example: the Fallen Astronaut memorial left on the moon in 1971, the Apollo 15 postage stamp scandal which involved Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, and the moon trees grown from seeds that were taken on Apollo 14 (one of which is in Washington Square; I know what I'm doing next time I'm in the city).

Also did you ever stop to think that people have walked on the damn moon? Crazy.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the icon that Google street view is using today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

And That's the Way It Was

Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite died today at the age of 92.

I'm too young to have any personal memories of Cronkite's nightly presence on television, but I have lately been thinking of two very famous moments in which he, when on the air, briefly took off his glasses during very emotional news. One was a moment of tragedy:

The other, a moment of triumph:

I've never lived in a world where people hadn't walked on the moon, but that giddy "Oh boy!" Cronkite lets out is probably how I would have felt watching the landing that night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Spin the Black Circle

Last weekend was the summer edition of R5 Productions' Punk Rock Flea Market, meaning that it's been approximately one year since I started compulsively buying vinyl (and about 3 months since I was able to listen to it). Between the big event at the Starlight Ballroom and the Philadelphia Record Fair at Penn's Institute of Contemporary Art the previous day, I went a little bit crazy. That's both the beauty and the curse of buying records; it's easy to find a lot of cheap stuff (the most I spent on any one item was $10), but even at $4 a pop, those things start to add up.

I try to limit my purchases to albums that I know (or expect) that I will actually enjoy listening to. So, while it's tempting to pick up anything with a hilarious cover, I mostly pass up those opportunities. Here's a wistful look back at the things I didn't buy:

Trek Bloopers
- A whole album of Kirk, Spock and all the rest flubbing their lines: who wouldn't love that? And check out that cover art, which features Spock (inexplicably) licking a lollipop.

Hulk Rules - I had just recently come across the hilariously overwrought song "American Made" in the A.V. Club's list of hyperpatriotic songs. I doubt the rest of this musical tribute to Hulk Hogan can measure up, but you never know.

I'm in You - The cover of this Peter Frampton record has been a favorite of mine for a while now. Where to begin? The smoldering look he's giving the person holding the album? The buttonless, patchwork pirate blouse? The gratuitous crotch shot? Or the cringingly matter-of-fact sexual title, positioned so that it looks like it should be contained in a speech bubble coming out of Pete's mouth?

Monday, July 6, 2009

...And That's When My iPod Died

It's a Two-fer, um, Monday.

And now, for something completely different:

Friday, July 3, 2009

Deeper Into Movies

So Netflix added a new feature recently, where instead of just rating movies or genres, you could specify how much you like certain storylines, sub-genres, or films from a particular decade. I decided to try this out yesterday, since the site hasn't had any recommendations for me these past few weeks. Their recommendations algorithm must have reached the same level of frustration in figuring out what I want that it took me over two decades to perfect.

Some of the categories are fairly amusing in their own right; there must be someone out there who really loves movies about boating (not swashbuckling maritime adventures, mind you, but movies about the sport of boating). And, on the other end of the spectrum, there must be people who don't enjoy movies about monkeys.

The real puzzler, though, is the examples they give your for each category. Here, for instance, are the six movies chosen to exemplify alcoholism (and really, who doesn't love a good flick about alcoholism?):
Yeah, I'd say that sums up the many faces of addiction rather nicely: fighting, talking to giant invisible rabbits, suicidal despair, and Dudley Moore.

Also, I really don't think Netflix knows what a screwball comedy is:

Another good one that I didn't bother to get a screenshot of: the summer camp category, which includes the drama-nerd movie Camp, the fundamentalism documentary Jesus Camp, Daddy Day Camp, Friday the 13th, and Wet Hot American Summer, a group of movies that, aside from their setting, have nothing else in common.

...And That's When My iPod Died

Massive Attack - Safe From Harm