Friday, June 20, 2008

R.E.M. Prove Their Legendary Status, 6.19.08

New York's Madison Square Garden was the place to be Thursday night, thanks to a brilliant performance by the legendary R.E.M. Featuring a lively light show, funky camera work relayed on projection screens, and a hefty dose of biting political commentary courtesy of singer Michael Stipe, the concert proved that the band still knows exactly how to hold a crowd's attention.

Stipe was in top form throughout the night, dressed in a sharp suit while lithely dancing around the stage, smiling and occasionally making self-deprecating remarks. "This song is like from the year 1740," he joked while introducing "Ignoreland" from 1992's Automatic for the People, and at another point, he even asked one of the audience members if he needed earplugs since he looked so "miserable."

While R.E.M. did play a good amount of material from their latest album, Accelerate, they also threw in some old favorites and even some lesser-known tracks. The band actually played three songs from 1984's Reckoning, with bass player Mike Mills singing and taking center stage for "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." Newer songs such as "Man-Sized Wreath," "I'm Gonna DJ," and "Supernatural Superserious" fared well as they were packed with an extra dose of energy that made them sound even better live. Stipe's voice was incredibly clear and sounded remarkably unchanged as it resonated throughout the venue.

Of course, classic hits such as "The One I Love" and "Losing My Religion" were greeted with some of the most excited cheers heard during the night. I have to admit that cliche as it may seem, hearing thousands of people sing along to those songs was incredible, and a perfect indication of why major arena shows can be a ton of fun even when you don't have the best seats in the house.

Though he was very much the rock star, striking grandiose poses while performing some of the band's biggest hits, Stipe also remained humble and credited other talents. He gave multiple shout outs to the night's opening acts, Modest Mouse and The National, even commenting that he found it hard not to steal ideas from them because they were "just that good." And he also gave concertgoers some love towards the end of the show, asking for the house lights to go on so that he could see his "people."

Former The Smiths-guitarist Johnny Marr — now a member of Modest Mouse — was invited onstage for the last portion of the encore. As a fan of both The Smiths and R.E.M., it was really thrilling for me to see Marr alongside Peter Buck, considering this was also my first R.E.M. show. The concert finally came to an end with an exhilarating rendition of "Man on the Moon," and judging by the smiles on people's faces as they left the venue, it was obvious that they had indeed been "having fun."

Overall, it was just a really great night for music fans, as the previously mentioned opening acts also put on some very strong performances. Brooklyn's The National went on at 7 p.m. sharp and while the crowd was only just assembling at this time, the band received a very positive reaction during their 10-song set. Each song was accented by singer Matt Berninger's rich baritone and gloriously textured instrumentals. Cheers were audible as the band launched into "Fake Empire," the opener from their latest album, Boxer. And in a moment that foreshadowed some of Stipe's later political commentary, Berninger said that their last song — "Mr. November" — was "for Barack."

Modest Mouse also kept the entertainment going before R.E.M took the stage. Avoiding their biggest hit "Float On" during their set, the band did play material from their latest album, along with songs like "Dance Hall" and "Satin in a Coffin." The set was peppered with a liberal use of the banjo, two drum kits, and Johnny Marr's guitar work. At one point, maracas were literally flying through the air so that they could be used intermittently during one of the songs.

Though all three bands represent slightly different eras of music, all were able to put on cohesive shows that highlighted their strengths, making it an impressive lineup worth the ticket price. And though they've been around for years, even releasing some poorly-received material, one thing was certain after seeing R.E.M. — they are still a band that should be seen at least once in one's lifetime.

(You may also view this review here).

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Album Review: Coldplay Start Getting Back on Track

Artist: Coldplay
Album: Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends

I've been listening to Coldplay ever since they released Parachutes and while I never felt they were a particularly brilliant band, I always enjoyed listening to their catalog for what it was — pretty, mellow music that allowed me to relax. But I will confess that 2005's X & Y disappointed me. Unlike its predecessor (A Rush of Blood to the Head), which featured a number of solid yet simplistic piano ballads, X & Y was just too watered down and chockfull of unmemorable songs that kept blending into each other.

I listened to that album a few times while driving and a couple of times when I needed to listen to something that would help me sleep. And then I just tucked it away, never giving it much of a chance to sit inside my CD player.

That being said, the band seems to be getting back on its feet with Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, released earlier this week. This latest effort is what many are referring to as Coldplay's "experimental" album, which may not be a completely accurate description. But while each song still has the basic elements of the average Coldplay tune — pianos, guitars, occasionally trite lyrics, and repetitive chord sequences — various other elements save the record from turning into another X & Y.

Whereas previous Coldplay efforts have relied on generic pop melodies, the band does manage to mix things up by including Middle Eastern tonalities on "Yes," catchy orchestration on the title track, distorted guitars in "Violet Hill," and pounding organs and hand claps on "Lost." Brian Eno's production work also makes its mark here; the guitar flourishes and climactic conclusions (as heard on "42") have shades of U2.

While most of these elements enhance the band's sound, the album has its weaknesses. Lyrics such as "You might be a big fish in a little pond," can take a person out of the moment while listening to the otherwise catchy "Lost." And there are moments where one gets the sense that Coldplay might be trying a bit too hard to shake off some of their insecurities. The decision to combine two songs in "Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love" seems a bit misguided — there's too much of a disparity between the uptempo first half and the more subdued second half. If anything "Reign of Love" might have been better as a hidden track at the end of the album.

At the end of the day, Viva La Vida... isn't quite perfect, but it does signal the return of what seems to be a more confident band. Hopefully, Coldplay will figure out a way to balance their "old" and "new" sound as they continue recording in the future. But for now, they've produced a perfectly appealing album that will probably get plenty of play in a majority of iPods and CD players for quite some time.

Grade: B

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rooney Heat Up Irving Plaza (NY), 6.15.08

Summer doesn't "officially" start until the end of this week, but L.A. band Rooney brought a piece of the season to The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza on Sunday night, playing an upbeat set for a venue full of screaming fans.

The band played a hefty mix of songs from their self-titled debut and last year's Calling the World, along with a couple of covers and a bonus track titled "Get Away." Fans greeted each song with enthusiasm, singing along to favorites such as "Blueside,""I'm Shakin',"Are You Afraid?" and "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" I actually had a chance to see Rooney last year before Calling the World was released, and while the music was really catchy, it was a lot more fun to hear the songs now that I'm more familiar with them.

The music was a perfect blend of pop rock, occasionally psychedelic guitars and keyboards, and some very '80s-inspired riffs. Lead singer Robert Schwartzman was oozing with charm throughout the night and was clearly well aware of his adoring fans, even teasing them at one point by pretending he was about to stage dive.

The night ended with a two-song encore, with Schartzman playfully spraying a bottle of water into the crowd as the band took the stage again. After performing "If it Were Up To Me" from their debut, Rooney launched into a rollicking cover of The Beatles' "Helter Skelter," with guitarist Taylor Locke and drummer Ned Brower trading vocal duties. As the song came to an end, Schwartzman leaned into the crowd and fans swarmed him, reaching to touch his guitar and hair.

While Rooney's set was exciting in itself, their opening acts also put on some very strong performances. The Bridges, consisting of four siblings and their cousin Brittany Painter on lead vocals, were on first and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. The band played songs featuring a good amount of piano-centric pop and lush harmonies from their recently-released debut album, Limits of the Sky. Judging by the cheers and applause, it seems that a lot of people appreciated their set.

That being said, it was Locksley — the second opening act — who really seemed to set the tone for the night. The Brooklyn-based group were on fire from the moment they took the stage, jumping all over the place, and climbing on top of amps and speakers as their set went on. The music was equally energetic, guitar-heavy and full of pounding rhythms. Their cover of The White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba" was a perfect illustration of their garage rock influences.

Locksley managed to keep the crowd screaming with excitement throughout their performance and at one point, it almost felt a bit like the second coming of Beatlemania. Thanks to a mix of high energy, good music, and fun-filled audience interaction, it seems that the members of Locksley made some new fans during the night — a pretty impressive feat, considering how many opening acts tend to leave audiences cold.

(You may also view this review here).

Monday, June 2, 2008

Clinic Get the Bowery Bopping, 5.31.08

Eclectic Liverpool quartet, Clinic, played the last of a series of recent US tour dates Saturday night at New York City's Bowery Ballroom. The place was pretty packed and the band didn't disappoint, delivering an hour of upbeat music that had attendees bopping along to the foot-stomping rhythms that pervaded the venue.

Clad in Hawaiian shirts and their trademark surgical masks, Clinic were able to play a hefty mix of music from their quirky catalog. Vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ade Blackburn informed us that they would actually be playing two sets for us that night. The first consisted of the entire tracklisting from their latest album, Do It!, while the second set featured various songs from previous albums. The newer material was fantastic live and all the songs seemed to carry an extra jolt of energy, while still sounding similar to their studio counterparts.

While the audience was enthusiastic and seemed to have a lot of fun listening to the new album's material, I think we were all even more excited during the second set. "The Second Line" from 2000's Internal Wrangler was greeted by loud cheers and many shouted along with Blackburn when he called out "No!" intermittently while performing the title track from 2002's Walking With Thee. The excitement prevailed during the encore, which the band kicked off with "The Return of Evil Bill."

The night featured a mixture of crunchy guitar and organ sounds, accompanied by fast, tight rhythms — and you could hear elements of punk, garage rock, and even the blues in the music. But even though most of Clinic's music is an amalgamation of sounds and genres, there is something unique and fresh about it, which makes it a lot of fun to hear live.

Opening act BBQ's set was also pretty solid and played a good part in loosening up the crowd a bit before Clinic took the stage. BBQ — which is essentially Mark Sultan, a one-man band playing guitar and a partial drumkit — played a mostly continuous set, peppered with occasional humorous banter. At one point, it looked as though his set was going to have to end early, after a faulty amp finally failed him about fifteen minutes into his performance. The audience actually seemed sad to see him go, but BBQ was able to return and complete his portion of the show.

As the set came to an end, BBQ poked fun at the audience for simply standing around, saying that people could dance, clap, or even sulk during his next song, if that was the "cool" thing to do. Luckily, he managed to make most attendees laugh, just in time to enjoy themselves even more when Clinic took the stage.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Wire Rock the Seaport, 5.30.08

New York City's South Street Seaport is an area where you can find all sorts of things — food, shopping, and the occasional free concert. This past Friday night was no exception as post-punk legends, Wire, were on hand to kick off a series of free summer shows. And while three decades have passed since their debut album's release, the band still has what it takes to draw a crowd and play good music.

Despite the fact that singer/guitarist Colin Newman occasionally referred to a laptop, presumably to look up the setlist and some lyrics, the band really managed to stay on point throughout the night. The music was catchy and roughly abrupt, still retaining remnants of the revolutionary quality found in their earlier records. Interestingly, the band members didn't play as much early material as one might have expected. "Three Girl Rhumba" and "Mannequin" from 1977's Pink Flag, which are probably familiar even to those who don't really listen to Wire, were noticeably absent from the set.

In fact, Wire took Friday night's show as an opportunity to play material from their newest album, Object 47, which is set for a July release. The new tracks that were performed included "One of Us," "Mekon Headman," and "Perspex Icon." Even though these songs were unfamiliar, I personally felt they blended in well with the rest of the band's discography. The crowd around me, which consisted of older and younger fans, also seemed to enjoy them quite a bit.

While the band was pretty laid back for the most part, we had a chance to witness some onstage banter. Bassist Graham Lewis was the most energetic one of the bunch, interjecting the occasional sarcastic remark in between songs. And at one point, the audience was thanked for not seeing the Eagles — who were performing at Madison Square Garden that night — since they had been "the enemy" back in 1977.

The night ended with two enthusiastically-received encores, which featured "Lowdown," "12 XU," and the title track from Pink Flag. There was something electrifying about those final moments, indicating that Wire's members have not lost their edge, and making it a solid start to a summer of free music.

(You may also view this review here).